They were Hollywood’s B films: taut thrillers peppered with character actors that screened before the more pedigreed feature and flourished in the ’40s and ’50s. Fans of the genre can immerse themselves in the world of mean streets, hard-boiled gangsters, gun molls, and two-timing dames when the Harvard Film Archive unspools noir and only noir with a seven-film marathon that runs from Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. to Sept. 1 at 7 a.m.
David Pendleton, who programed “Noir All Night” with HFA director Haden Guest, says the 12-hour marathon will showcase important directors such as Jules Dassin and Abe Polonsky, who were influenced by German Expressionism, Italian neorealism, and the post-war shift from escapism to grittier subject matter and a more ambiguous morality.
The HFA got bitten by the marathon bug last summer with its 10-hour marathon of pre-code Hollywood films. “We had no idea how many people would show up or how many would stay,” says Pendleton, who estimates that last year’s marathon drew 100 viewers with 40 remaining by the end. “We have a lot of noir prints in our collection and, like pre-code films, they’re short and easy to watch in one sitting.” Pendleton formerly worked at the UCLA television archive, which often programmed marathon screenings. “And I’m a night owl, so this appeals to me,” he says.
To pique interest among those who like suspense, the HFA is keeping many of the titles under wraps. But Pendleton says audiences can find out what’s on the bill before the start of the marathon, which allows viewers to come and go. The lineup won’t be in any kind of chronological order but will offer both well-known and more obscure noir films, all shown in crisp 35mm prints. Some are rarely screened, notes Pendleton, and others are not available on DVD.
Among the notable titles he’s willing to reveal is Dassin’s seminal “The Naked City” from 1948. While many noirs drew from the pulp fiction world of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and were set in and around Los Angeles, “The Naked City,” starring Barry Fitzgerald as a detective investigating the murder of a young model, was shot entirely on location in New York. Oscars went to William H. Daniels for his cinematography and to Paul Weatherwax for editing. Dassin, who’d be blacklisted in Hollywood just a few years after “The Naked City” came out, drew on the influences of German Expressionism and particularly Italian neorealism, not just for his gritty locations but also by using some nonprofessional actors and focusing on the lives of “ordinary” people.
Delmer Daves’s “Dark Passage” (1947), the third of four films that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, is an overlooked noir classic that was not a big hit when it was released (some blame the fact that Bogart isn’t seen for much of the film). Set in San Francisco, Bogart plays a man who, convicted of killing his wife, escapes from San Quentin.
San Francisco is also the setting for “Sudden Fear” (1952), a suspenseful melodrama that features director David Miller’s climatic chase scene through dark alleys and backyards. It offers a tour de force by Joan Crawford as an heiress who realizes that her no-good actor husband (Jack Palance) is out to kill her.
“The Big Combo” (1955) is among several low-budget film noirs directed by Joseph H. Lewis (“Gun Crazy”) before he turned to Westerns and television. It’s notable for its ahead-of-its-time treatment of deviant sexuality, and for John Alton’s stunning black-and-white, shadowy cinematography. Cornel Wilde plays a cynical cop obsessed with capturing a crime boss (Richard Conte), but just as infatuated with the criminal’s mistress, a former socialite who’s played by Wilde’s wife, Jean Wallace. Other great character actors of the ’50s, such as Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef, and Earl Holliman, also star.
Tickets to “Noir All Night” at the Harvard Film Archive (24 Quincy St., Cambridge) are $12, available through the HFA box office, (617) 495-4700. For more information go to www.hcl.harvard.edu/hfa.