B Noir

B Noir

 

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The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)

As lean and muscular as its portly train passenger is obese (“Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and tailor”), Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin delivers crisp crime drama interested in challenging identity assumptions. Charles McGraw’s detective escorts Marie Windsor’s mobster’s wife to L.A. via locomotive so she can testify. Evading on-board killers and coping with sunshiny Jacqueline White and her pesky kid, however, is nothing compared to the cop’s confounding attempts to decipher who’s who. Poised shifts in focus, disorienting cuts and animated lighting bestow the surprise-filled story with concussive vigor; Windsor’s pitiless broad gives it its dark sensuality. Schager

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

Perched between late-’40s noir and mid-’50s crime drama, this is one of the great, forgotten works of the genre. Robert Ryan is a time-bomb of a New York cop, tormented by the urban squalor he sees around him; after roughing up one too many crooks, he’s assigned to track down a killer in wintry upstate, where he falls for Ida Lupino, the main suspect’s blind sister. Easily mushy, the material achieves a nearly transcendental beauty in the hands of Ray, a poet of anguished expression: The urban harshness of the city is contrasted with the austere snowy countryside for some of the most disconcertingly moving effects in all film noir. Despite the violence and the steady intensity, a remarkably pure film. Croce

The Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

In Robert Siodmak’s 1944 noir, Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) is framed for his estranged wife’s murder and it’s up to his secretary, Kansas (Ella Raines), to clear his name by securing his alibi from an elusive, hat-wearing woman. The film has very little meat on its bones (the story’s eerie obsession with hands and statues doesn’t really add up to anything), but it strikes some gorgeous visual poses. Rains stalks a barkeep with such intensity she suggests a wild thing let out of one of Val Lewton’s cages, and Siodmak’s success is a creepy little number in which the actress seduces a ratty drummer for information: Channeling the spirit of the Russians (Eisenstein, Dovshenko, Vertov), the director uses grotesque angles, close-ups and rhythms to suggest a powerful sense of seduction and torture. Gonzalez

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

A modern Pompeii (or Southern-fried Sodom and Gomorrah—take your pick), Phenix City, Alabama is a den of iniquity ruled by gangsters who murder enemies with impunity, whether they be women, children or a noble lawyer (John McIntire) and his former G.I. son (Richard Kiley). Based on real events, Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story opens with journalistic interviews of actual locals, a misleading intro given the hysterical fictionalization that ensues, punctuated by swaggering camerawork, performances both inflated (from the professional cast) and stilted (from townsfolk amateurs), and a finale in which malevolent mob terror is countered not by vigilantism—as in Karlson’s unofficial remake Walking Tall—but by military martial law. Its borderline-obscene wallop, however, is derived from its brusque brutality, as in a startlingly cavalier depiction of a murdered African-American girl being unceremoniously tossed from a speeding car. Schager

Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948)

Blessed with DP John Alton’s Wellesian deep focus, chiaroscuro illumination, and images fraught with foreground/background tension, Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is the apex of noir style, offering up electric visions of sin, salvation and sexual mania. The aching urgency and fervor of Alton’s breathtaking work is regularly counterbalanced by star Dennis O’Keefe’s lumbering blankness, but typically wooden acting (for a Mann crime pic) can’t alter the fact that this story of a hood who busts out of prison seeking romance and revenge with a pair of dames (one his obsessed girlfriend, the other his semi-willing hostage) is the director’s bleakest and most neurotic. A messy jumble of carnal desires, naïve dreams and soul-crushing pessimism, the film derives its lusty perversity from Claire Trevor’s narrating moll, and its viciousness from Raymond Burr’s flaming desert-hurling mobster. Schager

Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949)

Noir visits the French Revolution, as the emphasis on vicious brutality suggests an account written by the Marquis de Sade. The setting is France during the turbulent 1790s, where Robespierre (Richard Basehart) spreads dictatorial horror and dissenting voices are succinctly guillotined; Robert Cummings, an operative for the newly-formed Republic, infiltrates the tyrant’s circle. The studio may have asked Anthony Mann for A Tale of Two Cities reworked as a tasteful quickie, but what it got was a wicked, visually astonishing entry in the director’s ferocious crime thrillers. Beneath the powdered wigs of period reconstruction lurks not only Mann’s violence (Basehart’s demise is a stunner), but also a glimpse of the political anxieties of the ’40s and beyond. Croce

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

Robert Ryan’s washed-up palooka clings to the belief that one punch will land him back on the fast track to respectability, not realizing (thanks to his greedy manager) that the fix is in. Robert Wise’s The Set-Up isn’t noir by any serious definition, its boilerplate fatalism undone by overbearing moralizing and the fact that Ryan’s boxer is too one-dimensionally good to register as tragic. There’s a dynamism to Wise’s rough, real-time in-ring action (an influence on Raging Bull). But the same can’t be said about Ryan’s wife’s (Audrey Totter) nighttime stroll through the city—littered with eye-rollingly obvious symbols of an alternate, “normal” life—or the stereotype-upending ringside spectators, highlighted by a hilariously bloodthirsty blind man. Schager

Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1950)

Cineastes have 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 veiny streets of New York City. The Big Apple comes alive via a nervy mix of photojournalistic shots of people on the move and hieratic compositions that give the squeeze to Farley Granger’s Joe Norton, a poor mail carrier who steals $30,000 somewhat 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 its entwined physical and moral frameworks: Through the venomous-winding city 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? Gonzalez

The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)

As in Reign of Terror, Anthony Mann fashions a noir mini-masterpiece out of incongruous period reconstruction. The hook is the Baltimore Plot, a conspiracy which in 1861 attempted to kill Abraham Lincoln (the “tall target”) during the inaugurating train ride of the Ohio & Baltimore Railway. Dick Powell, flashing the tough-guy persona from Murder, My Sweet like a badge, protects Abe from the assassins hidden in the shadows, making creative, gruesome use of locomotive steam in the progress. The train’s cramped spaces offer Mann a challenge, and the director rises to it via sinewy camera movement, elegantly modulated rhythms and arresting paranoia, not to mention the blueprint for the following year’s The Narrow Margin. Croce

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