Every month at Past Offences, Rich picks a year and invites bloggers everywhere to celebrate the mystery offerings the particular year produced in literature and film. (Check out the results for 1933 here.)
For March, Rich allowed regular contributor Santosh to pick the year just because Santosh solved a mystery Rich had posted. (My answer, while completely wrong, was much better!) Santosh chose 1947, which appears to be the year that most of my favorite mystery writers chose to take a break! However, it was a magnificent year for film and, especially for film noir. Wikipedia lists sixty-four titles in 1947 that qualify as noir. It’s therefore no surprise that this prolific year produced three of my favorites. One of them regularly places at the top of any “Best of Noir” list, the second pairs one of the great romantic duos of the 1940’s, and the third, which may be virtually unknown to you, features one of my favorite actors of all time and is based on a novel by the brilliant Charlotte Armstrong. My hope is that the following will either remind those of you who have seen this trio of films of their pleasures, or it will entice those of you who haven’t yet tasted these fine noirs to get with it already!
Out of the Past
This is the classic, and it has earned every accolade it has received. Those who relish film noir know that certain tropes float in and out of the picture: the hero caught in the grip of dark forces, the choice between a plain old good girl and an unbearably enticing femme fatale, the journey toward murder and madness on the dark city streets.
Running a tense 97 minutes, Past immediately breaks with tradition by setting itself in a charming small California town. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) owns the gas station, loves to fish, eats at the local diner, and dates the plain old “good girl, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). But Jeff Bailey is really Jeff Markham, and his former life as a private eye of dubious morals involves gangsters and perhaps the coldest, most evil femme fatale in the history of film noir.
The film’s title reflects the complexity of noir itself: Jeff’s former existence invades Bridgeport from out of the past in the form of Joe Stefanos, lieutenant to gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, at his most charming). Whit gave Jeff a job to do, Jeff cut out, and Whit wants the job finished. Jeff is trying to disentangle himself out of the past by living a simple, straight life in atonement for any wrongs he might have committed before. And in trying to do so, he confesses all to Ann in a lengthy flashback that comes right out of the past!
The myriad traps that Jeff falls into and out of reflect the convoluted nature of film noir at its best and the sense of hopelessness that envelops the protagonists of this genre. By showing us how good a man Jeff can be – a responsible member of a community, a loving partner, a good friend to his employee, a deaf kid (simply called The Kid), director Jacques Tourneur sets us up beautifully for the fall as Jeff potentially loses it all.
Both male leads do a fantastic job in their roles. Mitchum makes you care so much about Jeff’s welfare that, as the noose around his neck gets tighter and tighter, we begin to renegotiate what we would consider a “happy ending” for him. And Douglas makes Whit such an attractive psychopath that we can understand why someone with a basically good heart might agree to a morally dubious enterprise with this man. Both of them are nearly upstaged by Jane Greer as Kathie Moffatt, simply superb as the spider at the center of this web. From beginning to end, she both attracts and repels us to the point where we watch with wonder as Jeff and Whit, who both understand the full measure of Kathie’s poisonous nature, still find themselves drawn to her.
Out of the Past takes many of the familiar tropes of film noir and creates a masterpiece that feels fresh and new. You do not want to miss it.
No A-list actor could do noir like Humphrey Bogart. His version of The Maltese Falcon (1941), while technically “pre-noir.” rates as a brilliant example of the form. He would go on to film many noir classics like The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and In a Lonely Place. In 1944, while making To Have and Have Not, Bogie met first time actress Lauren Bacall, fell in love with her, divorced his wife and married her. They made four films together, and the one that some critics would consider the least of their pairings also happens to be one of my favorite noir films.
A big bonus of Dark Passage is that it’s set in my hometown of San Francisco. Bogie plays Vincent Parry, spending the rest of his life in San Quentin for murdering his wife. At the start of the film, he has broken out of prison and tries to hitchhike his way back to the city. Bacall plays Irene, a painter who happens to be painting on the roadside, rescues Parry and takes him back to her apartment. It just so happens that Irene knows who Parry is. Furthermore, her own father was falsely convicted of murder, so she is sympathetic to Parry’s cause. And just to round the number of coincidences up to three, one of Irene’s friends, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead) was an old flame of Parry’s who testified against him at his trial and essentially put him away.
Too many coincidences for you? Well, some might consider that it gets worse because of the way the film is shot in the beginning. Director Delmer Daves shoots the first quarter or so of the movie from Parry’s point of view, so all we get of Bogart at first is his voice. Ultimately, Parry consults a plastic surgeon who gives him Bogie’s face. (I might have asked for Alan Ladd’s or Cary Grant’s.) Then the film switches to a more traditional camera format as Parry tries to prove his innocence and discover the true perpetrator of his wife’s murder.
Dark Passage is, admittedly, no Out of the Past, but it does deliver a good mystery with added benefit from the Bogart/Bacall chemistry, the San Francisco setting (you can still find Irene’s apartment building on Telegraph Hill today), and, above all, the presence of Moorehead, whose portrayal of a shrewish snob thwarted in love becomes the nexus of all the strands tying this mystery together. Bob Bennett, who played Mildred Pierce’s wronged husband in that noir masterpiece, shows once again that he sure knows how to pick ‘em as Madge’s husband, Bob.
Since film noir is often built on injustice, I’d like to offer a whopping example of injustice: after making forty-eight films and being nominated four times, Claude Rains, one of the most brilliant character actors in film history, never one an Academy Award. The list of his great performances goes on and on, but I would mention six of my favorites: Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Senator Joseph Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager, Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, Alex Sebastian in Hitchcock’s Notorious, and Victor Grandison in The Unsuspected. Dr. Jaquith is a hero; the rest include a crooked politician, a crooked cop, a corrupt member of royalty, a Nazi, and a psychopath. And all of them, as played by Claude Rains with his customary cultured charm and twinkling eye, are people you would want to sit and dine with.
Rains has to rank as one of the most charming villains onscreen, and Victor Grandison is no exception. Victor is the hugely popular host of a radio series where he relates true crimes. A lot of crimes are happening in Victor’s life: his niece disappeared in a boating accident, and his secretary is found hanging from a chandelier in his palatial home. A group of beloved family members, staff and friends gravitate around Victor and protect him from intruders, including a man named Steven Howard who claims to be the the missing niece’s husband.
I read Charlotte Armstrong’s novel upon which the film is based a great many years ago, and to my befuddled mind it seemed structured more as an inverted mystery. The film sort of attempts to suggest that any number of people could have been responsible for the series of deaths that occur here, but it seems so obvious that I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything by saying that Rains creates another one of his memorable cads here, dripping with fatherly concern but masking the coldest of hearts. The supporting cast is a wealth of people whose faces you might vaguely recognize but whose names escape you: Audrey Totter, Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, et al. They all do a slam bang job yet allow Rains to shine as the (im) moral center of the film. The fun is in watching Rains repeatedly face down the threats to his existence with charm and implacability and to wonder if he will ever be brought down, how that might happen, and by whom.
I hope you will take a chance and check out these titles. If these three whet your whistle for more 1947 film noir, you will find much to enjoy from Lady in the Lake, The Lady from Shanghai, Lured, and the remarkable noir dealing with anti-Semitism, Crossfire.
Turn the lights down low and enjoy! (And if you want to post your own entry for 1947 on Rich’s blog, here is the link.)