Browse Category

Film Noir

“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!

Keep Reading

It’s Twilight Time: The Kremlin Letter and Violent Saturday debut on DVD in limited editions

The debut release from Twilight Time

The DVD debut of John Huston’s sprawling, globetrotting 1970 espionage thriller The Kremlin Letter is also the debut release of Twilight Time, a new boutique DVD label (that’s actual pressed DVDs, not DVD-R or MOD) featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library. The creation of Warner Bros. veteran Brian Jamieson and filmmaker/music restoration specialist Nick Redman, the label is initially slated to release one disc a month (and later perhaps more), all from the 20th Century Fox catalogue, all from Fox digital masters, all in limited edition runs of 3,000 units.

“All our releases will be properly manufactured DVD’s and Blu-Rays – we were not interested in the DVD-R’s, as we feel they do an injustice to the titles in the long run,” explains Brian Jamieson. “While I’m sure collectors will find they fill a void in their collections, but we wanted to deliver a quality product, something that meets our own expectations and something we could be proud of. We love the old Fox film classics, especially from the 50’s.”

John Huston has been accused of cynicism in his films but The Kremlin Letter, a complicated plot of Cold War spy games is the most cold-blooded portrait of an mercenary world he’s ever presented. Charisma-challenged Patrick O’Neal is the ostensible leading man here, playing a career Navy officer coerced into joining a covert private team and go behind the Iron Curtain to retrieve a diplomatically dangerous letter, but in the scheme of things he’s just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece. Richard Boone is the standout as a hearty bear of an intelligence veteran who mentors O’Neal in the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence, and George Sanders (first seen in drag playing piano in a gay lounge), Nigel Green (a pimp in Mexico), Dean Jagger (hiding out a country vicar) and Max Von Sydow (as a deadly Soviet assassin who, haunted by his past, may be the most human figure in the bunch) fill out the deadly rogues gallery.

The colorful figures and their elaborate schemes (involving extortion, seduction, prostitution and the drug trade) is like Mission: Impossible in the unforgiving culture of international espionage of John Le Carre’s double agents and plots-within-plots. This is not a world where trust gets you anywhere and even the so-called good guys resort to subterfuge and manipulation in dealing with their own people. The personal endgames drive the international agenda and the players are expendable pieces in the elaborate international chess match.

Keep Reading

“Rope of Sand” – Burt Lancaster in North Africa

Rope of Sand (Olive)

Set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of Casablanca, Rope of Sand (1949) recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains). She’s a beauty, to be sure, and plays the part as a sex kitten with claws, but she’s not convincingly worldly next to the display of hard-bitten survival from the rest of the veteran cast.

The echoes to Casablanca (which was also produced by Hal Wallis) are unmistakable, and not just from the North African setting, expatriate characters and battle of wills. Rains plays Martingale as a cousin to Casablanca’s Louis in the corporate world, with a little more venom but just as susceptible to dramatic romantic gestures, and fellow Casablanca vets Paul Henreid (this time as a villain) and Peter Lorre (all drunken melancholy as a well-informed underworld hustler) fill out the top-billed cast. Even more fun than the battle of wills between the embittered Mike and Henreid’s vain, vicious Commandant Vogel (not a Nazi but certainly symbolically channeling the role) is the gleeful gamesmanship of Martingale, who hires Suzanne to play the two off one another for his own amusement (he delights in humiliating Vogel) as much as for business.

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world with intimate indoor scenes in pools of illumination and outdoor scene played in the shadows as lights cut the darkness, in particular a muscular fist-fight in the desert lit by the headlamps of a halftrack. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir and a terrific rediscovery debuting on DVD in a fine B&W edition. No supplements from this bare bones Olive Films release.

The Strange Case of Brit-Noir and British B movies on VCI

VCI, a DVD label that rose out of PD films and second-tier films of the past, has been turning yeoman’s work of releasing obscure movies on DVD into a remarkable job at unearthing and presenting the real B-movie, programmers and forgotten low-budget film of the forties, fifties and sixties, with an emphasis on crime, mystery and noir. Some of the most interesting finds have come from their relationship with Renown Pictures, many of them branded “”Best of!” British Classics” (I don’t understand the curious quotes an punctuation either), others bundled under vaguely titled double features and triple features of “British Film Noir” or “Crime Thrillers.”

Which, mind you, is not to say that the films themselves are all (or most or even often) remarkable. Many of the films branded “British Film Noir” are only vaguely related to the American genre while some of the films in other collections are more in tune with the style and/or sensibility of American film noir. Many are forgotten for a good reason. And the technical quality of these releases varies wildly, from good prints and decent masters to substandard prints and indifferent, noisy digital masters.

But these releases are a window into a particular strain of filmmaking almost forgotten in the lazy and usually incorrect branding of “B-movie” on low budget films from Hollywood and elsewhere. And periodically, they unearth a minor classic, a forgotten gem or a fascinating artifact excavated from the archives.

Here are a few of the more interesting releases of late, beginning with Candlelight in Algeria (1944), the latest release of a “VCI “Best of!” British Classics” branded programmer.

Before James Mason found international success and caught the eye of American filmmakers in films like The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out, he was a very busy actor in the British film industry, working his way up from supporting roles to leading men. This snappy 1944 espionage thriller, made on a budget comparable to an ambitious American B movie, finds romantic adventure in wartime intrigue in Algiers as Mason flees the Nazis with vital information for the Allies, or so he tells the American girl (Carla Lehman) who becomes his ally. As she becomes entwined with a smitten French Vichy officer and a cagey Nazi spy hunter (Walter Rilla), Mason slips in and out of her life in various undercover identities (and a mustache that our heroine rightly ridicules) to get secret plans to the Allies necessary for the planning of the invasion of North Africa.

Keep Reading

Sweet Smell of Success – DVD/Blu-ray of the Week (Part 2)

Sweet Smell of Success (Criterion)

“I love this dirty town.” The first and only time that Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker drops the cynical twist from his clenched smile and allows genuine appreciation cross his face in Sweet Smell of Success is when he drops that line while strolling down the nighttime streets of Broadway. It’s not a proclamation or even necessarily a compliment. He loves this town because he rules it from his tower of newsprint and television, making and breaking careers with a line and starving enemies into submission by conspicuous neglect.

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick (a master of deftly-played character comedy with an edge of social satire for Britain’s Ealing Studios), written by rising screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (drawing from a career as a New York press agent) and rewritten by the acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets (who is credited with tightening the action and giving the dialogue its edge), Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most lacerating and vicious visions of the predatory urban world in the American cinema, and one accomplished without a single murder, gunshot or pulled knife. This is Broadway Noir, the dark side of the intersection of show business, politics and social register in the era when newspaper columnists and television personalities held sway over a nation and not just a slice of the demographic.

New York is the world for J.J. Hunsecker and he rules this with an iron fist and a vindictive ferocity, hovering over the film long before Lancaster even appears on screen. Hunsecker is a classier, more cultivated version of Walter Winchell for late-fifties Broadway culture and Lancaster is smooth, silky and subtle, controlled and controlling in social situations, using silence and the threat of his voice behind the words as weapons in the power struggle of conversations. There’s not an exchange where J.J. fails to remind his listener what he has on them, and what they owe him.

Keep Reading

Son of Noir

[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]

It’s a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.

Film noir—the phrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.

More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it’s about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they’ve learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.

Keep Reading

Touch of Evil

This program note was written in connection with the November 16, 1971 showing of Touch of Evil in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Autumn Quarter Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” Since that was a long time ago and the only version of the movie available at the time was the 93-minute Universal cut, I’ve let the piece stand. Touch of Evil was the seventh installment in the series, and the note was written to be read by people who’d been watching Welles pictures and reading comparable notes on them for the previous six weeks. –RTJ

Van Stratten: “Where’s Sophie?”
Trebitsch: “Where is anybody?”
—Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin

After his unhappy experiences with Macbeth in 1947–48, Welles spent the next eight years in Europe, managing to complete two features of his own, act both leading and supporting roles for other directors, and begin work on the still-uncompleted Don Quixote. In 1956 he returned to the States and, among other things, was sought by trash specialist Albert Zugsmith for a role in a police melodrama he was producing. Charlton Heston, set to star in the picture, heard about Welles’s involvement and strongly hinted to Zugsmith that Welles ought to be given directorial control as well. (Some accounts have it that Heston demanded Welles for the director, or else; others, that Heston was leery of appearing in what seemed a B-movie property but changed his tune when Welles entered the picture, saying, “I’d act in anything directed by Orson Welles!”) As it turned out, Welles got to rewrite the film entirely and direct it as well. He took his time cutting the picture and at the last left final cutting to the studio. Although Welles has muttered subsequently about how yet another of his films was ruined, he also claims never to have watched the final version. Russell Metty, cameraman on The Stranger, “confirms that Welles’s concept was followed to the letter,” according to Charles Higham. Higham further quotes Charlton Heston on the subject of some additional shooting supervised by Universal contract director Harry Keller: “The scenes Keller made were shot in less than half a day. Contrary to rumor, the footage does not replace any mysterious material shot by Orson, but is merely structural cement to clarify what the studio felt to be unnecessarily ambiguous sequences in Orson’s version of the film, explaining time and place and whatnot” (e.g., Mike and Susan’s discussion about her going to the motel). The studio evidently felt uneasy about the whole project. Touch of Evil (which Welles repudiates as a silly title) was leaked out rather than released; there was no press drumbeating, no preview screening, no anything. The film nosedived in this country but dazzled festival audiences internationally and won some prizes.

Keep Reading

“The Man I Love,” “Road House” and Ida Lupino: The Noir Heroine

If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen B of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.

It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

Keep Reading

The Lady From Shanghai

[This is a slightly edited version of a program note written for an Autumn 1971 University of Washington Office of Lectures and Concerts Film Series, “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It is submitted for your consideration because The Lady from Shanghai is a cardinal film noir and the stylistic points made about Welles’s direction are relevant as noir commentary. However, the term film noir is never used; I’m sure it never occurred to the author at the time. Only a few months later, Paul Schrader’s seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir” would be published in Film Comment magazine. Then a lot of things started to change. –RTJ]

ORSON WELLES in interview: I believe you know the story of Lady from Shanghai. I was working on that spectacular theater idea Around the World in 80 Days, which was originally to be produced by Mike Todd. But, overnight, he went bankrupt and I found myself in Boston on the day of the premiere, unable to take my costumes from the station because 50,000 dollars was due. Without that money we couldn’t open. At that time I was already separated from Rita; we were no longer even speaking. I did not intend to do a film with her. From Boston I got in touch with Harry Cohn, then director of Columbia, who was in Hollywood, and I said to him, “I have an extraordinary story for you if you send me 50,000 dollars, by telegram in one hour, on account, and I will sign a contract to make it.” Cohn asked, “What story?” I was telephoning from the theater box office; beside it was a pocket books display and I gave him the title of one of them: Lady from Shanghai. I said to him, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later we received the money. Later I read the book and it was horrible so I set myself, top speed, to write a story. I arrived in Hollywood to make the film with a very small budget and in six weeks of shooting. But I wanted more money for my theater. Cohn asked me why I didn’t use Rita. She said she would be very pleased. I gave her to understand that the character was not a sympathetic one, and this might hurt her image as a star in the public eye. Rita was set on making this film, and instead of costing 350,000 dollars, it became a two million dollar film. Rita was very cooperative. The one who was horrified on seeing the film was Cohn.

After the not inconsiderable scandal attendant upon the filming and release of Citizen Kane, and after the preview problems and subsequent mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles suffered the further ignominy of having a film cancelled in progress: It’s All True, the grandiose documentary on Latin America…. For four years Welles, who had enjoyed guaranteed (and well-publicized) independence while working on Kane, could not get a movie job except as a performer in others’ films. In 1946 he was approached by Sam Spiegel to take a leading role in The Stranger; he asked to direct as well, and Spiegel, not wishing to risk losing his on-screen services, agreed—with the stipulation that Welles follow the script and stay within budget and schedule. Welles agreed in turn; the film was finished well within the limits specified and returned a tidy profit. This helped his reputation in the film capital but dismayed many acolytes of cinemah: here he was, lavishing his gifts on a mere suspense melodrama. Clearly an irreversible decline had set in….

Keep Reading

Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

Keep Reading

Gun Crazy

[Originally published in the National Society of Film Critics anthology The B List]

John Dall and Peggy Cummins

If you had to select a single film to justify the present enthusiasm for film noir and define its allure, few movies could compete with Gun Crazy. The same goes for celebrating the potential of B-movies to achieve grade-A flair, excitement, and artistic intelligence. The picture taps brazenly into a sexual, almost feral energy that makes it unique, even in a school of film known for perverse psychology and smoldering subtexts. And it achieves its ends on an observably limited budget, via two strategies that ought to clash but instead invigorate each other: the bold stylization of expressionistic, verging-on-minimalist settings, and the camera’s embrace of the real world in adventurous, sustained takes that approach documentary realism … except that the keynote of documentaries is rarely frenzy.

The premise is elemental. Bart Tare, an orphaned boy in a small American town, has an obsession with guns—owning them, touching them, and especially shooting them with proficiency, which makes him “feel awful good inside, like I’m somebody.” Following several years in reform school and four more in the Army, Bart the man (John Dall) comes home an earnestly pleasant young fellow, albeit with his obsession intact. When he crosses paths with Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival trick-shooter who happens to be, in the words of her spieler boss, “soooo appealing, soooo dangerous, soooo lovely to look at,” no power on earth could keep them out of each other’s arms. What Bart doesn’t know till much later is that Laurie once killed a man (Gun Crazy initially was released under the title Deadly Is the Female), and before long she has persuaded him to join her in a cross-country crime spree that also plays like an extended honeymoon.

Keep Reading

Detour: Closing Down the Open Road

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Detour is a masterpiece of wry perversity, a film virtually constructed on irony and paradox: an incredibly claustrophobic film about hitchhiking on the “open road”; the bleakest of films noirs, with the bulk of the action taking place during the day and away from the city. But perhaps the supreme ironies relate to the film itself. Despite acting that ranges from incompetent to bizarre, a storyline bordering on the absurd—alternately trashy and fanciful—and a minimum of sets or characters, Detour somehow speaks directly and compellingly to the dark side of several pervasive American myths, forcefully expresses a coherent vision of the way the world operates.

But if Detour can reward the receptive filmgoer, it does, by its very nature, demand a little more than the ordinary film. After all, there is no denying that a film shot in a very short time (rumored to have been four days, more likely five or six), on a budget of—it almost seems—something in the neighborhood of 45 cents, may lack some of the slickness and polish we ordinarily expect. But if we focus on what the film offers rather than what it lacks, we can begin to appreciate what is, on reflection, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.

Keep Reading

99 River Street: Bare Knuckle Noir

99 River Street (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

Phil Karlson is, to my mind, the toughest of the film noir directors. Films like Kansas City Confidential (1952) and Phenix City Story (1955) gives us heroes who get knocked around by life and come up for more. 99 River Street (1953), arguably Karlson’s greatest film and certainly his most beautifully brutal, is a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag.

The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. While Scorsese never acknowledged it specifically as an influence on his Raging Bull boxing scenes, the inspiration is obvious. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blows and come up with a new plan, driving a cab while saving for a new, more modest dream. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.

Along with the working class milieu and the blue collar loyalty of his dispatcher buddy Stan (Frank Faylen in upbeat form) and still-idealistic young actress Linda (Evelyn Keyes), a buddy from his coffee-shop breaks, Karlson gives this brawny noir a shot of theatrical flair that joins it, if only momentarily, with a rarified sub-genre of noir where the exaggerated melodrama of theater and actors gets tangled in the “real world” of troubled characters, personal betrayal and criminal threats. Linda, so wrapped in her own dreams, twists the knife in wounds she has no idea even exist when she pulls Ernie into her world of make-believe, but redeems herself by using her talents (and putting herself on the line) with a performance in the theater of life.

Keep Reading

Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

German expressionism flowers in American cinema

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

Keep Reading

When noir was noir

[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, July 21, 1999; written in anticipation of a noir package on Turner Classic Movies]

The great French director Jean Renoir, obliged to become a great American director by the German occupation of his country, records in his memoirs a moment around the end of World War II when his two nationalities drolly intersected. It seems that a film festival was showcasing The Southerner, his pantheistic 1945 movie about a Texas sharecropper, when a French correspondent phoned in the news to his paper. But hélas, between the reporter’s pronunciation and, perhaps, the susceptibilities of the guy on the copy desk, “The Southerner, un film de Jean Renoir” became “Le Souteneur [The Pimp], un film de genre noir.” Something was definitely lost in translation.

Still, the confusion tells us a lot about that moment in film history and about how pervasive had become the phenomenon everybody and his brother now glibly calls film noir—”black film,” “dark film,” but by any name, fragrantly exotic film about an irredeemably fallen world. Back then, no one this side of the Atlantic used, or knew, the term—not the Hollywoodians who were making film noir nor the reviewers, who with few exceptions scorned the movies in question as cheap, vulgar, unpleasant, and otherwise regrettable. The films couldn’t even claim to belong to a proper genre: Some were private-eye pictures (The Big Sleep), some were period romances (Gaslight, So Evil My Love), some semidocumentary crime-fighting movies (T-Men, Street with No Name), some mysteries (Laura), some “women’s pictures” (Mildred Pierce). But the French could see, as six years’ worth of embargoed American cinema washed across their screens following the liberation, that the mood and politics and look and tone of Hollywood’s output had changed radically: it was darkened, bleaker, and yet more dynamic. As Paul Schrader would exult a quarter-century later, “American movies [were] in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk.”

Keep Reading