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“They Live By Night” and fellow noirs, “Zodiac”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Farley Granger in “They Live By Night,” RKO Radio Pictures, 1948]

To sing the song of noir — it’s not as easy as it once was, when critics like Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader were busy cataloging and specimen-boxing the genre as if it were a breed of black butterfly that had long lived on our streets and yet escaped our notice. In terms of utilizing the genre ourselves, nowadays we’re somewhere near post-retro-neo-meta-noir; the original tropes are no longer recyclable even as TV commercials, and the Jim Thompson-rediscovery school is garnering yawns on the straight-to-video indie shelf. “Sin City” — please. But the original noirs remain, despite formidable culture-rehash odds, the coolest and most resonant school of movie to have ever emerged in America — a half-century or more after the fact, the then-disregarded classics of the genre sit high on our trophy shelf while the huge hits of the ’45-’60 period — think “Forever Amber” (1947), “Jolson Sings Again” (1949), “The Robe” (1953), “White Christmas” (1954), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), etc. — are forgotten like the blundering, uninsightful trash they were. Further proof arrives almost monthly in the form of high-profile, reverent DVDs — noirs represent a huge, profitable percentage of today’s archive releases, while the expensive films listed above and dozens like them lay dormant in the vault.

The new Warner megabox — including no less than ten films on five discs, from RKO, MGM and Monogram in addition to Warner — is a bustin’ example, a veritable Belgian block of postwar alienation and all-American hardcore doom. The predominant world-beater in the mix is undoubtedly auteur-god Nicholas Ray’s disquieting debut “They Live by Night” (1948); it’s DVDization is an event. Not so well remembered today, Ray was once the “Cahiers du cinéma” crowd’s most sanctifiable discovery, Godard’s personal Star of Bethlehem (“Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”), and the auteur theory’s prototype: the irascible Hollywood pro who turned studio formula into quizzical masterpieces of pain, rue and struggle. “They Live by Night,” adapted from Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us,” is prototypical noir: a decent-hearted but despairing portrait of the American ideal gone sour, with central characters (luckless crook-on-the-lam Farley Granger, his hapless girl Cathy O’Donnell) driven toward one dead end after another by impulse and fate.

Moody, subtle and emotional vulnerable, it’s one of the greatest debuts in film history, and you’d think the film would overshadow the rest of the set. But there are key works of powerful mistrust here, especially Anthony Mann’s Manhattan-tale thumper “Side Street” (1950), also with Granger and O’Donnell; Don Siegel’s flirtatious hoot “The Big Steal” (1949); John Farrow’s remarkable, long-take-beautiful “Where Danger Lives” (1950), in which a concussion-plagued Robert Mitchum finds himself woozily on the run for the border with bipolar slut Faith Domergue; and Fred Zinnemann’s thorny “Act of Violence” (1948), in which a vengeful Robert Ryan is, astonishingly, upstaged by Van Heflin’s meltdown suburban dad (discovered to be a POW camp informant), and Mary Astor, just seven years after “The Maltese Falcon,” appears as noir’s most convincing barroom whore. Each and every movie comes with audio commentaries (noir scholars, James Ellroy, aging stars) and exegetical featurettes.

If noir has a future and not merely a vivid, unforgettable past, it might lie with frustrating, cold-eyed, inconclusive docudrama epics like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a rangy historical tapestry, shot in the thoughtful-yet-overwrought way that Fincher has made his own, about an unsolved serial killer case that remains, guess what, unsolved. So the film isn’t about the crime or the criminal so much as society as it is ill-equipped to confront, not a genius mastermind, but simply a homicidal nobody who refuses to play by social rules and also refuses to leave himself obviously vulnerable the way psychopaths ordinarily do in films and in reality. In other words, it’s a careful, astute portrait of postwar America attempting to control the uncontrollable, a mere single individual who will not behave according to established norms. An anxious sense of reverse vulnerability is palpable — giving me plenty of good cause to think of 9/11 as well, another not terribly brilliant criminal scenario that succeeded merely because we never guessed anyone would ever do such a thing. Fincher’s film focuses on four investigators (cops Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, journalist Robert Downey Jr., obsessed cartoonist Jake Gyllenhaal), all of whom get waylaid along the way by other social demands. And the killer skates. Tragic conclusion? Not really — the film makes no final statement, save perhaps this: we may smugly, nervously construct our civilization around control, safety and security. But there’ll always be ghosts in the machine.

“Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4” (Warner Home Video) and “Zodiac” (Paramount) are now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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