Posts Tagged ‘Film Noir’


I’ve really been Powell and Pressburging my luck lately–revisiting some old favourites and filling in the gaps. Absolutely no disappointments so far. Quite the reverse, actually. I’m more fascinated by these guys than ever before!

Case in point–The Small Back Room (1949).

How’d I ever miss this one?

(I know how–it just wasn’t available in North America until Criterion released a beautiful DVD last year)

I just watched the film yesterday, and I already can’t imagine life without it–which is not to say that I’ve figured out where it fits in the P & P canon.

Just some impressionistic rambling then…

Byron and Farrar–astonishingly good (and about as far from their Black Narcissus characterizations as you can get):


Apparently, the film repulsed British cinemagoers in 1949, prompting director Powell to suspect that he had done TOO GOOD a job of exposing (in extreme close up) the guts of a less-than-perfect-but-intense relationship between a man and a woman… Speaking as a once(and probably future) co-dependent individual, I have to admit that the couple’s scenes were hard to watch, but also magnificently compelling and true. And the fact that the narrative’s “happy ending” presents the triumph of the antithesis of what the self-help books would call “healthy love” can’t have helped!


Oh yes–love is neurosis and shared delusions.

And when one person pulls out of the tale-spin (say, by removing her picture from the frame), the other one is often doomed to self-scrutiny…


Which usually isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Thank goodness the bombs are still ticking! (they help to drown out the clocks…)

One of the most amazing things about the movie (which I certainly consider a film noir, even if many wouldn’t) is the way it brings the essentially pre-adult aspects of Hawksian “professionalism” into sharp focus (yes, we’re venturing into Leslie Fiedler territory here).

The contrast between the beautifully noir compositions of the scenes from Sammy and Susan’s private life (in their flat, at the local pub, at the Hickory Club, inside Sammy’s brain), and the brilliantly even lighting of the (physically) dangerous scenes on location is hard to miss. Only the thrill of doing his job keeps Sammy off the sulk (and the ever-present threat of the bottle). People (especially Susan) are forever speculating about this guy’s psychological age (with the numbers ranging from six to ten)–but is it really “grown up” to run off and play in the sunshine (even if the game involves the possibility of dying)? I’m not saying that it isn’t important to do a thing well–especially when what you do can help to save lives–but I don’t think it’s MORE important (as in Hawks) than figuring out where you stand with the people who are closest to you (as Byron/Susan asks: “Why am I the only person you can get tough [I think she means petulant] with?” … that’s not a question that would come up in a Hawks film–Susan’s job in the HH universe would be to learn to appreciate the superior importance of his calling)

From the little I’ve read about the film, people seem to be quite annoyed with the expressionistic presentation of Sammy’s struggle with the bottle and the clocks.


It seems “heavy-handed”? Of course it does–it’s the phantasmagoria of a self-pitying brat. I find it extraordinarily appropriate. The next time I watch Only Angels Have Wings, I’ll keep this waking nightmare sequence in mind. It might help me to understand the behaviour of the characters in that movie–although not, of course, in the way the director would like us to.

And then again–some of Sammy’s “childishness” really bears interesting fruit. Most notably his comment, when refusing to get up and participate in the main social activity promoted by the Hickory Club, that: “Men and women are all the same when they dance.” On the one hand, it’s a Ramones-style “I don’t want to grow up” moment–but it’s also a remarkably pithy summary of the fear that neuro-biology is painting us into a corner (of life’s dance-floor)… Perhaps there’s no difference between the sides of the coin that I’m attempting to mint here–but my own (almost certainly neurotic) sense of Sammy’s meaning here is that he’s grasping for a romantic relationship that is absolutely shorn of all cultural prescriptions.

Of course–in that end–they fail miserably.

However, at least they get to live with this awesome cat.


Oh–before I hit “publish”–I feel compelled to mention one of the greatest soliloquy set-pieces in P & P’s oeuvre… In the tradition of Anton Walbrook’s narrative of his journey from Nazi Germany to his beloved (and now deceased) wife’s homeland, Renee Asherson tore my heart out with her short-hand notes from an experiment gone awry.


I love that woman (although I must admit, when she first appeared on the screen, I thought she was Glynis Johns–whom I also love…)

Good afternoon friends!


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Val Lewton (and director Mark Robson)’s The Seventh Victim is a deeply divisive film. Extravagantly praised by some (although, to tell ya the truth, I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate this gently nihilistic slice of quotidian terror), it is just as often treated as a weak link in the Lewton series (generally by critics who deplore its choppy, bordering-on-incoherent narrative).

I want to tip my cap to Ed Howard for articulating his sense of the film’s “disjunctive” storytelling style–its strategy of narrative-progression-through-digression. He’s quite right. It’s a relay race through subjectivities (to the finish line of Lewton’s oft-quoted summation of the film: “Death is good”) that plays like an ultra-compressed precursor of my all-time favourite film, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (which I read “super-oneirically”–in what remains my favourite on-line discussion–against the grain of the generally-accepted psychological–dream/reality–interpretation of the film, ably presented by Charles Reece).

Like Mulholland Dr., The Seventh Victim begins deep within the consciousness of a naive, curious and ultimately very forceful young woman. Kim Hunter’s Mary Gibson is really a unique presence (although she shares a number of traits with Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt–the ONLY female character in Hitchcock’s oeuvre who succeeds in “hijacking” the narrative–i.e. overpowering the director’s famed voyeuristic eye… amazingly–both of these movies premiered during the same week in August 1943!), a genuinely feminist agent (rather than the ultimately reactionary–because they reinforce male supremacy–“strong women” that Howard Hawks specialized in giving us). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the counter scene, in which she tells genial proto-patriarch Hugh Beaumont (who patronizingly asks her to drink her milk), “I don’t like to be ordered to do anything.” It’s an amazing moment–on a number of levels. Right on the surface, you just don’t SEE women in films from this period reacting to paternalistic “kindness” in this way. If a woman does assert her rights, it’s because the man has blatantly invited her ire (and often not even then). But on a more metatextual level, I like to read the milk as a rejection of the entire gothic noir tradition of female victimization represented by 1941’s Suspicion (whose most vivid scene features Joan Fontaine dutifully quaffing a glass of the white stuff that she suspects has been poisoned).


Time and again (and the fact that the whole movie only lasts 71 minutes always shocks me, because it literally contains multitudes), the story shows us Mary disarming and taking control of situations that genre and cultural expectations lead us to expect will overwhelm her——her bemused farewell to the clock as she leaves the sinister private school; her complete mastery–to the point that she actually orders him to his death–of Lou Lubin’s Irving August–introduced as a “wise guy” who seems likely to take her for a ride, but who exits as a soft-spoken and really quite tragic martyr to Mary’s strength (a fact that she recognizes and incorporates into her self-image, without allowing this knowledge to undermine her essential stance vis-a-vis the world); her deflection of Beaumont’s smugly proprietary maneuvers; her brazen invasion of the perfume works–worming information out of the always-wonderful Isabel Jewell; and her ability to go toe-to-toe with–and even coax some pretty decent behaviour out of–Tom Conway’s reborn Louis Judd (Simone Simon needed to become a monstrous panther before she could deal with him in Cat People.)

Mary Gibson is a complete hero. She is sensitive–and yet, she is not fazed by dire events. She makes mistakes and takes note of them. She completes investigatory tasks–and knows when to delegate them to others. And yet–she is in no way the complete film…

Because The Seventh Victim knows how to delegate as well.

Again, like Mulholland Dr., Lewton’s (and I do think it’s fair to call this Lewton’s film, rather than Robson’s, because the producer is completely responsible for its structure) story stretches across (at least) three separate subjectivities. Proponents of the Wizard of Oz-in-reverse interpretation of the Lynch film ignore the fact that Betty, Diane AND Adam all have a go at carrying the narrative. In The Seventh Victim, the key players are Mary, Jason (the Poet) and (Mary’s sister) Jacqueline (played by the enigmatic Jean Brooks).

the-foot-of-danteseventhvictim(She looks a lot like Hope Davis, doesn’t she?)

I’ve read criticisms on the IMDB from viewers who were annoyed that the film does not seem to know whose story is being told–and that’s a valid criticism if you’re proceeding upon psychological realist assumptions–however, I would submit that no one ought to watch this movie through that lens. To wit–The Seventh Victim tells Lewton’s story… and tells it perfectly. I’m not talking about concealed biography here (although many of the film’s contemporary champions do exactly that)–I’m talking about a magnificently talented auteur dipping into a very rich stream of consciousness(es), baiting his narrative hook for a “live one” that is running (against the current) toward death (which, don’t forget, is “good”) at the appropriate speed. And he eventually finds her, in Jean Brooks’ refugee from Satanism.

But not before traveling through the middle term of Jason Hoag, the once-productive poet who has fallen upon hard times, but whose existential and creative spirit is revived by contact with Mary. As this figure takes the subjective baton from the woman he loves, and begins his investigation of Jacqueline’s disappearance, we observe the ways in which even a defective–or, let’s face it, delusional–imagination can preserve (prevent?) a mind from tumbling into the abyss (is that good?). Some viewers seem to resent this poet–and when people criticize the film’s dialog, they usually cite his lines. After all, this is a guy who says things like: “I was hoping that this [Mary’s visit to his apartment] was your advent into my world–and instead it’s goodbye.”


I guess that kinda stuff could bother people, but I love it. Jason’s dialog seems to exist in order to prove Mrs. Romari right–i.e. that poetry and clowning are in fact the same thing. I couldn’t agree more. Jason exists in a kind of charmed (charmed enough, anyway) limbo between Mary’s vigorous curiosity and Jacqueline’s clear-eyed ennui.

And while he’s bumbling about through the satanic/literary underworld (which encompasses former dead-man–from Cat People–Louis Judd), the film surveys a plethora of damaged people, each of whom has negotiated his or her own separate peace with the existential facts of life and death. In a sense, everyone we meet is a “missing person” (which explains the incredibly poetic pan–accompanied by mournful backstories–across the faces of Mary’s fellow-yearners at the Missing Persons Bureau). But what the camera (unlike Mary) is seeking, is not reconciliation, but renunciation.

And Lewton (through Nicholas Musuraca’s extraordinary cinematography–essential to the effectiveness of this entire series) hits paydirt (with pre-dug six-foot trench eyes) with Jacqueline Gibson. And once we obtain a firm lock on her–after her blip of an introduction during Mary’s part of the film–we stick with her pretty much to The (and her) End. And the most important thing about Jacqueline’s escape from the softly horrible world that Lewton gives us is that she chooses it. Like Mary, Jacqueline refuses to imbibe from the (here literally poisoned) fount of arbitrary authority, although she does weaken when her beloved Frances Fallon (echoes of The Miracle Woman‘s Florence Fallon–who saves David Manners from killing himself? probably not) begs her to cut the scene short.


But Jacqueline ain’t goin’ out like that–and her friend realizes at the last moment that she isn’t meant to. What follows, after the Satanists dismiss the film’s third and most lucid reflector from their lair, has always read, to me, as a psychodrama (designed to clarify Jacqueline’s understanding of the world she–and, Lewton implies, WE–cannot help but deplore), rather than as an actual assassination attempt. Her harrowing journey home, beset by mute knife wielders and noisy, insensitive clowns, sets the final seal upon this woman’s premeditated decision to kill herself.

Jacqueline doesn’t need those devil-worshipers to speed her on her way. And she’s not afraid of them–only of the deeply fearful attitude toward life that these lost souls embody. In fact, the film is at its most perceptive when it points out that Satanism–just like any other religion, including the cults of Art or Romantic Love–is simply one of many possible buffers against the existential truth that guides Jacqueline’s ultimate behaviour. (And how amazing is it that Lewton charges Conway’s sleazy Louis Judd with the task of rebuking the Satanists for failing to live up to the injunction–contained within the Lord’s Prayer–to forgive those who trespass against us? You could argue that he’s telling us to dismiss this moralistic speech as pure bosh–OR, you could take it seriously, as I do, as yet another echo, from an unexpected source, of my favourite Emersonian dictum, from “Experience”–i.e. as long as we’re here, and despite the fact that we really have no escape from the void of solipsism–“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are. “)

Earlier in the film, Beaumont tells Mary/Kim Hunter that Jacqueline’s sense of human dignity depends upon a person’s ability to take sole responsibility for putting an end to the affair, at the time of his/her choosing. Coupled with our brief glimpse of what’s behind the door of room number 7, and the symbolic meaning of Brooks’ nightwalk, this information lays the groundwork for one of the most bracing scenes in the Lewtonian canon (and, indeed, in the history of cinema), in which the outward bound Jacqueline and the stricken, going-out-on-the-town Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) cross paths on their respective sprints toward death. The moment somehow gathers everything that has come before it into a glitteringly multi-perspectival dramatization of existence at the frayed edges of the dream of intersubjectivity (or, if you’re more of an opti-mystic type, the intersubjective dream!)

good afternoon friends!


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Just a quick note here to point you in the direction of Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards’ excellent Podcast series–Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir.

I’m not nearly as interested in defining the style (or in assessing the ways in which various films fit into –as the eloquent authors put it–“the body of film noir”) as these public investigators are, but I love the gusto with which they attack their task.

Lots of interesting stuff in the episodes I’ve listened to thus far: including a debate about Dick Powell’s suitability for the role of Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (I’m decidedly pro-Powell–he’s my favourite Marlowe); plus great discussions of the ironic aspects of Mate’s D.O.A. (and important information about DVD transfers of this horribly-mistreated masterpiece), Siodmak’s use of mirrors in The Killers, and Huston’s awesome “long takery” in The Maltese Falcon.

very highly recommended!


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DeJa Lou (Lubin)?

DeJa Lou (Lubin)?

As obsessed as I am with Dieterle, Borzage, Vidor, Lynch, Capra, Fritz Lang, Dreyer, Cassavetes, Sternberg, Wyler, Powell and Pressburger, George Stevens, Sirk, Milestone, McCarey, LaCava, Preston Sturges, Ray, Goulding, Hitchcock, Preminger, Sofia Coppola, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Dmytryk, Minnelli, Jacques Tourneur and many others, I am probably even more interested in star personae. So it was entirely in character for me to jump from A Matter of Life and Death to another Kim Hunter vehicle from the mid-1940s.

Thanks to the magic of avi files, I wound up screening When Strangers Marry–a pretty fascinating Monogram film (directed by a very young William Castle) from 1944. Fascinating in itself and in its intertextual ramifications. How to describe this movie? I’d say it’s about 20% Suspicion, 20% Shadow of a Doubt and 60% Lewton and Robson’s The Seventh Victim.

The first 40% of that equation makes perfect sense, of course, because we know that Poverty Row survived by ripping off the Majors on a systematic basis–but WSM‘s debt to the previous year’s Lewton entry is quite surprising. The movie is one of my absolute favourites–definitely in my personal Top 25 (my next entry will focus on The Seventh Victim proper)–but everything I’ve ever read indicates that it was a commercial (and even critical) failure. In fact, it still doesn’t appear to be nearly as well-regarded as it ought to be (I love pretty much all of the Lewton films–but, for me, Robson’s debut film represents the apex of the series). Anyway, since there can’t have been much cachet in ripping off Seventh Victim in 1944, I have to assume that Castle did it for the pure love of the thing! (Perhaps he deserves credit as the movie’s first critical champion?)

Of course, at least half of that 60% (I seem to be exuding faux-mathematical hubris this morning) is Kim Hunter’s developing persona (which didn’t actually develop very fully, since she spent most of her career on the stage, even before the blacklisting nonsense), which is quite unique (although it shares certain features with another of my favourites–Teresa Wright). 7V established the template by casting her as, basically, a low-key, intellectual Nancy Drew transplanted to the noir city, and unbeholden to any patriarchal authority. In both films, she begins as a somewhat naive and tentative young woman who quickly grows into a force to be reckoned with by soaking up the shadows that envelop her low-budget New York night sets–through a kind of photo(graphy)synthesis.

She also shares strangely lyrical scenes with Lou Lubin in both movies.

"You could go on"

"You could go on"

I love that little guy (and I wouldn’t even know his name without the IMDB)

Anyway, I won’t say too much more about When Strangers Marry, because I doubt that ANY of you have actually seen it–and I really do recommend it! It’s not on the level of any of the movies it borrows from, but it’s not too far off the mark either. Hunter is absolutely perfect; there are some very nice early noir montages; and Castle generates some top-notch suspense set pieces, particularly on the cab ride and at the mail chute. The movie also anticipates many noirs of the LATE 1940s by dropping in on a Harlem night club. And Dean Jagger contributes some very nice mystery man stuff.

Hunted or Hunter?

Hunted or Hunter?

The Jagger Edge

The Jagger Edge


Plus there’s Robert Mitchum (in what must be his first quasi-starring role in a decent film) and his excellent canine friend:


Next up–The Seventh Victim!!

Good afternoon friends!


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Why So Crawfordian?

Why So Crawfordian?

I finally sat down with Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon this weekend–and man, was it good! I don’t know why I was surprised–none of the director’s Fox noir stuff has ever failed to thrill me–but, somehow, I had low expectations for this one. Part of it, undoubtedly, was caused by the lingering effects of overexposure to Leslie Halliwell‘s obtuse worldview as a child (stay tuned for a weekly-series type thing: The Halliwell Hate-on! You can play too!). But an even more nagging doubt was rooted in the fear that Joan Crawford and Otto Preminger might do grievous harm to one another…

The region 1 DVD contains some excellent supplementary materials, including a commentary track by Foster Hirsch that addresses exactly this concern. The genial scholar takes pains to point out the ways in which the director works to keep Joan’s very un-Premingerian emotionalism under wraps (notably by giving her lots of bits of physical business to tie her to his meticulously blocked scenes and keep her fury from taking flight), and there’s definitely some merit in these observations. Of course, the question then becomes, why cast Joan Crawford if you want a “cooler” star? (like Preminger perennial Gene Tierney) The answer, of course, is that Daisy Kenyon wouldn’t work with Gene Tierney. Not, at least, as well as the film that we do have.

Ya see, the (to quote Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story) blank unholy surprise about DK is that, while Preminger does get a tremendously civilized performance out of Crawford for most of the film’s running time, he also lets her go nova at exactly the right time. Look at that image above. Is Norma Shearer in her headlights? Baby Jane? An alien invasion force?


She’s just… “clearing her head.” (with a little help from a quasi-intentional “death-roll” right off the interstate)

And it’s so right–a fitting climax to a genuinely nerve-wracking tale of emotional undecidability (the Bermuda of romantic triangles!) Hirsch–who wrote a biography of Preminger–disagrees here, arguing that the scene’s not quite the tour-de-force that it needs to be, precisely because this kind of grand gesture sticks in the director’s craw(ford)

In a sense, he’s absolutely right–this is not the canonical Preminger’s cup of tea. On the other hand, I don’t see any evidence of that on the screen. As far as I’m concerned, the sequence works amazingly well. This may be one of those instances in which the psychological pieties of auteurist interpretation have played havoc with a critic’s perceptions. Then again, perhaps my determination NOT to toe the auteurist line is leading me down the garden path (and right into a ditch)?

You be the judge, dear reader/viewer!

But enough of that! The main thing I wanted to examine here is the age old question of “what’s in a noir”? (this would have provided the material for Juliet’s next set of musings, if Romeo–never much of cinephile–hadn’t interrupted her)

Here again, Daisy Kenyon now seems invaluable–if only because Fox slipped it into their Fox Noir series of DVDs.

Of course the noiristas on the IMDB (and, I’m certain, elsewhere) are out for blood! The studios are polluting the pure black stream of cinspiration with their endless attempts to capitalize on bleak nostalgia. Is every shadowy film of the late 1940s a noir?

No. Of course not. Or, then again, just maybe: “yes.”

It seems to me that some of these people are getting a little more caught up in the details of the plot than is good for them. As we know, “noir” is not a genre (genres are consciously produced by studios–while “film noir” is a concept imposed retroactively by scholars), and thus has no business being defined that way. Or anyway, that’s how I feel about it. Noir, to me, is pretty much all cinematography. A way of looking at filmed events that took a firm grip on many Hollywood filmmakers during an extremely horrifying time in human history (all times are horrifying, of course, but some of them are more self-consciously so than others)

To wit–noir is this:

vlcsnap-5412287Isn’t it?

Look at those faces (I dare ya! You can’t SEE them!) Look at that mailbox–or is it a coffin?

That’s a noir scene.

And then again–it’s just a run-of-the-mill date between two bewildered people. (there are hundreds of sequences like this–set in cities and small towns that all have exactly the same ratio of bricks to leaves to desperation–in the movies of the 1940s… one of my favourites is in Dieterle’s I’ll Be Seeing You–which I’m due to re-watch very soon) But isn’t that the point of noir? It’s not that crime and vice are rampant–that’s not a new thing in films in the 1940s–it’s that life has become perilously close to meaningless for a larger number of Americans than it ever had been before (AND that, in true existentialist–or should I say Transcendentalist, which is sort of the same thing–fashion, Hollywood quickly found its way to the beauty in that meaninglessness…)

Anyway, given that (possibly idiosyncratic) construction of film noir, Daisy Kenyon qualifies as a paragon of the style. This is a story of almost exclusively “nice people,” desperate to live well and treat each other properly, who nevertheless fail to reap the expected rewards of such behaviour. (i.e. the amazing scene in which the newly coupled Fonda and Crawford admit that they are using each other–mutuality is the one thing that no one has a prayer of achieving in this film) Some of the scenes in the script–especially the many three-way chats between the principles–might “read-through” like Noel Coward set pieces; but the characters, despite the Cowardlike (Cowardly?) situations–are, I repeat, genuinely admirable–not formula philanderers/madcaps disconnected from the plebes.

Yes, Dana Andrews is playing a rich adulterer, but he’s an intelligent, friendly, idealistic (fighting for the rights of a California Nisei dispossessed of his farm during the War) and loving (with his kids–who are being abused behind his back by his wife) adulterer…The actor is a revelation here. I mean, he’s always good, but he didn’t usually get a chance to spread out emotionally this way–and he nails every single opportunity that he’s given in this one. Fonda is a (slightly) less hysterical version of his The Long Night self here (although, if you, like me–and, undoubtedly, many moviegoers in 1947–watch DK with the Litvak film in your memory banks, you can’t help expecting him to go off any minute, especially once he starts doing things like following her to movie theatres and waking up in crazed, nightmarish cold sweats–and it seems to me that Preminger makes perfect use of that metatextual element to sustain tension). But he’s also fun and quite charming at times–there’s a (still shadow-laden–about 90% of the movie takes place in the dark) moment at a nightclub when he tells Crawford “I think I’ll kiss your neck” that’s really quite disarming. Meanwhile, Joan anchors the film with her determinedly sensible performance, serving, strangely enough, as the audience surrogate as she takes the measure of these complex men. Hirsch is right when he argues that they have by far the more interesting roles–although I think he underestimates the value of Crawford’s car ride, the existence of which trumps all of the “civilized” stuff that has preceded it (and that will follow). In going off the road, besieged by the imagined sound of would-be lovers on the telephone, she conveys the real psychological cost of the loss of faith in the possibility that any of the choices we have to make here on earth (symbolized by the various romantic configurations offered by the plot) can really take us anywhere we want to go.

good night friends!


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