Film

Don’t Watch That, Watch This: Dark Summer Viewing for Noir Lovers

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Because it sprawls and lurks and stands as a mushrooming film-culture infestation rather than as a mere genre, film noir may never be fully indexed, no matter how definite you take its calendrical limits to be (for me, it’s 1944–64). Noiristes are never in possession of the whole thing — there are always more films, more dark corners and empty night alleys, to discover. Some critics have endeavored to number and catalog all films qualifying as noir, but I tend to think that’s an impossible project — not only are the parameters of the genre slippery and evanescent, but there always seem to be films rediscovered, coming to video or cable out of some cellar somewhere, that no one remembered or knew about. Noir’s mysteries only begin with the unknowability of its true scale as a phenomenon.

A classic example is Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears (1949), until now an all but forgotten B movie lost and neglected in the Sargasso Sea of public domain and just now restored and released in crystalline form. Even scholar Eddie Muller, honcho behind the Film Noir Foundation (which co-produced the disc), admits in a supplement interview to not having seen it before. It all begins when someone tosses a bag of stolen money into bickering couple Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy’s car on a dark road — a simple, irrational event that eventually reveals, like a flashlight on rats, what teems in the darkness. To keep possession of that cash, without blinking an eye, she methodically lies, fucks, and kills, and manipulates Dan Duryea’s supposedly tough-skinned lowlife into doing more of the same. Scott was a thinly talented leading lady (and pansexual scandal queen) heading into the Fifties — husky-hot in genre linchpins Dead Reckoning (1947), Pitfall (1948), and Dark City (1950) — but this is the best role she ever had, a femme fatale who hides everything, even from us, mesmerizingly weird and vibrant largely because of Scott’s unreadable softness. Haskin and writer Roy Huggins were unremarkable journeymen, so the film comes across as an organic noir happening, a fascinating coalescence of the zeitgeist.

Norman Foster’s remarkable Woman on the Run (1950), also just out from Flicker Alley, bears the unmistakable influence of Foster’s mentor Orson Welles — its abrupt, baroque, labyrinth-of-shadows palate is nearly as dense as Welles’s in The Lady From Shanghai. (A crazy climactic roller coaster chase helps.) Ann Sheridan, showing signs of her alcoholism but still leather-belt snappy, is the wife of a Frisco man who runs away after witnessing a murder; no one understands his motives, least of all her. Dennis O’Keefe shows up as a man lying about being the hubby’s long-lost Army buddy, and Robert Keith, with a weird and convincing turn as the requisite jaded investigator, gets all the best wingers, but Sheridan’s sour dame, glowering like she’s always just remembering the last time she got belted, is paradigmatic, right on the edge of giving up on the sick world of men altogether. Both Flicker Alley releases come with DVD and Blu-ray discs, batteries of supplemental docs and interviews, and fat booklets.

An earlier, and freakier, little-known genre slice comes from Kino Classics — Arthur Ripley’s The Chase (1946), a Cornell Woolrich–derived opus that slips the straitjacket of “reality” with all the late-night delirium of a head-traumatized war veteran. Robert Cummings is the schmuck, a broke ex-soldier wandering in Miami and falling in with Steve Cochran’s seminally affectless sadist-gangster, his extremely unlikely henchman (Peter Lorre), and his hot wife (Michele Morgan). Of course he ends up helping the abused wife escape to Havana, where she’s mysteriously stabbed to death, before he wakes up back in Miami, where…what? “It’s happened again,” he mutters amid the Buñuelian/Lynchian weirdness, eventually returning to the same Cuban nightclub, where another story seems to be taking place. With its dark palate and the ceaseless creep of unstable subjectivity, the movie exudes the feeling that anything at all could happen, and — especially for its era — it’s outright unnerving.

Kino’s also got a new Blu-ray box, generically titled “Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema,” and only one of the five films, Lewis Allen’s A Bullet for Joey (1955), isn’t remarkable. Howard W. Koch’s shockingly cold-blooded Big House, U.S.A. (1955) begins with a calculating sociopath (Ralph Meeker) kidnapping and accidentally killing a kid from a Colorado summer camp; once he’s caught and jailed, with the ransom money safely stashed in the mountains, his cell full of Bad Motherfuckers (Broderick Crawford, William Talman, Lon Chaney Jr., and Charles Bronson) begin engineering a breakout for him, whether he likes it or not. Cornel Wilde’s directorial debut, Storm Fear (1956), is a palm-sized, claustrophobic noir scripted by Horton Foote (his first, too) in which an uneasy and destitute family in the Adirondacks (anxious mom Jean Wallace, sick/depressed dad Duryea, and watchful twelve-year-old son David Stollery) is beset by a small band of fugitives (a gun-shot Wilde, Lee Grant’s bitter moll, Steven Hill’s homicidal triggerman). Only slowly do we realize that Wilde’s gangster is in fact Duryea’s bad-seed younger brother, and that the boy is actually his — and everyone knows it except the kid. His dawning awareness parallels our own discovery of the bitter, lingering, sexually impulsive romantic bond between Wilde and Wallace’s vulnerable housewife. As usual with Wilde, it all percolates in the key of Goddamn, with everyone ready to ignite at any second.

Roy Rowland and Chester Erskine’s Witness to Murder (1954), meanwhile, starts as a Rear Window variant — from her apartment, Barbara Stanwyck sees George Sanders strangle a woman in his — but then dives in Snake Pit–ish paranoia, as smoothy Sanders frames Stanwyck as a institutionalizable mental patient and reveals himself to be a “reformed” Nazi secretly scheming to take over the world. (Playing what might be one of noir’s most outrageous villains, Sanders is still dryly being Sanders.) But the tour de force of the set, long overdue to topnotch home video, is John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951), a sweaty proletariat passion play with its politics on the surface — Berry, star John Garfield, and fronted writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler were all fellow-traveler HUAC casualties. The film seethes with second-class-citizen fury: In one minute flat we understand Garfield’s nowhere guy (living with boozy-tramp mom Gladys George, who later tells the police after Garfield shoots a cop, “Get him? Kill him!”). He corners himself after a bad heist in the family flat of a young Shelley Winters and dad Wallace Ford. Berry owned a wrecked career, but this honey reveals an ambitious, truth-telling sensibility of which Hollywood was then and is now in dire need. (After it was released, Berry left America for a thirteen-year exile and Garfield died of a heart attack.) The film is as rich in visual expression, thematic frisson, and acting beauty as any film of the decade (Winters hits notes of guileless, sympathetic reality here I don’t remember seeing in other noirs), and there’s no canned happy ending to spoil the purity of its gloom.

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