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Tag Archives: Film Noir

The Enforcer (Jan. 25, 1951)

The Enforcer
The Enforcer (1951)
Directed by Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh
United States Pictures / Warner Bros.

I wasn’t expecting much from this fictionalized account of the exploits of Murder, Inc., but I ended up being completely blown away. Although the director listed in the credits is the lavishly named Bretaigne Windust, the bulk of the film was actually directed by Raoul Walsh after Windust was hospitalized with a serious illness.

Walsh is a director I love. He made lean, tough movies that are also incredibly entertaining. He did some of his best work with Humphrey Bogart, like The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941).

The Enforcer was the last time Bogart and Walsh worked together, and while it’s basically a low-budget B movie with an A-list star, Walsh’s crisp, fast-paced direction and facility with hard-boiled conventions elevate the picture.

Ted de Corsia and Everett Sloane

Even though Bogart is the only big name in the credits, this movie has an outstanding line-up of male character actors. The sheer number of ugly mugs in this movie is overwhelming. Ted de Corsia, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane, and Bob Steele were never going to win any beauty contests, but they are all incredibly convincing as vicious killers.

Also, the black & white cinematography by Robert Burks is an object lesson in how to make simple sets look like works of art. A lot of people will tell you that The Enforcer is not really a film noir because it’s a straightforward D.A. & cops vs. gangsters story, but for me, noir is primarily a style, and this is a movie that oozes style.

Storm Warning (Jan. 17, 1951)

Storm Warning
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros.

Storm Warning is an incredibly frustrating film. It was one of the first films made since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to openly depict the Ku Klux Klan, but Storm Warning completely whitewashes (no pun intended) the Klan’s religious and social prejudices and history of racially motivated violence.

About the only good thing I can say about The Birth of a Nation is that it was completely open about its agenda; it was racist propaganda through and through. Storm Warning, on the other hand, is a well-meaning anti-Klan film, but if the script ever contained any pointed messages, they were stripped out one piece at a time until only a few tantalizing details remained.

After I watched Storm Warning I read a bunch of reviews online, and was depressed by the number of people who justified the film’s focus only on white characters by saying that the Ku Klux Klan also killed white people like the Freedom Riders, and that this film just “showed the other side of the coin.” These people are either deeply ignorant or crypto-racists, because to ignore the Klan’s racial animus is to ignore history itself.

I read one review that said the term “Ku Klux Klan” is never spoken in the film, and that the white-robed racketeering organization depicted in the film is only ever referred to as “the Klan” (or possibly “the Clan”), but this is not true. The words “Ku Klux Klan” are spoken once, by a television news reporter outside of the courthouse.

Also, the film takes place in the town of “Rock Point,” which sounds like a coastal Maine vacation destination and looks and feels exactly like a small town in California, which is because that’s where Storm Warning was filmed. Most of the characters don’t speak with a Southern accent, and a few even sound like they didn’t leave New York City before they turned 21. The Klan was active outside of the South, but this film doesn’t take place anywhere. It’s a nebulous Hollywood small-town America that rings as false as the film’s story.

Cochran and Rogers

Storm Warning is a frustrating film because there’s so much good going on in it. I really like Ginger Rogers as a dramatic actress, and I thought she was wonderful in this film. The opening sequence in which she witnesses the Klan drag a reporter out of the town jail and murder him, then flees for her life, is stunning. Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes me wish he had worked with more prestigious directors instead of toiling in the “B” trenches for most of his career.

Stuart Heisler’s direction is workmanlike, but he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan both deliver competent performances, but the most interesting performance in the film is Steve Cochran’s role as Day’s husband — Ginger Rogers’s brother-in-law. To say that his character is lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is an understatement.

Marlon Brando had been playing the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway for a few years when Storm Warning was made, and Cochran’s slow-witted, sweaty, violent, childlike, and white T-shirted brute is incredibly similar to Stanely Kowalski, right down to a penchant for bowling and attempted rape. Is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. — the studio that made Storm Warning — is the same studio that brought A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen less than a year later? I kind of doubt it.

Klan rally

Storm Warning is a great-looking film with some good performances and a laughably milquetoast story considering the subject matter.

It’s curious that the film retains real-world terms like “Klan” and “Imperial Wizard” and details like nighttime rallies, Klan uniforms, lynchings, and burning crosses while barely acknowledging that African-Americans exist, let alone the motivations behind the formation of the KKK in the Reconstruction-era South and its campaign of terror against black Americans and its hatred of Jews and Catholics.

Whatever socially progressive intentions were present in the original script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, what ended up on the screen is laughable. Framing the Klan as a greedy racketeering organization who are only opposed to “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” and “busybodies” is cowardly, and framing their victims as exclusively white is ridiculous.

Seeing Ginger Rogers bullwhipped at a Klan rally is the stuff of high camp; it’s more appropriate for the cover of a spicy pulp magazine than any kind of social exposé. Also, the fact that she’s saved by a heroic prosecuting attorney played by Ronald Reagan is ironic, since Reagan would go on to use the term “states’ rights” as a dog-whistle appeal to racist Southern voters when he was campaigning for president in 1980.

Dial 1119 (Nov. 3, 1950)

Dial 1119
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)

Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.

After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.

Levene and Thompson

It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.

Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.

Marshall Thompson

One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.

Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.

Sunset Boulevard (Aug. 10, 1950)

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Directed by Billy Wilder
Paramount Pictures

I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema a long, long time ago. I never attended Cornell University, but I grew up in Ithaca, NY, and I was spoiled by Cornell’s cinema program from a young age.

On Saturday afternoons I used to get dropped off and see “kid classics” like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Magic of Lassie (1978), Oliver Twist (1948), Captains Courageous (1937), and even silent movies like Peter Pan (1924) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), which I saw with my grandmother, who was a freshman in high school when The Kid was first released. I remember them showing a Laurel & Hardy short first, but I can’t remember which one. My grandma and I both laughed a lot that afternoon.

It’s no wonder I turned out how I turned out.

Anyway, I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Sunset Boulevard at Cornell Cinema, but I think it was some time when I was home from college, which means I was nominally an adult, but not really grown up yet.

sunset-boulevard-pool2a

I’ve seen a lot of movies as an adult (like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon) that resonated much more deeply for me than they did when I first saw them in my teens or 20s. But Sunset Boulevard wasn’t one of those movies. It was exactly as amazing as I remember it. I loved it when I was younger, and I love it just as much now.

Of course, there were things I contemplated in a slightly different way this time around — like what the larger meaning of a character like Norma Desmond in Hollywood is, or the interesting gender reversal of William Holden’s character exposing himself as a “kept man” to his sweetheart, which is roughly equivalent to the cliché of the “fallen woman” but much less common.

But for the most part, I was thrilled and captivated by all the same things; Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top but utterly human portrayal of a reclusive former superstar, William Holden’s relatable Everyman, Erich von Stroheim’s semi-autobiographical performance as “Max von Mayerling,” Norma Desmond’s devoted butler who used to play a very different role in her life, and the cameos by real silent film stars like Buster Keaton.

Holden and Swanson

Another thing I love about Sunset Boulevard is how it works on so many different levels. Billy Wilder is one of those rare directors (like Alfred Hitchcock) who made movies full of wit, style, and interesting ideas that can also be enjoyed strictly as popcorn entertainment. For instance, Sunset Boulevard frequently and shamelessly veers into horror-film territory. The scene early in the film where Norma Desmond and her butler Max conduct a nighttime funeral for her deceased pet chimpanzee looks eerily similar to the funeral that opens Dracula’s Daughter (1936), in which Gloria Holden and her manservant lay her father, Count Dracula, to rest. (In fact, there is probably an entire essay to be written about the connections between Dracula’s Daughter — and other Universal horror films — and Sunset Boulevard.)

Like every great classic film, Sunset Boulevard continues to speak to us while occupying its own unique place in history. (Hollywood is still a cruel place for older female actors, but Norma Desmond’s fall from the limelight is intrinsically linked with the transition from silent films to talkies.) It’s one of the greatest films about Hollywood every made.

Mystery Street (July 28, 1950)

Mystery Street
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.

To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.

But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.

Montalban and Bennett

In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.

Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)

Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)

Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?

Where Danger Lives (July 14, 1950)

Where Danger Lives

Where Danger Lives (1950)
Directed by John Farrow
RKO Radio Pictures

A more accurate and unique title for this film could have been A Man Concussed.

Don’t get me wrong, “Where Danger Lives” is nice and vivid, and it’s so perfectly “noir” that it’s also the name of an excellent blog you should all be reading if you have any interest in film noir. But “A Man Concussed” would have been more specific, and for whatever reason (probably inspired by the Robert Bresson film A Man Escaped), it’s the title that kept running around in my head as I watched Robert Mitchum in this film, his character suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and getting deeper and deeper in trouble.

The screenplay for Where Danger Lives was written by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, who penned the scripts for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), as well as many others. Where Danger Lives has a good story with plenty of unique touches, but the movie never quite hit me where I live. Director John Farrow and his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, certainly crafted a great-looking movie. Visually, Where Danger Lives is a great noir, but in terms of a complete experience I don’t think it’s a film noir I’ll keep coming back to.

Where-Danger-Lives-33050_3

Perhaps the trouble is Mitchum’s leading lady, Faith Domergue. She delivers a competent performance, but just doesn’t exude the same combination of allure and menace that the great femme fatales do, like Barbarba Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949), or Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950).

Where Danger Lives is certainly worth seeing at least once, especially if you’re a Robert Mitchum fan like I am. The supporting cast is pretty great, too, including brief appearances by the great Claude Rains and the always enchanting Maureen O’Sullivan.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (July 7, 1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

What a difference six years makes. Where the Sidewalk Ends reunited Otto Preminger, the director of Laura (1944), with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the two stars of Laura.

This reunion between director and actors was nothing earthshaking. In the years between Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Preminger had worked with both Andrews and Tierney again separately, and Tierney and Andrews had appeared together in the film The Iron Curtain (1948), which Preminger didn’t direct.

But comparing Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends tells us a lot about where the genre we now know as “noir” went after World War II.

Andrews and Tierney

Laura is a glamorous mystery set in Manhattan high society; Where the Sidewalk Ends is a down-and-dirty drama set in the streets of New York, where ordinary people live, work, and die. In Laura, Gene Tierney is an untouchable and barely real object of desire; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, she’s a beautiful but otherwise average young woman with a job who lives with her father. In Laura, Dana Andrews is a tough but decent police detective; in Where the Sidewalk Ends, he’s a police detective whose desire to be nothing like his criminal father leads him to engage in all manner of brutality and occasionally even criminal conduct.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great movie about a troubled man finally forced to come to terms with himself. Andrews is excellent in the lead role, as is Tierney, and the supporting cast are wonderful, too, especially Karl Malden as a no-nonsense police lieutenant and Gary Merrill as a mean, sweaty crime boss addicted to nasal spray.