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Experiment in Terror

Legends of the Fall, 2011: Another noir season at SAM

Ella Raines looking far from her usual all-American girl self in an especially atmospheric moment from Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

“Desperate men and dangerous women, smooth talk and barbed wisecracks, cheap perfume and gun smoke, dreams and dead ends. The night, shaped like movies. The world’s longest-running film noir series celebrates its thirty-fourth season with an opening night feast of black and white doughnuts, courtesy of Top Pot Doughnuts.”

The words and the address are inimitably Greg Olson’s; he’s been Seattle Art Museum film programmer for more than those 34 years. This autumn, for “Heart of Darkness: The Film Noir Cycle,” Olson’s managed to retrieve a night from the SAM powers-that-be, who last year cut back his series from ten films to eight. 2011’s noirfest features nine titles, to run Thursdays from Sept. 29 through Dec. 8 (omitting Oct. 14 and Thanksgiving), at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium.

It’s the best batch in several years, starting off with two pungent classics from noir’s golden age. Fact is, I used to open my own University of Washington film noir classes with Phantom Lady (Sept. 29), the 1944 Robert Siodmak picture that Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy once called “the Citizen Kane of B-movies.” Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a feverish hour-and-20-minutes in which sweltering urban heat, the pervasive cheapness of Universal production values, and director Siodmak’s jaggedly Germanic style combine to create a near-hallucinatory experience. A respected engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of his wife’s murder; his only alibi is a nameless woman with whom he shared an innocent evening at the time the crime was committed. Washington-born Ella Raines plays the loyal, and of course secretly adoring, secretary who embarks on a quest to locate the woman and save her boss. Have no doubt that she gets herself into sundry seamy and queasy situations—none seamier and queasier than an after-hours flirtation with a leering jazz drummer, an indelible portrait by Elisha Cook Jr. Others in the cast include Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Fay Helm (in the title role). Longtime Alfred Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison produced.

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