Ask just about anyone what America’s greatest contributions to world culture, they’ll usually answer baseball, Jazz, and Western movies. Some of us will add … film noir.
Film noir grew out the marriage of American pulp fiction and German expressionist filmmaking in the early 1940s to create some of the most durable, entertaining, and beloved movies ever. We who live here in remote Nevada County are seldom able to attend the numerous film noir festivals held around the country, most of them curated and hosted by TCM Noir Alley host and film historian and restorationist, Eddie Muller.
But despair not, because The Onyx Theater in Nevada City (401 Broad St., Nevada City) has brought noir to our doors with Noirvember, a superbly curated program of four of the best, and most unique films ever made in the genre. Each film will be screened at the Downtown Onyx at the Nevada Theatre every November Sunday evening at 7:00 PM. (Doors open at 6:30.) More than great noirs, all four films also stand as great cinema on their own, and a great excuse to turn off the TV and join your neighbors in a movie theatre.
First up on Sunday November 5th is The Maltese Falcon (1941), maybe not the first film noir but the one that set the standard for all that followed. First-time director John Huston adapted Dashiell Hammett’s classic hardboiled masterpiece of intrigue to create among the best literary film adaptations ever, and he did it with flair. Trapped within its in fog-laced shadows is a gallery of screen legends: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Those of you who’ve seen it before will be surprised how it improves with each viewing. It’s the stuff movie dreams are made of. As an added treat, this screening will be hosted by the impeccable Sacramento-based film critic Matias Antonio Bombal.
Sunday, November 12th offers Sunset Boulevard (1950), a stunning, unholy marriage of noir and psychological horror that’s one of the strangest and, perhaps cruelest, films, ever to emerge from Golden Age Hollywood. Co-writer and director Billy Wilder created a masterpiece with the indubitably weird tale (told by a dead man) of a fatal encounter between a down-and-out silent movie star (Gloria Swanson) and the down-and-out hack screenwriter (William Holden) whom she ensnares in her nightmare web of delusions within her decaying mansion. Swanson’s final march down the staircase is one greatest endings ever put to film.
The festival takes a trip to Europe the following Sunday, November 19, with another great noir, and great film on its own, The Third Man (1949), a British film written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Joseph Cotton plays a naïve American pulp novelist who travels to post-World War II Vienna in search of an old friend (Orson Welles, in one of his indelible performances) only to have his innocence destroyed by corruption and murder. A unique zither score by Anton Karas deepens the shadows. The cast includes Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, and Bernard Lee (James Bond’s first “M”), who gets to deliver the most wounding line of literary criticism ever. Matias Antonio Bombal will once again grace the evening as host.
On Sunday November 26, the festival closes with another great curveball: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and produced by star Burt Lancaster. Unusual among noirs, there’s no actual lawbreaking per se—no dead bodies, no heists. Rather the weapons are words, and the crimes are those done to the heart and soul by a cold-eyed New York gossip columnist (Lancaster) and his sweaty, desperate lickspittle assistant (a terrific Tony Curtis). Together the pair lay waste to lives up and down Broadway until they find themselves reaping the misery they sow. Novelist Norman Mailer once remarked that Lancaster had the coldest eyes he’d ever seen, a conclusion he likely drew from the actor’s chilling performance as one of noir’s great villains.
Grass Valley resident Thomas Burchfield is a film critic on Medium.