Rare film noir at the Brattle
The Brattle’s “Rare Film Noir” festival spotlights what makes the experience of going to movie revivals irreplaceable. The sparkling new 35mm prints underscore the dazzling, sometimes shocking, contrast of black and white, light and shadow, that is the visual trademark of noirs. Enterprising B-list directors of the ’40s and ’50s who were lucky enough to get assigned these seedy urban thrillers used them not just as a training ground but as a way of showing off their technique and imagination, in the hope of elevating their status at their home studio. The same was true of cinematographers, and these nine showcased pictures pay tribute to some of the best: Lee Garmes (The Captive City, July 25), Burnett Guffey (Nightfall, July 18), Hal Mohr (The Big Night, August 8), John Alton (Witness to Murder, July 25). Even less-heralded DPs manage to turn their trim budgets into filmic virtues. Look at the velvety quality of the night-time streets punctured by halo’d auto lights in the tense police procedural Between Midnight and Dawn (August 15), which was shot by George E. Diskant, or the way William Steiner focuses on the textures and proportions of an abandoned apartment building’s interior, where schoolboys hang out in the opening scene of The Window (August 22), to emphasize its dangers.
THE BURGLAR: Jayne Mansfield pops out from the Belgian poster.
A particularly striking example of what a theatrical photographer like Alton — here working with the game director Roy Rowland — can accomplish is the expressionistic sequence in 1954’s Witness to Murder where Barbara Stanwyck is confined to a psychiatric ward for observation. In the early hours of a windy, storm-threatened LA night, Stanwyck wakes up to see her neighbor (George Sanders) strangle a call girl in the building across the street. He’s smart enough to remove the body and doctor the evidence, and when she persists in trumpeting her story, he goes on the attack and succeeds in making her look like a delusional hysteric. She wakes up in a room framed by darkness, where the sweep of light is so intense, it silhouettes her three loony roommates and the unsmiling nurse with a syringe at the ready the moment Stanwyck protests.
The casting of the forthright, earthbound Stanwyck is part of what makes Witness to Murder so effective: when she begins to question her own sanity, you really feel none of us is safe. In The Window, from 1949, a boy (Bobby Driscoll) with a penchant for telling melodramatic whoppers sleeps out on the fire escape on a sultry night and sees the couple upstairs (Paul Stewart and Paul Roman) rob and kill an itinerant — and of course no one believes him, neither his beleaguered parents (Arthur Kennedy and Perry Mason’s Barbara Hale) nor the local cops. Driscoll’s increasingly imperiled situation, like Stanwyck’s, suggests how quickly, in movies like these, a seemingly benign world can turn predatory and violent. (In the unnerving climax, the movie returns to that abandoned building that has been merely a playhouse for Driscoll and his friends.)
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