Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Black and White and All Over

There is a piece in the newest Newsweek that shines a light on the dirty practice of rereading (dirty, rotten and tawdry because there is always so much new material begging to be read, and yup, it's a sin not be reading it), revisiting books read once, or even twice, for the easy pleasures of re-enlightenment, confirmation of greatness, or the simple scraping up of the bits and pieces that remain ensconced in daydreams and random back thoughts. Film Noir is a lot like that, the movie genre that isn’t really a genre, movies ill-defined and roughly grouped together because of shared tones, similar themes, certain visual characteristics, and a variety of filmic elements that make this movie pure noir to me and that movie all about noir to you. Like much Hollywood studio product, film noir efforts almost demand repeated viewings—the better to detail the corrosive themes, the atypically descending story arcs, the expressionistic cinematography, the puzzling feel of hypnotic hopelessness that surges through noirs, both minor and major. Thanks to a recent noir gifting from my California-based pallie Mattman, I’ve once again found myself prowling along darkened alleys and ever wet streets, visiting ill-lit docks and crummy second floor office spaces, essentially withdrawing from the healing powers of the sun while twisting my soul in encounters with hardboiled professionals, doppelgangers, femme fatales, and, again and again, world weary saps and suckers. Yeah brother, I’ve spent the last week being black and white all over.

Cry Danger (1951). Dick Powell as Rocky, just out of a five year stint for which he was framed, back to L.A. with revenge and detection in mind, archetypical tight-lipped, hardboiled, grimly determined and thoroughly obsessive. Director Robert Parrish eschews much of the typical nighttime lighting and a large portion of the story unfolds during the day, but it all occurs under a languorous California daytime sky, under which just about everybody in sight is a liar, a con, a betrayer, all of them uncovered in a mere 79 minutes as the extremely deadpan Powell rights his particular wrong in one itty bitty corner of a mouse-trapped world.

Alias Nick Beal (1949). John (father of Mia) Farrow was yet another middle-of-the-road, journeymen type, but as it occurred so often, his abilities arched a little higher while shooting a noir. This is indeed a strange entry, a supernatural noir, with Ray Milland at his crackling, dapper best as the devil-- first tempting and then curdling man-of-the-people politician Thomas Mitchell, and Audrey Trotter as a particularly hard-edged prostitute. The last second, kinda/sorta, positive finale doesn’t come close to erasing the corpulent scent that preceded it.

Wicked Woman (1953). Wop-bop-a-loom-bam, a first time viewing for me, at it knocked me right back. As raw and unfettered as Detour, with Beverly Michaels (writer/director Russell Rouse’s then wife), a platinum blond Amazon who is equal parts repellant and sexy-scary, planting her long legs, two outfits, and totally crooked smile in front of every guy-in-sight’s peepers, reducing the thick-necked and hard-rocked Richard Egan into a strikingly limp noodle. Another sundrenched noir, but hard as rain and sharp as a rusty nail, with only a half dozen settings and slathered with a sticky resonance akin to a just emptied shot glass. So very bad, and also awful (call it The Detour Factor), that it it’s really good, best illustrated by stock character guy, the short. rotund and perennially squeaky Percy Helton’s joyful descent into the dark side, so cool and disturbing that David Lynch probably rewatches this one when he’s eating his Sunday breakfast.

Angel Face (1953). Robert Mitchum was just about carved out for noir—the perpetual guy out of the past, the big dog that winds up kicked around like a sick puppy, the sad-eyed figure of the working class; who in noir (or anywhere else) ever accepted his bleak fate more manfully resigned and than Big Bob? Mitchum seemed readymade for the existential reality of post-World War II America; he in fact stood strong as a wordless cinematic poet in the precipitous slide into nothingness. (That's a mouthful, but really, no kidding.) With the masterful Otto Preminger etching the dark touches of fevered melodrama onto the proceedings, and the otherworldly loveliness of Jean Simmons as psychopathic temptress, this one almost climbs the haunting heights of the Preminger’s true noir classic, Laura. It’s that close, man.

Criss Cross (1949). Burt Lancaster, as another beautifully macho lost noir soul awash in the wiles of a predatory femme fatale (Yvonne DeCarlo) and the inescapable grips of his own fatalism. It’s a drab world, punctuated only be DeCarlo’s overwhelming sexuality, bursts of violence, and the ripening odor of ill-gotten gains. Robert Rossen (Body and Soul), ably abetted by a near perfect Milkos Rozsa score, frames Lancaster (and the other attendant dark shadows), despite or because of his inherent brute force, as yet another through-the-glass-darkly noir sucker, plunging headfirst into a quagmire of futility. One, among many, of Lancaster voice-overs sings out another line in that long versed siren song of noirs: “From the start, it all went one way.” Baby, ain’t that the cold, hard truth.

(By the way, tip of the dapper hat to Karl Malden, one time steel worker, a stage vet who made the easy transition to movies despite/because of his one-of-a-kind schnoz, a major league supporting player with a true center of gravity, a character guy who could ham it up and grind it down, and one of the few actual actors who made it into The Marlon Brando Respect Club.)


Anonymous said...

Wow, Scotty, this is some obscure shit--I've never even heard of these, and you know I am a fan of the noir. I'm going to Netflix right now to see if I can hunt them down.

mattman5000 said...

My first intro to CRISS CROSS was sev yrs back at a Robert Siodmak retro @ LACMA, and it turned out to be my favorite of his. Man, that guy knew how to create atmosphere peppered with tense, taught storytelling. Plus I'll watch nearly anything with Dan Duryea, who always makes a great heavy. Percy Helton shows up in this one as well and for about two seconds in ALIAS NICK BEAL as the lawyer. Favorite line from BEAL: "He came from out there." Wish they still made 'em like these!