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Film Noir at LACMA

May 27, 2010 |  3:12 pm

Spiral staircase The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ SRO film noir series is dark this Monday because of Memorial Day. But if you are hankering to go to the black-and-white side this holiday weekend, check out the final four films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “The Noir Cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca” retrospective.

 Musuraca may not be a household word, but he was one of the busiest and influential cinematographers at RKO whose use of expressionistic, stark lighting created a dark, poetic and often foreboding atmosphere in his films. He got his big break in 1940 with the thriller “Stranger on the Third Floor” and supplied the cinematography for producer Val Lewton’s seminal horror films, as well as numerous RKO films noir such as “Out of the Past” and “Born to Be Bad.’

Ironically, he received his only Oscar nomination for the touching 1948 family drama, “I Remember Mama.”

The first offering Friday evening, 1946’s “The Spiral Staircase” isn’t really a noir, but a top-notch thriller directed by Robert Siodmak of “The Killers” fame. Dorothy McGuire shines as the mute live-in companion of a rich and demanding bed-ridden woman (Ethel Barrymore, earning an Oscar nomination) who lives in a multi-level rambling Victorian home connected by a spiral staircase. Enter a serial killer who is bent on killing  all the maimed and disfigured women in town, including Ms. McGuire. George Brent and Kent Smith also star. And it’s pretty easy to figure out the killer — just look at the bags under the eye in the opening sequence.

Creepier is 1946’s “Bedlam,” Lewton’s final horror film for RKO. It wasn’t a hit when it came out, but it’s really pretty terrific. Inspired by a William Hogarth engraving, “Bedlam” is set in London of 1762. Anna Lee plays an actress who wants to campaign for reform in London’s insane asylum. But the viciously evil apothecary general (Boris Karloff) has other ideas and gets the actress committed to the asylum.

Saturday’s double bill of Fritz Lang films opens with the sweaty 1952 melodrama “Clash by Night” based on the play by Clifford Odets. It’s not a great film, but if you love Robert Ryan as much as I do, you won't really care. Set among the fishermen and cannery laborers in Monterey, Calif., “Clash” finds Ryan all passion, violence and brutality as a projectionist at the local cinema who seduces a middle-aged woman (Barbara Stanwyck) and encourages her to run away from her burly fisherman hubby (the always underrated Paul Douglas) and their child. A young Marilyn Monroe plays the girlfriend of Stanwyck’s younger brother, played by Keith Andes.

The series ends Saturday evening with the 1953 corker,  “The Blue Gardenia,” starring another one of my fave noir actors, Richard Conte, who is sexy, dangerous and perfectly cast as a newspaper reporter named Casey Mayo covering the sensational murder trial of a young woman (Anne Baxter) accused of killing a womanizer (Raymond Burr, of all people). Nat “King” Cole had a big hit out of the title melody penned by Bob Russell and Lester Lee and arranged by Nelson Riddle. Director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich described the movie as “a particularly venomous picture of American life.” “Blue Gardenia” was also the first and best in Lang’s “newspaper noir” trilogy, which also included “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” both from 1956.

— Susan King

Photo: Elsa Lanchester, left, and Dorothy McGuire in "The Spiral Staircase." Credit: LACMA


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