B Noir

B Noir

 

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They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

Celebrated by the Cahiers du Cinéma clique for its formal inventiveness and melodramatic grandeur, Nicholas Ray’s first feature They Live By Night remains essential predominantly because of the former, its ominous aerial shots, evocative framing and meticulous acoustic design all contributing to an atmosphere of tormented romanticism. Its socially conscious lovers-on-the-lam tale (from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us), alas, has grown somewhat creaky, whether it be Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell’s virginal smitten kittens confessing their inexperience at kissing (tee hee!) or O’Donnell’s belief that a good woman “is sort of like a dog” (loyal to the end!). Fortunately, in scenes such as Howard Da Silva shattering the naïve couple’s Christmas tree ornaments—and, in the process, their quixotic dream of ever escaping the criminal life—Ray’s plaintive artistry lends this weepy noir a melancholic beauty. Schager

Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949)

A bleak portrait of post-WWII despair, corrupt capitalism and idealistic disillusionment, Jules Dassin’s melodrama about long-haul truckers was the director’s final, and finest, film made in America before the HUAC exiled him to Europe. Richard Conte’s trucker returns home from the war and, discovering that Lee J. Cobb’s produce market kingpin has ruined his father, sets out for revenge. Its Darryl Zanuck-mandated ending may be insincerely upbeat, but the close-ups of speedometers and spinning tires create a propulsive sense of the inevitable doom that follows Conte’s desperate, road-raging nomad—transformed from an enthusiastically optimistic ex-soldier into a battle-scarred itinerant—as he hurtles through the night in his rickety rig. Schager

Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958)

Southern drive-in staple Thunder Road is basically The Robert Mitchum Show; not only does the sleepy-eyed tough guy headline this romanticized portrait of a Tennessee moonshine transporter, but he also produced it, penned its script and theme song, and had his son cast in a supporting role (as his kid brother!). The ubiquitously involved star’s charisma can’t completely overshadow a sluggish plot, in which Mitchum’s sexually magnetic whisky hauler makes the ladies swoon and his male cohorts jealous while evading the law, battling a crooked businessman and preventing his sibling from entering the liquor racquet. Nonetheless, its hard-charging chase sequences make it a vintage Dukes of Hazzard-flavored noir. Schager

T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947)

Subtext is king in Anthony Mann’s noirs, with engrossing, underlying social, political and psychological traumas compensating for caricatural dialogue, monotonous performances and plodding plot twists. In T-Men, treasury agents Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder go undercover to crack a counterfeit ring, only to confirm both the slender gulf between lawmen and louts and—in the film’s spousal rejection pièce de résistance—cops’ simultaneously noble, destructive and pathetic devotion to duty. Awkward omniscient narration is merely one way Mann strives for an aesthetic of semi-documentary verisimilitude. However, in myriad shots defined by lacerating diagonals and ground-up angles, genre legend John Alton uses heavenly light and hellish shadow to firmly confine the paranoid action within anxiously expressionistic parameters. Schager

Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 1954)

This threadbare little thriller looks like it was written and shot over a weekend, and it would be entirely forgettable if not for two things: John Alton’s moody cinematography and the jaw-dropping moment when murderous ex-Nazi George Sanders, whose books are described as “a hash of Nietzsche and Hegel,” starts shouting in Hitler-style German at a terrified Barbara Stanwyck. It’s the only laugh in the movie, but it’s quite a howler, especially because Alton highlights Sanders’s face with a satirically “wicked” glow. Callahan

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