Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte  in Voices in the Dark shows how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite. Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

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Sudden Fear (US, 1952)

Plotting her reaction

It’s great at my age to find a mini-classic that I hadn’t even heard of never mind seen. Add to this the delight in seeing a remastered print (on Talking Pictures), so Charles Lang’s lovely cinematography can be appreciated to the full, Sudden Fear was a real treat. It’s a while since I’ve seen Mildred Pierce (1945), but it’s difficult to imagine Joan Crawford being better. She plays Myra Hudson, an heiress and successful playwright who has the misfortune to fall for Jack Palance, in all his battered-face glory.

As this excellent Film Comment piece suggests, Crawford draws on her silent era acting skills and there is a brilliant moment (when she knows of Palance’s plotting) where she hugs him and we see disgust on her face which is transformed into affection as the clinch ends, as he can now see her. She is more than matching his dissemblance. As the film progresses, Palance is shot less sympathetically, emphasising his angular facial features as an emblem of his monstrosity.

The film is not strictly noir as the plot lacks narrative convolutions and it is only toward the end that the chiaroscuro visual style kicks in. However, the ideas of noir are entirely in keeping with the story as Hudson’s life plunges from opulence to psychological despair. Miller’s direction is excellent and there’s a superb nightmare sequence.

Daringly we are given what is in effect a flashforward of Hudson’s plot for revenge. Whilst this seems dramatically compromising, as this is ‘classical Hollywood’ there’s no doubt that ‘justice will prevail’, the actual execution of it doesn’t go to plan adding to the tension. 

I can’t not mention glorious Gloria Grahame in one of her trademark ‘bad dame’ roles. She more than matches Crawford for screen presence and is the icing on a superb film.

Whirlpool (US, 1950)

Jose Ferrer entangles Gene Tierney is his hypnotic web

Narrative implausibilities don’t matter too much in film noir as it is a genre that deals with often grim mental states rather than the ‘real world’. This is particularly true in the films from around the middle of the last century in America when Dr Freud’s ideas had passed, in some form or other, into the mainstream. That’s fortunate for Whirlpool as the way Charles Bickford’s lieutenant conducts his investigation more than beggars belief. Gene Tierney is mixed up in murder having been entangled by Jose Ferrer’s bad guy; Ferrer is brilliant in the role. The narrative allows the husband to question his wife in the presence of the cop, and vice versa, and this highlights the investigation is into a woman’s psyche rather than into crime.

Tierney’s husband (a miscast Richard Conte – he was a great heavy) is a psychiatrist so we can be sure that what ails his wife lurks in childhood. And it is this that makes the film particularly interesting as the psychological villain turns out to be patriarchy: her father and later her husband. There isn’t any ‘reading between the lines’ required to work this out for the film explicitly states this. Many noirs focused on male insecurity, particularly of veterans, and the femme fatales that brought them down. Whirlpool deals with female insecurity and the men that bring her down.

This insecurity manifests itself as an entirely patriarchal creation: the belief that women were weak and easily hysterical. Tierney’s character’s kleptomania also derives draws on the idea that women mentally were weak consumers.

Preminger restricts his use of chiaroscuro lighting and doesn’t offer expressionist angles but shoots the film efficiently enough. Arthur Miller’s cinematography looks great, as does Tierney even if her range as an actor was limited she does embody the part very well.

Shockproof (US, 1949)

Good-bad girl played by Patricia Knight

After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melonoir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace in Shockproof through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomized’ the noir intentions.

Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).

Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to the look of noir. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.

Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far too anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.

Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he  returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the decade that followed.

Noose (UK, 1948)

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A melange of tones: Landis, Patrick and Calleia

This is a strange film that veers from expressionist noir to knockabout comedy throughout. The noir is brilliantly done but the ‘comedy’ distracts. Part of the post-war ‘spiv’ cycle were the bad guys are those who had a ‘good’ war economically by running the ‘black’ market, Noose doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in its material. Maybe the director decided to have some fun by messing about with camera angles and lighting whilst indulging in occasional slapstick. Edward T Greville’s direction veers between the brilliant and daft. At times it seemed like a bargain basement Citizen Kane: when a character looks at a dance floor through cut glass we see the fragmented images. The opening is a bravura shot of Bar (Nigel Patrick) arriving at work (it’s not quite one take but that was clearly the intention) and, to indicate the inebriation of a character who hiccoughs, the camera tilts left-right-left-right.

This film’s also interesting for the female protagonist played by Carole Landis in her last film before committing suicide. She’s a feisty American fashion reporter in London who decides to expose Joseph Calleia’s black market racket. She’s somewhat blasé about what’s she’s doing and BFI’s Screenonline piece is worth reading as it points out the narrative’s opposition between the ‘bad’ foreigners and the ‘good’ British criminal fraternity. I disagree about Nigel Patrick, however, who the piece suggests is over-theatrical; I found his performance entirely engaging. It was one of his first films and he became a stalwart of British cinema.

Noose (The Silk Noose in America) is an unusual example of a film that mixes its styles in a rather haphazard way which is a pity as many of the noir scenes are compelling.

The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

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Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUAC, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

Lady of Deceit (US, 1947)

aka ‘Lady of Deceit’ and ‘Deadlier Than the Male’

This deft thriller, with film noir morality, was directed by Robert Wise with a (I think) rare lead for Claire Trevor and sleazy support from Walter Slezak. I found Laurence Tierney a little wooden but then his character does epitomise blockhead male stupidity. The plot swings from murder in Reno to high class San Francisco where the ‘blockhead’ manages to marry a newspaper heiress (Audrey Long). What’s most interesting is Trevor’s character who takes the femme fatale role however Tierney’ s Sam doesn’t need to be seduced to destruction. The nihilism is piled up and topped by Slezak’s private eye who points out that subverting justice is expensive when taking a bribe.

As ever Elisha Cook Jr. manages to be disconcerting even when he’s being reasonable and Esther Howard does the lush old lady with telling pride.

It’s another gem unearthed watching the Talking Pictures channel (Freeview UK).