THE NOIR CITY SENTINEL — July/August 2009

A FANTASY FESTIVAL

Single Word Double Bills

BY DON MALCOLM

Film noir is about many things, brevity among them. In addition to the sudden bad end that so many of its characters undergo, the films themselves are often streamlined affairs, their stories racing by on a wafer-thin dragstrip of narrative, featuring an unbeatable combination of fast women and faster dialogue.

Even the titles are often brief as can be. Designing a festival of one-word titles is a parlor game that could keep programmers and aficionados entertained for hours. Part of the fascination lies in achieving optimum euphony and evocativeness—imagining the marquee, dripping with noir atmosphere and suggestion. Try on for size, then, the following pithy dualities of danger and deceit.

THE LADIES

Gilda / Laura     Vickie / Julie

The first features two iconic but vastly different fatal femmes (Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney), two strong gay subtexts (surrounding George Macready and Clifton Webb), and two taciturn brooders with a dangerous edge (Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews). Vickie (1940) and Julie (1956) are perfectly acceptable films in their own right, but the names are just too pat, too ordinary.

GENERIC NOIRNESS

Tension / Suspense     Conflict / Violence
Illegal / Forbidden

These pairings are marginal in their evocativeness but do convey a sense of noir accentuated with punchy singularity. The best one of the lot, Tension (1949), is elevated by Audrey Totter’s delirious turn as a Rubenesque rotter. Forbidden (1953), a rehash of Casablanca (1942) with some nice noir twists provided by underrated cad Lyle Bettger, is probably stretching things a bit, as it has more specific overtones of corruption and intrigue.

ENTRAPMENT

Cornered / Trapped      Framed / Caged
Lured / Caught             Crossfire / Inferno

Capturing noir’s bleak determinism, these pairings definitely let you know you’re in for quite a dark double bill. Each pair is also remarkably dissimilar, demonstrating just how much variety noir can offer even when the titles seem closely related.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Boomerang / Loophole    Blackmail / Larceny
Pickup / Shakedown

These offer a good sense of noir’s sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical dynamics. Oddly, the one with the most colorful name (Boomerang, 1947) is actually a stately, measured courtroom drama, definitely the least lurid and feverish of the bunch.

AMBIENT CONDITIONS

Detour / Roadblock        Decoy /Pushover
Ruthless / Desperate     Pitfall / Backfire

These explore mental or physical states that are often inhabited in noir. One would not be surprised to discover that most of these contain a femme fatale or otherwise peril-inducing character. Three (Ruthless (1948), Desperate (1947), and Pitfall (1948) feature Raymond Burr in various menacing guises.

Laura / Gilda by Rob Kelly

Illustraton by Rob Kelly

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APPROACHING NOIR POETRY

Nocturne / Serenade   Whirlpool / Undertow
Moonrise / Nightfall

Noir and poetry might seem like diametric opposites, but these three pairings demonstrate a romantic strain underneath the tough talk. Musical, oceanic, and aerial metaphors can all be appropriated into the noir ethos, even if one might not immediately know that the two words on the marquee signify a definitively dark filmgoing experience. Moonrise (1948) and Nightfall (1957) just might be the best possible double bill given our offbeat criteria.

AND ALL THE SPACES BETWEEN

Abandoned / Possessed

This is probably my favorite pairing. The two films are dissimilar, but their titles beautifully evoke the twilight aspect of the noir universe—a dislocated place where we are somehow not in control of our self and ourselves, interstitial space where we can be both abandoned and possessed simultaneously, with or without our knowledge. These are the poles of peril for the individual in a dark world.