…or maybe I should say Night 1, since, y’know, noir. They are doing some daytime screenings. But it’ll mostly be nighttime. In any case, last night was opening night for this year’s Noir City in Seattle and we were there.
We’ve gone to some individual screenings at Noir City in Seattle three of the past four years. It was always a wonderful time, offering the opportunity to see some beloved classics in a cinema setting, see some classics of the genre I hadn’t seen before, and discover some films that I didn’t know about. But we always had to choose a few and cluster them on the weekend because of both cost and my work obligations, and it meant agonizing decisions and major FOMO. One year we had to miss Shadow of a Doubt. Last year I’d have gladly swapped two of the films we chose for two different ones based on reviews from a friend.
For this year, with some changes in my job responsibilities easing my schedule, and my desire to minimize missing out, I decided that we would get passes for the full series. We can choose any screening we want for the duration of Noir City. And for the first time, we hit both opening night screenings.
I bought the passes before the schedule was announced. Previous years have been a mix of known films of various levels of fame with more obscure works; sometimes there was a rough theme, like all 1950s works. I was eager to see what we’d get this time. When the schedule and theme were announced, it was unexpected: Noir City International, with all the films from countries other than the U.S. And at first I was taken aback; would I get my money’s worth when nearly all of the films were unknown quantities?
But as I read through the listings and descriptions, I got increasingly excited. One of the reasons I enjoy noir is sociological; I’ve been fascinated by the ways different eras of U.S. film interpret this often harsh genre and express the cultural themes of their time. (Early 1940s noir tends to be more mystery-focused; immediate post-WWII noir is often about how badly the American Dream has failed people; 1950s noir tends to lean more on examinations of masculinity and concepts of “good” and “bad” for women.) How exciting would it be to see those sociological elements as explored in noir from other countries? By the time we got to the Egyptian I was practically thrumming with excitement. And the opening night films delivered. Both from Argentina, both versions of other works framed through the viewpoints of an Argentinean filmmaker working in the early 1950s, both little-known until recently, they gave me the sociological meat I craved along with great entertainment.
(note: There’s some discussion of plot points below, and for one of the films a comparison to another very well-known work. If you don’t wanna know anything, skip the next couple of paragraphs. But I hope you’ll consider that knowing plot points is not the entirety of a film experience.)
Something I noticed about both films was a high level of emotional intelligence, and a marked lack of the kind of simplistic sex roles and celebration of toxic masculinity that is often present in American noir. The protagonist of The Beast Must Die (which is based on the famed novel by Nicholas Blake) weeps from grief, has a breakdown due to that grief that is presented as a natural outcome, respects the autonomy of a woman who is attracted to him (even though he ultimately admits that he’s being dishonest to her for his own ends) while trying to protect another, and tells a boy that his fear of abuse and tears at being unable to help his mother are evidence of his strength of character. Two of the male characters who exhibit what’s often thought of as typical male behavior are presented as despicable; some of this is plot-driven but it’s also clearly meant to demonstrate that such behavior is unacceptable. The women characters are complex; there’s no good girl/bad girl dichotomy as might be the case for women in an American noir but instead a clear understanding that they are trying to make the best choices they can in a world that isn’t favorable to them.
The Black Vampire is a retelling of Fritz Lang’s iconic M; while I haven’t seen that film in quite a while, the story beats in The Black Vampire map fairly closely to those of the earlier film from what I recall. What’s markedly different in this version is the presence of women. Three women characters have vital roles in this story, and help reframe both the actions of the killer and the behavior of the investigator trying to catch him. Two of the women work at a cabaret that is offering the services of sex workers (unspoken but made clear through references); despite the attempts of some of the male characters to degrade them for this, they refuse to accept the derogatory labels and emphasize, again, that they are making the best choices they can in an unfavorable world. There are multiple instances of women asserting their autonomy against the desires of men. Many of the women characters offer kindness to the killer in various ways, which helps highlight the torment of the killer at the impulses he can’t stop himself from acting on while also demonstrating that the excuses he tells himself are nonsense; there’s nothing special or exculpatory about the ridicule and lack of attention he’s experienced. The women also show the driven investigator that his genius and high status don’t excuse his misbehavior and entitlement; they will not be the collateral damage in his efforts to capture the killer at any cost.
But both films totally honor the feeling and themes of noir: The harshness of the world we live in and the consequences of the choices the characters make, often at risk to their own existence and integrity. It was a terrific way to start off this year’s Noir City and I’m very eager for what else is to come.
And now, a little lightheartedness. One thing that’s fun about Noir City is that attendees are encouraged to dress up in the spirit of the event. As a goth who went the vintage route*, this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. This year’s films range from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, so I’m aiming for general suggestions of late ’40s-mid ’50s looks. Having Noir City open on Valentine’s Day this year meant I felt obliged to celebrate the day in noir style, with little black hearts and deadly nightshade purple.
*Those of us who were highly style-focused goths in the 1980s-1990s seem to fall into a handful of broad categories for our day to day style as we hit middle age and our styles and responsibilities change: Stevie Nicks goth, unisex goth, and vintage goth.