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Film noir can be hard to define, but a few elements are consistent throughout the genre. It’s dark—that’s one. It’s cynical—that’s another. And the central characters—like seedy screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard—are typically unsympathetic jerks. In the United States, that made for a lot of hardboiled crime fiction, surly detectives, and shadow-laden streets. But things played out a little differently in the U.K. Starting Oct. 30, the National Gallery of Art will screen several of these often forgotten and rarely seen films as part of its “Brit Noir” series. While German expatriates—driven out of Europe during WWII—helped imbue Hollywood’s films with expressionistic imagery, Britain relied more heavily on realism. Then again, director John Boulting didn’t need a fog machine to make Brighton Rock (1947), Graham Green’s tale of a sexually frustrated hoodlum, perfectly bleak. Some of these films—On the Night of the Fire (1940) and I Met a Murderer (1947)—capitalized on Blighty’s real-life working-class angst and post-war disillusionment. Others, like The Criminal (1960)—in which a thief is taken to prison, where he is tortured by a rival gang—were pulp, plain and simple. What Britain’s film noir lacked in dames and detectives it more than recouped in vendettas and violence.
The series runs Oct. 30–Nov. 29 at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium. For full listings, see nga.gov/programs/film/.