For a downbeat noir as pessimistic as they come look no further than Andre De Toth's Pitfall (1948). It's a film that depicts a time often thought of as a golden age of American prosperity and nuclear family bliss and then tears our warm and fuzzy notions to pieces. After the end of WW2 the G.I. Bill changed America for the better. For the first time many more Americans would get a chance to go to college while also being able to own their own homes. People had tons of kids. Suburbia and the good life soon followed and we never really looked back. But all this peace and prosperity left some feeling trapped. Life for some became bland and predictable and if noir has taught us anything it's that a husky-voiced blonde can be as lethal as dynamite.
Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a man who seemingly has it all: an adorable son, a loving wife, a nice middle-class house, and a decent job working in insurance. But John is sullen and not terribly appreciative of how good he has it. He goes out on a call about a woman in possession of stolen goods that her incarcerated husband had given her. Lizabeth Scott, best known for her noir vixen roles, plays Mona Stevens, the girl with the loot. Forbes expects to find the kind of girl he thinks would take up with a criminal but instead sees that Mona is a victim of circumstance and never asked for the things her husband stole for her. She's also beautiful and Forbes takes the opportunity to spend the rest of the day with her, conveniently forgetting to mention to her that he's married.Continue Reading
God Bless the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, for he has single-handedly rescued America’s noir heritage from the dustbin of history. Eddie is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit that raises money to preserve old noir films whose surviving negatives are on the verge of being lost forever all so that future generations can enjoy these seedy little tales of B-movie heaven. One recent rescue was of Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, a sweaty, kinky thriller that also serves as a vituperative denunciation of capitalism and its effects on people. Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a pervy cop with a chip on his shoulder and a peeping tom fetish. He snoops around the outside of a stately home after dark while on his beat “perving on the woman” as James Ellroy suitably and salaciously puts it on one of the DVD’s extras. The woman is housewife Susan, a trapped trophy wife stuck pacing the halls of her mansion, in limbo while her husband works nights as a radio DJ. Her husband’s voice fills the house from the radio and gives off an ominous echo to Webb’s creepy spying as Susan never really seems to be alone.
Webb likes what he sees from his pervy perch in the front yard. He wants the life of a well-to-do loafer with an easy job and easier money. He fetishizes Susan’s good looks but also the wealth she has acquired by marrying her absentee husband. Webb and his partner are the cops called when Susan spots the prowler so you know this isn’t going to turn out well. Soon, though, Webb and Susan are spending their nights together and the illicit romance is their escape from their mutual dissatisfaction with life. The murder of the inconvenient husband and its cover-up briefly solves Webb’s problems but eventually his crime catches up with him culminating in a beautifully stark desert showdown between Webb and the police. A pregnant Susan is left behind in a dinky shack, forced to accept that her two timing with a guy like Webb led to her husband's murder.
Born to Kill
Born to Kill is one of the kinkier Noirs out there and it’s slightly ironic considering the director Robert Wise is mostly known for helping to butcher Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at RKO’s request and directing The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Wise was not an iconoclast like Welles or Robert Aldrich. He was a director most famous for helming big road show musicals and Born to Kill is the polar opposite of such family friendly fare. It’s a fairly sordid tale of obsession, jealousy, and murder. Lawrence Tierney plays the cold blooded killer at the center of things but he’s no match for Claire Trevor as a steely society dame turned on by his brutish exploits. Tierney plays a thoroughly rotten character who kills for kicks but it’s Trevor’s high class vixen who really makes an impression because while she’s just as mean as Tierney’s numbskull thug she’s also got a brain which makes her involvement in his homicidal hi jinks that much more unsettling.
Tierney plays Sam Wild, a suit-clad psychopath who worms his way into the inner circle of a wealthy family, marrying Trevor’s half sister Georgia (Audrey Long) but maintaining a hot n’ heavy flirtation with Helen (Trevor) all the while. Sam shares a filthy apartment with his friend Marty (the personification of low rent sleaze, Elisha Cook Jr.) before moving into the family mansion. When Helen finds out that Sam is a deranged killer with at least two murders to his credit she finds herself protecting him and intimidating people who might be in a position to finger him as a murderer all stemming from the twisted logic of her own infatuation with him.
There has never been a screenplay quite like Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder’s screenplay for their 1950 opus Sunset Blvd. It’s a macabre gothic noir comedy about the ghosts of Hollywood past. It’s one of those films, though a first-string classic, where the myths and back-stage stories are just as memorable as the film itself. For a legendary cynic like Wilder it was his ultimate drubbing of the hand that fed him. For star Gloria Swanson it was the ultimate film comeback (ten times more unlikely than, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction). And for her co-star William Holden it began a decade of big performances in important films that cemented him as a major actor. In a time when the studios controlled their products as well as their own image with an iron fist, it’s shocking that Sunset Blvd. ever got made.
Narrating from a swimming pool of a rundown mansion, a floating corpse tells his story of how he ended up there. Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) can’t land a new assignment and is on the run from debt collectors. With a flat tire he hides his car in the garage of that rundown mansion. Invited in by the home’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), to lend a hand for the funeral of a monkey Joe soon meets the mistress of the house, one-time silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson). She lives with only one foot in reality. Her decrepit house is filled with photos and mementos of her former self from her glory days 30 years earlier. Eventually she employs Joe to write her gaudy screenplay that she plans to use as a comeback vehicle. Joe also takes on the role of gigolo, becoming her lover as she keeps him dressed in tuxes and fancy gold watches.
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
Out of the Past
Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.
Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.Continue Reading
The Maltese Falcon
Like John Ford & John Wayne or Scorsese & De Niro, John Huston & Humphrey Bogart's work together as director and star will be forever linked in audiences' subconscious. After years of being a happening screenwriter, Huston got his chance to direct his own adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's crime novel, The Maltese Falcon. The film would help make Bogart a leading man, would lead to a 50-year career for Huston, and set the standard for detective films to come.
Like many detective and crime films of the 1940s, The Maltese Falcon is often improperly lumped in with the Film Noir genre. At best, The Maltese Falcon could be deemed a kick-starter to the genre that actually peaked in the post-WWII years. With the exception of a femme fatale or a detective it has little in common stylistically with the best of Film Noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out Of The Past, etc.). That's not to say that the film (and the book) were not hugely influential, they were.Continue Reading
The Woman in the Window
Have you ever had a dream where you committed a horrible crime or just got into some really big trouble and then wake up and for a few moments actually think it really happened? That is a terrible feeling. My first impulse is to make a contingency plan for what I’m going to do next. There is nothing like the relief of realizing it was just a dream. Your sense of identity, your subconscious, and your grasp on reality are all kind of in flux in that momentary state. I find that fascinating—the way our minds play tricks on us.
I remember once seeing an episode of a crime show where real footage was shown of the interrogation of a 13-year old boy after his sister was found murdered. The boy learned of the murder from them. The detectives kept grilling him for hours. All they told him was that his teenage sister was found murdered and they knew he did it. They said they found the murder weapon—a knife with dried blood on it with his fingerprints all over it. At first he pleaded that he didn’t know what they were talking about. He pleaded his innocence loudly and repeatedly; the tears were streaming down his face. But after a few hours he started to question his own memory of things and he became much more subdued. Finally he confessed that he did murder his sister because of some latent resentment over something in their past. They had convinced him of something a few hours before he knew to be untrue and they got a confession out of him. He supplied them with details as to how he did it. As it turns out, the boy didn’t murder his sister and the detectives were sued by the boy’s parents who had no knowledge of what they had planned to say to him.Continue Reading
In A Lonely Place
First, there’s the title. Has any movie title ever sounded so vulnerable? And that the film about a man "in a lonely place" was played by America’s hero, Humphrey Bogart, added undeniable pathos to the proceedings. Movie stars have always been confused with who they played in the films that made them famous, and after High Sierra and Casablanca Bogart would be forever known as the world weary tough guy with a heart of gold; the cynical romantic who does the right thing in the end who generations of men have wanted to emulate. Playing an emotionally wounded misanthrope with possibly psychotic tendencies was a risk for him, but in the words of Louise Brooks it was the closest performance to the real Bogart that he ever played. In her memoir of sorts, Lulu In Hollywood, she writes about how the Bogart she knew was an insecure actor forever on the sidelines of productions he didn’t star in. When the light and magic clicked to make him a star in High Sierra he became a legend henceforth and he took to acting the part in real life. But, according to her at least, it wasn’t until playing the embittered Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place that the myth and the actor coalesced into something resembling his darker, more emotionally insecure self.
In A Lonely Place is ostensibly a murder mystery, but what haunts isn’t really the murder or even the possibility that Bogart’s character killed someone. Instead it’s the way Dix’s good qualities are forever doomed to be overshadowed by his alienating and self-destructing tendencies. He has good friends around him who, even in the face of a murder investigation where he is a suspect, refuse to give up on him. But his insecurities and "artistic temperament" wear those around him down to the point where he really is totally alone. There’s no real lesson to In A Lonely Place. In another less complicated thriller Dix would be the villain whose downfall signals the triumph of societal values over the chaos caused by anti-social malcontents. But this is a film with no solution to the problem of Dix Steele, just a melancholic depiction of a certain type of man whose great curse is to be eternally misunderstood.Continue Reading
The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.Continue Reading