Most of my favorite offbeat musicals are commercially available on DVD, and I wrote about them for DVDBeaver in March. I can’t say the same about most of my favorite noirs, and I’m not sure why this is so.
Force of Evil (1948). If we consider how the Hollywood Blacklist cheated us out of great films and brilliant careers that might otherwise have existed, it’s hard to think of a worse casualty than writer-director Abraham Polonsky (1910-1999), whose first feature—-provoked by the script he wrote for another strong John Garfield film, Body and Soul, in 1947--is almost surely the greatest debut in the history of noir. “Might talkies be like the opera?” Polonsky once asked. “The main thing is the music but O the joy when the singers act and the songs are poetry....I assumed for Force of Evil that the three elements, visual image, actor, word, are equals....All I tried to do was use the succession of visual images, the appearance of human personality in the actors, and the rhythm of words in unison or counterpoint.” The results, played out in the anguished love between a crooked New York lawyer (Garfield) and his honest brother (Thomas Gomez), is a tragedy of uncommon force. And then Polonsky couldn’t direct another feature for 21 years.
SBA: Billy Wilder’s corrosive and unrelenting 1951 attack on cynical
Ace in the Hole, memorably pairing Kirk Douglas and Jan
Sterling in New Mexico. (It was such a box office flop that the
studio re-titled it
The Big Carnival, which didn’t help.)
Scarlet Street (1945). The most savage melodrama in Lang’s career--worthy of Erich von Stroheim in the intensity of its passion and treachery about a prostitute (Joan Bennett) and her pimp (Dan Duryea) bamboozling an aging cashier and painter Edward G. Robinson)--is actually a remake of La chienne (1931), the first sound film of Stroheim’s greatest disciple, Jean Renoir (see Jean Renoir Noir, below). But for all the power of the original, what Lang does with the story is so creepy and chilling that it may give you nightmares. And the recent re-mastering of archival materials of this classic on Kino Video, after years of blotchy public domain versions, is top-notch.
While the City Sleeps (1956)--the closest Lang ever came to
remaking his greatest film,
M -concentrates more on jaded big-city
journalists exploiting the moves of a serial rapist-killer and his
victims than on the criminal himself, offering a withering look at
Woman on the Beach (1947). Renoir’s Hollywood swan song is a haunted, perverse nightmare that practically begins with a surrealist dream. A shell-shocked Coast Guard veteran (Robert Ryan) becomes drawn towards a slutty femme fatale (Joan Bennett again) who blinded her painter husband during a drunken brawl and now feels chained to him; the blind husband (Charles Bickford), no sweetie-pie either, insists on befriending the vet. The abrupt, splintered narrative runs so contrary to the simple-minded humanism that many critics expect of Renoir that this film’s often passed over in embarrassed silence, or else written off as an erotic melodrama eviscerated by the censors and then largely re-shot after a bad preview. But Renoir scholar Janet Bergstrom suggestively argues that the imposed changes may have actually improved the film by reordering and condensing its obsessions into a kind of dreamlike abstraction. (If a film can be said to have an unconscious, this one certainly speaks its mind.)
SBA: Renoir’s second talkie,
La Nuit du carrefour (1932)—-my
all-time favorite French noir, and the sexiest movie he ever
made—-has never even been subtitled. But his edgy adaptation of
Maigret at the Crossroads, filmed in a foggy
suburb that vibrates with off-screen sounds and a mysterious Danish
heroine (Winna Winifried), cries out for discovery.
The Seventh Victim (1943). Producer Val Lewton has misleadingly been called a master of horror when in fact he mainly made cheap, noirish art movies that were marketed as horror items. The first three, justly celebrated (and sometimes genuinely scary), were directed by the great Jacques Tourneur—-Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) The Leopard Man (1943)—-but the greatest and most densely plotted of them, directed by Mark Robson, came right after these. Packing an inordinate number of vivid characters into 71 minutes—-including a lonely girl looking for her lost sister, a resurrection of the shrink from Cat People, a couple of lesbian characters, a detective, a lawyer, and a poet—-this doom-ridden tale about a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village has a moment that anticipates the shower murder in Psycho, and an overall feeling for desolate city streets at night that was virtually Lewton’s signature.
SBA: The still cheaper
The Argyle Secrets (1948) --by another
talented and subsequently blacklisted writer-director, Cy Endfield
(see Pessimistic Noir, below), who had to move to England in 1953 to
continue working. This grade-Z crime thriller is even shorter (at 63
minutes), more action-packed, and crammed with bizarre visual
flourishes, such as a dripping faucet to represent a dying man’s
The Narrow Margin (1952). The recently deceased Richard Fleischer (1916-2006) staged his best noir thriller--about a police detective (Charles McGraw) escorting a gangster’s moll (Mary Windsor) from Chicago to Los Angeles so she can testify against the mob—inside a few tight train compartments while various assassins try to find her and bump her off. The wisecracks in Earl Felton’s salty dialogue come fast and hard, and the plot is full of unexpected developments in these confined spaces.
SBA: Irving Lerner’s
Murder by Contract (1958), written by Ben Simcoe and an uncredited Ben Maddow--which might be subtitled “Zen
and the Art of Being a Hitman” as illustrated by Vince Edwards. Long
before Quentin Tarantino was a gleam in anyone’s eye, and around the
Ghost Dog’s Jim Jarmusch was pushing five, this work of
terse black humor set down many of the basics of these filmmakers’
separate geometries in outlining the criminal mind.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947). All that survives today is about half of Welles’s rough cut of his last Hollywood “A” picture, made for Columbia—-a baroque thriller in which he costars with his ex-wife Rita Hayworth, playing a leftwing Irish sailor who gets taken up by a crooked, crippled lawyer (Everett Sloane), his glamorous wife (Hayworth), and the lawyer’s eccentric partner (Glenn Anders doing a creepy impersonation of Nelson Rockefeller). What remains is fragmented and confusing at times, but it’s still my favorite of Welles’s noirs. (I’m not counting Citizen Kane.)
SBA: the first two release versions of
Touch of Evil (1958), my
second favorite. I was a consultant on the third version--a re-edit
by Walter Murch based on a memo written by Welles to Universal in
the 50s--and it was never the intention of Murch, me, or our
producer Rick Schmidlin to replace the film’s original release
version or the longer preview version that supplanted it in the 70s.
We were hoping that all three could be released in a DVD box set.
Universal, are you listening?
Angel Face (1952). Preminger was one of the great noir specialists when he was working at Fox, and the recently released Laura (1944), Whirlpool (1949), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) are three key examples. But my favorite Preminger pictures are the 1959 Anatomy of a Murder (not really a noir) and his RKO loan-out Angel Face, sleek and shocking, costarring Jean Simmons in the title role and Robert Mitchum. She’s a spoiled and murderous heiress with a father fixation (in some ways this is Preminger’s first draft of his 1958 Bonjour Tristesse) and he’s an ambulance driver who becomes the family chauffeur and her lover. Sexy and poetic.
The 13th Letter (1951). Another Preminger noir made at Fox, his
first film partially shot on locations (in Quebec). It’s a remake of
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s paranoid
Le corbeau, my second favorite
French noir, made during the German occupation (1943), about
anonymous poison-pen letters tearing apart a small town. Even after
removing the original period
context, Preminger makes it creepy on his own terms.
Anthony Mann’s The Black Book (1949). One of the great unacknowledged forms of noir is costume drama. I can’t think of a better example than this campy, hugely enjoyable thriller about the French Revolution—-also known as Reign of Terror, with Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, and Arlene Dahl--brilliantly shot by John Alton, the greatest noir cinematographer. I even prefer it to Mann’s more conventional noirs in contemporary settings, many of them also shot by Alton. Furthermore, the version of this gem currently available is priced so low that it’s an uncommon bargain.
SBA: James Whale’s
The Great Garrick (1937). On second thought, this
hilarious romp about French and English ham actors in the 18th
century may be a still better example, even if it doesn’t look quite
David Garrick (Briane Aherne) publicly insults the acting abilities
of the Comédie Française, so members of this acting company take
over a roadside inn, playing locals in order to fool him--but he’s
secretly aware of the scam. The results are as modernist and as
hilarious as Renoir’s
The Golden Coach.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). One of the most depressing Hollywood movies ever made, meticulously based on a true story, about a bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club (Henry Fonda) who gets wrongly fingered for a crime and then locked up, causing his wife (Vera Miles) to go mad. Uncharacteristically shot by Hitchcock on location, as if it were a documentary, this prompted the best piece of film criticism that Jean-Luc Godard ever wrote, and led Godard to call Hitchcock, in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, “The only one apart from [Carl] Dreyer who knew how to film miracles.”
SBA: Cy Endfield’s
The Sound of Fury (1950). Even
more pessimistic is Endfield’s best American movie--a brilliant assault on journalistic corruption mated
with everyday economic desperation that ends with the
most terrifying depiction of a lynching that exists on
film. Like Ace in the Hole (see above), which offered a comparable
critique of American journalism, the negativity is so intense that
this tanked at the box office and was subsequently re-titled, but the
second title (Try and Get Me) didn’t help.
Pickup on South Street (1953). This doesn’t really deserve to be cross-referenced with Anticommunist Noir, as if often is, because Fuller’s use of Communist heavies is strictly generic and fairly typical of the period. (Believe it or not, Fuller was a liberal around this time who supported Adlai Stevenson.) His real interest is in the street-smart Manhattan low-lifes like a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) and a police informer (Thelma Ritter in her best performance) and the kind of marginal existence they have. (Widmark’s Skip lives in an abandoned shack on the docks and uses the river as his refrigerator; Ritter’s Moe sells ties.)
SBA: Park Row (1952). Fuller’s favorite among his own pictures--another period noir, this one about the birth of New York tabloid journalism in the 1880s. Fuller, who grew up in the aftermath of this milieu and worked as a copy boy on Park Row, financed this movie himself and lost every penny, building a full-size replica of the street and casting his favorite lead, Gene Evans, as a cigar-chomping editor. This is corny and hyperbolic, bursting with energy in the best Fuller manner. My favorite line: “The day you learn how to read, you’re fired.”
Recommended Reading in Film Noir (CLICK COVERS or TITLES for more information)
by Foster Hirsch
by Nicholas Christopher
Shades of Noir: A Reader
by Joan Copjec
The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the
Classic Era of Film Noir
by Eddie Muller
The Little Black and White Book of Film Noir:
Quotations from Films of the 40's and 50's
by Peg Thompson, Saeko Usukawa
Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era,
by Michael F. Keaney
Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir
by Foster Hirsch