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Noir At the Film Forum

Courtesy of Film Forum/Photofest

As if the best days of New York film repertory theatre never went away, the Film Forum will present a celebration of B-Noir, films even more nasty, brutish and short than the slightly higher end classic titles of Noir. The Film Forum will show seventy films over six weeks; forty are available neither on DVD nor VHS. Among the seventy are numerous new 35MM prints. It’s a May to spend indoors, clearly.

Noir is about style, about using lighting, framing and mise-en-scene to reveal character in ways plot and action cannot. The low budgets meant fast shoots, reductive story lines, realist locations and actors moving either up or down the studio ladder or stuck at the lower end. Directors showcased include Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Lewis, Robert Siodmak, Budd Boetticher, Jules Dassin, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, Phil Karlson, Don Seigel and Joseph Losey. Regardless of your interest in crime movies—though it would help if you had some—here is a seventy-film seminar on the height of American expressionism, the most evolved era of black and white cinematography of the previous century. The print quality is astounding, and to see the crisp, sharp detail—which no DVD on no plasma screen can get near—is to lose oneself in the experience of noir: To watch fate be unkind to everyone in a universe lit for maximum drama. As somebody said sometime: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Do not miss:

Kansas City Confidential (6/9-10)

This is what got the French so excited: unrepressed American brutality merged with poetic, low-budget visuals and a passionate, if slightly dumb-ass, presentation of the existential dilemma. If the budget permitted camera movement, it could be a Samuel Fuller; with its overheated exchanges, claustrophobic close-ups and clearly sexual violence, it could be directed by Scorsese. Kansas City is a connoisseur’s delight: cheap, cheesy, sweaty and graphic with all the key plot points in the hands of fate. Plus character stalwarts Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef, and the seemingly impenetrably stupid and one-note, yet somehow alluring, Colleen Gray. Not one dialogue sequence is even vaguely realistic, but Kansas City remains a jewel in the rough, a condensed roller-coaster of vengeance, betrayal, guilt & innocence, and luck, good or bad.

Raw Deal (5/29)

For images of salvation achieved, salvation denied, love’s betrayal, man’s savagery, the perversity of the romantic urge, the loneliness of existence and the surreal sexual intimacy of two men fighting to the death with their bare hands, director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton beat ‘em all, hands down. The only noir to be narrated in voice-over by a woman, Raw Deal tracks a romantic triangle—Dennis O’Keefe (who really loves no one as he love his own self) as an escaped con and the two women who will, inexplicably, do anything for him. One gets a very raw deal indeed. Since this is a Mann picture, it’s a waste of energy to be bothered by inane dialogue or preposterous plot turns. No one, save John Ireland as the hood Fantail, can ‘act.’ Nor does anyone bother trying. If one of the players speaks a line and moves their body at the same time, it’s a shock. The point of Raw Deal is its bleak view of sexual/romantic love and the rich work of John Alton. Deal looks a bit like Citizen Kane, with its deep focus frames, pools of impenetrable black and white, one face looming in the foreground and another barely visible in background shadow, crystal-clear chiaroscuro close-ups shot through blowing fog…there’s no telling how Alton did it. And there’s no describing how Anthony Mann makes his low-end actors so moving, or his slow-moving tales so gripping. And this is his finest Noir.

On Dangerous Ground (5/12-13)

A surprisingly compelling romantic thriller with not a moment of sentimentality; the only Nicholas Ray picture with an unambiguously happy ending. Ever-reliable, ever-unreadable Robert Ryan plays a sadistic cop undone by the mean streets of the city. As he beats down a captured juvenile delinquent, his face contorted by frustration and rage, Ryan cries out: “Why do you punks make me do this?” The man needs redemption—something seldom come by in the Nicholas Ray universe—and it appears in the most redeeming form in Film Noir, Ido Lupino. Her tender womanly toughness represented pretty much the only trustworthy woman in Noir whom a hero might still –avidly—want to sleep with. And, once a lover, Lupino neither betrays nor becomes a doormat. No actress like her, no roles like hers, either. In a universe of gelded good girls and castrating sluts, Lupino plays that most rare thing in noir, a whole woman, one capable of a range of emotions and responses, and none of them inherently destructive. Ryan finds her in the midst of a chase scene that takes up half the picture, and demonstrates that Ray had chops for the simplest action as well as the most complex emotions. Never has landscape played such a role in revealing character; Ryan slowly evolves as he moves from the entrapping city to the wide-open (but still deadly) mountain panorama. In the end, it’s about the flawed ideal of truly adult love.

Kiss Me Deadly/The Killing (5/5-6)

(See David Wilentz review below)

Gun Crazy/The Big Combo (5/19-20)

Gun Crazy is ultimate tale of love on the run, shot with shoe-string vitality and a low-budget wit manifest in pure cinematic terms. The jokes are always in the frame structure, never overtly in the story. A hundred other violent-lovers-against-the-world sprang from this unhinged adrenaline almost-camp masterpiece—Bonnie & Clyde, Natural Born Killers, even Badlands among them. But none came close to capturing the murderous innocence or all-consuming passion of this pair of crazy, mixed-up kids. One shoots, the other doesn’t. The guy’s a marksmen who can’t bear violence. The girl’s a close-range killer who can’t stand a moment’s peace. Their sexual magnetism is palpable, so is the sledge-hammer gender-bending. It’s not that she wears the pants but that she pulls the trigger. Who, then, is the more potent? Some paint her as a vicious seducer, but he’s a big boy. Once she shows him the highway to hell, it’s his foot that holds the petal to the metal. In other words: their lust made them equally culpable—a very ‘50’s theme. No other film so convincingly unites youthful restlessness, sex, violence and automobiles. Director Joseph H Lewis and recently blackballed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo make clear how alluring it is to be young, doomed and living outside the law.

Big Combo reunites Lee Van Cleef and John Alton, and is worth the price of admission alone for that. But Jean Wallace plays a very contemporary lost waif, one drawn to the mobster Richard Conte as the big dumb cop (Cornel Wilde) tries to win her love. Alton’s work is breathtaking. There’s hardly one daylight exterior in the picture, and he does things with fog that do not seem possible in the analog universe. The main pleasures here are set-pieces: Conte yanks out a squealer’s hearing-aide so the rat can’t hear the tommy-guns cutting him in half. That’s Combo in a nutshell: overdone melodrama merged with extraordinary visual storytelling.

Nightfall (6/6)

A simpler visual approach frames perennial WW II army-movie Sergeant Aldo Ray in civvies. Once you recover from that shock, here’s cuddly TV guy Brian Keith as a contemplative murderer (lotta latent S&M in the B-noir world) and a noir shot outdoors in Jackson Hole in the winter. Anne Bancroft shows up as the love interest and the story clatters along. Keith’s sidekick Rudy Bond, who ended his forty year career playing police commissioners on television, here provides a more urban-ethnic Timothy Carey. He’s a psycho’s psycho, with a sadistic giggle and Wilde-ian retorts to anyone who doesn’t want him to kill. That he looks like your kindly old uncle only makes the whole thing more perverse, if that’s possible. Half-hack half-genius Jacques Tourneur also directed Out of the Past, Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. He combines functional camera placement with a gift for pulling empathetic characters out of the corniest dialogue.

The Naked Kiss/Underworld, USA (6/7-8)

Samuel Fuller’s desperate to annoy everybody and he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. His famous contempt for the bourgeois is on display, as his inability to construct a narrative sequence. Time slows to a crawl and the acting is worse than any school play. But the unhinged concepts, the willingness to present the 9 to 5 world as one huge narcissistic cesspool, and the imagination he brings to the task… His shaven-headed prostitute heroine is reviled in her small town for marrying the town rich guy, until she kills him for being a child molester. Then the town wants to throw her a parade. As prescient as Fuller was about how our current society can hold three conflicting attitudes at once about sex, glamour and moral worth, the film remains admirable for its ideas—too bad it’s not more fun to sit through. Fuller presents America as rotten to the core, obsessed with concealing its dirty lusts and determined to pit women against one another so they can remain subject to the financial power plays and sexual whims of men. Any woman who expresses her full nature, Fuller makes clear, will be annihilated by the power structure or reduced to prostitution. It’s still boring—but you have to see it: it’s Fuller to the utmost. And Underworld U.S. A moves much more quickly and is almost as perverted.

— David N Meyer

Trapped & Between Midnight & Dawn (5/25)

Lloyd Bridges deserves a Clu Gallagher award for his underrated performance as a mean and greedy lowlife in Richard Fleischer’s Trapped. The film begins with a ho-hum newsreel on the U.S. treasury explaining money printing and the scourge of counterfeiting. This sets a documentary-like tone for a gritty game of cat and mouse between the feds and convicted counterfeiter Stewart (Bridges). The feds spring Stewart out of jail on the condition that he’ll lead them to his funny money cohorts. Stewart’s no stool pigeon and quickly loses the feds, reuniting with his girl Meg, played by spunky sexpot Barbara Payton.

Trapped takes place in an L.A. of desolate streets, skid row hotels, criminal lairs and the gaudy nightclub where Meg works as a cigarette girl. Trapped is fairly pedestrian but features plenty of tight, shadow laden set-ups, claustrophobic framing and punchy dialogue. The bare-knuckle violence peppered throughout is most unnerving when Stewart strangles information out of his drunk of an ex-partner.

The most interesting thematic aspect of Trapped is Stewart and Meg’s commitment to a life of crime. Their code is: never rat out and never give in to the cops. The tight screenplay is by Earl Felton, who wrote The Narrow Margin, also part of this series.

On the bill with Trapped is a new 35 mm print of Between Midnight and Dawn, a police procedural pre-cursor to cop shows like Dragnet, Adam 12 and the like. We follow two ‘prowl car’ cops, war buddies Rocky (Mark Stevens) and Dan (noir stalwart Edmund O’Brien) on their daily patrol.

It starts off drearily episodic, the narrative only kept alive with sudden bursts of violence, like the juvenile delinquent who crashes through a glass door. This proves to be the rhythmic paradigm throughout. For its first half Between continues to give us a look at mundane police work with a canned wit supplied mostly by Stevens. Soon it degenerates into full-on sappiness with the entrance of love interest Gale Storm.

The story ignites when our two beat cops get involved in a gang shootout and the car chase that follows. Director Gordon Douglas shines in this taut sequence of deft montage. Here the film finally turns noir. While our protagonists are cut from your typical 50’s mold of upstanding would-be fascist cops, it’s the hateful gangster villain and realistic narrative approach that lend a dark spirit. The tale culminates with a malicious zeal that includes cruelty to women and children alike. The gangster’s moll gets slapped around twice, the first time by cop O’Brien; wait until you see what happens to the little girl. Between manages to retain a stark tone in spite of its sentimental tendencies and while dated, it was once innovative for its pseudo neo-realism. Now the closest Hollywood gets to gritty cop films are fables of corruption like the Denzel vehicle Training Day. A few years ago however, the practically unseen indie Evenhand offered a tale of two local cops and their tedious everyday trials and tribulations that, like Between, entered dark and somber territory with tragic consequences.

He Walked by Night (5/30)

Shot in a semi-documentary style, He Walked by Night is the quintessential police procedural. It’s based on the real life story of serial killer Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker. Walker, a disturbed young veteran, staged several armed robberies and eluded the cops by escaping through L.A.’s labyrinthine sewer system. With an assured mega-creepy presence, Richard Basehart needs little dialogue to deliver an unsettling characterization of an alienated sociopath turned cold-blooded killer.

Though direction is credited to Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann most likely guided the shoot. Walked’s hardboiled style evokes other Mann noirs such as Raw Deal and T-Men. This similarity is partially due to these pictures all sharing genius cinematographer John Alton.

The use of darkness and negative space to create visual metaphor for the narrative action is definitive noir. And here we are privileged to see it in a new 35 mm print. Look for the scene where a glimmer of light in the background illuminates the figure of a cop searching for the suspect only to be replaced by a small burst of light in the foreground revealing our villain smirking at his own sly getaway. [And for a similarly dazzling set-up go see Mann’s T-Men (5/29).] Another inspired moment frames Basehart in light reflected through Venetian blinds creating shadows across his body that imply prison stripes. The final scene is legendary for the chiaroscuro Alton achieved in the sewer. This scene comes to a gloomy head with eerie dreamlike shots of tear gas smoke illuminating the dark sewer tunnels and cops in gas masks. Third Man cinematographer Robert Krasker certainly studied this sequence in the sewer tunnels. Jack Webb, who plays the forensic scientist Lee, got the inspiration for his Dragnet radio and television series from talking to the technical consultant LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn.

Shield for Murder (6/1)

Shield for Murder predates Touch of Evil with its gloomy tale of police corruption. Edmund O’Brien stars as a brooding police detective consumed by greed. In a chilling set piece O’Brien corners a drug runner, shoots him dead, takes twenty five grand off the corpse and then yells ‘Stop or I’ll shoot’. He plans to buy a tract home for he and his girl: the classic American dream.

O’Brien, slightly overweight and out of shape, plays his good cop gone bad with a desperate, edgy fervor. He’s quick to lose his temper and doesn’t hesitate to threaten or pistol-whip anyone that gets in his way, allowing for some startling moments of violence. This is a dark tour-de-force for O’Brien, who also co-directed with Howard Koch. John Agar, on the other hand, is typically wooden as O’Brien’s suspicious protégée, while female lead Marla English is pouty and disposable. Of course, O’Brien ends up slapping her around. Carolyn Jones stands out with a brief but welcome appearance as a peroxide floozy.

This is the sort of true crime tale that marked a shift away from the more expressionistically existential noirs of the ‘40s. Content moved towards a ‘50s post-industrial cynicism. A nice touch has O’Brien donning his old uniform as a disguise after his villainy has been exposed, only to engage in a shootout with other cops, raising some way-noir issues about a cherished ‘50’s institution.

Murder by Contract (6/13)

Towards the end of the fest is a hitman double feature. Fresh from Film Forum’s recent Don Siegel retrospective is The Lineup. Try not to miss this koan of heroin and murder showcasing the streets of San Francisco as well as a mean-spirited Eli Wallach.

Appropriately placed on the bottom half of a double bill, the super low budget Murder by Contract proves a real oddity. TV’s first heartthrob MD, Ben Casey himself, Vince Edwards, plays a self-made contract killer. There’s little action and most of the violence is off-screen. Instead, the majority of the picture features Edwards biding time with a couple of salty organization men before knocking off a witness for the prosecution.

Director Irving Lerner would go on to direct Ben Casey along with Edwards. Here, for what it’s worth, the stilted, mostly static direction is in harmony with the slightly bizarre tone of the script. Add to this the repetitive soundtrack that sounds like a grade Z take-off of Nino Rota.

Edward’s cool as ice killer spouts a lot of twisted pseudo-philosophy at just about anyone who crosses his path, from a bumbling room service waiter to a vacant call girl. Most of the dialogue comes off as unintentionally witty, though it’s off kilter enough that sometimes you’re not quite sure. Edward’s misogynist bent proves to be most amusing when he notes, “The human female is descended from the monkey and the monkey is about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on they just can’t stand not to know about it—same thing with a woman.” On its own, Murder barely succeeds as campy, so-bad-it’s-good fun. It does offer an interesting model for a new kind of crime movie. Steal from it before Tarantino does.

Born to Kill (May 11th) showcases Lawrence Tierney (the elder ringleader in Reservoir Dogs) as Sam Wilde, a psychotic beast of a man who thinks the world is his for the taking. Soon after killing two people with his bare hands, Sam’s unusually supportive roommate tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It’s just not feasible” to which Sam barks back “Why isn’t it?”

Nowhere is this spirit of sensual amorality more assured than in the apocalyptic apex of noir, Robert Aldrich’s take on Mickey Spillaine’s Kiss Me Deadly (May 5th and 6th). Aldrich strips the two-fisted Mike Hammer of any moral code, transforming him into a vehicle of violence caught in a whirlwind of perversion. Hammer’s decadent yet ordered lifestyle, signified by state-of-the-art accouterments like a sexy sports car and a fancy new answering machine, slips into chaos after he literally runs into a femme fatale fleeing from the loony bin. She sets him off on a path of pain and sadism that leads to a modern Pandora’s Box of blazing hot doom.

Kiss Me Deadly has an explosive energy, set off-kilter by bold, creepy shadows and odd angles (thanks to cinematographer Ernest Laszlo). These meld with hysterical performances affecting a surrealistic tone that render harrowing scenes of torture and brutality all the more excruciating. Kiss Me Deadly opens the series, leaving in its destructive wake the fallout of nihilistic sentiment that prevails.

— David Wilentz


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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