"After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
-- Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), The Asphalt Jungle
Guns and women -- always lethal whether together or separate, played out in the chiaroscuro lighting -- spelled doom for the men of film noir. During that glorious period of the 1940s and '50s -- when, supposedly, America became a superpower and a world of endless possibilities -- life was a bitch. At least that was the alternative view from the film noir movement, which didn't even have a name until French moviegoers and critics, freed from Nazism, got a peek at these deliciously dark thrillers. While the rest of Hollywood was cranking out westerns, musicals, screwball comedies, war propaganda and "message" movies, the pulp crowd was rolling around in the gutters of urban angst.
You would be hard-pressed to find another genre more discussed, dissected and deified than film noir (there are countless books on the subject), and 2004 has offered a telling reason why. It has become the year of the film noir DVD, with three major (and some minor) gift sets released with a large portion of the genre's classics. Spring brought Questar's 5 Film Noir Killer Classics: D.O.A.; Detour; The Stranger; Scarlet Street; Killer Bait. Then came two whoppers over the summer. Warner Home Video released the exquisitely assembled Shadows, Lies, and Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection: The Asphalt Jungle; Gun Crazy; Murder, My Sweet; Out of the Past; The Set-Up, while Universal countered with the latest installment of its Noir Collection series: The Big Clock; Black Angel; Criss Cross; This Gun for Hire.
These releases underscore the difficulty in defining film noir as a genre beyond some of the givens. As Jean-Luc Godard so famously put it, all it takes to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but it was the moral complexity bubbling from those props that gave film noir its niche. Of these titles, you'd find it difficult to identify clear-cut good guys and bad guys. At a time when many saw the world in their own version of black and white, it must have been ironically refreshing for some culture vultures to see those colors used to a decidedly gray effect. The world, these storytellers argued, wasn't nearly as simple as it seemed. The promise of the Big City was often a hollow one; success, which often meant money, wasn't nearly as easy to come by as everyone assumed.
From the menage a trois of three seemingly disparate genres -- the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, the American gangster films of the 1930s, and the Italian Neo-Realism movement of the 1940s -- sprang film noir. It proved a heady mix. Not only were these films fraught with anxiety and despair, sometimes mocking the notion of the American dream, but they transcended the simple notion of the thriller. They didn't just leave you hanging; they left you wondering. The rare "happy" part of the films' few "happy endings" -- the closest are Murder, My Sweet; The Big Clock; The Stranger; and Killer Bait -- come at a pretty heavy price, often paid in blood, and in some protagonists' cases, a little bit of their psyche. Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944) may have solved the case, gotten away with his life and even, presumably, the girl (Anne Shirley), but only after getting deceived, beaten, harassed by the cops, drugged, imprisoned in a nuthouse, and temporarily blinded. Fate, as film noir proves time and time again, can really do a number on your head, if not your mortality.
The film noir heyday (1941-1959) featured works by some of cinema's greatest directors, including such American masters as Orson Welles (The Stranger), John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle), Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet) and Robert Wise (The Set-Up). But the European presence was manifest as these three collections illustrate; it's no small coincidence that six of these films were directed by Europeans, virtually all of whom escaped before World War II: Fritz Lang (Scarlet Street), Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) and Robert Siodmak (Criss Cross) from Germany, Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) from France, and Rudolph Mate (D.O.A. ) from Poland.
Their actors were unmistakably tough, brooding, dark and sometimes nasty -- whether they were male or female. These three collections include some of the archetypal noir actors (The Asphalt Jungle's Sterling Hayden, The Set-Up's Robert Ryan, the omnipresent Dan Duryea), while some made their name in other, later genres (Criss Cross' Burt Lancaster, The Big Clock's Ray Milland, This Gun for Hire's Alan Ladd) or used noir to shake old labels (Murder, My Sweet's Dick Powell, previously a song-and-dance man). And then there were dames, better known as the femmes fatales, who spelled nothing but trouble: Out of the Past's Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming, Criss Cross' Yvonne DeCarlo, Gun Crazy's Peggy Cummins, and Murder, My Sweet's Claire Trevor (just to name a few).
More often than not, the noir hero was simply in over his head, delusional about his ability to control his environment. The world almost invariably was against him, no matter how cool he tried to act. That's why the anxiety that hangs over these films is so strangely delicious; once you simply accept the notion that fate will take a hand and hope for the best, you can enjoy the ride. Maybe it's because all of the emotions in film noir are so heightened, taking their cue from the German Expressionist movement. There's nothing trivial being felt here; no wonder existentialism plays such an important role.
In John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the gang assembled by Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) keeps fooling itself into the classic film noir mirage: the final heist as the panacea for all its troubles. Almost everyone is trapped in their environment, and it's instructional for anyone studying the root of crime to note the socioeconomic despair at play here. Even petty hood Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden, at his most frightening and yet sympathetic) can't find any other way out of the jungle and back to Kentucky and his beloved horses. Conversely, Doc, fresh out of prison, knows that the only way to stay out of prison is to score and score big for a retirement. But what holds him back is his own obsession with (or weakness for) younger women -- it is his stopping to stare at a girl dancing that ultimately does him in. Same with Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), whose desire to keep his mistress (a young Marilyn Monroe) happy empties his pocketbook.
But The Asphalt Jungle also succeeds with its theme of men under pressure. Violence, danger, stubbornness, resourcefulness -- it's a thoroughly masculine environment, a perfect setting for Huston, who was at various times a boxer, soldier, journalist and writer. He was a man's man who clicked on every level. Or, as noir expert Drew Casper says in his commentary, "There were a dozen or so men in this one man." The men who roamed post-World War II America, he notes, were a very insecure, defensive, fragmented lot. They were on an exotic quest for self, but they could never prepare themselves for the twist of fate. As The Asphalt Jungle proves, there is meaning in the quest; it is, as Christians say, in the living.
John Dall is dealing with an obsession of a completely different stripe in Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1949). Selected for the National Film Registry, Gun Crazy is considered by many to be the inspiration for Bonnie and Clyde two decades later, and the sexualizing and fetishizing of guns is palpable in both. John Dall's Bart Tare simply can't control his fascination with guns; the phallic connection is too easy to make (talk about not being able to keep it in your pants!). So it's no wonder Annie (Peggy Cummins) makes life even more difficult with her lust for money (much more so for him). Petty crime won't do it for Annie; she, too, believes one last score will put them on easy street, and Bart, trying to satisfy more than one urge, reluctantly goes along.
"Great pop psychology, Gun Crazy makes passing stabs at a variety of meaty subjects," Foster Hirsch writes in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, "the place of violence in American life; the link between violence and sex; the emasculating obsession with masculinity. It examines the dependence on violence as a passive fatally wounded man and an amorally seductive woman.
"Guns replace sex for both characters, and it is shrewd casting that the two actors do not project a strong sexuality."
Film noir protagonists are constantly being haunted by their past; it's as inescapable as fate itself. The message is clear: No matter how hard we try, we can't erase what we've done, which translates to who we are (if you believe the notion that we are the sum total of our life experiences). Redemption, then, becomes a very sticky wicket. Nowhere is this clearer than in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947). Detective Jeff Bailey, trying to live up to the film's title, has traded in his gun for a gas pump, hoping to overcome his passion for gangster Kirk Douglas' man-eating mistress (Jane Greer) by buying a small-town gas station and dating the girl next door (Virginia Huston). An inspiration for Taylor Hackford's Against All Odds, Out of the Past is classic film noir, particularly in its respect for fate. Bailey can't help but fall back into his old habits as he tries to settle his account with Douglas' Whit Sterling; he tried to run away with his girl, lost her in the cloud of murder, and hopes by doing one last errand he can rid himself of the both of them.
But as author James Ursini notes in his commentary, it's not as easy as that: "One way or another, fate or chance or the gods or whatever you want to call them, try to bring you back, try to put you back on the road they want you on, sort of like a Greek tragedy, where no matter how hard you try to escape it, someone or something is pushing you towards your fate -- like an Oedipus."
Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) offers up an equally futile battle with the gods in Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), unable as he is to overcome the grief of his wife's death. But is it more than just grief? After all, he was initially one of the suspects in her murder, and he reluctantly helps Catherine (June Vincent) clear the name of her husband, who's been charged with the murder. Unfortunately, Martin falls for Catherine along the way, which tangles things up nicely, particularly when they learn who the killer is. (Hint: It ain't Peter Lorre. That's too easy.)
The title character of Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942) can't stop being a bad guy. Raven (Alan Ladd, in a breakout role) is a cold-blooded professional killer, and not even the rehabilitation efforts of nightclub singer Ellen (Veronica Lake, in their first pairing) can reform him. As he seeks revenge on a former client, who also happens to be her boss, there can be only one solution. The question, then, becomes who will die.
Tom Neal's Al Roberts has similar problems escaping his past, and nature, in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945). A penniless piano player, he watches helplessly as his singer/girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) goes out to L.A. to find a career, and then goes after her. On the road, he meets two shady characters (a man, a woman) while hitchhiking, both of whom wind up dead -- both by his hands, and both (supposedly) by accident. The entire story is told in classic film noir style: in flashback, as if Al is trying to recreate his past to suit his needs.
There are those who believe that Ulmer's use of flashback here is to create a false past for the protagonist, who obviously has guilt issues. Indeed, in a key scene, Harvey sings "I Can't Believe You're in Love With Me" in a flashback sequence, and the musicians are all in silhouette. He describes their love in banal fashion ("An ordinary, healthy romance, which is the old story."). And as Al begins his story, he whines, "Did you ever wanna forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory or blot it out? You can't!" Only problem is, erased memories can't erase body counts.
The woman who beguiles Al in Detour is but one of countless bad-news dames in film noir. It was this genre that gave birth to another French term: the femme fatale. Godard's famous maxim should come with the added belief that the two symbols are interrelated; you can't have one without the other. They're both pure danger.
There is virtually no question that women, and their sexuality, represent the element of fear among the men of film noir, particularly in post-World War II America. After all, the returning veteran came back to a nation that had inadvertently undergone a sexual revolution. Women flooded the workforce, replacing men in the factories and elsewhere. Men, as usual, didn't know what hit them. One could then argue that the genre is incredibly misogynistic. The femmes fatales play such crucial roles in the destruction of the male protagonists in these movies, how could you not? But there are little details that creep into the defense of many of these women that bear a second glance. Forget, for a moment, that film noir also consistently showed these women as individualistic, intelligent, powerful and sexually (if not entirely) independent. One first has to consider how some of these women got to where they were in the first place. In Detour, for example, the hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) has obviously led a rough life. She may be blackmailing Tom, but we're dying to find out how she got to be so embittered. She had been hit by the man who'd given her a ride (and who was Tom's first "unintentional" victim). How much of a victim has she been?
In Out of the Past, Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat does love Jeff, but her survival instincts are much stronger. And she isn't with Whit just because she gets her kicks hanging out with gangsters. Again, survival is her focus. In one of my favorites, Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945), Joan Bennett's Kitty March is portrayed as a lazy whore who cannot shake her relationship with the abusive Johnny Prince (Duryea, a film noir staple). Instead, she winds up ripping off Edward G. Robinson's Christopher Cross, a banker in full-on mid-life crisis who sees in her a second chance at youth and love. Of course the whole affair ends miserably, but is it all Kitty's fault? Isn't she a victim of abuse? The femme fatale in film noir may be deadly, but it would be a mistake not to get her side of the story.
One could make the argument that women should have played a stronger role in Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), based on a Joseph Moncure March poem and in some ways not a classic film noir but one of my personal favorites. Here Robert Ryan's on-the-ropes boxer Stoker, instead of looking for one last heist, is looking for one last win, one that will earn a shot at the title and a big payday. The problem is, Stoker, whether delusional or not, is the only one who still believes in himself. His manager doesn't, to the point that he throws an upcoming fight without even bothering to tell Stoker to take a dive. (With his losing streak, why bother?) But Stoker's girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter), instead of being the source of doom for Stoker is the caution light. She may not have faith in him as a boxer, but Julie sees another, more peaceful life for them. If she is wrong for not being there when he needs her most, Julie can be forgiven for wanting something more.
(For a much deeper investigation into the complications involved in the femme fatale, check out the latest edition of Women in Film Noir, a collection of related works edited by E. Ann Kaplan. And check your gun at the door.)
These three collections are must-haves for those wanting an introduction into this shadow-drenched world. The Warner Brothers collection, in particular, is a collector's and film student's dream. So pervasive is the study of film noir that each film features commentary from a different noir expert (except for The Set-Up, which enjoys the benefit of dual commentary from Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese). The Universal and Questar collections, sadly, feature no such commentary, although the Questar collection has a sixth disc with short documentaries on the genre and the femme fatale, along with trailers and poster art. Together and individually, they help the viewer appreciate the glory of all that pulp fiction, and maybe better understand why, sometimes, it's human nature to roll around in the gutter. &127;