Frank, Black: Film Noir’s Hard-Boiled Cool as All-American Art


Noir and away: Somewhere in the annals of America’s coolest and most beloved mega-genre arises this 1946 sweatbox, in which amnesiac WWII vet John Hodiak returns to Los Angeles and scours the soul-corrupt cityscape for clues to his identity—a hunt that inevitably leads to bodies, stolen money, and the nauseous possibility that he’s better off not knowing and leaving civilization for good. If Kafka had been born in mid Wilshire, he could’ve written it. Co-penned, in fact, by Lee Strasberg, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s nervous nightmare (made in his first year of directing) isn’t an all-hallowed member of the noir canon—it’s fairly slick, and Mankiewicz has little or no existentialist cred. But it sings the school’s black-hearted lament, and the frankness of its overwhelming anxiety—in the burgeoning postwar period, when cheeks were supposed to be pink and life was good again—can still be shocking. Hodiak, remembered today as the tough guy dubiously wooing the dyke out of Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, makes for a convincing crack-up; femme semi- fatale Nancy Guild, in her first role, wowed nobody in the ’40s, but today her slithery charm seems altogether hypnotic.

Somewhere is just one in Fox’s ongoing spume of essential noir, with more than a dozen titles out so far and each priced to kill at under 15 bucks. Journeyman Henry Hathaway has earned no hard-boiled props since the redoubtable Kiss of Death (1947) and The Dark Corner (1946), but what auteurism cannot do, a sociopolitical zeitgeist does up a treat. Still, the Fox library is also home to the early Otto Preminger, a major genre voice whose Teutonic cynicism and ashen anti-romanticism lit up not only Laura (1944) but also Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). You could look at the three films as orchid-like Gene Tierney’s dark passage from idealized movie idol to mentally unbalanced has-been, but the two newer titles are themselves vicious, self-hating explorations of sociopathy and victimization, never as “cool” and purposefully shadowy as the more popular noirs, and more telling for it. Let’s consider, finally, that American film history can and should have its own retrospectively designated “folk” domain, an organic region in which primitive impulses and semi-artless revelation gave voice to the culture’s bitterest woes. Is noir a genuine American folk art, the Hollywood version of Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie? Why not?

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