Monday, 7 January 2019

Yet more classic Noir films, Part 2 - Raw Deal, Out of the Past, Night and the City, They Live By Night, and Vertigo

Raw Deal (1948) was directed by Anthony Mann, one of the truly great Hollywood directors (his five 1950s Jimmy Stewart westerns represent one of the most impressive bodies of work by any director). Dennis O'Keefe as a criminal who has escaped from prison is the only weakish link, while Clare Trevor (O'Keefe's moll), Marsha Hunt (his legal caseworker, whom O'Keefe kidnaps),  Raymond Burr (as the gang boss for whom he took the rap, and who owes him a share of the $50,000 take), and John Ireland (the sneering weasel who Burr tasks with killing O'Keefe) are all in superb form. Burr, in particular, is wonderful...

... as a sadistic, cowardly gangster man-mountain (seriously, they could have made a circus tent out of the material from just one of his suits), whose fiery demise is a particular pleasure. This is genuine, no-nonsense noir - tough as old boots and so visually shadowy, it's hard to believe that cinematographer John Alton (born Johann Altmann, in Hungary) would win an Oscar for his gleaming technicolour work on An American in Paris just three years later! WARNING: the following clip from Raw Deal features an act of violence which some readers might find upsetting - it predates a similarly shocking outrage committedd by Lee Marvin on Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat by five years:

I'll admit to having already seen Out of the Past (1947). My reason for watching it again was that I originally encountered it under its British title, Build My Gallows High - and, by the time I realised this was the same film, I was hooked. It was directed by Frenchman Jacques Tourneur, who had limbered up earlier in the '40s by helming three of producer Val Lewton's classic cheapie but ultra-stylish and creepily atmospheric series of RKO horror pictures: I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People and The Leopard Man (Tourneur would go on to direct one of my all time favourite British horror movies, Night of the Demon, 1957, based on the M.R. James story, "Casting the Runes").

Robert Mitchum is a former New York private eye who had made a new life for himself - complete with new name - contentedly running a petrol station in a small Californian town, where he is courting a sweet local girl.
Long story short: working for crooked businessman Kirk Douglas, Mitchum once tracked down Kirk's former girlfriend, Jane Greer, who - Douglas claimed - had stolen $40,000 from him. Jane turns out to be a classic noir femme fatale (noir women are generally very bad news). Greer ensnares Mitchum in her sticky, deceitful web (as in Angel Face, he's not exactly MENSA material), which is why he's now in hiding. But Kirk has tracked him down. It all ends as happily for Mitchum as it usually does in this sort of role. The film helped propel Douglas - basically unknown when he appeared in it - to stardom: he and Mitchum made a great team (without a hint of homo-eroticism). Absolutely classic noir, whatever title it goes by.

I'd half-seen Night and the City (1950), and I'm glad to have finally caught all of it. Directed by the blacklisted American Jules Dassin, it's basically a British film noir, set in London. It Richard Widmark as a pathetic hustler who gets in over his head by going into competition with top wrestling promoter Herbert Lom (it contains a brutal and very convincing wrestling sequence). The acting is all top-drawer - Widmark, in particular, impresses in a non-psychopathic role which requires far more than a sneer and a snigger, Frances L. Sullavan is as fat and fruity as ever as a Mr. Fixit night-club owner, the ever-dependable Googie Withers is effective as Sullavan's scheming estranged wife, and Herbert Lom is as great as ever playing a sadistic gangster being given a hard-time by his Greek ex-wrestler dad, who accuses him of turning an ancient, noble sport into cheap, phoney entertainment for ignorant suckers. I also enjoyed former wrestler, Mike Mazurki, as The Strangler, who eventually turns out to be Widmark's nemesis: I've always had a soft soft for Mazurki, who was so memorable in one of my favourite noirs, Farewell, My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet), as Moose Malloy, the endearingly dumb giant ex-con who hires Dick Powell's Phillip Marlowe to track down his lost love, Velma Valento.

If you have one hundred minutes to spare, you can watch the whole of Night and the City on YouTube. If not, here's a trailer to be getting on with (Goojy Withers, indeed!):

They Live by Night (1948) is apparently a celebrated noir, but I'd never heard of it. It stars liver-lipped pretty boy Farley Granger (the tennis pro husband in Hitchcock's  Strangers on a Train), and was the first feature film directed by Nicholas Ray. Granger plays a punk unfairly incarcerated for murder, who escapes from prison, goes on the lam with two fellow-escapees, and agrees to rob a bank with them (he needs the money to hire a lawyer to prove his innocence - doh!). Injured in a car accident, the young sap is nursed back to health by the daughter of a gas station owner, who then agrees to go into hiding with him. They marry and she has gets pregnant. Members of the gang - including Howard da Silva , a commie thug in real life, who's brilliant as a one-eyed alcoholic psychopath - catch up with him, and very bad things happen.

While the film demonstrates many of noir's strengths, it also displays some of its weakness - it's hard to empathise with stupid, self-pitying weaklings (Granger's perfect for the part, because there was always something weak and insecure about him, no matter what role he was playing), and, in this instance, while he may not have deserved to have been imprisoned for murder, he effectively compounds his problems by agreeing to take part in a bank robbery. Fool. Here's a taster:

Is Vertigo (1958) noir? Marginally, at best. I just mention it here because I've finally watched all of it - and my opinion hasn't changed: it's one of my least favourite Hitchcock films. It's not a patch on, for instance, Rear Window (1954), which also starred James Stewart, or North by North-West, made the following year - or any of a dozen other Hitchcock masterpieces and near-masterpieces. Jimmy Stewart does his best, but Kim Novak is as vacant and unengaging as always, and, while it contains many impressive set-pieces, the whole overwrought farrago of pseudo-Freudian tosh ends being irritating.

Hitchcock was at his best dealing with heroes who become embroiled in danger through no (or little) fault of their own. You could argue that this is sort of true of Stewart's former police detective - but you just want to tell him to stop being such an emotional cripple and just get on with his life. I suppose it might have worked better in black and white, but, really, the basic premise is so silly, the film was always doomed. How it has found itself at the top of so many critic's lists of Hitchcock's best films - in same cases, lists of great films by any director - is beyond me: and I'm a massive, lifelong Hitchcock fan. It was based on a French novel - nuff said!

That's enough noir for now - a change of genre next time: I might even do musicals, of which I've enjoyed a surprising number in recent months.


  1. I do like a bit of Noir.
    There's a reassuring familiarity about them. How many times have I heard "And then I saw her... "
    A dark thought occasionally crosses my mind:
    The Glass Key 1942.
    Guadalcanal 1942.
    Phantom Lady 1944.
    The Normandy Landings 1944.
    It's not only Noir but Hollywood in general. I suppose America is well.. America. Entertainment and War can coexist, just.

  2. Prompted by your phrase "overwrought farrago of pseudo-Freudian tosh", may I note that I read Agatha Christie's 1936 ABC Murders the other day. The BBC's Christmas TV version is so ghastly that I wanted to check how faithful it is to the original. Answer, about 0.2%, and that's being generous. The book isn't worth reading but – and the BBC made nothing of this – it does include a thorough debunking of Scotland Yard's psychological profiler, who contributes precisely nothing to the solution of the case.

    I used to get holiday jobs at the London Clinic in the early 1970s. Not as a surgeon, you understand. I was on reception, I was a porter, I assisted developing X-rays and I was a lift attendant. I had my back to the lobby one day while I updated a notice board when a voice interrupted me: "young man, could you tell me which room Mishish Gloria Shtooart ish in". It was Jimmy himself. Was he acting in any of those films you menshun? Or wosh that jusht him?

    I had to take Herbert Lom up in the lift one day. Neat, self-contained, he stood behind me, silent all the way to the 4th floor. Spooky? Yes. Sinister? Undoubtedly – hairs standing up on the back of my neck. But wrestling? I think even I would have had a good chance of winning a wrestling match against him.

    Your blog post provides only the most tenuous hook on which to hang the story of my encounter with Orson Welles. All I will say is that I still have the X-ray of his right hand. And that he was a man-mountain dressed all in loose-fitting black silk, which I can't imagine Mike Mazurki wearing.

    You mention They live by night. I thought as I read, yes, I've seen that. Wrong. They drive by night, an absolute clunker with Humphrey Bogart in it. That's the film I'd seen, with you I think, at the long gone Arts Cinema in Cambridge ...

    ... nearly as bad as Dark Passage, where an escaped prisoner gets a ride in a taxi and the driver happens to know a defrocked plastic surgeon who is prepared to operate on him there and then in the dead of night and does a fantastic job of turning him into Humphrey Bogart, thereby making him unrecognisable to Agnes Moorehead, who offers him accommodation never having met him before as far as she knows and who really did commit the murder for which he was wrongly sentenced. Even a Frenchman could have come up with a better plot than that.

  3. Really enjoyed your two film noir posts. I have only seen four of the seven you mention so must catch up.

    Kim Novak "vacant and unengaging". Hmmm...Did you ever see her dancing with William Holden in "Picnic"?

    When I saw Francis L. Sullivan in the trailer I was reminded of the number of fat actors blessed with wonderful voices - Laughton, Greenstreet, Willoughby Goddard [Landburger Gessler], James Robertson Justice and Peter Bull from the UK and the Americans - Orson Welles, Raymond Burr [born to play baddies], Robert Middleton [Griswold in The Court Jester, the Desperate Hours], James Earl Jones, Victor Buono and Rod Steiger [border-line fatty who was very good in film noir].

    Zero Mostel, Oliver Hardy and Peter Ustinov had neutral voices, but towering talents. I'll get back to you on Christopher Biggins.

    Finally, in "Out of the Past" Steve Brodie says:" a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle". Sounds great but I have no idea what it means?

    Anyway, thank you for the posts. Thumbs up!

  4. I think I may be able to help with the Brodie quote, SDG. While those fortunate enough to live in this country would normally associate the word "rod" with a basic item of fishing tackle, it is more likely that it has its origins in US contemporary gangster slang. For example, in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's "The Big Shot", the narrator, Bachelor Johnny Cool, tells us: 'Normally I pack a rod; in pyjamas, I carry nothing but scars from Normandy Beach'. In this context, the use of the word 'rod' is more likely to refer to a firearm than a fishing rod and tackle.

    Extrapolating from this, it is possible that the meaning which Brodie is trying to convey is that a woman in possession of a firearm is as incongruous as a man carrying knitting equipment. Of course, in today's world, the idea of assigning either of the above-mentioned items to a specific gender lacks contemporary relevance, rendering the statement both obscure and out of conformity with acceptable norms and standards.

    I hope this clarifies matters.

  5. There's a cracking obituary of Carol Channing in the Times today.

    Salvation arrived in the form of Charles Lowe, a television producer who became her manager and third husband. On their wedding day in 1956 he purportedly promised to “give up” being gay for her …

    She made only a handful of films, including the 1956 comedy The First Travelling Saleslady with Ginger Rogers. “It was so awful nobody’s heard of it,” she told The Times in 1968. “We called it Death of a Saleslady. There was no script. Finally Ginger Rogers’s mother wrote the script.”

    … in 2003 she married Harry Kullijian, her former high school sweetheart who had become a walnut farmer …

    When you wrote "That's enough noir for now - a change of genre next time: I might even do musicals, of which I've enjoyed a surprising number in recent months", Scott, I was looking forward to a lot more of this sort of material but, no, ever unpredictable, three posts now on your operathon.

    Or is the gap not so great? Is the world of opera also littered with Ginger Rogers's mum-type figures knocking out a libretto the night before rehearsals start?

    1. I have been looking forward to your comments on the current BBC TV adaptation of Les Misérables but not a word. So I watched an episode or two myself and all is explained – unaccountably, the BBC have missed out all the songs in Hugo's original.

      Dominic West's jawbone reminds me of Scruton's. Is it just me?

  6. If you write about musicals [which I hope you don't because your opera post are really enjoyable] will you be mentioning "Money to Burn" which lasted one Night at the Venue in 2003 -and which contained the immortal lines "Her morals may be iffy/ But she still gives me a stiffy"; or Lionel Bart's "Twang!" with "Babs" Windsor and which bankrupted Bart or even the musical version of the Parliamentary Committee hearings on Kids Kompany. In most countries where people "mislay" £47m of taxpayers money they stand trial; here they have musicals written about them.

    However, if you stick to "Flying down to Rio" or anything with the Brazilian firecracker Carmen Miranda you are on safe ground.