The recent DVD premiere of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece The Woman in the Window overshadows the arrival of the other noir uglies reaching video this month for the first time, but this cunningly compiled cross-section survey of what was good, bad, and preposterously ugly about the most hardnosed of film genres merits serious consideration. Since noir, as an American film movement, largely arose from the embers of the Great War, it’s natural to want to suss out post-war messages from these films, but trash fictions like Where Danger Lives and Tension were just clumsy attempts at capturing the lightening power of Lang’s Woman in the Window and its even better companion piece Scarlet Street. Lang grabbed his middle-class morality tales by the balls and milked them for existentialist effect, pointing fingers every which way for the misery suffered by Edward G. Robinson’s pathetic average Joes. These were elaborate studies of culpability and complicity, whereas Where Danger Lives and Tension were content to simply blame women, and women only, for the open windows outside men’s dark souls.
Where Danger Lives stars Robert Mitchum as Jeff Cameron, perhaps the stupidest man in the world. The doctor falls for Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) when she lands on his operating table after a conspicuously spotless suicide attempt and is unfazed when she hysterically yells out “But I like them red!” in the direction of a nearby rose. Is Margo nuts or is Domergue auditioning for the titular role in Marnie? Flash-forward to the couple darting to Mexico after the accidental death of Margo’s husband (Claude Rains, never queerer), at which point director John Farrow perversely tightens the noose around their necks (the picture’s absurd highlight has Dumb and Dumber being singled out for their lack of facial hair during a hick town’s Whiskers Week celebration), with news arriving via radiowave that Margo does in fact have a few screws loose. Domergue, a limited talent, avoids the necessary whole-hog brio that may have lightened the offense of the film’s ending, which has Margo giving Jeff the convenient, last-gasp alibi that precipitates his freedom and ushers him toward Maureen O’Sullivan’s pathetic good-girl standby.
Like Where Danger Lives, John Berry’s Tension builds to a thank-God-she’s-out-of-the-way conclusion that expediently wipes the slate of moral responsibility clean for its male hero. The film is impossible to take seriously as soon as Barry Sullivan’s detective illustrates in a direct-to-camera address the story’s lame tension-as-rubberband thesis, but Audrey Totter, playing one of the meanest women the movies have ever seen this side of Claire Trevor’s entire canon of work, is a riot, slithering into frame with the same trashy trumpet squawk accompanying her on the soundtrack. After she leaves her pharmacist husband for another man, the country’s new contact lens craze gives the pussy-whipped David (Richard Basehart) the idea to create an alter ego in order to kill his wife Claire (Totter). The actress gives grotesque face, most hilariously during a David-versus-Goliath standoff at the beach that has Claire yelling out “You know how I want it” to her meathead boyfriend. Again, the meek shall inherit the earth, but not until the vixen has paid for all his indiscretions.
There’s no post-war message to pull out of Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence because it’s right there flapping in your face, except it isn’t a message so much as it is a dull angle. Zinnemann was a stodgy executioner of literate but uncomplicated material and Act of Violence imagines a blasé game of cat-and-mouse between an ex-pilot (Van Heflin) and the bombardier (Robert Ryan) who wants to kill him for a crime committed during the war. A very young Janet Leigh stars as Heflin’s wife, twiddling her fingers until the ex-buds are conveniently sanctified just in time for the roll of the end credits. John Sturges was a more interesting director, but his Mystery Street was simply an excuse to flaunt the era’s advances in forensic science (with research courtesy of Harvard University). Jan Sterling’s corpse gets felt up in one scene, and the great Elsa Lanchester leaves delectable bite marks on the scenery, but the film otherwise sees little worthwhile action.
Behold, at last, Jean Gillie in her then-husband Jack Bernhard’s Decoy, a highly regarded cult noir that has been seen by almost no one since the Truman administration. Something of a pissing cousin to Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, this Poverty Row production comes at you with the same zeal as the cat lady from The Simpsons. Curiously acted, overzealously scored, and insanely plotted, Decoy is a meat grinder that pushes out a Z-grade chuck of disparate genre conventions (the soundtrack is something out of Sirk, and the methylene blue resuscitation angle is the stuff of sci-fi). From the opening end-at-the-beginning stretch to the final joke played on the living from the beyond, the story is almost avant-garde in its combobulations. Equally irrational but unquestionably genius is Gillie, who essays an all-knowing femme fatale whose only pleasure is cherry-bombing male presumptions about women. The meta-ness of the character is delicious and most explicit in a scene where a man dares to question her expressive visage, to which she replies, “How should I use my face?”
The moral compass points swing to and fro in Lewis Allen’s Illegal, which stars Edward G. Robinson as a crackerjack D.A. who suffers way more than he should for winning a case that sends an innocent man to the electric chair. Tormented by guilt, Victor Scott (Robinson) rises phoenix-like from a gutter of booze and self-flagellation and to the defense of criminal lowlifes everywhere. His lack of scruples shocks everyone, not least of which his former employee, Ellen (Nina Foch), who makes the mistake of marrying a man with the voice of a game show host. Every character is intriguingly trapped between a rock and a hard place, and the talents of Robinson, Foch, and Ellen Corby, as Victor’s legal aide, have an elasticizing effect on Allen’s stiff but workmanlike direction. Robinson’s cocksure conviction never wavers, and as such Victor’s obscene courtroom antics feel more probable than Jayne Mansfield’s real-world physique.
Back to Mitchum, who reteams with his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer in The Big Steal, Don Siegel’s third feature film. Adapted by Geoffrey Homes and Gerald Drayson Adams from a Saturday Evening Post story, this fiesta noir transpires as a flash bomb of flying punches, bitch slaps, double crossings, and naughty but playful innuendo, with what’s what less clear than who’s who. The mix of screwball and noir doesn’t always fly, but Siegel’s visual nerve is noteworthy, especially during an extended car chase that ridiculously slips in and out of coherence. Most striking is the use of landscape as foil to the story’s characters, recalling Ida Lupino’s excellent The Hitch-hiker, also written by Homes. I don’t know if the Mexican characters are conceived any deeper than Speedy Gonzales, but the film pays attention to cultural detail and is clearly interested in rebuking the Hollywood racism of the time. Ramon Navarro, whose star had long dimmed by the time he appeared in the film, delivers the best line in reference to the intrusive white world that infiltrates his: “Strange language…but colorful.”
Though little-seen, André de Toth’s Crime Wave has long been considered a masterpiece of the genre. De Toth was a one-eyed, poet-brute with a remarkable flair for chiaroscuro that betrayed the fact that he had almost no depth perception. Shot in two weeks, in and around Skid Row, this menacing potboiler’s hard-bitten night stands in striking contrast to its antiseptic day, and though it is notable for its brutal narrative efficiency and Sterling Hayden’s stylized rage, it is most interesting for its harrowing look at crime trapping virtue in a sweaty headlock. Equally revered is Nicholas Ray’s first feature, They Live by Night, an adaptation of Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us and a favorite of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. The film’s crime-thriller elements are sloggy, and time has aged its social dimensions, but Ray’s artistry continues to inspire awe, while the doomed romance between Farley Granger and Cathy O’Connell’s lovebirds both suggesting a Borzagian death throe and reaching for the melancholic star system of Lang’s You Only Live Once.
Cineastes have long embraced Anthony Mann’s great westerns but his equally exceptional noirs still await discovery. Like Reign of Terror and The Tall Target, the heady Side Street is a triumph of visual savvy and moral exactitude—a scurrying spectacle of dog-cat-and-mouse throughout the zig-zagging streets of New York City. The Big Apple comes alive through a nervy mix of photojournalistic shots of people on the move and hieratic compositions that give the squeeze to the pathetic Joe Norton (Franger), a poor mail carrier who steals $30,000 rather accidentally, loses it, and spends the duration of the film trying to retrieve it while avoiding murder charges. The film’s title is a reference to the story’s interlocked physical and moral frameworks: Through the venomous-winding streets of the city plays out a clammy morality tale about a man living on the fringes of society who succumbs easily and understandably to weakness only to struggle with great difficulty to atone for his indiscretion. In a city so big, will anyone care? Will you?
None of these transfers compare to the sterling treatment Kansas City Confidential just received from MGM. But while Where Danger Lives and Tension suffer from minor crushing and edge enhancement, and Mystery Street's wild grain levels do not do justice to John Alton's camerawork in some scenes, the prints are otherwise clean. Sound is clear throughout.
Every film gets a worthwhile commentary track by an expert in the genre, with a star from the movie sometimes along for the ride. A cracked-out James Ellroy bleeps and growls (don't ask!) his way through his track with film historian Eddie Muller for Crime Wave, but the famous writer's arrogance is alleviated by surprising opinions about the film and other accepted masterpieces of the genre, from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential. For They Live By Night, Farley Granger chats with Muller about the origins of his career, saying the name of Howard Hughes with considerable anger at one point. Strangest of all is a schoolmarmish Nina Foch's discussion with historian Patricia King Hanson for Illegal, on which the actress, who also teaches for the American Film Institute, reveals a rather disturbing fixation with death, explaining at least a half dozen times that she's still alive and describing the events leading up to Janye Mansfield's decapitation in explicit detail. All of these films get their own featurette, with interviews from connosseiurs and overzealous fans of the genre like Molly Haskell, Glenn Erickson, Dick Cavett, and Oliver Stone, and most come paired with their original theatrical trailer.
With this fourth volume in the Film Noir Classics series, you must take the good with the bad.