Monday, October 16, 2017

Georges Simenon: The Father of European Noir


I'm really proud to be associated with the Film Noir Foundation and its journal NOIR CITY. Published and edited by FNF honcho and host of TCM's NOIR ALLEY Eddie Muller, it's one of the best movie journals around. The new issue is out and it's pretty damn great. There two pieces by Imogen Sara Smith, who's certainly my favorite writer on film working today. She's got a piece on Jean-Pierre Melville and another on the 1929 silent noir A STRONG MAN. Alan K. Rode writes about the great, if not widely known, screenwriter Frank Fenton. And there's a lot more.

Oh yeah, there's me. I have a couple pieces in this issue. One is a epic overview of the massive influence of Georges Simenon on European film noir. Adaptations of his novels started with Jean Renoir in the early days of sound and have extended to the present, so there's A LOT of territory to cover. It was a blast to write.

The other piece is a look at the film version of ALL THE KING'S MEN, the film about a blowhard populist politician who sweeps to power by inflaming his white rural base. Total fantasy stuff.   

You can learn about about the magazine and the Film Noir Foundation here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THE BLANK WALL, THE RECKLESS MOMENT, and THE DEEP END

above: Joan Bennett in a publicity still for THE RECKLESS MOMENT

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 THE BLANK WALL might be the best classic noir novel that most noir fans have never read. It's a masterpiece of its kind, one the best examples of what some feminist critics call the "domestic noir," that subgenre of crime fiction and film that concerns itself with the secret world of the happy American housewife.

Holding's book was made into the brilliant 1949 Joan Bennett noir THE RECKLESS MOMENT, and was then adapted fifty years later into the excellent 2001 Tilda Swinton neo-noir THE DEEP END. Three very different works of high quality. That's an incredible feat. 

I wrote about the book and its cinematic legacy in a recent piece for the Book vs Film column for the magazine Noir City. Here's a link to the article. Check it out. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

OPEN SECRET (1948)


When director John Reinhardt returned from his military service after World War II, he began making films that were different in tone from the kind of movies he’d specialized in before the war. In his early days in Hollywood, Reinhardt had worked in the rather obscure world of foreign film production at big studios like Fox and Paramount, mostly making small Spanish-language comedies and musicals. During the war, Reinhardt had worked for the OSS under the command of John Ford. When he returned to movie making in 1947, however, Reinhardt began toiling in the world of low budget independent productions. His work from that time forward would be darker, suffused with a sense of paranoia, overhung by a deep pessimism.

His 1948 thriller OPEN SECRET is an underrated entry in the run of films dealing with anti-Semitism that were released after the war (and following the revelations of the Nuremberg Trials). Studio pictures like CROSSFIRE and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT had already brought the subject into American movie theaters, but OPEN SECRET, in its low rent way, is a more honest handling of the topic.

The story follows newlyweds Paul and Nancy Lester (John Ireland and Jane Randolph) who have arrived in an unnamed town to visit Ed, Paul’s old Army buddy. When Ed goes missing, Paul and Nancy start poking around. Turns out Ed has some pretty unsavory connections to a gang of white supremacists who operate out of a nearby dive bar called The 19th Hole. Did Ed really fall for neo-Nazi claptrap? How does a local Jewish storeowner named Strauss (George Tyne) figure into this?

Like many of Reinhardt’s independent productions, OPEN SECRET has a quick running time (67 minutes), a notably small budget, and limited sets. Reinhardt uses the constraints to great effect, though, to create a mood of near constant oppression and claustrophobia. The very smallness of the film becomes a reflection of the smallness of the lives of the characters. Consider The 19th Hole. Strauss sarcastically calls it the “local country club.” What it actually is, though, is a dank, dimly lit box where a group of haggard-looking men sit around drinking and blaming the waste of their lives on “foreigners.” Beneath plumes of cigarette smoke they stare into shot glasses and grumble about their shrinking prospects.

If the film demonstrates the best qualities of Reinhardt’s work, it also bears some of his flaws as well. As is almost always the case, his female characters are weak and underdeveloped. Nancy Lester is a watery leading lady who is on hand mostly to wait around for her husband. The character actress Anne O’Neal lurks around corners as Ed’s landlady, but while her presence adds to the claustrophobia of the piece, there’s really nothing to her character besides her lurking. The one moment with a female character that rings true is an effective speech by Helena Dare as the abused wife of one of the gang members wherein she explains that he knocks her around to make himself feel big — tying his domestic abuse to the white male supremacy line his crew promulgates.

In a sense, of course, a film like OPEN SECRET was several years too late. Had this same film been released in 1940 it likely would have been so controversial it would have been the subject of Congressional hearings. After the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, however, any statement against anti-Semitism and Nazism was rendered rather toothless. You don’t get many points for being right after the fact.

And yet, what makes OPEN SECRET an interesting film is the very fact that it follows the defeat of the Nazis but exists in a world where racism and bigotry are ongoing plagues. (In 2017, it must be said, the film feels uncomfortably relevant.) Among Reinhardt’s noirs, this is perhaps his darkest film — quite literally, since cinematographer George Robinson blankets the picture in shadows. The film begins on the street at night, and it ends the same way. In between those points there probably aren’t ten minutes of daylight in the whole picture. In John Reinhardt’s noirs, it’s always midnight in America.

Postscript: A quick word about George Tyne. In this film, he plays the plucky storeowner who helps Ireland bring down the gang. A few years after making this film, however, he was himself brought down by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was named as a Communist by actor Lee J. Cobb, and when he was called before Congress he refused to name names. He was cited for contempt of Congress and indicted by a federal grand jury in New York City. After being blacklisted he didn’t make another film for thirteen years.

NOTE: The film has recently been restored and preserved by UCLA and will be showing on Oct. 14th and 16th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of its UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017. 


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OUT OF THE PAST at 70


Get thee to a newsstand to pick up the Fall issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and check out my article on OUT OF THE PAST. The film is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, a good reason to explore how and why it has become perhaps the most beloved noir of them all. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950)


And here we have Suffering Saint Joan once more being led to the gallows. Joan Crawford spent most of her time in film noir enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In the thirties, she’d be a glamorous figure—a romantic icon on par (and often paired) with Gable. But by the late forties and early fifties when she made her transition into film noir, she was no longer anyone that the audience was supposed to want to emulate. She was there to suffer—either because of her own sins or because of fate itself. Either way, you knew things weren’t going to end well.

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is an entry in the Tramp Sleeps Her Way To The Top subgenre of film noir. On paper, it might seem like this would be the most sexist of femme fatale offshoots. And, to be sure, there are sexist undertones to the whole affair. This movie tells the story of an unhappily married working-class woman named Ethel Whitehead. After she loses her child in an accident, Ethel leaves her husband and strikes out on her own. She gets a job modeling clothes at one of those places where a rich married man buys an outfit for the wife and tries to rent the model for himself. Ethel starts running through these guys, picking up dinner and some cash, until she can position herself to come into some real money. Eventually, this leads her into a relationship with some shady characters like George Castleman (David Brian) and Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Both of these guys have feelings for her, but she’s always working an angle. Soon enough, though, she underestimates one of them, and then pretty much everything goes to hell.

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and films like it have a structure that is one part cliché and one part Production Code mandate. Throughout the classic period of noir, ambition was treated with a mixture of admiration and distain, and ambitious women got it especially rough. A movie like this has a simple message: a woman is not supposed to leave her husband, no matter what, and certainly not because she wants a better life. She will invariably find that no such life exists, that only heartache and pain await her in the end.

These hoary old clichés went back to the earliest days of film, and by 1950 the Production Code had long since turned them into law. The woman who would use sex to get what she wants from men is a woman who must be punished.

And yet.

What makes THE DAMNED DON’T CRY interesting is the way it does due diligence to the mandate for moral comeuppance while at the same time placing us in the corner of the beleaguered protagonist. This film would make a good companion piece to the 1956 WICKED AS THEY COME starring Arlene Dahl in a similar role. Both movies situate their damned and wicked women in dire economic circumstances and then watch as they try to fight their way out with the only weapon they have: sex. There’s a subversive element to both movies. Though both have obligatory punishment at the end, there’s no doubt whose side we’re on. It’s strange, really, how these films work. By the end, they’ve become tragedies of a certain noir hue.

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is powered by Crawford’s performance. Here was a movie star. She can play it halting and sweet—as in the early scenes with her young son. And she can play it mean and dirty. The movie gives her a lot of lines that crackle, as when she sets one hapless suitor straight on his world view:
I know how you feel. You're a nice guy. But the world isn't for nice guys. You've got to kick and punch and belt your way up because nobody's going to give you a lift. You've got to do it yourself, because nobody cares about us except ourselves.
Crawford sells these lines with the combined weight of twenty years of playing scrappy working girls. Of course, she herself had lived a similar life. When she says this, you’re hearing the weight of her own life behind the words. Crawford helped, uncredited, on the script by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, from the story by Gertrude Walker.

After this film there was more suffering to be done—in film noirs like SUDDEN FEAR or melodramas like AUTUMN LEAVES or Nicholas Ray’s gonzo western JOHNNY GUITAR—and beyond that lay the indignities of her late career horror movie roles. Here, though, you have her in something of her noir prime. We’re not supposed to like her, but we do. That was Suffering Saint Joan’s genius.


Monday, August 21, 2017

DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1951)


It’s easy to get in over your head when you’re only five foot two. Mickey Rooney found that out the hard way in the fifties. For much of the preceding decade he had been the chipper face of American optimism—the fast-talking little guy with the can do attitude. But Hollywood started to go dark around the time that Rooney’s star persona began to decline in public favor. Of course, the public would always like Mickey Rooney, but the postwar years coincided with the end of Rooney’s unnaturally long adolescence (only as he neared thirty years old did he age out of spunky teenager roles). He began taking on adult roles, and that meant occasional forays into Noir City. He made the excellent QUICKSAND in 1950, and then in 1954 he hit the jackpot with DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.
           
In the film, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie’s caught the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Diane Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. Eddie balks at first, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara. He joins the gang for the bank heist.

What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money, oddly enough for a film noir, isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout and the violence that follows it are really over matters of love.

In QUICKSAND, Rooney played another mechanic who meets the wrong woman and ends up suffering for it, but in that film, he’s still got some spring in his step. Here, though, we find him playing a very different kind of role. Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. The film uses none of the usual tricks to disguise the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him. But the film uses his diminutive stature as a physical representation of his essential character. Shannon is quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. Eddie Shannon is a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.

This makes his relationship with Barbara all the more tense. What ratchets up the emotional stakes, though, are Barbra’s conflicted feelings about her assignment. She seduces the sad little mechanic, but it’s a seduction of the heart. The two don’t even share a kiss. They talk, and she invites Shannon to dream big dreams for the first time in his life. He falls in love, not lust. We get the sense this job would be easier on her if it was only physical. Dianne Foster didn’t make much of an impact in films before being relegated to television and then retiring in the mid-sixties, but make no mistake about it: she was a hell of an actress. Her performance here is topnotch.

The entire film is topnotch. The bank robbery, for instance, gains tension by staying in the car with the getaway driver. And the mad dash that follows the robbery, as Shannon and the robbers race down a twisted back road in order to get to the highway before roadblocks can be set up, is a nail-biting blend of back projection and stunt driving. This kind of thing was often done badly in older films (indeed, the first shots of this movie are a pretty poor display of sloppy back projection), but Shannon’s race through the desert is a fine piece of action direction.

The film was directed by Richard Quine and written by Quine and his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards (James Benson Nablo). Both Quine and Edwards started out as actors, and both usually specialized in comedy. This might explain the wealth of snappy lines in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, as when Norris tells a drunk girl at a party, “Dear love, why don’t you go somewhere and pass out like a lady?” It doesn’t explain, though, the aura of heartbreak that hovers over the film. This is one of the saddest of noirs — the story of lonely man who’s taken for a sucker by a gang of sharks. Throughout, Quine directs with intelligence and restraint. The final scenes here, as Shannon confronts the woman he loves and finds out the awful truth about her and the handsome bank robber, are both exciting and tragic. 

Richard Quine was himself a tragic case. A gifted director, his life was beset by misfortune. In 1945, his wife, actress Susan Peters, accidently shot and crippled herself in a hunting accident. As Peters fell into a deep depression, their marriage faltered and after they divorced in 1948, Peters got worse and in 1952 starved herself to death. Quine struggled to find his equilibrium. Working at Columbia he was confined mostly to comedies, though in 1954 he made both DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD and the excellent Fred McMurray/Kim Novak film PUSHOVER. During PUSHOVER, he had a brief but intense affair with Novak that ended with her leaving him at the altar. Quine eventually married actress Fran Jeffries, and directed a string of successful comedies, but he remained a fundamentally sad, troubled man. In 1989, he shot and killed himself in his home in Beverly Hills.

Rooney’s career continued its decline after this film, of course, and he never came close to reclaiming his box office mantle. Perhaps more importantly, he never really reclaimed his place in the culture. As the years have gone on, the Andy Hardy movies that made him an American symbol are more and more relics of the past. They have historical importance, of course, but I don’t get the sense that Mickey Rooney has had anything like the longevity of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. A lot of kids still watch Temple. And every kid I know still loves the THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is just lucky that he got teamed so many times with Garland before she outgrew him.

All of which is to say that as Rooney’s big hits dim in the distance, there is more room to evaluate some of his later work. And his work in noir — particularly QUICKSAND and the 1951 musical noir THE STRIP — are very good. And one film, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD — might be the best thing he ever did.

Note: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD will be showing next week at Noir City Chicago.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Jake Hinkson on NOIR TALK


I was pleased to be a recent guest on the podcast NOIR TALK. Host Haggai Elitzur and I discussed my profiles of Tom Neal and Peggie Castle, my adventures on book tours in France, what it's like to attended Noir City Chicago, and much more. Check it out here.