DON MALCOLM DISCUSSES THE SHOCKING ABUNDANCE OF LONG-LOST FOREIGN FILM NOIR
A Rare Noir Is Good to Find 2: International Noir Revisited makes its appearance at the Roxie in San Francisco on May 5-8, featuring twelve noirs from eleven countries spanning twenty post-WWII years (1947-1966). The complete schedule with notes and images can be found here. There are also trailers and clips at the end of the interview.
Renegade programmer Don Malcolm, aka Mid-Century Productions, is the mind and eye behind this series, as well as its groundbreaking 15-film predecessor in spring 2015. He’s best known for the astonishing The French Had a Name for It series—with three editions filling the Roxie Theatre in the autumns of 2014-2016, with successful offshoots in Los Angeles and forthcoming engagements around the USA.
Malcolm now stakes territory across three continents. “As astonishing as it is to know that hundreds of French noirs await rediscovery on American movie screens,” Malcolm says, “it’s even more amazing to see just how prominent film noir was in just about every significant filmmaking nation in the years following World War II.”
Owen Field caught up with Don as he continues to recover from an unexpected twist in his ongoing mission to bring rare cinematic gems back to the big screen—heart surgery.
Owen Field: Don, how’s the ticker? First and foremost, thanks for surviving, so that you can continue to bring new film noir experiences to an eager audience.
Don Malcolm: Thanks, Owen. I’m grateful that it was not my time to leave, just as I was getting started…all signs point to a complete recovery and I expect to be making my usual cheeky remarks in front of my favorite folks at the Roxie on May 5.
OF: The answer to “Why show rare noir” would seem self-evident, but why show international noir? Isn’t film noir an American form?
DM: (Laughing) To ask the question is to answer it. Not to minimize at all the outstanding contributions to film noir made in (and sometimes underneath) Hollywood, but there is a vast treasure of film noir made in other countries. We’re talking beyond France and England. Unseen treasures from at least three continents. As was the case in 2015, the films in this series are from countries that don’t leap to mind as bastions of noir. We’re talking Switzerland, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Poland, Mexico, Egypt and more.
OF: Are these merely imitations of U.S. noir?
DM: Not at all. The U.S.-centric view of noir has been entrenched for sixty years, but it really is a serious historical inaccuracy. There was an independent film noir movement in France in the thirties, pre-dating America; each country developed its own variant of dark film based on the historical conditions and consequences they experienced. Only later on did the U.S. form become highly exposed and produce films in those nations that were more overtly imitative.
Clearly noir became an international cinematic language in the years following World War II. And that naturally included the standard earmarks of film noir in terms of lighting, camera angles, etc. Plus a narrative that revolves around a tormented figure and an existential angst that must be confronted. But that narrative, that personal angst, reflects upon the foundation of a different society: the protagonist in these foreign noirs encounters a different torment than that of the U.S. noir protagonist. It’s fascinating to see how this converges and diverges as a result of how the filmmakers have confronted a different experience.
OF: Such as?
DM: A common undercurrent in U.S. noir of the 1940s is the plight of the returning World War II veteran. He faced death, survived, and now returns to a society that has changed in his absence. In Europe, however, the people lived in the war. Occupation. The Underground. The Holocaust. Neighbor against neighbor. They did not return to change, they lived in and through change. That cannot help but create a different set of concerns and a different approach to film noir.
OF: How does that play out in other cultural settings?
DM: To give but one example, Hanyo aka The Housemaid, the film that closes the series. Filmed in Korea in 1960. On the surface, the essence of the plot seems familiar: a middle-aged married family man has a tryst with a young woman, a femme fatale. To watch her, it’s amour fou or, if you will, michin salang in Korean. Let the blackmail begin! Now, a Hollywood film noir might have the man get involved in a heist or embezzlement or some other fraud in order to meet the woman’s demands. And that would lead to murder or an arrest. Hanyo, though, goes in a different direction. At that time in Korea, adultery was a crime and a spouse could not make the accusation until after the granting of a divorce. The femme fatale doesn’t want cash—she wants love and a family. So the focus of the film turns on the societal norms and their impact on the persons involved. It’s not about money or what a U.S. noir would consider a crime, but on shame and holding a marriage together for the sake of appearances. So there are similarities, but different roads are eventually taken.
OF: Could this difference in focus be because of the American idea and ideal of individualism?
DM: Absolutely. Many of these films pay greater attention to the society at large than what you’d find in a typical U.S. noir. The Czech movie Krakatit released in 1948, a time of great political upheaval in Czechoslovakia, even though adapted from an early 20th century book and that begins by engaging the viewer with a mystery about a man apparently suffering amnesia—sound familiar?—provides a narrative arc that eventually centers around a concern with the man’s work and its impact on the world. Social responsibility, not “how do I get out of the fix?”
Cairo Station, a 1958 film from Egypt, is in many ways reminiscent of M—both Lang’s and Losey’s—but, coming shortly after a revolution and the rise of Nasser, it weaves in a greater concern with social upheaval and class conflict than either of those great films. And this happens throughout the series: we have familiar noir themes that delve into unfamiliar territory.
OF: You have placed two better-known foreign noirs—Odd Man Out and Bitter Rice—in this series. What’s the thinking behind that?
DM: First, these are films that have been anointed as masterworks. I’m of the mind that we should look at the other ten films in RARE NOIR 2 from what we might call the penumbra of these anointed works, and be able to make judgments in the reflected light of such a comparison.
OF: You basically claim that the films playing with those two films—the Polish film The Noose and the Belgian art-noir Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor—are more accomplished, more searching examples of noir filmmaking.
DM: Yes, and I’ve programmed it to bring that to a collision point for the audience. That’s the exciting part for me.
OF: There’s an incredible variety and range in these films—from the murder mysteries in the mental hospital of Leopold Lindberg’s Madness Rules starring a marvelously gruff Heinrich Gretler and, in an early role –just 20 at the time– future European star Elisabeth Muller; to twisted gangster revenge plots literally drowning in guilt in Hideo Gosha’s Cash Calls Hell starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Yukari Uehara. It is arguably the “last classic-era noir” with its outrageous 60s mise-en-scene as a badge of honor while it sums up the doubled-down, doubled-back desperation in a world where it is easy to fall and virtually impossible to get back on one’s feet after having done so.
DM: Guilt is such a prevalent theme in foreign noir. The weight of accumulated guilt—we see it in our other Italian film, In The Name of the Law, where the shifting nature of guilt itself becomes the powder keg in the action. And the agitated guilt stemming from bad actions in the past dominates the anguished, histrionic love relationship in The Road to Hell, a Mexican “melo-noir” that showcases an actress—Leticia Palma—capable of seemingly infinite self-flagellation.
OF: Is there one “lighter” work in all of this flamboyant, unrelenting darkness?
DM: (laughs) Yes, yes. We’re happy to have a Sunday matinee of a stylish trifle from Brazil called Strange Encounter. The director, Walter Hugo Khouri, went on to make some blisteringly frank films about male-female relations, but here he stays within the more standard boundaries of romantic alienation and creates an oddly compelling exercise in style. One of the great things about these films is that you discover wonderful actors you’ve never heard of—I think the audience will really be won over by the performance of the otherwise completely unknown Lola Brah, a Russian expatriate who spent most of her career in South America.
OF: You’re not going to pick any favorites here, are you? They are all your favorites!
DM: Yes, that’s right. I love to generate a rhythm into the way the films follow one another, something I’ve tried to assimilate from watching Elliot Lavine at work for so many years. The cumulative effect is what he’s after, and that’s the more exalted path for this type of work, I think. Even though I have my lapses, I try to stay as close to that path as I can.
OF: And you’re OK? You’ll be there?
DM: The doctors say 90-95% right now. It will be hard to keep me away!
Don Malcolm was 22 when he wrote the world’s first hypertext novel–before hypertext existed. That juxtaposition of the pioneering and the not-yet-invented has been a recurring theme in his life ever since, even as he made narrow escapes from what has always seemed to be a cataclysmic artistic destiny. Discovering film noir in the 1980s, he fell in with an increasingly disreputable crowd over the next three decades, emerging from eight years at the helm of NOIR CITY magazine as the purveyor of what now is the largest legacy of unseen foreign film noir to be found anywhere. THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT, debuting in November 2014, changed the landscape of film noir forever and Don has continued to pursue what he calls “the lost continent” with a tenacious smirk and a small (but potent) flashlight. He is completing a book that covers the full story of French film noir from the 30s to the 60s (over 400 films, most unseen in the US for decades) which will arrive just in time to be featured at THE FRENCH HAD A NAME FOR IT 4 this November. In the meantime, Don has added more than two dozen noirs from around the world into public circulation, including twelve more that will screen May 5-8 in his second A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND extravaganza.”
Owen Field grew up on a farm in central Indiana (just down the road from Marjorie Main’s childhood home) and credits seeing Citizen Kane, Rebel Without a Cause, King Kong and Duck Soup on TV for instilling a love of film during his impressionable years. Finding his way to Chicago and practicing law for 25 years did not change that. When film noir leapt from the shadows into plain sight in the mid-80s, an obsession was born—taken to a new level after he saw Blast of Silence in the early-‘00s.
Annual journeys to the Roxie in San Francisco for film noir festivals began in 2009, and linked him with many a kindred spirit—from which a late-blooming writing career as a deceptively sunny cinephile began. Rumors have swirled that he will soon publish his collected writings—primarily about noir, of course—in a volume entitled “Field Notes: Diaries of a Cinematic Co-conspirator”. His collaboration with Elliot Lavine, “My Life in the Wilderness of Film Programming,” is due sometime in 2018.
Trailers and scenes from films featured in A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND 2
Scenes from Cairo Station
The Road to Hell (Camino del Infierno)– This clip is in Spanish with no English subtitles but offers a good sense of this terrific Mexican Noir.
In The Name of the Law (In Nome Della Legge)- Opening scene in Italian without English subtitles. Based on the novel ‘Piccola pretura’ by the magistrate Giuseppe Guido Lo Schiavo. Mario Monicelli and Federico Fellini worked on the script with Germi. Filmed in/around Sciacca, southern Sicily. Great early film by Germi, combining western and sometimes even noir overtones with the ‘commedia all’italiana’ that the director went on to develop.
Magistrate is sent to rural Sicilian town in an attempt to bring the rule of law, to try and sort out a murder…but there’s the mafia, the landowner baron, the farmer and omertà.
Lesser picture quality clip of murder investigation with English subtitles.
The Noose– a scene in Polish without English subtitles
The Housemaid – restoration trailer in Korean with French subtitles followed by a clip with English subtitles plus The Host and Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho discussing the film..
European capitals are on fire scene in Czech with English subtitles
Romantic interlude between Florence Marly and Karel Hoger, in Czech with no subtitles
Striking mood scene at night on a bridge in Czech with no subtitles