You can't quibble with the Carolina Theatre's choices for a mini-fest of crime films. The four titles that will screen in repertory are all fine in their own right, but it's a bit misleading for them to be grouped together in a Crime Noir Film Series. What we call film noir has its roots in two related film aesthetics from the 1930s: German Expressionism—particularly films by Fritz Lang—and the hard-boiled crime potboilers that Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros., churned out beginning in the same decade.
But the Carolina's series doesn't have representatives of those films; there's no M or Maltese Falcon on the docket. Instead, it's something of a grab bag of second-wave European art films—but a very good assortment, nonetheless. Diva, from 1981 and the most recent of the films, is a slick, fast-paced number about a humble messenger dealing with a pair of illicit tapes that concern an opera singer and a murder; its mise-en-scéne is all about showy spaces and dazzling images. But its plot is based in the concepts of paranoia, class envy and being unaware of the danger you're in, some of the classic staples of noir. And there's that chase scene in the Paris Metro.
The earliest and most celebrated film in the series, Carol Reed's The Third Man, made in 1949, skirts the edges of noir; its night-and-the-city shadows presage one of the most famous character introductions in film history. Graham Greene's classic tale of an overmatched writer discovering the terrible truth about an old friend is as tense and morally ambiguous as any of his works. Reed's ominous vision of post-World War II Vienna also includes unforgettably Lang-like high-key lighting, a memorably lilting zither score and a flamboyant performance by Orson Welles. Like Diva, The Third Man has a celebrated chase scene. It also has one of the greatest one-shot kiss-off finales ever. (Check out Roger Ebert's Twitter page; he uses a still from this scene as his wallpaper.)
Two more French films round out the program. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 Diabolique is more in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock than noir (and rumors persist that Clouzot beat out Hitchcock for the rights to the novel the film was based on). It's a classic of suspense all the same, one that is durable enough to survive the 1996 remake with Sharon Stone. And Louis Malle's directorial debut, 1957's Elevator to the Gallows, is perhaps the only title in this festival that fits the structure of a traditional (botched, doomed-to-fail) crime story. But much of the film's appeal comes less from the storytelling than from the long, languorous shots of a bereft Jeanne Moreau wandering the nighttime streets of Paris, accompanied by an original jazz score by Miles Davis.
The classic noir films, with their indelible characters, gut-wrenching fatalism and brutal dialogue—think Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Out of the Past—were made before anyone thought to slap a fancy French label on the genre; they were B-list pictures that achieved A-list artistry. The films playing at the Carolina are all fine examples of how European filmmakers raised the sordid crime thriller into modern art, even if they're not really, strictly speaking, noir.