TCM’s Summer of Darkness

In June and July, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) ran classic noir movies every Friday in their Summer of Darkness extravaganza. All day on Fridays for eight weeks. 24 hours of noir started at 6am. During the evenings, Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, introduced films. I didn’t partake so much of the evening films--it’s summer, the baseball season’s in full swing, and the Nationals are killing me--but when I did catch the Czar, he was great. Precise and thought-provoking and attention-directing. 

I think the whole Summer of Darkness was an extension of the Noir City Festival, run by the Film Noir Foundation and hosted in fourteen cities around the United States, including Silver Springs, Maryland, at the AFI Silver Theatre. Eddie Muller is the president of the Film Noir Foundation, to which I can say I am a proud donor--a la the member supporters of PBS. I can also say the Film Noir Foundation has spent considerable time, talent, and treasure preserving and restoring classic noir films. A couple of their most recent accomplishments include finding, remastering and showing NATIVE SON, the film adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel as well as completely restoring NO TIME FOR TEARS. 

The Film Noir Foundation is Eddie Muller’s baby. His knowledge and love of noir know no bounds that I perceive. See why he’s the Czar of Noir? TCM gave everybody the opportunity to see the Foundation’s good work and to introduce a wider audience to vintage noir.

I certainly found new films, like the outstanding HARDER THEY FALL (1956) or the creepy LAURA (1944). I’ve read DARK CITY, Eddie Muller’s book, plus many of the hard-boiled novels which went on to become noir-styled movies. I also got to see again films I’d loved the first time I saw them, like OUT OF THE PAST (1947) or GILDA (1946) or ones I hadn’t seen in a long time, like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). 

Now, I didn’t see everything. At an average of thirteen films per day, there was no way I was going to. I’m not a morning person, so 6am start times were out of the question. I missed viewing M (1931) again, except for the impassioned climax, or seeing JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) or ROADBLOCK (1951). I also discovered I can only watch about five noir films per day, and they’d better all be in English. (If in foreign languages, then it’s about three.) It’s both the style and the content. It’s an overload of doom and despair. 

Usually, it’s as Ramsay Bolton would say-- “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Frequently, it’s not the unhappy ending you expect.

There was also an online film course to go with TCM’s Summer of Darkness. I found out about it too late, signed up about mid-way through the film schedule then had company come. I’ve got some of the prompts for discussions that came be email. Perhaps they’ll inspire future blogs.

Although M (1931), which was a German film directed by Fritz Lang and staring Peter Lorre, began the series, most of the films were American and made during the heyday of noir, the postwar 40s through the mid-fifties. Certainly, the schedule included what is called “noir avant la lettre”, and LA BÊTE HUMAINE (1938), directed by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin, fits that bill. Great film--and it’s going to make me read Zola’s novel of the same name. There were also a couple of neo-noirs in the bill, like L. A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), based on the James Ellroy novel, or THIEF (1981) or BLUE VELVET (1986). Most of the films in this summer indulgence in noir were made during the classic period for this style, with only a few noirs made after 1956. By that point both the new medium of TV and new social obsessions, like the Cold War and nuclear bombs, had kicked in.

For the classic American noir, corruption is the name of the game. There was much soul-searching in the US over the nature of the victory in the war and the changes in society that war wrought. What was the American Dream? Who was entitled to it? How did you get it? Why was it so important? Money (or the lack thereof), urbanization, mobility within the country and within society, the place and role of women and African Americans, corporatization, and the boring nature of postwar life--these were all up for grabs and discussion. They were corrupt, or corrupting, or corruptible. The American Dream for those who couldn’t walk the straight and narrow frequently became a nightmare.

If you watched as many noir films as I did this summer, you realize that noir is a film style. It was frequently achieved on a low budget. Some seriously creative work was done with small casts, claustrophobic or isolating interiors, odd camera angles (to give a sense of things being off center), and lighting. Fascination with balustrades and Venetian blinds focused on the shadows cast to give a sense of imprisonment. Directors liked staircases, spiral ones in particular, to provide a sense of vertigo--if not a sense the protagonists were going down the drain through their own stupidity, insecurity, cupidity, or greed.

Black and white film, if shot properly, has a depth to it provided by the shadings of light and dark--chiaroscuro--that color cannot match. (For all its brilliance, L. A. CONFIDENTIAL doesn’t have the depth of field; its contrasts were day and night.) Many noir directors were masters of it. The only reason to watch THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is for the camera work and the chiaroscuro of which there was no greater master than Orson Wells. Otherwise, the film is an utter mess. 

The late noirs, like THE HARDER THEY FALL and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (not a part of the Summer of Darkness, but coming up in Summer under the Stars, Shelly Winters) tended to do more outdoor shots and have a greater openness to them the earlier noirs. They were subtler in their use of shadows and mirrors, and they got their claustrophobia by crowding the rooms.

By the 60s, noir was done. As a style, it’d been taken as far it could go. Concerns were different. It wasn’t about seeing the dark underbelly; it was about destroying the underbelly. But general interest in noir has increased, I think, because of the age of corruption in which we live and the nature of the anxieties we suffer. What American Dream? For whom? Were we ever innocent? These sound like noir questions to me.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst