"Bad and Dangerous: The Film Noir Cycle," getting underway this week at Seattle Art Museum, is the 32nd consecutive chapter in the nation's longest-running film noir ritual. By this point, series founder and curator Greg Olson has long since run through the peak titles in Hollywood's deliciously dark '40s/'50s legacy. And so, more and more, his autumn program has shined its blacklight into unfamiliar corners, probing un- or lesser-known B movies for glimmers of paydirt and seeking out noir affinities in movies that, at first glance, seem to belong to other genres.
Three great directors have skin in the 2009 mash-up. Opening the series is one of the few noirs to which the word "delicate" applies: "The Reckless Moment" (Thursday, Oct. 1). Unmistakably the work of ultracivilized European director Max Ophüls (Max Opuls in his Hollywood years), the 1948 film features Joan Bennett as an upper-middle-class wife and mother whose privileged family life brushes up against murder and the blackmail that follows in its wake. Co-star James Mason is cast as an agent of darkness, but the rapport between him and intended victim Bennett is breathtakingly subtle.
Nicholas Ray's 1956 "Bigger Than Life" (Nov. 12) is one of the borderline noirs, with James Mason again (no such thing as too many James Mason movies), this time as a beleaguered schoolteacher and family man whose life is saved by a wonder drug. Side-effect: He goes all Nietzschean Superman. Besides giving a brilliant performance, Mason produced the picture, which joins such psychologically precarious Ray films as "In a Lonely Place," "On Dangerous Ground" and "Rebel Without a Cause" in flagging the seismic faultlines in '50s America. As an added-bonus variation on standard noir packaging, it's dynamically designed in color and CinemaScope.
I'm not among the big fans of Samuel Fuller's 1964 "The Naked Kiss" (Dec. 3), but he's the third great director aforementioned and the literally in-your-face opening scene is among his signatory coups. Constance Towers stars as a prostitute who, opting to go straight, picks a classic white-picket-fence small town in which to do it. Turns out it's yet another Fuller "battlefield" and, like normalcy itself, is mined. Pungently photographed by Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificent Ambersons," "Night of the Hunter").
My personal favorite in the series, playing Nov. 5, is "Alias Nick Beal" (1949), a silky beauty from the Paramount team that made "The Big Clock." John Farrow (Mia's dad) directed, and Ray Milland relishes the title role - Beelzebub in a snap-brim hat, tempting reform politician Thomas Mitchell to the dark side. And a tip of that snap-brim hat to Audrey Totter, never quite stellar yet quintessential '40s blonde.
Also scheduled are "Nocturne" (Oct. 8), a George Raft picture with overtones of "Laura"; "Riffraff" (Oct. 15), the first of a string of noirs directed by "Notorious" cameraman Ted Tetzlaff; Lewis Allen's "Desert Fury" (Oct. 22), early Burt Lancaster from the director of "Suddenly"; and "The Story of Molly X" (Oct. 29), an unseen, ultra-B-sounding woman-gone-wrong movie.
Toward the end of the season, Patty McCormack is a very naughty (yet apparently nice) little girl in "The Bad Seed" (Nov. 19), based on the Maxwell Anderson play. Wrapping things up is "Games" (Dec. 10), a 1967 effort of cult director Curtis Harrington that's a lot more gripping if you don't know (as I once didn't) the classic French thriller it's, uh, inspired by. William A. Fraker's lighting is a plus and, along with Simone Signoret, the movie showcases the pre-breakout James Caan, Katharine Ross and Don Stroud. (OK, Don Stroud never did break out, but it seemed back then that he should.)
Series passes were gone before the ticket sellers could clear their throats, but anyone who shows up half an hour ahead of the 7:30 p.m., Thursday showtimes stands a good chance of scoring an individual ticket ($10). The venue is Plestcheeff Auditorium, Seattle Art Museum, First and University.