Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Paul Schrader - Notes on Film Noir Part 3

This essay was originally written to accompany and support a short season, The Film Noir, at the First Los Angeles International Film Exposition and it was reprinted in Film Comment, Spring 1972). In the final part, Schrader discusses seven films shown at the Exposition.

The selection of the following seven films by the Los Angeles International Film Exposition reflects a desire to select not only the best noir films, but also some of the less well known.
Kiss Me Deadly. Made in 1955, Kiss Me Deadly comes at the end of the period and is the masterpiece of film noir. Its time delay gives it a sense of detachment and thoroughgoing seediness—it stands at the end of a long sleazy tradition.

The private eye hero, Mike Hammer, undergoes the final stages of degradation. He is a small-time “bedroom dick,” and makes no qualms about it because the world around him isn’t much better. Ralph Meeker, in his best performance, plays Hammer, a midget among dwarfs.

Robert Aldrich’s teasing direction carries noir to its sleaziest, and most perversely erotic. In search of an “eternal what’s-it” Hammer overturns the underworld, causing the death of his friend in the process, and when he finally finds it, it turns out to be—joke of jokes—an exploding atomic bomb. The cruelty to the individual is only a trivial matter in a world in which the Bomb has the final say. Hammer can be seen struggling to safety as the bomb ejaculates, but for all practical purposes the forties private eye tradition is defunct. Written by A. I. Bexerides. Photographed by Eenest Laszlo. Produced by Victor Saville. With Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Nick Dennis, Gaby Rodgers, Juano Hermandez, Paul Stewart, Albert Dekker, Cloris Leachman, Jack Elam.
Gun Crazy. An early Bonnie and Clyde variant, Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy incorporates both the black widow and on-the-run themes. John Dall and Peggy Cummins play a winsome couple spinning at a dizzyling rate into the exhilarating world of action, sex, love and mudder. Dall is confused, innocent and passive, Cummins is confused, vindictive and active; together they make an irresistably psychopathic pair. And their deadliness is sanctified by the fact that they know they are special people and will be given the right by the American ethic to act out their symbolic fantasies.

Gun Crazy’s lighting is not as noir as other films of the period, but its portrayal of criminal and sexual psychopathy very much is. There are no excuses for the gun craziness—it is just crazy.

Gun Crazy has three tour de force scenes: the brilliantly executed Armour robbery, the famous one-take Hampton heist, and the meeting at the carnival which is a ballet of sex and innuendo more subtle and teasing than the more famous sparing matches of Bogart and Bacall or Ladd and Lake. 1949. Written by MacKinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman. Produced by the King Brothers. Photographed by Russell Harlan. With John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Barry Kroeger, Annabel Shaw, Harry Lewis, Nederick Young.
They Live By Night. Made in the same year as Gun Crazy, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night is another Bonnie and Clyde/on-the-run film. Ray’s heroes, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, as the title implies, really do live by night, and the choreography is strictly noir.

Unlike Gun Crazy, Granger and O’Donnell are not psychopathic; rather, the society is, as it makes them into bigger and bigger criminals and finally connives to gun down the unsuspecting Granger. There’s an excellent bit by Ian Wolfe as a crooked Justice of the Peace, and Marie Bryant sings “Your Red Wagon” in the best noir tradition. Written by Charles Schnee.

Photographed by George E. Diskant. Produced by John Houseman. With Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Ian Wolfe, Harry Harvey.
White Heat. There was no director better suited to portray instability than Raoul Walsh, and no actor more potentially unstable than James Cagney. And when they joined forces in 1949 for White Heat, they produced one of the most exciting psychosexual crime films ever. Cagney plays an aging oedipal gangster who sits on his mother’s lap between bouts of pistol whipping cohorts, planning robberies and gunning down police.

In an exuberantly psychotic ending Cagney stands atop an exploding oil tanker yelling, “I made it Ma! Top of the World!” We’ve come a long way from Scarface where Paul Muni lies in the gutter as a neon sign ironically flashes, “Cook’s Tours. See the World.” Cagney, now the noir hero, is not so much interested in financial gain and power as he is in suicidal showmanship. Cagney tapped the same vein the following year when he produced and starred in Gordon Douglas’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, one of the best of late noir films. What Douglas lacked as a director, Cagney made up in just plain craziness. White Heat. 1949. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Produced by Louis Edelman. With James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmund O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer.
Out of the Past. Jacques Tourner’s Out of the Past brilliantly utilizes the noir element of narration as well as the themes of black widow and on-the-run. A gangster (the young Kirk Douglas in one of his best roles) sends his best friend Robert Mitchum to retrieve his girlfriend, Jane Greer, who has run off with his money. Mitchum, of course, teams up with Greer and they hide from Douglas.

Mitchum narrates his story with such a pathetic relish that he obviously draws comfort from being love’s perennial fool. Tourner combines Mitchum’s narration, Jane Greer’s elusive beauty and a complex chronology in such a way that there is no hope for any future; one can only take pleasure from reliving a doomed past. 1947. Written by Geoffrey Homes. Produced by Warren Duff. With Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie.
Pickup on South Street. Sam Fuller’s 1953 film sacks in with an odd noir bedfellow—the red scare. The gangsters undergo a slight accent shift and become communist agents; no idealogical conversion necessary.

Richard Widmark, a characteristic noir actor who has never done as well outside the period as within it, plays a two-time loser who picks the purse of a “commie” messenger and ends up with a piece of microfilm. When the state department finally hunts him and begins the lecture, Widmark replies, “Don’t wave your flag at me.”

The scenes on the waterfront are in the best noir tradition, but a dynamic fight in the subway marks Fuller as a director who would be better suited to the action crime school of the middle fifties. Written by Samuel Fuller. Photographed by Joe MacDonald. Produced by Jules Schermer. With Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley.
T-Men. Anthony Mann’s 1947 film was photographed by John Alton, the most characteristically noir artist of the period. Alton also photographed Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo eight years later and the cinematography is so nearly identical that one has momentary doubts about the directorial difference between Mann and Lewis. In each film light only enters the scene in odd slants, jagged slices and vertical or horizontal strips.

T-Men is a bastard child of the post-war realistic school and purports to be the documented story of two treasury agents who break a ring of counterfeiters. Complications set in when the good guys don’t act any differently from the bad ones. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway, since they all die in the late night shoot-outs. 1948. Written by John Higgins. Photographed by John Alton. Produced by Edward Small and Aubrey Schneck. With Dennis O’Keefe, Alfred Ryder, Mary Meade, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Art Smith.

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