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The Return of Film Noir!

Here, at any rate, before the twentieth century passes from memory altogether, are some of the recent excavations. Most of them are derived from masters of better quality than the prints that tend to show up in revival houses: one of the accidental side benefits of video is that the software moguls who own the film libraries are obliged to protect their investment.

  1. The Seventh Victim (directed by Mark Robson, 1943). The slow-paced, somberly lit, self-consciously literary horror movies that Val Lewton produced for RKO in the early 1940s—Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead—already have the fully developed noir look. Of these, The Seventh Victim, an ultimately unsupernatural take on a band of Aleister Crowley-ish occultists, interwoven with motifs of suicide, sexual perversity, and West Village bohemian life, is especially fascinating. The interconnections among modernist art, psychoanalysis, and a sophisticated diabolism are typical of the period. An air of oppressively deliberate artistry—Lewton’s trademark blend of refined chiaroscuro, compositions crammed with detail, and sinuous camera movements—signals lurking evil. The frame itself becomes an exotic carnivorous flower about to swallow the spectator.

  2. The Dark Mirror (directed by Robert Siodmak, 1946). The secret of 1940s melodrama was to look lifelike and behave like a dream. If one side of noir wants to be real, even neoreal in the Italian manner (Crossfire, Boomerang!, Cry of the City), it is held in check by the oneiric side which triumphs in The Dark Mirror. Here the viewer can savor the harmless but alluring terrors of a dream world that comes complete with settees, alcoves, silent elevators, and a newsstand in the lobby. It is difficult now to be frightened by a movie where two Olivia de Havillands share the same frame much of the time, and where both fall madly in love with Lew Ayres as a neighboring psychologist who has (by sheer coincidence) devoted his life to the study of identical twins. But the texture triumphs, partly because Robert Siodmak’s direction imparts an appropriately somnambulistic tone to the proceedings. Every production detail conspires to seal the movie off from any known world: as Thomas Mitchell confesses that “it don’t make more sense than Chinese music to me,” Dimitri Tiomkin’s score obligingly chimes in with shimmering Chinoiseries.

  3. Desperate (directed by Anthony Mann, 1947). At the opposite extreme from The Dark Mirror, Desperate gets its whole impact from the idea that something like this is probably happening out there right now. An honest trucker—“he needs the dough, he’s just out of the army with a wife on his hands”—fights back against a gang of criminals: the infinitely recyclable plot would have been equally at home in 1932 or 1978, here it gets the 1947 heavy-shadow treatment, typified by a visually startling episode where the hero (the believably unglamourous Steve Brodie) gets beaten up in a room lit only by a wildly swinging bare lightbulb. This is B-movie as country-and-western ballad, seventy-three minutes of total involvement followed by oblivion: except for one’s lingering uneasiness about unlit corners and warehouses near the river.

  4. The Street With No Name (directed by William Keighley, 1948). The attention to technical detail in World War Two training and propaganda films perpetuated itself after the war in a series of pseudo-documentary crime films (T-Men, Boomerang!, Call Northside 777). The military atmosphere is heightened in this FBI tale by an introductory message from J. Edgar Hoover (“The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America…. Whenever law and order break down, there you will find public indifference”) and by blasts of martial music accompanying scenes of FBI workers making scientific comparisons of barrel markings. But when the film cuts back to “the street with no name,” the cinematographer, Joe MacDonald, revels in vistas of bus depots, penny arcades, cheap rooming houses, and pool halls set against a soundtrack of blaring Dixieland. This dreamscape of vice is the American cinematic paradise, a visual and aural carnival appropriate to the gang leader played by Richard Widmark in high psychotic gear. (Terrified of catching a cold, he’s addicted to nasal spray, and when his wife opens a window he screams: “You open that window again I’ll throw you out of it!”)

  5. Road House (directed by Jean Negulesco, 1948). Road House would have been the perfect date movie for young people who had outgrown Love Finds Andy Hardy and A Date with Judy and craved a sophisticated, sexually charged cinema demonstrating new styles in courtship rituals, along with up-to-date vernacular, smokefilled cocktail lounges, and an array of slick clothes. It’s a triumph of marketing strategy: a tough but romantic story with a strong female lead (Ida Lupino), two strong male leads (Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark), glamour, fistfights, a love triangle, psychosis, cops, songs, and a halfway happy ending, all drenched in the burnished, multilayered cinematography of Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Fallen Angel, Hangover Square). What makes it different is Ida Lupino’s incarnation of the torch singer Lily: a singular instance of Hollywood trying to imagine an autonomous adult woman. The limits of Forties screen maturity are reached as she murmurs smokily to Cornel Wilde after their first kiss: “We’re not kidding ourselves anymore, are we?”

  6. Follow Me-Quietly (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1949). There’s a message picture hidden inside this fifty-nine-minute thriller about a serial murderer. The detective hero blames the crimes on their depiction in pulp crime magazines: “How the Judge kills and why—what it feels like to be a killer—spicy, isn’t it? Just think of all the gory pictures you can use for illustrations…. Polluting minds until some poor dope gets a crazy idea and goes on a homicidal holiday!” This line of thought gets quite near the bone, although the hero doesn’t include violent B-movies in his diatribe. As it is, the pallid polemics don’t interfere with the bracing virtues of Follow Me Quietly, a throwaway artifact swarming with the gratuitous pleasures of visual storytelling.

  7. Caught (directed by Max Ophuls, 1949). Leaving Orson Welles to one side, this is perhaps the most visually spectacular movie of the period, with the enveloping sense of space that Ophuls created out of insistently gliding, retreating, corkscrewing camera movements, constant changes of scale, densely choreographed groupings. The world of money and power in which the naive Barbara Bel Geddes is caught becomes indistinguishable from the coordinates of the stylized screen space that enmeshes her. The noir element is concentrated on the figure of Smith Ohlrig, a manipulative, woman-hating millionaire modeled on Howard Hughes (on whom Ophuls sought revenge after being unceremoniously fired from the ill-fated Vendetta). Robert Ryan’s tortured performance of Ohlrig is frighteningly credible, from his taunting relationship with his psychoanalyst to the threat he murmurs to Bel Geddes: “I think I want to destroy you.” Censorship prevents the script from following through to its logical murderous conclusion, but despite the hurried wrapup Caught is mesmerizing in its orchestration of nuances. For Ophuls the glossily seductive texture perfected in 1940s Hollywood was not an obstacle but the perfect raw material for an art of surfaces.

  8. Gun Crazy (directed by Joseph H. Lewis, 1950). A relentless little melodrama—the cinematic equivalent of juke-joint music—which marks a turning point: unlike earlier noir movies, no matter how serious their flirtations with alienation and rebellion, this one actually seems to operate outside the system. The spectator is positively forced to identify with the gunobsessed lovers who drive (literally, in a movie where every other scene takes place in a car) into a career of robbery and murder. There’s no comfortable way out; Peggy Cummins is a compulsive killer but she can’t really help herself, and she does sincerely love the essentially benign but all too malleable John Dall. His performance reaches a pathetic crescendo when he asks her: “Why do you do it? Why do you have to murder people? Why can’t you let them live?” He forgives her immediately after she replies, “Because I love you,” and soon they are dancing to the strains of “Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside.” The violence for which Gun Crazy is celebrated actually only occupies a few seconds of screen time. This disturbingly tender movie spends much more time on passionate embraces and half-hearted regrets: “Everything’s going so fast, it’s all in such high gear…. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.”

  9. Panic in the Streets (directed by Elia Kazan, 1950). An illegal immigrant brings bubonic plague to New Orleans, and epidemiologist Richard Widmark has to fight bureaucratic complacency and underworld evasiveness to prevent disaster. Generically the picture belongs to the lineage of socially conscious noir items like Body and Soul and Force of Evil, but in the McCarthy era the political intention becomes more elusive. Likewise the ostensibly documentary approach veers into something more dreamlike. When American film makers tried to emulate Italian neorealism, they ended up making poverty look gaudily exotic. Here, in the first flush of all-out location shooting, the movie’s star is New Orleans, but the cinematographer, Joe MacDonald, manages to turn its waterfront and back alleys into a fantastic set. The theatricality of the atmosphere is heightened by some outsized performances from Jack Palance and Zero Mostel. Panic in the Streets creates an imaginary environment whose fascination is only tenuously linked to the script’s civic concerns.

  10. The Underworld Story (directed by Cy Endfield, 1950). If Follow Me Quietly is a B-melodrama pretending to be a serious message picture, The Underworld Story is the reverse, adopting the outward characteristics of the gangster movie to send out an urgent communiqué. The American career of the talented South African director Cy Endfield would be terminated shortly afterward by the blacklist. Until this video release, the picture has been virtually unknown. It has a kind of Jacobean wildness to its plot twists, and some acting that borders on the hysterical. The venomously resentful son of a newspaper magnate murders his wife and frames her black housekeeper for the crime, and the cynical but deep-down-heroic reporter (Dan Duryea) who tries to expose the truth gets the treatment from defensive elitists, racist pressure groups, and hired gangsters. The dialogue is rich in coded political statements: “Lakeville…. One of those ivy-covered towns, shiny on top. You know what’s underneath ivy, Mike? Little crawling things.” “Looks like they’re burnin’ witches again.” “When times change, the smart men change with them.” “Don’t you think your phone is being tapped just like everyone else’s around here?”

  11. Try and Get Me (directed by Cy Endfield, 1951). A good-natured but not too bright out-of-work truck driver (Frank Lovejoy) kills some time in a bowling alley and meets an affable guy with a taste for loud clothes (Lloyd Bridges). The process by which this chance encounter turns into a spree of robbery, kidnap, and murder is observed with pitiless exactitude. Ultimately the picture becomes a tract against lynching, but its real interest resides in the relationship between the two men, and particularly in the Woyzeck-like dependence of the hapless character portrayed by Lovejoy (otherwise the most inexpressive of actors). There is a truly painful scene in which he realizes the enormity of what he’s done and just falls apart on screen. Endfield’s last American movie is forceful, bitter, and evidently designed to be as unpalatable as possible. When, at the end, the mob sets the jailhouse on fire it’s almost a relief.

  12. The Narrow Margin (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1952). This kind of suspense exercise, complete with nifty plot twist, would eventually fuel Alfred Hitchcock Presents and other late-1950s television series. The noir elements are incidental and by now almost parodistic. Charles McGraw describes Marie Windsor as “a dish….60-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.” Audiences apparently still got a charge from the mere existence of B-girls and gangsters (particularly the modern kind who looked like tastefully attired business executives), but crime thrillers were becoming B-movies again. Rapid, concise, and beautifully photographed, The Narrow Margin is an exercise in craft with few reverberations beyond the fascination of its technological exactness.

  13. On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray, 1952). The opening reels—detailing the crack-up of Robert Ryan, a hardboiled cop who’s seen too many “crooks, murderers, winos, stoolies, dames, all with an angle”—consists of night-time scenes filmed in tight close-up, and building a thoroughly somber atmosphere before exploding into brutality, as Ryan beats a suspect while screaming: “Why do you make me do it?” (As in Caught, Ryan’s aura of incipient violence is all too convincing.) Then his superior officer sends him—by way of exile—to deal with an upstate murder case, and the picture changes gear. The snowy landscapes (beautifully bleak in George Diskant’s cinematography) and the mournful harmonics of Bernard Herrmann’s score make explicit the artistic ambitions of director Nicholas Ray and the producer, John Houseman. The plot begins to turn into a story of Ryan’s redemption through the love of a blind recluse (Ida Lupino). Considering the talents of all involved, it ought to be a masterpiece; but genre takes its revenge, and the picture’s rhythm never recovers from the unanticipated quiescence of the rural milieu. On Dangerous Ground remains a wonderful idea for a movie that doesn’t quite exist.

  14. Pickup on South Street (directed by Samuel Fuller, 1953). When Richard Widmark picks Jean Peters’s purse on the subway, he doesn’t realize she’s an unwitting Communist courier carrying microfilmed secrets. The Feds track him down and try to get the film out of him: “If you refuse to cooperate you’ll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb!” But Widmark, an antisocial hipster with a nice taste in clothes, isn’t buying: “You gonna go patriotic on me?” Curiously, Pickup is far from being the exercise in cold war paranoia that its subject augurs. The script has all the elements of political allegory except a decipherable political meaning, while the tone suggests a raffish, Damon Runyonesque comedy interspersed with brutal beatings. Joe MacDonald’s location shooting around the New York waterfront is so spirited that at moments you expect the assorted crooks, informers, spies, and undercover cops to break into a dance number. The moments that linger, however, are unexpectedly mournful and severe: the offscreen murder of Thelma Ritter, or an overhead shot of a tugboat loaded with coffins destined for Potter’s Field. It took a director with Samuel Fuller’s oblique angle of approach to find a vein of poetic anarchism in the conformist heart of the 1950s police-procedural melodrama.

  15. Human Desire (directed by Fritz Lang, 1954). The Femme fatale returns here as a disgruntled housewife married to a brutish railroad foreman, in a low-budget, bowdlerized adaptation of Zola’s Le Bête humaine. Fritz Lang almost single-handedly kept the noir style going through the end of the 1950s. Actually he had been making pretty much the same kind of movie since 1919, regardless of how it was marketed. His later efforts such as Human Desire are singular for their refusal to win over the audience or to create sympathy for any of the characters. You may or may not care whether Gloria Grahame breaks free of Broderick Crawford or sleeps with Glenn Ford, but Lang is certainly not tipping the scales. He is too busy turning every camera set-up into an exercise in relentlessly drab geometrics, like a Mondrian under a light dusting of coal soot. The director manages to extract precisely the same numbed unease from a murder, an embrace, or a moment of dead time in which someone looks out the window. Lang did not so much make great movies as make the same great movie over and over, with the methodical determination of someone compelled to reenact a crime; or, perhaps, of a warden keeping his prisoners under close surveillance.

  16. Kiss Me Deadly (directed by Robert Aldrich, 1955). By 1955 it was after the end; as interpreted by Aldrich, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer represents the deformed endproduct of a thousand 1940s tough-guy movies, transformed by now into a leisure-oriented 1950s man more interested in his hi-fi and his sports car than in heroics. His apartment is the ultimate in streamlined 1950s modernity, with black-and-white checkerboard floor patterns and all the fixtures and gadgets of the good life: record player, television set, coffee table, Swedish bookshelves, and a giant answering machine built into the wall. Mike Hammer lolls on a sofa instead of sitting behind a desk, and flashes a feral, self-satisfied grin when a woman tells him: “Bet you do pushups every morning just to keep your belly hard…. You’re the kind of a person who never gives in a relationship, who only takes.”

Kiss Me Deadly turned out to be a look forward rather than back; its discontinuous editing and flat, jazzy cinematography anticipate the futuristic surfaces of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Godard’s Alphaville a decade later. The film’s visual style—which François Truffaut described at the time as “almost too full, too fertile”—today seems a foretaste of the assaultive overloads and rapid-fire disorientations of TV commercials and music videos. The script participates in the same discontinuity by slapping together abstract art and blue suede shoes, horse racing and Greek mythology, Christina Rossetti, Caruso, and fast cars. Everything is a clue to some ultimate mystery concealed in a little black box. When Hammer opens the box a sliver, he gets an ugly burn mark across his wrist. Finally Mike’s nemesis on the police force cuts through the mystery: “I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words, just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity.” As an aesthetic manifesto of the 1950s, Aldrich’s film could hardly refrain from sealing its seriousness of intent by playing the atomic card.

The apocalyptic perspective of Kiss Me Deadly—the film ends with a nuclear chain reaction that may prove uncontainable—embodies an attitude of conscious protest quite distinct from the science-fiction films aimed at teen-age audiences that turned nuclear terror into a manageable plot device: Them! (1954), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), or The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1958). Likewise the noir themes of corruption and organized crime would be supplanted by a concern with juvenile violence and identity crisis in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955). For the new youthful audiences, the motivations of old-style crime films were as antiquated as their heroes’ wardrobes. If Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly listens to Nat King Cole singing “I’d Rather Have the Blues,” Blackboard Jungle is closer to the mark with “Rock Around the Clock.” The elaboration of baroque plotting and tightly controlled visual architecture that peaked between Citizen Kane and Kiss Me Deadly was to be broken down into a new style: a more direct and unmodulated kind of movie making capable of competing with rock-and-roll.

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