Monday, 30 October 2017

Movie-watch: The Grønmark Blog goes all noir! (Part One) - Where the Sidewalk Ends, Nightmare Alley, The Hitch-Hiker and Suddenly

It was in  my late twenties that I first began to question the prevailing view that writers and film directors who portrayed life as a sort of painful disease were brave, unflinching and edgy. It struck me that trying to find some meaning to our existence might be a more difficult and courageous thing for artists to do. Rather than bum us out with the frankly tedious message "Life's shit, and then you die", they might, I concluded, more usefully be trying to make us laugh or scare the pants off us: why set out to make people feel thoroughly miserable? I can take almost any amount of pain and suffering in art, as long as there's some suggestion of possible redemption, justice or fulfilment - a hint of meaning in all the misery (as long as it doesn't involve a crude political message). I never went full Mary Whitehouse...

... but I fell out of love with bleakness as entertainment, especially when it came with a patina of cynical coolness, plus lashings of alcohol, lots of cigarettes and great-looking clothes. Consequently, my adolescent ardour for film noir cooled. Not entirely, of course - but I certainly became more selective in what I admired.

We'll I've noir-ed more in recent weeks than in the preceding decade, and here's the first half of my round-up [*SPOILER ALERT* I give away the plot of every film I review here, so, if you think you might want to see them, I recommend just watching the trailers]:

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950): I've always assumed that I'd seen this, but it didn't ring any bells. It's pretty upmarket for noir, what with Otto Preminger directing and a script by Ben Hecht. Dana Andrews is glumly effective as the New York City detective who's warned by his boss that if there's one more complaint about him roughing up suspects he'll be back in uniform. Needless to say, Andrews kills the next suspect he questions - albeit inadvertently - and then tries to cover it up. Unfortunately, he falls for Gene Tierney, the dead man's estranged wife. Her father - a taxi driver who was angry with the way his son-in-law treated his daughter - gets charged with the murder.  Andrews is faced with the dilemma of letting the old man take the rap, or owning up. While not exactly upbeat, the ending is...satisfying: it doesn't leave one feeling that the world is a disgusting place where injustice rules. The whole thing, which reunites Andrews, Tierney and Preminger - the team responsible for the earlier noir hit, Laura - is tremendously assured and professional and moves along at a fair old lick.

Nightmare Alley (1947):  Great title - interesting film. Tyrone Power plays a total bastard, a conman who starts out as a carnival show barker. There's an early scene in which he gazes at the show's filthy, degraded, crazy "geek" in horrified fascination, wondering how "anyone can get so low" - which somewhat telegraphs where this is all heading. He develops a mind-reading act (after accidentally killing his predecessor), before becomes a highly-paid nightclub performer in Chicago, where, on the verge of conning a widowed businessman out of a fortune by masquerading as his spiritual guide, he screws up spectacularly. Conned out of all his money by a female partner-in-crime, he commits murder, flees town, and becomes an alcoholic hobo. Eventually, he walks into the office of another carnie operator, looking for work. There's only one job available, which is... well, you can guess. There's a nod towards hope right at the very end - but, by that stage, you feel the slimy creep deserves everything coming to him. I never much liked Tyrone Power in sympathetic roles, but he's excellent here. The film as a whole, though, is the cinematic equivalent of a geek - we stare at it in horrified fascination, and it's a relief to look away.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is a true gem. It's the first American film noir to be directed by a woman - Ida Lupino, who I wrote about recently, here - so it comes as a bit of a surprise that there are no female roles. Two chums, Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the chap who plays the title role in the Scandi-noir TV drama, Beck) are driving to Mexico on a fishing trip when they pick up a hitch-hiker - who turns out to be a spectacularly sadistic serial-killer. The two friends spends the whole film trying to get away from their tormentor - unsurprising, really, as he tells them he intends killing them. It's only 71 minutes long, and not a second is wasted: the tension is well-nigh unbearable. It's only a noir in terms of its atmosphere, snappy dialogue and a total lack of sentimentality: there's no "life is horrible"  subtext. The two friends are regular, standard-issue guys - everymen - while the killer is pure evil. Great little film.

Suddenly (1954): I'd never heard of this film,. It stars Frank Sinatra as a a contract killer, and Sterling Hayden as the uniformed cop in the sleepy little Californian town of Suddenly, where nothing ever happens. One day, secret service agents descend on the town, because the President is due to make a brief stop there on a train-journey to somewhere else. Frank Sinatra and two henchmen turn up at a house overlooking the station, claiming to be FBI agents. But the old man who lives there with his daughter and grandson is ex-secret service and smells a rat, which is when it all turns nasty. Sterling Hayden drops in (he's in love with the woman, who won't marry him because she's antigun because her husband died in the...oh, forget it) and becomes one of the kidnapees. Good, high-concept story, right? And, as it's only 77-minutes long, it should pack a real punch. But the dialogue stifles it long before the end, as the scriptwriter tries to flesh out the somewhat nutsoid former serviceman's motives for agreeing to off Da Prez. Who cares? This could have been a really terrific thriller, but the attempts to noir up the killer tend to suck the tension out of it. Pity.

Part two of my noir round-up is on its way...

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