Rex Baird is a former bartender, English teacher, speechwriter and running shoe rep turned neuromuscular massage therapist and personal trainer. Although his job history has varied, his love of golf and movies has remained constant despite the humility of higher scores and the impossibility of finding a decent drive-in.
I have just spent almost two months watching more than forty examples of film noir. Some critics think noir is a time-bound cycle that began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ended in 1958 with Touch of Evil. Others claim it’s a visual style defined by deep shadows, murky light and rain-slicked city streets. Genre advocates point to defining types: the femme fatale, the private eye, the impotent patsy of fate.
Trying to nail down noir is futile, and further, kills all the fun. I can’t precisely define noir, but I know it when I see it. Or to be more precise, when I feel it. There are great noir films that fall outside arbitrary time spans, that don’t conform to a gloomy visual style, that present characters and settings that fail to fit neatly into the confining genre box. But first-rate noir should leave you a little unnerved by the nagging sense that the cold world is indifferent to your hopes and unconcerned with your desires. If you don’t feel at least a slight chill of anxiety or dread, what poet Emily Dickinson caIled “a zero at the bone,” then the noir film you’ve watched does not belong in the top rank. The truly great noir films leave you feeling like John Cusack’s character in The Grifters: slugged in the gut with a baseball bat.
After setting the stage, I will present my favorites in chronological order and argue that some widely acknowledged noir classics do not qualify for inclusion. Then I will list the near misses, the also-rans and a sampling of the best French noir films that give homage a good name. We must give the French their due because they saw what was hiding in plain sight. Finally, I will compare the two versions of Cape Fear to highlight the difficulty of making an authentic noir film in today’s movie marketplace.
THE FRENCH MAKE A DISCOVERY
When American movies of the wartime period became available in France after the German occupation was lifted, French critics found a darkness of theme and style that matched their post-war malaise. They labeled these movies—so different from the typical happy-ending Hollywood product—“film noir.”
It’s important to understand that the term “film noir” was attached after the fact. “Hell,” said Robert Mitchum decades later, “we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.”
But to claim that noir was just a happy accident spawned by low budgets and low lights would be an oversimplification. True, World War II created financial constraints in Hollywood, but more importantly the rise of Hitler drove German and Austrian directors—many of them Jewish—from Europe to America. It’s an impressive list: Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer account for twenty-nine noir films listed in Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.
What these directors brought to Hollywood was craft and a European sensibility that rejected realism and embraced odd camera angles, deep shadows and the inner turmoil of characters often driven to insanity. The foundational expressionist films to see are Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
But the Hollywood studio system was dedicated to making money, not to producing art. The reading public was partial to pulp fiction and hardboiled authors like Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett and Cain so the studios courted these writers and their imitators. The result—movies about corruption and deceit with a dark and menacing visual style—was noir.
But remember: no one was consciously trying to make “noir” films. The style may have evolved from the collision of pulp fiction and expressionism, but the term and its definitions came later. “I honestly cannot point my finger,” said Billy Wilder, “at any small incident which would reflect my background and where I came from.” Wilder is being typically disingenuous. With the rise of the Nazis, he fled Berlin for Paris. His mother, grandmother and stepfather all died in the Holocaust. It wasn’t much of a stretch for him to match the cynicism, fatalism and mordant humor of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, his collaborators on Double Indemnity. The blackness was in his bones.
THE HAYS CODE
The passage of Cain’s novel to the screen took nine years because of the Hays Code, enacted to protect the morals of the movie-going public. Joseph Breen from the Hays Office found that “the general low tone and sordid flavor” of Double Indemnity “makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in a theater.” The result of the Code, according to Henry Scott, was “a Jewish owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.”
But along with the hypocrisy came an unexpected benefit. The themes of noir—sex, death, perversion, lust, greed, obsession—could not be presented explicitly because of the Code. So they were frequently pushed under the surface or treated obliquely. The restrictions, as noir director Edward Dmytryk observed, forced filmmakers to be more creative and often produced a creepy subterranean power akin to a deeply repressed desire. Emily Dickinson died in 1886, but her advice seems tailored for a noir screenwriter. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” she wrote, “Success in circuit lies.”
As long as evil deeds did not go unpunished, the Hays Office didn’t seem overly concerned with mayhem despite its specific prohibition of depicting “brutality and possible gruesomeness” or showing the “technique of committing murder”. “In Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark’s psychotic hood Tommy Udo pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs and cackles maniacally as she falls to her death. What really troubled the watchdogs of America’s morals was sex. Namely, “pointed profanity,” “licentious or suggestive nudity,” “sex perversion,” “miscegenation,” “sex hygiene,” “childbirth,” “children’s sex organs,” “lustful kissing,” and “man and woman in bed together.”
A famous exchange from The Big Sleep illustrates how the Code’s restrictions fostered creativity and produced scenes that look charming and sophisticated to today’s viewers tired of the obligatory hookup where we follow a trail of discarded undergarments into the bedroom and watch the moonlight shimmer across a body double’s rump. As Bogie and Bacall banter about their mutual fondness for the horse track, it becomes obvious they’re really talking about sex. As the conversation reaches its climax, Bogie wonders, “I don’t know how far you can go.” Bacall replies, “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
“Man built most nobly,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “when limitations were at their greatest.” The struggle against tight budgets, short shooting schedules, and the Puritanism of the Code imposed an alluring severity on cheaply made B-movies like Gun Crazy and Detour. Even bigger budget films like Double Indemnity and The Asphalt Jungle resisted the urge to beautify their look and stuck with the dark shadows and side-of-the-mouth poetry typical of their low-rent cousins.
GENRE, STYLE, AND CYCLE
Creative circumvention of the Code, post-war disillusionment, the popularity of hard-boiled fiction, and the influx of European directors could be cited as the germinators of noir films. But ticking off causes is much less interesting than watching the films themselves. Definitions of noir are highly personal. Critic Raymond Durgnat argues that John Huston’s greatest noir is neither of his acknowledged classics—The Maltese Falcon or The Asphalt Jungle—but a western: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Examining the genre, style, and cycle labels will help to clarify my own idiosyncrasies.
The cycle argument is overly restrictive. The most commonly cited cycle starts with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and ends with Touch of Evil in 1958. I’m willing to accept this as the “classic” period but unwilling to ignore great films that fall outside these arbitrary time limits. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is the bedrock of all noir films. It’s ingredients are a veritable menu for the films that follow: a serial killer, the use of mirrors and reflections, exaggerated high and low camera angles, a dark and maze-like city, plus cops and criminals who seem merely different sides of the same coin.
You could point out that M is a German production and should not be included in a category usually limited to American films. I would argue that the magnitude of M’s influence is so great that quibbling over its country of origin is pointless. Furthermore, Lang later made eleven American films included in Silver and Ward’s Encyclopedia, so judging by his output, he’s more American than German.
Of course the origins of noir go much further back that the twentieth century. “The first detective thriller,” claims Raymond Durgnat, “is Oedipus Rex, and it has the profoundest twist of all; detective, murderer and executioner are one man.” Other noir elements abound in Oedipus. He sleeps with the wrong woman. The harder he struggles to escape his fate, the more it entraps him. In seeking knowledge, he hastens his own destruction.
Like Oedipus, Chinatown’s Jake Gittes finds that the pursuit of knowledge can lead to darkness instead of enlightenment. “Sometimes,” he warns a client, “you’re better off not knowing.” Sadly, he ignores his own advice about the danger of digging too deeply. As do a raft of other noir character whose search for the truth often resembles the obsessive picking at a scab. Chinatown (1974) was released fifteen years after the supposed end of the noir cycle, but only the most rigid critic would dare to exclude it from the list of great noir films. The Fates have been crushing men’s hopes since the beginning of time. The noir “cycle” simply imposes an arbitrary frame around a specific era (1941-1958) and a distinct form of art (movies).
Purists are often equally rigid about style requirements. True noir demands black and white, so color films like Chinatown are excluded. Authentic noir lives in the city, so Ace in the Hole, set in the desert, can’t work. Oblique angles and visual disorientation are a must, so documentary-style films like Call Northside 777 fail to pass muster. Without wet streets, dark alleys or blinking neon the mise en scene (visual theme, set design) mandates are flouted, so the noir label is denied.
Purists are bound by too many rules. I’ll repeat my argument that the essential quality of great noir is the “zero at the bone” you feel as the final credits roll.
Genre is the final category to consider. I like a morally compromised shamus and a double-dealing dame as much as the next guy, but plenty of noir films succeed without these stock characters or standard set-ups. If I’m the bouncer at the Noir Nightclub, even some paragons of the genre category fail to make it past my velvet rope. Bogart’s credits can be instructive in this analysis.
BOGIE GETS BOUNCED
The Maltese Falcon, almost universally regarded as the first, and one of the best noir films, does not make my list. First, Bogie’s Sam Spade is never in real danger. Yes, he’s drugged, shot at, assaulted and lied to, but we never believe he’s truly vulnerable. He’s just too self-confident, assured, and capable—James Bond in a 40s fedora. He admits to a tinge of regret after sending his “precious” Brigid O’Shaughnessey to jail, but the film offers no evidence of legitimate love. When
Spade tells her, “You’re good. You’re very good,” he’s not admiring her looks or her character, he’s applauding her skillful lying.
An authentic noir character, by my standards, must end up ruined, devastated or dead. Bogart’s Dixon Steele, the alcoholic screenwriter with monstrous anger management issues, is a true noir exemplar in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. He loses the woman he truly loves—and his only shot at salvation—because of booze-fueled rage and jealousy. He’s alive when his girlfriend walks out of his life, but his soul is dead.
Despite some great scenes and perhaps the snappiest dialogue in film history, The Big Sleep also fails to qualify. Bogie’s Marlowe, like his Spade, lacks even a scintilla of vulnerability. Before ending up with Bacall, he fends off her sister, gets propositioned by a female cab driver, cuddles up with a sexy bookstore clerk, and wins lustful stares from hatcheck girls. A true noir protagonist doesn’t control women, they control him.
A common characteristic of noir, the convoluted plot, reaches its absurd apex in The Big Sleep. Rumors abound that none of the actors, screenwriters, or even Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel, could explain whodunit. The skill of the actors, the masterful staging of the scenes, and the brilliant dialogue make you forget the confusion, but for me, an incomprehensible plot is a black mark in a black film.
HAPPY ENDINGS NEED NOT APPLY
My biggest gripe is an ending that feels artificially upbeat. The critic Jon Tuska offers a helpful sorting tool. He cites three films released in 1944. He classifies Laura as melodrama because the detective and his love interest appear poised to marry when the movie ends. The Big Sleep is film gris (gray) because while Bogart and Bacall are unmistakably together, their marriage is uncertain. In Double Indemnity, the sap and the femme fatale are dead, having shot each other. Noir at its purest.
By trying to downplay moral debasement, the Code often artistically debased otherwise unalloyed noir gold. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Garfield, in jail for killing his lover’s husband, discusses fate with a priest, and delivers a line completely at odds with the tone of the movie.
“Sometimes,” he reflects with uncharacteristic piety, “God knows more about these things than we do.” Despite the Code’s tampering, the genuine noir universe is a Nietzschean wasteland where God is not only dead, but also irrelevant. The quintessential line comes from an adulterous wife in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Lorraine refuses to pray for her husband who is trapped in a mineshaft. “I don’t go to church,” she says, “it bags my nylons.”
To summarize: I don’t care if a film falls outside arbitrary time limits. Or if lacks sufficiently dark shadows, blinking neon or rain-slicked streets. Or if some of the stock characters—a detective, a femme fatale, a crooked casino owner—are missing. I do object to happy endings, tortuous plots and invulnerable heroes. Most of all, I want to feel “a zero at the bone.”
ELEVEN OF MY TOP TEN FAVORITES
Everything starts with Fritz Lang’s M from 1931. It introduces a number of motifs that would become noir staples. It focuses on a serial killer, as does Night of the Hunter. It turns into a police procedural similar to Panic in the Streets. Then a caper or heist film like The Asphalt Jungle. It exposes corruption among the criminals, the cops, the government and the public at large. Few streets have ever been more dark and claustrophobic, few shadows have ever been deeper, than those in Fritz Lang’s Berlin.
Someone has been killing children and the city is being torn apart. Parents are frantic, the police are frustrated, and even the lawbreakers are furious. With more cops patrolling the streets, the pickpockets and petty criminals are afraid to ply their trade. We see groups of men, crowded into dark and smoky rooms, hatching plans to catch the killer. Sometimes it takes a few moments to decipher whether they are the cops or the criminals. Maybe the two groups are not so different.
We are introduced to the killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) as he stares into a mirror, as do so many noir characters to come. He hardly seems threatening, but it soon becomes evident he is tortured by a compulsion he’s powerless to resist. The police close in with the modern tools of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis while the criminals hire a network of beggars to canvas the city. The criminals track him to an empty office building and drag him to a dark basement where they stage a mock trial. His desperate speech in his own defense could serve as a template for the twisted psychology of the dozens of characters who follow in his wake.
“Don’t I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony? I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone’s following me. It’s me! I’m following myself. Silently, but I still hear it. Yes, sometimes I feel like I’m tracking myself down. I want to run—run away from myself. But I can’t! I can’t escape from myself. I must take the path that is driving me down, and run and run down endless streets. I want off! And with me run the ghosts.”
The kangaroo court debate over capital punishment and the insanity defense sound alarmingly modern. The criminals are unmoved, though, and as they are about to execute Beckert, the police arrive, saving his life at least temporarily. At the real trial, just before we are to learn his fate, a dead girl’s mother pleads for everyone to keep a closer watch on the children. The screen goes black.
M is nearly a century old, but it looks astonishingly modern. A camera magically floats through a window with a seamlessness considered groundbreaking ten years later in Citizen Kane. A spiraling toy in a shop window looks eerily like Saul Bass’ dizzy visual designs from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The staging of the criminals’ break-in and search of the office building would put the Ocean’s Eleven franchise to shame. Lang’s American-made films are solid, especially The Big Heat and Scarlet Street, but they are no match for M, which was co-written with his wife, Thea von Harbou. She stayed in Germany when Lang fled in 1934. Like Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, von Harbou may have been an indispensible collaborator.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is another great film that appeared roughly a decade before the commonly defined noir cycle began. James Allen, played by Paul Muni, is a disillusioned veteran returning from the First World War. He sets the pattern for anxiety-ridden vets from World War II like Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia. He has bad luck finding a job equal to his ambition, and worse luck still when he’s unjustly implicated in a robbery staged in one of noir’s most dangerous settings—a diner. (See The Killers or Dark Passage). After spending years in a brutal prison chain gang, he escapes, changes his identity, and starts a successful new life. But his slatternly wife betrays him and he’s sent back to the chain gang to pound rocks with the same futility that Sisyphus, his classical counterpart, faced in rolling them uphill. Once more he breaks out, and now, little more than a hunted animal, visits Helen, the woman he truly loves, for a final goodbye.
“It’s been almost a year since you escaped,” she says.
“But I haven’t escaped. They’re still after me. They’ll always be after me…No friends. No rest. No peace.”
As he retreats into the darkness, she asks, “How do you live?”
Now completely invisible, he answers, “I steal.”
James Allen is one of the most admirable—even heroic—characters in noir. He serves his country with honor, but discovers his medals are worthless. He breaks free of his prison chains only to find himself shackled to the wrong woman. He forges a successful career out of sheer hard work and tenacity. His final desperate speech echoes Beckert’s confession in M, and like Beckert, he’s on a treadmill to nowhere. His pursuers seem more like the Furies than prison officials. His fate is doubly tragic because it is so undeserved.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity deserves everything he gets: dishonor, betrayal, and a bullet in the guts. Like many noir protagonists who gamble with their money or their lives, Neff’s downfall is driven by his belief that he’s clever enough to beat the system. The small-scale system Neff wants to beat is the insurance industry he works in. The large-scale system he foolishly challenges is, of course, fate itself.
In the first scene of the film we see Neff’s car careen through a nighttime Los Angeles street and speed through a red light. Within seconds we understand this is a man who doesn’t know when to stop. We see him stagger into his office, turn on a Dictaphone, and begin the voice-over confession that bookends the story. Double Indemnity is a tale told by a dead man. Wilder used the same tactic in Sunset Boulevard and other films—D.O.A., Out of the Past, and The Postman Always Rings Twice—followed suit. In line with the deterministic world of noir, we know the ending before the story has even begun. “I killed him for money and a woman,” Neff says, “and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
The woman in question is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of one of Neff’s insurance clients. The husband isn’t home when Neff comes to update a policy so he waits for Phyllis. She appears above him on a stairway wearing just a towel and a gold anklet that transfixes Neff like a shiny bauble enchants a crow. The camera angle, with Phyllis looming above, establishes her dominance. Neff’s fixation on the anklet confirms that he’s bewitched. They haven’t locked lips and he’s a goner already.
Neff, who’s inordinately proud of his practiced salesman’s repartee, begins an aggressive flirtation that Phyllis parries with even greater skill. The banter evolves into a sado-masochistic scenario where she becomes a motorcycle cop forced to rap the knuckles of Neff’s speeding offender.
“Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder,” Neff asks.
“Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder,” she replies.
“That tears it,” Neff concedes.
Neff is a sap, but he’s no dummy. Phyllis’s questions about her husband’s insurance make it obvious she wants him dead so she can collect on his policy. Neff retreats at first, but soon realizes “the hook was too strong.” What also attracts Neff is the chance to test his cleverness. First, he wants to outwit the insurance company by finding loopholes in its policies. Second, he wants to escape the faultless bullshit detector of his mentor and father figure, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) the company’s brilliant analyst.
Greed, lust and pride engage their gears but Neff soon realizes he’s no longer in control. “The machinery had started to move and there was nothing we could do to stop it.” The murder plot is successful, but more doubts assail him. “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Pressured by Keyes’s suspicions and shaken by revelations of Phyllis’s murderous past, Neff shoots Phyllis dead but only after she wounds him first. We see him back in his office where the movie began, clutching the Dictaphone and confessing to Keyes who soon appears in person.
Trying to muster a vestige of pride in his chicanery, Neff asks, “Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from you.”
“Closer than that, Walter,” Keyes replies. We understand that Keyes may have figured things out long before his protégé and surrogate son realized.
“I love you, too,” Neff says, just before collapsing at Keyes’s feet.
Double Indemnity is the prototypical noir film. Released in 1944, it fits neatly into the cycle. Full of dark interiors and darker motives, it has style to spare. And it crystallized many of the genre elements that later films aped: the murderous femme fatale, the sharp operator too clever for his own good, the dogged investigator, the voice-over narration of a doomed protagonist, the flashback structure, and the themes of lust, greed and duplicity.
Keyes’s speech to Neff revealing his profile of the murderers could serve as a template for the twisted psychology of future noir couples: Out of the Past, Gilda, Gun Crazy, Criss Cross, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Grifters. With wonderful irony, the visibly shaken Neff is listening to an accurate description of his own character and a chilling prediction of his own fate.
“Whether it’s love or hate, it doesn’t matter. They can’t keep away from each other. They’re stuck with each other all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.”
As with most Wilder films, the casting is inspired. Stanwyck usually played a heroine, but Wilder may have seen a winning combination in her conniving slut from Baby Face (1933) and her charming con artist in The Lady Eve (1941). MacMurray, typically cast in light comedy, had done no prior films to indicate he could bring the necessary depth to Walter Neff. But Wilder’s instincts were sharp and he later cast MacMurray as another fast-talking heel in The Apartment (1960).
Edward G. Robinson, the moral center of the movie, could believably play anything from a viscous gangster (Little Caesar, Key Largo) to an apron-wearing patsy (Scarlet Street).
The writing was an alchemy of three unique talents. James M. Cain (Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice) provided strong source material and was humble enough to admit, “Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending.” Wilder and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye) fine tuned the plot and crafted crackling dialogue. Their partnership was contentious. “I drove him back into drinking,” Wilder admitted. But the result was seven Academy Award nominations and well-deserved cult status.
At first glance, Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1945) seems less like noir and more like a weeper. The protagonist is not a detective, a tough guy or a sap, but a recently separated middle-class woman (Joan Crawford in an Oscar-winning performance). Mildred struggles to build a career and to find love while providing for her two daughters. The novel and the almost entirely faithful 2011 HBO adaptation with Kate Winslet in the title role are almost pure melodrama. They both adhere to a third-person perspective and a chronological unfolding. The Crawford version makes changes to Cain’s novel which lift it from sudsy to sizzling. Credit a list of nine writers (including William Faulkner) and criminally underappreciated director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). A murder, a flashback structure, and voice-over narration make all the difference. Winslet is a much better actress than Crawford, but not a bigger star. Winslet’s performance seems a little flat because the role demands exactly the kind of histrionics Crawford was famous for.
Perhaps inspired by Double Indemnity, the 1945 version bookends the story with Mildred’s interrogation in a police station. She recounts her story in voice-over flashbacks. The most significant change is the murder of Mildred’s lounge lizard second husband, Monty Beragon. The mystery surrounding his death gives the story a narrative drive the other versions lack.
What lends the story spice is the sexually charged relationship among the characters and the considerable skill of the actors. As Mildred climbs from waitress to the owner of a successful chain of restaurants, she devotes all her love, attention and much of her money to her daughter. Veda (Ann Blyth, bitchy beyond belief) behaves like a spoiled princess wrenched from her fairy-tale castle and plunked down in the midst of commoners. Rather than appreciating her mother’s sacrifice, she calls her “a common frump” and longs to escape from “everything that smells of grease.” Just for fun, she extorts $10,000 from a rich boyfriend by faking a pregnancy. As a final flourish, she sleeps with Monty, her mother’s husband.
Wally is superbly played by Jack Carson who projects his unique brand of sleazy appeal. He was the real estate partner of Mildred’s first husband and he guides her career while hitting on her with his crude line of patter. “There’s something about the sound of my own voice,” he crows, “that fascinates me.” Wally sounds a bit like Neff, and proves to be almost as larcenous. He helps Veda with her pregnancy scam and pulls Mildred’s empire out from under her, but always with a friendly smile on his moon-shaped face.
Monty Beragon comes from old money, but the cash flow has dried up. Zachary Scott imbues Monty with oleaginous charm. Unlike the much less sophisticated but ambitious Wally, Monte is perfectly content to live off Mildred’s earnings. “I wish I could get interested in work,” he sighs. Mildred’s acid-tongued second in command, Ida, responds, “You were probably frightened by a callus at an early age.”
Since the filmmakers were clever enough to show Monty being shot and killed at the film’s beginning, we’re always wondering who pulled the trigger. Wally was in the house when the police arrived. Mildred had motive to spare: Monty took her money and slept with her daughter. But the culprit turns out to be Veda who convinced Ida early on that “alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”
Critic Jeremiah Kipp called Mildred Pierce “melodramatic trash…directed by studio favorite Michael Curtiz in German Expressionistic mode, which doesn’t go quite with the California beaches and sunlight but sets the bleak tone of domestic film noir.” Mildred Pierce is trashy, perhaps, but it’s the kind of trash I love: gleeful over-the-top acting, bitchy characters and a plot kept cooking at a high boil. And for good measure, a hint of incest to taunt the censors. But is it melodrama: a sensational story with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions? This standard definition would cover most of the movies ever made. For Kipp, melodrama seems to be a code word for “woman’s picture.”
Jon Tuska argues that melodrama is defined by the promise of marriage at the movie’s end. As Mildred leaves the police station, it appears she’ll get back together with Bert, her first husband. But she’s lost her first daughter to a freak illness, and Veda, who functions as the femme fatale, is headed to the slammer. Wally has betrayed her, and her money is gone. Plus, Bert is unbearably dull. What appears at first glance to be a happy ending finds Mildred sadder and a bit wiser, but right back where she was at the beginning. That’s ruination enough for me.
The truly successful marriage in Mildred Pierce is the wedding of domestic melodrama and classic noir style. The official at this wedding is the director, Michael Curtiz. In addition to Casablanca, he also directed a boy’s adventure, Robin Hood; a musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy; a holiday classic, White Christmas; and a long list of war movies and westerns. There was no style he couldn’t master so he was the ideal choice to bring a hard noir edge to what might have been just three-hankie histrionics in lesser hands.
Unlike the infinitely versatile Curtiz, Jacques Tourneur is principally remembered for directing three psychological horror movies for producer Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) and Out of the Past, widely regarded as one of the greatest noir films. The dark, shadowy photography from the earlier Lewton pictures transfers perfectly to Out of the Past (1947); the fog is replaced by even thicker cigarette smoke.
For purists, Out of the Past fits neatly into the midpoint of the cycle. The style, with a look lit by cigarette butts, voice-over narration and a flashback structure, is unmistakably noir. And with a detective, a femme fatale, a manipulative gangster, lively nightclubs and dark dives, it satisfies all the genre requirements. But what lifts it from workmanlike to wonderful is the raw power of its star, Robert Mitchum and his deadpan delivery of some of the most flawless hardboiled dialogue ever written, courtesy of Daniel Mainwaring (The Big Steal, The Hitch Hiker, The Phoenix City Story, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and an uncredited James M. Cain.
Out of the Past’s protagonist, Jeff Bailey, is the perfect showcase for Mitchum’s unique skill: the ability to project brawny toughness and an almost feminine vulnerability at the same time. In isolation, the toughness can be terrifying (Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear), but when mixed with his submerged sensitivity (El Dorado, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison), the results can be truly moving.
The tough and tender duality is explored in Jeff’s relationship with Kathie Moffat, the glamorous girlfriend of mobster and horse fancier Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). The first part of the story plays out via flashback as Jeff, a gas station owner amid the rural mountains, explains his former life to Ann, his plain, small-town girlfriend, while they drive to Sterling’s Lake Tahoe estate. Jeff has been summoned because Sterling claims they have unfinished business.
Jeff explains to Ann that he used to be a detective and that Sterling once hired him to find his girlfriend Kathie who flew the coop with $40,000 of Sterling’s less than legitimate fortune. We see Jeff find Kathie in Acapulco and watch him fall in love almost instantly. Kathie seems smitten, too, but if we trust our noir instincts, listen carefully and keep alert to visual clues, we soon understand she’s a femme fatale from the classic mold. Even though he was bedazzled, Jeff recalls, “I thought what a sucker I was.”
When they meet on the beach at night, he sees her barefoot for the first time and says she’s shorter than he realized. “I’m taller than Napoleon,” she replies. But no less ambitious or treacherous. They embrace against a backdrop of fishing nets that alert us to the spidery trap she is weaving. “I never saw her in the daytime,” Jeff remembers. “We lived by night.” Later, when Kathie asks if he’s missed her, he says, “No more than I would my eyes.”
Mitchum comes across as the most streetwise of actors, and Jeff can sense a scam or a frame from a mile away. Although Katie often dresses in white, she lives in the shadows, and Jeff has been blinded by darkness masquerading as innocence. They narrowly escape the justifiably suspicious Sterling who comes to Acapulco to “see a man about a horse” and to check up on the investigation. They flee to San Francisco where they enjoy a honeymoon of sorts until spotted at the racetrack by Fisher, Jeff’s old partner in the detective agency. Jeff’s gamble that he can escape goes bust, and Fisher demands a cut of Sterling’s $40,000 when he trails them to a small cabin in the woods. While they struggle, Kathie shoots Fisher dead and escapes by car. Jeff discovers her checkbook with the $40,000 she claimed she never stole, and realizes he has been not only sucker, but a patsy.
Toward the end of the drive to Tahoe, Ann—who has been tortured by Jeff’s description of his infatuation with Kathie—says, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff shrugs and says, “She comes the closest.” Ann drops Jeff off and now the second half of the story unfolds in real time. Jeff’s job is to retrieve documents that could incriminate Sterling who has been less than forthcoming with the Internal Revenue Service. The bad news for Out of the Past is that part two slips into Chandleresque over complexity. The good news is that Jeff, wised up but still in Kathie’s web, unleashes his best one-liners.
Kathie has returned to Whit and slinks into Jeff’s room at Tahoe proclaiming her love. “Just get out, will you,” he says. “I have to sleep in this room.”
After betraying him yet again, Kathie says, “Oh, Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago.” “There’s time,” he replies.
As the plot heats up, she cries, “Oh, Jeff! I don’t want to die!” “Neither do I, baby,” he says, “but if I have to I’m gonna die last.” He doesn’t.
Eventually Kathie kills both Whit and Jeff before being fatally shot by the police as she tries to escape.
There are many small but elegant touches in Out of the Past too numerous to discuss at length. The contrast between the bright, pristine mountain environment of Jeff’s gas station and the sordid shadows of the corrupt city. The fascinating, if undeveloped, character of Jeff’s deaf mute assistant at the station. The theme of fishing (for men’s souls?) and the symbolism of the hook which the deaf mute wields with his fishing rod to save Jeff’s life. And in ironic contrast, the deadly hook set in place by Kathie. Already a dead man like Walter Neff as he narrates his tale, Jeff knows, as Neff did, that “the hook was too strong,” but accepts that he was powerless to wrench it out. His epitaph, spoken in defiance of his fate, is “Build my gallows high, baby.”
Ten years after Out of the Past, Mitchum made Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with director John Huston. His Marine corporal is at least as macho as Jeff Bailey, and he again falls for the wrong woman. But this time she’s not a femme fatale, but a nun stranded on a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. Except for quick glimpses of Japanese soldiers, Allison is a two-character romance.
Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), on the other hand, is a heist movie with a brilliant ensemble cast. Compared to the émigré directors who dominated noir, Huston seems distinctly American. Except for Bogie’s Fred C. Dobbs in Sierra Madre, few of his protagonists are afflicted with the neurosis and self-contempt that plague so many noir patsies. His men may be losers, but they lose on their own terms and without the hint of a whine. Probably because he studied art in Paris from 1932 to 1937, the European influence creeps into Huston’s visual style.
When Sam Jaffe’s recently-released con, Doc Riedenschneider, steps out of a cab looking like a sixty-year-old banker, the plot is set in motion. There is no heart in heartland: this unnamed Midwest city is as dark and penumbral as The Maltese Falcon’s Frisco or Fritz Lang’s Berlin.
Doc has landed at the hangout of a very sweaty bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who he hopes can hook him up with a crew and a backer for the jewelry heist he has meticulously planned. Within minutes, we understand the essence of Doc’s nature. Cobby treats him with fawning deference, so we know Doc is a criminal mastermind. Doc’s command of facts and figures, his obvious glee when he calculates the big payoff, and his elegant clothes mark him as a man who appreciates the finer things
in life. His ogling of a girlie calendar suggests he may have a weakness for the dames.
Just before Doc’s arrival, we meet Sterling Hayden’s Dix who has a weakness for the ponies. He’s a hulking low-level thug in perpetual debt to Cobby who books his bets. His true obsession is not the gambling itself, but the horses. He grew up on his family’s Kentucky horse farm and dreams of reclaiming it. “One day I’m going to make a killing,” he brags to Doll (Jean Hagen), his steadfast girlfriend.
Doc is looking for a “hooligan,” or muscle for his crew and Dix is a natural fit. The “box man,” or safecracker is Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a devoted family man who always seems eager to get back home to his wife and kids. The wheelman is hunchbacked diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) whose hair trigger can be set off at any moment by reference to his deformity or by his hatred of the cops.
With admirable economy, Huston convinces us these men are professionals while suggesting they have inherent weaknesses that could undermine the success of their operation.
The money man recommended by Cobby is high-living lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). He agrees to front the seed money and offers to fence the jewels after the heist. Calhern’s performance is one of the most underappreciated in film history. There’s a hint of desperation beneath his suave confidence, a bit too much of the eager salesman’s patter in his pitch. He’s saddled with a bedridden wife who drubs him when they play cards. He’s a gambler, but not a very skilled one, we suspect. He rationalizes his greed by saying, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
The heist goes smoothly until Louie’s explosives set off an alarm. Outside, Dix struggles with a security guard whose gun goes off and wounds Louie. Gus drives Louie back to his family while Dix and Doc take the jewels to Emmerich. Now Doc’s airtight plan starts to leak. Emmerich is broke and his stooge, Brannon, pulls a gun on Doc and Dix. Dix kills Brannon, but not before taking a slug in the gut.
Emmerich tries to cover his tracks, but the police under Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) are closing in fast. Emmerich convinces his mistress Angela (a breathy Marilyn Monroe in her first big part) to provide an alibi, but he knows he’s doomed. While Angela babbles about escaping to someplace warm and sunny, Emmerich smokes quietly and waits for the inevitable knock at the door. Soon after the police arrive, Emmerich commits suicide with a pistol. The scenes with Angela after Emmerich has accepted his fate are sublime. I suspect the French film critics loved these moments: Calhern projects more ennui than an entire left bank café full of existentialists. At the end, as he turns passive, he reminds us of Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers, lying on his flophouse bed, waiting for the gunmen to bust through his door and fill him with lead. Fate doesn’t care if you’re a fancy lawyer or a washed-up boxer.
Louie has died, but at home amid his family. Gus is in jail, his fuse burning close to the end. Doc and Dix separate. Will either one evade the cops?
Doc leaves town in a cab, the same way he came. Pausing for rest in a roadhouse, the calendar girl he stared at in Cobby’s bookie joint comes to life as a teenaged girl dancing in front of a jukebox. Mesmerized, he tarries too long and is spotted by sharp-eyed cops before he can flee in the cab. Unlike the raging Gus, he accepts his fate calmly even though he’s in his sixties and will probably die in jail. “One way or another,” he said earlier, “we all work for our vice.”
Dix and Doll are trying to drive to the Kentucky horse farm before Dix bleeds to death. Like Louie, he just wants to make it home, to leave the pestilent city for the purity of the country. The journey through the dark night turns light as they approach the farm. Dix staggers from the car, and stumbles to the ground in a pen of his beloved horses. They nuzzle him affectionately as he dies. This is my favorite ending of any movie.
The Asphalt Jungle is almost faultless. The look is pure noir. The characters are an appealing gallery of rogues. The plot never stalls, never gets bogged down in unnecessary complications. Hayden’s forte is strength, not subtlety, so he’s perfectly cast. Jaffe and Calhern are magnificent. Too much time is spent with Commissioner Hardy, but probably as a concession to the Code, which balked at movies that could be seen as how-to manuals for crime.
Hardy’s speech midway through the movie might have been written by the Code’s chief enforcer. “Suppose we had no police force,” he says, “good or bad. Suppose we had just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle’s finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.”
Sounds like the perfect recipe for an uncompromising noir film to me.
In a self-contempt contest, Emmerich and the Swede might have to take a back seat to Joe Gillis (William Holden), the failed screenwriter in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Holden excelled at playing the handsome heartthrob whose whole is far less than the sum of his parts (Picnic, Sabrina). In The Bridge Over the River Kwai, he finds a measure of courage and achieves a semblance of redemption. In Sunset Boulevard, the love he finds comes too late to save him. His life preserver, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script girl at the studio asks him, “Do you sometimes hate yourself?” “Constantly,” he says.
Joe is drowning, so it’s appropriate that the movie starts in the gutter and ends in a swimming pool. As the opening credits roll, we see Sunset Boulevard from a rat’s-eye view at the curb, then before long, there’s Joe, lying face down in a pool, narrating his bookended story in flashback as only a dead noir protagonist can. We see him floating from below at first, then from above we notice the throng of cops and photographers swarming around the death scene. “Then they got a couple of pruning hooks from the garden,” Joe tells us, “and fished me out.”
Like Walter Neff and Jeff Bailey, Joe is symbolically hooked by a woman. But what keeps him squirming on the line is not love or lust, but the life of ease provided by his half-mad benefactress. In the end, the price he pays—the loss of the last shreds of his self-respect—proves too great.
Joe’s story arc in a nutshell: His desperation leads to a lucky break that turns out to be the worst thing that ever happened to him. The studio couldn’t care less about the paint-by-the-numbers baseball movie he’s pitching. He’s late with his car payments and the repo men spot him on Sunset and give chase. Joe blows through a red light just like Neff and, when a tire blows (a sound that will be echoed later), he pulls into the driveway of a retro mansion. He’s escaped the creditors who want his cash, only to find an apparent savior who showers him with expensive gifts but demands his soul.
The mansion is owned by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, bravely parodying herself) a 50-ish silent film star who is planning a comeback as Salome. When she discovers Joe is a screenwriter, she puts him to work on her batty project. He notices there’s no dialogue and she shrieks, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Joe, sensing an opportunity of sorts, lies about the marketability of her script and the hook is set.
In fast order Joe is installed in a room over the garage by the butler Max who it turns out was once a famous director and the first of Norma’s three husbands. Joe has a view of the empty pool now patrolled by rats instead of silent film stars. Max cleans out Joe’s apartment and brings back his meager belongings. No matter, with Max chauffeuring a $28,000 Isotta-Fraschini town car from 1929, Norma drags Joe to a fancy haberdasher where she insists the camel hair coat he’s chosen is too cheap. The salesman reads the situation and sidles up to Joe. “As long as the lady is paying,” he whispers, “why not take the Vicuna?” Joe can’t pretend he’s a screenwriter any more. He’s a gigolo.
Joe’s own car has been discovered and towed away by the repo men. He has graduated from the garage to a room next to Norma’s. His entertainment is watching Norma’s silent films and listening to her deluded commentary. When he discovers he’s the only guest as Norma’s New Year’s Eve party, he balks. She promises to fill the pool and buy him more gifts. “Has it ever occurred to you,” he says, “that I may have a life of my own?” She slaps him and retreats to her room. He bolts through the gate and hitchhikes to a party at his friend Artie’s house where he connects with Betty the script girl who gave a thumbs-down review to his baseball movie.
After reading a few of Joe’s old screenplays, Betty has found a hint of originality underneath the hokum and soon they are planning to collaborate. Joe seems to be falling for Betty who is Artie’s girlfriend. Or is Joe just vulnerable to Betty’s flattery? Is Betty simply in thrall to the square-jawed man in the fancy Vicuna coat?
Betty resembles Ann in Out of the Past or Midge (the great Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo: the somewhat plain and sensible girl who would be a perfect match for the noir man if he weren’t abnormally attached to the femme fatale. Joe thinks he is going to sever his attachment to Norma when he calls Max to say he’s leaving the mansion. But he learns that Norma has attempted suicide so he’s pulled back to the “peculiar prison” he thought he’d escaped.
Norma guilt trips Joe with consummate skill. The pool is filled and at night glows with an eerie light. Norma glows with the radiance of a woman who has won her man. Joe, it seems, has submitted to the last step in his degradation: sleeping with a woman old enough to be his mother. Oedipus, at least, was unaware of his transgression.
Norma’s manic phase escalates when she believes her old director, Cecil B. DeMille has summoned her. We learn later that the studio was only interested in the Isotta-Fraschini for a period film, but Norma is sure Salome has been greenlighted. With Joe on her arm and Max behind the wheel, she descends on the studio like a queen reclaiming her throne. DeMille tiptoes the thin line between respecting his former meal ticket and leaving her demented fantasy intact.
Norma goes into her version of training for Salome. We see her wearing a series of masks designed to make her complexion more youthful. Joe escapes at night in the big car to work with Betty on their script. After the mustiness of Norma’s crypt, Joe is enchanted by Betty’s smell, “like freshly laundered handkerchiefs, like a brand-new automobile.” Love has turned Joe a little corny, but it’s a pleasant change from his cynicism.
Joe’s cynicism and self-loathing come roaring back, however, after Norma spills the beans to Betty who rushes to the mansion in desperation. Joe rejects both women and claims he’s leaving Hollywood and heading back home to Dayton, Ohio. When he finally walks away, Norma shoots him in the back and he falls into the pool where we saw him at the beginning. Norma’s earlier words bubble to the surface: “No one ever leaves a star.” With the gunshot, we hear the distant echo of the blown tire that determined Joe’s fate. No one in noir ever makes it back home alive.
The pool is one of the many glowing objects in noir: Phyllis’ anklet in Double Indemnity, the radioactive “whatsit” from Kiss Me Deadly and its cousin, the luminescent briefcase from Pulp Fiction. The antecedent may be the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that represents Gatsby’s doomed hopes. Whether it’s forbidden knowledge, an alluring fetish, love, lust, or the unattainable fantasy, the noir hero must always be careful what he wishes for. “The poor dope,” Joe confides, “he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool.”
Norma gets what she wants, too: a dramatic entrance and a phalanx of popping flashbulbs to record it. Dressed as Salome, she descends the stairs of her mansion thinking she’s at the studio. “All right, Mr. DeMille,” she says, “I’m ready for my close-up.” The cameras, of course, belong to the crime reporters drawn by Joe’s murder. “The dream she clung to so desperately,” Joe tells us from the beyond, “had enfolded her.” And Max, too, who directs the cameras from the foot of the stairs. Wilder’s final irony: in 1929, von Stroheim had directed Swanson in a real Hollywood production, Queen Kelly, the same movie we see Norma screening for Joe.
There are two famous “lost” masterpieces butchered by the studio. The first is von Stroheim’s Greed, originally a four-and-a-half hour epic, but cut to two hours. The studio destroyed the unused reels. Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) suffered the same fate. Welles’ extravagant, baroque noir, Touch of Evil (1958), was also hacked up by the studio, but according to most film scholars a 1998 restoration closely resembles Welles’ original film. That any version made it into theaters is a minor miracle. Touch of Evil is one of the strangest movies ever made and gleefully violates nearly every commandment of the Hays Code.
A short history will explain why Touch of Evil is often cited as the end of the classic noir cycle. By 1958, Welles had moved from enfant terrible (The War of the Worlds radio program), to boy wonder (Citizen Kane), to cash-strapped ex-genius (Macbeth, Othello). He had been foundering in Europe for a decade when the offer to play Sheriff Hank Quinlan reached him. According to some sources, Charlton Heston, considered for the lead, suggested he’d be more inclined to accept the role if Welles were brought on board to direct.
After a successful stage career and two years before Kane, Welles was working on his first movie, an unproduced version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “This is the biggest electric train set,” he crowed, “a boy ever had.” This childlike glee mixed with his love of magic and illusion infuses all of his movies. With Touch of Evil he seems to be boasting, “Let me see you top this!” Deep shadows and canted camera angles like Caligari. Huge close-ups of distorted faces like those from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Flamboyant tracking shots that outdo Kane. Detectives. Crooked cops. Alcoholism. Drugs. Gypsy prostitutes. Sexy blondes. Rape. Butch lesbians in leather. Miscegenation. Rampant corruption. Gruesome strangulation.
The numbers seem to support Touch of Evil (1958) as a noir watershed. Silver and Ward’s Encyclopedia lists an average of fifteen noir films per year from 1950-1958. From 1959 onward, only one or two entries each year are recorded. But the numbers over the 50s were declining. Thirty-four noir films were released in 1950, and the numbers steadily fall to ten films in 1957. Touch of Evil was one of only three noir movies in 1958. It looks like filmmakers gave up on noir after Welles placed the bar out of reach. But you could also argue that noir had simply run its course. Whatever the reason, Touch of Evil serves as a convenient bookmark.
Welles’ film begins with a Hitchcock-style MacGuffin: a device that sets the plot in motion but is ultimately of little consequence. At the beginning of the famous three-and-a-half minute tracking shot, we see a bomb planted in a car on the Mexican side of the border. A man and a woman enter the car, drive to the U.S. side, and the bomb explodes. Who are the victims? We don’t care. Why were they killed? Not really important. The struggle between Vargas, Heston’s handsome Mexican drug agent and Quinlan, Welles’ hideously bloated American cop is what grabs our interest.
Quinlan is determined to pin the crime on Sanchez, a young Mexican and claims to have found dynamite in his apartment. Vargas is convinced Quinlan planted the evidence and suspects this is not the first time Quinlan has skirted the law to win a conviction. By the end of the film, we know that Vargas’ hunch was correct. Quinlan is corrupt to the core. We could tell that just by looking at him. And he did plant the evidence. But Vargas’ impulse to protect a poor innocent Mexican boy is misplaced. Sanchez is guilty. Quinlan is best described by those who know him well: “A good detective and a lousy cop.”
The main thread of the movie is the depiction of Quinlan’s disintegration. For years, his colleagues have excused his extralegal methods because they produced results. But Vargas is a by-the-book straight arrow. He becomes obsessed with exposing every frame-up in Quinlan’s past. This pressure drives Quinlan to drink after twelve years of sobriety. Drinking turns the cagey cop sloppy. And nostalgic.
When he visits his old friend Tanya (Marlene Dietrich in a black wig), a Gypsy madam, she doesn’t recognize him.
“You should lay off the candy bars,” she warns.
“I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on,” he says.
“Better be careful,” Tanya replies. “It might be too hot for you.”
Deeper into his bender and becoming increasingly careless, Quinlan leaves his cane in a hotel room where he has just strangled Joe Grandy (Akim Tamiroff) a sartorially challenged mobster. Quinlan is trying to pin Grandy’s death on Vargas’ American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) who is lying unconscious on a bed in the same room. She’s been drugged after possibly being raped at a motel by a group of creepy hoodlums including young punks from Grandy’s family and leather-clad lesbians.
The strangulation scene is filmed with crazy angles and bizarre lighting that would make the most outré example of German Expressionism look tame by comparison. Grandy’s eyes almost pop out of his head in flagrant violation of the Code’s prohibition against “brutality and possible gruesomeness.” A swinging light bulb might remind you of the basement discovery of Mrs. Bates’ body in Psycho which came two years later.
Also reminiscent of Psycho is the caretaker (Dennis Weaver) at the motel where Susan is brutalized. He’s Norman Bates on speed: twitchy, terrified, and powerless to stop the kinky hoods from running amok. Hitchcock was a highly original director, but it’s hard to watch Touch of Evil without thinking Hitch may have borrowed some touches from Welles.
The honky-tonk piano which functions as Tanya’s theme reappears—almost unchanged—two years later in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The final scene in Touch of Evil finds Quinlan’s right-hand man Pete (Joseph Calleia) wearing a wire to incriminate his boss. Vargas trails at a safe distance listening for evidence just like professional eavesdropper Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974).
Quinlan dies, of course, shot by Pete who once worshiped him. His demise comes as no surprise. In an earlier scene, he visits Tanya and asks her to tell his fortune. She raises as eyebrow as only Dietrich could and says, “Your future’s all used up.”
Quinlan is in the classic mold of noir villains that are far more interesting than the nominal heroes they play against. Robert Walker’s Bruno, the charming psychopath from Strangers on a Train, steals the movie from Farley Granger’s Guy, the bland tennis star. In Laura, the acid tongue and dripping contempt of Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker is far more compelling than the stolid professionalism of Dana Andrews’ dogged detective.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) showcases one of the greatest villains in movie history. Angela Lansbury plays the mother of Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) and the wife of Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), a Joseph McCarthy clone who is Shaw’s stepfather. Lansbury’s performance is so powerful, so authoritative, you’d never guess she was only three years older than Harvey. The stark contrast between her sweet grandmotherly facade and the bitter, stony monster underneath is especially chilling.
This gap between appearance and reality is the film’s central theme. The Iselins, who rail against Communism, are really Communist operatives. Shaw is not really a hero. The men who served with him have been programmed to intone robotically, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Deep down, below the level of consciousness, they hate him. They are all tortured by half-remembered dreams where a women’s horticulture society morphs into a brainwashing session populated by an auditorium full of diabolical faces.
Army Intelligence officer Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) struggles to find the meaning beneath his misery, but his superiors think the bad dreams he’s obsessed with are the result of stress. When he learns another member of his company is having the same nightmares, he convinces the higher-ups to test him. Out of a random selection of photographs, he picks out the faces from his dream. They correspond perfectly to known Communist kingpins.
Soon we understand the dream. Marco, Shaw, and the rest of their platoon were led into a trap in Korea during the war. They were brainwashed by Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dheigh) to believe they were listening to elderly women drone on about rhododendrons when they were really being exhibited as guinea pigs to an audience of Communist bigwigs. To demonstrate the power of his brainwashing, Dr. Lo commands Shaw to kill two of his comrades. He obeys without a hint of emotion or hesitation.
In present time, Marco is beginning to realize that Shaw is a human time bomb. He knows Dr. Lo created this puppet assassin, but he doesn’t realize the person directly pulling the strings is Shaw’s mother. She also controls her husband, the dimwitted senator angling for a shot at the vice presidency. “I keep telling you not to think,” she tells him. “You’re very, very good at a great many things, but thinking just simply isn’t one of them.”
If he’s good at anything, it’s braying vague allegations of Communist involvement in the government whenever there’s a microphone or camera nearby. He begs his wife to settle on a definite number of targets for his accusations. After a meal featuring a Heinz Catsup bottle emblazoned with its iconic numerals, he bellows with new confidence, “There are exactly fifty-seven card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time.”
This is only one of the many odd jokes that give The Manchurian Candidate a mordant tone that would make Billy Wilder proud. During his demonstration in front of his colleagues, Dr. Lo suggests that the soldiers are smoking “bizarre tobacco substitutes” and says, “they taste good, like a cigarette should.” This is a reference to a famous jingle, launched in 1954, to promote Winston cigarettes. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, the allusion is clearly anachronistic. Also out of time is Senator Iselin’s dancing the Limbo at a party scene. The Limbo gained popularity in the United States after Chubby Checker sang Limbo Rock in 1962. At the same party, Shaw comes dressed as a gaucho and quips, with uncharacteristic humor, that he is Gaucho Marx. The joke works on two levels: we think of both Groucho and Karl Marx. This juxtaposition of the absurd and the deadly serious, mixed with a fractured sense of time give the movie its unsettling power.
Marco is so unsettled he’s been put on leave. He meets Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) on a train. She sees him sweating and shaking and tries to comfort him. They have a conversation filled with odd puns and non-sequiturs that would have left even the great Groucho’s head spinning. But I believe there is more to this silliness than meets the eye. At one point, Rose says, “I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this straight.”
Is this a subtle hint that Rose is working for the other side? She seems to fall in love with Marco almost instantly and tells him within days she’s dumped her fiancé.
Even within the conventions of movie romance their immediate attachment seems preposterous. If the movie had developed this possible plot line, a truly paranoid, hall of mirrors vision of communist puppet masters could have been suggested. Perhaps the filmmakers shied away from this possibility because it would seem to justify the lunatic ramblings of Senator Iselin, and by extension, give credence to Joseph McCarthy’s ill-fated crusade.
By the time Marco has discovered the trigger for Shaw’s programming is the queen of diamonds face card, Shaw has already killed a journalist opposed to the Iselin’s ambitions. Still smitten by a boyhood crush, and determined to alienate his parents, Shaw elopes with Jocelyn, the daughter of Senator Jordan, the Iselin’s archenemy. The programming is still intact, however, and Shaw kills both Jordan and Jocelyn, remembering nothing. Marco, suspecting the worst, tries to deprogram Shaw. The viewer is left to wonder if he’s succeeded.
Shaw’s supreme task is to take place at the political convention where Senator Iselin will be nominated as vice president. Lansbury is especially powerful as Mrs. Iselin explains to her son that he must shoot the presidential nominee so her husband can rise and give a stirring speech—crafted over many years—that will vault him into the presidency. “And then when I take power,” she says, “they will be pulled down and ground into dirt for what they did to you. And what they did in so contemptuously underestimating me.” She kisses her son on the lips, looking as if she would like more.
Shaw evades Marco who wonders if his deprogramming has failed. He scans the convention for something out of place and spots a tiny light coming from a distant projection booth. He sprints up flights of stairs and bursts into a tiny room where Shaw has just swiveled the rifle from the presidential nominee and shot his mother and stepfather who lie dead on the platform. “Oh damn it, Ben,” he says, and turns the rifle on himself.
The Manchurian Candidate has three fathers. Richard Condon, who wrote the source material, said, “Every novel I’ve ever written has been about the abuse of power.” The director, John Frankenheimer, was a good craftsman who made two other solid entrants in the thriller genre: Seconds and Black Sunday. Screenwriter George Axelrod (Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), had an ear attuned to the droll.
These diverse talents came together in what famed critic David Thompson calls “wild injection of screwball menace into an electoral comedy.” The more times you see The Manchurian Candidate, the more the comic elements seem to dominate. Unless you fall under the sway of Angela Lansbury’s harpy who may disturb your dreams for a long time to come.
The abuse of power is also the central theme of Chinatown (1974). Sweet-faced Mrs. Iselin was the power broker in The Manchurian Candidate and avuncular Noah Cross (John Huston) is her counterpart in Chinatown. She wants to run the world. He’ll settle for owning greater Los Angeles. Mrs. Iselin claims to regret using her son to further her grand scheme. Noah Cross uses his daughter in a far more despicable way without a hint of remorse. Both films show the interaction of the personal and the political and suggest that personal betrayal is the most reprehensible offense of all.
Robert Towne’s screenplay is justifiably famous. Set in 1939, it excavates the history of Los Angeles while also burrowing into the inner lives of its doomed characters. It is complex without being confusing, and filled with dialogue that honors hardboiled traditions while giving them a modern flair. Although Chinatown is in color, the contrast between bright landscapes and dark deeds creates an authentic noir texture.
Towne’s original ending was hopeful if not exactly happy. The director, Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby), objected. His natural impulse to embrace the darkness was undoubtedly given greater force when his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson’s acolytes in 1969. Like Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity, he understood that in tragedy “the last stop is the cemetery.”
Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is approached by a woman who says she suspects her husband of infidelity. Jake advises her to “let sleeping dogs lie” but pursues the case at her insistence. She claims she’s the wife of water commissioner Hollis Mulwray. On the surface, Mulwray seems to be having an affair with a much younger woman. Soon Gittes discovers that the woman who came to his office is an impersonator and much later—too late—he learns Mulwray’s apparent mistress was in fact his stepdaughter.
By the time Gittes finally wises up, he’s uncovered a plot to control L.A.’s water supply, had his nose sliced open, and fallen in love with the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) who is now a widow. Her father is Noah Cross, once Hollis’ partner.
“Can you believe it?” a minor character asks. “We’re in the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A.”
Gittes is tough—he wears the unsightly bandage on his nose as a badge of honor. But as the hoodlum (director Roman Polanski, very scary) who disfigures him suggests, he’s a “very nosy fellow.” Like most true noir detectives, the knowledge he seeks has the potential to destroy him and the people he cares for.
We catch hints of Jake’s vulnerability, most of which lead back to Chinatown where he once failed to save someone who depended on him.
Evelyn Mulwray asks, “What were you doing there?”
“Working for the District Attorney.”
“As little as possible.”
When Gittes learns Cross is almost singlehandedly responsible for controlling the area’s water supply, Cross warns him off.
“You many think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”
After Jake grins, Cross asks, “Why is that funny?”
“That’s what the District Attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.”
Jake learns Cross has more millions than he can count and asks, “What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gittes. The future.”
Apparently Jake, like many other noir men, is repeating old patterns. Cross’ warning is not an idle threat. The politics of controlling the water is far more byzantine than Jake suspects and the personal cost of the knowledge he seeks will draw him back to Chinatown with catastrophic results. Some characters, much more sympathetic that Sheriff Quinlan from Touch of Evil, also have futures that are “all used up.”
Jake’s first shock comes when he traces Katherine, the young woman he thought was Hollis Mulwray’s mistress, to a house rented by Evelyn. We discover the widow Mulwray is not the femme fatale she appeared to be when Jake grills her.
Evelyn, severely shaken, says, “She’s my sister.”
Jake slaps her and screams, “I said I want the truth!”
He gets it. “She’s my sister and my daughter.”
Then, “My father and I…understand? Or is it too tough for you?”
Gittes arranges a place in Chinatown for Evelyn and Katherine to hide before their planned escape from Noah Cross. But Cross and the cops he owns are tipped off and try to stop her. As Evelyn drives away with Katherine, a cop aims at one of the car’s tires, but the bullet goes astray and pierces Evelyn’s eye. One victim of Cross’ incestuous evil is dead, but another—Katherine—is next in line. For the first time, Gittes is dumbstruck. An associate drags him away from the carnage.
“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Fat chance. Gittes had survived his stint in Chinatown by doing “as little as possible” and by accepting that he didn’t know what he was dealing with. After leaving the police, he became a “nosy guy” who failed to heed his own advice to “let sleeping dogs lie.” In noir, the search for the truth can sometimes open your eyes, but more often than not, seeing the truth up close can make you want to close them.
John Huston’s daughter Angelica stars in The Grifters (1990), one of the nastiest noir movies ever made. Jim Thompson, described as the “Dimestore Dostoyevsky,” published the novel in 1963. His screenwriting credits include Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory. After Dark, My Sweet, The Getaway, and The Killier Inside Me are noir movies adapted from his books. Veteran noir craftsman Donald Westlake wrote the screenplay.
In 1988, British director Stephen Frears scored a solid hit with Dangerous Liaisons, set in 18th century France. Oddly enough, this period piece was perfect preparation for Frears’ next assignment, The Grifters, where liaisons have never been more dangerous or more twisted. Hardboiled fiction filtered through a European sensibility: the perfect formula for first-rate noir.
Roy (John Cusack) is a short-con grifter based in Los Angeles. One of his tricks is ordering a drink by flashing a twenty-dollar bill. When the drink arrives, he palms the twenty and hands over a ten. If he’s lucky, he gets change for the twenty. We see an unlucky episode. The bartender is wise to the scam and whacks Roy in the stomach with a baseball bat. He’s suffered real internal injuries, but the intense queasiness that afflicts him may have a spiritual correlative in Sartre’s Nausea. Roy has existential angst to spare.
The source of this malaise is Roy’s Oedipal attachment to his mother, Lilly (Angelica Huston). She works a bigger con, placing strategic bets at the racetrack to improve the odds for Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), her bookmaker boss. But she also skims a little off the top for herself, stashing stacks of bills in a hidden compartment beneath the trunk of her car.
Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Benning) is a grifter, too. Her specialty is using sex to get what she wants. We see her gleefully seduce a jeweler, her landlord, and in flashback, a high-rolling sucker in an oil investing scam. She recognizes Roy’s potential and tries to convince him to team up with her for bigger scores. “I’ve kissed a lot of fucking frogs,” she says, “and you’re my prince.”
The tension in this classic triangle starts to hum when Lilly visits Roy in L.A. for the first time in eight years. She notices him wincing in pain from the effects of the baseball bat and advises, “Get off the grift, Roy. You haven’t got the stomach for it.” Lilly wants him to quit. Myra wants him to think bigger. What’s a young grifter to do?
Lilly uses her underworld connections to summon a doctor. When he suggests Roy might be too far gone to be helped, she tells him, “My son is going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.”
Roy survives his internal hemorrhaging, but the hostility between Lilly and Myra stokes a new churning in his gut. When they meet in the hospital, Myra at first expresses surprise that Lilly could be Roy’s mother. “Of course now that I see you in the light,” she says, “you’re plenty old enough to be Roy’s mother.”
Lilly has bigger problems than competition with a younger woman. By taking care of Roy, she’s missed a critical race. She tries lying to Bobo, but he stops her. “Do you want to stick to that story, or do you want to keep your teeth?” He punches her in the stomach, threatens a severe beating with a towel full of oranges, then settles for burning her hand with a lit cigar. She’s in pain, but she thinks she’s off the hook.
Not so. Myra follows Lilly to the racetrack and sees her trunk full of cash. She reveals the con to Roy and tries to convince him to join her in a scam she’s plotted. He’s distrustful. “Sooner or later the lightning hits, and I’m not gonna be around when it hits you.”
Myra has stronger cards to play. “You and your mother? Ugh! You like to go back to where you’ve been, huh?” Roy slaps her and we suspect his anger is less about being insulted than about being discovered.
Myra is not done yet. She tells Bobo about Lilly’s double dealing. Lilly’s friend on the inside warns her to watch her step, so she hides out at a motel in Arizona. Myra trails her, sneaks into her room, and attacks her in bed. When Roy is called to identify the body, he testifies it’s his mother’s corpse even though he knows it’s Myra under the sheet. Myra was younger, but Lilly is tougher.
Back in L.A., Roy finds Lilly ransacking his apartment. She’s found his hidden bankroll and claims she needs it to fund her new life. When Roy refuses, Lilly turns temptress. “What can I do to get it? Is there nothing I can do?” When Roy rejects her, Lilly swings the money-filled suitcase at him, driving the glass he’s drinking from into his throat. She screams as he bleeds out, but she’s not so grief stricken that she can’t collect the money and drive off leaving his dead body on the bloodstained floor. It’s no accident that lilies are the flower most associated with funerals.
Stephen Frears, the director, described The Grifters as “Pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy,” an apt summation of many noir films. We’ve seen how the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Thompson and their imitators provided the raw material for many noir films. Greek tragedy offers the Medusa, Medea, Circe, the sirens and other models for the femme fatale. Especially in neo-noir, there is no shortage of Oedipal themes. Oedipus, himself, as Raymond Durgnat pointed out, was the first detective. And also a murderer. And guilty—unknowingly—of sleeping with the wrong woman. The saga of The House of Atreus could be cited as an archetype for the doomed families of noir.
There is no God in noir. But in many noir films, there is a strong sense that lower-case, Greek-style gods are toying with the pathetic humans who foolishly believe they can control their fate. As Gloucester observed in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”
You may have noticed that list of top ten films really numbers eleven. I’d like to recap them now and to place each film into an admittedly subjective category.
M (1931) Foundational noir
I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang (1932) Prison noir
Double Indemnity (1944) Classic noir
Mildred Pierce (1945) Domestic noir
Out of the Past (1947) Detective noir
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Caper noir
Sunset Boulevard (1950) Gothic noir
Touch of Evil (1958) Baroque noir
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Cold war noir
Chinatown (1974) Neo noir
The Grifters (1990) Nasty noir
It pained me to exclude many excellent films. Some had a fatal flaw. Others didn’t quite qualify under my admittedly subjective rules. A few were just too cheesy. But all the films I’m going to list now are worth a look.
THE SECOND TEAM
Gun Crazy (1949). A low-budget classic with the best meet cute ever. Bart loves guns. Annie is a curvy carnival sharpshooter. Sex and sixguns in one package! Bart falls hard and a doomed life of crime ensues. This film influenced Bonnie and Clyde right down to the iconic beret.
Detour (1945). Made for $30,000 and it shows. This is noir at its most raw and primal. Al hitchhikes across the country and runs into a string of bad luck. Misfortune turns to catastrophe when he meets Vera who says, “People eat themselves up trying to buck fate.” Al agrees. “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
In a Lonely Place (1950). Leaving this one off the list twisted my guts. Bogie at his most vulnerable, and an over-the-top tagline of pure perfection. “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” It’s a crime the murder mystery at the movie’s core falls flat.
Gilda (1949). The astonishingly beautiful Rita Hayworth torn between Glenn Ford’s low-rent gambler and the classy casino owner who hires him. Sado-masochism galore. Glenn denies Rita on their wedding night. Is he more attracted to his boss who wields a supremely phallic cane with a concealed dagger?
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). A James M. Cain plot that parallels Double Indemnity. John Garfield is potent as a handsome drifter, but Lana Turner strains credulity as a hash house waitress. Cecil Kellaway, the jolly Brit who plays her husband, is fatally miscast. Look for Hume Cronyn as a slippery lawyer.
The Killers (1949). Inspired by a Hemingway story. Structured like Citizen Kane. Anchored by Burt Lancaster’s stoic loser. But ruined by Ava Gardner whose beauty is exceeded only by her inability to act.
Criss Cross (1949). Lancaster as another helpless big lug with Yvonne De Carlo faring slightly better than Gardner. “It was in the cards and there was no way of stopping it.” Excellent atmospherics by director Robert Siodmak.
The Killing (1956). The quintessential big lug, Sterling Hayden, engineers a racetrack heist that—I’m shocked—goes wrong. Elisha Cook, Jr. gets henpecked by the best in the business: budget noir queen Marie Windsor. Director Stanley Kubrick starts to hit his stride.
Night and the City (1950). Panic in the Streets finds Richard Widmark in New Orleans trying to prevent the plague from spreading. In Night, he is the plague, infecting everyone he touches in London with his supremely bad karma. Also catch his gleeful psychopath Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Lancaster again, but this time totally in charge as a gossip columnist in the Walter Winchell mode. Tony Curtis is magnificent as Lancaster’s oily gofer. Superb New York City poetry from dialogue masters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Marred only by the boring love story between Lancaster’s sister Susan Harrison and white-bread jazz musician Martin Milner.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Where the glowing briefcase was born. If you like your noir bare-knuckled and your dames slapped, this Mike Hammer adaptation is up your dark and damp alley. Famous for portraying fate at its cruelest with nuclear apocalypse as the denouement.
Laura (1944). Considered a classic, but tarnished by a happy ending. Dana Andrews’ detective falls for the portrait of a dead beauty who turns up alive. Clifton Webb steals the movie without ruffling a hair of his natty moustache. Even though his Waldo Lydecker may be the gayest man in movie history, we are supposed to believe he’s in love with Gene Tierney’s Laura. Maybe she’s just another work of art for his tasteful collection.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Gene Tierney, still beautiful, but evil beyond belief. She watches her husband’s brother drown without lifting a finger. Purposely falls down a flight of stairs to abort her unwanted child. A great femme fatale in one of the few noir films where the color is so vibrant it overwhelms the dark themes.
Crossfire (1947). Robert Ryan, one of the most overlooked performers in movie history, plays a vicious, anti-Semitic soldier returning from the war. Ryan was so good at playing villains, he may have undermined his chances to be cast as a hero. Given a chance to star as a noble boxer in The Setup (1949), he finds a stoic nobility that would have eluded a lesser actor.
Ace in the Hole (1951). It’s hard to keep Billy Wilder at bay. Kirk Douglas’ egocentric reporter cares more about a Pulitzer than saving a man’s life. This movie is chillingly prescient about the media circus rolling into the 21st century and sharply satiric about the cult of celebrity that now suffocates the news.
Night of the Hunter (1955). Not exactly noir, but so great I have to list it. Robert Mitchum is terrifying as a bogus preacher stalking young children in search of their dead father’s stolen money. The only movie Charles Laughton directed. What a pity.
The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Excluded from the top eleven on a technicality, I know. But Bogie controls his own fate, escapes the clutches of predatory females, and emerges unscathed after the dust has settled. Watch In a Lonely Place if you want to see Bogart ruined in proper noir style.
Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho (1960), and Vertigo (1958). Many of Hitchcock’s films overlap noir, but The Master is in a class and a category by himself. Robert Walker Jr. is sensational as baby-faced Bruno, the charming psychopath in Strangers. Double-bill Psycho and Touch of Evil and pick your least trustworthy motel operator. Watch Vertigo to see Hitch’s own psychology played out via Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with making over one woman in another’s image.
Body Heat (1981). A respectable neo-noir in the James M. Cain tradition. William Hurt’s Ned Racine is an updated version of the classic noir loser who is not quite as clever as he thinks. A lawyer colleague tells him, “You’ve started using your incompetence as a weapon.” Kathleen Turner’s femme fatale quips, “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” Marvel at Mickey Rourke as a wily arsonist and bemoan an unfulfilled career.
The Last Seduction (1994). A darkly comic neo-noir. Linda Fiorentino’s femme fatale could teach a PhD program in betrayal. Listen for her retort in a Buffalo tavern when the bartender ignores her drink order. Watch her whip her lazy sales team into shape: “Come on, you eunuchs!” She is the supreme castrator, and proud of it.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Steve Martin, hilarious as hapless detective Rigby Reardon, interacts with a parade of noir stars arranged in classic clips seamlessly edited into Rigby’s narrative by director Carl Reiner. Start here to whet your appetite, or serve Dead Men as the perfect dessert after a noir retrospective.
GIVING THE FRENCH THEIR DUE
Here are some French films well worth exploring. The French gave noir its name, after all.
Rififi (1955). A caper film directed by blacklisted American Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City) who found work in France. Good on a double bill with The Asphalt Jungle.
Diabolique (1955). Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring French icon Simone Signoret. Plenty of twists and a bathtub scene that makes Fatal Attraction look tame. Avoid at all costs the Sharon Stone remake.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Directed by Louis Malle and starring the second icon of the era, Jeanne Moreau. The classic Double Indemnity setup: a man plots to bump off his lover’s husband.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Directed by Francois Truffaut and starring actor/singer Charles Aznavour, “the French Frank Sinatra.” Its odd mixture of funny, sad, and tragic inspired Newman and Benton’s script for Bonnie and Clyde. The piano score will remind you of Tanya’s place in Touch of Evil. From a novel by American David Goodis (Dark Passage).
Purple Noon (1960). Directed by Rene Clement from American Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Starring the icily elegant Alain Delon. The Matt Damon film from 1999 is excellent, but Delon is a better Ripley.
Le Samourai (1967). Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows, Bob le Flambeur). Delon, beyond suave again as a hitman forced to scramble when his alibi falls apart. Compare to Tom Cruise’s Collateral at your peril.
THE BATTLE OF CAPE FEAR
We can stretch our imagination back to Sophocles in search of noir’s past. But does noir have a future? Yes, we can see noir’s legacy in modern dark films like Se7en and Memento, but capturing the authentic feel of films from noir’s midcentury heyday is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s been almost seventy years since the post-war peak of noir films, so naturally much has changed. Even though the time span between the two versions of Cape Fear is only twenty-nine years, comparing these two films can shed light on why much of what passes for neo-noir is so unsatisfying.
The first problem is budgets and the burdens they bring. Many noir movies from the forties were cheaply made afterthoughts on the lower half of a double bill. Part of their power was their raw simplicity. The 1962 version of Cape Fear, starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, has the stripped-down feel of older films from the classic period. The director, J. Lee Thompson, was an Englishman fond of the subtlety Hitchcock brought to his thrillers. Figures for the budget are unavailable on Internet Movie Database, but even adjusting for inflation, Thompson’s film was made for a tiny fraction of the 35 million Martin Scorcese spent on the remake. Few would call it subtle.
The storyline—based on John D. MacDonald’s novel, The Executioners—is simple. Max Cady is a recently released convict determined to destroy the life of Sam Bowden, the lawyer he believes responsible for his incarceration on a sexual assault charge. Cady is a brute, but also clever enough to threaten Bowden and his family without breaking any laws. The central irony of the film, and the source of its tension, is that Cady’s threats eventually force Bowden to abandon the moral principles his profession and his life are built on. When he realizes Cady plans to rape his wife and daughter, Bowden lets a private detective talk him into hiring thugs to beat Cady and persuade him to leave town. Cady takes a few lumps, but he gets the best of his assailants and hires a lawyer to bring disbarment charges against Bowden.
Big budgets demand big effects. We can’t fault Scorcese for filming in color because most modern audiences demand it. But he uses showy visual effects—twice turning Cady into a black and white negative image—that make us aware we are watching a filmmaker instead of a film. Thomson’s use of black-and-white and his no frills visual style are far more effective. Color doesn’t jinx a modern noir—as Chinatown proved—but black-and-white, with its deeper shadows and more dreamlike quality, is almost always a better choice. Scorcese built a ninety-foot water tank on a soundstage and spent four weeks filming the story’s climax aboard a houseboat. Although technically impressive, the special effects used in showing the boat destroyed by a storm seem more appropriate for a disaster film. In noir, simple is usually better.
Big budgets demand longer running times. Scorcese’s film wheezes in at two hours and eight minutes; Thompson’s wraps up in an economical one hour and forty-five minutes. Those extra twenty-three minutes may not sound like much, but many of Scorcese’s scenes drag on too long and lose their tension.
Big budgets demand all-star casts. Actors carry the expectations generated by their previous roles. With his gallery of violent characters from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Unctouchables and Goodfellas, Robert DeNiro was a good choice for Max Cady. Harrison Ford was offered the part of Bowden and his stolid presence and quiet intelligence would have been the perfect counterweight for DeNiro’s feral intensity. But the role went to Nick Nolte, a hulking six-foot tall actor identified with tough, physical characters in movies like, The Deep, North Dallas Forty and 48 Hours. Nolte lost weight and donned wire-rimmed glasses to make his character seem more vulnerable and intellectual.
Five-foot-nine DeNiro whipped himself into Jake Lamotta shape and covered himself with tattoos that would make a hardcore biker blush. But the difference in physical size between the two actors doesn’t quite work. The movie might have been more interesting if the roles had been reversed.
Although the stars of Thompson’s version are hardly unknowns, the casting is more balanced. Few actors have radiated the moral rectitude of Gregory Peck. To me, his Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird (released just thirteen months after Cape Fear) is ample proof that audiences often mistook the stiffness of his acting for the uprightness of his characters. But in Cape Fear, his rigidity is the perfect counterpoint for Mitchum’s languid cool. Peck is two inches taller than Mitchum but looks frail next to his co-star’s barrel-chested physique. My reverence for Mitchum is by now no secret. In its survey of greatest villains, The American Film Institute lists Mitchum’s Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter at number twenty-nine and Max Cady at twenty-eight. Each should be much higher.
The smaller parts in Thomson’s film are close to perfect; in Scorcese’s version they are problematic. Polly Bergen, known best for her television work, plays Peck’s wife. It’s a thankless role, but she seems to understand her job is to act frightened and stay out of the way. Martin Balsam as the police chief, Telly Savalas as a detective, and Jack Kruschen as Cady’s attorney add just the right amount of flavor without upstaging the stars. Only Lori Martin as Peck’s daughter seems out of her depth.
For some reason, Scorcese thought stunt casting would be fun. He was wrong. Mitchum appears as a cop, Balsam as a judge, and Peck as Cady’s attorney. Viewers familiar with the original movie will chuckle when the old-timers show up. But these cameos undermine the somber tone of the movie.
Jessica Lange plays Nolte’s wife. With Frances, Tootsie and the Music Box on her resume, there was no way Lange could be asked to stay in the background like Polly Bergen. Scorcese and screenwriter Wesley Strick inject domestic strife into a marriage that was the epitome of upper middle class tranquility in the earlier version. Nolte has a roving eye and Lange is bitter. I can’t criticize Scorcese’s instinct to add depth to a bare bones plot, but nothing cripples the momentum of an action movie faster than too many scenes with a bickering couple.
Juliette Lewis, in her first major role, is a pleasant surprise as Nolte’s daughter, Danielle. Lori Martin was merely a fourteen-year old with a cute figure. Lewis is four years older with an off-kilter sexuality that animates the best (but overlong) scene in the film, a creepy confrontation in empty auditorium with DeNiro pretending to be Danielle’s high school acting teacher. The two characters seem almost twisted soul mates. On the other hand, Mitchum’s lust for a fourteen-year-old child is creepier still.
The delicate mood of noir is undermined in modern movies like Scorcese’s Cape Fear when budgets are too big, effects are too showy and the celebrity of the actors overwhelms their roles. Also ill-suited for noir films, in my opinion, is the Method style of acting which, in its search for the “truth,” trains performers to tap into the psyches of their characters by excavating their own personal emotions and experiences. DeNiro’s over-the-top Method acting ruins his portrayal of Max Cady. Mitchum’s lack of Method—his naturalism, if you will—makes his Max Cady more terrifying despite its greater subtlety and simplicity.
Like many of his contemporaries, Mitchum lived through the Depression and World War II. He was expelled from school numerous times, traveled the country on railroad cars, boxed professionally, was arrested for vagrancy, served on a chain gang, hung out with jazz musicians and was busted for pot possession. He didn’t need to act tough—he was tough.
DeNiro grew up in Greenwich Village with arty parents and started acting at sixteen. I’m not suggesting a hardscrabble background is mandatory for playing noir characters. Bogart’s father was a society doctor and his mother was a famous illustrator. But the actors who dominated the classic noir era and radiated a ruggedness few contemporary performers can match. Looking for a common thread leads us to World War II. The stress of war and the disorientation that followed gave noir its raison d’être. Military experience may have hardened the actors who served. They include: Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Telly Savalas, Sterling Hayden, Pat Hingle, Spencer Tracy, James Gregory, Victor Mature, Dennis Weaver, and Tony Curtis.
The Actor’s Studio, a Mecca of the Method, set up shop after the war in 1947, so most of the actors just mentioned escaped its influence. But Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift were part of a wave that later swept up Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, among others. What Method tics weaken DeNiro’s portrayal of Max Cady?
The Internet Movie Database (an invaluable resource) reports that before playing redneck Max Cady, DeNiro paid a dentist $5,000 to make his teeth look bad. After filming, it cost him $20,000 to have them fixed. Sean Penn, another Method actor, wanted to have his teeth filed down to play a reform school inmate in Bad Boys, but his mother dissuaded him. If the Method’s focus is to plumb the deep internal life of a character, why do some of its most famous adherents depend on external gimmicks like altered teeth?
Sanford Meisner, a Method pioneer, described acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” By trying to be true to his character, DeNiro directs our attention to Cady’s shell and away from his core.
Cady is a southerner so DeNiro attempts a backwoods accent so thick it should have received screen credit of its own. After researching the habits of sexual predators, DeNiro decided that Cady should bite a chunk of skin from the face of one of his rape victims. The scene may be “true,” but it’s nauseating. The tattoos covering Cady’s torso are meant to emphasize his menace, but, like the accent, they are exaggerated to a fault. When Mitchum’s Cady tells Bowden in a flat voice almost devoid of emotion, “I got something planned for your wife and kid they ain’t never gonna forget,” the result is far more frightening than anything DeNiro can muster with all his Method tricks. For acting in general, and noir acting in particular, less is often more.
Before collaborating on Cape Fear, Scorcese and DeNiro worked together on six films: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), and Goodfellas (1990). All these films are anchored in the city. Scorcese, who grew up in New York, seems out of his natural element in the North Carolina setting of Cape Fear. Taxi Driver—focusing on the corruption of the city and the people who inhabit its shadows—is a far superior noir-type film because it plays to Scorcese’s strengths. DeNiro’s Oscar-nominated performance is a model of subtlety compared to the histrionics of his Cady portrayal.
I’ve argued that there is no God in noir. Scorcese is a distinctly American director, but he is also burdened or blessed, depending on your viewpoint, with an onerous, Old World Catholic guilt. DeNiro’s torso is covered with a huge cross and other parts of his body are decorated with scripture. His character frequently quotes the Bible, or at least his twisted version of it. As he sinks into the river at the end of the film, he speaks in tongues like a man possessed. When Nolte’s Bowden, after struggling to the death with his nemesis, washes the blood off his hands, Scorcese is signaling, with a rather heavy hand, that Bowden has been absolved of his sins against his moral code and his professional ethics. In Scorcese’s world, God may be mysterious, or unknowable, or vengeful, but He is decidedly not dead.
Perhaps Scorcese and other American directors who grew up in the United States and learned their craft in film schools are not the ideal candidates to helm a noir film. They may be too close to their native country to fully understand it. Many historians would concede the best explication of the American character is Democracy in America, written in 1840 by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. Many film historians would likewise argue the best noir films were made by European émigrés like Polanski, Wilder, and Curtiz.
Scorcese’s attempt to take the rudimentary plot and characters of the original Cape Fear and create layers of complexity was an honorable impulse. But instead of adding depth, he ornamented with distracting curlicues. To paraphrase Lord Acton: Big budgets tend to corrupt; huge budgets corrupt absolutely. Watch The Last Seduction—recommended earlier—to see how to make an excellent modern noir on a tiny budget of 2.5 million. That’s seven percent of the 35 million Scorcese spent. Big budget successes like Chinatown come along once in a while, but they are rare, indeed.
Another restriction that fueled the early years of noir was the Hays Code, which was enforced from 1930 to 1968. Earlier, I argued that the Code impelled filmmakers to be more creative, and that implied themes were often more powerful than overt ones. J. Lee Thompson’s ability to show on-screen violence was limited, so he suggested it instead. Mitchum doesn’t need to bite his victim to be scary; he simply puffs out his enormous chest and leers. When he spots Bowden’s daughter for the first time, a simple line of dialogue creates the desired effect. “Say,” Mitchum drawls, “she’s getting to be almost as juicy as your wife, ain’t she?”
Perhaps the most crucial casualty of big budgets, superstar actors, and unlimited license is respect for the viewer’s imagination. Watching classic noir, the mind’s eye longs to picture what evil might be lurking in those dark shadows, and to puzzle over the twisted thoughts that must be fevering the brains of the doomed protagonist. In many modern films, we are shown everything, so our imagination, like an unused muscle, atrophies. Glutted on sensation, we eventually turn apathetic. Battered with violent images, we ultimately lose the ability to feel.
In a recent New Yorker article on the importance of pruning one’s writing, John McPhee gives this advice to authors: “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.” Take note, modern filmmakers. If you give your audience’s imagination the proper respect, your movies will prosper.
I’ll hold onto the slim hope that a great new noir film will get produced, but while I wait I’ll comfort myself with the knowledge that the films I’ve mentioned will repay repeated viewing with unalloyed joy.
You must have noticed my response to noir films is subjective. Your reaction will be subjective, too. A supposed masterpiece may leave you as cold as Phyllis Dietrichson’s heart. A cheaply made B-movie might gleam for you like her anklet. Whether it’s high art or low budget that draws you in, I hope you feel that telltale zero at the bone that hooked me on noir back when giants like Bogart and Mitchum could still hear the sound of their own footsteps.