The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#326 Post by domino harvey » Sun Nov 14, 2010 7:46 pm

So, Siodmak is turning into the surprise MVP of my provisional list. Indulged in two more of his films today, the Suspect and the Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, to great results. These pictures really function as sister films, as both feature emasculated male characters played by established British character actors who find an escape from an overbearing female in their life in the form of Ella Raines, only to have their second chance at happiness blocked by all avenues but murder. Of the two, I favored the Suspect more, if only for the total pathetic charm Charles Laughton gives his henpecked and slovenly clerk. Certainly the film fulfills a bit of audience wish fulfillment in Raines' aggressive pursuit of a nice, unassuming man nowhere in her league, but the picture has a real sentimental attachment to its protagonist and skirts the production code's punishment requirements at the end in quite a charming way.

Raines is given more to do in the Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, and it's nice to see her livened up in contrast to her other noir work:

Image

but she's overshadowed by Geraldine Fitzgerald as George Sanders' overbearing sister. There's subtext and then there's literal incestual lust, and that's, shockingly, what's going on with this one. The film carries its perversity into its ending
SpoilerShow
the "It's all a dream"-ness of which, while not working as brilliantly as in the Woman in the WIndow, has a sense of total falseness and narrative incongruity that it can and must be read symbolically as a fevered hallucination caused by suicide, probably by poisoning-- think, who shows up to greet him but his dead sister and lost love? But not his sister who he genuinely has no interest in seeing again, even before his death. Before the intrusion of the ending, the film hinted at Leave Her to Heaven and the later the Gunfighter in its implications, but if the dream is kept and read as false, it's yet another way around the code that works wonders!

...And if you take it all literally, it's one of the worst endings of all time. You choose!
Highly recommend both of these films to those reading, though neither is out in English-friendly DVD editions. Those interested in finding the Strange Affair of Uncle Harry can PM me for assistance, and the Suspect apparently is on YouTube.

...Speaking of Ella Raines, any fans of Impact? It too is definitely making my list, as no other noir so effectively addresses and confirms the era's fears of urbanization versus suburbanization, and it's of course always nice to see Donlevy in the lead.

User avatar
Murdoch
Joined: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:59 pm
Location: Upstate NY

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#327 Post by Murdoch » Sun Nov 14, 2010 11:37 pm

Cold Bishop wrote:No, Kino put [The Made Me a Fugitive] out here. Although, I give it my highest recommendation if you don't have it yet..
Anyone know how the Kino compares to the R2? If they're the same I guess I'll just opt for the Kino since I found it for cheap.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#328 Post by zedz » Mon Nov 15, 2010 3:46 pm

I’ve been rather remiss with the noir project. I’ve managed to watch the remaining noirs in my kevyip, without much joy, even for something as highly anticipated as the wordy, stiff The Big Knife, but haven’t got around to tracking down many missing titles or rewatching old favourites for the purpose of ranking. So I’ve dedicated this week to the latter at least, and decided to start with my presumptive number one.

Force of Evil

Greatest American film ever made? Nah. But seeing it again, it seems to me easily the greatest noir and the greatest American film of the forties. So, what’s so great about it?

Number one is the script, a superb study of What’s Wrong with America that casually hits, in 80 minutes, all the key notes the Godfather films huffed and puffed and struggled over three movies to reach (and not without getting confused and compromised by the glamour of the storytelling). It’s beautifully constructed, from the multiple business metaphors, to the way it rhymes and counterpoints successive scenes, to the elegance of its basic plot mechanics (as in how Polonsky establishes the three guns that figure in the climactic shootout). Every character is intelligently individualized, but they also serve a symbolic purpose. In this film, nobody is uncorrupted, but Polonsky shows us the infinite degrees of corruption in the modern world and is smart enough to know that morality is entirely relative and never absolute, and that lives hang in the balance between those niceties of relativism. Who’s more corrupt than whom? Whose level of corruption is minimal enough to count as ‘good’ in this morally murky universe? Does loyalty to a boss, or to an employee, wipe away the stain to any extent? If an illegal business is suddenly declared legitimate, does that make it right? How much more culpable is betraying one bad guy to another than betraying the same bad guy to the cops? To what extent do intentions outweigh actions? Are you your brother’s keeper?

Force of Evil isn’t just a powerful morality play, it’s dozens of them, all working furiously at once in a demonically sophisticated and uneasy manner. In this world, as in our own, you don’t have the luxury of siding with the good guy: you’ve got to do the hard work of figuring out which of the bad guys is the least of several evils – or which one is most likely to get you what you want.

And then there’s the language. Having O.D.ed on Odets, I’m a sucker for the authentic hard-boiled poetry of this film, one of the most beautifully written of the era. If you’re of the “people don’t talk like that” school, you might as well turn around and go home right now (and what are you doing in a noir thread in the first place?) The blank verse conceit is so bold it’s a miracle that Polonsky manages to pull it off – to the extent that you might only notice that the characters’ lines are uncommonly full, with a number of compulsive repetitions. There’s an obvious nod to Shakespeare, but Polonsky avoids flowery verbiage and padding and creates a persuasive, if uncommon, vernacular of his own. The approach yields much wonderful, rhythmically compelling dialogue, from rat-a-tat one liners to the subtly showboaty moment when Polonsky cheekily figures out a way to rework Lear’s quintuple negative for the mealy mouth of King Leo: “No, no, no. En. Oh.”

What’s more, Polonsky doubles his miracle by finding actors who can take his extraordinary script and make it sing. There are no weak links in the film's cast, and they range from major talents like Garfield to specialised contract players like Gomez and Windsor to phenomenal newcomer Beatrice Pearson, who it seems made only one other film. Polonsky makes the ‘nice girl’ part much more substantial than most other writers would (Doris is indeed tainted by corruption, just like everybody else), but Pearson fleshes it out brilliantly, and holds her own in her many verbal sparring matches with Garfield, who isn’t pulling any punches.

So: great script, great performances? Sound like a nifty filmed play? Nope, this is pure cinema. Polonsky might not have been the flashiest noir director around, but he proves to be a deft visual stylist, making telling use of shifting camera angles throughout and, when it’s required, efficient montage. However, as knives noted upthread, it’s the final fifteen minutes when his mastery really shines through, with a string of superbly constructed and imaginatively staged sequences that propel the story to its grim conclusion.

First come two rhymed scenes – Leo and Bauer in the restaurant and Joe and Doris in the nightclub – both of which make brilliant use of incongruous diegetic music. The first, stark and brutal, scene unfolds against syrupy, romantic piped music, then its sequel, with desperate Joe feeling sorry for himself, has an interactive jazz band in the background, playing, at first, sleepy, smoochy 3am music. Then, on Joe’s instruction, they start on something upbeat and even more jarring with the tone of the dialogue before relaxing back into a slower tempo as soon as Joe’s attention wanders. Then, when the other shoe drops, the band, like everybody, stops dead, and the scene concludes in shocking silence.

The climactic scene is another directing masterclass, but this time the topic is light and darkness. Polonsky unfussily establishes the scene’s single light source, then eliminates it and sends his hero scurrying into the shadows on the floor (and so this scene is rhymed with the earlier one in which Joe was spying on a different office - his own - from on high). The three guns we had seen before all come out, and the scene plays out as a contrast of strategies: attack, escape or hide in the darkness? The winner is the one who outthinks the others when light becomes the enemy.

Then comes the denouement, a justly famous scene that traces Joe’s open-air descent into Hell. Here, Polonsky creates an amazing sequence of monumental location shots, punctuated by a couple of almost avant-garde pieces of syntax (a zoom, a jump-cut) and accompanied by Joe’s wonderful closing soliloquy, a poem of despair that tolls his doom with the syncopated bass of the word “there”. A spine-chilling conclusion to a great American film.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#329 Post by zedz » Tue Nov 16, 2010 5:16 pm

Noir of the Day 2

Raw Deal

When I first saw the two definitive Mann noirs many years ago, I immediately pegged T-Men above this one, but I couldn’t remember why until I revisited it.

Raw Deal contains so much beauty and ingenuity from Mann and Alton in the form of a number of indelible images (the ranger in the woods departing in the misty light, Claire Trevor and the clock) and sequences (the fight seen through fishing nets, the fog-shrouded confrontation in the street towards the end) that they tend to remain in the brain long after the flaws of the script have dissipated, but as it unfolds before me, I can’t ignore the plodding plotting and the perfunctory characterization.

The interlude at the inn with the other fugitive, for example, just seems completely arbitrary. Even if this sequence is there for the sake of juxtaposition with the main plot (and not, say, simply to edge the film up to a required running time), it seems very half-heartedly integrated. It’s beautifully shot and well staged and all, but it seems oddly pointless: a great big coincidence with no valid dramatic function. Other bits also seem to be very lazily plotted, such as Marsha Hunt just happening to run into John Ireland again: the shortest distance between two plot points.

Hunt’s character is drastically under-written, and she never transcends the limitations of the character as she was conceived. Thus she flip-flops from one attitude to another as the immediate demands of the plot require, and the core emotional undertow of the film is frittered away in the meantime. Claire Trevor’s Pat is exponentially the most interesting character in the film, and she’s a much more resourceful actor, but even she struggles to wring the emotion from the situation.

Fortunately, Mann and Alton are so creative that they manage to fill some of those holes (e.g. the unconventional pieta at the end of the film, in which our perspective and sympathy is that of a third party) and distract us from others by the sheer bravura of their staging. It remains a classic noir, but it won’t be as high up my list as I’d initially assumed. There are, for a start, three or four other Manns that powerfully outclass it.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#330 Post by zedz » Thu Nov 18, 2010 6:43 pm

Didn't post yesterday, so here's a double feature

Act of Violence

In my first cut of the noir list I omitted this film entirely, as I couldn’t remember anything about it and couldn’t remember ever liking a Zinnemann film. Then, while jogging my memory, I found in the Warners noir thread that I’d identified this as one of the standouts of its respective set, so I thought I’d better go back and pick up the scent.

It is indeed an excellent noir, one of the best and darkest of the ‘post-war return of the repressed’ strand of the genre. Robert Ryan is fantastic as ever and incredibly threatening as the proto-Max Cady, but the script goes above and beyond the basic, compelling dynamics it swiftly establishes. After setting Ryan up as an extremely effective monster, the situation flips – without simplistically reversing it – and our sympathies are muddled right up until the climax. The unusual moral complexity of the film is reinforced by the uncommon attention paid to the women in the film, all of whom fight for their place in the story and in the lives of their men. Mary Astor gives the star turn in her supporting role late in the film: a brilliant, vanity-free piece of careworn character acting.

I normally find Zinnemann’s direction fussy and stultifying, with every effect laboured over to the point of lifelessness, but in this film the hard work pays off. Robert Surtees’ photography is exquisite throughout without being over-aestheticised, and I have to give credit to Zinnemann for the brilliant staging of the slow-burn ‘chase’ sequences. At the lake, we’re acutely aware of the relative speeds of motorboat and rowboat, so the ‘pursuit’ has the paradoxical, paranoid quality of a molasses-legged nightmare, with Ryan’s Angel of Vengeance inexorably approaching in the deep background and Heflin’s escape dangerously slowed by mundane distractions.

The final showdown is a masterpiece of geometry and mood, and again a distanced camera communicates inexorability and heightens the tension. The conclusion of the plot may seem a little narratively tidy at first glance, but thematically and in character terms I find it very satisfying and even moving, and it really does reinforce the entire film’s ambivalence about who’s the hero here.

Oh, and the film earns big bonus points for its superb location shooting in Bunker Hill in one sequence: an essential record of one of America’s great lost urban landscapes.

Detour

This is one of those films that always plays differently to how I remember it. It’s so bare and cheap and mean (all in a good way, and there aren’t many films you can say that about) but nevertheless I’m still always shocked by how little there is to it. I remember key scenes and assume there’s more connective tissue between them, but when I watch it again, those key scenes are basically it.

Even so, the film is so ruthlessly direct that it requires a fair bit of filler to get itself over the sixty minute mark – three musical numbers (basically irrelevant, since Tom Neal’s occupation doesn’t figure into the main plot) and the framing device. Ulmer is a reliably resourceful director, but the film is so bare-bones an uncharitable viewer could still place it in the neighbourhood of Ed Wood, and there aren’t many aesthetic fig leaves to protect the modesty of the budget.

What we get instead is attitude. Ulmer manages to get an incredible amount of mileage out of the fumes of Neal’s weakness as a leading man in the first half hour – talk about making a virtue of necessity! – but he’s really only marking time until the arrival of Ann Savage. She’s the thing that really catapults this film into the top ranks of noir, a venal slut (femme fatale is way too elegant a term for this wildcat) who electrifies the entire back half of the film and single-handedly elevates a bad situation into your worst nightmare. And yet, however demonic Savage plays it, she’s never supernaturally evil – it’s all too sordid and banal for that. When her character is afforded one of cinema’s most ridiculous and squalid deaths, it would be easy to laugh at the tawdriness of the entire production, but Ulmer manages to stage it like a trapdoor opening into an even darker nightmare, with the added existential frisson that the action strips our hapless hero of his identity. I prefer to see the final scene of the film as purely speculative, with Neal left in limbo indefinitely. The electric chair seems way too cozy compared to the bracing emptiness of the alternative.

User avatar
Cold Bishop
Joined: Tue May 30, 2006 9:45 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#331 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Nov 19, 2010 6:24 am

knives wrote:Though I'm mostly deciding on whether Thunder on the Hill, White Heat, and Secret Beyond the Door count as noir.
I would say definitely to Secret Beyond the Door. White Heat is a little more difficult, and really depends on how separate you consider the film noir from the gangster film, even as the latter genre was caught between two cycles during the period, and as such, was often appropriated into noir films.. My opinion is divided on the matter such that I usually say no to White Heat (and Dillinger, for that matter), and yes to Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, although I would have to closely re-watch both films to give you a decent answer why.

Never seen Thunder on the Hill, but of the other supposed Sirk noirs, Shockproof is the only I felt really fits the mold, so I'm skeptical.
--------------------------------------------
Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947)

Watched this with high-hopes after the stunning achievement of Caged. What I got was a minor, if still remarkable entry into the genre (and at least this film is in the genre). While it's ostensibly a continuation of the 'A' detective films in the style of Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep, here there's a twist: Bogart is not a detective, but an Army Captain, and he treats the central mystery less like a case, and more like a search-and-rescue mission. As such, you can file this film under the "War Comes Home" sub-genre; a They Made Me a Fugitive-lite, if you will. Like those films which Cavalcanti's embodies the best, there's a reactionary sense that the society left behind in the war years has grown soft, decadent, amoral and dangerous, with a special emphasis paid on the criminals and generally undesirable people who managed to take advantage of the "absence", and gain money, success and power. In this film, more-so than the two aforementioned private eye films, the movie is filled top-to-bottom with unlikeable, if not downright bad people... save, of course, for those people who actually served in the war, like Bogart or his missing partner, or in one rare occasion, the proud father of a GI. Of course, the war doesn't entirely leave Bogart unscathed (although the film's refusal to explore this angle more is one of the many things that keeps it from being a great film); there was always a petty, if not malicious side to Bogie's heroes; they'll remain honorable, but they're not against getting a cheap shot in here and there. However, in the final third of the film, his character begins to veer toward psychopathy; forget a cheap shot, here he needles and psychologically tortures a hood who did him dirt before leveling him; he's not against threatening burning the baddies alive to make a point, and he sets a room ablaze to show them he means it; and if not for some deus ex machinas, he comes close to murdering the villains in cold blood.

And of course, one should make special note of the villains, starting with their names - Martinelli and Krause, Italian and German, despite the fact that their characters are otherwise completely standard American riffraff. Krause is sadistic, brutal, psychopathic, taking great delight in working over Bogart in one scene. He even anticipates another fascism-tinged villain - Hume Cronym's Warden Munsey - in his employment of music to accompany his beatings. The film doesn't go as far as putting Wagner on the soundtrack (it settles for some indistinct period muzak), but it does make that extra step with Martinelli, who throws lines of Nietzsche at Bogart on several occasions. Martinelli is interesting; he's ostensibly a Detroit hood who worked his way up the racket, but Morris Carnovsky plays him as all high-class manners and airs, with a Mid-Atlantic accent that edges towards foreign; he reeks of European aristocratic arrogance more than Urban American strongarm, and he makes great pains to play up his respectability and downplay the crime and brutality he's involved in, while even at the same time employing and basking in it. Like in Cavalcanti's film, the hoods have made good in the war years, and are now doing their best to show off their newfound class. And following through on the "war comes home" conceit, its not surprising that Bogart uses weapons of war against them, hurling hand grenades at them.

Of course, the reactionary conceit has its downside. Despite the great sympathy employed in Caged, the film completely indulges the misogyny of the post-war film noir, and its perhaps in this area where the film most stumbles. Bogart's "pocket-sized girl" speech is of course infamous for its sexism, and the film reinforces the sentiment by
SpoilerShow
turning Elizabeth Scott into a complete femme fatale, right down to an ending that points to Out of the Past. This may have been dandy if Lizabeth Scott was a Jane Greer, but she's decidedly out of her element here.
There was always something, superficially, about Lizabeth Scott that irked me, be it her raspy (forget husky) voice or the roughness in her face, all which makes me suspect that she may have been ten years older than she let on, and which never let me buy her as the pure, glamorous (although often deceptive) beauty that she was often cast as. With that said, I often do like her, and she does a much greater job in Pitfall and Too Late for Tears than she is able to here. This role called for a Hayworth or Bacall, and casting Scott and keeping the role as written just makes it feel by-the-numbers and dull. The film tries to fit her in a pre-manufactured archetype without understanding what makes Scott unique as an actress.

As such, the film kind of just moves along, diverting, but without ever bringing its best ideas up to the forefront, all while including probably more narrative information than necessary (such as the confessional framing device). The subversive edge which makes Cromwell's Caged so wonderful is absent here. With that said, its still a interesting minor film in the genre, and interesting enough to compel me to track down The Racket, despite the low opinion of it around these parts.

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#332 Post by Yojimbo » Fri Nov 19, 2010 9:22 am

zedz wrote:Detour

This is one of those films that always plays differently to how I remember it. It’s so bare and cheap and mean (all in a good way, and there aren’t many films you can say that about) but nevertheless I’m still always shocked by how little there is to it. I remember key scenes and assume there’s more connective tissue between them, but when I watch it again, those key scenes are basically it.

Even so, the film is so ruthlessly direct that it requires a fair bit of filler to get itself over the sixty minute mark – three musical numbers (basically irrelevant, since Tom Neal’s occupation doesn’t figure into the main plot) and the framing device. Ulmer is a reliably resourceful director, but the film is so bare-bones an uncharitable viewer could still place it in the neighbourhood of Ed Wood, and there aren’t many aesthetic fig leaves to protect the modesty of the budget.

What we get instead is attitude. Ulmer manages to get an incredible amount of mileage out of the fumes of Neal’s weakness as a leading man in the first half hour – talk about making a virtue of necessity! – but he’s really only marking time until the arrival of Ann Savage. She’s the thing that really catapults this film into the top ranks of noir, a venal slut (femme fatale is way too elegant a term for this wildcat) who electrifies the entire back half of the film and single-handedly elevates a bad situation into your worst nightmare. And yet, however demonic Savage plays it, she’s never supernaturally evil – it’s all too sordid and banal for that. When her character is afforded one of cinema’s most ridiculous and squalid deaths, it would be easy to laugh at the tawdriness of the entire production, but Ulmer manages to stage it like a trapdoor opening into an even darker nightmare, with the added existential frisson that the action strips our hapless hero of his identity. I prefer to see the final scene of the film as purely speculative, with Neal left in limbo indefinitely. The electric chair seems way too cozy compared to the bracing emptiness of the alternative.
Perhaps summarising your comments in one sentence one could say: "its got little going for it, except that Masterpiece 'X-Factor'"
I was all prepared to 'bury Caesar' after hearing so much about it but I instantly warmed to it, or perhaps more appropriately 'shivered' to it.

An impending sense of doom pervades it, almost from the get-go, and the entrance of Ann Savage is like first sight of the executioner's axe. I can't say its my No.1 noir, but its been a Top 10 ever-present for as long as I can remember.

And noir trivia fans should note that the screenplay for Ulmer's hugely enjoyable horror Masterpiece 'The Black Cat' was written by Paul Foot, author of one of the great pulp noir Masterpieces, 'The Fast One'
(thats a lot of Masterpieces in one post, and I don't hand out the accolade too easily)

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#333 Post by zedz » Fri Nov 19, 2010 4:24 pm

Yojimbo wrote:Perhaps summarising your comments in one sentence one could say: "its got little going for it, except that Masterpiece 'X-Factor'"
Nicely put. "If it weren't for the fact that it's a masterpiece, this would be a pretty terrible film."

Next up:

He Walked by Night

The first time I saw this I liked it plenty, but was distracted by the entire directorial controversy. Seeing it again, I still have no idea how much was Werker and how much was Mann – or, indeed, how much was Alton, papering over the cracks – but I do know it’s head-to-toe brilliant.

I’m tempted to declare this the greatest of the ‘procedural’ / documentary noirs, but that would be rather misleading, as the scenes documenting police work (including a pioneering identikit session), excellent though they are, pale into insignificance alongside the red meat of the scenes that follow our friendly neighbourhood sociopath. These scenes are not just great: some of them approach genre-best, like the police ambush that goes wrong at the electronics company, or the night-time climax when he’s trapped in his bungalow and his little dog just keeps on growling and barking, or the final chase in the storm-water drains (a sequence so great it gives the one in The Third Man a run for its money). Alton is at the top of his game in these scenes, and most of them play out in riveting silence.

The entire film is compelling and impeccable, with a lot of the hallmarks of Anthony Mann (including an intense scene in which Basehart surgically removes a bullet from his own armpit), though overall the film seems to me somewhat more visually buttoned-down and classical than the undisputed Manns of this period. If some of the footage was the more modest work of Werker / Alton, perhaps Mann / Alton felt obliged to rein in the more expressionist extremes of their vision that come to play in T-Men and Raw Deal. Regardless, it’s a devastatingly photogenic film and a triumph for all concerned.

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#334 Post by Yojimbo » Fri Nov 19, 2010 4:37 pm

zedz wrote:
He Walked by Night

The first time I saw this I liked it plenty, but was distracted by the entire directorial controversy. Seeing it again, I still have no idea how much was Werker and how much was Mann – or, indeed, how much was Alton, papering over the cracks – but I do know it’s head-to-toe brilliant.

I’m tempted to declare this the greatest of the ‘procedural’ / documentary noirs, but that would be rather misleading, as the scenes documenting police work (including a pioneering identikit session), excellent though they are, pale into insignificance alongside the red meat of the scenes that follow our friendly neighbourhood sociopath. These scenes are not just great: some of them approach genre-best, like the police ambush that goes wrong at the electronics company, or the night-time climax when he’s trapped in his bungalow and his little dog just keeps on growling and barking, or the final chase in the storm-water drains (a sequence so great it gives the one in The Third Man a run for its money). Alton is at the top of his game in these scenes, and most of them play out in riveting silence.

The entire film is compelling and impeccable, with a lot of the hallmarks of Anthony Mann (including an intense scene in which Basehart surgically removes a bullet from his own armpit), though overall the film seems to me somewhat more visually buttoned-down and classical than the undisputed Manns of this period. If some of the footage was the more modest work of Werker / Alton, perhaps Mann / Alton felt obliged to rein in the more expressionist extremes of their vision that come to play in T-Men and Raw Deal. Regardless, it’s a devastatingly photogenic film and a triumph for all concerned.
Yeah, I was surprised at how good it was, as its generally not ranked as highly as the Mann-Alton films.
(perhaps because critics are reluctant to give Werker credit; or, perhaps, to acknowledge that Alton had even more of a creative input that he's generally given credit for)
But what really got me hooked was that opening shocking murder, which was so brilliantly filmed

And as I think I mentioned in my own mini-review: great to see Whit Bissell get a good meaty part to sink his teeth into

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#335 Post by domino harvey » Fri Nov 19, 2010 8:25 pm

zedz wrote:I’ve managed to watch the remaining noirs in my kevyip, without much joy, even for something as highly anticipated as the wordy, stiff The Big Knife
I too finally got around to this one and was shocked at how bad it was. Like, it's completely awful. Not a good noir, play adaptation, film, anything. Only think that kept my interest was seeing a couple bit players from Aldrich's other '55 film, Kiss Me Deadly, pop up

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#336 Post by Yojimbo » Fri Nov 19, 2010 9:00 pm

Just watched 'The Street With No Name' for I think the first time; its not top rank noir but its a surprisingly good entry in the docu-noir subset, and may just make my 50.
What I was particularly impressed with was the soundscape, and the frequent long silent stretches, particularly the climactic scenes in the factory, and an earlier scene, where Richard Widmark chances upon an intruder at his munitions stash.
As always in noir, the suppporting characters helped define the film; apart from John McIntire as an unusually agile undercover agent, and Howard Smith as a corrupt commissioner, I also liked Donald Buka as a flickknife-wielding hood, Shivvy.
Barbara Lawrence was underused in the slinky Marie Windsor role.

I'm about to re-watch Sam Fuller's 'House of Bamboo' as its purportedly a remake, and I intend to compare and contrast afterwards

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

#337 Post by domino harvey » Fri Nov 19, 2010 9:41 pm

In my quest to live an interesting life, this year I've been teaching a Film class to seniors at one of the most persistently violent, underfunded, and academically deficient inner city high schools in the state-- so what better audience for the fatalism of noir, right? Coinciding not too coincidentally with this list, we've watched a dozen noir films over the past few weeks and thought it might be nice to get some reactions to noir in this film from an entirely different perspective. My students are all black, go to school in a particularly sketch area of the city, operate on about a seventh grade reading and comprehension level despite being seniors, and most were placed in the class without having any say. So, already these kids sound like they are not a willing audience for classical Hollywood product, right?

Except, wrong. They had never even heard of a silent film before the first day of class, and were amazed at how quickly-paced and easy to follow Sherlock Jr was. And they've kept growing every day since. Sure, you'd expect kids from this background to respond to violent noirs, but the first genre we tackled thoroughly after they got so much out of Singin' in the Rain were musicals and they loved them-- you haven't lived until you've witnessed a spontaneous debate on who was a better, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, or had a repeater with an ankle bracelet ask to watch a particularly complicated dance number from My Sister Eileen again so they could figure out the moves! You'd probably be surprised at what some of their favorite films have been, too-- they adored the Long Hot Summer, were blown away by Karl Malden in Baby Doll ("I have never seen someone act that good before!"), and fell in love with Daddy Long Legs. There are a lot of reasons for their positive reaction to classical studio product, and I have my theories, but certainly one explanation has to be that these kids have lived their whole lives being churned through a school system whose lessons pandered to be "high interest" without respecting their right to be exposed to a wider cultural swath.

The films we screened for the noir unit were eleven noir propers-- Touch of Evil, Gun Crazy, the Set-Up, the Lady in the Lake, Murder, My Sweet, Out of the Past, the Big Steal, Whirlpool, Crime Wave, Caged, Kiss Me Deadly-- and one neo-noir, Pretty Poison. Every film went over very well, with the exception of Murder, My Sweet, which I only brought in because they all enjoyed the Lady in the Lake so much (!), but we all kind of agreed it wasn't that great-- I hadn't seen it in several years, and apologies to whoever made the spirited defense earlier in this thread, but it was worse than I remembered and I regretted bumping the Big Heat for it. I know Touch of Evil probably sounds like an odd starting point, but I know my students and they love Orson Welles, so I trusted my instincts. They had a lot of fun figuring out how the code would work in films like Gun Crazy and Out of the Past, and as stated the kids responded very well to the first person techniques of the Lady in the Lake. Big performances always carry a lot of weight, and Sterling Hayden in Crime Wave and Jose Ferrer in Whirlpool definitely got a lot of attention and praise.

It's funny though, the classics really are the classics for a reason: Without question the biggest hit was Out of the Past, and they all got a kick out of seeing the same actors in a more lighthearted romp with the Big Steal too. They loved Mitchum and loved hating Jane Greer and had some very observant thoughts on her femme fetale role. Next biggest hit was definitely Caged-- even the students who never participate were transfixed by this one, probably for obvious reasons but nevertheless, this is a film whose social ills depicted still hold a very real and relevant power in a way that admittedly most of these films don't without context.

I perversely had the class tally their own "Noir List" of the five best noirs we watched, and while I wasn't surprised that Out of the Past was the overall favorite, I was shocked that it appeared as the number one pick on every list but one. The runner up was a real surprise too, as I knew the class seemed to like seeing all the noir elements in a new way and appreciated the slight of hand the film played, but I hadn't realized Pretty Poison connected as strongly as it did.

The Overall Top Picks, aka My High School Film Class Has Better Taste Than Your College Film Class:
01 Out of the Past
02 Pretty Poison
03 the Set-Up
04 Caged
05 Whirlpool

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#338 Post by Yojimbo » Fri Nov 19, 2010 11:52 pm

Just finished watching 'House of Bamboo', which I would consider the inferior noir film.
Fuller perhaps because of his interest, even fascination, with Japanese culture includes a somewhat tiresome cross-cultural romantic sub-plot which deadens the pace somewhat, partcularly in the early scenes.
As with Widmark in 'Street', Ryan is relatively restrained here compared to his more acclaimed psycho roles, such as 'Caught', 'Crossfire', and 'Odds Against Tomorrow'; just when you're egging him on to explode in psychotic rage he continually holds back.
Due to the need to fill a quota of roles with Japanese actors, Fuller can't benefit from supporting character actors; Cameron Mitchell has one or two memorable scenes, but he's far less memorable, over-all, than his 'Street' counterpart, Donald Buka.

'Bamboo's main strengths are its heist set-pieces, and especially its climactic scene; its colourful and dynamic widescreen photography, (by 'Street's' DP, Joe MacDonald), and by its Japanese colour.

Long odds to make my 50; if it sneaks in it will only be on account of Ryan's and Fuller's names

User avatar
Murdoch
Joined: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:59 pm
Location: Upstate NY

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#339 Post by Murdoch » Sat Nov 20, 2010 12:18 am

Out of the Past's adoration is something that's always eluded me, I need another rewatch before the deadline. Great story though, it's classes like those that lead many down a lifetime of cinephilia.

Watched my second Preminger noir tonight, Fallen Angel, and while I'm struggling to find a place for it on my list I think writing down something will let me sort out my thoughts. The film shifts from a conman story to a whodunit, and briefly to a lovers-on-the-lam, packing together these subgenres into a tight package - it reminded me of Mann's Winchester '73 which rather seamlessly combined so many western conventions into a cohesive film. The lighting is at times among the best of the genre - most notably during a church scene with the black and white contrast of conman Andrews cast in shadow and church organist Faye enveloped in light. I didn't fully buy all these guys falling head over heels for Darnell, or at least I didn't buy Andrews and thought he seemed too cool and smart to be willing to go through a fake marriage scam just to get a ring on her finger. The sexual power she has over the men around her becomes clear with the last ten or so minutes, and seeing the mayhem as a product of Darnell's unbridled sexuality made me view the film as a like-minded gender counterpart to the Kathie/Anne bad girl/good girl dichotomy of Out of the Past, which allowed me to see past how lacking Darnell was in charm despite her lovingly sexual introduction. Andrews' drifter is the best noir antihero I've come across, though, as he skirts the line between likable and despicable, and like In A Lonely Place we're never sure as to his motives. While noir has plenty of selfish protagonists to spare I though Andrews came across as the extreme of these since he's not an innocent man trying to clear his name or who stumbled into a criminal underworld, but a man caught up in one crime but guilty of another.

Oddly enough at the end of the film the diner owner came off as the most sympathetic, for some reason that line he says about "selling the place" because of the murder I thought profoundly sad. And it was really the end that gave me a better appreciation of the film as the thematic element - the powerlessness of the men to control their lust for Darnell - came full circle with the reveal of the murderer.
Last edited by Murdoch on Sat Nov 20, 2010 2:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
Cold Bishop
Joined: Tue May 30, 2006 9:45 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#340 Post by Cold Bishop » Sat Nov 20, 2010 2:52 am

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

Hysteria is right! Hollywood has a tendency - from In the Heat of the Night to Mississippi Burning - of depicting Southern towns as powder kegs set to explode any minute. Phil Karson does it earlier, does it better, and without any of the liberal back-patting condescension that marks most of those films. Karlson's docudrama roots get a full work-out here, filming in the titular town just as the real-life trials were actually taking place, using locals, and going as far as dressing one actor in the very same outfit that his real-life counterpart was murdered in. But Karlson's great strength was his matter-of-fact toughness, and he dives into the violence and vice of Phenix City with a sweaty, obscene intensity that even dwarf his other films. We feel that when this powder kegs blows - and blow it will - it's going to leave nothing but a crater and scorched earth where a town once stood. And it might deserve it; there's a reactionary edge to this all; Phenix City is a modern Sodom and Gomorrah that requires Old Testament justice, biblical vengeance to wipe the slate clean. Karlson, thankfully, does his best to balance this out, extolling democracy and justice in the face of unrestrained corruption and control from criminals on one side, and the barely restrained violence of public lynch mobs on the other. What follows is a series of beatings, murders and rapes (and yes, that's rape in plural; an average 50s crime drama this is not) which are dished and doled out with a cold-blooded casualness and frequency that really captures just how ingrained vice and corruption is in this town. In crime films, it is not rare to see the crime bosses portray themselves as respectable members of a community; here, they are the respectable members, right down to Edward Andrews kingpin, who's portrayed with an affable, laconic simplicity that makes him feel like a small-business owner more than a syndicate boss. This is the rare 50s films with enough guts to be unafraid to kill off numerous of its sympathetic principles by the end, and leaves the few survivors with more than a few physical and emotional scars that are bound to last.

While perhaps not as fully formed as that film, The Phenix City Story is almost as prototypical as Fritz Lang's The Big Heat in regards to the modern crime thriller, those lone wolf tale of revenge running from these films to the Bronsons and Eastwoods of the 70s, the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the 80s and beyond. Karlson would even make one of the key and most popular films of cycle later with Walking Tall, which looks almost like of a remake of this film... until you note it was a based off a separate real-life event (it could almost be called a sequel; that film's State Line Mob being a direct descendant of this film's The Machine). What makes this film so interesting for such an early entry is the way it tries to deal directly with the cryptofascism that so largely informs the genre. When he arrives, we learn that John Patterson (Richard Kiley) has returned from Europe, were he spent the post-war years prosecuting war criminals. So, from the great conflict in Europe he almost comes home to face-off with a home-grown fascism. Of course, it never settles on a definitive stance on the subject. It alternates from careful endorsements of democratic and judicial action, and scenes of gridlock and brutality that seem to implicitly argue that reactionary violence is the only solution. It's criticism doesn't even settle on one subject; it is originally The Machine that seems to be aligned with fascism, their tight control of the town analogous to a dictatorship; other times, it's directed at the reform committee against crime, who are often ready to take to street with bats like modern day blackshirts. In fact, what we have here is an early example of an "incoherent text", and for much the same reasons that Robin Wood identifies in those films of the seventies; there's a great unease and critical eye directed towards contemporary 50's society, yet one that is never allowed to settle into a fully developed radical political position. How else to describe a film that warns against mob violence as capable of undermining democracy and our civil rights, and then ends, quite triumphantly, just as the most deliberately fascist chapter of the film begins:
SpoilerShow
the declaration of martial law in Phenix City.
But this is not to besmirch the film. Like those other "incoherent texts", it's various internal contradictions capture the central conflict better than a consistently defined attitude might have.

The way this incoherent attitude is able to conceal radical attitudes becomes more apparent when one grasps the film as also an allegory for racial oppression. It's an element that is spoken out loud during the ending, but is implicitly present throughout the film. The actions of The Machine often mirrors what one would expect from pro-segregationists: after all, this is a film that revolves around a cabal of prominent officials and businessmen attempting to preserve a corrupt system that has been in place for a hundred years. They fix trials, control a law enforcement which deliberately turns the other cheek, terrorize and exploit a local population that is rendered helpless and denied any means of retribution, they violently block and disrupt elections... And it ultimately takes the National Guard (and Government) to come in a fix the situation. This however, also becomes muddled. Sometimes the conflict is explicitly linked with the James Edwards characters, other times its purely allegorical. Sometimes the reform committee are portrayed like the beginning of a grassroots movement of nonviolent resistance; other times, they're portrayed like lynch mobs. It contains one of the most shocking scenes of racial violence in a 1950s film, but one that also exposes the film's internal contradictions.
SpoilerShow
A black child is abducted, murdered (if not worse) and thrown from a moving car, simply as a warning to the film's hero. Even a bad dummy doesn't blunt the scenes' power. It adds another edge when the subsequent trials concerns the murder of another white character, but no mention of the child. Likewise, as the speeding car tosses out a child, they momentarily lose control of the car, and run into a white child, a bystander. It's an interesting, powerful, but troubling moment. It links the two, showing that the lawlessness that allows for racial violence can trickle over to the white population. Yet, it implies that an audience can only care and relate to the scene if a white child is hurt, too.
One wonders, how much Karlson was aware of that aspect of the scene. Yet, as an "incoherent text", it goes much farther in capturing the subject than most of its contemporaries.

While I'm soured on the ending, it perhaps goes as far as a 1950s film could on the subject. For the duration of its running time, The Phenix City Story is one of the toughest and meanest off all 1950s crime films, with a gritty matter-of-fact realism and shocking violence than begins moving past docudrama and towards the post-noir style that would inform its successors, few of which have dealt with the genre's moral and political dilemmas to the extent that Karlson wrestles with it here.

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#341 Post by domino harvey » Sat Nov 20, 2010 12:03 pm

Vincent Sherman's Nora Prentiss is a film that doesn't know what it wants to be and transversely I don't know or care what it is. The first half wavers between a cautionary woman's picture about the dangers of infidelity and pathetic wish fulfillment for mild-mannered men who'd love to be picked up by Ann Sheridan. But then it switches into noir in the second half and spirals down into a bizarre and infuriatingly dumb solution to infidelity that results in a character being convicted of their own murder-- that's a silly idea, but one that could possibly work in a brutish 70 minute b-picture. It cannot work in a bloated two hour weepfest like this though. A lot of the blame rests square on the leads. Kent Smith, so much fun in his not dissimilar role in Sherman's the Damned Don't Cry, confuses playing "good" with playing "wood," and his stiffness is met mark for missed mark by the normally punchy and lithe Sheridan. The only point of interest here, from a noir standpoint at least, is that the sleazy nightclub owner turns out to be the gender-reversed "good girl" of the pic-- again, the idea sounds intriguing until you see it play out here. Even Howe's cinematography proves unremarkable, and that surely can serve as the final nail in this coffin.

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re:

#342 Post by Yojimbo » Sat Nov 20, 2010 12:22 pm

domino harvey wrote:The Overall Top Picks, aka My High School Film Class Has Better Taste Than Your College Film Class:
01 Out of the Past
02 Pretty Poison
03 the Set-Up
04 Caged
05 Whirlpool
I was just about to reply about the unanimity concerning 'Out of the Past's' position in the noir canon, and then Murdoch goes and spoils it all!
I'm not sure whether I had even considered 'Pretty Poison', but it certainly meets the 'femme fatale' requirements, if nothing else, but I remember when I finally got to watch it for the first time, about 10 years ago, and thinking this was Anthony Perkins' finest performance.
Didn't care at all for 'Whirlpool'; can't remember if I saw 'Caged'

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#343 Post by domino harvey » Sat Nov 20, 2010 2:11 pm

John Sturges' Jeopardy has the misfortune of coming before but being seen after Paul Newman's Sometimes a Great Notion, in that the novelty of someone being trapped in a body of water and slowly drowning as the tide comes in has already made its impression (in a more grim fashion, too, I might add), so the film's success or failure falls on the Stanwyck/Meeker storyline. Ralph Meeker, so good as the thuggish Mike Hammer is just as charismatically tasteless here as an escaped con who chomps down crackers during a police chase and has one of the great noir lines, (Giving her the once over) "Isn't there anything else of your husband's I can use?"
SpoilerShow
Perhaps most fascinating about the film is that it actually allows for an on-screen killer to receive redemption! Meeker does his good deed and despite Stanwyck's not particularly believable v/o denouncement, he walks away at the end of the picture! Hey, how about that!

User avatar
Yojimbo
Joined: Fri Jul 04, 2008 10:06 am
Location: Ireland

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#344 Post by Yojimbo » Sat Nov 20, 2010 10:24 pm

domino harvey wrote:Raines is given more to do in the Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, and it's nice to see her livened up in contrast to her other noir work:

Image

but she's overshadowed by Geraldine Fitzgerald as George Sanders' overbearing sister. There's subtext and then there's literal incestual lust, and that's, shockingly, what's going on with this one. The film carries its perversity into its ending
SpoilerShow
the "It's all a dream"-ness of which, while not working as brilliantly as in the Woman in the WIndow, has a sense of total falseness and narrative incongruity that it can and must be read symbolically as a fevered hallucination caused by suicide, probably by poisoning-- think, who shows up to greet him but his dead sister and lost love? But not his sister who he genuinely has no interest in seeing again, even before his death. Before the intrusion of the ending, the film hinted at Leave Her to Heaven and the later the Gunfighter in its implications, but if the dream is kept and read as false, it's yet another way around the code that works wonders!

...And if you take it all literally, it's one of the worst endings of all time. You choose!
Highly recommend both of these films to those reading, though neither is out in English-friendly DVD editions. Those interested in finding the Strange Affair of Uncle Harry can PM me for assistance, and the Suspect apparently is on YouTube.
I always thought that ending was more subversive than that which the Code saw to suppress. Haven't seen it in about 15 years but it will make my list, as will 'Criss Cross' and most likely 'Phantom Lady', partly for that iconic drum scene and partly for the 'stalking' sequence

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#345 Post by domino harvey » Sun Nov 21, 2010 2:18 pm

zedz wrote:
domino harvey wrote:I just came across you saying that Force of Evil was one of the best films to come out of Hollywood ever (or something equally strong) in another thread and I'd love to read a more detailed defense of the picture. I like the film, but it definitely played as an average programmer for me.
Well, if my opinion was as rational and well-argued as that, it just has to be correct!

Checking back, this was my top Hollywood choice for the last 40s list, coming in at number 4 (and the next American film on the list, Walsh's Pursued, will also be top 10 for me, I'm sure, unless I come over all purist and save it for the Western list.) This is going to be a great opportunity to watch the film again, but here's a few thoughts off the cuff. It's been years since I've seen it, but the first time I did, on an old VHS, it really did hit me as possibly the greatest Hollywood film I'd ever seen to that point. On my second viewing I was primed for disappointment that never arrived.
To the mysteries of taste indeed. Finally watched Pursued, which doesn't belong on a noir list to my eyes, and, despite it having two of my favorite stars and a great director at the helm, found it to be sloppy, uneven, poorly structured, and not particularly memorable or interesting. Wah-wah.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#346 Post by zedz » Sun Nov 21, 2010 7:59 pm

domino harvey wrote:To the mysteries of taste indeed. Finally watched Pursued, which doesn't belong on a noir list to my eyes, and, despite it having two of my favorite stars and a great director at the helm, found it to be sloppy, uneven, poorly structured, and not particularly memorable or interesting. Wah-wah.
Never mind. I've resigned myself, as I'm sure you have, to our having diametrically opposed taste when it comes to a lot of the films we're most enthusiastic about.

With a handful of noble exceptions, which brings me to . . . third finger, left hand:

A Kiss before Dying

I think I was the only cheerleader for this film during the last 50s list project, so it was inevitable that it would figure high on my noir list, and the revisit was simply for the sake of ranking.

Domino H was right about the visual kick of this film. Really, it looks like no other noir, but mainly because it doesn’t look much like any other Hollywood film of the time either. Antonioni is, fitfully, an appropriate if anachronistic reference point. The great bleacher scene early on, for instance, obliterates the sky and transforms the setting into an abstract, receding black and white pattern, on top of which float the main characters.

Gerd Oswald makes sharp and intelligent use of the cinemascope frame throughout, with figures isolated at opposite ends of it, or crunched together on one side of it, and he’s just as brilliant in his deployment of colour, often restricting the palette of his compositions to neutral shades with one highlight colour drawing our attention (an Ozu-like fire engine red, for example, or at the desert oasis a powder blue) or forming semi-abstract shapes (e.g. a red sleeve and a red skirt conspiring to create an abstract composition with its own interest and tensions quite apart from the on-screen action). He’s even so in control of the colour scheme that he can turn skin tones into that highlight colour in some scenes.

The material is tough as nails, but it’s presented in the luxe form of a campus melodrama, with Robert Wagner’s shallow dreamboat performance the perfect mask for chilling psychopathy. That central disconnection is the engine of the film, and Oswald has great fun building up little patterns of behaviour and repeating them in contradictory or rhyming circumstances. For instance, look at the different times Bud offers ‘his girl’ a just-lit cigarette, then flicks it away, or how Gordon’s recognition of Bud is prompted by the rhymed staging of two encounters (Bud turning away on the stairs). This memory jog being on the level of mise-en-scene only, not anything spelt out in the plot. The film has a meticulous, tidy, glossy sheen that it pulls primly over its deeply disturbed insides.

Crime Wave

Loved this film first time around, so watching it again for the purposes of ranking was a tremendous pleasure, as was unravelling just what was so marvellous about it.

The storyline is pretty boilerplate, and its genius lies in the inflections of style and performance that make it one of a kind. The heroic leads – and even the two main villains – play it relatively straight, but all around them it’s like a masterclass in quirky character turns, from the top of the billing (Sterling Hayden as the arrogant arsehole cop) right on down to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her wife of the parole officer (here’s to you, Mary Newton). Jay Novello as Dr Hessler gives far more shades of nuance to his character than are strictly required, all while holding down a really great drunk act. Timothy Carey is given his head in a prototypical “Look at me! I am Timothy Carey and I am depraved!” part. Even when De Toth pushes him to the back of a crowded frame, he hogs it mercilessly. And even then, his primate display antic isn’t the strangest performance in the film, which peculiar crown must belong to venerable Hank Worden. In a career of eccentric line readings, from The Searchers to Twin Peaks, his tiny scene here takes the cake. It’s the closest I came to being thrown out of the movie, but De Toth manages to make all of these eccentricities seem like regular variations on human behaviour, not some cavalcade of theatrical turns.

So how does he pull it off? By grounding everything else in persuasive verisimilitude. This may be the most docu- of the docu-noirs, with bountiful location shooting (including real, genuinely dark night shoots), raw sound (or an amazing facsimile of it – I love the hollow echo of the police station scenes) and, most crucial of all, muscular, highly mobile camera work that’s always on a human scale, the camera eye moving around and amongst the characters to create an extremely intimate perspective on the heightened events. It’s that approach to the camera that really marks this film out as a precursor of the Nouvelle Vague.

Two more viewings:

Murder, Inc. – Solid last gasp noir with a couple of bravura sequences but not enough else to cause it to trouble my list. I was sort of on the fence about whether this 1960 film was very late noir or very early neo-noir, but I think on balance it’s much more genuinely backward-looking than it is self-consciously so. And I’d like to count it as noir if only to assure myself that such a natural noir heavy as Peter Falk actually got one authentic one under his belt.

Outrage – This, on the other hand, falls on the wrong side of ‘not-noir’ for me, despite a moody chase sequence at the start. It’s a rare film of the period that focuses on the victim of a crime but not in the context of revenge. There’s a lot in the film that nobody but Lupino would tackle at the time, and much of it comes off, but it’s frequently offset by clunky performances and dialogue or unhelpful Hollywoodisms.

That chase sequence is a good place to start. It’s expertly staged and shot, with alienating high angles and creepy lighting, but the menace generated is undercut by too many moments when Mala Powers is required to stop and strike a stereotypical ‘frightened’ pose in front of a truck or something. Not exactly the best strategy for escaping an assailant. Nor is falling down and lying there until he catches up with you.

The set piece at the dance towards the end is much more effective, and has a disturbing ambivalence that the film’s characters simply ignore. The man’s advances are becoming more and more insistent and physical, despite Ann’s protestations, and he’s edging her further and further away from the crowd, but this behaviour is treated as perfectly acceptable (and Ann’s defence of herself utterly unacceptable). I’d like to think that Lupino was conscious of this ambivalence, but there’s not really any textual evidence for that.

User avatar
Cold Bishop
Joined: Tue May 30, 2006 9:45 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#347 Post by Cold Bishop » Sun Nov 21, 2010 8:22 pm

I was hoping to write at length about the two films before the deadline, but if anyone hasn't seen De Toth's two entries into the genre, track down Crime Wave and Pitfall right away! Both brilliant achievements in the genre, the latter especially being high-ranking, and certainly the ultimate Dick Powell noir.

To me, the main problem with De Toth's career is that he simply didn't make enough film noirs, or crime pictures, as he would certainly have known them. The toughness and darkness of the genre crowds into most of the rest of his genre work - Ramrod (the western), None Shall Escape (refugee film), Dark Waters (gothic melodrama) - but excluding Slattery's Hurricane (which is something of an odd duck as far as classification goes) these two films are it. But what a pair! It's a shame he's mostly recognized as the guy who directed House of Wax, or the other Randolph Scott collaborator.

And not just proto-Nouvelle Vague, but proto-Cinéma Vérité. De Toth's images just aren't docu-drama; they have a cripsness, immediacy and fluidity which to me makes them stand apart from what Jules Dassin or Henry Hathaway we're doing a few years earlier. The docudrama took its cue from newsreels, The March of Time, etc.. This film looks like the photos, in the spirit of Weegee, Frank and Klein, brought to life. As handsome as Dassin's film is, the opening robbery looks more like Weegee than anything in The Naked City. The repeated shot from the backseat in the opening seems to be his guiding philosophy here, and his camera is constantly emphasizing a 360° sense of space throughout the film. It seems especially obvious that this is a film that Stanley Kubrick studied. This has the same Look Magazine-inflected realism of Killer's Kiss, and Sterling Hayden in The Killing owes as much to his gruff, no bull-shit portrayal here as it does to The Asphalt Jungle. And it certainly must be where he picked up Timothy Carey.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Sun Nov 21, 2010 11:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#348 Post by zedz » Sun Nov 21, 2010 11:22 pm

Good points: you're right that the 'documentary' look of Crime Wave is one that most filmed documentaries wouldn't catch up with for another ten years, and still photography is the relevant reference point.

Another thing I love about the film is how the final shots of the credit sequence are immediately repeated as the narrative begins, like they didn't have enough footage. It's an arresting 'mistake'.

User avatar
Cold Bishop
Joined: Tue May 30, 2006 9:45 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#349 Post by Cold Bishop » Sun Nov 21, 2010 11:52 pm

To me the opening "mistake" is all about emphasis: he's making it clear that he's trying to put you "backseat" into this world of crime. The opening to me just reinforces that, one of the bloodiest and most violent scenes in all of Classic Hollywood. Right from his first Hollywood film (the Jewish massacre in None Shall Escape) he was always trying to push the boundaries of realism in screen violence, and this is another high example: plenty of bloodshed; gunshots hit their targets within the same shot, no cutaways (the gun fired in one shot; someone grabs their belly and falls in the next shot) as is common under the code. It's all filmed with a stark quietness which is must more in the spirit of something like The Honeymoon Killers than some of the stylized violence that one would find in his contemporaries. There's even the very-modern ironic use of pop music (Gershwin's "'S Wonderful" playing quietly in the background), the only close contemporary I can think of being Carl Foreman's use of "White Christmas" in The Victors nearly a decade later, but which is par for the course nowadays. That's what all the photo-realism is about, the way that throughout the film, he places cameras in the center of rooms until by the end of the scene, through pans and edits, we have a complete 360° orientation of the set (or near the ending, how he follows the car around the bank), the sense of economy throughout (it is only a bit more than a hour long)... it goes beyond docudrama and into something else entirely.

And despite being, by all accounts, a supporting character, Sterling Hayden completely earns top billing. I'm almost disappointed he didn't have more to do, since this is possibly his best role. When he kicks in the door halfway through the film, I was half expecting the film stock itself to burst, the authority he commands is so palpable. And that final shot is one of the perfect moments in all of cinema, and its all Hayden.

User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: The Noir List Discussion and Suggestions (Genre Project)

#350 Post by zedz » Mon Nov 22, 2010 3:19 pm

domino harvey wrote:To the mysteries of taste indeed. Finally watched Pursued, which doesn't belong on a noir list to my eyes, and, despite it having two of my favorite stars and a great director at the helm, found it to be sloppy, uneven, poorly structured, and not particularly memorable or interesting. Wah-wah.
Pursued

Domino’s shrug prompted me to watch this again, so, first things first: Domino, are you insane?

Pursued is an interesting test case in determining the boundaries of noir, since it’s clearly, even primarily, something else – a western. So your estimation of it as noir will depend on to what extent you consider film noir a trans-generic phenomenon (i.e. can the term only apply to what would have been considered at the time a ‘crime film’ or ‘thriller’?) I tend to be on the conservative side of that divide, but Pursued is surely the closest the western genre came to noir, and so many elements of noir are recontextualised in the film that it seems like a conscious effort to deal with a whole lot of contemporary concerns and styles in the form of a western.

First, there’s James Wong Howe’s superb photography. It’s consistently excellent, and sucks up a lot of influences, from Wellesian deep focus interiors to Fordian vistas (though the three-dimensional staging is pure Walsh throughout), but the darkness of so many key scenes, some with single lighting sources or even that noir standby of dusty light through slats, is the defining look of the film. Even scenes in bright sunlight are often defined by their concealing shadows.

Also strongly noir is the mode of the storytelling, with its fatalistic tenor and first person narration, its protagonist who is persecuted without knowing (or, more to the point, without remembering) the reason why, and the psychological MacGuffin that has to be decoded. The film deals with that favourite noir trope, the return of the repressed, in a number of overlapping ways, and it’s also very pointedly a post-war tale, with Mitchum, like so many other noir protagonists, returning home from the war to find his world transformed for the worse. Then there’s a glimpse of the corrupt establishment. Heck there’s even a (BIG spoiler, folks)
SpoilerShow
femme fatale! And that moment when Teresa Wright gets to switch from good girl to incipient murderer in the course of a speech is a great performance. Did she ever get much of a chance to play against type?
And for me, Walsh manages to make all those elements work beautifully together, and the way he stages action is particularly breathtaking in the film’s key scenes (the deep background stalking / showdown, the pursuit into the hills, the shootout in the shadows after the dance, Wright’s marriage announcement to her mother). I’ll grant that the conclusion is a little abrupt, but it works for me, and it reinforces the idea that all the bad stuff in the film was being driven by one person.

Post Reply