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The Canberra Times | In The City Magazine | SUMMER
mild-mannered insurance salesman going
door-to-door tells his wife he is working
late, makes a pit stop at the bar and buys
an unnamed blonde a drink. He doesn’t
know it yet, but he has made the fatal mistake
of the classic film noir protagonist for which,
over the ensuing 73 minutes, he will pay the
Predictability in all its glory, this is a formula
that works – so says the founder of the Big House
Film Society and die-hard film noir fanatic Roger
“The academics call it moral panic,” he says.
“One step from the straight and narrow leaves
the inevitably male protagonist spiraling down and
“That’s what’s really cool about noir – there’s
this real fatalism to it and it’s kind of transgressive.
Double Indemnity (1944) would be a pretty
unimpeachable example of that.”
The film society holds monthly screenings in the
theatrette at Canberra Museum And Gallery, Civic,
with a line-up garnered mostly for free from the
National Film and Sounds Archive non-theatrical
The society, which focuses on thrillers with a
strong slant toward the noir genre, was born of
“It goes back to 1970s Sydney, and a shared
household,” Roger says.
“Back then late-night movies were thriving.
Literally, two, three, four o’clock in the morning
and being a nocturnal student type.”
Lessons in moral ambiguity, venetian blinds,
femme fatales and victims of fate – Roger was
hooked. Hell, Bogart was his best friend growing
up. His social life was characterised by nights at
the Chauvel, watching noir or otherwise engaged
in discussions about noir against the backdrop of a
rich film culture.
So when he moved to Canberra in 1995, a
relatively fledgling city where the niche had not
yet found its place, he went through a sort of
“By then late night movies had been trashed into
non-stop infomercials,” he says.
“I view TV now as little more than a trailer for
the DVD purchase.”
At the time the Real McCoy film society – now
alive and well – was having regular screenings
at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA),
showcasing cinema in all its richness and variety.
There were noir segments, but not enough to sate
the noir buff.
With no more late-night flics to get his fix, Roger
found himself taking the train to Sydney just to
catch a double feature at the Chauvel.
His break came when he attended an adult
education course on film soundtrack at ANU run by
well-known Canberra film aficionado Andrew Pike.
“It was late at night, freezing cold in winter,
about 20 or so middle class people would turn up,
have some education about film soundtracks and
I thought ‘these are the sort of people who could
support a film noir group’.”
At the end of the course, Roger announced he was
starting a film society specialising in thrillers, and that
night picked up the first members of the Big House
Film Society. Midwifed by the veteran Real McCoy
society, they had their first screening at the NFSA.
In that first audience was Real McCoy member
James Sandry – the current president of both Real
McCoy and Big House Film Society.
He says obsession is a fair way to describe his
take on vintage film.
“ I can’t remember when it started,” he says.
“I remember watching old Ginger Rogers and
Fred Astair late at night growing up.
“I couldn’t tell you the first black-and-white
I ever saw, but I could tell you the first one that
made an impression on me. It was the 1980s
and I would’ve been a teenager and I think I was
wagging school and I went to the Electric Shadows
[Canberra cinema] to see Metropolis – a Fritz Lang
silent movie from the 1920s.”
Along with a team of dedicated committee
members, he sets the thoughtfully-selected
program for the year, incorporating a mix of
famous-but-rare or obscure noirs, contemporary
neo-noirs and good old-fashioned comedies, which
polish off every double feature on a high note.
Apart from the sex, scandal, murder and
mayhem, the chance to glimpse society at a
very specific time in the past, move through a
dreamspace, or even take a wild, vicarious ride
away from the moral compass is an indulgence
that few would turn down.
“If I were a noir character, I’d actually like to be
the corrupt attorney,” James says.
“In reality I’d probably be the sidekick who gets
killed off at the end of the second act.”
Nevermind, in the meantime, he will continue
putting criminals where they belong – on the silver
The Gumshoe detectives, femme fatales and double crossers of film noir are alive
and well at CMAG. BY DIONE VAN-HEER
Black & White
James Sandry at the Canberra Museum And Gallery theatrette.
Photo: Rohan Thomson
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