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

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

#251 Post by Murdoch » Sun Sep 12, 2010 7:58 pm

Leave Her to Heaven - I think the film suffers when Tierney is gone not through any fault of the film itself, it's simply that her performance is so devilishly menacing that while the film was tidying up the loose ends I was still mulling over her manipulations in my head and the romance between Wilde and the cousin didn't interest me as much as how Tierney dealt with their blooming love. I particularly love how Tierney casts Price aside for Wilde like a child throws away one toy for another.

For me noir is most interesting thematically when it pushes forms of human vice to perverse extremes, so Ellen's willingness to sacrifice everyone for her revenge and her ruthlessness is just pure noir; a sinister disregard for moral convention in order to doom others and the induced abortion had brilliant shades of Medea to it. While other femme fatales of the era merely destroy their sexual encounters, Ellen goes much further since she is willing to sacrifice everyone around her to achieve her desires. I was reluctant to consider this noir, but I think that its color aesthetics work for it and not against it - there are quite a few scenes that reminded me of the daytime shots from The Postman Always Rings Twice that are so dark you can barely make out the actors faces, and Tierney's body lying still after her fall is a stunner of mise-en-scene.

The Hitch-hiker - Interesting how well Lupino pulls this off as noir despite the rather bright surroundings. Talman's phony-eyed drifter is a brilliant concoction of rage and cynicism, and his loner attitude play off well against his two middle-class captives. The cuts away to the police on the hunt for the drifter detract from the otherwise well-plotted film, it certainly helps in setting up the finale but the Mexican and American cops trying to figure the killer's position felt too chummy, maybe it's just because I watched Touch of Evil earlier with its emphasis on border disputes that this stuck out. But this film isn't making any political statements, which is a good thing, and the police are merely along the outskirts of the film while the trio of men are very much at the center.

I like the transformation of O'Brien from passive victim to taunting his captor to almost becoming him when he dons his clothes, Lovejoy was too passive though and I thought his character didn't engage with the situation as much as O'Brien. I thought that perhaps Collins (O'Brien) was lower class and worked his way to success while Bowen (Lovejoy) was born into his social status, thus Bowen's passivity is because of how foreign the experience is to him that he doesn't know how to respond - all pure speculation of course but it's fun to ponder. The film works best when it emphasizes the divide between the men; Myers gloating about his free lifestyle and how the two men are captives to their lives, allowing Collins to break free from his life of captivity and perhaps Bowen to retreat further within it. There's a great dichotomy not only between Myers and his captors but also between Collins and Bowen, and upon contemplation the latter's passivity doesn't strike me as odd as much as a contrast to Collins and better highlights Collins' break-down. Myers seems to actually distort his relationship to his hostages in his mind as a sort of friendship at one point where he appears to be kind of happy and offers to buy them beers, he soon resorts back to his dominating presence but at that point he acted like these two men and him were good buddies, which acted as an apt display of Myers' loner psychosis.

The simplicity of the story allows for much more attention to be brought to the characters, and there's a thousand places you can go with what's presented. As an early directorial effort it's quite mature in how it lets its story unfold without relying on any odd twists to try and entice the viewer further, I'll have to check out The Bigamist now. The Chase or Last Seduction is in your future, zedz!

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

#252 Post by Cold Bishop » Wed Sep 15, 2010 6:13 am

Sigh... I was telling myself I wasn't going to write another long write-up, but lo and behold, this is the longest yet. If I can offer an excuse, there is a surprising lack of criticism for this film, despite being in my estimations a landmark British film of its era. Yes, its foreign, but it's one of two foreign films I have no qualm whatsoever calling film noir. It will more than likely crack my top 10, and while this post is filled with spoilers, and I am not recommending it for people who haven't seen the film, hopefully the large block of text it inspired can be a testament to some of you of the film's greatness.

They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947)

A Pulp Story

Viewing this film so soon after the Anthony Mann noirs, it is easy to note the similarities between Cavalcanti’s film and Raw Deal. Even conceding that the scenario for both films is hardly original – the archetypical premise on which dozens of revenge films have been hung – there are still striking similarities. The basic premise: a framed man breaks out of prison, traveling cross country to the heart of a city, straight into its underworld, evading both police and thugs, so as to get revenge on a ruthless gangster. The leads in both films are obsessed criminals, morally ambiguous, psychologically unhinged, holding on to a shaky code of ethics which seems to contain an unspeakable capability for violence which threatens to break loose at every turn. In both cases, the leads force their way into the life of an “innocent” girl, ensnaring her into his dilemma, and putting her into mortal danger. Both films work in a similar environment, a world of dangerous alleyways, claustrophobic dives, vicious thugs and unending night. Both Mann and Cavalcanti are unflinching and unapologetic in representing the violence and degradation that is currency in that world. Even the heavies are alike: dapper, effeminate, pseudo-sophisticated, both Rick Coyle and Narcy carry a dandyish affectation that contrasts sharply with the world they lord over. In both cases, that affectation is quickly shed in displays of shocking, often misogynistic violence, which both they and their henchmen take sadistic glee in. They even meet similar fates. And in both films, the final showdown takes place in a setting imbued with “otherworldly” characteristics: the impenetrable fog and hellfire of Corkscrew Alley, the “Valhalla” funeral parlour.

Yet, it is this latter point where we can begin to mark some of the difference between the two films. While TMMF may not be as insistently flashy as Raw Deal, both films are handsomely shot and baroquely lit. Alberto Cavalcanti and his DP, Otto Heller, had direct roots in the French Avant-Garde and German Expressionism, and the influence isn’t lost in this film. Yet there is also an influence of the horror film which links both films, despite the fact that the manner which it manifests clearly demarcates them. In Raw Deal, it is the sense of the supernatural, those foggy, shimmering images which create an almost romantic haze which engulfs the film. In TMMF, the influence is of a much more macabre, more sinister variety, menacing instead of romantic, shadings rather than a haze, manifesting itself in a continuous series of memento moris which makes us feel that death and decay is lurking around every corner in Soho.

To attempt defining the difference, and finally leaving Mann’s film behind, the influence of horror is used in Raw Deal to give the fatalistic pull of fate a tangible presence. It’s invocation in TMMF is different and much more subtle, if just as effective. Although the film commences with a coin toss, fate is not Cavalcanti’s main concern. Rather, the morbid undercurrent driving the film creates a sense of unease and anxiety, almost a feeling of the diseased, as if the entire the characters and their city, if not the entire country itself, had been struck with some terrible, incomprehensible malady. Intangible, indescribable, the atmosphere is nonetheless felt, engulfing every crevice of the film, agitating the city into a frenzied death dance.

After the War…

This atmosphere and what it means was already being perceived at the time. From Arthur Vesselo’s period review (“The quarter in Britain,” Sight and Sound n63 1947):
Arthur Vesselo wrote:"[Morgan is] an unconscious personification of decent humanity demoralized by war and unfitted for peace… [The film has] an unpleasant undertone, a parade of frustrated violence, an inversion and disordering of moral values, a groping into the grimier recesses of the mind, which are unhealthy symptoms of the same kind of illness."
While the review was negative, meant as a condemnation of TMMF and its other “spiv” contemporaries (Appointment with Crime, Brighton Rock, No Orchids for Miss Blandish), it nonetheless perceives the general mood which make the films so interesting, and for which TMMF stands out as an especially tremendous example. It is points clearly towards film noir. Perhaps the greatest foundation for noir – moreso than American nationality or even black-and-white photography – is the influence of the war. To put it in the simplest form possible, the war unleashed something in society. A contact with violence and death: on a personal level, with the soldiers (and abroad, civilians) who saw the carnage of war first-hand, and discovered their own capacity for killing. On a greater, more abstract level, in the societal knowledge of the war’s violence, perhaps best personified in unfathomable monoliths like the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb. It also caused a great and violent shuffling and re-shuffling of society that was felt by both soldiers and civilians. From this, it is easy to postulate where the frustration, alienation and trauma of film noir emerges from. Perhaps this social shift is most obvious with women, the misogyny of the femme fatale linked with a backlash against the short moment of relative independence for women (and its no mistake that the next great wave of sexist cinema would emerge in the 1980s, after the decline of second-wave feminism).

The importance of this description also points towards the difficulty of establishing parameters for film noir. While it has certain recurring themes and narrative motifs, film noir isn’t unified by a clear narrative and thematic cohesiveness the way the Western or Horror film is. The private eye and the femme fatale may be important to noir, but they alone don’t make a film noir, and there are plenty of noirs lacking both that testify that the inverse is true. You must also account for the way film noir often uses other established genres (gangster films, detective films, romantic melodramas, etc.). It would be more appropriate to call noir a stylistic genre, but that also ignores the way many of the technical properties of noir find their way into other sort of films, and the wide difference of form between certain noirs (the studio-bound slickness of a Big Sleep, the low-budget gloom of a Detour, the docudrama realism of a Kiss of Death). Perhaps the best way to classify noir – a method which almost precludes any chance of objective definition – would be as being united by a mood, a feeling, an intangible presence which for a lack of a better word could be called a sensibility, and while ineffable, can be classified by several number of characteristics: violence, cynicism, sexism, perversity, aimlessness, guilt, moral ambivalence, darkness, to name only a few (and now we see the wisdom in Borde and Chaumeton’s deliberately vague definition). And it is this sensibility that points back to the war. It is rarely explicit – while noirs could use the war as plot devices (Somewhere in the Night), and sometimes even bring it front and center (Act of Violence), film noirs rarely included Post-War films as explicit as The Best Years of Our Lives, and most noirs don’t even mention WWII, yet the same sensibility hangs over the entirety of the cycle. It often manifests itself in guarded cynicism, sometimes gives way to pure existential terror, and in rare cases, like Kiss Me Deadly and The Seventh Victim, collapses a film into nihilistic oblivion… but the sensibility was always present.

From here, it is easy to see why an argument for foreign noir is at least worth considering. The war was a global event, and every country was touched by it, so it stands that many countries can capture something of that post-war sensibility. Of course, any definitive argument for foreign noir would have to consider the way the post-war atmosphere differed from country to country, the way it was represented on each respective screen, and the manner in which Hollywood style and narrative influenced international cinema (and the way world cinema sometimes influenced Hollywood). I’m not here to make that study – I don’t have the patient, intelligence or stomach – but even the strictest noir purist must concede that films like Drunken Angel and Quai de Orfèvres at least express parallels with American film noir. Any potential foreign noir would have to have careful individual consideration, contrasted against the American sensibility, and seeing how the film compares. Ultimately, it comes down completely to subjective definition, and I don’t hide it. The final chase of The Third Man may be noir in its style and desperation, but the film surrounding seems to me clearly to placed in the espionage film, and its viewpoint, a British view of Vienna, strike me as being “twice removed” from the American sensibility, as fundamentally different from noir as Anton Karas zither is from Rozsa’s strings and Mancini’s sleaze jazz. An argument for a film like Rififfi is easy: Dassin’s certified noir credentials infuse the film with the genuine tenor and tempo of American film noir. TMMF creates a more difficult argument: while Cavalcanti may have been an “international” filmmaker, his globe-trotting missed any work in Hollywood, and any links with American filmmaking that can be made, such as Noel Langley’s work on The Wizard of Oz, seem tenuous at best. TMMF is worth considering as noir in the manner that it fulfills the three foundations of the genre – narrative, style, sensibility – in a manner that speaks less of a cross-Atlantic pollination than a mirror image that developed “independently” of its Hollywood counterpart, but presenting a direct analogy that withstand the differences of context. It shares a violent, hard-boiled scenario equally at home in the American cinema, as a comparison with Raw Deal shows. Its style is the same Expressionist darkness of the American noir, representing the urban city as a nightmare. Most important, it shares the sensibility, showing that even our allies weren’t immune from our own post-war trauma. It has differences, but none strong enough to clearly demarcate it from American noirs, and some of them even serve as the perfect compliment to some of the worst excesses of the American genre (such as Cavalcanti’s sympathetic portrayal of women characters).

Like most American noirs, the influence of the war is essential, but understated, couched and buried within a pulp “entertainment”. Nevertheless, it doesn’t go unmentioned. Like the various memento moris that constantly pop up around the edges the film, casual references to the wars pop up throughout the dialogue, undercutting the post-war anxiety of the film. Starting from the beginning, where Narcy (Griffith Jones) describes the yet-to-be-seen Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard), lingering on his status as a former RAF, and explains: “He's got class. We need a bit of that in our business.” The conflict of the film hangs on the conflict between Morgan and Narcy. Their initial conflict revolves around that old standby dilemma of British Society – class – but the manner in which class is complicated and refracted by the reality of the war is especially of note. Morgan is a middle-class man “slumming” in the criminal underworld out of boredom. Narcy is a lower-class, but showing a clear desire to “climb” in his ostentatious outward appearance, and criminal ambitions. Morgan is a soldier, spending the war years fighting. Narcy is a “spiv”, spending them at home, capitalizing on the ration system, and building a small criminal empire. Despite his middle-class status, it is Morgan that looks and acts the brute, unkempt, with a wild gleam in his eyes. Narcy, on the other hand, is lithe, composed and self-consciously elegant. As one character describes him, he isn’t “a respectable crook… just cheap, rotten after-the-war trash.” While a throwaway line, it marks the characters relation to the war: Narcy stayed and prospered on that very societal shift which now leaves Morgan, who left and fought, unable to assimilate back into society.

One of the great strengths of the film is Trevor Howard’s performance, possibly his best. Sardonic, obsessed, doing justice to the script’s razor sharp wit, yet seemingly always on the verge of spinning out of control, it may at first glance seem against type, but a closer examination reveal quite the opposite. Howard himself fought in the war, fighting in Sicily, Nazi-Occupied Norway, and ultimately being kicked out after being diagnosed with a “psychopathic personality”. Some accounts tell that he was a last minute replacement, making his command of the character all the more impressive. If one can indulge in psychology, it seems possible that it may have been a much more personal performance than the more regal, capable officers he’d play in later films. While I’m not as familiar with Griffith Jones career, beyond seeing him play “the Baxter” in several romantic dramas, does justice to another possibly uncharacteristic role. He captures the sociopathic sadism hiding behind a veneer of smirking, self-satisfied smugness which belies the root of his name – short for Narcissus. It has other connotations as well, no more felt than its nearness to certain British pronunciations of “Nazi”, which points towards a post-war constant: the external war abroad usually returns an internal war at home (“I went on doing what the country put me in a uniform to do after they'd taken it back”), that very internal tension being the subject of the film.

This is the “inversion and disordering of moral values” that Vesselo perceives and objects to. Since this disordering includes by extensions “social values” as well, one could perhaps give the film a “classist” reading. The entire conflict arises from people stepping beyond their class – Morgan “slumming”, Narcy “climbing” – that a superficial reading can be that the post-war trauma is simply class confusion. Yet this neglects that the film doesn’t ascribe any moments where class “normalcy” prevails. The closest the film comes to a sympathetic symbol of the middle-class is Inspector Rockliffe (Ballard Berkeley). While not a negative portrayal, the character is largely ineffectual, often unscrupulous – as when he allows Morgan to escape, so as to “buy two nooses for the price of one” – and at others, impotent – he knows Morgan is innocent, but is completely unable to do anything about it. Beyond this, there is another major exception that proves the rule: when Morgan escapes from prison, he forces his way into a well-to-do middle-class home. It’s an interesting moment for two reasons – it is the only real moment placed squarely in the middle-class, and the only home outside the city we see as well. However, the way the scene plays out hardly speaks for middle-class idealization. On breaking in, Morgan holds a housewife, Mrs. Fenshaw (Vida Hope), at gun point, forcing her to provide him with some clothing. Instead of showing any resistance, the woman immediately figures out who he is, and offers to help well beyond what Morgan is forcing her to do. She makes no attempt for escape or alarm, promising in fact not to, her acquiescence accompanied by an almost somnambulistic detachment. Throughout the episode, she prods the fugitive about his war experience, especially keen on the issue on whether he ever killed a man, and if so, how did he do it. When he finally offers up an answer (“With a beer bottle. It's alright...it was empty”) she reveals what she has in mind: to repay the favor of clothes, bath and food, he wants Morgan to kill her husband, seeing no harm in him being charged with another murder. She even has the gun ready, suspiciously at hand considering she had no reason to expect a visitor. Morgan balks at the idea, even giving her a final admonishment before escaping through the window: “It would be better for you to forget these maternal ideas. Otherwise, you could end up worse than me.

You half expect the scene to end here, a nice little anti-crime message to appease the censors. Yet, the scene sticks with her even after Morgan leaves. She eyes the gun, realizing that Morgan touched it, and as such has his fingerprints. She picks it up with a handkerchief and slowly stalks up the stairs. Half way up her husband meets her. She pauses for a second. We expect her to drop the gun. Instead she fires square in his chest. He tumbles down the stairs. It doesn’t stop. She follows him down and unloads the gun with a fury that surpasses that of Bette Davis. She fires until the gun is clicking on empty rounds. Then the scene ends. Given the already morbid underpinnings of the film, the scene still stands out as an especially creepy and disturbing moment of the film. That it seems largely extraneous to the rest of the narrative gives it an odd sense of agitation to boot. Yet, its purpose seems simple: while the movie concerns itself with slums and lower-class hoods, it clearly marks that the middle-class, even those beyond the city, aren’t immune to the post-war malady afflicting the film. One could perhaps read a sexist bent here, a manifestation of the black widow/femme fatale, but her ice-cold demeanor surpasses pure viciousness and enter the realms of the psychopathic. Even the short glimpses we get of the husband – a absent-minded, seemingly harmless drunk, but a drunk nonetheless – point towards some level of dysfunction, and perhaps the invocation of The Letter wasn’t accident. The story of woman trying to justify a murder, it could act as shorthand for all the possibilities of abuse or trauma that could drive her to do such an act. Even then, the viciousness of the act and the insanity exhibited by the crime seems to surpass any hints of a back-story. It isn’t the justification that Cavalcanti is worried about, it’s acknowledging the fact that the mark of violence unleashed by the war touches all strata of society, even that of middle-class normalcy and comfort.

A Woman’s Nightmare

A sexist reading of the Mrs. Fenshaw character also ignores that throughout the rest of the film, Cavalcanti is understanding and sympathetic to his female characters. The cycle of films that can be classified as “British noir” never indulged in the femme fatale to the extent of America – just look at the wide-eyed innocence of Rose in Brighton Rock, or Alida Valli’s Anna in The Third Man – but TMMF is interesting since it has several roles that could have easily been femme fatales, at times even seeming to set up a character as one, only to requalify it later. Beyond Mrs. Fenshaw, who is only peripheral to the narrative, there are four major female characters:

1) Ellen (Eve Ashley): From the outset, she seems to be tagged as the main female character. She is Morgan’s girl, but once he is framed, is stolen by Narcy. We expect the revenge film to shaded by jealousy, and for the cheating Ellen to be the callous and opportunistic femme fatale. Yet, she seems to largely vanish after the opening. Throughout the first half of the film, people’s belief that Morgan is jealous is contrasted by his own clear disinterest in Ellen’s love life. Even before he’s framed, Morgan catches on, and instead of reacting with jealousy, is content allowing her to have her romance “as long as we understand eachother.” Morgan’s revenge has nothing to do with Ellen, and he nor Cavalcanti have any interest in punishing her.

2) Sally (Sally Gray): As Ellen disappears to the background, it is Sally who emerges as the true female protagonist. Yet she makes her entrance in full femme fatale fashion, as Narcy’s jealous ex-squeeze, looking for revenge, she visits Morgan in prison in hopes of sowing seeds of discontent. She tells her that Ellen has left him; that one of Narcy’s henchmen who was witness to the framing, Soapy, knows he is innocent, feels guilty, but is to afraid to testify; and is hoping to help him escape to dish out the revenge she is hoping for herself. Yet, Morgan immediately notices what it takes a few scenes for us to figure out: that she’s no femme fatale, but a femme naïve, and that she has no comprehension of the sort of fire she is playing with. Two scenes later, she receives a vicious beating from Narcy, and sheds any romantic notions of revenge, beginning to understand she had no idea about the sort of people she was dealing with, and while they may be vicious and sadistic brutes, she is anything but. When she reenters the story, it is only after Morgan pulls her back in, forcing her by gunpoint to assist him, and “finish what [she] started”, while she would rather walk away from the whole thing. She’s is not the great manipulator of American noir, but a sympathetic character who is ultimately at the mercy of the more vicious men around her.

3) Cora (René Ray): In many ways, it is Cora that is the most sympathetic character in the whole film. Like a younger, British version of Thelma Ritter’s Moe in Pickup on South Street, she’s a frail, tattered woman, exhibiting a weariness beyond her years, yet revealing a cunning street-smart which belies her ability to survive at the margins of society. She is linked to Narcy’s gang via her husband, but when we first see her, it is obvious that she has very little to do with that side of his life. And that gangster is Soapy – the weakest-willed member of the gang, exhibiting none of their cruelty, and the only one to feel guilty about Morgan’s framing. In many ways, she is the only character in the film having anything resembling a noble cause: Morgan’s escape makes Soapy the prime chess piece in the struggle, and she spends the film doing everything she can to hide and save his life from the gangsters. It is she who warns Sally about getting mixed up in their affair, as she understands something that Sally doesn’t yet: these men’s capacity for violence. This knowledge and perseverance isn’t enough to save her from it, and Cavalcanti never betrays anything but compassion for her.

4) Aggie (Mary Merrall): Probably the most peculiar character in the film, and the hardest to pin down. She is clearly some “part” of Narcy’s gang, always lurking around them. Nevertheless, she isn’t a hood; she has some sort of role between den-mother, soothsayer and comic relief, trading pointed barbs with the hoods, and holding down the fort. Nevertheless, it is she who expresses qualms about the final showdown with Morgan, having a premonition that it will be doom for everyone and that she wants to wash her hands of it. And Cavalcanti never expresses anything but amusement with her.

If I can borrow a phrase from Robin Wood, TMMF presents itself as being something of “a woman’s nightmare.” The main narrative thrust of the film revolves around conflict among men, but the manner in which that conflict constantly draws in and damages the woman around it is always visible. The film presents a world where women exist only to be marginalized, possessed (Ellen), discarded, abused, humiliated (Sally, Cora), or at best, quietly put up with and ignored (Aggie). Cavalcanti draws attention to the pattern, but never indulges it. In fact, the entire middle section of the film revolves around two moments of misogynistic violence.

First is the moment alluded to above, where Sally is brutalized by Narcy. Before the scene, Cora warns her about tangling with him, but she responds confidently that he would never dare touch her. That false confidence is quickly shed in the next scene. After the first blow, her underestimation becomes clear, as she seems already broken and resigned. But Narcy ensure her that there’s more, and the full extent of what’s in store sets in. Moreso than any other scene in the movie, Cavalcanti’s avant-garde roots become clear here. Taking in the violence that’s in store for her, she looks into her dressing room mirror, and it has taken on the properties of a funhouse mirror, distorting Narcy, arm extended to strike the next blow, into a monstrous figure. The scene is cut with a furious pace that would have made Epstein or Gance proud, and he utilizes various tricks – distorted lenses, whirling camera – to capture and identify with Sally’s bewildered position as victim. Certainly the other scenes of violence are no slouch, but the amount of energy Cavalcanti puts to this scene shows he holds this act as especially abberant. Adding to the helplessness of the situation is that Cora is situated right outside the door. Fully aware of Narcy’s nature in a way Sally was not, she doesn’t dare intervene. She, like the viewer, stands as a powerless witness.

Later, another moment of violence against women occurs. Cora has been capture by Narcy’s gang, and she is being interrogated and tortured to reveal her husband’s location. Yet, unlike the earlier scene, this one isn’t marked by psychical violence; here’s the brutality is strictly psychological. When we enter the scene, Cora’s hair is tussled, her face is bruised, showing she’s already been worked over, but except for a slap at the beginning of the scene, and some rough pushing, there’s hardly a blow in the scene. It is rather the threat of unthinkable (and unfilmable) violence that is used to break Cora down. Unlike the furious pace of the other scenes, this is one is drawn out, more methodical. The camera lingers on the various elements; Cora’s hysterical fear, Narcy and his gang’s gleeful crave for violence, the implements of torture waiting to be used, the almost dungeon-like quality of the room (the horror element). The main focus is on the “coaxer” – a large leather belt (which in itself seems deadly) studded with heavy, razor sharp medallions that look like they could tear the flesh. The threat reaches a palpable level of tension, until it seems like it can only be alleviated by either violence or a confession. In the middle of this scene, Cavalcanti uses two uncomfortable and jarring close-ups that drive home its cruelty: a low-angle shot looking up at a smirking Narcy, describing the “game” which they are about to play; a high-angle shot looking down on Cora, with indescribable terror in her eyes. At a moment where we want to camera to stay far back, for it to turn away if possible, Cavalcanti brings the camera close. At a moment where we do not want to look at either characters – so as to not see either Cora’s degradation or Narcy’s sadistic joy – he puts the camera right up to their faces, in fact having them make eye contact with the camera/viewer. Both close-ups are also p.o.v. shots – Cora looking up at Narcy; Narcy looking down at Cora – making literal the power relations (brutalizer and victim) of this sadistic and shameful display. Some could read identification with the act from this, but I don’t think it’s so: the brutalizer’s gaze is matched by the victim's, and like the earlier scene, it is complicated by Sally, who stands by this time as the powerless witness. It walks a fine line, but the scene ultimately takes no sadistic glee from the scene, but maintains a sensitive position towards Cora. When she ultimately confesses with nary a scratch on her, it doesn’t seem like a moment of cowardice, it seems completely comprehensible, never losing sympathy. In fact, the moral implications – a betrayal – makes it seem as terrible as the kicks and punches Sally received earlier. Cavalcanti’s method is not prurience, but making clear the terror of women at the mercy of men.

Between these scenes, there is another moment of a gruesome nature, which unlike the others, is perhaps the only moment of physical affection between women and men in the film. During his escape, Morgan was shot by a farmer, and has been walking around with buckshot in his back. When he holds Sally captive at gunpoint, he makes her remove the buckshot. It’s a potentially bloody scene: without anesthetic, Sally removes the shot using only tweezers. Yet the scene is shaded with romantic overtones. Morgan is shirtless, lying on Sally’s luxurious bed, where Sally sits with him. The scene plays out completely in intimate close-ups. The CU’s initially capture the uncomfortable dimensions of the scene – Sally’s queasiness, Morgan’s flinching pain – and plays out in exchanges of sneering wisecracks. But something interesting happens here. Placed in context, this scene is the moment where Sally’s feelings towards Morgan passes from fear to begrudging camaraderie. Before it, she is held at gun point, terrified at the man. Following it, she voluntarily helps him escape Narcy and the police. While something of a romance develops later, it is never consummated with a kiss or even a real embrace. As such, this scene act as the film’s only “love scene”. Certainly, it’s a perverse simulacrum – and given the film’s inherent black humor, something of a parody – but a love scene nonetheless. When it’s over, we find that Morgan is out cold, literally passed out from the operation, but the film frames him in a way that makes him look like a spent lover postcoitus.

That a moment of “violence” here can be restructured into a moment of “romance” is worth examination. This is achieved be reversing the power relations of the interaction. Here the “violence” is used not for torture, but for healing; throughout the movie, people constantly try to fill Morgan with bullets; here, someone tries to remove them. There is also a reversal of gender roles. For once, the woman is in the dominant role, allowed to be in control. And control is an apt word, for despite his precautions, Morgan is taking a giant risk turning his back on Sally, placing himself in a vulnerable position, and as we see, risking passing out in front of his hostage. That this scene is never followed up with a genuine love scene, however, adds to the diseased tone of the film. In this world, men and women can only relate in terms of violence and power, and even in its most positive representation, it can only subvert the model, not transcend it. (Note: it would be remiss to ignore the Cora and Soapy relationship, but I feel while it adds some complicating information, it still supports this tone. Here, Cora is also the dominant one, and the strength of their love seems to come from being united as victims.)

Frustation & Futility

Compounding the tone of brutality and decay, there is another intangible feeling emerging from the film that is difficult to put into word. Certain scenes, quite typical taken on their own, are staged and arranged in a manner that makes them ring intentionally hollow. Early in the film, Narcy and his gang attempt to abduct Sally, and in pure fate, arrive just as Morgan is with her. As luck would have it, before any confrontation or capture can occur, we discover the police have been watching Sally’s apartment, and they intercept Narcy before any thing can occur. Feeling confident about this, Morgan leaves her in police custody as she makes his escape. The police attempt to protect her, but Narcy’s gang finds a way to outmaneuver them, and seize her. None of this sounds especially noteworthy in itself; it’s all quite typical of this genre of film. Yet, all this action is not spread out; it occurs all in the same scene, in a span of a few minutes. The suddenness with which Sally is left in protection, and with which Narcy’s gang is able to infiltrate it, drives home the feeling that Morgan’s (and the police) best attempts at protecting Sally were ultimately naïve and inadequate, a far cry from the clever, obsessed man we saw escape from prison. To find Soapy, Morgan must find Cora; but when we finally come around to Morgan searching the back alleys of Soho for her, it is after she has already been captured and forced to confess. Once again, the cunning man finds himself dozens of steps behind his adversaries, who are now on the path to hunting down Soapy. Right after this, Morgan finds him recaptured by the police, but there is no chase or struggle as we would think perfunctory for this sort of film and this sort of character. It is rather uneventful; Morgan turns a wrong corner, and literally walks into them, giving himself up quietly without a fight. When Soapy is finally tracked down and murdered, it occurs during this stretch of the film when Morgan is incarcerated, and Narcy feels comfortable enough to restart daily operations. While a necessary piece of the conflict, his murder occurs at the one moment where he is most unnecessary. It feels as if he almost dies in vain, for no reason except machinations that were already in place and too late to stop. When Morgan is allowed to escape, it is only when there is no hope for acquittal left, all that remain is pure revenge. While it may seem that Cavalcanti is almost attempting to make the gang all-powerful, constantly able to outsmart Morgan, I don’t believe this is true. They are hardly omniscient, often prospering out of pure luck, and often capable of folly as much as anyone else. Rather, the ways these and other scenes play out suggest an overriding feeling of frustration, as if the simplest actions can’t be carried without the possibility of them being opposed or undone. And futility, as if all this violence and madness ultimately amounts to nothing.

The ending is the ultimate examples of this. The elements of the horror film have been used throughout the film to generate a sense of unease and sickness. Here, it comes out to the forefront. It is played out in the Valhalla Funeral Parlour, and is accompanied with numerous memento moris: caskets, coffins and other implements of the trade; ornate statues of angels and gargoyles; comically grotesque advertisement posters; black framed signs containing darkly humorous maxims about death. To add to the effect, Narcy has his men lie in wait inside the coffins, so when Morgan arrives, they pop out in ambush like vampires or mummies. Despite taking place in a small room, the darkness of the room turns the parlour basement into a condensed labyrinth, the piled up boxes and casket creating multiple corridors around which assailants can creep and hide, creating a sense of disorientation. At one point, while chasing Narcy through the roof window, Morgan becomes so mad with rage, he doesn’t even bother raising it; he smashes through it head first like some classic movie monster. The final rooftop showdown is the home of the film’s ultimate memento mori: the acronym “R.I.P.” stands emblazoned on it in a huge sign, Morgan and Narcy’s final struggle taking place around its giant letters. As Morgan and Narcy square off, we see that the police are finally arriving.

It can hardly be called a happy ending – either one where Morgan triumphs and gets the girl, or where the police reinstate law and order – although both instances are certainly at play. It doesn’t even have the catharsis of a tragic ending – where Morgan’s destroys himself with his drive for revenge – although in its subtle implications, it is as bleak and distressing as any tragedy. Rather, Cavalcanti ties up the story in a way that is fitting for a pulp genre film, but exacerbates the ending in a manner that emphasize the frustration and futility of it all. The film manages to have closure, but like the earlier scenes, it rings hollow, unable to shake the feeling of death and decay permeating the picture. Narcy dies, but it can hardly be called revenge. It happens by accident, Narcy slips while leaping across an alley and fall to his death (the pure chance of it perhaps an answer to the opening coin toss). In fact, when it happens, Morgan himself is clinging to the roof banister for dear life. The movie sets up the possibility of Narcy confessing his guilt and Morgan’s innocence as he is dying. Instead, in one final sneer, he implicates Morgan and only Morgan, using his last breath to tell he and Sally to “go to hell.” The police swing into the building, but the most they do is scrape the remains off the floor; Inspector Rockliffe knows he is innocent, but is left helpless without any proof. He offers some reassuring words about an appeal, but the dispirited tone with which it’s delivered, and its hints of bureaucratic red tape, betrays it as an empty gesture. When Sally confesses his love, and tells him she’ll wait, there is no great kiss or embrace; Morgan simply says that it is “what [he’s] afraid of,” and advises her to give up the notion. For once, it doesn’t sound like a romantically stoic gesture of sacrifice, like Rick in Casablanca, but a genuine warning from a broken man resigned to his fate.

The film ends with one of the great final moments in all of noir cinema. As Marius-François Gaillard’s haunting music plays, the police car pulls away, carrying Morgan with it, leaving Sally behind alone on an isolated, rainy street corner. We have a close up looking in on the backseat as Morgan turns around, a man defeated by circumstances, a hollowed out shell of the intense character we have seen throughout the picture, all his energy and vigor drained. Returning to jail, he is no better than when he escaped on his quest for revenge. In many ways he’s worse off: the obsessive drive for revenge animated him, gave him something to live for; now even that is gone. As he stares back, we catch his p.o.v. shot: a wide shot of Sally standing alone on the rain-soaked, gas-lit street corner, as the car/camera moves further and further back. She isn’t simply an object of longing and loss. In many ways, it is her ending as much as Morgan’s, and in many ways, she isn’t much better off. She has gained knowledge of a cruelty in the world she was ignorant of before; she has suffered and been abused. And she has very little to show for it at the end either. Not happiness, nor love, nor solace. In many ways, it is appropriate to end with her and not Morgan. We know where Morgan is going. She, like the society she lives in, like the viewer who’s stolen a glance into this world, stands on a street corner, trapped in indecision, paralyzed in heartbreak and uncertainty, not knowing which direction to go.

Despite being British, the world of They Made Me a Fugitive is quintessentially film noir – it’s a world defined by the unresolved traumas of the past, and the terrifying uncertainty for the future. A world consumed by corruption, crime and violence, where the best that one can hope for is reaching a point where he/she has nothing left to lose… but nothing left to live for either. Its ending weaves the same mix of ambiguity, disillusionment and immeasurable melancholy that mark the finest film noir denouements. It is the same crushing sadness we find in In a Lonely Place, when Dix Steele walks out of the apartment courtyard a broken man. It is the same ambiguous melancholy we see in Out of the Past, when The Kid lies to Ann so as to save her from the destructive pull of the past. It is the also the same guarded and hesitant sigh of relief we get from Marlene Dietrich’s eulogy at the end of Touch of Evil: the nightmare of the story may be over as the lights come up, but we get the feeling that the scar and ruins will remain long after the camera turn away.

Don't let the country of origin fool you. This film is the genuine article.

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While my "write-up" keyvip is almost becoming as taxing as my "to-watch" keyvip, I like to mention some of the films I'm hoping to write on next (certainly much less than I did here). If anyone has any thoughts on the films, I'd appreciate musing over them as I write: Act of Violence, In a Lonely Place, The Seventh Victim, The Prowler, Moonrise, Voice in the Wind, Ride the Pink Horse... and of course, try to hit all the swapsies.

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tojoed wrote:I doubt whether there are many others that you might have overlooked, but I'll have a think and let you know.
You'd be surprised by how many glaring absences I have, a side-effect of going for the esoteric instead of the obvious (for example, I've missed most of the Preminger and Siodmak noirs, yet have spent years searching for (and fingers crossed, finally found) one of Arthur Ripley's lost noirs). Shoot a few, and you'll probably hit.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Tue Jan 10, 2012 7:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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

#253 Post by tojoed » Wed Sep 15, 2010 8:54 am

Thanks for the great write up on Cavalcanti, which I'll come back to later.
In the meantime, here are a few that I'd like you to consider, if you haven't already.
Asphalt Jungle, Murder, My Sweet, Fallen Angel, Moonrise, Nightmare Alley.
I think only Moonrise might be tricky to see on DVD; although it airs on TV here quite often, I don't know about the States.

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

#254 Post by Sloper » Thu Sep 16, 2010 3:18 pm

Great analysis of They Made Me a Fugitive, Cold Bishop; a few responses below, full of SPOILERS...
Cold Bishop wrote:The morbid undercurrent driving the film creates a sense of unease and anxiety, almost a feeling of the diseased, as if the entire the characters and their city, if not the entire country itself, had been struck with some terrible, incomprehensible malady. Intangible, indescribable, the atmosphere is nonetheless felt, engulfing every crevice of the film, agitating the city into a frenzied death dance...

Perhaps the greatest foundation for noir – moreso than American nationality or even black-and-white photography – is the influence of the war. To put it in the simplest form possible, the war unleashed something in society...Perhaps this social shift is most obvious with women, the misogyny of the femme fatale linked with a backlash against the short moment of relative independence for women (and its no mistake that the next great wave of sexist cinema would emerge in the 1980s, after the decline of second-wave feminism).
Yes, even more than, say, Night and the City, this film has a sort of gangrenous quality to it, conveyed as you say by the endless references to death – my favourite shot (out of so many great ones) is the dolly into the Valhalla undertaker parlour towards the end, where the camera drifts very slowly forwards like a ghost, and like a ghost passes through the doors, to instantly reveal the sign hanging on the wall (‘It Is Later Than You Think’)...which then falls and smashes for no apparent reason. This sickly atmosphere was also beautifully captured in the final moments. Look at the roads in those last shots: they seem to be covered in a layer of slimy water, in which the car tyres leave deep tracks. It looks like a swamp. I remember reading that they put oil on the pavements when they shot Sweet Smell of Success, hence the wonderful atmosphere you get in that scene where Lancaster says, ‘I love this dirty town’, and the filthy streets shimmer all around him. In that case, the imagery suggests corruption that has been glossed over, but in the Cavalcanti film it’s as if the characters are just eels writhing around in puddles. The inaptly named Soapy’s ignominious end also springs to mind – knifed amid piles of rubble (notice the digger claw hanging over him when he is killed) and then tossed into the grey water.

I’m sure you’re right to connect all this with the effects of the war, and would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on Act of Violence. It’s another great film about people who have been irreparably damaged – physically, psychologically and morally – by the war. Two scenes stand out in my memory, both of them ‘revelation’ scenes:
SpoilerShow
In the first, Robert Ryan invades Janet Leigh’s respectable home (specifically her kitchen, I think) to tell her the horrifying story of her husband’s act of betrayal. There’s a line, I think, where Ryan describes the consequences of this betrayal, and says of the dying men, ‘After a while you couldn’t tell if they were men or dogs out there.’ It’s a palpable act of violence upon this middle-class home, and it really tears into Leigh. Later on, Van Heflin makes his confession to Leigh, this time in a dark stairwell, and the juxtaposition between the settings of these key scenes is obviously intentional: Ryan comes to destroy the pleasant household, and Heflin reveals the murky basement level of his conscience.
Here and in Fugitive, you have a ‘hero’ who is defined by his weaknesses and flaws, and even when they redeem themselves these characters still end up losing. In these films, you almost get the impression that in this shattered post-war world, there are only weak men; compare Night and the City, where the nearest thing to a male character who is both strong and good is...Gary Merrill. One of the reasons why actors like Widmark, Lancaster, Bogart and Kirk Douglas seem so at home in film noir is that they’re really good at portraying haunted, angst-ridden characters who use brute force to cover up their basically weak natures. Which brings me to Trevor Howard...
Cold Bishop wrote:One of the great strengths of the film is Trevor Howard’s performance, possibly his best. Sardonic, obsessed, doing justice to the script’s razor sharp wit, yet seemingly always on the verge of spinning out of control, it may at first glance seem against type, but a closer examination reveal quite the opposite.
I love Trevor Howard, but I have to disagree with you here. The reason he’s so good in Brief Encounter and The Thrid Man is that he’s unfailingly normal, with his steady voice, steady gaze, receding hairline and so on – a man you can like and identify with, but not cut out to be the driven protagonist of a pulp thriller. I feel the same way about John Mills in Brit-noirs like The October Man (well worth seeing) and The Long Memory (only seen bits of this but it seemed pretty mediocre, despite some nice use of miserable English beach locations). I know the idea is that these are ordinary men thrown against their will (or better judgement) into a world of crime and violence, but since their transgressions never really amount to very much I never feel like there’s much at stake. One of the most interesting things about the early reels of TMMF was how sparingly we were shown what Morgan was doing: during the robbery, or when he goes to jail, or when he escapes, we just catch glimpses of him, or of his feet or hands, and it takes a while before he really finds himself in the foreground of the action. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I found these earlier scenes a little more compelling...

As to the psychotic, murderous wife:
Cold Bishop wrote:She eyes the gun, realizing that Morgan touched it, and as such has his fingerprints. She picks it up with a handkerchief and slowly stalks up the stairs. Half way up her husband meets her. She pauses for a second. We expect her to drop the gun. Instead she fires square in his chest. He tumbles down the stairs. It doesn’t stop. She follows him down and unloads the gun with a fury that surpasses that of Bette Davis... Even the short glimpses we get of the husband – a absent-minded, seemingly harmless drunk, but a drunk nonetheless – point towards some level of dysfunction, and perhaps the invocation of The Letter wasn’t accident. The story of woman trying to justify a murder, it could act as shorthand for all the possibilities of abuse or trauma that could drive her to do such an act. Even then, the viciousness of the act and the insanity exhibited by the crime seems to surpass any hints of a back-story. It isn’t the justification that Cavalcanti is worried about, it’s acknowledging the fact that the mark of violence unleashed by the war touches all strata of society, even that of middle-class normalcy and comfort.
I wondered whether this husband was meant to be a little shell-shocked, like Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway? He clearly wasn’t abusing his wife, and although he seems unsurprised to see her with another man, I didn’t get the impression this was because she had been having affairs, more that he was just a little funny in the head. Notice how, when she points the gun at him, he points his finger back at her, as if he thinks they’re playing a game; this and his look of confusion on finding himself shot, and the wife’s face as she unloads the gun into him (she can’t bear to look at what she’s doing, as though she were putting down a rabid dog) combine to make this a uniquely disturbing sequence. Odd that it isn’t mentioned at the end – it really does seem to have been inserted just for the hell of it. I also couldn’t help but think of The Letter (one of my favourite films) – remember, though, that in that film Davis didn’t kill because of some abuse or trauma inflicted upon her, but purely out of jealous rage. That’s very much a story about class and the sins it can be used to cover up (more so in the Maugham story, where she really does get away with it), so I suppose that might be relevant to the way you read this sequence in Fugitive.

I like your readings of the violent scenes, and don’t really have much to add to them. Along with Went the Day Well?, this film proves what a genius Cavalcanti had for using virtuosic film technique to represent extreme brutality. The editing and use of close-ups in these scenes, as you say, really forces the violence upon us; it’s still hard to watch today.

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

#255 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Sep 20, 2010 3:39 am

The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)

This film will be shown in a rare screening tomorrow, from a UCLA print, on TCM at 5/8pm PT/ET (following fellow list candidate, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door). I was originally hoping to rewatch it before writing. But as it seems I will have to wait for its repeat showing (on Nov 13), I will write this in hopes of enticing a few people to check it out. When I first watched this film, it was with both high expectations given its reputation, and with knowing almost nothing about it. Going in, I knew only a few things concerning its content: its director, and my limited familiarity with his work; its title, with its undercurrent of criminal deviancy; the fact that Van Heflin plays a cop; and that James Ellroy rates it the greatest of a film noirs. Because of this, I perhaps expected something a little creepier and more perverse, a criminal-on-the-run film in the manner of He Walked By Night, The Boston Strangler, Losey’s own M… or even Ellroy novels, like the investigations found in The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. The film ultimately confounded my expectations, becoming a completely different film than what I anticipated, and I probably failed to appreciate this quality at first. The fact that it didn’t blow me completely away – I would hardly call it the best film noir even now – made me underrate it at the time, not helped by the fact that my copy seemed to be missing scenes near its beginning. All this makes it clear why it probably begs to be re-seen and reassessed. Yet, reconsidering the film for what it is, completely in hindsight and from memory, makes it clear that it is a film well worth seeing, and possibly the finest of Losey’s four film noirs.

Some of the early scenes of the film, as Van Heflin patrols his beat, touch a note of loneliness and melancholy that seems to point towards Taxi Driver. In a way, Heflin’s Webb Garwood is a proto-Travis Bickle: the taxi has been swapped for a patrol car and uniform; the seething skyscrapers of the city have been replaced with the forbidding luxury of hacienda mansions, but its feeling is the same. Heflin drives through this world, his livelihood and identity tied to it, but in a way that keeps him clearly separated from it, distant, isolated. This alienation gives way to a resentment and envy, which like Bickle, emerges in a flood of violent and obsessive behavior. In both films, it’s all because of a girl. One night, Garwood responds to a call from a lonely housewife, Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). She has been the victim of a prowler, a peeping tom, a voyeur, and Garwood and his partner investigate the property. As Gilvray shows his partner the inside of the house, Heflin explores the outside. In a masterful moment, their parallel retracing of steps slowly brings them back simultaneously to the window (the scene of the crime) at the same moment, and at that moment, the original discovery of the prowler is recreated. Garwood stands where the prowler stood, Gilvray stands where she was, and in seeing him, lets out a scream. It’s the primal moment for the film, from where the rest of its narrative pours fourth, but it also slyly deceptive. From this, we may be lead to believe that it will simply be a story about romantic obsession, the mysterious prowler playing a key role. But what Garwood sees in that window, what he’s brought to desire, is more than simply Gilvray. It is everything she represents: success, luxury, family – in short, middle-class respectability. The films never suggest that Garwood is THE prowler (the film in fact forgets about this initial small crime), but he certainly is a prowler of some sort: from Gilvray’s window, from his police car, he prowls around the neighborhood, watching and desiring this world of the “good life,” from which he has been denied, and which he uses Gilvray to pry his way into.

Garwood in fact once knew Gilvray, and as he slowly seduces her, they trade story which makes their difference clear – not only the paths they have taken since high school, but their origins: Garwood was poor, Gilvray wealthy. From these stories, Garwood’s frustration and sense of entitlement emerges clearly. The world owes him this sort of life, and he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it, leading him down a path of manipulation and murder. That this fatalistic drive towards self-ruin is ultimately parallel to one of upward social mobility – towards middle-class, patriarchal careerism – makes the film’s social bite become clear. The Prowler belongs clearly that sub-genre of the film gris: those film noirs that wore their left-leaning politics on their sleeve. Webb Garwood must also be one of noir’s greatest homme fatales – a man who’s voracious appetite for power and success unleashes a torrent of pathological manipulation and violence. Perhaps only Born to Kill’s Sam Wild gives him a run for his money.

In some ways, he is both cousin and antithesis to Heflin’s Frank Enley in Act of Violence. Both films present a dark and complicated vision of the suburbia, the demons and tensions lying underneath it. But Fred Zinnemann doesn’t despise suburbia itself; he just dislikes the way its prosperity can be used for denial, repression and unearned recuperation. Enley is not a pathological monster, but a sympathetic, ambiguous character. The demons emerge from his past, his bourgeois prosperity is simply used to ignore and cover it up. Losey’s vision is much angrier and acidic: suburbia, and its drive for materialist prosperity and normalcy, is cancerous; repression its symptom; oppression its weapon. It’s the American Dream of upward mobility, versus the reality of entrenched social and economic limitations. Garwood clashes head on with this limitation, but refuses to give up the Dream. Garwood’s demons emerge as a result of attempting to navigate this upward social-climbing that’s is constantly promised him, always denied. His ultimate goal is an all-night motel on a busy highway, so he can make money even “while he’s sleeping” – a capitalist dream. He’s a wholly American monster.

The final act takes a sharp turn which throws many for a loop. Yet, it’s often absurd and improbable elements make perfect sense in Losey’s world. Garwood and his wife end up in a ghost town, and it’s the perfect place to end his story. It’s not just a ghost town, but the Calico Ghost Town. A once prosperous mining town, its silver has dried up, and the decrepit frames of empty houses stand as its only traces, even wealth being unable to prevent its ultimate end. It was also, as a character points out earlier, in a quite ambiguous statement, the home to the “biggest Indian massacre” in the region, a statement of the darker side of prosperity. As a metaphor, its works two-fold. The ruinous decline of what was once prosperous reflects on the new prosperity of the American middle class, and an end that it too will inevitably meet, and perhaps deserves. As a barren, abandoned town, it also reflects the essential emptiness of the modern middle-class life. Yes, Garwood attempting to “maintain” a family and the daily day-to-day ritual of middle-class domesticity in this ghost town may seem absurd, but it should; it’s the absurdity of middle-class life made obvious. One of the ex-husband’s radio broadcasts returns like a phantom of the past, and it upsets this order, the repression and collective denial no longer able to hold. A storm whips through this ghost town, and it’s not hard to imagine the social storm that was tearing through the era's real life middle-class, of which Losey himself would be victim.
SpoilerShow
Its perhaps not surprising that Garwood dies, shot in the back, climbing up a gravel dune, attempting literally to get to the "top of the hill".
It’s a blunt image, but one that can be excused for its sledgehammer accuracy. The Prowler may not be the greatest film noir, even film gris (that would be Force of Evil, and perhaps the first 90 minutes of Thieves Highway), but it’s a fascinating film nonetheless. And considering the era and its message, it’s certainly one of the bravest film noirs, one for which Losey himself would have to answer and suffer for.

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

#256 Post by Tom Hagen » Tue Sep 28, 2010 7:07 pm

I feel like I'm going to end up like Max Fischer asking for a second extension on his book report about the Berlin airlift; I am absolutely getting my ass kicked by this project!

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

#257 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Oct 04, 2010 6:17 am

RE: Arthur Ripley's Voice in the Wind... For anyone who's interested, or who's a fan of The Chase. Managed to tracked down a copy. Watched it, was bowled over, got completely swept up in the proceedings, and then.... my copy ended about seven minutes early, cutting off the entire ending. I wanted to throw a shoe through the television. Luckily, I know another source for a bootleg. Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll be able to spend $17 on a questionable dvd-r by the time the list is done. As for the film (or what I saw of it), magnificent film. Strange and off-kilter, if not quite as much as The Chase, but this is more than compensated by the haunted and operatic quality that engulfs the entire film. The camerawork was done by an uncredited Eugen Schüfftan (Port of Shadows, numerous French Ophüls) and probably no other noir (save for a few of the remakes) articulates the debt to poetic realism more explicitly. I'm tempted to place it on my list even without the ending (although I surely wont) and its recommended viewing. I'm willing to trade information for anyone interested in taking the dive on the film.
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Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)

To begin discussing Fred Zinnemann’s film, it is important to point out the date. 1948. It’s not an irrelevant piece of information. It was the end of one decade, the beginning of another, and as each decade has a way of creating its own unique identity, one social reality being replaced by another. But what were the forties and fifties? The forties: it was dominated by the World War, and its ensuing triumph and growth. The fifties: the suburbs, and its prosperity and normalcy. But both decades belied a deeper trauma. The forties: the horror of the war, and the rapid social shuffling that followed, with its trauma, alienation and uncertainty. The fifties: repression, paranoia, a great hostility for those on the margins, and a great burden for those in normal society. One wonders whether Zinnemann knew just how well these realities grafted themselves onto his film. It does not seem that it was intended to be a prestige picture; it is not a social message film, definitely not a film gris; and while it deals with the war, it never seems to believe it is making a great statement. Yet, the film perfectly captures the transition from one era to another – the forties to the fifties: the clash that this transition creates, and the way one era’s traumas persist into the next. In its own way, it’s a film that perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of the time, in a way that must be more obvious now than it was then.

Take the opening: Night. A shot of a New York City street, skyscrapers and billowing smoke dominating the background. An ominous, contorted figure emerges out of the darkness of the city, submerged in shadows. He walks with a limp, and hobbles up the stairs of a tenement building. He opens a drawer and pulls out a gun. The camera pans up, and reveals Robert Ryan’s Joe Parkson, with pure hate in his eyes. The title appears. He catches a bus for Los Angeles, but he doesn’t arrive in the city, but in Santa Lisa, the suburbs. There we meet our other protagonist, Van Heflin’s Frank Enley, and he is almost a polar opposite. Surrounded by family and friends, his wife by his side, son on his shoulders. It is a clear sunny day, and he is in a celebration, a parade, an unveiling of new homes (the suburbs themselves growing), and he is the center of attention, receiving adulation. Yet, these two binary opposites are hardly that. There are linked, and by that one great event of that epoch, as well as film noir: the war. As Robert Ryan attempts to navigate the suburban town, he tries crossing the street, but is stopped by an officer. He is made to wait as a parade passes by, and that moment, it is a procession of veterans. That scene – triumphant, celebratory, and healthy – in that setting – the suburbs – all so foreign and alien to the damaged, bitter Parkson, passes by like a taunt.

At first glance, Parkson is the villain, a noir heavy whose hate is embodied in his own disfigurement. Enley is the hero, the middle-class object of identification. As the secrets bubble to the surface, the roles seem to change. Yet they are never set. Ambiguity is the word here, and Zinnemann and his actors balance it nicely. A lot of things happened in the war... who are we to judge what happened in the war? Enley may have demons, but he built his life since honestly and with hard-work. He’s created a happy family, and the hateful, obsessive Parkson doesn’t hesitate to involve and terrorize them. But Frank Enley – and America – by retreating into prosperity and social normalcy, has chosen to paper up the cracks of the war instead of resolving them. But the cracks persist, out of view, but widening. Parkson is also a phantom from the past, an avenging angel bent on destroying the suburban home, and revealing the dark truth on which its prosperity is built, and whose denial its existence relies on. At one point, Enley tries to buy Parkson off over the phone: the reply is an uncontrollable laughter on the other end. Suburban prosperity can’t buy absolution. Not this time.

The entire movie operates on the conflict between symbolic opposites, first embodied by Parkson and Enley. As we saw, Parkson is the trauma of the war-branded forties, Enley is the prosperity and stability of the fifties. Parkson emerges from the city, the urban wasteland/playground of the post-war era seething with danger and corruption. Enley is identified with the safety and normality of suburbia, the retreat. There is the opposition of night and day, and it is no coincidence that the greatest moments of conflict come to a head deep at night. Morning arrives to assuage it, but only temporarily, anticipating the next nocturnal terror. Day also means facing up to the realization and consequences of the night before. The film is structured around these conflicts. But just as the moral positions of Parkson and Enley become confused and linked, so do they. It is not just forties turmoil versus fifties stability, immoral city versus moral suburbia, civilized day versus wild night; no more than it is bad Parkson versus good Enley. These elements become mixed up, ambiguous, their opposition revealing a clear connection.

When Parkson first terrorizes the Enley home, it is at stark night. Yet, the real decisive moments comes in the middle of the day, after Enley has escaped. It is right to call the confrontation between Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh a moment of violence, even if it is not physical. Yet, even as a psychological punishment, it is never directed personally at Leigh’s character, only at Heflin’s. But for Leigh, as suburban housewife, she is inextricably tied up in it. Ryan’s revelation destroys the safety, morality and normalcy of the home he has built, and to which she is subject. It is personal to her. He disrupts the safety by infiltrating it in broad daylight, showing how vulnerable suburbia remains to the cities they are made to flee from. He disrupts the morality by revealing the monstrous truth that Enley has hid and buried in the home and family. And through this, he disrupts its normalcy, undermines it: the suburbia is not separated from the darkness of the cities or the past, but explicitly linked to it, and Ryan does the explicating. When Enley reveals his past to his wife, it is outside the suburbs, but also beyond the city itself. Rather, it occurs in the aforementioned stairwell – a limbo between the two worlds, the furnishings and emblems of suburban life stripped back to hard concrete and exposed piping, with only the stairwell to remind us of their architectural similarity. Enley is bathed in darkness, except for his face and eyes, which can’t escape a persistent beam of light, just as the truth can’t be suppressed any longer. Later, when the Enleys attempt to return to their routine lives, it seems forced and unnatural. But Parkson doesn’t destroy it simply by invading it; all he has done is revealed something that was always there, simmering underneath.

As Parkson emerges from the city, it is only fitting that, as he tears away at the suburban family more and more, he slowly drives Enley himself back into the city. Quite literally, he chases him from the crowd of a hotel barroom into the isolation of the desolate and seedy L.A. streets. The brief montage of Van Heflin running scared through the city is one of those isolated moments which practically define film noir. The city, shot on location in Los Angeles, takes on frightening levels of menace and indifference, and when he passes the Angel’s Flight rail-car, it takes on Caligari-esque levels of grotesqueness. He rushes headfirst into a world of prostitutes, shady lawyers and murder for hire, the demons of the city unleashing his own inner demons. Later, even the 2nd Street Tunnel (best known from Blade Runner) makes an early appearance. As Enley travels through it, the suppressed memories of his war-time betrayal come rushing back to him. When he emerges it, it is in a suicidal desperation… and having made a bloody commitment that haunt him and force him into a final confrontation. The connection between city, night, past and the darker recesses of the human soul become complete and clear. And fittingly, it’s consequences return back to the suburban home once again.

Considering the period, it would be unlikely to think that Zinnemann would be conscious of film noir as a genre except in the loosest, broadest sense. With the whole decade ahead of him, he certainly could have no clue of the suburban idealism which would follow in the fifties à la Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best, let alone the films of suburban criticism that would follow (whether Bigger Than Life or Peyton Place). Yet, here he reveals a perceptive ability to link an era with its respective representation. The middle act, which ignores Ryan, and introduces Heflin to a new cast of characters, may seem left-field. But half a century later, it becomes almost self-conscious: Ryan drives Heflin out of the world of 50s suburbia and back into the world of 40s film noir, where femme fatales and gunsels wait to ensnare him. When he returns home, things have changed for good. But Heflin and Leigh don’t try to discuss or resolve the issue; they just ignore it and try to continue on business as usual. They go through their nightly routines, trade pleasantries, and discuss the mundane everyday events of suburban life. Leigh knits, Heflin reads the paper. But now it is all awkward and stilted. It becomes laughable, almost a parody. It’s a moment that seems more acidic and biting than even Zinnemann could have intended it to be. It, like the later moments of The Prowler, makes the absurdity of the everyday obvious. It looks at suburban life at its most routine and inconspicuous, and finds a collective denial and repression underneath. I doubt a modern filmmaker, more self-conscious of film noir style and suburban sitcoms and dramas, more jaded and cynical in their outlook of the past, could do better than what Zinnemann does here, practically unintentionally.

I don’t want to give away too much, but the ending is masterfully filmed, a Western-like wide shot of an empty train station, the various thread of the stories finally coming together. It ends with Enley being literally carried away by a fate that he is culpable for yet can’t control. Even its happy ending is deceptively ambigious.
SpoilerShow
Parkson crouches over Enley’s corpse and conflicting emotions go over his face. There’s finally a short smile, but it’s hard to read: is it a smile of endearment, absolving Enley in death, now that he saved his life? Or is it one of grim satisfaction, the man finally getting what was coming to him? Parkson’s final proclamation, that he be the one to tell Enley’s wife about his death is unsettling; given the circumstances, and even in the most positive reading of Parkson’s motives, one feels that he’s the last person she will want to see. As Parkson and his wife walk off in the distance, there is no embrace or tenderness. She walks aside him, but at a distance.
One can read a purely happy ending here (the character himself settling in suburbia), but the framing and context leaves a lot of unsettling answers.

Zinneman was always a remarkable talent, but he is often undone by a penchant towards “White Elephant” self-importance and simplistic middle-class leftism. It is worth noting that this film is surrounded by two films of his which take the aftermath of the war as its main subject: The Search and The Men. It was an issue that obviously concerned him. Yet those films are marked by his worst tendencies. The Search's view of post-war Europe is sentimental and soft-pedaled; supposedly Jonas Mekas found it so laughable that, concluding he could do no worse, it inspired him to be a filmmaker. The Men is produced by Stanley Kramer and shows it. Here, abdicated from having to make a great message, Zinnemann seems finally able to fully examine the ambiguity and complexity of post-war America. It is perhaps his best film, and in its own humble way, it is the flip-side ,and perhaps equal, to Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. It is not only a flip-side in its darker vision, but also in its unpretentious, pulpy but effective approach. The forties are over, the fifties beginning, but the scars of the war cuts across decades.

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

#258 Post by Tom Hagen » Thu Oct 14, 2010 5:06 pm

Bishop, you are giving us some blog-worthy stuff, if not outright publishable stuff.

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

#259 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 14, 2010 5:40 pm

I know, right? Makes me feel like an idiot for my "Uh, Dead Reckoning was pretty good, huh guys"-style of posting in this thread

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

#260 Post by Tribe » Thu Oct 14, 2010 5:40 pm

Those reviews by C. Bishop are worthy of their own thread.

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

#261 Post by knives » Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:29 pm

domino harvey wrote:I know, right? Makes me feel like an idiot for my "Uh, Dead Reckoning was pretty good, huh guys"-style of posting in this thread
Part of the reason I haven't posted in a while. A few of you guys are too good.

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

#262 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 14, 2010 7:38 pm

So, now for a color noir that doesn't work at all, Henry Hathaway's Niagara. The film opens promisingly but quickly abandons its central conceit, that the stars of the film (Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe) are introduced and seen peripherally from the POV of the bland supporting characters (Jean Peters and McGigglepuss himself, Max Showalter). Once that novelty is dismissed, we're left with some documentary-styled Niagara scenes coupled with one-dimensional (even for Hollywood studio product) characters inertly wandering around inside the confines of the slim plot mechanics. For all its harmlessness, the film is still oddly obnoxious too, which doesn't help. This shouldn't have been in color, should have had another director, and needed every actor save Peters recast to even be a merely bad film.

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

#263 Post by zedz » Thu Oct 14, 2010 8:31 pm

After finishing off the recent Sony noir box, I've started inching my way through the Warners one.

Of the Sony titles, I don't think any of them will make my list, but Pushover probably came closest. I really enjoyed the way Quine handled the geography of the apartment building.

Of the three Warners titles I've watched so far, the stand-out is The Phenix City Story, a film that spends an inordinate amount of its time at a pitch of hysteria that would tear most movies apart after a couple of minutes but which in this case seems to be entirely justified. Some incredibly brutal stuff on display, both in terms of the characters' actions and their attitudes and at the end of the film you've been put through such a ringer that you feel like cheering at the mind-boggling 'happy ending':
SpoilerShow
the establishment of martial law in an American town.
I long ago saw a clip of this film in Scorsese's centenary documentary and couldn't believe the whole thing was as incendiary as that scene implied, but it turns out it was. It's also a very unusual film structurally, with a long pre-credits sequence (which I loved) in the form of a newsreel, followed by another quasi-documentary post-credits 'introduction' and more atmospheric stuff before the movie proper begins. The main characters (well, some secondary characters, as it turns out) don't even appear until twenty minutes in.

Cornered was enjoyable for its playful riffing on a whole lot of 'exotic noir' components, but not much more than that.

Desperate was much less satisfying than the first time I saw it some time back because this time around I was fully aware how flimsy the connective tissue between the strong set pieces was. It's frustrating, because I keep thinking how much better a film it could be with more careful scripting and stronger lead performances. Burr's a great villain as ever, but he seemed wasted on these ninnies.

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

#264 Post by Tribe » Fri Oct 15, 2010 12:12 am

domino harvey wrote:So, now for a color noir that doesn't work at all, Henry Hathaway's Niagara.
Ah, yes...the only noir I'm aware where some of the characters are from Toledo!

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

#265 Post by Murdoch » Fri Oct 15, 2010 10:28 am

The Amazing Mr. X (aka The Spiritualist) - This gem of a film skirts the line between noir and psychological horror with brief comedic bits scattered throughout. It's an odd concoction, but somehow it works and it works very well. Thanks both to Alton's cinematography and some well-mannered performances, especially by the devilishly delightful Turhan Bey, what could have been a slight film about a mourning woman being scammed by a phony medium turned into my favorite discovery of this project. Alton's eye is really in true form here with a lot of dazzling compositions and it's a wonder why this film doesn't get more attention. While it won't rank high on my list since it can't really be seen as "true noir" I just had a hell of a time with this one. Highly recommended.

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

#266 Post by zedz » Fri Oct 15, 2010 4:38 pm

Murdoch wrote:The Amazing Mr. X (aka The Spiritualist)
Exhibit A if you ever want to make a case for cinematographer as auteur. Without Alton this could have been a completely forgettable programmer, but with him it's a wild dream ride.

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

#267 Post by domino harvey » Mon Oct 18, 2010 10:07 am

Five months later and I finally topped off that first Bad Girls of Noir set with the Glass Wall. I hesitate to write about it in this thread since it's not even sort of a noir, but it's where my other observations have gone from the set and so here we are. Luckily, despite it not being a noir, it is actually a pretty interesting little B picture in that unlike most films of this ilk, the picture is populated with generally decent people. A Hungarian who lived ten years in the concentration camps sneaks onto a vessel bound for Ellis Island and refuses to accept that he cannot gain entry into the promised land. He once saved the life of an American soldier and if he can prove it, he can gain entry legally to the states. But of course he doesn't know anything about the man he saved other than his first name and that he was a musician in New York. And thus the film takes a predictable turn, but there's a kind of elegance here in the structure and the screenwriting 101ism of "He must be found by 7AM or he'll never be able to enter the country legally" works in spite of its utter ridiculousness. Gloria Grahame, the only reason this pic is bundled with the others, gets involved after she tries to steal a coat from Kathleen Freeman (!) but is ultimately underused. There's also a peculiar third act digression involving a kindhearted Hungarian stripper that is both out of place and completely logical within the narrative of this film. The pic ends with a set piece set at the UN (ie the Glass Wall of the title) that comes awfully close to the brand of fatalism that might have made it more noir than melodrama if the screenplay hadn't flinched.

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

#268 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu Oct 21, 2010 7:26 am

Fallen Angel (1945, Otto Preminger)

For a second there, I thought I was beginning to see the beginnings of a genuine noir sub-genre: the psychic noir à la Nightmare Alley, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes and The Amazing Mr. X. As it is, it ultimately settles, as does Farewell, My Lovely, with keeping it as a minor plot element. The story ultimately settles down to the sort of obsessive murder mystery that he already mined in Laura. Granted, there are some improvements: while Laura had the studio-bound light noir visual style typical of many film noirs of the war Era, Fallen Angel begins to pick up the darkness and grit that categorizes the post-war visual template. Great swaths of the films are bathed in darkness with sharp blasts of contrasting light, so much so that some of the whites look almost blown-out at the beginning; perhaps its just a less than stellar transfer, but I like it... the perfect anecdote to the glimmering sheen of Laura. The camera is as lively with movement as it is with composition and lighting; Preminger always liked long takes and tracking shots, but I can't recall seeing his camera more hectic than it is here, whipping across rooms, around corners, moving from wide shots to close-ups and back again. This is also helped by the locale: the ritzy luxury of Laura has been traded out for the sort of seedy milieu more typical of the genre.

Granted, the story isn't as convincing as it is in the previous film. The movie revolves around something of a love triangle, but the whole thing happens too suddenly to be believable, and Dana Andrew's deal with Linda Darnell never felt plausible at all. Preminger fares better with eroticism than he does romance here: Darnell's first appearance is one of those great entrances he was so fond of giving his leading ladies, and while I don't buy Andrews being ready to marry her, I can definitely buy the purely biological attraction. He also clearly understands obsession, and after the murder happens, each character's obsession for Darnell becomes palpable. The film almost becomes another Laura - granted one where she doesn't return from the dead - but Preminger, weary of simply copying himself, seems to pull back; which is too bad, since I think he had the material to make a pretty good picture out of the premise. There are some very good moments - the interrogation stands out, not just for its violence, but also for its small touches, such as when Dana Andrews notices Darnell's teddy bear. Also worth mentioning is the scene near the end between Dana Andrews and Alice Faye where the titular poem is spoken. It's a lovely and moving moment, capturing a sense of quiet desperation and spiritual darkness that points towards a better film. Alas, the film doesn't follow up on it, and Alice Faye is far too much of a "good girl" for us to buy her as the compromised character she seems to embody in that scene. It ultimately stands out as somewhat detached from the rest of the film, as fundamentally different as Alice Faye's trenchcoat in the scene is from the tasteful dresses she wears throughout the rest of the film. With that said, its still a fine film, with more than enough of Preminger's touches to make it worthwhile. It's just not a great film.

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

#269 Post by Yojimbo » Thu Oct 21, 2010 9:36 am

domino harvey wrote:So, now for a color noir that doesn't work at all, Henry Hathaway's Niagara. The film opens promisingly but quickly abandons its central conceit, that the stars of the film (Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe) are introduced and seen peripherally from the POV of the bland supporting characters (Jean Peters and McGigglepuss himself, Max Showalter). Once that novelty is dismissed, we're left with some documentary-styled Niagara scenes coupled with one-dimensional (even for Hollywood studio product) characters inertly wandering around inside the confines of the slim plot mechanics. For all its harmlessness, the film is still oddly obnoxious too, which doesn't help. This shouldn't have been in color, should have had another director, and needed every actor save Peters recast to even be a merely bad film.
Apart from Marilyn Monroe's presence, I love 'Niagara' for its appropriately lurid colours, particularly in the murder scene
(which reminds me both of a scene from 'Vertigo' and 'Silver Lode')

Off the top of my head I strongly suspect it will make my 50, along with other fave colour noirs like 'Chinatown', 'Night Moves', 'Slightly Scarlet', 'The Kill-Off', and 'Kill Me Again'
(But I'm not so sure about 'Harper', 'The Hot Spot', 'The Grifters', or 'Red Rock West', to name a few that spring to mind)

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

#270 Post by Yojimbo » Thu Oct 21, 2010 9:41 am

zedz wrote:After finishing off the recent Sony noir box, I've started inching my way through the Warners one.

Of the Sony titles, I don't think any of them will make my list, but Pushover probably came closest. I really enjoyed the way Quine handled the geography of the apartment building.

Of the three Warners titles I've watched so far, the stand-out is The Phenix City Story, a film that spends an inordinate amount of its time at a pitch of hysteria that would tear most movies apart after a couple of minutes but which in this case seems to be entirely justified. Some incredibly brutal stuff on display, both in terms of the characters' actions and their attitudes and at the end of the film you've been put through such a ringer that you feel like cheering at the mind-boggling 'happy ending':
SpoilerShow
the establishment of martial law in an American town.
I long ago saw a clip of this film in Scorsese's centenary documentary and couldn't believe the whole thing was as incendiary as that scene implied, but it turns out it was. It's also a very unusual film structurally, with a long pre-credits sequence (which I loved) in the form of a newsreel, followed by another quasi-documentary post-credits 'introduction' and more atmospheric stuff before the movie proper begins. The main characters (well, some secondary characters, as it turns out) don't even appear until twenty minutes in.

Cornered was enjoyable for its playful riffing on a whole lot of 'exotic noir' components, but not much more than that.

Desperate was much less satisfying than the first time I saw it some time back because this time around I was fully aware how flimsy the connective tissue between the strong set pieces was. It's frustrating, because I keep thinking how much better a film it could be with more careful scripting and stronger lead performances. Burr's a great villain as ever, but he seemed wasted on these ninnies.
I'm more confident of 'Pushover' making my list, zedz: this one came completely out of left field, because perusing the director's credits, and warnings of similarities to 'Double Indemnity', I was expecting to be readily dismissive of it.
Apart from its obvious assets, I loved the external street scenes, particularly those rain-slicked streets
(amazing the kind of things that tip the scales in favour of a film, isn't it?. But then, this is noir: 'Detour' had almost going for it, but a Master Director,.....and Ann Savage's 15 minutes of fame, somehow helped contrive a Masterpiece)

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

#271 Post by domino harvey » Sat Oct 23, 2010 7:36 pm

Dmytryk's the Sniper was pretty great for a film that opens with the words "Stanley Kramer" on a title card. The silly retreads of Scarface's social problem moralizing are just as bizarre here, but kind of add to the strangeness of the film. The lead is terrific and genuinely scary in the film's more violent sequences. That scene on the boardwalk where he tries to turn the midway rifle on the Ferris wheel is particularly memorable in terms of gasp-inducing turns into psychosis. The film is filled with many small pleasures, like the line-up that devolves into a police officer mocking former criminals who have already served their time for the benefit of his co-workers or the slow descent of the felled painter down his safety rope, that ensure it a place on my list.

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

#272 Post by Yojimbo » Sat Oct 23, 2010 7:42 pm

domino harvey wrote:Dmytryk's the Sniper was pretty great for a film that opens with the words "Stanley Kramer" on a title card. The silly retreads of Scarface's social problem moralizing are just as bizarre here, but kind of add to the strangeness of the film. The lead is terrific and genuinely scary in the film's more violent sequences. That scene on the boardwalk where he tries to turn the midway rifle on the Ferris wheel is particularly memorable in terms of gasp-inducing turns into psychosis. The film is filled with many small pleasures, like the line-up that devolves into a police officer mocking former criminals who have already served their time for the benefit of his co-workers or the slow descent of the felled painter down his safety rope, that ensure it a place on my list.
I'm confident I'll find a place for that, also; and 'Murder by Contract', however many rules it breaks.
And, [ahem].....'The Brothers Rico'!

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

#273 Post by domino harvey » Sat Oct 23, 2010 11:11 pm

If you had told me when I first proposed this list project that a color film would be in my Top 5 Noirs, I'd have replied "Well, I love Leave Her to Heaven, but not that much." But oh, I'm talking about A Kiss Before Dying, a one of a kind formalist experiment in art house noir that somehow found Hollywood backing.

Where to begin? The most immediately striking element undoubtedly is its wonderful mise-en-scene (Indeed, why was I not taught this film seven years ago in 101? This pic is a masterclass in the very concept!), with the combination of excruciating long shots and unstable static camera work syncing in total harmony to form a vibrant sexual tension from the very filmic act of presentation itself. Robert Wagner plays a empty void of a psychopath and its the inherent plasticity of this character that allows the characters to mold themselves onto him, and vice-versa. He speaks in greeting card platitudes and provides absolutely no way in for the viewer. It's indeed his very unnatural projective demeanor that makes him so unsettling, and this coupled with the aforementioned unstable staticity of the style gives even the first seemingly innocuous scene in the film an uneasy feel. But more than providing the audience with mere alienation, the film uses the disturbing and unwelcome intimacy of its style to bring a perverse eroticism to the film's violent acts. Not a sexual eroticism, but one born of perversion. The first is executed too quickly and proves unsatisfying. The second thus overcompensates for the earlier failure and stretches out the build-up to impossibly perverse lengths; in fact, the rooftop murder may very well be the most excruciatingly perverse onscreen murder I've ever seen by sheer virtue of its refusal to grant the audience the climax it both desires and abhors. The later violent acts then take on an air of confidence and prowess, and the camera work, editing, framing, etc adjust accordingly. Unreal.

Beyond its latent sexual eroticism, the style naturally lends itself to making the mundane abnormal by way of its fixations-- take the wonderful long take late in the film that divides the frame in half and plays out a phone call and car tune-up in real time. Nothing escapes the film's ability to make strange the every day, and if the traditional B&W noirs made the most of their landscapes and budget to find the sinister and brooding in any locale, so does this film:

School bleachers stretch on like tombstones in a graveyard

Image

A golden light bathes characters on the side street of a parking lot. From where? Does it matter?

Image
SpoilerShow
A line of trucks, identical in appearance and matching the color-coated copper mine like a toy erector set made from all the same parts-- is this Hollywood or Red Desert?

Image
(It's admittedly hard to understand the peculiarity of the above images without placing them in a moving context, but watch for the above cues while viewing and you'll see what I mean)

Thematically the film falls somewhere between Phantom Lady and A Place in the Sun, sure, and like the Siodmak, it is a film with two distinct halves. But whereas you suffer through the beginning to be rewarded with the wildness in Phantom Lady, here both halves are equally bewildering for different reasons. The first half of A Kiss Before Dying is probably the superior for the aforementioned reasons, but the second half promulgates an inescapable dread as Wagner vaunts around the edges of the screen, an unstoppable and ever-present spectre. In a fascinating instance of cinematic heritage, both he and Virginia Leith alternate through the Ella Raines role for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the second half.

This is a film of pleasures complex and simple. It's the sort of film you start and go, "Huh this is pretty good" and then upgrade yourself every ten minutes until you have nowhere to go but "Masterpiece." Well, this film is a masterpiece. It wasn't my swapsie. Chances are I won't get to everyone's swapsie anyways. But everyone on this board should seek out this film. Not because I am voting for it. Not because I speak highly of it. But because I have the strong suspicion most of the people who post on this board would truly enjoy it. A Kiss Before Dying really is something else.

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

#274 Post by Cold Bishop » Sun Oct 24, 2010 2:37 am

Gerd Oswald is one of those potentially great filmmakers who unfortunately was swept up in television before he could really get a foothold in Hollywood. How many people make a movie as good as A Kiss Before Dying as their debut? But this was 1956, and by the 60s, Hollywood was a cruel place for "termite" artists. I know Chabrol was a big fan of this specific film, and there's seems to be at least a cult auteurist following around him from critics.

I think Crime of Passion is more melodrama than noir, but it fits more than this film, and it has a pretty subversive proto-feminist, anti-suburbia bent to it, and in many ways, is more ambitious than Kiss.... Better still is Screaming Mimi, which is one of the most perverse thrillers of the 1950s - almost like a proto-giallo (and many people accused Dario Argento of ripping off the film and source novel for The Bird with the Crystal Plummage) - with a convoluted narrative that straddles a line between bad filmmaking and a genius nightmare logic. Valerie is an offbeat Western and a pretty impressive (and much, much harsher) take on Rashomon. Brainwashed is a very good adaptation of Stefan Zweig's "Chess Novel", and the closest he came to working on a prestige picture; probably his best film, very cerebral and formally daring. He also directed several stand-out episodes of Outer Limits ("The Form of Things Unknown" is one of my favorite pieces of television).

I'm not sure I would call any of them "film noir", however.

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

#275 Post by domino harvey » Sun Oct 24, 2010 3:40 pm

I would say Five Against the House is the worst noir I've ever seen, except of course it's not even a noir. So I guess it's the worst film labeled as noir I've ever seen. Sitcom characters spouting hammy quips coupled with a thoroughly unengaging narrative and a heist caper so silly it would be rejected from Saturday morning cartoons make for one horrible experience. Add Novak into the mix and you've got a film that just needs to be punched.

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