Friday, September 6, 2013

Film Noir - The View from a Devotée

Alan K. Rode

"People hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people." 
Alan Rode, member of the board of directors of the Film Noir Foundation

Recently in Chicago, I attended two films shown at the Noir City festival at the Music Box theatre. Before each screening, Alan K. Rode one of the programmers of the event, gave a brief introduction to the movie, detailing not only the plot and production details, but also the film's historical signifigance. Rode was extremely well prepared and organized; he is also a highly engaging speaker and his seven to ten-minute speeches were models on how these things should be done.

I spoke with him briefly before one of the films (The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, 1948, Paramount, directed by John Farrow) and asked him if I could speak with him at greater length about his work as well as film noir in general. He graciously agreed and I spoke with him in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Tom Hyland: Is there a typical fan that attends these Film Noir festivals? Why do people come to see these films? Is it because they are starved for a well-crafted film considering all the garbage that dilutes movie screens these days? Is there an element of nostalgia? Or is there a dark side to all of us that we want to see on the big screen?

Alan Rode: I think it's a combination of all of them. Certainly at the Noir Festival in Palm Springs (Rode hosts the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival there), there is an older audience, so nostalgia is part of that. These are people that grew up watching these films.

It's really encouraging to see young people come to the films. But more so, people hunger for a good story. Film noir resonates a vibe in people. Scenes of men in fedoras or people talking on phones with big, clunky dials might be hard for modern audiences to understand, however the themes of treachery, lust and greed are viable in modern life. Everyone can identify with noir.

People can identify with a well-told story. They're tired of special effects. Hollywood has settled on a certain type of model and a certain type of audience.

Film noir was made during the post-World War Two years when America lost its innocence. People of different age groups are drawn to this.

Also, these films are 70 and 80 minutes long, unlike the two and two and a half-hour films of today. The makers of these film noirs told their stories with brevity and sharpness.

Marie Windsor and Charles McGraw in The Narrow Margin (1952, RKO), one of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: This may be a difficult, if not impossible question, but how do you define film noir?

AR: When you have a situation where people are doing something that is wrong and they know that it's wrong, but they do it anyway. 

There are other aspects, such as the immigrant directors that came to Hollywood to make these films, the photography - day for night - for example. Film noir is a combination of ingredients. 

It's not a genre, like a western or a musical, where you can identify it right away. Noir is like beauty - it's in the eye of the beholder. Noir does have some demarcation markers, from the 1940s to the 1960s. It's definitely a post war phenomenon.

TH: If a contemporary film wants to be known as a film noir, does it have to be set in the past?

AR: Noir is a style that people use in modern day films. It doesn't have to have a story that's set in 1937, as with Chinatown. In large measure, the strains of the noir style that we see in present day films originate from those timeless dark films from the classic noir era: Double Indemnity, LauraOut of the Past, to name a few. Many films have borrowed from those works and improved upon them.

Richard Conte and Jean Wallace in The Big Combo (1955, Allied Artists), another of Rode's Top Ten Film Noirs

TH: Do you have a favorite line of dialogue from a film noir that offers classic wisdom or advice on life?

AR: In The Big Combo when Richard Conte says, "First is first and second is nobody." That line also describes Hollywood.

Also in The Killers (1946, Universal), at the beginning of the film outside the diner, the young man (played by Phil Brown, who later was Luke Skywalker's uncle in Star Wars) asks Burt Lancaster why two hitmen are going to kill him. "I did something once," is Lancaster's reply and we spend the rest of the film finding out what that was.

Thanks to Alan Rode for his time and his wonderful stories (a few of which I can't repeat here!). Rode has written a marvelous book on Charles McGraw, one of noir's greatest actors, entitled Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (see information here).

He is currently finishing a biography of the famed director, Michael Curtiz, who best-known for classic films such as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, also made film noir, the most notable being The Breaking Point (1950), his retelling of the Ernest Hemingway story To Have and Have Not, starring John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter. Rode calls it, "the last great film Curtiz made at Warner Brothers. Information about the book, Michael Curtiz: A Man For all Movies can be found here.)

Article ©Tom Hyland

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