Having devoted the past few summers to putting the French back in noir, Film Forum crosses the channel for a month of crime films made in the U.K. from the late '30s through the very early '60s.
The term "Brit noir" is nothing if not elastic. The show encompasses everything from Arthur Woods's nasty little The 39 Steps knock-off They Drive by Night (1938), with wrong-man Emlyn Williams dashing around the rainy midlands, to florid romances—the gothic Blanche Fury (1948), directed by visiting Frenchman Marc Allégret, and Albert Lewin's pop surrealist Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)—to Basil Deardon's taboo-breaking melodrama Victim (1961), with Dirk Bogarde as a blackmailed homosexual. But mostly, Brit noir focuses on what Brits call "spiv movies"—named for the natty underworld hustlers who forced their way on-screen as censorship relaxed after World War II.
The festival opens conventionally with The Third Man (1949), but Carol Reed's great exercise in meta-spivian, post-Wellesian, Cold War hokum is followed by two less familiar, newly topical flicks: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's World War II home-front bomb-disposal meller The Small Back Room (1949) screens with John Boulting's Seven Days to Noon (1950), an atomic-age thriller predicated on the notion of a suitcase nuke. Other notable double bills include two quintessential spiv dramas—Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Robert Hamer's atmospherically East End It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)—and a pair of Stanley Baker vehicles: A daredevil trucker in Cy Enfield's Hell Drivers (1957), the '50s reigning tough bloke is upgraded to hardboiled police inspector in Val Guest's Hell Is a City (1960).
Guest is one of the few Brit genre directors with a reputation. But despite a quartet of movies directed by Hollywood blacklistees—Night and the City, Hell Drivers, Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1948), and Joseph Losey's The Criminal (1960)—Reed is the series' outstanding auteur. (Hitchcock is conspicuous by his absence.) In addition to The Third Man, "Brit Noir" includes The Fallen Idol (1948), Reed's near-classic Hitch homage, and The Man Between (1953), his fascinatingly failed attempt to restage The Third Man in divided Berlin.
"Brit Noir" saves the most outrageous films for last. Powell's 1960 Peeping Tom—a black comedy of cinephilia run amok—went from career-ender to canonical. Showing but once, with a surviving cast member in attendance, No Orchids for Miss Blandish was the scandal of 1948. Clumsily directed by St. John L. Clowes, it's a faux–American gangster flick in which a ripe-for-depravity debutante falls for the spiv who kidnaps her—and vice versa. It's a love story. Waxing poetic, an Observer reviewer once rhapsodized that the movie had "the morals of an alley cat" and "the sweetness of a sewer"—blandishment enough for anyone.
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