Legends of the Fall: SAM raises the ghosts of noir again

I wake up screaming. The night has a thousand eyes. They won't believe me. They won't forget. They live by night. You only live once. On dangerous ground. In a lonely place. Raw deal. Try and get me. Out of the past.

Where was I?... Oh, yes. It's that time of year again, when children go back to school and fruit falls from the trees and, down at First Avenue and University Street, the film noir faithful come out for their autumnal fix. Twenty-eight years now Seattle Art Museum's underappreciated and undersupported film curator Greg Olson has been celebrating the ebon beauties and sleazy undercurrents of what has become, in retrospect, and through retrospectives like Olson's, a disconcertingly respectable genre. Love is strange.

"Mystery Street: The Film Noir Cycle" does not include "Mystery Street" among its 10 cinematic specimens, nor indeed any of the titles cunningly woven into the opening paragraph of this article. But it does contain: an essential noir masterpiece unseen (in a decent print) for decades; two artifacts lit and lensed by John Alton, the film noir cameraman supreme; two pungent efforts by noir's most prolific director, Robert Siodmak; a torrid transfusion of Technicolor and Marilyn Monroe; a movie boasting the only original screenplay by Raymond Chandler; a breakthrough work by a once and future titan; and - always a healthy move - several forays into unsung, program-picture territory, just in case one or more of them don't deserve to be left unsung.

All show at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 29 through Dec. 8, in SAM's Plestcheeff Auditorium. If this seems early to be announcing it, guess again: series tickets go fast -$58 SAM members, $65 others; phone 654-3121. Individual tickets may be available at the door (100 University St.) at 7 p.m.

"The Blue Dahlia" (Sept. 29) is the Chandler original. Legend has it that producer John Houseman had to let the author of "The Big Sleep" and "The Long Goodbye" work drunk (under medical supervision) at home in order to get the job done. Alan Ladd stars as one of a number of war vets returning Stateside only to become embroiled in underworld machinations and a byzantine plot that (you'll be expecting it from the moment you set eyes on her) entails Ladd's nasty wife (Doris Dowling) getting dead. Veronica Lake is the good blonde; William Bendix (who bounced Ladd around so memorably in "The Glass Key"), terrific as a Ladd buddy who's just a touch psycho; and Howard DaSilva, Frank Faylen, Don Costello, Will Wright and Howard Freeman as accomplished slime. George Marshall directed, 1946. 35mm.

With "Spione" at the apex of the silent era, "Scarlet Street" (Oct. 6) stands as Fritz Lang's most thoroughgoing meditation on the forms and implications of his own artistry. In producing partnership with Walter Wanger and Mrs. Wanger - Joan Bennett - and reuniting Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea from his very successful "Woman in the Window," Lang retells the tale Jean Renoir had filmed in 1931 as "La Chienne." A mousey bookkeeper who's also a Sunday painter (Robinson) falls in thrall of a Greenwich Village tramp and tries to save her from her sadistic boyfriend. He's a fool, of course; also, unbeknownst to himself, a great artist. Things become very twisted. Because the 1945 film was essentially an independent production (though made at and released by Universal), the title fell into the public domain in the 1970s; since then it's been seen only via dupey prints and smudgy videos. Olson has succeeded in borrowing the Library of Congress's 35mm print. This is an occasion.

From the scaldingly sublime to the B zone: "Blind Spot" (Oct. 13) stars Chester Morris as a mystery writer accused of a murder he himself had plotted for fictional purposes. Screenwriter Martin Goldsmith's credits include "Detour" and "The Narrow Margin." Robert Gordon directed, 1947. 35mm.

"Cry of the City" (Oct. 20) could be the peak title in a Robert Siodmak film noir run that includes "Phantom Lady," "Uncle Harry," "The Spiral Staircase," "The Killers" and "Criss Cross." Richard Conte and Victor Mature costar as, respectively, a gangster and the cop who once nabbed him - a formidable black/white double act in the film's ferocious visuals. Siodmak was great at whipping up Germanic atmosphere (he should know) in the Hollywood dream factory; this movie finds him working on location in New York, something the studio (Fox) was making a specialty of at the time. Hope Emerson contributes a memorable monster. With Shelley Winters, Fred Clark, Berry Kroeger, Debra Paget. 1948, 35mm.

Back into the B zone for "Larceny" (Oct. 27), a postwar melodrama about a guy who sets out to bilk a war widow and, yep, falls in love with her. John Payne was a feeble leading man at Fox in the early '40s but in the '50s made an interestingly scuffed-up, credibly flawed hero in such films as "99 River Street" (shown at SAM in 2003), "Kansas City Confidential" and "Santa Fe Passage"; a transitional role, perhaps? With Joan Caulfield, Dan Duryea again, Shelley Winters again (she was a dish in the late '40s), Dan O'Herlihy and Percy Helton, who may squeal for us. George Sherman directed, 1948.

In "Hollow Triumph," a.k.a "The Scar" (Nov. 3), Paul Henreid is no Victor Laszlo. He plays a fellow who, in debt to a big-time gambler, contrives to escape retribution by swapping lives with an apparently law-abiding citizen who looks just like him. What was that about an appointment in Samarra? Joan Bennett costars, and John Alton photographed (the movie was made for Eagle-Lion, the little company for which Alton and Anthony Mann were crafting such beauties as "T-Men," "Raw Deal" and "The Black Book"). Steve Sekely directed, 1948. 35mm print from UCLA Film Archive.

Barbara Stanwyck has the title role in "The File on Thelma Jordon" (Nov. 10), a slow-building trap of a movie that artfully misdirects audience sympathies at several stages of the proceedings. We can say no more. Well, we could, but we won't. The series' other Robert Siodmak offering, 1950. 35mm.

"Talk About a Stranger" (Nov. 17) offers the positively unsettling pairing of future California senator George Murphy and future First Lady Nancy Davis. They play a couple who find themselves implicated in a rumor-spreading campaign that threatens the stability of their small town. Welcome to the McCarthyite '50s. The director is David Bradley, a man best known for the student/independent films he made in Chicago - "Peer Gynt" and "Julius Caesar" - with fellow Northwestern student (what's going on here?) Charlton Heston. John Alton photographed, 1952. 35mm.

The series skips a week for Thanksgiving. Speaking of thanksgiving, Bernardo Bertolucci was not the only '50s youth to have his life blighted/transfigured by the sight of Marilyn Monroe in a yellow bathing suit in "Niagara" (Dec. 1). Somehow, she's married to uptight Joseph Cotten. Cue the Falls. Henry Hathaway directed, 1953. 35mm.

"The Killing" (Dec. 8) was Stanley Kubrick's third feature film, but the first to be made for a major distributor (United Artists). Based on a novel by Lionel White and enlisting pulp novelist Jim Thompson to supply some of the dialogue, this is the movie that presents an intricately planned robbery of a racetrack cash room - but instead of crosscutting among the principals to the caper, it follows one conspirator's part to conclusion before flashing back to pick up another. The pivotal figure - as he was in the granddaddy of caper movies, "The Asphalt Jungle" - is Sterling Hayden (Kubrick's future Jack D. Ripper). He's good, but burned most deeply into memory are Timothy Carey as the sharpshooter; chess-playing strongman Kola Kwariani as Maurice; and noir icon Elisha Cook Jr. as the nebbishy betting-window teller, telling Marie Windsor as his bored, contemptuous wife, "Keep ridin' me, Sherry. Just keep ridin' me."

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