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Bogart, Cagney headline film noir festival

Analise Lipari | Friday, March 3, 2006

Names like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, images of dark detectives’ offices and back-end New York alleyways, jarring music and frightening violence – all are hallmarks of a particular brand of Hollywood cinema known most widely by its French name, “film noir.”

This weekend the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) plays host to a number of acclaimed film noir classics in the latest of its film festivals.

The diverse selection of films, both French and American, reflects the best and most famous characteristics of the genre. Each has put a distinct stamp on a typical set of film conventions.

The first of the two French films, the 1937 classic “Pepe le Moko,” is the story of a French gangster living in the Casbah neighborhood of Algiers. Pepe is the kingpin of the Algiers crime circle, but with French and Algerian police closing in, he struggles to elude them while falling in love with Gaby, a Parisian tourist.

Film historians view “Pepe” as a cornerstone for its time. It was remade nearly frame-for-frame a few years later in the American film “Algiers,” as well as being a significant influence on “Casablanca” and other later films.

“Julien Duvivier’s flawlessly entertaining 1937 film single-handedly introduced a now classic character: the raffish, conflicted, tragic anti-hero,” film critic Jürgen Fauth wrote in an article for about.com. “Without Pepe Le Moko, played by Jean Gabin, there would not have been a Humphrey Bogart, a Steve McQueen, a Jean-Paul Belmondo or a Bruce Willis.”

The second featured film is also the second pairing of one of Hollywood’s favorite screen couples in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “The Big Sleep” is widely considered to be a hallmark of detective stories, taking Bogart’s character and plot type from “The Maltese Falcon” and reformulating it with a witty script and skilled performances.

In “The Big Sleep,” Bogart’s Christopher Marlowe is hired to protect the youngest daughter of an American General, falling in love with his older daughter Vivian (Bacall) along the way.

“The story hardly matters, though – it’s all about the denouement,” a recent article from reel.com said. “This is an exercise in high style that Hollywood often attempts and almost never attains.”

“The Big Sleep” is praised for its smooth and polished style, as well as its characteristic but unique character formation.

“Bogart’s Marlowe is a man relaxed with himself, not just cool, but humorous in the face of danger,” the article said.

The third picture, Orson Welles’ 1958 triumph “Touch of Evil,” is viewed by critics as harkening the end of the reign of film noir in Hollywood. It tells a complicated and intricate tale of murder and features an oddly Hispanic Charlton Heston. Welles’ characteristically unique cinematography proves no exception here.

“Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, were not simply showing off,” Roger Ebert said in his online review, having noted the film’s famous three-minute opening shot. “The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together … ”

“Le Cercle Rouge,” the fourth film of the festival, features the typical jewel heist but with exceptional characters and perspectives. Alain Delon stars as Corey, a thief recently released from prison who joins forces with a murderer and a former cop to pull off what will be the greatest of all robberies. With an obsessed police superintendent, Mattei, on their tail, an impending sense of doom and guilt haunts the criminals.

“Gliding almost without speech down the dawn streets of a wet Paris winter,” Roger Ebert said in a May 2003 review, “these men in trench coats and fedoras perform a ballet of crime, hoping to win and fearing to die.”

The festival’s final film, “Kiss Me Deadly,” is a curious combination of film noir and science fiction. Opening with a near accident and closing with an explosion, the film chronicles the tail of private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), specifically after he picks up a femme fatale hitchhiker (a young Cloris Leachman).

“Deadly” is one of film noir’s most unique and poignant examples and is acknowledged as a significant inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1950s.

The film features a manic search for the “great whatzit,” a symbolically modern Pandora’s box, which proves violently disastrous for the film’s characters. The overall tone of doomed protagonists distinguishes the feel of “Deadly” as downright slimy.

“Though Hammer is presented here as a modern day Pandora, it’s less disturbing that he finds evil than that he doesn’t have to look very far to find it,” Heilman said. “It’s seeping through every crack of every dirty sidewalk trying to get at him.”