By:Ray Olson | January 09, 2015
One responder to my previous post, “Notes on noir”, asked why so many movies are called film noir when, by my lights, they’re not. The simple, somewhat cheeky answer is “brand creep”: film noir is a bankable label for a crime movie, so it’s come to be liberally applied. More to the point is that professional film critics by and large don’t use as restrictive a definition of noir—viz., that the form tells stories “about little guys and gals getting a raw deal in a world that never gives them an even chance”—as mine, preferring film-stylistic rather than literary-dramatic criteria to establish what’s noir. They’re perfectly entitled to do so, of course, though the characteristics of cinematography, acting, dialogue, and music so important to them I like to think of not as essentials but as “highly welcome complements.”
Very similar stylistic elements figure in many movies made during the heyday of noir in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Moreover, those elements are used to conjure the Weltanschauung of noir. The collaborations of director Sam Wood and production designer William Cameron Menzies (who coined his own job title on Gone with the Wind) look more noir than the vast preponderance of the real McCoy. But would anyone be comfortable calling the romantic comedy, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941); the small-town exposé, Kings Row (1943); and the profile of baseball great Lou Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees (1943), film noir?
Still, to pick a glorious f’r-instance, the devastating last shot of Pride is as cosmically fatalistic as any in the whole corpus of the definitively noir director-cinematographer team of Anthony Mann and John Alton. Gehrig has just said his famous farewell speech (“. . . today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth”). He walks to and seems to descend into an exit that appears as a picture-plane sharply divided into a brightly sunlit lower half and an upper half of impenetrable blackness—the shadow cast by the passageway ceiling. He walks from the light into engulfing darkness. Ending a warmly tributary story as firmly downbeat as possible, this image is suffused by metaphysical trepidation, at least, and that’s accomplished by visual means very conducive to noir. If you’re expecting this movie to give you a final, affirmative lift—forget it.
Furthermore, some pretty thoroughgoing noirs lack the supposed noir style. Too Late for Tears (1949), aka Killer Bait, is James M. Cain-ish, 80- rather than 100-proof. It’s about how a suitcase full of cash disrupts a marriage to the tune of two murders and, finally, a suicide. The catalyst for all the destruction is a femme as fatal if less outré than the female leads in two of the films I’ve said are pure noir, Detour and Decoy. On view are lots of heavy breathing, since “love” is deployed as a weapon, and no more brains than in the two De’s. Though they’re higher in class, Too Late for Tears’ characters and their world are mean, amoral, and spiritually barren. But they’re filmed with no distinction whatsoever—no odd camera angles, no chiaroscuro filigree, no jimmied perspective, no portentous shadows, no jazz-seasoned or heavy-breathing score. It might as well be early TV, looks-wise. Byron Haskin’s unshowy direction depends on idiomatically savvy acting; Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, Dan Duryea, and Don DeFore oblige, outstandingly.
Most films called noir on the basis of technique are crime thrillers—detective capers and police procedurals. Sometimes the literary-dramatic basics I think are noir quintessentials are used for existential seasoning. The first and third Mann-Alton collaborations, T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948; Mann directed most of the film, though only Alfred Werker got onscreen credit), spend a lot of time in the worlds of their desperate, amoral protagonists—a paroled passer of counterfeit currency in T-Men, a lone-wolf stick-up man in He Walked by Night. These stretches of both movies are lowering, disquieting, and, of course, exhilarating to watch. But they’re embedded in police procedurals in which the good guys are overdetermined to win (“Crooked cops? What’re ya talkin’ about?”).
If such films were never noir to begin with, there are also some excellent films that lose their noir nerve. Nightmare Alley (1947) is a deeply satisfying portrait of a heel’s rise and decline, but it jerks the carny-hustler protagonist back from his greatly deserved, foreshadowed, and anticipated downfall in its very last scene. They Live by Night (1948) dilutes the hard-knocked hardness of the couple on which it focuses by casting pretty-boy Farley Granger as the young husband. Each adapts a famous roman noir, the first the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham (first husband of Mrs. C. S. Lewis, Joy Davidman), the other Thieves Like Us (1937) by Edward Anderson. Though his book is tiresomely inflated, Gresham goes the course with his antihero, but while They Live by Night is quite faithful to its source, Granger, a very able actor, isn’t the menacing giant Anderson created; Sterling Hayden or Charlton Heston would’ve been more like it.
Incidentally, Heston’s first Hollywood lead is in Dark City (1950), a crypto-noir about a decorated World War II vet involved in crooked poker, while Hayden stars in a much tougher last-minute punch-puller of a noir, Crime Wave (1954), as a raging cop who always seems about to erupt more violently than the ruthless armed robbers he’s chasing (a young ex-con and his wife are the real noir protagonists of the piece). Of all the movies I’ve mentioned in this second take on film noir, Crime Wave’s my top recommendation to fans of the form.
Since I posted my list of favorite silent films, I’ve seen two more that I highly recommend, though I think they may be hard to tackle cold. I offer head-ups for them.
Gripping, often foolish, but dazzling, The Godless Girl (1928), Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent, is a morality play, three of whose principals are bourgeois high-schoolers sent to juvenile prison after a huge and, for one girl, fatal brawl between Christians and a nascent atheists’ club. It’s rife with riveting compositions and well-managed large-ensemble action scenes, sharp and dynamic editing, and well-designed, varied lighting. The acting is, as usual in silent DeMille, more natural than the plot and situations. Its message—surprising, coming from DeMille—isn’t that Christianity is superior to atheism but that faith, regardless the brand, should be respected. It was a big flop until it reached Germany and the Soviet Union. It’s available on the compilation, Treasures III, Disc 3—Toil and Tyranny, with five shorter silents on “social issues”. It IS long: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
Shot primarily in the Norwegian arctic in which it is set, Laila (1929) tells the story of a Norwegian girl, lost in a storm as an infant and raised as his by a well-to-do Sami herder, who grows up to fall in love with a Norwegian, marriage to whom is verboten as miscegenation between “white” and Sami. A revelatory happy ending comes after marvelously realized, suspenseful, and gripping action sequences involving pursuing wolves, reindeer-powered luge races, and rescue from a waterfall. Throughout, there is stunning documentation of snow-painted mountains, majestic lakes, nightless summers, the rolling plateau that the reindeer roam, the northern lights, the intricately patterned traditional clothing of the region’s aboriginals, the Sami, and the faces of a broad range of that people, from infants to dramatically weathered elders (cf. Edward S. Curtis's portraits of Native Americans). Laila, too, is very long: 2 hours, 25 minutes. I was never bored, but I’m Swedish.