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Arts and Entertainment

Norton Simon To Screen Film Noir Titles From Four Legendary French Directors

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Think about film noir, and you may picture the darkened alleyways of downtown Los Angeles, or the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan. But what about Paris?

"Film noir," after all, was coined by the French. According to Tim Dirks, a film critic with the AMC Network, the term was conjured "by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how 'dark', downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theaters following the war." Visually, it tapped into the anxiety and paranoia that was brewing in the post-war era, and it served as a sharp contrast to the sunnier offerings from Frank Capra and the like.

While dark, film noir was also undeniably stylish. The men were always elegantly dressed, and spoke in gruff tones that resembled a kind of street-wise poetry. Femme fatales, a recurring trope, were always suggestive of something that boiled beneath the surface. Which is all to say that the genre was a hit in France. And, by the 1950s, French directors were trying their hand at emulating (and rethinking) the American film noirs that they'd admired in the '40s. This movement, however, was ushered into the background to make room for a more celebrated movement: the French New Wave.

Throughout November, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena will host a series called "French Films Noirs from the 1950s and 1960s," which touches on this cross-Atlantic influence. Every Friday (save for Thanksgiving weekend), the museum's theater will screen a noir title from some of France's most celebrated directors. The four filmmakers in question are Jacques Becker, Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, and Jules Dassin. While Dassin (who made The Naked City, a NYC classic) is a no-brainer on this list, some may be surprised to find Malle and Truffaut here. Malle may be better remembered for his interminable dinners with actor Wallace Shawn, and Truffaut is most cited for The 400 Blows (and the New Wave at large), but yes, the directors dipped into the murky waters of noir. Elevator to the Gallows, about a businessman who murders his boss (who, oh yeah, happens to be his mistress' husband), was Malle's first feature-length film. And Shoot the Piano Player, about a washed-up pianist who has to save his brothers from gangsters, was Truffaut's second movie (right after The 400 Blows). Is it any coincidence that these film noir entries showed up so early in the directors' careers? Does it suggest that the genre provides a platform on which young directors can hone their craft and technique? You can ponder these questions yourself starting this Friday.

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Here are the screening times:

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954)
Directed by Jacques Becker
Friday, November 4, 5:30-7:05 p.m.

Rififi (1955)
Directed by Jules Dassin
Friday, November 11, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Directed by Louis Malle
Friday, November 18, 5:30-7:00 p.m.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Directed by François Truffaut
Friday, December 2, 5:30-7:00 p.m.

And here are the trailers for the films:

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Admission to the Norton Simon Museum is $12 for adults, $9 for seniors 62 and above, and free for children under 18. The films (presented digitally) will be screened at the museum's theater. There will be English subtitles.

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