Here’s what I think I know about film noir.
- It’s a style that nobody set out to invent. There was no meeting of minds that said, “Let’s invent a new genre.” Instead, directors – a great many of them expatriates from Europe, allowed the surreal visuals and dark mood of German Expressionism to affect the look and feel of the films they made.
- Film noir is not a genre. Film noir is a style that can be found in many different genres. There are “noir” Westerns and “noir” romances, even “noir” musicals. Mostly, however, the style was applied to tales of crime. Some films noirs (that’s the plural!) were out and out whodunnits, although the tendency of a classic mystery to restore order and happiness after the killer was revealed gave way to a more permanent social devastation. (In perhaps the last official noir film, the Maguffin is a suitcase containing pure nuclear energy, which pretty much blows up everybody and everything in the end.)
- The age of film noir is finite. It began around 1940 and ended around 1955. There are films that look like noir from the 30’s (German Expressionism dates back to the Silent Era), and there are stragglers into the late 50’s. In the mid-‘70’s, films like Chinatown began something called Neo-Noir; to me, these films, many of them wonderful, betray the noir code with their big stars, big budgets, and saturated color. Whatever you believe about them, they’re not what we’re talking about here.
- The main glut of films noirs appeared after World War II as almost a cinematic version of PTSD: America had, to a large extent, come together to sacrifice for the war effort, with every necessity rationed (so everyone was on relief) and with women and people of color taking positions at home to fill in for the soldiers abroad. When the vets returned, they longed to come back to the world they thought they were fighting to preserve. But things could never be the same: women and people of color had gotten a taste of social mobility, liked it, and wanted to hold onto it. In many ways, the chaos and violence of film noir crime dramas reflected the chaos going on in U.S. society that lasted until the Cold War shifted the citizenry into a more rigid, conforming country that longed to stamp out social mobility and put everyone back in their pre-War place. (One of the biggest tenets of American Communism that motivated the witch hunts was the belief that Black Americans deserved equality with white Americans. Now . . . go look for a strong positive black character in a noir film!) If this sounds like a struggle going on today, bingo!
- Lots and lots and lots of different ideas, images, icons, symbols, characters and so on can appear in a film noir. In order to be noir, a movie doesn’t have to possess all of them, but it includes many of them. The list can include heavy shadows, urban alleys, bars on windows (made of anything from iron to light reflecting through Venetian blinds), dramatic and disorienting use of angles, doomed heroes in the wrong place at the wrong time, anti-heroes who make one bad decision too many, no-goodnik heroes who deserve their fate, loving good women, sociopathic wanton women (labeled femmes fatales by the French), smart sleuthing women who save their man’s ass, dumb cops who get everything wrong, sadistic creeps who are only sometimes the “bad guy”, world-weary gumshoes . . . make that world weary guys of every profession and strata of society, lots of violence, often perpetrated against totally innocent people, and unhappy endings that somehow still feel right.
Why noir? Why now? I do think that the past few years have put many of us in a noir mood. For me, however, I’m talking about film noir because I have finally gotten a chance to take a class on the subject with Elliot Lavine.
Elliot hails from Detroit and used to live here in the Bay Area where, among other things, he was the programmer for the Roxie Theatre, one of San Francisco’s premiere arthouse cinemas. Among the most notable programs at the Roxie was the annual film noir festival he put together. Elliot had fallen in love with noir when he arrived in the City, amassed a huge sum of knowledge about it, and each year created these fabulous programs full of famous noir hits, forgotten treasures, and everything in between. He then began teaching a course on film noir at Stanford, and I vowed that one day I would show up at his classroom door.
But then Elliot moved away. He now resides in the Pacific Northwest and teaches courses in a variety of places. One of the few things for which I can be grateful to this pandemic is every university quarter of the past year at Stanford has featured a different class taught by him. I met Elliot last summer for a six-week-long excursion through 1950’s science fiction, where we waded through a lot of giant bugs, radioactive aliens, and pod people. Then, last winter, I took Mr. Lavine’s ten-week course on the Western, a genre I knew less about than almost any other. (A great advantage for this lover of genre literature is that Elliot embraces genre films as something worth studying as much as they are worth watching.)
And now, spring is here, the trees are in bud, and Elliot has returned to his first cinematic love with The Primacy of the Visual: Film Noir in the 1940’s. Every Wednesday evening, about fifty of us gather on Zoom to listen and converse over one film noir after another. Each week, we are assigned a primary film to watch, and we are given a bunch of secondary material – reviews, essays, and such – to accompany our viewing. In addition, Elliot will assign one or two bonus features to watch if we can – and who’s going to pass them up? – which adds to the discussion. I hope to give you a sense of the journey we’re taking on Zoom by putting out a post following each week’s class for the next ten weeks in order to let you know my thoughts on the films we watch. Some of them are obvious choices, the best of the best, while others are cult classics or forgotten “B” or even “C” pictures that have slipped past my notice all these years.
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Many students of noir consider the first cinematic example to be a “B” picture from 1940 called Stranger on the Third Floor. It’s the story of an ambitious young reporter named Tom Ward (John Mcguire) who thinks he had a lucky break when he walked into his favorite diner and saw the owner lying dead over the cash register with a shifty young man named Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) standing over him. Tom becomes the key witness at Joe’s trial, and even though he didn’t see the defendant strike or even brandish a weapon, his eyewitness testimony is enough to send Joe to the death chamber.
This doesn’t sit well with Tom’s delicately innocent girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) who only has to look at Joe’s tormented face in the dock to know that he’s innocent. The conviction causes the lovers to fight, and this isn’t helped by an uncomfortable date they have where Tom invites Jane to his room after dinner and they are interrupted by the landlady and a Tom’s nosy neighbor, Mr. Meng, who accuse the couple of inappropriate behavior. This angers Tom, who threatens to kill – yes, KILL – Mr. Meng maybe three or four times.
You may call this an over-reaction, but things get worse when Mr. Meng is indeed murdered in the same way the owner of the diner got it. The web of suspicion draws ever tighter around Tom, who feels guilty for having wanted to kill the guy. When he’s arrested, it’s up to Jane to save her man. Fortunately, Tom has gotten a glimpse of what he believes is the real culprit – the aforementioned stranger who supplies this film with its title – and he and Jane are starting to believe they’ve got a maniacal serial killer on their hands.
The fact that the stranger is played by Peter Lorre, who gets lead billing despite only appearing in the film for a few moments, lends credence to the idea of a serial murderer. Lorre had achieved fame in Germany nine years earlier in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where he played a tormented child killer. Lang would go on to make a number of films noirs, and the roots those films can be found in M. And the film is truly a must-watch for Lorre’s performance: he is truly amazing as a human monster who manages throughout to strike notes of sympathy in us even as we recoil from his actions.
Lorre’s presence might explain why many people have classified Stranger on the Third Floor as a horror movie, and while it has elements of a modern horror drama, in many ways it pre-figures the horrors of film noir to come. For a start, we’ve got a flawed but sympathetic hero. Tom may talk himself into the idea that he’s doing the right thing by testifying against Joe, but his motivations are primarily selfish – he hopes that the splash his testimony makes (and the subsequent story he writes) will propel him higher into the annals of journalism.
Tom is also a frustrated courter. Jane epitomizes the good girl all men should aspire to at the time: sweet, sensitive, romantic but virginal. The scene in Tom’s room where he attempts to convince Jane that a little kissing wouldn’t be a bad thing is creepy. I’m not convinced John McGuire was a great actor, but he certainly puts over his disappointment that he can’t get farther with Jane. And Margaret Tallichet, who would give up a promising acting career after she married the great film director William Wyler, expertly portrays a woman struggling to balance social propriety with pleasing her man.
This may go some way in explaining Tom’s over-the-top anger when Mr. Meng barges in, but there’s no denying that his hot head seems destined to land him in trouble – and Tom knows it. That sense of impending doom he feels before he even discovers Meng has been killed is a common feeling at the early stages of many films noir: either an optimistic guy starts to worry that nobody can have it so good for so long, or a pessimistic guy waits for the other shoe to drop.
The few early scenes featuring Peter Lorre epitomize that shadowy look that future noirs will embrace. His introduction on the stairs outside Tom’s room are perfect representations, from the shadowy bars of the staircase on the wall to the steep angles as Tom chases the Stranger down the stairs. We see a lot more of this in an extraordinary dream sequence Tom experiences before the true nightmare begins, where he imagines being arrested and tried for Mr. Meng’s death. We owe a lot of credit to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who would film some of Val Lewton’s best horror pictures of the 40’s and then go on to shoot Out of the Past, one of the best films noirs of all time, which I am happy to say is on our list for this class) for evoking such a nightmarish feeling in sequences like these, but I also loved how Tom’s nightmare picked up on some of the worst aspects of Joe’s trial that Tom himself had witnessed, suggesting that Tom’s sense of guilt over his help in sentencing Joe to death is working on him before he is even aware that his neighbor has been killed.
Everything works out well in the end for Tom and Jane and even Joe . . . almost hysterically so. The final image is of the three of them meeting up on a street corner and congratulating themselves on escaping the awful fate that awaits future noir characters. The ease with which it all works out for these three obviates a bit of the tension that the best of film noirdraws to the final credits. Still, there’s enough here to showcase the roots of this burgeoning style and to reinforce to the argument that it may very well be . . . the first film noir.
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As I mentioned, each week Elliot tosses in one or two “bonus” films for us to watch which may or may not have some connection to the primary film we’re watching. Often these are considered “lesser” films in the canon, but they possess interesting features that make them worthy of discussion. (Elliot broke this rule with next week’s bonus, as you will discover – a major studio film if ever there was one!)
For week one, we were given two films from later in the decade, so neither can qualify as part of the roots of noir. One of them, 1947’s The Pretender, is a minor effort in my opinion. It was assigned to us as an example of the work of cinematographer John Alton, who shot quite a number of “B” noirs and mysteries, including one of my favorite second-rate whodunnits, Murder in the Music Hall (1946), as well as the gorgeous ballet in An American in Paris.
The Pretender is the story of Kenneth Holden, a crooked investment banker who decides to marry his biggest client in order to use her money to cover the fact that he has embezzled a lot of it. Holden is played by Albert Dekker, who may be best known for Mr. Cyclops, a cool horror film about a mad scientist who sets out to shrink the world’s population in order to save the ecology of the planet. (Sounds like it’s time for a remake!) Dekker also had suffered of those unfortunately gruesome, sexually tinged murders that feed the evil minds of lovers of Hollywood Babylon.
The creepiest thing here is the relationship Holden fosters with Claire the heiress (Catherine Craig). Dekker is so much older than Craig that the whole idea of his proposal seems like hopeless chutzpah on his part. But marry him she does, for reasons that honestly make no sense at all – so maybe they deserve each other.
The rest of the movie plays like a not-so-great episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Claire had initially turned down Holden’s proposal because she was already engaged to a nice young doctor. But when the doctor answers an emergency call, thus showing Claire that he might be capable of as much passion for his job as for her, she breaks their engagement and throws herself at the attentive Holden. The problem is, her new fiancé, thwarted by her rejection, has contacted a gangster he knows and put a contract out on her first fiancé! And now that Holden himself is the affianced, he fears that the hired hitman, who has never seen the doctor, will kill him!
It all plays out like a bad shaggy dog story, but there are some interesting features, such as Dekker’s depiction of Holden’s growing paranoia as his fears of execution grow. He begins to suspect everyone of being the hitman, firing servants and eventually holing himself up in his bedroom, subsisting on crackers and canned food so that he cannot be poisoned. I get that this is noir, but not all films noirs are created equal!
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The third film, however, defines noir to a T, despite being made over six days with a budget of under $100,000. Detour(1945) may look cheap, but that only enhances its tawdry splendor. Its star, Tom Neal, was another Hollywood actor whose personal life was darker than the films he made: he was involved in a crazy love triangle with Franchot Tone and notorious actress Barbara Payton. Then he was blacklisted from Hollywood, moved to Palm Springs and became a gardener. There, in 1965, he was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife. He served a six-year prison sentence and then died in bed in 1972.
Neal plays Al Roberts, a New York musician and a total loser, despite having no little talent and a beautiful fiancée. A lot of his bad luck can be attributed to the negativity bordering on paranoia that dominates Al’s personality: early on, he receives a huge tip by a customer at the nightclub where he is playing, and all he can think of are the germs covering the cash.
When Sue, the singer at the club to whom Al is engaged, decides to move to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a film star, Al remains behind and frets until he can stand it no more. He decides to hitchhike across country and rejoin Sue.
I have a feeling that if Al had ever made it there, his love life would not have ended happily. But a lot of horrible things happen to Al on his trip along the American highway. Most of them involve a woman named Vera, played to perfection by the aptly named Ann Savage. If you Google images of Savage, you find glamor shots of a typical young Hollywood starlet. As Vera, the actor throws all her glamor out the window and creates one of the most vicious female sociopaths you’ve ever seen.
I actually don’t want to tell you much more about this film. It’s very short, and as I said it was made on the cheap. The story goes that the director, a king of the “B” picture named Edgar G. Ulmer, realized late in the game that he was filming the journey of the car from New York to California in the wrong direction. Rather than re-film, he evidently reversed the footage to point the car in the “right” direction. The upshot is that sometimes it looks like the characters are driving British cars, with the steering wheel on the right side of the dashboard.
Don’t let any of that stop you: if you’re pressed for time, Detour is the one film out of this trio that you must watch. The cinematography is by Benjamin H. Kline who made tons of old Westerns; the fact that much of this film takes place in the outdoor world of U.S. highways makes him the perfect choice. Detour is dark and delirious, with the heroism of its protagonist suspect from start to finish. It’s also available in a gorgeous 4K reprint from the Criterion Collection. Since this film, like so many old films, is now in the public domain, it’s easy to come across bad prints. You want to watch the restored version to see Detour at its best. I found it on the Internet Archive.
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Next week – a double bill of what some might call “film noir lite,” but they’re both really great, must-watch films. Until then, I want to share a short interview between Elliot Lavine, and the late great John Grant. Those of you who have hung out with me for a while will remember John as a frequent visitor to this space, always there with a cogent opinion. More important, John was one of the experts on film noir, a writer of books and the creator of the fantastic Noirish blog, where his film reviews enlightened and entertained a lot of fans. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of John’s media knowledge. One of his last posts was an interview he did with Elliot about a short noir film Elliot made in 1981 called Blind Alley, which you can find on YouTube.
Blind Alley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2N_ehB6v6U&t=13s