Sydney Film Festival 2013 kicked off its 60th anniversary yesterday evening with the premiere of Mystery Road, a hard hitting Australian feature by indigenous writer/director Ivan Sen.
The festival closes with the American documentary Standing in the Shadows about the backing singers who supported major artists from the 1960s to the present.
For the 12 days in between, the festival offers a smorgasbord of features, shorts, classic films and special genres, with the British contribution appearing across the board.
There are three British productions and co-productions in Official Competition: The Act of Killing, Monsoon Shootout and For Those in Peril; the Special features category includes Everyday, Ginger and Rosa, and The East; and documentaries include The Moo Man, The Summit, Pussy Riot and Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45.
Beyond all these is a special showcase of 13 Brit noir films, subtitled Rainy Sundays, Stormy Mondays. It is an intelligent selection that provides a chronology from the genre’s heyday in the 1940s to its later development in the 1960s and creates a debate about not only the genre’s unique contribution to creative British cinema but also the dark social context that gave rise to it.
The broad genre of film noir, according to Filmnoir.net, concerns melodramatic stories from ‘the 1940s and 1950s that explore the darker aspects of modernity, and usually set in a criminal milieu or exploring the consequences of a criminal act’. The world of Hollywood noir features ‘deadly dames, drunken losers, dangerous hoods, crooked cops, dreamers of broken dreams, and flawed heroes.’
Brit Noir, informed by the grittier, shabbier and poverty-laden environment of post war Britain, typically has no glamorous femme fatale to mitigate the dark pessimism of its working class characters in a country traumatised after World War 2. Its cinematography is, like Hollywood noir, influenced by German Expressionism with its dramatic light and shadows and canted angles, but film scholar Andrew Spicer argues that Brit noir owes a greater debt to French poetic realism than the American take on expressionism.
In Hollywood, noir drew on crime writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In Britain, Graham Greene’s fascination with themes of betrayal and disillusion became a perfect fit for the Brit noir genre. Greene wrote the screenplay for Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), the most famous example of the genre. The Sydney Festival selection omits this title from the slate but it heads off with Brighton Rock (1947), starring Richard Attenborough as the petty gangster Pinkie against the backdrop of a fun fair ghost train. Brighton Rock was directed and produced by the Boulting brothers, John and Roy, and was written and scripted by Greene.
It Always Rains on Sunday is set in London’s Bethnal Green in the 1947 post war gloom and tells the story of Tommy, a criminal on the run and the ill-fated woman who tries to shelter him. Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed in 1947, stars James Mason in one of the grimly intense roles that makes the actor particularly suited for the noir genre.
The later dated films on the programme include Never Let Go (1960) by John Gullermin and starring Peter Sellers and Richard Todd, Hell is a City (1960), a cop melodrama starring Stanley Baker, and Robbery (1967), a pitiless, unsentimental treatment of the Great Train Robbery directed by Peter Yates.
Joseph Losey, the American director who fled McCarthyism to become a storyteller of the darker side of British character, is represented with Time Without Pity (1957), an existential melodrama starring Michael Redgrave as an alcoholic writer.
As mentioned, Ken Loach premiers a new documentary at the Festival. The Spirit of ’45 explores what the British public hoped for after winning the war and the crushing disillusionment that followed. The documentary becomes an essay informing the cultural conditions that spawned the Brit noir classics.
If one of the tasks of film is to help its audience process cultural stories then Brit noir surely did its job by presenting a traumatic period in the country’s history, a period that caused so many emotional and physical casualties. The genre’s unflinching treatment of these grim human stories filled a gap that the post war system couldn’t: exploring the truth of the costs of war, deprivation and poverty on human nature.
Sydney Film festival runs from 5-16 June 2013. The Brit noir showcase screens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales throughout the festival.