“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” – opening credits
Nicholas Ray lived through the Depression, which isn’t the reason he wore an eye-patch later in life, but it was the reason he was asked to adapt the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson. Ray found the project to be a very personal one and although RKO producer John Houseman had minor issues with his script, the final result is pretty much what Ray was aiming for. They Live by Night is a blazing debut, nurtured by Houseman, who allowed Ray the creative freedom to experiment. There’s a fairy tale feel to the film that subverts the social realism, as the star-crossed lovers attempt to find happiness in an insensitive world populated with ogres with names like Chicamaw and T-Dub.
Talk about a blueprint for film noir, Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross lays down an impenetrably stark view of the Los Angeles underworld and one poor sucker who gets trapped in its web. What lured him there? A woman, duh. The title refers to the barrel of bluffs characters dip their heads into – bobbing for salvation. While film noir is known for its doomed heroes and hopelessness, Criss Cross transcends these motifs and reaches this surreal nightmare of despair, obsession, and betrayal unmatched in the golden era.
Post-war disillusionment is often noted as one of the overall themes of film noir. A soldier returns from war to be greeted by a sardonic American society not worth fighting for – that’s a broad example. Austro-American director Fred Zinnemann’s hopelessly grim thriller Act of Violence takes on this disillusionment fist-first, with a tightly-wound reversal of the good guy/bad guy set up that barrels forward to its ill-fated climax. Heightened by six terrific performances, this dark little film offers a bit of redemption at the end, though not without a price.
I’m taking a break from molls and smart-mouthed hoods today to write about a good ol’ fashioned “dark house” mystery: The Spiral Staircase. I saw it for the first time last night and am pretty hyped about it, so I have to get this review of my chest. Directed by German transplant Robert Siodmak and shot in balls-out expressionistic mode by shadow meister Nicholas Musuraca, the film is a masterful exercise in suspense with a helluva one-two punch at the climax. The atmosphere in this one is almost inconceivably dark. It’s like sticking your face in a can of black paint, then trying to make your way through a large house. It’s a powerful visual experience wrapped around a wicked little mystery. And I haven’t seen a staircase captured so passionately since Odessa.
“Y’know what I do to squealers? I give it to em in the belly.”
Man, it doesn’t get slimier than Tommy Udo. Richard Widmark made his screen debut in this 1947 thriller from director Henry Hathaway (The House on 92nd Street), and goddamn did he make his mark. Kiss of Death made him an instant star. The film is based on the book by Elazar Lipsky, a former assistant district attorney in New York and is loaded with inside detail on how the judicial system works – and it ain’t pretty.
Claude Sautet’s Class Tous Risques was eclipsed by Godard’s Breathless in 1960, but Jean-Paul Belmondo gets shot in both of them. He doesn’t play such a smarmy prick in Sautet’s film though, which is a starkly cynical and intelligent bit of realist crime completely stripped of flash. It’s about a middle-aged thief named Abel (Lino Ventura) who is banking on one last score to retire. Like most movie criminals with jinxed retirement plans, shit turns sour and Abel has to rely on his shifty underworld cohorts for help.
The world of noir is populated with morally ambiguous anti-heroes heading 1,000 miles per hour down a dead end street. Out of all of em, I might hold the self-destructive hustler Harry Fabian closest to my heart. A lot of that sentiment has to do with actor Richard Widmark, who delivers a manically spirited and heartbreaking performance. Night and the City – whose title itself evokes noir – was directed by Jules Dassin after he fled to England to dodge HUAC’s late 1940s anticommunist witch hunt. If he stayed in the States, Dassin would’ve most certainly been forced to testify, which would’ve inevitably led to him being blacklisted. The project was already waiting for him when he touched down in England and it’s easy to interpret Night and the City as an allegory for the paranoia and backstabbing he resented in post-war Hollywood at the time.
I watch a ton of genre films, but unfortunately none of the sites I write for allow me a platform to gush about one of my favorite genres: noir and crime in general. Might as well do it here. I’m going to try to write a few noir reviews a week – covering my favorites and ones I’m just discovering. It’s a dark, morally ambiguous cinematic landscape out there, guys. I hope you dig.
“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.”
When a film kicks off with a cop shooting himself in the head, buckle up. Direct by Austrian wunderkind Fritz Lang, The Big Heat (1953) is an 89 minute visceral sting that subverts the noir tradition of the femme fatale by making its wounded hero the harbinger of death for every female he encounters. Lang destroys the wall between the swellness of America life and the underworld – gauging what it takes to defend our little houses in the suburbs and the nuclear families within. Namely, it takes violence.
• “They’re gonna move me again,” Joey Gladstone thought. “Becky’s moving in and I’m gonna be tossed around again.” He counted off on his fingers, “Under the stairs, the garage, the basement, now where? The doghouse?” Lifting the bowl of post-Fruity Pebbles sugar milk to his lips, Joey sighed his silent maxim, “I hate this place.”