Shadowy Stumptown

Two film noir series put a dark stamp on Portland moviegoing.

Femmes fatales. Emotionally calloused tough guys. Dark, rain-drenched alleyways where shady politicians and criminals meet as equals. Seedy bars where stiff drinks alter honest men's judgment, initiating ill-advised spirals into amoral behavior. And oh, those hats. 

The elements of classic noir seem perfectly at home in a city like Portland. But when most of us think of the enduringly hard-boiled genre, our minds immediately go to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a film style that appears more often in Portland theaters.

"Portland is a Noirville," says Brian Young, co-founder of NW Noir, a film series designed to screen classic and rare noir films in their natural environment: a dive bar. "We're a total movie town. Film noir's also very theatrical in its stylized acting, and Portland's a theater town. And Portland has a history of corruption. In the '40s and '50s, Portland was a very corrupt city, and a lot of these movies deal with corruption in law enforcement. Plus, Portland has a real love and affinity for dive-bar culture, where a lot of these movies take place."

This month, Portlanders get two hearty doses of shifty gumshoes, shiftier dames and craggy crooks via two very different noir events sharing their desire to bring films steeped in darkness into the light.

The higher-profile of the two, Noir City, brings the genre's international notoriety to the Hollywood Theatre on Sept. 18-20. Hosted by author, historian and Film Noir Foundation mastermind Eddie Muller, the touring event makes its third appearance in Portland, featuring newly restored classics like Gun Crazy, Woman on the Run and The Guilty on 35 mm.

On the other side of the spectrum is NW Noir, which Young founded with fellow cinephiles Ben Plont and Mark Snow to showcase lesser-known genre films of the era, choosing to take over Cully's Spare Room—a windowless dive that looks like a place where a corrupt police captain might solicit a hit man—for double and triple features. On Sept. 13, a week before Noir City, NW Noir returns with a triple feature of forgotten Raymond Burr classics, all of which feature the future TV Perry Mason as the heavy, including the child-trafficking shocker Abandoned.

The events couldn't sound more different, but they're also indicative of a larger trend among filmgoers both casual and obsessive.

"The era that these films were made is the height of American style. Everything in the era is worth remembering—the music is great, the clothes are great, the architecture is great, the cars are great, the patter and dialogue," says Muller, a San Francisco writer steeped in the genre. "One thing that amazes me is that when these films were originally made, they were seen as ominous and threatening. They were saying things about America that were tough. Now, these are comfort food in a way. It's funny to see people return to these films and find them reassuring. It was back when we had some degree of innocence about us."

To this day, filmmakers embrace noir elements. The shadowy settings and rapid-fire dialogue have permeated American culture like darkness has evaded the genre's characters' psyches.

The effect is that even films as diverse as Looper or Blade Runner (which screens at the Clinton Street Theater on Nov. 27-29, and never seems to leave Portland theaters for long) avoid becoming dated when classic noir elements are sprinkled in. Oddball films like The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice transcend stoner audiences and become something else altogether when Raymond Chandler's influence is worn on the sleeve of their trench coats. Adding an element of the old makes films seem perpetually new.

"An artist like a Tarantino or a Rian Johnson or a Chris Nolan is clearly influenced by these films," says Muller. "Whenever I meet a contemporary, they all have a sense of noir. I would say without question that it's the most influential genre or style. It has a greater influence over filmmakers than any other type of film, from William Friedkin to the Coen Brothers to David Lynch. It's what they cut their teeth on. I don't know that there's any question about that."

And while Portland itself seldom shows up in noir proper—the closest the city has come to being featured in a pure noir would be the forgotten 1957 potboiler Portland Exposé—the city can't seem to get enough, with noir dominating repertory theaters and art houses virtually every week.

Maybe it's Portland's retro style. Maybe it's the rain, or that we just happen to live in a city that knows great movies. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because Portland's a town that really appreciates a little stylized luridness.

“There’s sort of a naughtiness to these movies,” says Young. “Film noir is naughty. There’s always these femme fatale women and normally honest people making criminal choices. Portland really embraces naughtiness. That naughty culture is mirrored in these movies.” 

NW Noir is screening its Raymond Burr triple threat at the Spare Room, 4830 NE 42nd Ave., on Sunday, Sept. 13. $3. Noir City is at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 493-1128, on Friday-Sunday, Sept. 18-20. $8 per film.

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