UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 10 – Worshipping at the Alton of Noir

Ten weeks ago, I decided to share with you my journey through a world of 40’s film noir that I watched as part of my course “Primacy of the Visual,” taught by Elliot Lavine through Stanford University. Twenty-four films later, I am so grateful to Elliot for allowing me to visit a few favorites, for introducing me to at least a dozen films I had never seen before, and for sharing his passion and knowledge of the genre with just under forty eager souls. Now it’s time to discuss the final three films – and then we’re done. Or rather, we should be done but for Elliot’s final gift to us. More about that at the end of this post. 

Many expert cinematographers shot film noir, but nobody did it as well as John Alton. Like so many of the behind-the-scenes figures we have discussed here, Alton emigrated from Eastern Europe. In fact, he was the first Hungarian-born person to win an Oscar (for An American in Paris). He was the king of “B” pictures, and he could turn a mediocre screenplay with a zero budget and, by applying his distinctive and original hand with the camera, turn it into must-see cinema. This was especially true when he applied his talent to noir as evidenced by the five films he turned out between 1947 and 1955: T-Men, He Walked by Night, The Amazing Mr. X, Raw Deal, and The Big Combo. All but the last were distributed by the Poverty Row company Eagle-Lion Films, and it’s extraordinary what Alton and the rest of the company (three of these films were directed by Anthony Mann) could accomplish with next to nothing. 

from T-Men (1947)

We were assigned a triple dose of Alton, Elliot’s favorite camera man and one of the only cinematographers who received a solo page in the opening credits in many of his films. Our main selection, Raw Deal (1948) is another tale of a small time hood who escapes from prison to seek justice from the gangster for whom he took the rap and who seems to have abandoned him. Pretty standard stuff, right down to the psychotic mob boss (played to the hilt by Raymond Burr), but made special by its central focus on a romantic triangle. Next we watched The Amazing Mr. X, which is a different animal altogether, a psychological thriller with cool special effects and some powerful performances (including from Cathy “They Live by Night” O’Donnell in a role that proves her tremendous range and how tragic it is that she made so few films). 

I know you’re thinking, “It’s T-Men. The third film has to be T-Men.” Here, though, Elliot pulled a fast one on us and assigned The Black Book, an historical picture set during the French Revolution which still manages to feel like a hard-boiled crime drama – if Robespierre was a mob boss and the streets of Paris were filmed like Noir Alley. 

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The ostensible protagonist of Raw Deal is Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), a small-time criminal who has made a deal with his accomplice Rick Coyle (Burr) to take the rap for a shared crime and then be paid $50,000 when he gets out. But life behind bars is driving Joe nuts, despite frequent visits from two women: his hard-boiled girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) and Ann Martin, his attorney’s secretary, a true good girl who believes with all her heart that Joe isn’t the thug everyone claims him to be. Joe conspires with Pat to escape jail, pick up the money Rick owes him, and flee to Mexico. Rick provides some assistance because he figures it’s almost certain that Joe will be killed trying to escape and then Rick can keep all the money. 

To everyone’s surprise, the jailbreak is successful, but Joe and Pat are quickly in need of help and – to Pat’s great annoyance – Joe turns to Ann and ends up taking her as a sort of hostage. Thus, Joe, Pat and their reluctant prisoner head up to meet Rick to get the $50,000, unaware that Rick is setting them Joe up for the big fall . . . 

Okay, now you know the first ten minutes of the movie. What immediately casts the whole thing in a different light is that the story is narrated, not by Joe, but by Pat, and as the film’s 79 minutes fly by, the tension is divided between whether or not Joe will realize in time that he is heading toward a deadly trap and which woman Joe will choose. You can tell which one he prefers: he is always pleasant with Pat and fights like cats and dogs with Ann, who is understandably miffed at being kidnapped. And you can read on Claire Trevor’s face that she would give anything to fight with her man like he is fighting with Ann. 

A fellow student expressed displeasure at the decision to make Pat the film’s narrator, but I couldn’t help appreciate how her journey – and the decision she must make to protect Joe, even if it means sending him straight into Ann’s arms – helped us see that all three of these characters are getting a (drumroll . . . . . ) raw deal!!! For Joe, it’s the fact that he made what I guess you would consider one of the most honorable bargains among thieves, that of taking the rap. It’s not like he isn’t really a bad guy here: he talks to Pat about buying a little plot of farmland in Mexico and starting over, but his journey here is paved with stolen cars and roughed-up innocents. And yet there’s something noble about Joe, and he performs certain acts along the way that have the potential of redeeming him in Ann’s eyes – like the sequence in a way stop when Joe tries to help a crazed murderer (Whit Bissell, as wonderful here as he was in Brute Force) or the fact that Joe is prepared to sacrifice any potential happiness with Ann in order to protect her from the ugly world he inhabits. 

Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, and Dennis O’Keefe in Raw Deal

Pat assists in all the larceny; she even comes close to doing much worse. But Trevor shows us each excruciating moment of her battle with herself over what to do about Ann and whether to fight for Joe or let him go. Ann suffers, too – first, from a complete disillusionment over her belief in Joe’s innate goodness (oh, but she gets that back), and then she suffers physical punishment for being a pawn between two criminal forces. In the end, both women are witnesses to Joe’s fate, and both emerge stronger and/or better for it. 

Ultimately, it’s pretty standard noir with an ending you can pretty much see coming early on. But oh, how Alton shoots it! There is a scene in a forest, where Joe and Pat have taken Ann to hide out for the night. Their makeshift campsite is spotted by a ranger in horseback on the path high above (Alton excelled at low angle compositions), and the way the whole scene is shot – the shafts of moonlight shining down through the trees, the silhouette of the forest cop as he spots the group, the shadows on the trio’s faces – it’s utterly gorgeous. 

Raymond Burr, just moments before that girl meets those flames!

And I have to give some credit to Raymond Burr, who had excelled in heavies throughout his career until Erle Stanley Gardner dubbed him a hero. His psychopathy is clearly established early on when he gently savors the cherries jubilee being prepared for his dinner and then throws the flaming dessert into his girlfriend’s face when she accidentally nudges him while dancing. But Rick is no soulless monster! He is a craven, frightened soulless monster, and watching him quake as Joe gets ever nearer ratchets up the suspense as we move toward the two men’s inevitable meeting. In the hands of Anthony Mann and the superb work of John Alton, the dance of death between our four main characters is riveting. 

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Some might view The Amazing Mr. X, also known as The Spiritualist, more as a horror thriller than noir, but it contains many of the elements we have seen in other noir films and it is beautifully shot like a film noir by Alton. Directed by Bernard Vorhaus, another German émigré whose Hollywood career was cut short by the Communist blacklist, the film was conceived by Eagle-Lion as a vehicle for Turhan Bey, who was under contract with the studio. Bey was born in Austria, but he also had Turkish heritage and was promptly cast in small, sinister roles for years. Here he plays the title role, a highly charming and completely phony spiritualist who decides to con a troubled widow by making her believe her dead husband is trying to contact her. 

The widow was supposed to be played by Carole Landis, so brilliant as Vicky Lynn in our second week film, I Wake Up Screaming. But Landis tragically committed suicide a few days before filming began, and the part was given to Lynn Bari. Bari came from 20th Century Fox, where she excelled in playing sultry villainesses in nearly 150 films over less than twenty years before her career slowed down and she was relegated to TV appearances. Here, she is fascinating as both a heroine and a victim. In fact, one of the best aspects of Mr. X. is how the arcs of each major character twist and turn in unexpected ways. Cathy O’Donnell plays Bari’s little sister as a flighty coquette who begins to reveal hidden depths as the plot unfolds. Contrast this to her role in They Live by Night, and you have to ask why O’Donnell wasn’t more frequently and better used as a film actress. I think the answer is that she was more of a chameleon than a glamor girl, an actress ahead of her time. Maybe she found something better than acting . . . I hope so. 

The film contains some excellent twists as well as some unexpectedly high scale special effects as Christine Faber (Bari) experiences several hauntings from her late husband. Most of the film takes place in a cliffside mansion in L.A. and on the beach below; much of it is filmed at night and Alton establishes the sense of a haunted landscape even before the ghostly voice of Christine’s husband calls to her from the waves. The film is in the public domain, which means there are more lousy prints of it online than good ones. I urge you to see this one, but I advise you to avoid the free link on Amazon Prime and go directly to YouTube or the Internet Archive for a more pristine copy. Oh, and look for a brief appearance by Norma Varden, one of my favorite character actresses with a zillion credits to her name, including the society matron who tangles almost fatally with Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train and the daffy but doomed Emily French in Witness for the Prosecution.

Publicity still: A. Ghost, Cathy O’Donnell, Turhan Bey and Lynn Bari

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Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) is the most claustrophobic drama about the French revolution I’ve ever seen. It stars Robert Cummings, one of my least favorite Hitchcock heroes. I think he does comedy much better than drama (watch him in one of my all-time favorite comedies, the brilliant 1941 Jean Arthur/Charles Coburn/Cummings match-up, The Devil and Miss Jones.) In Black Book, he is more believably down-to-earth than in Saboteur (he’s fine in Dial M for Murder but completely outshined by the rest of the cast) as a spy who switches identities with a notorious prosecutor under the employ of Robespierre in order to prevent that leader from making himself dictator of France. 

From beginning to end, the film is a series of double crosses and reversals. Every character, good and bad, is duplicitous, to the point that the best thing you can do is kick back and watch how it all turns out. As I mentioned earlier, it’s quite astounding that a film about a country-wide rebellion could be so tightly shot, focusing on the machinations of a few key people rather than on the effect their actions have on the peasant crowd that seems to lurk off screen. (A Tale of Two Cities, this ain’t!) Of course, a lot of this look might have been due to the miniscule budget (the sets cost around $40,000, and the producers employed Broadway actors who were used to low pay!), but if there is one thing we have learned is that the cheapness of much of noir was part of what elevated it into a genre we study today. The employment of brilliant expatriates like John Alton only served to seal the deal. 

Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl

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And that’s it. Ten weeks. Twenty-four films. A decades-long admiration for film noir elevated to a passion for these dirty little films, most of them no more than 80 minutes long, most of them cheaply made with “B” actors and headed by writers and directors who had been drubbed off the “A” list by dirty politicians. One thing I have really grown to appreciate through watching these films – and I felt the same way over last year’s classes with Elliot examining 50’s science fiction and the Western from 1939 to 1969: genre films have a way of shining a light on history in a way that can be both more honest and more subversive than a great big Hollywood picture can accomplish.

These are the films where artists experimented, where they crossed boundaries, and where a story of a man or woman gripped by dark, criminal forces could end up being a coded allegory for the existential troubles plaguing the American people at the time. I have been struck again and again by the parallels to our modern world that I’ve found in the work of Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, of Edward Dmytryk and Jacques Tourneur. Whether given the royal treatment (like Out of the Past) or made for around $750 (like Detour), these films created dark stories and images to mirror the darkest edges of history going on, a darkness that seems to repeat itself over and over. Ecclesiastes was right: there is nothing new under the sun. But if you film that sun through a filtered lens, change up the angles, and throw a Robert Mitchum or a Dan Duryea into a different striped suit and dangle Yvonne de Carlo or Joan Bennett, voluptuously dressed, before them, you can entertain us with variations on the same story over and over again. 

That’s the primacy of the visual, the delightful darkness of film noir

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But wait! There’s more!!!

As we all sadly bid our goodbyes to each other in our final Zoom together, Elliot gave us a parting gift: a list of seven more films noir that he wished he had the room to show us. My intention is to watch a film a day for the next week and then present you with a bonus post giving you my quick (I promise!) impressions of each. 

A bientot until then.

3 thoughts on “UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 10 – Worshipping at the Alton of Noir

  1. Superb triple bill! I’m a big fan of all three. I went to a John Alton season at the BFI about 20 years ago and AMAZING MR X was the big hit with me and my friends. I used to have it on Laser Disc! A couple of small things – Vorhaus was born in New York and graduated from Harvard but was based in the UK for most of the 30s, when he got his real start in movies. Sadly some of these are missing believe lost. As for Eagle-Lion, it was a set up by the mighty Rank company when they bought up PRC in an attempt to gain a foothold in the US and their budgets were in fact quite high, close to $1 million per film in some cases. They tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to sell their films on technical quality rather than just star power. Closer to RKO than Monogram! But not a Poverty Row studio, not really.

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  2. I just saw THE AMAZING MR X. I found it very good and enjoyable with excellent cinematography. Definitely worth seeing.
    I noticed a small flaw at time about 50 mins 54 secs when Martin says, ” When Martin disappeared, did you or did you not ask me to investigate ?” It should be “When Paul disappeared…”

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  3. Beautiful job as usual, Brad. Wonderful summation of the stirring effect Alton’s work has on an audience. We had an interesting split decision on THE BLACK BOOK, but I really feel it’s one of both Mann’s and Alton’s best films. And it’s a shame a bunch of folks got steered in the wrong direction on MR. X — the Youtube print (surprisingly) is the best free one out there. If anyone’s still looking for a really good copy for their library, Sony released a (MOD) dvd under the film’s original title, THE SPIRITUALIST and it’s routinely available online for about $20. And thanks to Cavershamragu, above, for mentioning the MR. X laserdisc — which I had the honor of producing for Laservision back in ’94 from a collector’s 35mm print.

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