Tom Letness, owner of the Heights Theater, reflected on Lana Turner's performance in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the 1946 film-noir classic in which her character manipulates a drifter into taking part in a murder scheme.
Turner and other leading actresses of the genre didn't start out in film noir, Letness said, yet they became almost synonymous with these movies. "I got to thinking, 'What if a film noir series focused on the women?' " he said.
This month and next, the Columbia Heights theater will present one. "The Women of Film Noir" begins on Jan. 29 with "Double Indemnity," starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, followed by "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Fallen Angel," "Possessed" and "Mildred Pierce."
Lucinda Winter, executive director of Minnesota Film and TV, said the theme is a creative approach to the popular genre. It highlights some very interesting roles. In the old Hollywood crime dramas that characterize film noir, "women were femmes fatales and could be nasty and dangerous and evil," she said. "They used their wiles in service of their blackheartedness."
The movies in the Heights series represent some of the best examples of that character type.
In addition, seeing the old 35-millimeter film prints on a big screen "blows the doors off of watching it on a computer," Winter said. The Heights is equipped to screen digital movies, but the film prints have an aesthetic "that many people value," she said. In her view, "it's fun and important" to bring the format to audiences old and new.
The theater itself, she said, with its innovative programs and vintage look, is "a treasure for our area."
Joseph Hogeboom, the community development director for Columbia Heights, said he enjoys the theater's nostalgic character and unique offerings. In more ways than one, the landmark is "very important to the area's cultural identity," Hogeboom said.
Striking a balance
The upcoming series is co-sponsored by the Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis, which has partnered with the Heights in the past on a winter film noir series along with other special events later in the year.
"The Women of Film Noir" has several "super strong titles in it," said Letness. "Double Indemnity," about an insurance salesman who gets sucked into a murder plot, is always a crowd-pleaser, he said, and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is also well known. "Fallen Angel" and "Possessed," which similarly deal with romance gone awry, are more off the beaten path.
Letness hopes the more recognizable titles in the series attract enough viewers so that "even if the other two aren't super hot, it'll still make for a successful run."
That's a formula that Letness has used for many of the theater's series. He handpicks the offerings himself. It's a juggling act, trying to find a balance between popular titles and ones that are more obscure but worth seeing, he said.
Letness is always mulling, making lists. Sometimes he'll make a note about something and return to it several years later.
For example, next year is the 100th anniversary of Technicolor, and Letness is working on a series that highlights the color motion process.
"I am a huge fan of Technicolor. It's one of the greatest film processes ever done," he said.
Although Letness' main concern is the theater's bottom line, once or twice a year he'll go with a movie that he's particularly fond of, even if it doesn't have obvious box office appeal. In those cases he admits, "I'm doing it for me. If I don't book it, I'll never see it because I know that no one else will do it."
35mm vs. digital
Each of the "Women of Film Noir" movies is a 35-millimeter print. These days it's "becoming harder and harder to get film prints," which aren't being produced anymore, Letness said.
Although the Heights added a digital cinema package (DCP) in 2012, its 35mm to 70mm legacy film projectors remain intact.
The fact that the theater is able to show that format is part of its draw. "I can't compete with a multiplex," Letness said. "It's more of, 'What do I have that they don't have?' "
For some color films, the digital format is an improvement, but for black-and-white films, it's not, he said.
To learn more about the "Women of Film Noir" film series at the Heights Theater, check out http://www.heightstheater.com or call the box office at 763-789-4992 (between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. daily).
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.