Dames. Doublecrosses. And darkness.

You already know the icons. Rain-slicked streets. Neon signs shining on ceiling fans at bizarre angles. The cynical, alcoholic private eye casing the femme fatale, a spiderwoman whose motives are as hidden as her dress is revealing. And of course, venetian blinds etching striped shadows across a snickering, sadistic villain holding a gun whose business end is as likely to point to his own henchman as at our hero.

They're all elements of film noir, a term now tossed around in far too many film reviews and egghead dissertations (note to the kiddies: Tarantino is not the genius you think he is). To remedy this situation, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is bringing the real deals back to the big screen; starting October 2, the "Universal Noir" series showcases that studio's finest efforts in the genre.

"Contemporary audiences may laugh at noirs because of their dialogue and dated delivery," admits Marian Luntz, the MFAH's film curator. "It's almost a guilty pleasure, that combination of glamour and seediness."

The term film noir (literally, "black film") was coined by French moviegoers, who responded enthusiastically to the hard-edged American crime dramas. Though meant mostly as B-movie entertainment, the films' cynicism, paranoia and dark view of human behavior struck a chord with post-WWII audiences; by comparison, Hollywood's melodramas and happy fluff seemed like relics of another era.

More modern noir interpretations have ranged from the excellent (Chinatown, The Last Seduction, L.A. Confidential) to the execrable (Palmetto, The Hot Spot). Tarantino and his fellow purveyors of "espresso violence" have brought at least the textbook techniques into the '90s with wink-wink homages, but their work is no match for the quality of these originals, which -- in an odd twist -- are now more familiar to mass audiences in the form of their oft-parodied characteristics.

It's the kind of irony a private eye would ponder. In the neon-lit rain. As the woman in the low-cut dress walks out of his life.

-- Bob Ruggiero

The "Universal Noir" series screens at the MFAH's Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet. The complete schedule for the series includes: October 2 -- Double Indemnity, recently named no. 38 in the American Film Institute list of the Top 100 films of all time (7:30 p.m.) and Phantom Lady (9:30 p.m.); October 3 -- Ministry of Fear (7:30 p.m.) and The Big Clock (9:15 p.m.); October 4 -- Touch of Evil (5 p.m.) and The Blue Dahlia (7 p.m.); October 18 -- This Gun for Hire (1 p.m.) and The Glass Key (2:30 p.m.); October 25 -- The Killers (1 p.m.) and Criss Cross (3 p.m.); November 1 -- Blast of Silence (1 p.m.) and the original Cape Fear (2:30 p.m.); and November 7 & 8 -- a documentary on one of the best modern noir writers, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction (7:30 p.m.). Tickets are $5 for one film or $6 for the double feature. Matinees (before 4 p.m.) are $4. Call 639-7515 or visit www.mfah.org/film/schedule.html for more details.


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