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Home / Articles / Opinion / Presently Tense /  Desert darkness
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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Desert darkness

A sundrenched celebration of the cinema of shadows

By D.A. Kolodenko

It’s 11:30 a.m., and I just watched an angry, gun-toting teenager celebrate his birthday by probing the Los Angeles night in search of the man who beat up his father.

Emerging from the darkness of the obscure 1951 film The Big Night, I find myself squinting under the relentless desert sun, wondering if it’s true, as the father in the movie tells his son, that “for some men there’s just one woman, and if she’s the wrong one, well, tough.”

But the heat bakes the question right out of me and I head to my favorite air conditioned Palm Springs coffee shop (Koffi on Palm Canyon Drive), inspired to write.

There are bigger annual film noir festivals in L.A. and San Francisco, cities where many of the most-loved noirs were shot, where Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain wrote, where you’d expect to find a noir fest. But the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, going strong in its 10th year, is my favorite.

Let me tell you why I return every year to the desert to watch old black and white movies about crime.

There are two common feelings of space in the mise en scene of film noir: Most familiar is claustrophobia. The noir theme of being cornered by fate is visually captured by tightly framed shots of desperate characters struggling for meaning and/or survival in impossibly entrapping interiors, like the hallways and compartments of a passenger train in The Narrow Margin (1952), or through skyless, nighttime urban streetscapes, as in The Big Night and almost every other iconic noir of the classic post-war period.  

The other is a feeling of existential isolation: A figure appears lost and alone, framed by an incomprehensibly bleak and expansive environment, such as Cary Grant’s ad man, mistaken for a spy and terrorized by a crop- dusting plane, with nowhere to hide in the flat nothingness of middle-of-nowhere, Illinois, in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

One of my all-time favorite films is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in part because it transitions between these two poles of noir mood so seamlessly, as Kirk Douglas’ cynical, transplanted big-city journalist, looking for a way out of the harsh New Mexico emptiness by any means, exploits a man trapped in a cave.

The cramped, stultifying darkness of the cave is the literal destruction of an average-Joe war veteran, whose small-time desire for pottery fragments leads him to unleash an Indian curse—while under the burning sky above, the wisened anti-hero’s insatiable greed for big-time fame and glory leads to his own moral destruction and humiliation.

Sound like fun? I love this stuff!

I find Palm Springs—an easy drive from San Diego—the ideal place to spend an entire weekend immersed in the dreamy, nocturnal shadows of decaying urban jungles. The constant return to the cleansing sun, with its own quandaries and concerns (i.e. Where’s the nearest swimming pool?), makes for a fulfilling experience of contrasts as stark as black and white.

The festival was the brainchild of crime novelist and noir fanatic Arthur Lyons, who ran it until his passing in 2008. Keeping the tradition, and his memory, alive is his wife Barbara Lyons, who shared his passion for these great old movies and for sharing them with others.  

She told me it wasn’t easy to decide what to do after losing Arthur, but with the support of the festival’s co-organizers—like host and programmer Alan K. Rode, producer Marvin Paige and noir experts Eddie Muller and Foster Hirsch—she decided to carry on, and judging by the full house at opening night, there are many of us who are grateful that she did.

The films are shown on the giant single screen at the fantastic Camelot Theater, which delivers an elegant, old-fashioned movie-going experience (a gold velvet curtain parts dramatically for each feature) with modern conveniences, including comfortable seats with drink holders on the armrests, which is important since you’re allowed to bring your drinks in from the upstairs bar (assuming you might want to join the characters onscreen for a drink or two).

Adding to the pleasure of seeing these appealingly timeless films in such a pleasant and convenient environment are the great conversations. Each year, the festival invites actors, directors and others involved in the creation of the films to come and talk about them after screenings.

It was a real treat, for example, to see and hear a very energetic 93-year-old Academy Award-winning actor, Ernest Borgnine, tell funny stories about his career and give some insight into the making of the period-noir in which he starred, Pay or Die (1960), based on the true story of an Italian American police lieutenant who battled the mafia in early-20th-century New York City.

My only disappointment is that more young people don’t come to the festival. Film is the ultimate art form, combining the talents of writers, actors, set designers, painters, cinematographers, director/visionaries, technicians, lighting experts, etc.

And film noir, almost always lower-budget B pictures whose directors and crews had to make the most of what little they had to work with, are gripping, scary, funny, thrilling, poetic, aesthetically engaging and meaningful works of art. Even the lesser noirs have something to offer—a beautiful montage, a bit of sharp dialogue, a great performance.

So what I’m saying is this: For a decade, you’ve really been missing out.  

But now that you’re in the know, I hope to see you here next year at the hottest little film festival under the sun.    

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