Seattle Art Museum’s film series dedicated to gimlet-eyed detectives, tough femme fatales, moody lighting and chewy dialogue is said to be the longest-running noir series in the world.
Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
‘Here Comes the Night: The 40th Film Noir Series’
Seattle Art Museum, 7:30 p.m. Thursday nights beginning Sept. 28. Films include “The Big Sleep,” “Lured,” “The File on Thelma Jordan,” “Kiss of Death,” “The Naked Alibi,” “Pickup on South Street,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” “Pretty Poison, “Chinatown.” Series passes are $78; or $71 for SAM, NWFF, SIFF, Scarecrow Video or TheFilmSchool members. tickets.seattleartmuseum.org or 206-654-3210.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
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Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead, Marlowe. I like the way you work.
—“The Big Sleep,” 1946
Sexiest dialogue in film history? Perhaps so. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, two years after they memorably met on screen in “To Have and Have Not,” spoke these lines in a crowded restaurant, where tinny piano music mingles with cigarette smoke. Both purr their dialogue, stroking the words like velvet; watching, you know you’d follow these characters anywhere, whatever wrong they might be doing.
On Sept. 28, “The Big Sleep” will be the opening film in “Here Comes the Night,” Seattle Art Museum’s 40th annual Thursday-night series devoted to the irresistibly shadowed art of film noir. A genre at its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, film noir (the name literally means “dark film”) showcases tales of gimlet-eyed detectives, tough femme fatales, lost souls and unforgivable crimes, caught in moody lighting and told in the kind of dialogue you want to chew on for a while. Hard-boiled crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett shaped its words; artful cinematographers and visionary directors created its distinctive look and feel.
“These films have so much charisma, so much dark, wicked glamour to the way the stories are told and visualized, said SAM film curator Greg Olson, who has curated the series since its beginnings in the mid-70s. “It’s kind of intoxicating.”
SAM’s series, said to be the longest-running noir series in the world, has been a labor of love for Olson from the start. Noir is twisted around his earliest film experiences. “One of my first memories of film coming into my young life was sitting at home and watching TV as a kid, and there was this movie where, I now realize it was Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, plotting to kill somebody. It involved Fred McMurray being on a train, and pretending that he’s hurt his leg and he jumps off and she’s waiting to pick him up in the dark night. And now I realize it was ‘Double Indemnity.’ I was just engrossed — the way the man and the woman talked to each other, the plotting, it was fabulous.”
At SAM’s old location in Volunteer Park in the 1970s, the newly hired Olson began slipping noir films into the screenings he was programming. One early series, called “Mystery of Mysteries,” had several noir films in it, and the audience response was strong. Back then, said Olson, “the museum auditorium really functioned as a neighborhood theater for Capitol Hill — we had a lot of foot traffic. That’s where it started. It did fill up.”
After presenting a noir series on and off for a few years, Olson realized he had a hit on his hands, and the series became a permanent annual event in the late 1970s; always in the fall, a season whose encroaching darkness and chilly winds perfectly fits the genre.
Over 40 seasons and hundreds of films, the series has seen much change: most notably, SAM’s move downtown in 1990, and the film world’s move to digital screening. Early on, Olson screened noir films in 16mm at Volunteer Park; with the move, the series upgraded to 35mm. That’s still Olson’s preferred format, but it’s become problematic — new digital-restoration techniques have meant preservation for numerous classic films, but generally it means that the restored film is only released digitally. Studios, said Olson, often don’t make new 35mm prints because of the expense; few exhibitors, outside of museums and film centers, are going to show them.
Olson said three of this year’s nine films will screen digitally, as he wasn’t able to get film prints from the studios. “In other words, they have the original materials, but they won’t lend it.” He noted, though, that digital prints have come a long way: Many no longer have “that hyper-photo-realism artificial TV color that we see in cinemas sometimes,” but look like the original film print might have looked like; soft, with a faintly visible grain.
For the 40th anniversary, Olson said he’d considered a “greatest hits” format, but ultimately decided to stick to the tried and true: nine films, presented chronologically, a mixture of the well known (“The Big Sleep,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” “Chinatown”) with the less familiar. “Lured,” a 1947 Douglas Sirk serial-killer drama starring George Sanders and Lucille Ball, has not been shown at SAM before. Other rarities include “The Naked Alibi,” with Sterling Hayden and noir stalwart Gloria Grahame, and “Pretty Poison,” featuring what Olson describes as “Anthony Perkins’ best performance outside of ‘Psycho.’ ”
Olson, who says he has no plans to retire from presenting the series (“I really still love it, still have the fire to do it”), is looking forward to greeting the series’ loyal attendees; some of whom have been coming for decades. “Some people proudly show me tickets from 33 years ago that they’ve encased in plastic,” Olson said. “Some people have better, more complete sets of old fliers than I myself do.”
And he’s looking forward, once again, to immersing a few hundred Seattleites, on Thursday evenings, in an intoxicating, endlessly fascinating world. Go, and become part of a long Seattle tradition; noir, wrapped in dialogue that crackles like leaves in the wind on a lonely sidewalk, just might come to haunt you, too.