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B Noir

Any film connoisseur worth their salt knows that the purveyors of this genre aimed low but shot high.

B Noir
Photo: Film Forum

Your typical B-movie director always had his eyes on the bottom of the barrel (for him, it was the dirty little things that stuck to people’s feet that really counted), but any film connoisseur worth their salt knows that the purveyors of this genre aimed low but shot high. Film Forum’s festival devoted to the “B noir” films of the ‘40s and ‘50s may be the most important repertory event of the year, and it transmits a very clear message: that the Poverty Row clip joint was a more treacherous and richer place to hang your hat than Casablanca. Of the 70 films playing during the series in the six weeks between May 5 and June 15, more than half are unavailable on video and nearly all will be shown in newly spic-n-spanned 35mm prints, including rarities like Lew Landers’s Man in the Dark (projected in 3D!), Jack Arnold’s The Glass Web and, the rarest of them all, Joseph Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M. Sharing space with already-established classics of the genre like the American godfather of the French New Wave, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing are spunkier productions by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo), Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, The Phenix City Story), André de Toth (Crime Wave), and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour), Nicholas Ray’s existentialist primer On Dangerous Ground, and works by the recently departed Robert Wise (The Set-Up, Born to Kill, The Captive City) and Richard Fleischer (Trapped, Bodygaurd, The Clay Pigeon). We haven’t seen them all, but we hope this preliminary guide will help you tell the fierce hatchetmen from the namby pamby messenger boys. Look for more reviews in the upcoming weeks here and on the site’s blog, and for a full schedule of films and ticket information click here. Ed Gonzalez

Between Midnight and Dawn (Gourdon Douglas, 1950)

Gordon Douglas infuses Between Midnight and Dawn with a hammy comic-book sensibility: the opening line (“The big city is full of people and people are full of crime”) suggests something out of a thought bubble, the incessant why-you-dirty-rat noir-speak sticks to the roof of people’s mouths like peanut butter, and a wise-alecky little boy with freckles all over his face looks to be in training pants for a role as one Dick Tracy’s adversaries. Dan Purvis (Edmond O’Brien) and Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) volley for the attention of a young woman who vowed never to date another police officer after the death of her father, but are the guys looking to score a date or a threesome? The film is a comedy with delusions of noir—unessential but good for a laugh given its almost campy scent of obliviousness. Gonzalez

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

Shadows and lies are the stars of The Big Combo, a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider’s web. Caught in the center of this sticky, elastic clutter of light and shadow is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), the girlfriend of a mobster with information about a mysterious woman named Alicia that may be of interest to police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Wallace’s real life hubby Cornel Wilde). John Alton’s lush camerawork is so dominant here you wouldn’t know Joseph H. Lewis was also behind the camera. The story doesn’t have any of the he-she psychosexual politicking that juices the director’s Gun Crazy, but that’s no loss given this film’s richer returns. The set-pieces are fierce, as is the Casablanca tweak of the last shot, and Wallace’s performance—a sad spectacle of a hurting creature caught between light and dark, good and evil—is one of noir’s great unheralded triumphs. Gonzalez

Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947)

The usually meek Robert Wise trades his chameleonic tastefulness for full-on, jazzy misanthropy in this nasty melodrama. The main vipers on display are Lawrence Tierney’s blithely murdering thug and Claire Trevor’s randy socialite, braided together by each other’s lowdown wiles. The action shoots from seedy Reno to moneyed San Francisco, where Tierney marries Trevor’s newspaper heiress sister as a way to stay within screwing distance of his perverse “soul mate,” whose lust scarcely diminishes upon discovery of his throttling, stabbing past. Wise swims in the genre’s amorality, scoring a kitchen brawl to big-band radio tunes, terrorizing a soused matron at a nocturnal beach skirmish, and leaving the last word to Walter Slezak’s jovially corrupt detective. Fernando F. Croce

The Captive City (Robert Wise, 1952)

Noir wasn’t Robert Wise’s strong suit but he knew how to dress up a flimsy picture. His 1952 film The Captive City stars a young John Forsythe as a newspaper reporter trying to expose a town’s corruption only to meet resistance at every turn. The story stumbles through an allegorical indictment of the House Un-American Committee, culminating with a cheesy direct-to-camera address by Senator Estes Kefauver, but Wise’s images frequently show flashes of wit, if not snap or crackle. The opening chase sequences and establishing shots are lucid cuts of Americana and his nervy manipulation of depth of field conveys an uneasy sense that all eyes are watching Forsythe’s would-be gumshoe and wife (Joan Camden, resembling a neutered Judy Davis). Cutting Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons definitely did Wise a few favors. Gonzalez

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 1957)

In the first reel of Crime of Passion it’s made clear that the lesbians of San Francisco can’t get enough of tough-talking advice columnist Barbara Stanwyck, whose Sapphic wisdom is extolled by butch lady cabbies. When a 17-year-old writes in to ask what she should do about her love for a married man, Stanwyck quips that she should run away with his wife. Though she sees marriage as “propaganda,” she falls rather quickly in love with cop Sterling Hayden and marries him, mainly because he’s so soft and feminine. Hayden installs Stanwyck into a hellish suburbia where the women only talk about their TV sets; after a particularly trying montage of idle housewife chatter, Stanwyck rages against the mediocrity all around her. When she rails against her kitchen duties, she’s a ‘30s star railing potently against ‘50s conformity. Though her character turns violent, the reasons behind her anger are powerfully expressed and the film puts you on her side. This overlooked, subversive movie has a strong feminist message and an even stronger Stanwyck performance. Dan Callahan

Crime Wave (André De Toth, 1954)

Something like a god looks down over Los Angeles by night, and though he breathes out so much authority there’s not enough wind left to raise his voice, he’s also betrayed by the pack of toothpicks he smokes every shift. Ink-eyed Sterling Hayden is that god in the form of a seemingly unflappable police detective in André De Toth’s Crime Wave, a relentlessly unforced potboiler that gazes at noir through the looking glass. (Or should that be through the glass ceiling?) Hayden’s crime-fighting battle plan consists largely of targeting casual miscreants, those most likely to be extorted by bigger, burlier criminals. To track a trio of jailbreak hooligans, Hayden puts the squeeze on a newlywed ex-con who, as luck would have it, actually is being blackmailed by the escaped convicts. De Toth showcases the magnitude of Hayden’s pool of potential stoolies in one showstopping traveling shot down a line of interrogation desks, each one a passion play in miniature. Not that Hayden, in his hot pursuit, takes note. If the maxim “crime doesn’t pay” is noir’s given, then Crime Wave spins it to answer “but virtue barely scrapes up a living wage.” Eric Henderson

The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959)

Manny Farber wrote, “The reason movies are bad lies is this audience’s failure to appreciate, much less fight for, films like the unspectacular, unpolished ‘B,’ worked out by a few people with belief and skill in their art, who capture the unworked-over immediacy of life before it has been cooled by ‘Art.’” Samuel Fuller was one of those people and The Crimson Kimono was one of those films. The opening is a triumph of grungy lyricism achieved through snaky cutting and blunt compositions: Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall), a blond and bodacious piece of stripper meat, is shot to death in the middle of a Los Angeles street after witnessing a murder inside her dressing room. The tenor of the film oscillates between tight-fisted noir and chamber drama, but the theme is always the same: cultural and romantic unrest. Two detectives, Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta), travel to the Japanese quarter of the city to break the thorny case but fall in love with Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw). Harry Sukman’s score courts condescension whenever the action shifts to Little Tokyo, but it’s the film’s only slip. Fuller’s feat is giving the film’s nonstop interrogations, meetings and confrontations profound racial and political meaning. Gonzalez

Detour (Edward G. Ulmer, 1944)

Tom Neal’s Al has the sourest puss in all of noir, and his perpetual frown and whiny, unreliable narration give the low-budget Detour its evocative dourness. Shot on the cheap in six days, Edward G. Ulmer’s Poverty Row tale of woe is an archetypal exercise in post-war pessimism, detailing the pathetic downfall of a two-bit piano player (Neal) doomed by his cowardice. With its overcooked dialogue, makeshift sets, jagged performances (including Anne Savage’s crazy-eyed femme fatale) and endless rear-projection car scenes, this coincidence-laden suspense yarn has no business being as irresistibly moody as it is. Like great garage rock, however, Ulmer’s landmark film ultimately derives its raw, jittery vitality from its very crudeness. Nick Schager

D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate, 1950)

D.O.A. kicks off with noir’s most enticing intro, as Edmond O’Brien wends his way through increasingly claustrophobic police station corridors to arrive at a detective’s office, where he reports a murder: his own! Once the film proceeds with its flashbacked tale of how O’Brien unknowingly ingested fatal “luminous” poison (which, as its goofy name implies, glows in the dark), Rudolph Maté’s seminal thriller—aside from a few choice one-liners and a sexualized jazz club sequence—rapidly decomposes into a campy, confusing bore. The overly complicated explanation for O’Brien’s poisoning, however, is no more confounding than the dead man’s tolerance for Pamela Britton’s nagging, needy, marriage-obsessed girlfriend. Schager

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

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