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SCRIPTED: Robert Phelps and his wife, Laura, were on hand for this year's opening-night screening at Cinequest.

Dark Passage

Cinequest's Robert Phelps on the shadow world of film noir

By Richard von Busack

CINEQUEST'S World of the Writer, formerly Day of the Writer, has been the longtime project of Robert G. Phelps, a local public defender and scriptwriter. On his way to the courthouse, Phelps tells me that he has written "a legal dramedy and an arena football sport comedy ... as well as a pilot for a TV show on criminal defense: sort of a cross between Boston Legal and South Park." Phelps' wife is Laura Phelps, who is on the board of directors at Cinequest. Phelps offered to start a program on "the art and craft of screenwriting." Over the years, he brought in David and Janet Peoples, scriptwriters for Blade Runner and The Unforgiven. Phelps is especially enthusiastic about this year's guests, including Lew Hunter, professor emeritus at UCLA's film school.

Phelps comments, "We're going to be talking shop with screenwriters so that a layperson or a film buff can recognize good stories." Phelps will be lecturing in a two-part session about his favorite kind of film, film noir. He quotes his promise in the Cinequest catalog: "I'll go under the hood of noir like a paroled boxer moonlighting as a mechanic." He adds, "My lecture is going to be for everybody. What I'm going to do is try to break down film noir from the storytelling standpoint, not so much from the film critic's standpoint. I'm going to be trying to locate the elements that make up a film noir, and give a basic history of the genre. Though of course people are still debating whether noir is a genre or a style. Afterward, people will be able to win the argument at a cocktail party about whether a film is noir or not."

Phelps plans to use clips from films ranging from The Maltese Falcon to No Country for Old Men. Phelps runs down the list of usual suspects: Cagney in White Heat, Sunset Boulevard ... and there'll be a few clips of Marie Windsor from The Narrow Margin. Everywhere she turns up, she's a beautiful, seductive gem." Phelps sees the problem of understanding noir as realizing how different it is from ordinary films: "The classic Hollywood model has likable protagonists pursuing a worthwhile goal. Noir is more ambivalent—it's existentialism at every level. It cuts against your natural inclination to have clearly drawn characters."

As a man who works in criminal justice, Phelps feels harmony with the intentions and mood of noir. "I love being a public defender," Phelps says, "and I'm proud of the work I do. I go into a criminal courtroom, and every day I see under the patina of perfection of American life. I see the casualties. It's my career training to look beneath the surface and see what's going on. I don't believe there are truly evil people. Crime isn't a mystery to me. There are very typical patterns that create crime. When I say I feel like I've seen the dark side of life, I'm not talking about my bad-guy clients. I'm talking about the limitations of civil society. Noir is all about those limitations. See the film Body and Soul. It's a brilliant social commentary on some of the limitations of American civilization—and I say this as someone who is proud to be American. A healthy reflexive look is healthy for our country. I'm hoping people will come in and  sit down and really appreciate this wonderful complex world of film noir."

THE DAY OF THE WRITER takes place Friday, March 6, at San Jose Repertory Theatre and Camera 12. The Film Noir forum runs 9:30am–10:30am and 11am–noon at Camera 12.  

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