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Buy 'Pre-Code Hollywood' by Thomas Doherty.

Buy 'The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity' by Tom Gunning.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Leave Her to Heaven.'

Buy a VHS copy of 'Beyond the Forest,' starring Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten.

Buy 'Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir' by Eddie Muller.

Buy the 'Detour' DVD.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Blonde Crazy.'

Buy a VHS copy of 'The Woman in the Window,' starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Night Nurse,' starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell.

Buy the 'Strange Love of Martha Ivers' DVD.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Female,' starring Ruth Chatterton.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Employees' Entrance,' starring Warren William and Loretta Young.

Buy the 'Gilda' DVD.

Buy a VHS copy of 'Road House,' starring Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark.

Buy the 'T-Men' DVD.

Buy the 'Raw Deal' DVD (1948 noir).

Buy a VHS copy of 'Out of the Past.'

Buy the 'Kiss Me Deadly' DVD.

Buy a VHS copy of 'In a Lonely Place.'

Buy a VHS copy of 'The Glass Key.'

Buy a VHS copy of 'The Asphalt Jungle.'

Buy a VHS copy of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice.'

Buy the 'Mildred Pierce' DVD.


Dateline Despair: Many of the pre-code films showing at the Stanford Theater take their stories from the dire Depression news of the era; pictured is Edward G. Robinson in 1931's 'Five Star Final.'

Sin City

The Stanford Theater opens up a treasure trove of film noir and pre-code movies

By Richard von Busack

CORRUPT businessmen. Ruthless politicians. Criminals on both sides of the law. Scandal, the echo of violence endured and violence on its way. In the almost 60 films currently being revived at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, we see a distant echo of our own hard times. Whether one's pleasure is guys in fedoras or dames in kimonos, the Film Noir/Pre-Code series offers a selection that couldn't be found in cities 10 times Palo Alto's size.

The pre-code half of the series highlights pictures made from 1930 to 1933, before the Production Code strictly dictated tamer fare. There are seamy stories of open marriages, of bent but often likable bosses and hustlers. But these films feature more than later-famous Hollywood stars showing off in quaint lingerie. Even the comedies and musicals comment on the Depression stalking the streets outside the theaters. So many of the early Warner Bros. musicals--usually considered mindless Busby Berkeley fluff--focus on the efforts of chorus girls and dancers trying to make a living.

We can see the double catastrophes of the stock market crash and World War II mirrored on the screen. Film scholar Thomas Doherty, author of Pre-Code Hollywood, is describing early-'30s cinema but could just as well be pinpointing film noir when he talks about movies that are "unbridled, salacious, subversive and just plain bizarre. ... They look like Hollywood cinema ... but they seem imported from a parallel universe."

As Doherty points out, the term "pre-code" is a misnomer. The Production Code was Hollywood's attempt to fend off the dozens of state and local censors. The code, adopted in February 1930, dictated what material ought to be kept off the screen: drug use, sex, violence and nudity. But it wasn't until an Irish-Catholic censor named Joseph Breen took over the job of enforcement in July 1934 that the code started to have teeth, and a liberating chapter in movie history came to an end. From 1934 to about 1965, the Production Code kept Hollywood films from addressing certain realities of life, except between the lines.

Post-World War II film noir took up the discourse that the pre-code movies had started. The French term "black film" refers to a strain of low-budget melodramas made from about 1944 to 1960 in which we see guilt made visible, the aftermath of broken promises made to men who went to fight in the war.

Pre-code movies can be, spiritually speaking, film noir. The bleak social-problem dramas of the early 1930s offer blueprints for noir. As Tom Gunning writes in The Films of Fritz Lang, film noir was an idea imposed after the fact. Drawing on cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Gunning calls film noir "a constellation: a loose group of motifs, stylistic devices and plot lines between which a critic can draw endless imaginary lines connecting them into a shifting series of figures."

So, is film noir just something you know when you see it? What we most commonly think of as film noir--guys in trench coats in shadowy alleys--doesn't cover the whole of the movement. There are noir films in the Stanford series that aren't even urban. The Gene Tierney melodrama Leave Her to Heaven (1946) unfolds mostly at Lake Arrowhead, standing in for Maine. The 1949 blackmail drama The Reckless Moment (remade last year as The Deep End) takes place at the Southern California seaside resort of Balboa. Bette Davis' Beyond the Forest (1949) is becalmed in a poky town in Wisconsin.

Film noir didn't originally refer to the black hearts of the characters, although it does today. The French critics who coined the phrase referred to visual darkness onscreen. Underlighting was the easy way of camouflaging too-familiar sets and aging talent. As film scholar Eddie Mueller notes in his book Dark City, "By 1952, the classic 'noir' look was dissipating, as directors made the shift from studio sets to actual streets."

Most of the action in Spike Lee's 25th Hour takes place in cold but natural daylight in Manhattan, but a noir attitude links Lee's newest to the selections in the Stanford series: Edward Norton's character set up, unable to trust either the authorities or the criminals. Mocking the conventions of film noir--wet streets, expressionist acting and pungent dialogue--too many novice directors today forget to include the essential sense of social injustice that made the original films popular. Classic film noir (and pre-code films, too) countered lies about happy lives told in more popular and prettier movies.

Maybe the films in the two parts of this series--from film peignoir to film noir--appear different on the surface, but a hidden channel of cynicism and carnality links them like an underground river. Sometimes, the faces are even the same, as a clue.

The smoothly amoral Warren William turns up in five pre-code comedies; he finishes his career acting for Edgar Ulmer, master of the ultra-low-budget melodrama, like Detour (1946). Joan Blondell, the cute yet conniving working girl of Blonde Crazy (1931) and Three on a Match (1932), also turns up as a weary carny in Nightmare Alley (1947).

Edward G. Robinson shows what happens when a tough guy ages, as in 1932's rarely revived Two Seconds. (Ready to be fried in the electric chair, Robinson recalls his life during its final moments.) Years later, this homely, haunted actor plays an odd duck ready for the broiler in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) and in John Farrow's The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). Barbara Stanwyck turns from crude but honest heroine in 1931's Night Nurse to a killer in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

In the series one can find the original models for today's archetypes. Blondell's big-eyed, crafty blondes and William's dapper, pencil-mustached lawyers are what Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger wanted to evoke in Chicago. A would-be class-bridging romance like Maid in Manhattan measures up short against the class-gap romances of the Depression, like Beauty and the Boss (1932), Female (1933) and Employees' Entrance (1933). (Class-consciousness onscreen must be the last taboo; why else are people going back again and again to see Bowling for Columbine?) And what about the total rarities here: The Unsuspected (1947)? The Great Flamarion (1945)? What exactly is The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)? The discovery is going to be part of the fun.

The Film Noir/Pre-Code Series runs through April 20 at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. Pre-code films show Wednesday-Thursday; film noir Friday-Sunday. Check Metro's film section each week for details and showtimes. (650.324.3700)

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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