On Dangerous Ground (US, 1951)

The dark soul of noir

Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a brilliant hybrid noir-melodrama where the join between the genres is obvious. The first part of the film takes place in the darkness of the city as Robert Ryan’s troubled cop, Jim Wilson, beats the shit out of ‘pond life’ is followed by a snowy landscape and the blind Mary (Ida Lupino) who may redeem him. Ryan is his usual volcanic self; even when he’s calm an explosion is in the offing. Lupino’s role is a difficult one to pull off; trying to be not sympathetic just because she is blind. Ward Bond,  a right-winger is perfectly cast by left-winger Ray, is the gun-toting vigilante seeking vengeance for his daughter’s death. They are all excellent.

George E Diskant’s cinematography is brilliant: capturing the ink black darkness of the city streets and the almost white-out of snow covered landscape. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, in his biography of Ray, some of the camerawork is handheld. It certainly looked like that in one scene of a beating being meted out by Wilson’s fractured psyche; that must have taken some doing with the heavy cameras. The score is one of Bernard Herrmann’s best so no superlatives need to be used in describing it.

I first saw the film, under the late Victor Perkins’ tutelage, at Warwick University in 1980 and remember thinking the ending ‘corny’. Apparently Lupino and Ryan improvised the final scene, not finding the scripted (by Ray and AI Bezzerides) return of Jim to the city satisfactory. Although it seems to reconcile the two, Ray’s final shot is of a snowbound landscape suggesting that all may not be well.

The antithesis of noir setting

Bezzerides also scripted Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of the grimmest of noirs, and On Dangerous Ground dips into the same territory: the ‘under-age’ prostitute (top pic) ejected from the bar by Wilson is seen to be followed out by a man; utilising the code of dissolve/cigarette smoking, Wilson has sex with an informant who is later beaten up for her troubles. There’s a superb opening sequence of Wilson’s ‘team’ preparing for work: two have loving families whilst he lives alone. Ed Begley has a telling cameo as the police Captain who’s more concerned about the quality of his breakfast than on-going investigations.

Ray struggled in the constraints of Hollywood; his career started as the industry started its slow decline which, arguably, is still going on (not financially) but artistically with its over-reliance of remakes and sequels (although the North American box office is creaking under the heap of banality). Ray’s films crop up on television with some regularity but The Lusty Men (1952) is nowhere to be seen.

No Trees in the Street (UK, 1959)

Social problem noir

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

The Glass Key (US, 1942)

True sado-masochism

Simplistic histories state The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir and so The Glass Key, also adapted from a Dashiel Hammett novel, counts as an early entry. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) now tends to get the pioneering accolade though obviously the trends were lurking earlier as noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini’s new book, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement, emphasises. The Glass Key doesn’t have an overtly noir look but then the celebrated The Big Sleep (1946) has zero (or near to zero) chiaroscuro lighting. There are a few scenes where shadows entrap characters but other traits of the genre are certainly present. There are also numerous low angle shots giving a quasi-expressionist feel to the mise en scene.

The plot’s convoluted and Veronica Lake seduces with a glance though she’s more femme than fatale. Apparently she was only 4 foot, 11 inches in height, so complimented Ladd who was only eight inches taller and they starred together in other films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946).

‘You’re looking at me kid’

The worldview is dark though political corruption is given a comic edge as if to say it is to be expected; America doesn’t seem very different now with the gerrymandering that went on in some southern states to suppress the black vote last November. The heavies are supremely psychotic and William Bendix is quite terrifying in the role as he almost cuddles Ladd’s Ed Beaumont as he anticipates the beating. Beaumont doesn’t seem too impartial to being battered either; there is sado-masochism in play. Beaumont’s escape from imprisonment is quite brilliantly done and the visceral violence in the film, though inherent in the genre, probably wasn’t matched until Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Bendix was in The Blue Dahlia too and I don’t think I’ve seen Brian Donlevy in a better role and he manages to convey honesty and corruption in one.

The director was Stuart Heisler and this is his best known film and although he does an excellent job it’s probable that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl was also a big influence on the film as he started his career in Germany and worked during the Expressionist period.

It’s slightly depressing that one of the reasons film noir remains compelling today is its nastiness. There’s little sugar coating that can make early Hollywood sickly. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a superbly shot World War I drama and grips until the protagonist’s mother starts gushing in a way that was conventional at the time. Little in noir is dated as women are often as much a narrative agent as men though there appearance is paramount; that’s true today. The failure of the law to bring evil convincingly to justice, and at the time the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ insisted that bad be punished, is an entirely modern viewpoint. It’s true The Glass Key does have a soft ending but that’s not what lingers. Rather it’s the scene when Bendix is dishing out a fatal beating and Ladd’s Beaumont is looking on admiringly.

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 is 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 (Illini Books) showed how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite; something that drives us but not necessarily in our best interests.  Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

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.