Ace In The Hole
Though it doesn’t revolve around a murder or a heist, Ace in the Hole remains a definitive film noir. Bitter, caustic, and unremittingly dark, it prophesied our age of journalistic madness as it focused on a literal “media circus” developed by a story-hungry press.
In a virtuoso performance that equals his turn in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-heels newsman who desperately takes a job at a tank-town Albuquerque paper. He stumbles on the headline of a lifetime after the owner of a roadside diner is trapped in an abandoned mineshaft while hunting for Indian artifacts. Envisioning a Pulitzer Prize and a return to the big time in New York, Tatum ruthlessly controls the story, befriending the terrified victim (Richard Benedict), romancing his slatternly wife (Jan Sterling), and cynically working local authorities and big-city editors. Then things start to come apart…Continue Reading
Blast of Silence
If Albert Camus had made a film noir, it would have been very much like Allen Baron’s little-seen 1961 feature Blast of Silence. This low-budget jewel, which enjoyed a critical renaissance after a 1990 screening at the Munich Film Festival, is less a thriller than it is an existential exploration. In many ways, it anticipated Martin Scorsese’s equally dark New York drama Taxi Driver by a decade.
Writer-director Baron had originally cast Peter Falk as hit man Frankie Bono, but wound up playing the part himself after Falk took his career-making role in Murder Inc. Resembling a less feral George C. Scott, Baron is extremely effective as the solitary, dead-eyed assassin, who arrives in New York City at Christmastime to eliminate a troublesome small-time mobster. After a chance meeting, the lonely, embittered killer is drawn to a girl from his past (Molly McCarthy). But he still has a contract to fulfill, and his world begins to unravel as he stalks his prey.Continue Reading
It bugs me when I go to see an old film on the big screen and people laugh at what they find to be anachronistic or hokey. Aside from it being disrespectful it also strikes me as an incredibly pretentious thing to do. I remember having a screening of Night of the Hunter completely ruined when a trio of teenage dorks insisted on laughing at every other line of dialogue in the film as if they were so much cooler than everyone on screen. Who in their right mind could think they were cooler than Robert Mitchum?! We assume that we must be somehow more evolved than generations before us but, with few exceptions, evidence to the contrary abounds. It can be amusing to note how filmmakers had to contort their films to fit the narrow confines of acceptability as defined by the Production Code, but to insistently laugh with smug satisfaction at every little thing in an old film that strikes our ears as the least bit foreign is to loudly and desperately proclaim one’s own insecurities. The laughing-at-old-films-to-make-yourself-look-smart phenomenon is so all prevailing that I barely notice it anymore except by its absence. This happened when I saw Brighton Rock at the New Beverly here in L.A. this past weekend. It is one of the funniest, blackest noirs ever and the audience laughed at what was meant to be funny and that was enough. It was revelatory to experience a film from 1947 as it was meant to be seen—at a theater with an audience that was completely seduced into unselfconscious enjoyment by the film’s dark, spiky humor. Brighton Rock was a novel before it was a movie and it remains probably my favorite novel of all time. Graham Greene stuck to a completely English milieu for this early gangster story set in the seaside town of Brighton with its pleasure piers and seedy amusements. A teenage boy with an acne problem and a very bad temper named Pinkie is the leader of a low rent gang of hoods. Pinkie and his middle aged cohorts kill a newspaper man from London who is working in Brighton for the day because of unfinished business related to his nefarious extracurricular activities. The murder scene is different from how it plays out in the book but it’s the rare example of a movie adaptation with inventive visuals that manage to artfully elaborate on the themes of the book even when straying from the book’s plot. Pinkie is evil incarnate. He wears a cheap suit and carries a razor blade as a weapon and only seems happy when terrifying other people. He is a virgin and is repulsed by sex but plagued by self doubt over his lack of life experience. When a young waitress named Rose becomes a potential liability for Pinkie’s gang he sets out to court her with the plan of marrying her so that she can’t testify against him. He seems relieved when he sees a rosary in her purse and his eyes light up as he talks about the certainty of eternal damnation and torment even as he seems more skeptical about the possibility of any alternative.
As previously mentioned, Brighton Rock is one of the great film noir dark comedies and in Pinkie it has one of the great villains of cinema and in Ida Arnold, one of the most absurd protagonists. Ida is a classic British creation—a soft-around-the-edges kind of gal with a hearty laugh. When she’s not working on her "entertainment" career she’s usually found at the pub drinking port and singing sentimental old music hall songs with her randomly assembled group of male friends. Ida met Fred just before he died and she is obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Soon Ida is causing problems for Pinkie as her rambling investigation threatens to ensnare him.Continue Reading
Film students across the world come to be familiar with Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour because it's one of the first examples of the "noir" genre; it makes clever use of its low budget and it offers a classic, if simplistic, story on how men and women can manipulate each other into horrendous actions. While all of these are the reasons why the film still holds up today, it's also more fun to think of Detour as the 1940s equivalent of Stranger Than Paradise or Clerks. Super low-budget and completely pioneering in its time for depicting human behavior, this is a film that can still prove to people that quality films can be made outside of Hollywood.
The story opens up on a grizzled and paranoid-looking Al Roberts, who staggers into a diner somewhere in the barren remoteness of Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles. He reacts harshly when somebody in the diner plays a particular song on the jukebox and, after apologizing and being nearly kicked out, he drinks his coffee and begins to tell his story over narration.Continue Reading
If you know nothing about film noir, start with Double Indemnity. This classic by director Billy Wilder was among the first bona fide pictures in the postwar genre, and it contains all the essential elements – lust, greed, violence, betrayal – that animated this wondrous American style during its great epoch of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Based on a novel by hardboiled fiction forefather James M. Cain, the biting script was co-authored by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe. The brutal, sleazy tale is recounted (in traditional voiceover style) by canny but weak-willed Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is ensnared by the scheming trollop Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The pair hatch a complicated plot to murder her wealthy husband and collect a large double indemnity insurance policy. But they don’t reckon on the acute intuition of Neff’s friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose “little man” in the pit of his stomach tells him something isn’t quite right.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
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
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.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
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