Noir City DC 2016—The Art of Darkness I

I love the noir film festival Eddie Muller brings to DC every year. This year, Art of Darkness, was distinctly uneven. Of the 15 films I saw in less than two weeks, there was a clear pattern of good, middling, and bad. I’ll take each one as a separate blog. Today’s installment covered the ones I liked the best.

The Best—

IN A LONELY PLACE is s brilliant movie. It’s better than the novel by Dorothy Hughes, tho’ they are very different creatures and the novel’s very style gets to the heart of the dissociative mind. The novel has to make a decision about the antagonist—is he or isn’t he a serial killer? For closure, the novel must resolve that issue, and it does. The movie retains the ambiguity to the end, leaving no real resolution. 

The screenplay, unlike novel, is a serious dig at Hollywood. Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Board, is a has-been screenwriter who may or may not have killed a girl. He decides to adapt the novel the dead girl brings him, even tho’ he thinks the novel stinks. He is inspired by his new girlfriend, Laurel Gray, who played to perfection by Gloria Graham. Dix is a high-strung, mercurial guy whose temper tantrums are legendary, but Hollywood will only tolerate such behavior if a man’s successful. Dix is not a nice guy; he’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Laurel refuses to listen to anyone, including Brub, the cop friend of Dix’s played by Charles McGraw, about Dix until he almost kills a boy after a fender bender. 

Is Dix capable of murder? Oh, yes. Did he commit murder? The viewer has to decide for him/herself. The cops arrest somebody else for the girl’s death, and it fits the usual circumstances of such murders. But you get the painful feeling that maybe, just maybe, the cops made a mistake. But that’s where the movie ends.

Even if it leaves a viewer hanging, IN A LONELY PLACE gives a bang-up definition of noir. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

FRITZ LANG and M (1931)

Eddie Muller got FRITZ LANG in the format of a digital double feature (M has been digitally restored) for the Noir City DC festival after the distributor contacted the Czar of Noir, who became one of the few in the US to see this biopic of Lang. In turn, Muller made sure It made its US debut here in DC.Yes!

German films established Fritz Lang as the foremost director of noir/expressionism, but METROPOLIS bankrupted UFa studios. It was a great, progressive, cutting edge flick, a definite requirement for film lovers and SF buffs alike. It’s genius work, restored to the most complete version that’s ever going to exist, but Lang’s meticulousness (obsession?) with METROPOLIS killed both the studio and his reputation as a bankable director. Lang had to do something to save himself. That something was M (1931) which became his most successful film at the time. He was hailed as a visionary of the Underworld, which he likely picked up from the collapse of the Weimar Republic. 

The biopic suggests that Lang was more screwed up than a chameleon crossing a kilt. It also suggests he killed his first wife, Lise Rosenthal. It takes a side in a murky episode for which there’s little hard evidence. It is a digital film mixed with news reels and other film. It should not be considered reflective of anything except the bare outlines of Lang’s early film making life and a possible explanation for how Lang’s masterpiece, M, came into being.

The movie focuses on the reconstruction of all the research that went into M. Lang heavily researched the real-life murderer Peter Kürten tho’ he had no real-life contact with Kürten. The biopic plays with the question—Is what you see a figment of Lang’s imagination or a reputation of something that really happened? Certainly, the makers of the biopic are looking for parallels between the director and the murderer—thus the stance on Lang’s first wife. 

It’s a compelling movie, but FRITZ LANG raises serious questions about film as a medium for biography.

M (1931) is Lang’s first talkie, but what a talkie! It was Peter Lorre’s big break as the pedophile who has to hang on and defend himself—eloquently!—to give the authorities the time to save him from the mob mentality of the gangsters. There is considerable cosmic irony in the people screaming for the authorities to eradicate the monster when the people elect the monster in 1933. 


This isn’t really noir. It’s Gothick, a surreal, overly emotional type of literature made popular in Britain in the late 18th century. It came across the Atlantic, where Yankee authors ran with it in the early to middle 19th century, including Nathaniel Hawthorne among others. It’s greatest home, however, Iis the American South, and its greatest practitioner was Flannery O’Connor. I’m a big fan of Southern Gothick.

Whilst this movie doesn’t quite make your skin crawl, it is does create a pervasive atmosphere of sexual tension and the rejection of post-war reality.  It’s a warning on the dangers—the madness—of living in the past. 

This was the most unknown film on the bill, and we got to see the new digital version. Very clear. It’s also an oddity in that it’s “‘l’homme fatal” instead of the “la femme fatale”. That was a nice twist. The ending was twisted, if not cruel, and certainly bitter. 

On a sidenote, it is also the first screen appearance of Christopher Lee. He shares the same nightclub scene with Lois Maxwell (the original Miss Moneypenny). It’s a short scene—wherein the protagonist meets the antagonist—but Lee was one hot dude when he was young.

Up next will be that ever difficult middling stratum. 
Copyright KG Whitehurst