The great French director Jean Renoir, obliged to become a great American director by the German occupation of his country, records in his memoirs a moment around the end of World War II when his two nationalities drolly intersected. It seems that a film festival was showcasing The Southerner, his pantheistic 1945 movie about a Texas sharecropper, when a French correspondent phoned in the news to his paper. But h鬡s, between the reporter's pronunciation and, perhaps, the susceptibilities of the guy on the copy desk, "The Southerner, un film de Jean Renoir" became "Le Souteneur [The Pimp], un film de genre noir." Something was definitely lost in translation.
Still, the confusion tells us a lot about that moment in film history and about how pervasive had become the phenomenon everybody and his brother now glibly calls film noir—"black film," "dark film," but by any name, fragrantly exotic film about an irredeemably fallen world. Back then, no one this side of the Atlantic used, or knew, the term—not the Hollywoodians who were making film noir nor the reviewers, who with few exceptions scorned the movies in question as cheap, vulgar, unpleasant, and otherwise regrettable and d飬ass鮠The films couldn't even claim to belong to a proper genre: Some were private-eye pictures (The Big Sleep), some were period romances (Gaslight, So Evil My Love), some semidocumentary crime-fighting movies (T-Men, Street with No Name), some mysteries (Laura), some "women's pictures" (Mildred Pierce). But the French could see, as six years' worth of embargoed American cinema washed across their screens following the liberation, that the mood and politics and look and tone of Hollywood's output had changed radically: it was darkened, bleaker, and yet more dynamic. As Paul Schrader would exult a quarter-century later, "American movies [were] in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk."
This happened for many reasons: the sudden, fervently hoped-for yet uncannily disorienting cessation of the war and the loss of urgency for Americans to remain bonded in a communal effort; the doubts and suspicions servicemen harbored about the subtly changed homeland to which they returned after years away and about the women who had remained behind and in some cases filled their jobs; the wartime influx of European directors, writers, cameramen, designers, and composers, with their more cosmopolitan (decadent? neurotic?) attitudes, including a tendency toward morbidity and a greater tolerance for ambiguity in character and motivation; the new taste for realism fostered by Italian arthouse hits like Open City, whose makers had had no choice but to forsake their studios (which had been bombed) and take their cameras and scrabbled-together film stock into the streets.
Some of Hollywood's best homegrown talent, themselves touched by the war, had little stomach for settling into status quo filmmaking again. John Huston shot the battlefield documentary San Pietro within small-arms fire of the enemy, then came back to hijack The Treasure of the Sierra Madre away from the studio to Mexico to film a classic allegory of greed, betrayal, and dementia. Warner Bros. thought they were getting a Western—what they got was a film noir.
Huston received a pair of Oscars for Treasure, and a few other noir milestones were likewise duly honored—notably Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, which made history by cinematically relocating murder to "where it belonged" (in the phrase of his writing collaborator Raymond Chandler), in the bourgeois American home. Double Indemnity doted on its Los Angeles locations, to the extent of setting a movie scene for the first time ever in that new triumph of merchandising, the supermarket—and a more sinister place you couldn't hope to see.
But the great noirs mostly went unsung. Many were B-movies, after all, and B-movies didn't get Oscar nominations—in most cases, they didn't even get reviewed. The B-est B-movie ever made was Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, a 69-minute tale narrated by a no-talent schlub (Tom Neal) who plays piano in a nightclub so underdressed the set had no walls. His girl, a singer, leaves to try a career in Hollywood; after one frustrating phone call, he decides to hitchhike across the country to join her. The continent separating New York and LA consists of nothing but a few glimpses of desert on a back- projection screen, and the one ride we see him get ends in the grotesque accidental death of the driver—a contretemps that leaves Neal torn between revealing what happened (and probably getting blamed for it) or taking over his benefactor's money, car, and identity. He chooses plan B—and within minutes has himself picked up the most fatally wrong hitchhiker he could find. The movie progresses to a death-in-life conclusion so bleak and irreversible that his offhand arrest for "murder"—it's hard to be sure which of two—almost comes as an act of mercy. Detour is a masterpiece, its strictly-from-desperation production values a metaphysical imperative. One more nickel in the budget, an ounce of acting talent in the forlorn Tom Neal, and the eerie sublimity of the nightmare would be shattered.
ALTHOUGH FRENCH AND British critics and historians celebrated noir almost from the get-go, stateside appreciation of this native bloom had to wait till the '70s. Critic and filmmaker-to-be Paul Schrader wrote his definitive "Notes on Film Noir" in connection with a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and once Richard Corliss featured the article as a position paper in Film Comment magazine, noir courses began appearing in universities. Locally, the Seattle Film Society scheduled periodic noir marathons (three and four films a night), and Seattle Art Museum film curator Greg Olson started reserving one season per year as a noir showcase—a tradition he maintains to this day. And it didn't hurt that several key films of the decade—like Robert Towne and Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye—found new resonance in the terrain, or that Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films (while lacking the stylistic sharpness and perversity of true noir) filed definitive briefs on a theme implicit in the classic noir cycle, the souring of the American dream.
Those were grand times—by which I mean both the decade of discovery and the historical era, the late '40s through the mid-'50s—that gave rise to noir, the era that noir to a large extent was. But things changed again. The voluptuous, inky-shadowed, insanely angular, brooding world of film noir gave way to a higher-octane brand of crime movie with less of an aura and less aftertaste, just as the regular-guy hero-villains whom fate reached out to trip in the true noirs—from icons like Bogart and Mitchum to nebbishes like Tom Neal—were replaced by Method crybabies.
And still worse things were in store. Once upon a time people used to interrupt you with "Film noir—what's that?" but nowadays it's a household phrase, bandied about by music-video directors, fashion groupies, and other trendoids. The noir of the '90s—by all means let's call it neo-noir—is a genre, a self-conscious affectation instead of an instinctive emanation of the zeitgeist. It's derivative and strident and increasingly dumb. Please make it go away.
Meanwhile, the real McCoy is still with us. And if somehow you remain blessedly qualified to ask, "Film noir—what's that?", a running response to your question is being offered in the form of Turner Classic Movies' "Summer of Darkness," lighting up your TV screen every Friday and Saturday, dusk-to-dawn, through August with some of the most lustrous, unsettling, exhilarating shadow play in the American cinema.
Glimmers of darkness
Cat People (3:30am). The first of Val Lewton's literate, delicate B's for RKO— officially a horror movie, but really an eerie study in repressed sexuality, elegantly directed by Jacques Tourneur.
One indelible classic—Raoul Walsh's White Heat (11pm), with James Cagney getting to the top o' the world and taking the world with him—and three distinctive B's: D.O.A. (8pm), a primo noir story idea, with Edmond O'Brien as a dying man cracking his own murder case; The Hitch-Hiker (9:30pm), quite simply one of the scariest movies anybody—in this case, Ida Lupino—ever made; and He Ran All the Way (4:30am), a blacklist artifact, directed by John Berry, featuring John Garfield as a hood hiding out in a working-class family's NY apartment.
The great Fritz Lang at his American best—Woman in the Window (8pm), with Edward G. Robinson lurching into catastrophe after chatting up alluring Joan Bennett—and also on the wane: While the City Sleeps (10pm) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (midnight).
More than one critic has judged Act of Violence (8pm) the best movie ever made by Fred Zinnemann (later of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons fame). Act is an implacable study in disintegration as crippled veteran Robert Ryan comes after solid citizen Van Heflin for an act of betrayal in WWII.
Claire Trevor won an Oscar and Bogart has star billing, but Edward G. Robinson blows them all away as a deported gangster hiding out on Key Largo (11:30pm)—in a hurricane, yet. John Huston directed.
Arguably the first film noir, the 1940 Stranger on the Third Floor (11:30pm) boasts script input by Nathanael West, spooky Expressionist style, and Peter Lorre at his creepiest.
The slate could be stronger (where's T-Men? Raw Deal?), but at least there's a whole night honoring Anthony Mann, a long-underrated director of matchless visual power, psychological acuity, and Langian inexorability. Best on view here is Border Incident (10:45pm), a relentlessly hard-edged tale about the exploitation of wetbacks by some very nasty Californians; watch for some chilling set pieces and amazing compositions (John Alton photographed). Also showing: He Walked by Night (8pm) (credited to Alfred Werker but the great stuff is all Mann's), Desperate (9:30pm), and Side Street (12:30am), in which Mann shoots NYC as a Western canyon-land.
Five with Robert Mitchum, though the supreme Out of the Past is oddly omitted. See especially His Kind of Woman (9:15pm), in which he beguiles Jane Russell by ironing his money.
Not all noirs have people pulling guns. Broadway by night according to Clifford Odets: Sweet Smell of Success (8pm).
The ne plus ultra of noir—Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (9:30pm), with Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in quest of "The Great Whatsit." Half the terrific cast deliver their performances in riveting single takes. Corrosive, cataclysmic, "a new kind of art."
B's don't come any crisper than The Narrow Margin (8pm), a cross-country train ride directed by Richard Fleischer when he was still promising. With Charles McGraw, normally a great villain, as the hero.
At least two of the six titles in the finale are arguably post-noir: Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (8pm), a mesmerizing caper movie with a style and tone all its own (we said Kubrick, right?), and Suddenly (11:30pm), a small-town, daylight nightmare with Frank Sinatra as a hit man with the biggest of assignments. But John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (9:30pm) remains the class act among urban crime dramas—and beat that cast anywhere, anytime! Mystery Street (2:30am) contains one primal noir scene of, say, forensic fascination. Phil Karlson's 99 River Street (4:30am) is a crackling B, endlessly surprising without making a fetish of it. And Crime of Passion (1am) . . . say, I've never seen Crime of Passion. . . .