To sing the song of noir — it’s not as easy as it once was, when critics like Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader were busy cataloging and specimen-boxing the genre as if it were a breed of black butterfly that had long lived on our streets and escaped our notice. In terms of utilizing the genre ourselves, nowadays we’re somewhere near post-retro-neo-meta-noir; the original tropes are no longer recyclable even as TV commercials, and the Jim Thompson–rediscovery school has long been garnering yawns on the straight-to-video indie shelf. Sin City sequels — please.
Aptly, reverent video releases of noirs keep coming, and today we’re talking about Robert Montgomery’s magnificent cataract of dyspepsia Ride the Pink Horse (1947), out on Blu-ray from Criterion with all the typical whistles and supplementary fanfare the average Netflixer might be surprised to find attached to a 68-year-old crime drama starring an all but forgotten star.
Montgomery had been acting since before the stock market crash, and would only continue for a few more years, and this is his second shot at directing. The first, 1944’s The Lady in the Lake, famously attempted Chandler using the camera as snoop Philip Marlowe’s p.o.v. (You only saw him in mirrors.) Presaging both the Islamic diktats of Mohammad: Messenger of God (1977) and a hundred handheld mock-doc horror films since, Montgomery’s experiment led clearly to Ride the Pink Horse, which while thankfully orthodox about point of view is a feast of complex traveling shots.
The first is a hypnotic doozy, roving around almost wordlessly as Montgomery’s testy, wary ex-G.I. in a suit gets off a bus in a small Mexican town, makes his way into the depot, hides something in a locker, buys gum, and then secretly wads the locker key with the gum behind a giant wall map. This hostile, inarticulate American, as eloquent a personification of WWII PTSD and moral desperation as any noir hero, is naturally in town to collect a debt from a malevolent gangster/war profiteer (Fred Clark), and it’s a slow burn, roping in Thomas Gomez’s avuncular carousel manager (in one timeless shot, a brutal beating is sporadically seen while the camera takes a revolving ride) and Wanda Hendrix’s puppy-like teen Mexicana as allies in the wasteland. Up against him are an irritable army of henchmen with knives, and a smooth-talking ice queen of a femme fatale (Andrea King).
Noirs can be measured by how little weakness they exhibit when dealing out their bad-luck hands, and Montgomery’s movie (written by acid-tongue twins Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) is a cynical, strong-spined sonofabitch, with one of the genre’s lowest sentiment dosages. The Criterion disc comes with the usual phalanx of audio commentaries, new interviews, radio-broadcast variations, and an indispensable essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.
Rampant misfortune practically monsoons in another overlooked film out on video, from First Run Features: Brillante Mendoza’s Captive (2012), a topical suspenser that, remarkably, pits Islamic terrorists against Isabelle Huppert. Released nearly everywhere but in the U.S., the Filipino movie dives into the weeds of the Dos Palmas kidnapping crisis of May 2001, in which armed members of Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf abducted twenty hostages from a tourist area (including Americans, Europeans, and Chinese) and dragged them into the jungle for over a year. As the Filipino army searches and assaults, the prisoners end up being either parceled out to the jihadis as wives or coming down with a grand case of Stockholm syndrome. Huppert, as a French social worker, is to our eyes the hot core of indignation and horror, but in truth Mendoza spreads the angst out across a varied cast, and makes us feel the time spent trudging aimlessly and waiting for international rescue that doesn’t come. There are actionful peaks — a battle against the army in and around a country hospital is hair-raising — but the film’s strategy doesn’t condense or dramatize for convenience’s sake; the ordeal is open-ended, maddening, sometimes dull, always open to ambivalence and disappointment. At the same time, Mendoza’s in-your-grille filmmaking keeps us lost in the jungle, and we can feel the fire ants and smell the rot.
An even blacker dream from the past, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969) — found in the unpublicized corners of the Criterion detour on Hulu Plus — constitutes what might be the Czech New Wave’s most nihilistic vision. Chubby, comb-over monster Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) is a crematorium pro on the eve of the Nazi rise, talking right to the camera about the glory and honor of his work, giving us tours of his facility and their guests, and selling the advantages of believing in reincarnation. (The possibility of premature cremations — a prepped woman “is very likely really dead” — keeps arising, ironically, given the history to come.)
A tireless rationalizer, old-school family man, and ready-made Fascist, our hero eventually crosses the National Socialist party’s path, and in classic proto-Conformist style begins to talk himself into genocidal practice, turning on his own half-Jewish nuclear unit. Kopfrkingl’s obsequious surface never changes, but both he and the society he lives in slowly turn into homicidal psychos — the new normal. Rarely seen here and still unavailable on video, it’s a darkling essay on Mitteleuropan conscience that makes most other Czechs of the day look like garden parties.
Hunting for alternatives, don’t forget to look off the grid: The bootleg outfit j4hi.com sports a catalog of pristine DVRs that runs from Olsen and Johnson’s manic meta-spoof Hellzapoppin’ (1941) to Dennis Hopper’s doper requiem The Last Movie (1971) to Alex de la Iglesia’s Acción Mutante (1993), with a ton of psychotronic exploitation in between, all of it unavailable in legit releases, and had here for a Jackson each. I saw their edition of Buñuel’s deranging, farcical masterpiece The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), having only accessed it decades ago on a beat-up television print at the Bleecker Street Cinema, and it was a brand-new experience, digitally clean and picture-perfect. We shouldn’t, after all, let the whimsical, likely larcenous judgments of rights owners and market-timid distributors keep us from the cinephilic grist we want and need.