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Mostly noir

And mostly masterpieces, at the Museum of Fine Arts, June 2-13.
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  May 26, 2010

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY And, to boot, your ex doesn’t even remember the engagement ring he gave you.

The definition of film noir has become elastic through the years. Of the five movies included in the MFA’s series “Rialto’s Best of British Film Noir” — a tribute to Rialto Pictures — only two, strictly speaking, are noirs: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene & Terence Rattigan’s adaptation of Greene’s novel, directed by John Boulting, and The Third Man, Greene’s most famous collaboration with the filmmaker Carol Reed. Both It Always Rains on Sunday, a portrait of hardscrabble lives in London’s East End following the Second World War, and Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s ghoulish horror picture about a serial killer who murders women on camera, have some qualities — particularly visual ones — that suggest at least a kinship with noir. The fifth, The Fallen Idol (also Reed and Greene, adapted from Greene’s story “The Basement Room”), isn’t even related to the genre: the only death in it is an accident, the only violence a rather savage slap across the face delivered by a shrewish housekeeper to a little boy.

Genre distinctions aside, however, this is a splendid collection of movies, with the exception of PEEPING TOM (June 4 @ 3:50 pm; June 6 @ 12:50 pm). Critics have made a great deal of Powell’s 1960 film, a rare solo effort after his long-term partnership with Emeric Pressburger, since the idea of a voyeuristic murderer whose camera doubles as his weapon (a knife is concealed in one of the tripod legs) suggests a comment on the nature of movie watching. And perhaps it is, but not a very pithy one. Peeping Tom, with its golden-haired, boyish-faced killer (Carl Boehm, whose line readings are shaded with an elegant German accent), is garish yet flat, like a Hammer horror film without the camp element. It’s more interesting for its influence on Brian De Palma — who parodied it in one of his early experiments, Murder à la Mod — than for itself.

All the other entries in the series were released between 1947 and 1949. IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (June 3 @ 5:30 pm; June 4 @ 6 pm) has a script by three pros (Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius, and the director, Robert Hamer) and a superb performance by Googie Withers as Rose, the one-time barmaid who married a widower a decade and a half her senior after the love of her life went to prison. On the Sunday in question, her ex-lover (John McCallum) escapes from Dartmoor and sneaks into her air-raid shelter in the hope that she’ll help him. The screenwriters layer on enough subplots to make the terse 92 minutes dense and varied. Rose has two stepdaughters, each of whom becomes involved briefly with one of a pair of brothers, a philandering musician who runs a record shop and a small-time hood who fixes fights. The brothers have their own family complications, and their scenes provide an unusual glimpse of Anglo-Jewish life in the East End of the late ’40s. Meanwhile, three thieves try to roust up some cash by selling stolen roller skates to a fence. But the focus of the film is on Rose, who has married a kind, affectionate man but, with her old boyfriend’s reappearance, is reminded of feelings she’s buried for years. Withers’s finest moment comes when she hands over the engagement ring Tommy had surprised her with the last time they saw each other, so he can pawn or sell it to bankroll his getaway. Tommy, however, doesn’t remember it. When he asks her where she got such an impressive bauble, she answers quietly, “I had it given.”

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Related: The rules of his game, Slideshow: The MFA's Luis Melendez exhibit, Modern times, More more >
  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Entertainment, Sonia Dresdel,  More more >
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