Summer of Darkness

TCM is running a film noir festival called Summer of Darkness every Friday in June and July. So far I’ve had the chance to see Gilda, The Killers, Born to Kill, Murder My Sweet, Mildred Pierce, The Gangster, Gun Crazy, and Tomorrow is Another Day. The movies run from 9:00 a.m. until midnight. From 5:00 p.m. on the inimitable Eddie Muller acts as a host and introduces each film and provides a little commentary at the end. I don’t do Netflix and I don’t DVR so if I want to watch I have to “pencil in” the showtimes and park myself in front of the TV. I don’t mind—I almost never go to the movies anymore so I think of these showings as my own personal movie theater schedule. The upside is that I can have a fat glass of bourbon in my hand the entire time!

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I like these films so much. I admit I really dig the suits. The men are always dressed to the nines, from shined brogues to creased fedoras, and part of me wishes I could go around like that. Those cats had some style! And speaking of style, I think it is the highly expressionistic look and feel of these movies that appeal to me. Also I appreciate the boundaries the film makers worked within. It’s rare that they exceed 90 minutes, for example, so the storytelling had to be brisk. Many were on strict budgets and schedules and so sets, lighting, locations and whatnot were limited and the directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and designers had to work with a restricted palette of possibilities. The producers and studio heads had a huge impact on the final product, so much so that it’s hard to make a case for auteur theory. There was also the Hays Code (which was in effect until 1968, believe it or not) which forced the movie makers to subvert much of their content and to disguise controversial topics. All of these films are loaded with cinematic “sub-text” as taboo subjects and themes had to be inserted with clever workarounds and loaded dialogue rife with double meanings.

The back lots of the studios—B-movie territory—gave writers and directors a chance to play with darker stories and disreputable characters that would not have made the cut in the blockbusters and big productions. Doing things “on the cheap” meant a reliance on lighting and photography to create atmosphere and convey mood giving film noir, literally, its dark quality. Many of today’s crime dramas emphasize naturalism, which is perfectly fine, but it’s not the stylized melodrama of the “old classics.” I like the vivid contrasts of the black-and-white milieu and the over-the-top acting with its breakneck dialog. I mentioned my fondness for the way the men dressed but I would be remiss not to include the ladies. Today’s actresses are just as beautiful and talented as the glamour girls of that time, but the difference was just that—glamour. The studios played up the magical enchantment and allure of the untouchable screen goddesses. Think about the first time you see Rita Hayworth in Gilda, where she’s kneeling on the bed in her negligee and tosses her luscious locks back before looking into the camera. That’s the film noir femme ideal right there!

So far my favorite movie is Gun Crazy. There’s a frenetic edge to the thing that keeps your nerves jangling and the extraordinary performance of Peggy Cummins digs deep into your psyche. Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted at the time, was the uncredited screenwriter.

Friday evenings are usually my go out on the town and socialize time, but I may have to neglect camaraderie and pub crawling the next few weeks in favor of the small screen and the Summer of Darkness.