B Noir

B Noir


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Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1949)

It’s a good thing Joseph H. Lewis, proud member of Andrew Sarris’s clan of “Expressive Esoterica,” had as exciting a visual flair and as much a taste for zero-flab pacing as he did. Otherwise, Gun Crazy, his 1949 “pre-Bonnie and Clyde” would be an hour-and-a-half of two lovers on the lam stroking their own Phallic symbols. The film flirts with misogyny (not that 95% of film noirs weren’t guilty, on the surface, of the same), and unlike any number of Raymond Chandler knock-offs of the era, its dialogue sort of rolls over and dies in the mouths of Dall and Cummings, who frequently sounds like a morose, tanked-up Judy Garland. But it’s easy to see why auteurists like Sarris insist even today (when psychosexual interpretations of gunplay come off as a punchline rather than serious foreplay) in holding up the film as a model of directorial expression. Lewis, through sheer force of will, turns the script’s easy ways out (“I told you I’m a bad girl, didn’t I?”) into the essence of blunt, adolescent sexual flowering. Wild, wam-bam pacing eventually matures into the film’s most memorable sequence: a one-take robbery sequence taken from the back seat of the getaway car, a stunning tour de force that’s Lewis’s cinematographic slow fuck. Henderson

He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann, 1947)

The credits indicate Alfred L. Werker only, but this thriller is of a piece with the noir circle of T-Men and Raw Deal, courtesy of an uncredited Anthony Mann. The plot is a clipped LAPD tribute with roots in an actual 1947 case, with police officers Scott Brady and Roy Roberts latching onto killer Richard Basehart’s slippery trail of crumbs. Investigation procedures are methodically viewed, laying the ground for the rigorous urban Bressonism of Dragnet, though the film’s documentary terseness is consistently goosed by John Alton’s masterly lighting, with the climax at the sewer system staged with enough fierce subterranean geometry to make Lang proud. Croce

House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

House of Bamboo has some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema. Traveling to Japan on 20th Century Fox’s dime, Fuller captured a country divided, trapped between past traditions and progressive attitudes while lingering in the devastating aftereffects of an all-too-recent World War. His visual schema represents the societal fractures through a series of deep-focus, Noh-theatrical tableaus, a succession of silhouettes, screens and stylized color photography that melds the heady insanity of a Douglas Sirk melodrama—see, as an especial point of comparison, Sirk’s 1956 Korea-set war film Battle Hymn—with the philosophical inquiry of the best noirs. Keith Uhlich

Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952)

Phil Karlson’s rote heist-revenge flick aims to be stone cold, but can’t seem to get any frost to grow around its warm, mushy heart. You’d probably think, at first, that the steady barrage of extreme close-ups is meant to provide redundant tactility to the mugs of dagger-cheekboned Lee Van Cleef and Jack “Boggy” Elam as sweat sticks to their faces like so much sausage perspiration. But as the boys engage in round after round of slap-slap-lickety-lap (there are more open-handed strikes per square inch of face here than in all of Mommie Dearest), the close-ups take on a far more melodramatic, Falconettish resonance. Beyond the hoods’ domestic abuse, there are no femmes fatale in sight; the only female in the picture is studying for the Bar. And the protagonist, played by John Payne, saved Santa Claus, ferchrissake! Surely he’ll have no problem reforming a cop who’s lost his faith in the scales of justice. Either that or he’ll slap him back to last week. Henderson

The Killer Is Loose (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

Like Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher cut his teeth in noir thrillers before carving a distinctive niche in Westerns, yet where Mann is tautly neurotic, Boetticher is perversely serene. Handed a narrative stuffed with cat-and-mouse violence, the filmmaker plays down dark hysteria in favor of grayish curtness, and the film is no less tense for that. The killer is Wendell Corey’s bespectacled bank robber, on the loose and on a mission: to murder the wife of police officer Joseph Cotten, whom Corey blames for the death of his own wife. The picture has the unique flow of a laconic nightmare, with the mingled sympathies of the antagonists anticipating Boetticher’s complex later works. Croce

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Stanley Kubrick’s masterful manipulation of chronology brings an excruciating sense of doom to The Killing, a classical noir about a carefully threaded heist unraveled by the scheming of a fiendish femme. Having already emasculated her lapdog husband, Marie Windsor’s psychosexual dominatrix gets covetous upon catching wind of granite-faced Sterling Hayden’s race-track robbery plot, which requires an eclectic assortment of Asphalt Jungle-ish participants (insane rifleman, wimpy clerk, crooked cop, kind bartender, chess-playing wrestler) and which is orchestrated—save for Windsor’s anomalously hot-blooded scenes—with the icy auteur’s trademark precision and attention to detail. Proficiently splicing and reshuffling the action until it seems that only fate (or the ever-godlike director) is fully in control of Hayden and his crew’s destinies, Kubrick generates portentous suspense via discordant staging and methodical camera calisthenics until, faced with inescapable failure, Hayden’s thug can barely muster the energy to utter, “Eh, what’s the difference.” Schager

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)

Never was Mike Hammer’s name more fitting than in Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s blisteringly nihilistic noir in which star Ralph Meeker embodies Mickey Spillane’s legendary P.I. with brute force savagery. Sneering, scowling and dishing out ruthless justice almost as often as he takes cruel thrashings, Meeker’s Hammer is a heartless, narcissistic, amoral beast with nothing but contempt for society, a worldview that Aldrich also assumes in every one of his bluntly beautiful staircase-punctuated compositions and stinging close-ups. A “bedroom dick” who willingly admits to his own sordidness (“All right, you’ve got me convinced. I’m a real stinker,” he tells some pesky cops), Hammer embroils himself in radioactive mystery after he almost runs down a hitchhiking psychiatric ward escapee (Cloris Leachman), gives her a lift, and then, after the woman is killed by her pursuers, is nearly exterminated for his trouble. The gumshoe’s subsequent investigation into the woman’s death doubles as a lacerating indictment of modern society’s dissolution into physical/moral/spiritual degeneracy—a reversion that ultimately leads to nuclear apocalypse and man’s return to the primordial sea—with the director’s knuckle-sandwich cynicism pummeling the genre’s romantic fatalism into a bloody pulp. “Remember me”? Aldrich’s sadistic, fatalistic masterpiece is impossible to forget. Schager

Murder By Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958)

Limpid, compact low-budget ingenuity. Emotionless hepcat Vince Edwards insinuates himself as a contract killer for an unseen Mr. Big and, after proving his efficiency with a couple of clean rubouts, gets handed a major assignment—offing a mob witness holed up behind a wall of feds. Closer to Paul Schrader’s narcissistic loners than to Jean-Pierre Melville’s spiritual sangfroid, Edward’s chilly sheen is stuffed with pocketbook fatalism, but the film’s cunning oddness levels its pretensions. Irving Lerner’s camera records Edwards’s moral emptiness with a sharpshooter’s calm, the better to place his blankness against the jitters of Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine, the Mutt n’ Jeff hoods chaperoning him. Croce

The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964)

Postwar cinema was plenty country, and more than enough rock n’ roll. But whether we’re talking The Egg and I or High School Confidential, the drive-in era’s depiction of the effects of urban hangover upon idyllic small town Americana invariably revealed a wounded-but-upright oasis of morality, if only because you couldn’t expect the Big City’s fashionable crime to trickle down for at least a decade. Speaking of being ahead of the curve, noir films stood out among their dated contemporaries like pure hip-hop. And Samuel Fuller’s fizzy, wigged-out masterpiece The Naked Kiss drops it from frame one, with Constance Towers purse-smacking a P.O.V. shot, brandishing a seltzer bottle and upbraiding her pimp, essentially demanding “What, you slipped? Fell? Landed on her dick?” Fuller’s fierce prologue is only an appetizer for the depths he sinks to when his reformed ho tries to hoist up her stockings and reach for anonymity in the rural wild. The Naked Kiss grows positively feral as Towers uncovers the town’s perverse, thriving criminal underbelly and comes to the conclusion that even being a two-bit, big-city tramp is more noble than living anywhere that has a Main Street. It’s Sirk-on-a-shoestring, and twice as cynical. Henderson