The Prowler (1951) (VCI) has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long.
All but absent from TV screenings since the early days of cable TV, never released on VHS and previously unavailable on DVD, The Prowler has been almost impossible to see, something of an orphan thanks to being independently produced outside the studio system by Sam Spiegel (using the credit S.P. Eagle) for his own company, Horizon Pictures. Prints were wearing out, original elements lost or destroyed and no studio was there to step in and preserve the film until the Film Noir foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore the film from the best materials they could find anywhere. The result is manna from noir heaven: a nearly stellar edition of film that, until a couple of years ago, was relegated to rare TV prints and even rarer repertory revivals of a sole, increasingly overworked circulating 35mm print.
Directed by Joseph Losey for Spiegel as he was also making The African Queen and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), The Prowler (which was produced under the working title “The High Cost of Living”) is a classic of working class envy, restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you and the brutal opportunism of a former golden boy willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him.
Van Heflin, an actor who (3:10 to Yuma excepted) hasn’t impressed me much, is, in a word, brilliant as Webb Garwood, the small town sports hero who sabotaged his future. Now he goes through the motions of public service as a beat cop while he looks through the windows of opportunity along his beat. What he finds is a woman left alone every night by her radio deejay husband. Evelyn Keyes is lovely young wife Susan Gilvray, married to the disembodied voice on the radio who signs off every broadcast with “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” which starts out as a lover’s promise and ends as a threat. Using the implied authority of his uniform to insinuate himself into her home, ostensibly to follow up on a prowler scare, we see Webb worm his way into her life.
In the wee hours of this a.m., Turner Classic Movies showed a film that’s been a lifelong favorite of mine. The term ‘lifelong’ is used casually: the movie was made the year I was born, a coincidence in which I take irrational satisfaction; I didn’t actually see it till a rainy schoolday in the early Fifties when, playing hooky, I found it waiting for me in a local TV station’s matinee slot. Somehow the favoriteness kicked in right away, perhaps because it was one of the first films I took to be adult. Subsequent reencounters with The Woman in the Window – including teaching it in a couple of film courses – have only deepened my pleasure in and affection for it. So I trot out the following program note, written for a Winter 1972 “Fritz Lang in America” film series for University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts. (WitW was the fifth film in the series; hence the terse references to other Lang movies my original readers had been watching week after week.) But I also urge you NOT TO READ these remarks unless and until you have seen the movie. It’s a very special case, and SPOILER ALERT should be stamped on nearly every line. -RTJ (Nov. 8, 2010)
The Woman in the Window is one of Fritz Lang’s subtlest films. It is an extremely dense film, although deceptively casual in initial approach. There is little of the overt Teutonic freakiness of the shadow worlds of Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!. Still, the world of The Woman in the Window is fraught with portents of instability, unreliable solidities, and fatally genuine illusions. In order to discuss them at all adequately, it is necessary to reveal more of the twists and turns of the narrative than is consistent with preserving the viewer’s opportunity for surprise. And so, be warned: If you’re reading along before the film, and if you’d just as soon remain unspoiled until Lang himself does it to you, cease and desist right now!
The chief problem with The Woman in the Window – more precisely, the chief problem for many people who have watched The Woman in the Window – is that Lang violates a supreme movie no-no. (And it was Lang who violated it – the novel ended otherwise and screenwriter-producer Nunnally Johnson resisted the director, although despite his double-barreled authority he eventually let Lang follow his own dictates.) He involves the viewer in a hellishly gripping suspense situation for an hour and a half, and then he springs the trap: “it didn’t really happen,” the protagonist only dreamed it, it was all “just a dream.” Some – by no means all – viewers will automatically groan at this point, curse, rend and tear whatever or whoever is handy. Someone will mutter about “Hollywood endings.” Paul Jensen, in his careless book The Cinema of Fritz Lang (Zwemmers – A.S. Barnes), speaks respectfully of the film up to this moment but then flatly avers that Lang had “painted himself into a corner” and had to use this desperate ploy to save his hero. Jensen never considers how the first 90 minutes of the film operate when retrospectively illuminated by the dream revelation. Neither does it occur to him that what a man dreams (is there any more intimate, more personal activity?) is as valid a way of characterizing him as what he says and does, where he goes, what situations he gets into. Nor does Jensen confront how essentially consistent with other Lang endings (Joe Wilson’s miraculous – to the court – resurrection at the end of Fury, Eddie Taylor’s “freedom” obtained only at the end of You Only Live Once, Alan Thorndike’s and Dr. Svoboda’s release into righteous barbarism in Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!) is the ending of The Woman in the Window, or – most obviously of all, I should think – the fact that Professor Wanley’s awakening in no way denies the finality of his dream scenario’s conclusions. The film does “happen” with absolute cinematic reality – which is, of course, profoundly illusory. Jensen utterly and absolutely rules out such speculations before they can be suggested. He declares the ending “a cheat” and insists it “just simplifies the situation into nothingness, and any conclusion that one might draw about seeming and reality would only be a rationalization.” Any conclusion. But, far from a generalized invocation of “seeming and reality,” Lang’s film is relentlessly specific in its analysis of Professor Wanley’s dream reality. Unlike, say, much of Orson Welles’s The Trial, The Woman in the Window gives no sense of its director saying, “It’s only a dream, so nothing matters and anything goes”; rather, virtually everything matters, doubly so because it’s a dream.
Lang himself has noted the connection between this film and the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, for a time, he was to have directed: “It was really the work of three painters who wanted to make a kind of an expressionistic picture; the whole story had been written, and the only contribution I made was that I said to [producer Erich] Pommer, ‘Look, if the expressionistic sets stand for the world of the insane, and you use them from the beginning, it doesn’t mean anything. Why don’t you, instead, make the Prologue and Epilogue of the picture normal?’…. Now what else is the ending of Caligari – where we meet the people we’ve seen in ‘the dream’ – but the ending of The Woman in the Window?” In fact the ending of Caligari is not unstylized at all; it is simply less extravagantly expressionistic than the main narrative, the segment ostensibly visualized by a madman. And the non-dream opening of The Woman in the Window is not without portent of what’s to come.
At the beginning Lang is at some pains to establish Assistant Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) as one among many in the metropolis of New York. The character is identified for us by a class card at Gotham College, “Founded by the people of the city of New York,” and we drift toward him casually but with vague purposiveness, craning down over his classroom as he lectures on the psychopathology of homicide, the horizontal shadows of a venetian blind lying over him. The craning descent will be repeated a few moments later after he has bidden farewell to his family at the railway station; at a crowded intersection people stream by and a bus wipes the screen with a “Welcome to New York.” Lang’s method is nowhere near as elaborate as Alfred Hitchcock’s, for instance, in establishing Roger Thornhill’s (Cary Grant) identity and milieu at the beginning of North by Northwest. Neither is his chaos-world quite the same; Hitchcock’s protagonist is picked for involvement in a spy chase by freak accident, although the moral and psychic therapy of his ordeal proves very apt to his immature character. Lang suggests that what is true for Richard Wanley, what is poetically possible given the quirks of character in this quite unremarkable man (the quirks are also unremarkable, as will be seen), is in some form possible for anyone else in that classroom, anyone else in that street, or in Lang’s audience. What befalls Wanley is not accidental.
It’s a hot summer, and Wanley’s wife and children are leaving town on holiday. The Wanleys express genuine concern and affection for one another. Mrs. Wanley urges Richard not to stay cooped up working all the time; as she says this, she is holding a magazine with the back cover turned our way. It displays a photograph of a properly attired man very conspicuously framed; her arm lies across the photograph, the first of many photographs, paintings, and films we shall see in the course of the movie. A student once remarked, “When I saw that magazine picture, I thought, ‘She’s taking him along.'”
After the family’s departure, the first thing we see Wanley do is to look at another pictorial representation: the woman in the window. The introduction of this narrative element is, naturally, key. Wanley joins a long line of Lang dreamers who have looked in display windows and seen the reflection of their desires (Beckert in M, Joe and Katherine in Fury, Jerry in Man Hunt) or their fears (Joe’s second, lone appearance before a storefront in Fury, Joan Taylor’s discovery of a gun for Eddie in You Only Live Once). But of greater specific importance is the multiplicity of levels of reality indexed in the shot. The woman is not a woman but a painting – one man’s vision of the woman, now being filtered through the sensibility of a second man; the painting is framed, and it is set apart by the further frame of the window. The window reflects Wanley when he looks into it and the offscreen reality of the street, and when he is viewed from the other side of the glass, the painting is reflected over him.
Unnoticed, his friends Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Barkstone (Edmond Breon) get out of a car and chuckle at his fascination. She is, they insist, “our dream girl … we saw her first.” Their playful rivalry continues after dinner at their private club, which is located adjacent to the art gallery. Wanley proposes to violate the traditions of summer bachelorhood by abstaining from visiting burlesque houses, for instance: “But if one of the young ladies wishes to come over here and perform about there, I’ll be happy to watch.” Lalor applauds his friend’s wisdom, agrees that they’re “three old crocks,” avers it’s a good thing they’re beyond temptation. Wanley demurs: “I didn’t say it was a good thing. I only know that I hate it!”
Lalor continues, the voice of reason, invoking his experiences in the district attorney’s office seeing what happens when “one false step, one idle flirtation” leads a middle-aged man into a web of disaster. As he delivers himself of these cautionary remarks, he is photographed from a slightly low angle, so that he seems underwritten with authority. In fact he speaks in the neighborhood of a point Wanley was making to his class that very afternoon: that impulses are of crucial importance, that there are degrees of impulses, and that the legal categories of homicide, for instance, are “civilized recognition” of the distinctions. Something that was already on Wanley’s mind is reinforced by Lalor’s comments. The professor asks jokingly, “Do you think it’s quite safe to leave me alone in this somewhat rebellious frame of mind?” But he lets his friends go off for their “dates” with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, speculating that even if “the spirit of adventure” were to rise up in the form of the woman in the window next door, all he’d do would be to “clutch my coat a little tighter, mutter something idiotic, and run.” Then he turns to the club library, his own reflection moving to meet him in the glass of the bookcases. Taking down a specially illustrated volume of The Song of Songs Which Is Solomon’s, he asks the steward to remind him when it’s 10:30: “Sometimes I’m inclined to lose track of time.”
That, of course, is the end of waking reality and the beginning of dream. With a couple more brandies than usual under his belt, Wanley trips into the street and detours for another look at his dream lady. The reflection of her portrait washes over him again, and then he perceives a double lady, this time a real face reflected alongside the painting. The mystery woman herself (Joan Bennett) must come out when lonely, not to gaze on herself, but to see herself reflected in the faces of those who look on her. (Like Wanley, but literally, she lacks a self-image.) Far from being offended by his tribute (“Did I react properly – uh, normally?”), she is pleased, and puts his wish-fulfillment into his hands without his having to frame an invitation: “I’m not married, I have no designs on you, and one drink is all I care for.” (One flashes, again, North by Northwest and Roger Thornhill’s adolescent fantasy come true: a gorgeous blonde on the Twentieth Century is willing to pay five dollars to spend the night with him.)
Alice Reed, the lady in the portrait, leads Wanley further into a world of unreality. The camera seeks them out in a dark cocktail lounge and finds them between silvery, two-dimensional representations of flowers (on the table and on the walls behind them). From there they go to Alice’s apartment, an environment dominated by more artificial vegetation (frosted trees on the glass panels round the door, voluptuous leaf designs on the lampshades – even the real flowers on the table are conspicuously stylized as the chosen, sexually expressive decor of a kept woman’s apartment) and given in wall-sized mirrors. Objets d’art abound; Alice has brought Richard up to see sketches of her, and the self-amused once-over he gives a headless nude sculpture while waiting for her – he reflected in a mirror at the time – wonderfully indexes the gently sophisticated naughtiness of Alice’s invitation and Richard’s appreciation of it as a tribute to his genial decency. But outside this enclosed environment the world changes. A street that was dry when they arrived, an arid soundstage reality, is now washed with rain, and a hostile force intrudes: Alice’s sugar daddy (Arthur Loft), who slaps her, attempts to strangle Richard when he leaps to her defense and is stabbed to death by Richard with scissors Alice provides. To this has Wanley’s one false step led.
This accounts for about one-fifth of the film. The remainder portrays the sympathetic assassins’ attempts to dispose of the body and protect themselves from any association with the crime; the efforts of the police and the district attorney’s office to “nail” the killer, with the hapless Wanley looking on; the appearance of the dead man’s bodyguard (Dan Duryea), his attempts to blackmail Richard and Alice, their endeavor to murder him; and the ironic resolution of their difficulties – the initial killing is attributed to the bodyguard, who is himself shot down by police – even as Wanley commits suicide. All of which constitutes the dream; Wanley awakens and we are vouchsafed a tidy “explanation” that in fact implies only facets of the waking and dream realities of Richard Wanley.
Why does Richard Wanley have this dream? From that question must any responsible analysis of The Woman in the Window proceed. There appear to me to be two reasons, which may be – appropriately enough in the context of Lang – opposite faces of the same idea: the dream serves to instruct Wanley (he is now certain to do exactly what he told Barkstone he would do if confronted by “the spirit of adventure” – who turns out to be a lot tawdrier than his movie-star vision), and it offers him – and us – pleasure, subliminal gratification.
We have already noted how Alice Reed’s initial approach to Wanley clearly serves as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. More interestingly, Wanley the dreamer awards himself an unlikely academic promotion from assistant professor of psychology to chairman of his department. He’s an honest dreamer. We are aware of his quiet correction of the police officer who checks his identity and is satisfied of respectability: “A professor, huh?” “Assistant.” Wanley is very conscious of his social and professional standing; it is to protect that standing that he fails to report the crime which is, after all, scarcely a heinous act but rather an act of self-defense against a man later described as “crazy.” And as he promotes himself socioeconomically (much is made by the police of the clues indicating the killer to have been a man of “moderate circumstances”), so does he promote himself romantically. He has Lalor observe that the woman in the case clearly preferred him to Mazard (the Mabusian magnate of World Enterprises!), as proved by her connivance and silence in the killer’s behalf. (Edward G. Robinson’s registering of this speculation is a splendid moment.)
But if Wanley is the scenarist of his benisons, he is also the architect of his agony and despair. The man who, awake, loses track of time is extremely precise about it when dreaming, and he marshals his forces and creative skills in giving swift orders how to cover up the crime. Still, it is clear that much more of the time he enjoys frustration – not voluptuously, not indecently, but he has become inured to it in his waking life and has apparently accommodated even his dream style to the facts of life (or, of course, the nondescript struggle for decent survival in his waking life may reflect this basic predisposition; I am not much concerned about fixing the starting point of this chicken-and-egg process, nor, I think, is Lang: dreaming in this film is above all else a realm of personal aesthetics). The film is a study in frustration: the sadomasochistic imagination of Wanley the dream scenarist constantly outflanking and out-framing the responsible resources of Wanley the dream character. This is inextricably bound up in his instruction. The film’s several instances of symbolic pain (pinching himself on the champagne wire, cutting his wrist on barbed wire, then letting that wound get infected with poison ivy!) recall Joe Wilson of Fury smelling himself burn, and in effect Wanley watches Wanley as Joe watched himself burned alive in a newsreel. But the pain is also pain devised by Wanley. There is even a joke on this: Wanley sits at his desk, a warlike statuette poised nearby as if about to spear that wounded wrist, while a radio announcer hymns the blessings of a product that will “remedy that tired feeling” that “can affect a person’s whole outlook on life.”
Wanley manifests a sense of inferiority that is worked out ambivalently in his dream. He is attacked and overpowered by the large Mazard, but manages to kill him anyway (Lang’s direction and cutting of the action emphasizes both Wanley’s deliberate reach for aid and Alice’s proffer of the scissors). He defends Alice, forgives her failures time and again, but he dreams her getting pushed around by Mazard and by the bodyguard. We are shown at the end that the visual prototypes of Mazard and Heidt (a name for the bodyguard supplied by Jensen, although not given in the film at any time) exist at Wanley’s club in the forms of Charlie the hat-check man and Ted the doorman (interestingly, Lang/Wanley cuts away from Wanley just as he calls for his hat and coat at the beginning of the dream, and no doorman is in evidence).
Now, this is a partial explanation, and its comic quality cajoles the dream resenters in the audience out of their ill humor. But, again, why were these persons selected by Wanley to play the snarling villains? Both men seem perfectly nice guys, but they are taller than Wanley, both wear uniforms, and both serve the function of servants. Lang has (and probably audiences have, too) a basic sympathy for chubby little guys, even when they do nasty things (Peter Lorre’s Beckert, Gene Lockhart’s Czaka, Robinson’s Wanley and Christopher Cross in Scarlet Street), and his overpowering sense of angularity is beyond dispute, so – even discounting Freudian readings – height is scarcely a facetious consideration. Wanley is frequently menaced by uniformed figures (the policemen who tell him about his car lights, the toll collector who delays him looking for a lost dime, the motorcycle cop lurking near the traffic signal) and by other “public servants” and private ones, like the gossipy garage man who remembers when people get in at night, even elevator operators who kept interfering with Richard and Alice’s hallway rendezvous. Indeed, that exchange between policeman and “professor” already quoted implies commingled disdain and obligatory respect on the cop’s part.
But Charlie and Ted are scarcely the key antagonists in Wanley’s waking life. The prime candidate would appear to be Richard’s own best friend, District Attorney Frank Lalor, about whom Richard probably has not one conscious negative thought. All we see, really, is that Frank is – again – taller than Richard, that he (and Michael) has first facetious claim on their “dream girl,” and that he does embody that stuffy sense of safety and propriety Richard certainly respects, believes in, even shares, but also ruefully resents. Frank’s casually low-angle authority sitting in a club easy chair escalates into the towering, smoke-streaming beacon of justice leaning against the mantel above tiny Richard, and by extension into every God’s-eye-view of Wanley that pins him down throughout the film. Although doubling of first names frequently occurs in life, it’s a rarity in movies; doubly meaningful, then, that the pseudonym under which Claude Mazard is first introduced is Frank Howard. Mazard wears the same sort of straw boater first seen on Frank Lalor and subsequently worn by the blackmailer and by a man who interrupts that very interrupted corridor conversation between Richard and Alice (and also, if a still in Bogdanovich’s Lang book is any authority, by a newsdealer in an apparently deleted scene wherein Wanley buys a paper to look for news that Mazard’s corpse has been discovered).
It’s worth quoting an exchange between Lalor and Wanley which should certify the nature of the tension between them. Frank has playfully tormented Richard with his reluctance to say outright there was a barbed-wire fence where the body was found. In a typical Langian camera disposition, the taut two-shot of Richard and Frank is held for an instant after Richard’s gaffe, then enlarged to include Dr. Barkstone who says reasonably, “Well, what other kind could a man more easily scratch his hand on?”:
FRANK: It was a barbed-wire fence, of course. I was only trying to impress you fellows with my keenness. Can’t a man get any credit around here at all?
RICHARD: Well, in that case, I’ll give you an opportunity to impress the whole city. Does this suggest anything to you? [He displays his wounded wrist.]
FRANK: Yes. It suggests very strongly – that you’re eaten up with envy. You see my name on the front page of every paper, so you make a desperate attempt to elbow your way into my case by insinuating that you’re the guilty man. But it’s no use, my boy; you’ve scratched yourself for nothing!
RICHARD (to Barkstone, with awkward good humor): Did you ever see such selfishness?
This dialogue is followed by Frank’s offer to tell them more about the case – a revelation delayed, with exquisite protraction of torment, by several interruptions.
Wanley is the dreamer of the dream and hence gives of himself to all the characters, in some way. He is linked to Mazard in that he tantalizes himself with enjoyment of what Mazard has: a lush woman with no visible means of support in a Hollywood dream-factory suite. He is linked to Heidt not only in Heidt’s being cast as the killer of Mazard but also in numerous dialogue references: Lalor several times remarks that Mazard’s bodyguard is the one who’s “hot,” and Heidt himself is fond of saying he’s “gettin’ warm” on the trail of Wanley; once Lang cuts from a reference to Heidt as being “hot” to a shot of Wanley crouched before his blazing fireplace, burning the snagged coat. As already suggested, Heidt treats Alice as Wanley may wish to treat her at times, and unlike Richard he manages to dominate scenes even when sitting – virtually lying – down. It is Heidt who verbalizes Wanley’s rather unclean role in the whole latter stage of the proceedings: “What kind of a guy is he, anyway, shovin’ a nice kid like you out in front?” The “nice kid” is Alice, who similarly is joined to Wanley, not only as the culprits in the two fists of Frank Lalor, but also as a civilized persona who reacts with visible shock when Wanley coldbloodedly, almost self-hypnotically pronounces a sentence of death on Heidt, becoming a conscious rather than unconscious assassin. The shot of this is worth studying. Alice and Richard have been walking in the street, photographed through bars. As they step clear, Richard’s purpose becomes clear (as Thorndike in Man Hunt is delivered out of his dark cave-womb into the bright consciousness of righteous murder), and he declares it. She freezes in mid-shot, he passing out the side without noticing her. Lang dissolves from this walking offscreen of Wanley’s to his entering, at the same angle, the drugstore where he will obtain the gland concentrate. A gentle Mabuse, he will direct her attempted murder of the bodyguard from offscreen; and his circumscribed vision will lead to his own self-killing, as it prevented his seeing the woman that day out at the corpse site, as it prevented Eddie Taylor in You Only Live Once from knowing he really was pardoned.
The Woman in the Window isn’t without flaw. Although the ploy is psychologically justifiable and Dan Duryea is certainly mesmerizing as the blackmailer (he had just been in Ministry of Fear for Lang and would join Robinson and Bennett in Scarlet Street next), the shift of dramatic focus from Wanley to Alice does diminish the picture’s concentration (could any dreamer be bodily absent from his own fantasies that long?). But if it lacks the high intensity of the most exciting works by Lang, its skill and integrity are great and it stands up on many re-viewings. It has not deserved its neglect, and certainly it has not deserved the criminally stupid abuse visited on it by commentators like Paul M. Jensen.
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
CAST: Edward G. Robinson (Professor Richard Wanley), Joan Bennett (Alice Reed), Raymond Massey (District Attorney Frank Lalor), Edmond Breon (Dr. Michael Barkstone), Dan Duryea (the bodyguard), Arthur Loft (Frank Howard/Claude Mazard), Thomas E. Jackson (Inspector Jackson), Arthur Space (Captain Kennedy), Frank Dawson (Collins), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Wanley), Bobby (Robert) Blake, Carol Cameron (Wanley children).
CREDITS: Director: Fritz Lang. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, after the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis. Cinematographer: Milton Krasner. Art Director: Duncan Cramer; Set Decorator: Julia Heron. Music: Arthur Lange. Producer: Nunnally Johnson. An International Pictures release, 1944.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful ismost probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,” he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it isalways a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)
Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and RioBravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Keep Reading
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.
While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—TheRecklessMoment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.
By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.
Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.
Author, critic, film authority and festival programmer Eddie Muller was branded “The Czar of Noir” by James Ellroy for his knowledge of and passion for the subject. Since publishing Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and programming a film noir festival in Los Angeles in 1998, Muller has become not simply the most prominent film noir authority in the U.S., he’s become an ambassador for film noir as the organizer, programmer and Master of Ceremonies of the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco (and in the smaller traveling Noir City offshoot) and as the president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization that puts on Noir City and uses the proceeds to fund film restoration. The Eighth Annual Noir City (with 24 films in 12 programs over 10 days) unspooled at the Castro in San Francisco in January 2010 and the Seattle incarnation (14 films over 7 days) opened on Friday, February 19. (The Hollywood incarnation at the historic Egyptian Theater, where Muller programmed his first film noir festival, is scheduled for April.) I spoke with Muller by phone between the San Francisco and Seattle series and we talked movies, noir icons, film preservation and the thrill of seeing film noir on the big screen. (My profile and preview of the series is at The Stranger here.)
This is the eighth year of Noir City, and the fourth road show edition of Noir City in Seattle. How have you been able to develop it into such a big annual event?
First off, it’s the eighth Noir City Festival we’ve done in San Francisco but I’ve actually been doing them, oh my God, this will be my eleventh year in L.A. at the American Cinemateque, which is where I actually started doing it. But those early ones at the Egyptian weren’t Noir City events, that’s a San Francisco thing, there’s where it was started. And it really was like the perfect storm, in a way. It’s a combination of showing the right kind of films in the perfect venue in San Francisco at the exact right time of year. Beyond that, I guess that somehow it works that people like to have a personality or a face attached to it that they recognize, so that has been helpful, it turns out, that I’m so associated with this festival and that I’m a San Franciscan, that certainly has helped in San Francisco. So that’s really it. There’s nothing else competing in San Francisco at that time of year, is winter, it makes sense for film noir, the Castro is the perfect place to show these films. People have turned it into a real happening and that’s reallyâ€”besides the restoration work and all kind of stuffâ€”it is fascinating to me that we have show, somehow, that you can draw a thousand people on a weeknight to watch sixty-year-old black-and-white films in a theater. It is pretty remarkable.
The thirty-second year of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual Film Noir Cycle, “the granddaddy of the world’s film noir festivals,” opens with one of the most unheralded masterpieces of shadowy American melodrama: The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by continental stylist Max Ophuls (shortened to “Opuls” for his American screen credits). Known for his visual taste and elegance, his ravishing style and his delicate portraits of impassioned, impossible love in a world of fickle lovers and social barriers, the Austrian director came to America (like so many European artists and intellectuals) in the early years of World War II and (again, like so many fellow film artists) struggled to find his place in the Hollywood system. He only directed five films in his ten years in America (one of which he was fired from before completing). The Reckless Moment was his last before returning to Europe.
Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, The Reckless Moment is a mix of crime drama and what Hollywood once called a “women’s picture,” a label they applied to almost any film that took a woman’s perspective. One-time ingénue Joan Bennett makes a confident transition to the role of Lucia Harper, a wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas. She’s a modest woman but a defiantly protective mother who doesn’t flinch when confronting the oily gigolo who has seduced her increasingly assertive and independent minded daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and puts herself in harm’s way to cover up the man’s death and a potential scandal. When that only brings on blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a darkly attractive and quietly menacing Irish thug who demands thousands of dollars for incriminating love letters, she discovers that she is essentially powerless in this society to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side.
Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget (Bennett’s star had faded and it was only Mason’s third American film) for Columbia, which specialized in the budget-minded first run picture. The film is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Ophuls masterfully shapes it all into a portrait not just of suburban middle class security shaken into chaos when it collides with big city corruption, but of the social prison of middle class family.
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of Japan’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. Whether or not the five Japanese gangster films in the Nikkatsu Noir box set from Eclipse are true noirs is debatable, but they are lively B-movie artifacts from the wild and weird era of Nikkatsu’s glory days of crime movie programmers, when the mob movie rats (like Seijun Suzuki) ran wild through the genre.
It’s no surprise that the Suzuki contribution to the set is the most visually and stylistically dynamic, which is not necessarily to say it’s the best. Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) has a great title, a dynamic opening scene (which, no surprise, begins with a police prisoner transport bus sighted through a rifle scope) and a thoroughly routine detective plot that Suzuki turns into a hot-blooded crime conspiracy thriller featuring kidnapped girls, punk snipers, a stripper killed with an arrow to the breast, a paroled criminal tossed off a cliff, faked deaths, hidden agendas and a prison guard (Michitaro Mizushima) turned dogged investigator trying to piece it all together. In classic crime movie fashion, the bad guys don’t just shoot the good guys, they tie them up in the cab of a gas tanker, let the brake off and send it down a hill trailing gasoline, and light a match to the trail. Given the incendiary dimensions of the scene, I’m particularly impressed that the victims use a lighter to try and burn through the ropes before the fire catches up to the tanker. Mizushima has a real straight-arrow presence amidst the cast of crazed killers, colorful small-time crooks and wild girls, but he has the personality to hold his own and Suzuki packs a lot into 79 minutes of black-and-white Nikkatsuscope craziness.
In fact, all the films in the set are B&W widescreen with the exception of the Koreyoshi Kurahara’s moody I Am Waiting (1957), the earliest film in the collection. The tale of an optimistic bar owner with dreams abroad and a beautiful runaway singer with a painful past (“I’m a canary that’s forgotten how to sing,” she explains) has an atmosphere that recalls the grim beauty of the Jean Gabin French poetic realist films of fog-wrapped port towns and pitiless villages. It’s the outskirts of Yokohama here, where handsome, helpful ex-boxer Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a pretty girl (Mie Kitahara) from a rainy coast storm and gives her a place to stay in his colorful dive of a dockside bar. They’re both walking wounded, licking their wounds from careers cut short, but it takes another shot to knock the dreams out of Joji and set him on the trail of his brother’s killer, which just so happens to lead to the gangster who has made a claim on the girl. The fog, the night scenes and the grimy port town atmosphere do wonders to keep the budget down and the mood up, but it all gets less dreamy and more tawdry as Joji goes up against the gangster thugs and battles it out in a nightclub with a floor that lights up. It’s easily the most restrained film in the set, more mood piece than action movie, which gives it a little more class than the more aggressively explosive films that follow. And a great bluesy theme song crooned like a lament.
A similarly regret-laden saloon song is crooned over the credits of Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958), which is otherwise more gangster thriller than shadowy noir, complete with a Naked City-style opening narration explaining the culture of crime and corruption ravaging the city. As an arrogant crime boss laughs off every arrest with a hearty cackle, a crusading District Attorney pressures a former criminal (Yujiro Ishihara) trying to put his past behind him to testify, to no avail. At least not until it becomes personal, a matter of honor and revenge. There’s plenty of blackmailing and double-crosses and suicide and Jo Shishido (pre-plastic surgery, just before he became a genre icon with the puffy cheeks) gets tossed off a train, and sure enough a rusty knife is pulled out for a bout of poetic justice. Conventional all the way, to be sure, but the juvenile energy of young thug high on hush money and the city streets and abandoned lots shrouded in night give it a perfectly shadowy atmosphere.
Jo Shishido has barely a few minutes of screen time in Rusty Knife but takes the lead in the final films in the collection, with his now distinctive chipmunk-cheek look in place. (Chuck Stephens writes a bit about the curious – and strangely successful – plastic surgery that Shishido undertook to give him those puffy cheeks and set him apart from the rest of the pretty-boy action starts in the accompanying notes). Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs. Togawa (Shishido), sprung from prison early so he can run the heist for a big business gangster leader, has reservations about the job and for good reason. He and his reliable second-in-command are stuck with a sneering junkie and a punch-drunk boxer a few knocks away from brain death. Shishido’s Togawa is a cool customer, pensive and still, always sizing up the situation, which serves him well when the perfect armored car heist hits a glitch. It’s telling that they hole up in a former American military base, now a decaying slum of rotting buildings; the American influence hovers over the entire film, a classic American crime movie in a Japanese idiom. â€œI need payback,â€ Togawa demands, just before he’s grabbed by thugs who would like nothing better than help him metes out his revenge without mercy. The brassy score powers it along with a driving beat, down into the sewers and back up into a thoroughly nihilistic ending.
The set ends in 1967 with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, though if I’m not mistaken it’s actually a Baretta that is assassin Shuji’s (Shishido) handgun of choice. For his hit on an aging crime boss he uses a high powered rifle, but the killing is the last thing that goes right on this job. With the airports and docks covered, Shuji and his partner hole up in a port town truck stop while awaiting new travel plans. Once again, Shishido is the cool customer in a world of easily corruptible crooks and civilians. He trades his own life to rescue his partner, but in this world it’s apparently just fine to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot it out at your surrender. Shuji is a pretty far sighted guy; he has a second brake hidden in his getaway car and even digs himself a shallow grave for the final showdown, but he’s got other plans for it. The great spaghetti western-inspired score adds familiar Japanese instruments and jazz inflections as it progresses, becoming a real genre symphony, and Nomura pulls out all stops for the mad shoot-out in an abandoned quarry: this film’s answer to the desert plains of a spaghetti western. It ends the set on a high note and I was left high on crazy crime movie fumes. None of these are masterpieces but they are all inventive little nuggets of genre fun with energy, attitude and style, and in moments–such as the wild finale here–it’s just plain delirious.
Eclipse is Criterion’s budget-minded line of box set so there are no supplements, but Asian film expert Chuck Stephens provides brief essays with each film. Stephens has a rather overripe writing style, more expressive of his love of the films than of the films or the genre itself, but he does offer some context and background on the films and filmmakers and on the youth culture that brought younger and younger faces on to the screens.
The transfers are all fine, the earliest showing a little wear, the later ones sharper and with strong contrasts. Only Take Aim at the Police Van shows any noticeable flaws: in the master shots the image has a soft pocket in the center right, but only for long shots. Close-ups and medium shots look fine, which leads me to believe that it’s an issue with the master materials. Regardless, it’s a very minor issue and does not distract from the film. The soundtracks are strong, with only minor hiss, and the music comes through strong and clear. All in all, a real treat.
Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.
The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.
The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.
No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.
You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.
The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellboundtwo years later.
“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …
“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”
– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4
Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.
Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the SinCity graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally written in 1998, before the re-edited version from producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, and is based on the 109-minute version that was rescued from the vaults in 1975, generally known as the “preview version. This version had replaced the original 98-minute theatrical version in retrospective screenings and TV showings, but it makes its DVD debut – along with the 98-minute theatrical version – on the new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition, which also features the previously released 1998 “restored” version. The essay has never before been published.]
Despite the fact that, like most of Welles’s films, Touch of Evil was the victim of injudicious cutting, it holds together narratively better than just about any film he ever made. The result is a film even more corrosively insidious than Mr. Arkadin—a film in which we’re never quite sure what’s going on, but are always profoundly aware that, whatever it is, it is far more horrible than it appears. And, in Touch of Evil, that is very horrible indeed.
It’s an intentionally seedy film—you can pretty much smell Hank Quinlan—and Welles, always a better director of space and decor than of actors, creates in his mise en scene a dynamic tension between the rich baroque and the decadent gothic. “Baroque” in the way it uses incidental ornamentation within the frame composition, insisting upon signs, posters, souvenirs and bric-a-brac to provide comment on character and event, as well as to lend atmosphere. Bulky Quinlan, looking up quizzically, belatedly prepares his defense against the lanky Vargas, in a room walled with bullfight posters and photos of the great matadors. We almost expect him to snort and paw the earth. This mise en scene was, in part, Welles’s debt to Karl Freund, neo-Gothic cameraman (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Metropolis, 1926; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930; Dracula, 1931) and director (Mad Love, 1935) who combined compositional richness with thematic darkness to create a Cinema of the Grotesque that seminally influenced the look and style of Citizen Kane (1941).
This sense of the Gothic, augmented with lessons learned from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, is evident in The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Sir Carol Reed but as closely associated with Welles in our cinematic collective consciousness as any film on which he received directorial credit. Reed had himself quoted the child’s bouncing ball and a few other tones and gestures from Lang’s M in Odd Man Out(1947); and the collaboration of Welles and Reed on The Third Manwas one of like minds and visions, learning from each other, and creating, along the way, both a film masterpiece and an enduring document of the shattered physical and human architecture of postwar Europe.