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

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

#476 Post by Cold Bishop » Tue Mar 08, 2011 2:16 am

Alright, one last one that I've been working on since before the project ended. And if I had finished it on time, I would have probably ranked the film higher than I did. Just one last brief defense of my darlings left, and I can dive headfirst into the Western project.

Border Incident (Anthony Mann, 1949)

The most overlooked of all Anthony Mann’s film noirs – rivaled only by the non-Alton Side StreetBorder Incident is perhaps an easy film to underestimate, to relegate as a minor variation on themes better expressed elsewhere. This is to do the film a disservice. I’m guilty as any: I originally approached this piece much more critical. Yet, forced to examine it closely, to parse out its inconsequential whole into smaller pieces for examination, it emerges, while not his most successful or satisfying, as perhaps the most subversive and complex of all of Mann’s film noirs. Wedged between his film noir triumphs at Eagle-Lion and the cycle of James Stewart westerns, this transitional film, looking both forwards and backwards at the two genres, is often lost in the shuffle when considering his work. His early days at MGM saw Mann still trafficking in the pulp material of his poverty row days, and even openly repeating himself at times. As such, the delirious historical reinterpretation of Reign of Terror – Dore Schary’s personal favorite, and the film which secured Mann’s contract at MGM – was spliced with Hitchcock, and emerged as The Tall Target. Similarly, this film finds Mann restaging his earlier T-Men, armed with a bigger budget and with a dash of the “social consciousness” that Schary was so eager to introduce to Mayer’s dream factory. This is to perhaps simplify matters: Mann, and not Schary, initiated the project himself, while still at Eagle-Lion; his contract was a serendipitous moment: Eagle-Lion balked at the budget and were about to drop the project when MGM bought it from them. All this points to a film that was a personal project for Mann. Yet, in its parallels to T-Men, it feels like a calculated move of a new studio hoping lightning to strike twice. The similarities are undeniable: John Alton’s characteristically intense lensing; its tale of two agents going deep undercover into the world of crime; the focus on the intricate workings of criminal enterprise, their vast network of syndicates working as partners and rivals; the boys clubs atmosphere, pushing female characters to the margin of the narrative; the docudrama voicover; the punctuations of sadistic violence. Here, he opens up the claustrophobic backrooms and tenements to the panoramic vistas of the desert and Imperial Valley (looking towards his westerns), and the transcontinental crime wave hinted at in T-Men (its journey from Washington/Detroit to Los Angeles) is brought front and center with this film’s transnational border violence. Yet, both films follow a nearly identical narrative trajectory, right down to its main shocking twist and the free-for-all denouement.

Here, one begins to see the reasoning behind the reputation: T-Men emerges as a purer, more muscular, more surprising film. If Border Incident expands the scope of that previous film, it doesn’t expand on its theme and content. The central dilemma of that film – the blurring of the distinction between criminal and captor – is lost in this film’s uneasy mix of police procedural and message movie. Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy go undercover, but they never breach the gulf between performance and reality, between the agent and his disguise. They never seem at risk of being seduced by the allure of criminality: its style, its exclusivity, its liberating lawlessness. Montalban doesn’t even go undercover as a criminal; his role is that of a migrant worker, and a brief moment when he introduces crime into his persona is quickly forgotten. Murphy may pose as a counterfeiter, but his relationship is always antagonistic; he’s not accepted into the brotherhood the way Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro are. Similarly, the deep yegg-like bond that forms between that pair is lost in a film where the leads spend the duration of the film separated. Robbed of the thematic content, this retread is seemingly sheer spectacle: the bigger budget increases the dexterity and tension, yet its thrills read surprisingly slight compared to his greater works.

This leaves the social dimension of the story to carry the film. Yet, if this was a personal project, Mann’s commitment here seems, at worst, impersonal, or at best, neutered by the soft liberalism of the day. Mann was certainly a liberal filmmaker, but he wasn’t the one to wear it on his sleeve; it manifest itself beneath the surface, in empathy for marginalized characters, in a jaundiced eye towards traditional authority figures, in the indistinguishability between heroes and villains. This synthesis between surface and core is perhaps why his Stewart westerns are so great, where he had to contend with the conservatism of star and genre, or his Eagle-Lion films, where no overt political messaging would be indulged. Here, the politics are brought front and center, which requires Mann to navigate the message in way befitting the ideally centrist Hollywood film. As such, he is unable to escape the paternalism and condescension of champagne liberalism. This may be a joint-effort between U.S. and Mexican authorities, but the investigation seems largely U.S-centric in its goals and authorities. Even Ricardo Montalban’s remarkable turn, seemingly designated to break stereotypes, has the adverse effect of “Americanizing” him in the view of the potential audience. The immigrants that the film is so concerned with are still largely kept in the background, extras in a drama concerning the traditional authority figures of cops. Its view of Mexico doesn’t escape the preconceived view of the country as a lawless land, populated by ethnic bandits that look like holdovers from Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Alfonso “I don't have to show you any stinking badges” Bedoya even appears). This film, on surface, isn’t so much about exploitation of migrant workers as it is about the dissolution of national (and social, racial) boundaries, with Mexican criminality spilling over to our side of the border, and its immediate goal seems to be the reinforcing of those boundaries, keeping the U.S American and Mexico Mexican (making the social problem palatable to a right-wing audience). An early briefing scene between the agents and their superiors lays its cards on the table and carefully establishes its agenda: they give careful lip-service to the distinction between legal and illegal labor, legal and illegal immigrants. The scene a) lumps in the migrant workers with thieves and killers as “criminals” and b) makes it clear that this is the work of a few bad apples… that is, its robs the social message of its true social dimension. Likewise, the films’ conclusion, where one criminal outfits seems to constitute the entire problem of illegal labor, seems overly naïve (or dishonest) in the traditional mode of the social problem film, where the more troubling aspects of its subject is glossed over. This vision of Pax Americana may have been perhaps a little more palatable in an age of the Bracero Program, which at its height brought a half-million workers here legally, but viewed now, from a border situation which has grown only more desperate and complicated, its unearned optimism seems clear. Because of its focus on illegal immigration, some people have mistakenly pegged the film as film gris, but this is at first glance incorrect. The incendiary tone of dissent and progressivity clearly demarcates the classic film gris (Losey, Polonsky, Endfield) from the comforting liberalism of the Kramers and Zinnemanns. This films’ tone of unease and paranoia is unsettling enough to separate it from the latter filmmakers, but its politics are shorn of its rougher edges, so that it at times feel that Mann is going through the motions of the social problem film, so as to more quickly get to the crime and violence of film noir that truly interests him.

Border Confusion

Yet, if one reconsiders the film closely, one may realize that this is to make a critical mistake, to take the film at face-value, when Mann has often shown surface appearances to be deceiving. The fallacy: that, since the film presents a social and political message to the audience so clearly, we are to take it as the message of the film. We therefore underestimate the film; but this is to underestimate Mann. Just because the film wears its social consciousness on its sleeve doesn’t mean that it doesn’t introduce tensions and ambiguities to this consciousness that play against the surface. As in T-Men, where the authoritarian voice of its narrator stands in stark conflict with the murky uncertainty of its narrative, the political soft-peddling that the film presents to the audience disguises a much more unsettling subversive side. It may leave behind the cop/criminal crisis of that former film, but this is to overlook that it indeed installs a new crisis in its place. For this is indeed a film about the blurring of borders. The blurring of the Mexican-United States border stands at the center of this, and all other crises flow from it. One thinks of national borders as absolute, unambiguously defined. Here, all that separates the two nations is a decrepit barbed-wire fence in the no-man’s land of the desert. As national boundaries disintegrate, so do others. Illicit crime and legitimate business converge, as rural farmlands give way to human trafficking. The film gives lip-service to the clear distinction between legal and illegal labor, but the entire film is precipitated on the elimination of this distinction: Howard Da Silva's Owen Parkson is a legitimate farmer ("Mix them up with my legal workers"), yet that doesn't prevent him (and may embolden him) from being the kingpin of the operation. Likewise, if the film pretends to lump in immigrants, coyotes and ranchers together as a criminal class, the film even blurs the line between criminals and victims, as the power relations among this criminal class quickly and clearly establishes its own hierarchy, with the pitiful migrant workers at the bottom.

Mexico has always represented something distinct in the U.S. psyche. It represents a land that is both lawless and liberated, dangerous and alluring. The southern border almost acts as an extension of the romanticized Western frontier, long-vanished and mythologized, a wilderness that constitutes freedom for a man… but which comes at the price of bedlam. This gives a special appeal to the border, where the abstract notion of Mexico becomes a physical place with a tangible boundary, where these illusory notions of freedom and depravity almost spark in the air, even spilling over to our side, giving birth to the seedy, sinister border-town. Yet this is to give too much credit to Mexico in influencing the milieu of the border, and not enough to the way the U.S. reacts to its preconception of its neighboring country. To quote the other famous border noir: “This isn’t the real Mexico… All border towns bring out the worst in a country.” Americans flock to the “uncivilized” Mexico hoping to shed their inhibition and act on their repressed desires. Mexicans, with their own vision of a “prosperous” America, flock to the border looking to profit on that prosperity, to accommodate tourists in their preconception, and perhaps cross over themselves. This is to say that the unique, uneasy atmosphere of the border stems from a shared illusion, and that both sides contribute to it. If this film at first demonstrates condescension in its worldview, its vision of a lawless Mexico encroaching on U.S. soil, Mexican banditry contaminating the American way of life, it is to overlook that this film’s border crisis is never one of contamination, but of cross-pollination. This border isn’t simply degenerated by the violence and vice of Mexican banditry; the organization, competition and ambition of American business emboldens this petty criminality, giving it a scale and precision which constitutes a unique synthesis. Even the choice of border-town(s) is no mistake: Calexico and Mexicali: two separate towns, from two separate countries, both of whose independent existence is nonetheless interdependent on its double; and whose written names alone invoke a mirror image threatening to collapse on itself.

This film takes Mann’s (and film noir’s) preoccupation with crime-as-business to its logical conclusion, in a manner that rivals even Force of Evil. The crime syndicates of T-Men openly mimicked and imitated capitalism; here, the capitalists are the criminals. Legitimate businesses are no longer fronts for illicit activity, but the very foundation and aim of the entire operation. The vast intricacy of the operation – involving, as it does, two different countries, an alliance of potentially rival factions, the careful coordination of different steps across large swathes of time – is the sign of a once-small-time underworld gang graduating into the global market. That this criminality encroaches on agriculture has its own insidious implications: these crops are sent around the country, absorbed back into legitimate economy, and therefore threatens to corrupt the entire system. But this is to fall back into the “corruption” fallacy; it seems equally capable of exposing what already exists in legitimate business: a dependence on ruthlessness and exploitation that itself already borders on the criminal. Here, business and crime meet, and “bring out the worst” in eachother. Crime, emboldened by capitalism’s scale and precision, graduates to the big time; Business, embracing its inner criminality, is able to remove all ethical restraints and regulation, and fully indulge in profiteering. Yet, in this synthesis of Mexican banditry and American capitalism, there is no doubt which side has the upper hand. How else to explain a film that cast such notable faces as ethnic criminals – Alfonso Bedoya (so iconic in Sierra Madre) and Arnold Moss (such a standout in Reign of Terror) – and then completely underutilizes them? Yes, these leering, treacherous knife-wielding bandits may invoke the worst stereotypes of that country, but there is no doubt they are subservient to the economic and organizational might of their American counterparts. As mentioned, this film may appear to lump kingpins, bandits and immigrants together in one criminal class, but the actual content of the film says otherwise. The entire operation splinters into its own hierarchy, with its own upper, middle and lower classes, and which is not all that different from what one will find in a capitalist society. Howard Da Silva’s industrialist rancher stands at the top of it: he has clout, respectability and a genuine entry-way into legitimate capitalism that allows him to call the shots. The illegal immigrants, technically criminal themselves, are at the bottom: their poverty and helplessness (shut out from legal society) makes them the perfect underclass for this hierarchy, practical slaves. Between these two extremes is an entire pyramid of bandits, coyotes, enforcers, killers, counterfeiters, each with their own level of power and subordination, yet each harboring their own ambitions to climb up the ladder.

The Cost of Labor

The tone of the film is one of exploitation and increasing dehumanization, as the cutthroat violence of crime and the cutthroat callousness of business converge. Take the opening, one of the most startlingly violent in all the genre: a group of migrant laborers journey across the border, back into Mexico. They pass through a valley, and there, they are ambushed. They’re stabbed, murdered wholesale, picked of their belongings, their bodies thrown into a pit of quicksand. It’s certainly an aberrant sight. But petty criminality, in our minds, is usually associated with a hint of (for lack of a better world) intimacy, borne from a sort of passion or desperation (one sees here why it’s often easy to romanticize the criminal). At the end of the film, we reenter the valley, and find the same bandits there, waiting again for their prey. The implication is enough to make the run blood cold: they had no reason to expect this particular group; they are simply waiting there for any group. This banditry reveals itself to be not personal or intimate, but a purely mechanical act, to be repeated nightly. This killing is just another step in an assembly line, the knives and blood being the cogs and oil in a terrifying machine built for exploitation and death. This second appearance drives home just how impersonal this murder is, consisting as it does of an intricate methodology: the coyotes/bandits smuggle the laborers across the border; there, they are put to work on the farms, where the ranchers profit off of their cheap labor; then, after a long period of waiting, the bandits return to finish what they started, robbing and murdering the men they assisted months before. There’s no bloodlust or barbarism here; this requires a pragmatic and calculated investment that expands an entire seasonal interval, an investment that itself resembles agriculture. When the migrant workers are murdered and dumped in the quicksand, there is a shot of them, drown up their necks, their heads protruding from the devouring earth: these men are reduced to nothing more than crops in a bloody harvest, their corpses replenishing this criminal economy every season. The capitalist tendency to reduce men to mere sources of profit is taken to its logical conclusion: man is not merely exploited for labor, but when that’s used up, even his discardation is exploited for maximum profit potential.

It is this atmosphere of strata and dehumanization that violently, and unexpectedly, confront our heroes. The mimesis between cops and criminals found in T-Men emerges here in its own way. The crisis faced by our heroes is a blurring between the national, racial and social boundaries of our borders. Yet, to stop it, they embrace that very blurring: a joint effort between Mexican and American governments, two agents, one Mexican and one American, working together. The border-collusion of criminals is fought by a border-collusion of law enforcement. Each agent approaches the border from a different end: the immigrant crossing towards “prosperous” America; the criminal fleeing towards “lawless” Mexico. Yet, in both cases, their illusion of what’s to come is punctured, crashing against the ruthlessness and rigidity of this criminal hierarchy. One of the more striking elements of the film (and one thing that contributes to it seeming, at first glance, hollow compared to earlier films) is the level of impotency and immobility on the part of the agents. The two agents of T-Men were constantly doing, maneuvering deeper into the hierarchy, outsmarting their rivals, constantly reacting to every new dilemma with finesse and genius. Here, both men seem gridlocked into positions of helplessness, standing still as the operation continues to move around them, force to grit their teeth and take the blows that this insurmountable entity hands them. Montalban’s Pablo Rodriguez infiltrates the syndicate from the Mexican side, posing as a bracero. But any hopes to infiltrate the organization are unequivocally rejected: the rigidity of the system never allows a bracero to rise above his position at the very bottom of the pyramid, and Rodriguez plays the role of the migrant worker to the very end, constantly looking in on the operation from the outside, unable to take action against it. Yet, this has an underside: if he’s not allowed to ascend in rank, neither is he taken seriously as a threat, even as he breaks the rules in several occasion. For what is one lowly ‘wetback’ in the face of a vast economic system? The same can’t be said of George Murphy’s Jack Bearnes, who infiltrates this organization under the guise a criminal, entering the hierarchy in the middle, and one with a lucrative talent: he holds the stolen work permits that the coyotes desperately need. Yet, if he has illusions of being accepted into the criminal fold, he’s in for a rude awakening.

For a filmography littered with moment of shocking and sadistic violence, this film is perhaps the most startlingly violent of all of Mann’s film. Yet, in Mann’s other films, the violence was often even-handed, exchanged back-and-forth between protagonists and antagonists; despite this increase of cruelty – although certainly contributing to its impact – this film’s carnage is reserved nearly exclusively for sympathetic characters: for our two heroes, or the immigrants they are protecting. And especially Jack Bearnes. He’s the lynchpin of the film: the evolution of crime into an efficient and methodical operation is catalogued in his bruises, imprinted in his grimaces of pain, expressed in his bloodcurdling screams. He enters this world of crime and is immediately captured, imprisoned and tortured. This scene has precedence in other Mann films: in Dennis O’Keefe’s torture at the hands of Charles McGraw in T-Men, Robert Cummings hounding by both revolutionaries and police in Reign of Terror. In fact, it directly echoes T-Men: Bearnes leaves a folded permit in a bar much like Harrigan leaves the folded counterfeit bill; his torture is much like that which Harrigan suffers (Sig Ruman even resembles Wallace Ford). Yet, in that film, this torture is an act of initiation that ultimately provides an entry-point for the agent; here, Bearnes always remains at an antagonistic distance. Likewise, the sadism of this torture far surpasses those of the previous film. It’s a master-class in the horror of the unseen; I’ve seen it several times and still have only a vague idea of how it’s carried out. There is a truck, suspended so that it can run in place. Bearnes is seated a few feet in front of it, crouched on the floor, an iron bar inserted between his legs (his groin?). Wires connect Bearnes to the car, pointing towards electrocution with the car battery. As he’s interrogated, the car is periodically accelerated, sending violent jolts of pain towards Bearnes. The scene is shockingly violent, but it points towards something more unsettling. The master shot of this scene is a wide symmetrical view of the room: in the right half of the frame is Bearnes, in profile, crouched with his captors hunched over him; the left side of the frame is side view of the front of the truck, suspended in place, another captor in the drivers seat. As the torture unfolds, the convulsions of Bearnes’ body, the contortions of his face, is matched by the truck, its wheels spinning violently in place, the flashes of its headlights across Bearnes. Bearnes’ violent cries are drowned out –imitated – by the roar of the car’s engine, the buzzing of the tires. Which is to say that Bearnes is equated with this truck, reduced by his captors to its level. The truck is a piece of farming equipment, used to transport the immigrants (perhaps later used to transport produce), and in essence, Bearnes is reduced to a machine by his captors, a commodity, to be exploited for his work permits.

Here, our two agents make a fatal mistake: they believe they can infiltrate this brotherhood of crime by using the tactics of their T-Men counterparts. Yet here, the rules have changed, there is no brotherhood: this collusion of crime-and-business leaves no room for sentimentality or camaraderie. This syndicate is built on efficiency, on impersonal mechanical strength, on ruthless internal competition. Bearnes thinks his work permits will be an easy way into this syndicate. Yet, the syndicate instinctively tries to take him over, muscle him out, and when that fails, begrudgingly buys him out. Bearnes hopes to buy his way in through his special “talent”, but he overlooks that there’s no autonomy in this outfit: his “talent” designates him as nothing more than a machine, a small piece in an assembly line, and if he can be cut out, he will. Like the migrant workers who are reduced to crops, his existence in the hierarchy depends on his economic value; when that falters, he is reduced down to the bottom of the hierarchy. Bearnes' recurring phrase through out the film is a child-like "oh," an expression of constant bewilderment at this insurmountable organization. Bearnes' murder is the most infamous scene in this film. He’s shot in the back with a shotgun, but that’s not what kills him. Scrambling around in the middle of a field, a tractor (echoing the truck earlier) moves slowly towards him. As it moves closer, so does Rodriguez, hiding in the darkness of the farmland. It’s a nerve-wracking moment, but even given Mann’s predilection for violence, we expect a Hollywood finish, that any second Rodriguez will pounce from the darkness and save his friend. The tractor inches closer, until its feet away from Bearnes. We’re lead to believe that Rodriguez is only a few feet away from Bearnes, ready to pounce. Suddenly, there’s a wide shot, and we see Rodriguez is in fact yards away, and right in the line of visibility and fire, making rescue impossible. Still, we believe, want to believe, that a heroic feat, however impossible, is coming. Yet, the tractor/camera inches closer and closer, until we’re left with a frightening close-up of Bearnes, his face seized in an unspeakable naked animal terror that is practically unheard of in classic Hollywood cinema; its closest comparison is young Aleksey Kravchenko’s decimated, aged visage at the end of Come and See, decades later. Bearnes falls from the hierarchy, never truly able to infiltrate, and his death finds him literally ground into the soil, like the seed and crops that the syndicate is built on. The dehumanization present in the opening murder comes full circle, forcing our agents to come face to face with this crime-business synthesis’s frightening reality.

Comrades

Let us backtrack for a moment. Let us ignore the last few paragraphs and return to the beginning, approaching the films with the eyes of a person seeing and processing it for the first time. Let us forget it’s more radical and damning underside, and take the film’s easy liberal surface at face value. Let us ignore the way it carves out a distinct identity of its own, and linger on its unflattering similarities to T-Men. Despite these “flaws”, the film still moves, it still draws us in, it still produces a powerful response from the viewer. Some of this can be accounted for on a purely formal basis, Mann and Alton’s masterful control of style, pace, and the rhythms of screen brutality. Yet our response isn’t simply the pleasing of the eye; there’s a deeper visceral response: we care for these characters. More than ever, the film is carried by our sympathy for our leads, we fear for them as they're drawn deeper into increasing violence and degradation. In a film that is marked by increasing dehumanization, the human element – dignity, honor, friendship - registers with an even greater force. Even deprived of all political or ideological significance, the film still works purely as a study of men as they strive to preserve their decency and humanity, doing so through their compassion for one another.

This is to contradict what we felt at the beginning, that the film falls short of T-Men as an expression of male camaraderie. But once again, in comparing it to its predecessor, we ignore the way it carves out its own identity precisely in the way it plays against the formula of that film. T-Men’s vision of male camaraderie was situated on a closeness, and while one can’t ignore its sincerity, there was a certain pragmatism to it: those two agents had to carve out a deep sense of bonding as their own survival relied on their teamwork. By turning that formula on its ear, not only does Border Incident not fall short of its predecessor, but in fact emerges as an arguably purer expression of deep, unyielding – even homoerotic – friendship between men; in fact, running with that latter point, the film is almost precipitated on a love affair between men. For here, male camaraderie is expressed entirely through longing. Here, the men in fact work separately; their own preservation isn’t reliant on that of his partner; in fact, it is often to the detriment of their assignment that they are forced to act for one another. They accept their assignment hoping to work together – like those agents from T-Men – but they are immediately separated. They spend the rest of the film striving to be reunited, and the duration of the film consists of their separate ends of the narratives, interlocking, the search and rescue of their partner taking increasing precedent over the busting of the syndicate: 1) Bearnes infiltrating the syndicate, almost moreso to find out the whereabouts and safety of Rodriguez than for the sake of the assignment, followed by 2) Rodriguez attempting to rescue Bearnes, risking his cover and the aborting of the mission. Their meeting in the water-tower is the axis on which these two halves transition, but even as a reunion, it is frustrated and incomplete: the screen door separates them much as the prison visiting room screen separates Joe Sullivan from his beloved(s) at the start of Raw Deal, a friendship that can never be consummated.

Like T-Men, this is a return to a world of men. Its excess masculinity seems to accumulate itself in the thick layer of brutality and callousness that envelopes the film. It rejects nearly all women, and those traits which some would call feminine: compassion, intimacy, devotion. When those traits do appear, manifesting in those rare bonds forged by these men, it stands out, rising to the surface of the film. Yes, this homosocial world expresses the homo-eroticism that had been peeking up in Mann’s films up until then; but it does something else more surprising: it disregards the homophobia that often came with it, its violent double. Mann’s film noirs had been loaded with perverse and thinly-veiled villains, the most powerful and sadistic often being the most coded: Wallace Ford’s leering, perpetual bath-house denizen; Raymond Burr’s elegant, woman-hating pyro; Richard Baseheart’s prissin’-and-hissin’ Robespierre. Yet, all traces of that seem to be gone here. For once, in this underworld amongst men, the most cruel and powerful are also alpha-males. The knife-weilding, grinning Mexican bandidos contain all the heavy virility that one projects onto that machismo culture. The American ranch-hands/enforcers likewise are all graveled-voices and short-nerves, walking around in the boots, jackets and hats of cowboys. The most powerful man of the operation, as portrayed by Howard Da Silva, is all WASP-y might: a bulky frame, tough gestures, a commanding voice. His stately ranch house is watched over by a beautiful Mexican housekeeper (one of the few women of the film, albeit marginalized), and he’s constantly seen shooting at toy geese, like he’s getting ready for a big hunt. Yet, this all plays into Mann’s vision of crime and business, as the former inches closer and closer out into the open, legitimized world of the latter. The underworlds of his previous films existed on the fringes, and therefore one sees why it would be a haven for those who already had been forced to live there. As criminality begins to encroach and blend more and more with legitimate capitalism, it is only fitting that his criminals resemble more and more the idealized post-war male. There are two “major” female roles in the film, and they're both the exception that prove the rule. Juan Garcia’s (James Mitchell) farewell to his wife (Terese Celli) almost serves as a good-bye to the heterosocial world, the point at which the film travels deeper and deeper into the underworld. Lynn Whitney’s Bella Amboy is possibly the important female character, the only woman who can be said to take part in the higher echelons of the syndicate (an equally butch innkeeper on the Mexican side also appears at the beginning) but she emerges with a tact and strength to rival her male counterparts. Yet, as opposed to coding her, this butch strength is all put in service all for the love of a man, with absolutely no care given to the actual hierarchy of the syndicate. In fact, it is unjust to lump her in with the male criminals: she is in many ways just a flipside to Claire Trevor’s Pat Cameron, captured from the outside looking in. She may thwart the heroes of the film, but she’s even willing to turn against the villains, and the mindless efficiency it represents.

And this is perhaps what is most important and moving about the relationships forged by the film’s leads; their devotion serves as a rebuttal to the dehumanization that engulfs the criminal operation. The only thing that can stop this ruthlessly efficient juggernaut is the cooperation of men who work (and suffer) alongside eachother under it. Not only is it a rebuttal in sentiment – the friendship of the men against a system that allows no sentimentality – but in certain aspects, it serves as an active and open rejection of that ruthless efficiency by the agents who were sent to imitate and infiltrate it. Which returns us to T-Men, and the way these two undercover operations differ: if, as we mentioned, our two agents here run into a sort of “stalemate” in attempting to infiltrate the syndicate, it is not simply that the entire nature of the crime has changed (although it certainly accounts for the major part of it); it also means that, in many ways, these two agents refuse to do their jobs. Let us look at T-Men: for these men to bust this criminal ring, they must become criminals themselves, immerse themselves in their roles and do whatever it takes to maintain it… even if it means embracing the very system of brutality and violence they are suppose to be dismantling. For this film, in order to become the criminals (and destroy their operation) one would have to take up and embrace (or acquiesce to) the ruthless efficiency and callousness required to maintain their cover. Yet, when it comes down to it, our heroes refuse to do just that. The film replays the shocking twist of that earlier film, where one of our agents is uncovered and murdered, all while the other agent is forced to stand back and watch. Yet, in T-Men, our agents maintain their roles in the face of impending doom: Genaro accepts his fate, and uses his last moment to sacrifice himself for his partner and his cover; Harrigan desperately wants to help, but he ultimately stands aside and allows the murder to happen; all this so the remaining agent can carry out the mission and ultimately bring the counterfeiting ring to its knees. When that scenario replays itself here, however, Rodriguez finds himself unable to allow the murder. Instead of following the trail up north, maintaining his role, he risks blowing his cover and aborting the operation so as to save his partner. If he fails at that, it is not to lessen the impact of his moral victory: after weeks of backbreaking exploitation, he ultimately refuses to acquiesce to the dehumanizing system any longer.

This brings us to reevaluate another criticism we brought up earlier: that Border Incident fails its predecessor by disregarding the mimesis, the blurring of cops and criminal, that gave the earlier film its power. Here, the agents are always on the right side of the law. But this is to ignore that a mimesis between cop and criminal does exist, and that blurring does happen, in fact, is completely consummated! Yet, here, the merging of police action and criminality doesn’t happen with the bandits or wranglers or ranchers that constitute the upper echelons of the criminal hierarchy; no, rather the identities are blurred with those at the very bottom, the Mexican laborers. Rodriguez represents an authority that seeks to criminalize them as much as the others, yet he finds himself slowly and slowly pulled towards allegiance with them. In fact, the film can be said to consist of two love-affairs between men, not only the relationship between partners Pablo Rodriguez and Jack Bearnes, but also between Rodriguez and Juan, between the agent and the type of role he’s impersonating, between an officer of the law and one who’s breaking the law. They immediately hit it off, and the duration of the film finds them becoming deeper and deeper friends; unlike the Rodriguez-Bearnes relationship, this is one is built on closeness, these two working together, even sleeping together in the same bunkhouse. The friendship becomes so close that Garcia even begins calling Rodriguez by a pet name (“Pablito”). When Jack Bearnes is murdered, one can say that Rodriguez replaces him with Garcia, installing him as his partner and deepest friend, allowing that relationship to finally come to the forefront. But this is also points to another important point in the narrative: Rodriguez not only finds his cover blown, but he’s also stripped of any of the power that can come with it. He pleads for his captors to dispose of him and him alone, and spare the laborers who he pulled into the conflict with him, but they won’t relent: they are all to be killed. From impersonating a migrant laborer, Rodriguez is at the end of the film forcibly thrown in with them, made as helpless as they are; the distinction between identity and imitation is completely obliterated. Made impotent, without the badge or gun of the police officer, without the powers of deception and cunning of the undercover agent, without the partner or back-up meant to assist him, Rodriguez completely loses his identity as an officer of the law. He completely assumes the role of the exploited illegal immigrant, and out of necessity, must embrace it. For the sake of his and their survival, Rodriguez throws his hat in with Garcia and the rest of the workers, scrambling to unite them and stage one last desperate stand.

Open Revolt

In this narrative, it is miracle at all that the undercover operation works, that this syndicate is busted. As mentioned, the entire operation is marked by impotency and inaction, by a complete underestimation of the entire manner in which the racket is constructed and operated. Every step of the way, our agents are outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outgunned. This sets in at the very first stage of the investigation: Rodriguez is immediately uncovered as non-bracero, Bearnes is ambushed, they are both immediately separated. Under the tight control of the ranch, Rodriguez is pretty much stuck in place, forced to do the backbreaking labor of the migrant worker. Bearnes is immediately beaten, kidnapped, kept at a distance, his identity uncovered by a single phone-call. A missed rendezvous with the police fails; Parkson’s man outraces the cops. Rodriguez’s attempt to escape the ranch and contact the police fails instantly; he can’t even get across the farm fields without being spotted and apprehended. Bearnes is murdered, and Rodriguez, despite his best effort, can’t even get arm’s length to helping him. The closest thing to direct police action taken is a phone call to the police that, while unveiling the entire operation, is rendered hollow; the nearest station is too far away, and the cops arrive only after the dust settles on the film. There is almost no direct action taken against the crime syndicate, and by all logic, the investigation should be a failure, both agents perishing.

Yet, despite this perpetual stalemate, the crime ring is busted, and at least one agent survives. The agents do it inadvertently, almost in spite of themselves. As we know, the syndicate is built with a rigid hierarchy, an intricate and efficient sequence of operations carried out by different people. It is the mere presence of the agents that ultimately exacerbates the tensions and resentments of the syndicate, bringing out its ruthlessly competitive nature, and turning it on itself. From the very beginning, we note the quiet resentment between the criminals on different levels of the syndicate. While it can essentially be divided in two halves – the Mexican side of the organization (the Mexican bandidos, Ulrich) and the American side (Owen Parkson and his ranches) – even each side has its own inner conflict: Ulrich’s driver (Arthur Hunnicutt) resents taking orders from a Mexican; Parkson’s ranch hand (Charles McGraw) resents doing the man’s dirty work for him. The tight squeeze the police have on permits (perhaps the one thing they successfully accomplish) already puts a heavy weight on the relationships between borders, and it only heightens when Bearnes shows up on the scene. The two sides fight over him: the Mexicans attempt to extort the Americans; the Americans take advantage of the inner-conflict, and get Hunnicutt’s driver to sell-out his side. When both agents are uncovered and seized, instead of marking their end, their presence sends blood in the air, and the organization practically undoes itself. This is cutthroat capitalism, and they’re not afraid of cutting each other’s throats for profit.

In fact, the true “hero” of the film may not be the agents or the Mexican laborers; in final estimate, it is Charles McGraw’s Jeff Amboy who dishes out the most lethal blow to the syndicate. In his two films with Anthony Mann, Charles McGraw carved out of a very clear archetype for himself: the mob enforcer, an always-loyal hatchetman for the kingpins that rule over the underworld. In T-Men, his blank eyes reveal a sociopathic killing machine that’s willing to murder an old friend if that’s what’s asked of him. In Reign of Terror, he stands by Robespierre’s side even as the man’s power falls and he’s lead to execution, the last antagonist standing in the ensuing chaos. Once again, playing against the archetypes of his previous films, Mann casts McGraw as another henchman, but with none of the allegiance of those previous characters. He immediately butts heads with Parkson, is accused of trying to sell-out Bearnes’ counterfeiter just as Hunnicutt does, and when the entire organization comes tumbling down, he makes sure Parkson goes with it. He turns on him, and tired of being in the middle of the pyramid and doing his dirty work, he forces the kingpin to get his hands dirty for once. But one act of dissent leads to another: stripped of power by McGraw, Parkson is easily disarmed by the immigrants. In one shot, Parkson is forced to walk among them, until he stands encircled by them, reduce to the very bottom of the hierarchy. There is a poetic justice to this, the crime kingpin lowered to the level of those whose exploitation his organization has been built on. If the organization is built on an intricate system, this breach causes the whole thing to collapse: if the industrialist can be reduced to very bottom of the capitalist system he prospered off, its inverse can follow: the workers have a chance to rise against and topple the system that’s exploited them.

A similar trajectory befalls Pablo Rodriguez: from representing an authority that demonizes illegal immigrants, to throwing his hat in with them. Furthermore, if the true aim of the operation is the reinstatement of borders, the re-legitimization of American business – that is to say, to preserve the American way of life – then it is telling that circumstance and experience leads Rodriguez to align himself with his countrymen… and with the proletarians who suffer under this exaggerated funhouse mirror of capitalism that constitutes the criminal syndicate. The scene, halfway through, were he compounds the figures for the fellow workers, demonstrating that their wages are no better than what they would get in Mexico, doesn’t feel just like an officer attempting to show them the foible of their ways; rather, it strikes us almost with the appearance of a union organizer attempting to show them their own exploitation. When’s he uncovered, rendered helpless, with no amount of the law to help him, he almost fulfills what is nascent in that previous scene: his final desperate act is to organize the workers, to band them together to revolt against and destroy the system that has systematically exploited them. The film’s trick is to make us believe we are watching a police film, T-Men II, in which the authority of the police (and government) can correct the wrongs of society. Here, police work fails; the undercover agents are largely helpless and ineffective, and the police only show up afterwards to pick up the pieces. The way of life they represent is the very one that gives life to Parksons and his ilk, either literally (the crooked cop who ultimately uncovers Bearnes) or figuratively (protecting the capitalist society that the crime syndicate emerges from). In its final act, Mann’s allegiance, like Rodriguez’s, shifts from the police to the working man.

In the film’s final moments, we return to the justice building earlier in the film for a moment celebrating the work of our police men. In the foreground, the American and Mexican flags are intertwined; but behind them, we find the border symbolically reinstated by the banquet table, the Mexican and American authorities each situated behind their respective banners. We fly, once again, over the farmlands of Imperial Valley, now cleaned and freed of criminal malignancy, and find them prosperous and rich, with all the promise of legitimate capitalism. But this vision of Pax Americana, of a clearly demarcated border, of triumphant industry… this is not what we remember. Like the bookends of T-Men, it’s a red herring. Our real last memory of the film, is Pablo Rodriguez, struggling to free himself in a quicksand that threatens to consume him. In a way, it’s a fitting farewell image for Anthony Mann’s last excursion into film noir. These films all dealt with men wrestling in moral quicksand, in dark and violent worlds of crime that threatened to consume and destroy them. As Juan Garcia strains to reach for him, to pull him out, we find another exemplary image: in these films, populated by lone male heroes, it is other people that provide the possibility for redemption; Harrigan and Genaro, Joe Sullivan and the two women he loves, Charles D'Aubigny and Madelon, the entire precinct working together in He Walked by Night… which here, become an entire people. In final estimate, contrary to first glance, Border Incident emerges as a veritable film gris: Mann’s film may not wear its politics on its sleeve the way the Loseys and the Polonskys do, but its subversive nature remains in tact, under the allegorical confines of pulp fiction. Here, two undercover agents war on organized crime gives way to a struggle of an underclass against the system that exploits them. The incident of the film’s title doesn’t simply take place along the dissolution of national boundaries, but also economic ones, pointing to a capitalist system whose ruthless nature, even when legitimate as when preserve at the end of the film, borders on crime.

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

#477 Post by domino harvey » Mon Mar 21, 2011 6:47 pm

Some recent noir viewings:

Dark Stranger (Arthur Ripley 1955) I should have known better given the plot (author meets woman who appears to be fictional character from his own book), but the lure of Edmond O'Brien and Joanne Woodward together was too much to resist. Sadly, this never overcomes its proto-Twilight Zone trappings and unfolds pretty much exactly like you'd expect.

Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald 1958) I should have known by now that "cult following" means "awful," but here we are. I am still fascinated with Gerd Oswald and Anita Ekberg's chest, but only the latter was put to good use here.

the Window (Ted Tetzlaff 1949) It's frustrating to see this after the lists have been submitted and tallied, because lord almighty would it have made my Top 20. A brilliant examination of the inability and dangers of adults not listening to their children, and presented in such a way that the audience can hardly blame 'em, really! Poor Bobby Driscoll is really put through the ringer in this one, and there's such a steady accumulation of spiraling dread brought on by his insistence that what he witnessed really happened that by the end of the film, Arthur Kennedy's proclamation that his son was right all along sounds more like patronizing a victim of a great tragedy than an admission of his rightness (and I would argue that Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale never believe their son, with the "evidence" dismissed and explained away by the decrepit building). Several sequences stand out in memory, such as that stomach-lurching moment when Ruth Roman traipses down the fire escape and deliberately winds her flashlight beam around Driscoll's bedroom-- it's the manifestation of your worst nightmare made corporeal. But nothing could ever top the absolute jaw-dropping, "NO FUCKING WAY" jolt of
SpoilerShow
Ruth Roman slipping in front of Driscoll in the taxi cab seat so Paul Stewart can sock him unconscious.
One of the single most shocking moments in any film of this era. This pic is one nasty piece of business, and God blessit!

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

#478 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Mar 21, 2011 7:19 pm

domino harvey wrote:Dark Stranger (Arthur Ripley 1955)
???!!!

Where did you see this?

And as I mentioned... Screaming Mimi is either brilliant, or truly awful in a way only a talented person could muster. I'm still not sure which myself (although I find it fascinating), and I'm still waiting to catch up with the Sony release. But once again, as were on the subjects of tv work, I'll give a plug to Oswald's Outer Limits episodes.

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

#479 Post by domino harvey » Mon Mar 21, 2011 7:37 pm

It's on a comp DVD called Golden Age Noir

Image

I bought it just to see Dark Stranger but the other titles look interesting enough

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

#480 Post by Yojimbo » Mon Mar 21, 2011 7:58 pm

domino harvey wrote:Some recent noir viewings:

Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald 1958) I should have known by now that "cult following" means "awful," but here we are. I am still fascinated with Gerd Oswald and Anita Ekberg's chest, but only the latter was put to good use here.

the Window (Ted Tetzlaff 1949) It's frustrating to see this after the lists have been submitted and tallied, because lord almighty would it have made my Top 20. A brilliant examination of the inability and dangers of adults not listening to their children, and presented in such a way that the audience can hardly blame 'em, really! Poor Bobby Driscoll is really put through the ringer in this one, and there's such a steady accumulation of spiraling dread brought on by his insistence that what he witnessed really happened that by the end of the film, Arthur Kennedy's proclamation that his son was right all along sounds more like patronizing a victim of a great tragedy than an admission of his rightness (and I would argue that Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale never believe their son, with the "evidence" dismissed and explained away by the decrepit building). Several sequences stand out in memory, such as that stomach-lurching moment when Ruth Roman traipses down the fire escape and deliberately winds her flashlight beam around Driscoll's bedroom-- it's the manifestation of your worst nightmare made corporeal. But nothing could ever top the absolute jaw-dropping, "NO FUCKING WAY" jolt of
SpoilerShow
Ruth Roman slipping in front of Driscoll in the taxi cab seat so Paul Stewart can sock him unconscious.
One of the single most shocking moments in any film of this era. This pic is one nasty piece of business, and God blessit!
I have memories of a similar disappointment to you with 'Mimi', though I look forward to Cold Bishop's detailed dissection of it. I never did get to re-watch 'A Kiss Before Dying', though.

As for 'The Window', I don't recall the scene you detail there, although its been some 20 years, but I do recall the tragic true life story of how the dead body of the adult star of the film was found

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

#481 Post by Gregory » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:36 pm

domino harvey wrote:Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald 1958) I should have known by now that "cult following" means "awful," but here we are. I am still fascinated with Gerd Oswald and Anita Ekberg's chest, but only the latter was put to good use here.
I thought, as a whole, it was sort of an incoherent mess, and the story is too kooky to work as an engaging mystery or suspense thriller -- but it's still lurid fun. Formally, it's not nearly as impressive as A Kiss Before Dying, but I had avoided getting my hopes up about that. At a minimum, I knew it would be worthwhile just to see Red Norvo and his group playing, and with several lines of dialogue yet! From this angle, the film turned out better than I expected, as I get to see Norvo's group at a nighclub called El Madhouse (brilliant name) play behind Anita Ekberg's "white slavery"-themed exotic dance routine. Of course compared to the nightclub scene in La Dolce Vita a couple years later, it's rather pathetic, but that was in line with my expectations.
Another interesting point was seeing a substantial performance by Gypsy Lee Rose. I'd recently been listening to a radio interview with her biographer, Karen Abbott, and it was odd to have this woman's twisted and disturbing life history in mind as I watched her performance as comedy relief within the template of the tough proprietress. Most of the other actors/characters were so uninteresting (including Ekberg's) that it was pretty easy for Rose to steal every scene she's in.

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

#482 Post by Yojimbo » Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:57 pm

Just watched my new, remastered DVD of 'The Prowler' last night, and I was delighted it was even better than I remembered it, from my only previous viewing of some 20 years ago.
I thought Evelyn Keyes, whom I couldn't immediately place seeing in other films edged the acting honours from the always dependable Van Heflin but two scenes in particular from Heflin were wonderfully creepy and were a major departure from what I might have expected from him.
The first was when he's seen in his bedroom among his bodybuilding photos and paraphernalia allowing the phone to ring so as to better string Evelyn Keyes along
The other was the climactic scene
SpoilerShow
when he was crawling around on his hands and knees looking for the car key that she had hidden
But Evelyn Keyes character and her marriage was every bit as creepy: the loyal wife devotedly listening, every night, to her husband's radio show until he signed off with his personal message "I'll be seeing you, Susan". (and has there ever been a more deserving cuckold wimp in noir than that husband)

This film was long in my all-time Top Ten noirs, - although I can't remember did it slip down in my recent list submitted to dom - but its right back up there again. Its everything noir should be: sleazy, dirty, sordid, dangerous, and probably everything Lang's 'Human Desire' aspired to being, but never quite made it.

(I'll be seeing you, Susan: again, and again, and again!

Love the DVD cover, too: yellow text on pink background. Perfect for a staple 'yellow press' story.

It was funny, also, listening to the interview with Bertrand Tavernier, as he kept being interrupted by police sirens outside the interview room. Tavernier spent much of his time discussing the career of Dalton Trumbo who may be due at least as much credit as Losey. Can't wait to listen to what James Ellroy has to say about it!

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

#483 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon May 23, 2011 8:44 pm

Holding off on this long enough, and in desperate need of jumping headfirst into the Westerns thread. I still have a few listmakers I want to revisit, but here at least a start.

Top 10

1. Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)
When it came to picking a number one, it was a no brainer: if film noir is a loser's genre, then Dassin's masterpiece is film noir's Hamlet. No surprise that Dassin was hoping to follow it up with his own adaptation with Richard Widmark as the moody Dane. Here, Widmark more than does the comparison justice. He simmers and explodes with manic-depressive energy. In Henry Fabian, one finds a volatility of spirit to match the very grand highs and catastrophic lows that embody the genre, the extreme of behavior that still gives film noir its powerful allure. Noir's conflicting stylistic approaches - docudrama realism and baroque hyper stylization - are blended seamlessly: there are moments of location photo-realism to rival Crime Wave or Side Street, moments of grotesque exaggeration that could have come from Welles or Siodmak... but you don't notice when one mode ends and the other begins, Dassin has mastered the varieties of style so well. The urban menace of film noir is taken to its furthest extreme, London transformed into a near-apocalyptic nightmarescape. The fall to the gutter has rarely come as hard, steep and furious as this... and on it all looks on the Night and the City, menacing, monolithic, but ultimately indifferent to the toil and tragedy over which it reigns. This is noir, baby.

2. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
One of the great anti-adaptations to be filed alongside (and ahead) of the likes of Starship Troopers and Fellini Casanova, this is Robert Aldrich's poison pen letter to the genre and the culture that gave it birth. Micky Spillane's barbaric, cryptofascist novels may have often been morally and socially repugnant slices of cheese, but there was no denying they were a clear byproduct of the noir generation, the ugly underbelly of the genre's most ugly and prurient elements taken to their logical conclusion. Aldrich takes it one conclusion further. He plants a bomb deep inside Spillane's novel - and in doing so, the genre - and stands back to watch it rattle, rupture and burn. In a haze of self-absorption, hedonism and petty squabbling, you watch these characters slowly slide into a mutual oblivion... and afterwards, you can't help wonder if they weren't asking for it. Kiss Me Deadly wasn't the last film noir, but perhaps it should have been: post-war America has had a tendency to follow thoses threads that lead to ropes, and with this film, we hear it snap.

3. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
I was almost going to rank this lower at first: this is a film that I have seen so many times, that frankly, there are times that I think the magic is gone, that I've noticed everything there is to note about the film, I've exhausted the cinematic power that once shown so bright, and if what I ultimately found wasn't hollow, it sure wasn't as enriching as I hoped. But then I thought: it takes some kind of film just to get you to that point of obsession. For the longest time, Welles film defined to me what exactly it is to be a "film noir", and there is no denying that stylistically, thematically and narratively you can't find a better textbook to the genre. Then again, it's enough to spoil an initiate to the genre: maybe the reason I've never completely taken to the likes of Out of the Past or The Killers is that they seem plain next to Welles phantasmagoria of light and shadow, claustrophobia and corruption, Shakespeare and sleaze. If the film has a problem, it makes it look too easy.

4. They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947)
5. Riffifi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
These were probably two ponies I should have never bet on, but you all disappointed me none the less. That the two foreign noirs on an American genre list might end up Also-Rans is to be expected. That both films would end up Orphans is outrageous. Especially as other foreign noirs made the list - Diabolique, High and Low, Odd Man Out, Le Jour se lève, Damnation!... fine films, but all of which I believe to be lesser films (if sometimes by a small margin). I've said all I have to say about They Made Me a Fugitive, but despite being something of a ringer on my "strictly American" list, it captures something at the essence of film noir probably greater than any of its American counterparts: an ability to navigate the trauma and anxiety of a post-war society, but doing so completely behind the auspices of a pulp thriller. Call it showing-not-telling or Termite Art or what will you, but the movie seems to capture the zeitgeist without ever showing its hand: examining the psychic aftermath of WWII, sublimating post-traumatic stress and the shock of demobilization into a revenge thriller among gangsters and thieves.

Rififi, was less of a stretch, Jules Dassin being an American master, but its still an interesting choice, standing as it does on the precipice of film noir and neo-noir (Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville would push practically the same material into the latter camp right around the same time). Nonetheless, this is the greatest of all heist films, and even as all the beats and twists of the film have become the stuff of cliché (as perhaps it was even then), this film still shocks and surprises with it raw power. And its because Dassin's understands the human element. Dassin takes the code of "honor among thieves", tentative and suspect as it always is, and transforms it into a battleground of betrayal, sacrifice, desperation and self-preservation. That he fashions such a show-stopping set-piece as the silent half-hour heist, and then drops it in the middle(!) of the film, is the sort of trick that would ruin most other films: most films would shoot their load too early, and never be able to recover. Not the case here, the last third of the film is as exciting and tense as anything in any crime film, moving with a reckless propulsion and increasing sense of out-of-control violence to match anything in the cinema before or sense. It's not surprising that even a recent hyper-stylized blood-and-guts thriller like 2004's Running Scared (a film that, with some reservation, I surprisingly liked) still found it feasible to rip-off its final scene: this is a film that still has much to give, even as the heist film archetype it embodies has become seemingly exhausted.

6. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
Another controversial choice, and another one where I've said what I needed to say. For the Horror vs. Noir debate, all I will add is that this most definitely will not be making my inevitable Horror list, as its classification is clear enough to me. If one of the genre's strength is the ability to sublimate the era's traumas and anxieties seamlessly into commercial thrillers, this film is almost a failure: the film's surface plot, satanic cult hunting a girl, practically cracks and disintegrates, unable to encompass the spiritual abyss hovering under the film. But what would ruin another film makes this: there is nothing else like it, the Hollywood genre film re-imagined as a symbolist poem of hopelessness and despair, a howl into the void. It is easily 40's Hollywood's darkest hour - perhaps even Classic Hollywood's - and if that doesn't give it noir cred, nothing will.

7. T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947)
I was flip-flopping between this and Raw Deal for a while, but ultimately decided to go with the leaner, tougher film. I expected Raw Deal to get the bigger turnout, but twenty spaces ahead! I don't know what to say about this film that isn't obvious just from giving it a good once-over. The film's a moving museum of film noir, a living portrait gallery of bizarre, twisted, chiaroscuro-laden images seething with subterfuge and the threat of violence. This is the essence of the pulp thriller extracted and injected straight into the eye.

8. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
Film noir at its most personal. Perhaps its a constant mistake to read the biographical into this film, to constantly take the film as Nicholas Ray's private confessional... but dammit if Ray doesn't have a way of making the film feel painfully intimate. Dorothy Hughes's tale of a psychotic killer is stripped down, gutted, and dismantled, and the various scraps of pulp strips are overlaid what is essentially a mature, sobering, aching look at the inevitable unraveling of an adult romance. If I could give the film a Rex Reed/Peter Travers pull-quote for the next Blu release: "this is a film noir that is more Blue Valentine than Blue Dahlia." har har har.

9. Crime Wave (Andre De Toth, 1954)
Like Mann, it was between this and Pitfall... but ultimately this film stuck the greater nerve with me on review. I was sad that I wasn't able to write more about, but luckily, it looks like I didn't quite need to. So I'll cut the small-talk: everything great about the film is evident in that breathtaking image of Sterling Hayden trying to light a crumpled cigarette.

10. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
A film that takes film noir's fatalistic spirit, and re-imagines it as an animated, erotic death drive. "The only thing they loved more than their guns... were eachother!" Violent, coarse, gleefully perverse... It pushes the genre past the literary confines of Cain and Chandler, and towards the darker waters of Burgess and Ballard... but never losing its pulp energy, or its deep sense of l'amour fou.

Darlings Vol. 1

The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
Already wrote at length about this, but it is the strangest, most peculiar, and most narratively interesting of all film noirs. Arthur Ripley should have done much more, but if you can only make four films, you can only hope for something as idiosyncratic as this (Thunder Road doesn't hurt either). Recommended for fans of Frank Borzage, David Lynch and Raoul Ruiz... preferably a fan of all three.

Ride the Pink Horse (Robert Montgomery, 1947)
It's not quite able to stick its ending (one wonders about studio tampering) and there's still another great film to be made from Dorothy Hughes's novel, but for the majority of its running time, this is one of the toughest, meanest and most cynical of all film noirs. To call it a Western transplanted into a film noir isn't entirely off the mark: it has the oaters' sense of austerity and single-minded purpose. And just as the Western, emerging from the Civil War, was often preoccupied with redemption and rejuvenation, here we find Robert Montgomery, a crippled, racist, misanthropic WWII veteran who has his own dark night of the soul, rediscovering a faith in himself, in others and in his country which has long been stamped out by the war. And if the final climax, while interesting on paper, isn't quite able to come off convincingly, it makes up for it with a perfect epilogue that's as good as that of The Third Man.

The Sound of Fury (Cy Endfield, 1950)
Having rewatched it since making the list, I think I may have overrated this film, but it's still one of the more interesting (if not the most consistent) film gris. You basically have three films going on here. 1) A story of a good, but desperate man who slowly gets sucked into crime 2) A story of a news-reporter who uses a murder to whip his community into a frenzy of unrest 3) A story of people trying to protect prisoners from a lynch mob. The film spends the majority of its time with no. 1, doing a good job with it, but never being quite exceptional. It tries to rush no. 2 into a span of about ten minutes, and makes it come off like liberal hokum, right down to an Italian scientist (a victim of real fascism coming face to face with American cryptofascism) pontificating the writers message into perfect little speeches (Ace in the Hole, this is not). But it's the films last twenty minutes, concerning no. 3, that gives the film its power. Lynch mobs may have been a staple of Hollywood films, but they have never been as frightening and unnervingly believable as this. You would have to look forward to Natural Born Killers' prison riot (love or hate the film, still an impressive piece of sheer choreography) to find as frightening a vision of social chaos... but this isn't leavened by cartoonish satire. The titular sound of fury is the sound of the crowd outside the prison - of respectable business men, families, college students - as the sound of their voices slowly grow from restlessness to a fever pitch of cacophony... and then the sound starts coming closer. While the film ends with the film's voice of conscience giving a speech about how criminality springs from environment, it seems ironic compared to the breakdown of civilization we just saw. Instead, the last sound we remember is the sound off the distance of a crowd cheering, followed seconds later by another, knowing full well what those cheers are for. Too much a mess to be called a great film, but still has some powerful stuff.

The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951)
Earlier on The Prowler, I called it Losey's best film noir. I may have been right - I'll see once I get around the new DVD - but this coming-of-age film managed to sneak in above it. A young teen sees his idolized father beaten, humiliated and emasculated in front of his own eyes, and he escapes into the night looking for solace and revenge. This is a smaller, more personal film noir, less fixated on the usual pulp underworld milieu, closer to the sort of NYC neighborhood drama that has become more common since (think Mean Streets, A Bronx's Tale, Do the Right Thing). In fact, one could argue its not a film noir at all, but a more realistic and unsettling version of what films like Marty and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were supposedly doing at the time. However, the film's fixation on the alluring but menacing spectre of the nocturnal city, the deep sense of sado-masochism underlining the whole film, and Losey's patented film gris outrage edges it over into the genre. A really underrated film that has never quite gotten the time of day it deserves.

Moonrise (Frank Borzage, 1948)
If this film kept up the pace of its opening ten minutes, it would be a top 10 masterpiece. This movie comes out of the gate roaring, but as the opening literally comes crashing down, its never quite able to sustain that tone and pace again. But then again, it slowly reveal itself to not be interested in doing so, for what Borzage does here is play with genre. This tale of a young murderer's dark night of the soul mirrors his own damnation/redemption with a journey from the darkest depth of film noir ending in the romanticism of Borzage's classic melodramas. The film's opens submerged in darkness and shadow, film noir at its most expressionistic and openly artificial. By the time it ends, we're on a mountaintop in full spring, flowers blooming and sun blazing. In between, we have more than enough moody, thoughtful passages to make this a great film, if not quite the greatest film noir: Clark and Russell dancing in an abandoned Southern mansion, Rex Ingram playing the blues, Allyn Joslyn wonderfully playing against type, Dane Clark looking up at the ferris wheel from which he plummeted. A fine film.

Border Incident (Anthony Mann, 1949)
Already wrote about this in length, but this would have gotten much higher than #28 if I had the chance to do it all over again. This is an underrated film, and perhaps the greatest of all the film gris... surprising since it makes no pretenses of being one. Just powerful stuff that I'm beginning to think more than matches its two more famous predecessors. I think both Side Street and He Walked by Night are overdue for a revisit.

More to come...

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

#484 Post by knives » Tue Jun 21, 2011 11:21 pm

I'm surprised that in all of the is Hitchcock noir talk The Wrong Man was never more forcefully brought up. Just finished and not only is it one of the best Hitchcock's I've ever seen, but it's plainly noir to me.

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

#485 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jun 28, 2011 6:51 pm

Between DVR and DVDs, I have probably more unwatched noirs than anything else at my disposal. Excuse me over the next year as I use this thread to periodically weigh in, a handful of films at a time.

the Basketball Fix (Felix E Feist 1951) I am shocked to discover there is actually more than one b-film about basketball game fixing out there. This one's enough to sate me, though. John Ireland really struggled post-Oscar nom to do anything with his briefly marketable name, but all it really led to was name above the title cheapies like this.

the Company She Keeps (John Cromwell 1950) Interesting sister film to Cromwell's earlier masterpiece Caged. This one plays as continuation of that film's in-house jail concerns, with the focus on what happens after a gal gets out. Here Jane Greer's petty criminal is granted parole and the world's most Christ-like parole officer, Lizabeth Scott, does her darnest to get her charge resituated in the world. Greer replies in kind by vamping it up like a petulant brat and stealing Scott's boyfriend! This is such soapy fun, and Greer's terrific in a role that suits her screen persona to a T. The film also winningly shoehorns in a social problem finale presumably left over from some early version of Caged, a horrifying all-female line-up that takes on the screen presence of a gang rape.

Julie (Andrew L Stone 1956) Despite opening with the unforgettable image of Louis Jordan flying off into a jealous rage and pushing Doris Day's foot down on the gas pedal, this is a film that doesn't understand pacing. Or functional narration. Doris Day has to be the chattiest film noir protagonist ever, and about the flightiest, dumbest, year one creative writing shit too. The film seems to be a vehicle, if you'll pardon the pun, for a ridiculous finale that inhumanly plays out in real time, in which by a confluence of improbabilities, Day must pilot a plane to safe landing. The film spends so much time and effort and time and time on giving all the "facts" about the process of landing that it forgets that the idea itself is too absurd to ever take seriously and a more Hollywood, tossed-off fantasy on the same scene would have lasted two minutes and likely been three times as suspenseful. This in fact might, MIGHT, have made a decent seventy minute quickie. At two hours, Christ, who's really getting the abuse here?

Knockout (William Clemens 1941) Cheap boxing pic made to capitalize on Arthur Kennedy's debut in City For Conquest. Kennedy, despite being a little wet, is always a treat (He and Mitchum go toe to toe for me as far as money in the bank actors go), but this movie chickens out on its basic premise in order to provide a happy ending (If he gets hit in the head even once, he'll die! -- Oh, he got hit like fifty times but his wife loves him, so that's okay). Anthony Quinn is the most-genial, least-threatening boxing movie heavy ever.

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

#486 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 6:54 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Knockout (William Clemens 1941) Cheap boxing pic made to capitalize on Arthur Kennedy's debut in City For Conquest. Kennedy, despite being a little wet, is always a treat (He and Mitchum go toe to toe for me as far as money in the bank actors go), but this movie chickens out on its basic premise in order to provide a happy ending (If he gets hit in the head even once, he'll die! -- Oh, he got hit like fifty times but his wife loves him, so that's okay). Anthony Quinn is the most-genial, least-threatening boxing movie heavy ever.
Anthony Quinn is like Mike Mazurki's 'intellectual' big brother!

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

#487 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:01 pm

I knew exactly who that had to be even if I didn't immediately recognize the name, and that's a hysterical observation.

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

#488 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:09 pm

domino harvey wrote:I knew exactly who that had to be even if I didn't immediately recognize the name, and that's a hysterical observation.
I wonder were they separated at birth?
From memory I believe they even sound alike

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

#489 Post by Murdoch » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:17 pm

I remember watching Requiem for a Heavyweight and didn't realize it wasn't Mazurki but Quinn I was watching, I think the reverse happened with Murder, My Sweet.

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

#490 Post by knives » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:24 pm

Isn't Mazurki the one who played the deformed guy in Kiss Me Deadly? I think his bit in Night and the City is the only role that's stood out.

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

#491 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:30 pm

knives wrote:Isn't Mazurki the one who played the deformed guy in Kiss Me Deadly? I think his bit in Night and the City is the only role that's stood out.
Well, he was either in 'Murder My Sweet', or 'Farewell My Lovely', or both
(it was his 'Moose Malloy' in the Marlowe story I was thinking of)
Can't remember him being in Kiss Me Deadly
(I just can't get over Mike Hammer smashing those valuable records in the latter)

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

#492 Post by knives » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:32 pm

He's definitely in Murder My Sweet, but I don't remember the character.

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

#493 Post by Murdoch » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:34 pm

He's the guy who approaches Marlowe at the beginning to find his missing "girlfriend"

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

#494 Post by knives » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:36 pm

So he is totally forgettable, I blame the movie more actually. I think he also plays one of the gangsters in Some Like it Hot.

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

#495 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:37 pm

knives wrote:He's definitely in Murder My Sweet, but I don't remember the character.
Off the top of my head its 'Moose Malloy'
He's 'the big palooka' who's like mush in the femme fatale's hands

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

#496 Post by Murdoch » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:42 pm

He's also in Nightmare Alley as the strongman(?), the only role of his I really remember is Murder, My Sweet though and that's mainly because of Marlowe's dream in the psych ward.

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

#497 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:52 pm

Murdoch wrote:He's also in Nightmare Alley as the strongman(?), the only role of his I really remember is Murder, My Sweet though and that's mainly because of Marlowe's dream in the psych ward.
Yep, he was in Nightmare Alley , also: in 'Some Like It Hot' and 'Night and the City'.

Very prolific tv career, also, not least in two of my favourites
He played 'Choo Choo' in an episode of 'The Rockford Files'; and 'Jo Jo' in an episode of 'Have Gun Will Travel' called 'Don't Shoot The Piano Player', opposite George Kennedy's 'Big Jim'

Plenty of colourful names like 'Big Mike', 'Rhino', and 'Knuckles'
(and I was right about 'Moose Malloy')

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

#498 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:53 pm

knives wrote:So he is totally forgettable, I blame the movie more actually. I think he also plays one of the gangsters in Some Like it Hot.
If he smacked you in the kisser with one of those 'meat-hook' hands you wouldn't forget him! :D

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

#499 Post by Yojimbo » Tue Jun 28, 2011 7:55 pm

He actually looks a bit like Broderick Crawford in his IMDb photo
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0563417/

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

#500 Post by Mr Sheldrake » Tue Jun 28, 2011 8:11 pm

Mazurski once played an Asian war lord, Tunga Khan, in John Ford's Seven Women. His second-in-command was played by Woody Strode. Creative casting!
Last edited by Mr Sheldrake on Tue Jun 28, 2011 8:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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