September is full of dark shadows and dangerous dames in Liverpool as FACT launch a season dedicated to Film Noir. Academic debate rages as to whether noir is a style, a genre, or even its own mode of moviemaking. What’s not up for question though, is that you know it when you see it. This cycle of classic American films produced between the mid-forties and late-fifties are characterised by chiaroscuro lighting, compromised, corrupted anti-heroes and a depiction of a rotten post-war society. Noir is a place of innocence lost, populated by private eyes and femme fatales; all tangled around grim mysteries, and served up within ingenious, disorientating structures.
Part of why noir is so difficult to pin down is the tremendous variety that it contains. What springs to mind first might be the image of a doomed detective, a virtuous light drawn into a seedy underworld of vice. That’s what you’ll find in Orson Welles’ virtuoso border-thriller Touch of Evil (Sun 29th September) and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (Sun 22nd September), which unspools the assassination of a prizefighter with a dark past. But Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (Sun 15th September) takes place in the hills of Hollywood, where Humphrey Bogart stars opposite Gloria Grahame as a boozed-up screenwriter suspected of murder.
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (Sun 6th October) also charts the misfortunes of a screenwriter, as William Holden’s scribe falls into the mad world of Gloria Swanson’s past-her-prime movie star. They might be set apart from the mean streets, but both films are classic examples of noir, boasting desolate atmosphere and desperate scenarios. Sunset Boulevard famously opens with its lead character dead, face down in a swimming pool, before rewinding to explain how he arrived there. Wilder pulled the same trick with Double Indemnity (Sun 8th September) – arguably the quintessential noir – opening his film with Fred MacMurray’s dying insurance salesman confessing his crimes.
Wilder co-wrote Double Indemnity with peerless crime writer Raymond Chandler, the man behind iconic private dick Philip Marlowe and The Big Sleep. The dialogue fizzes, aided by MacMurray as the wayward insurance man, Barbara Stanwyk as his ingenious seductress, and Edward G. Robinson as a brilliant claims adjuster looking to bring the pair to justice. The film opens FACT’s short season, which functions as a perfect introduction to Film Noir, with five films that provide some indication of the depth and breadth that noir has to offer. If you’re already acquainted, then you’ll know the pleasures to be found in these classics of cinema.