Critic Raymond Durgnat once catalogued over 300 films from the ’40s and ’50s as proper noir, and so if you think you’re noir literate after a few Joseph H. Lewises and Phil Karlsons, think again. Kino continues its vault fumigation with its recent releases, the best of which is Jules Dassin and Mark Hellinger’s renowned hit Brute Force (1947), a stark, viciously pessimistic prison-break noir with a palpable sense of outrage about it, and a great invention at its center: Hume Cronyn’s skinny, soft-spoken administrative demagogue, as adept at sounding heartfelt as he is at torture. As allegorical as noir should be, with the most dismal metaphor for civilization anyone would see until Kanal, Brute Force is what the French meant when they said “dark.”
Also included is Dassin and Hellinger’s The Naked City (1948), a casual, elbow-in-the-ribs policier that is noir only insofar as it trucks in urban crime and the men wear hats. Actually a semieducational and fond cop procedural, it feels today as cozy as old slippers. With unflappable detective Barry Fitzgerald and producer-narrator Hellinger as the film’s reassuring twin godheads, there’s little to dread (not even, as Hellinger says it, “moida”). Still, it was one of the first contemporary thrillers shot on location, in New York, and certainly the first to go forensic enough to show the bruises on a corpse’s skin. And there is that one caustic sequence in which Dassin’s distant camera watches a murdered whore’s bitter mother (“I hate her, I hate her . . . “) ID the body, and collapse into sobs.
The least-seen of the bunch, Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953), is never remembered as either a noir must-see or a prime example of wicked Langian rigor, and with good
enough reason. Despite a few moody passages and a convincing and loathsome turn by Raymond Burr as a leering bully on the perpetual prowl for trim, this impulse-crime odyssey (jilted dame Anne Baxter gets drunk, hammers Burr with a poker, and then spends the rest of the movie going nuts waiting to be arrested) is one of Lang’s weakest and least despairing American films. Even the interrogation of celeb journalist Richard Conte’s coercive methods has a whitewashed ending. Roommate Ann Sothern steals the show, but then, that was her job.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999