Darkness Falls on the Desert


Spring is in the air. Flowers are blooming, snow is melting, and in the perpetually sunny arts haven of Palm Springs, film noir returns to cast its eerie shadow. 


By Sharon McDonnell


“The Cliff Notes version of film noir is that in the first five minutes the main character gets screwed, and it goes downhill from there.”


“Film noir takes life and stretches it to the breaking point—and beyond.”


Palm Springs—one of the sunniest spots in the country, a place where the sun shines 300 days a year—is at first blush an unlikely setting for a festival devoted to film noir: the darkest of all genres. But fans flock to the desert every May to watch black-and-whites from the ‘40s and ‘50s, films crawling with deceit, death, and intrigue, and hear their stars, writers, directors, and producers share insider stories and gossip.


Ernest Borgnine’s chilling memory of his father being threatened by the Black Hand during his childhood, an eerie foreshadowing of his 1960 film #Pay or Die!#, where his police lieutenant investigated extortions and beatings of merchants in New York’s Little Italy by the same mob in the early 1900s. Mickey Spillane bragging any book that can’t be written in two weeks deserves to be thrown in the trash. June Lockhart crawling around the stage as a humanoid vegetable, a reprise of her role in the “Vegetable Rebellion” episode of the TV show #Lost in Space#.


Treasures like these lure devotees from all over the U.S., and as far away as Australia, to the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, named after the late Palm Springs mystery writer and former City Councilman who founded the festival in 2000. Many return year after year, some dressed in period costume: men in fedoras, wide-lapel jackets, and short, broad ties; women with hats and 1940s hairstyles. On opening night, searchlights imbue a premiere-style glamour.


“The Cliff Notes version of film noir is that in the first five minutes the main character gets screwed, and it goes downhill from there,” says Alan K. Rode, the festival’s host and programmer, a film historian and writer, of the genre’s timeless appeal. “They know what they’re doing is wrong—whether the reason is lust, larceny, whatever—but they do it anyway. I think people can see part of themselves, and identify with the situations. Film noir takes life and stretches it to the breaking point—and beyond.”


While today’s films boast computer-generated special effects, wild explosions, and comic-book superheroes, “The writing was better in film noir, the characters were better-drawn. And people appreciate subtlety, suggestion, and wit,” he adds. “Though violence and sexuality were very much there, they had to get around the censors.”


But the Palm Springs festival isn’t like other film noir festivals. Here, the thrill is viewing rare films rather than famous classics, films rarely or never screened in theaters since their initial release in the 1940s or ‘50s, often 16 mm. Last year, one of the missing “Holy Grails” of film noir was shown: #New York Confidential#, a 1955 organized crime exposé starring Broderick Crawford as a mob boss, Anne Bancroft as his rebellious daughter, and Richard Conte as his hit man. It was likely just the second time it was screened in a theater since being released (it’s now on DVD). Film prints are acquired from studios, the UCLA Film and Television archives, and private collectors.


Last year’s movie stars included Ann Robinson, June Lockhart, and then 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine, whom Alan K. Rode described as “a great, down-to-earth guy. He watched the movie, did a Q & A on stage with me, went to the reception at 11 p.m., and stood on the food line. He said it was fun meeting the fans.”


The chance to meet Golden Age celebrities amid the singular charm of Palm Springs, a fabled hideaway for Hollywood legends just two hours east of Los Angeles, is a powerful lure for fans. The 2010 festival broke attendance records due to demand for tickets for #The Strange Love of Martha Ivers#, a 1946 film with a video introduction by Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck’s district attorney husband in a marriage glued together by guilt over a crime. In 2011, attendees will see films including #99 River Street, The Underworld Story, Plunder Road#, and #A Kill Before Dying#, whose star, Robert Wagner, will appear in a filmed interview with Alan K. Rode.


Rode took the helm in 2008 following the death of founder Arthur Lyons, who #The Desert Sun# called, “As colorful as a character in his noir books and films.” A community leader and author, Lyons penned 11 detective novels starring Jacob Asch as a Los Angeles gumshoe, from #The Dead Are Discreet# (1974) to #False Pretenses# (1994). His #Castles Burning# was made into the 1986 film #Slow Burn#, starring Eric Roberts. He also co-authored two novels with Los Angeles’ former coroner Thomas Noguchi and wrote four nonfiction books: one on film noir, one on Satanism, and another on psychic detectives, shades of the modern TV show #The Mentalist#, called #The Blue Sense#.


After Lyons died, his widow, Barbara, and the owners of the Camelot Theatres, where films are shown, asked Rode to continue the festival in the spirit Lyons intended. They promptly renamed it the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.


“It’s a tribute to Art’s eclectic taste,” says Rode, “and his love of the more obscure film noirs.”