Film Noir and the Great Directors – Part One by William Hare, author of LA Noir and Early Film Noir
One of the interesting elements of exploring film noir relates to the many links in the genre to some of Hollywood’s greatest directors.
It is understandable why great directing talents would form a ready affinity with film noir. First of all, as I explained in the two books I wrote on film noir, with the emphasis on tightly structured drama and scenes frequently set in small hotels and back alleys of large cities, often in late evening or very early morning, costs decrease. In the studio system prevalent when most noir classics were made, the bosses loved nothing more than gigantic “bang for the buck,” meaning finely tailored scripts, short shooting schedules, and not having to stray from the lot or, if so, very little and focusing action on a limited number of locations.
Here are some of the directing giants and the films with which they were associated:
This master is included first because he directed the film that historians generally identify as the initial effort in that cinema genre. That first film also marked his debut as a director following years of success as one of the industry’s most accomplished screenwriters.
1) The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Called the first ever noir movie, it concludes with one of the most memorable lines in film history with Humphrey Bogart’s “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Adapted from a bestseller from detective writing master Dashiell Hammett, the story’s main point from which the drama emerges is that Bogart, playing legendary detective Sam Spade, believes that when your partner is killed you do something about it, even if the killer is the woman you love, played by classically beautiful brunette Mary Astor.
2) The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – Brings together a group of small time offbeat criminal types in Cincinnati in an effort to achieve a big score through a jewel heist. While Sam Jaffe, whose other career was being one of the industry’s great agents with Bogart one of his clients, serves as criminal mastermind, the linchpin on which the success of the enterprise hinges is shady criminal lawyer Louis Calhern, who agrees to serve as fence in finding a home for the hot diamonds. What undermines the whole project is that Calhern double crosses the gang and it relates to the expensive tastes of his sexy young mistress, played by Marilyn Monroe in her early period.
3) Fat City (1972) — A highly underrated noir gem, this great film is finally beginning to receive its just due. Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges afford fascinating contrasts. Keach is a boozy, temperamental ex-fighter whose life is further complicated by sometime girlfriend Susan Tyrrell. After a brief sparring session at the local YMCA, Keach suggests that Jeff Bridges give boxing a try, which he does. Shot with authentic locations in the Northern California city of Stockton, cinematographer Conrad Hall does a brilliant job of capturing life among the struggling in Stockton’s meaner, more impoverished streets. The film’s authenticity is also enhanced by the use of famous professional boxers, including former welterweight champion Curtis Cokes and lightweight and welterweight former title contender Art “Golden Boy” Aragon.
A long time veteran of film who did highly expensive films later in his career, Canada born Dmytryk has received his highest praise for his early film noir work at RKO, which he helped propel to competitive status with giants such as MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, and neighbor down the street, Paramount, by developing strong noir stories into impressive artistic successes that secured healthy financial dividends as well.
1) Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Adapted from the famous Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely, John Paxton adapted the work to the screen since Chandler was then under contract to neighboring studio Paramount, accounting for the title change. RKO character actor contractee as well as famed professional wrestler Mike Mazurki plays the hulking Moose Malloy, who pursues Dick Powell, cast as Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe. Mazurki hires Powell to find the girlfriend he was compelled to leave behind when he went to prison. Former girlfriend Claire Trevor has moved into lucrative territory since Mazurki’s incarceration. Trevor marries a wealthy older man and becomes involved in economic intrigue and murder. One of the film’s enduring trademarks is a brilliant montage scene featuring the reactions of a drugged Powell as he is held against his wishes in a Hollywood drug hovel masquerading as a hospital being run by a ruthless quack. This scene is cinematically well ahead of its time and remarkable considering that Dmytryk was dealing with mid-forties technology.
2) Cornered (1945) – This film is a moody, seething tale of vengeance as Canadian flyer Dick Powell is hell bent to find the Nazi officer responsible for killing his wife, a French resistance fighter. The trail leads to Buenos Aires and a meeting with Luther Adler, New York stage great and brother of famed coach Stella Adler. Luther Adler was given cameo billing here as well as in the other noir classic in which he appeared, D.O.A. starring Edmond O’Brien. Dmytryk stated later as he looked back on his career that some of the finest film he ever shot was in this movie.
3) Crossfire (1947) – A brilliant psychological study of prejudice fastened around homicidal bigot Robert Ryan, a soldier and former police officer whose seething anti-Semitism causes him to brutally kill kindly Sam Levene. Ryan then seeks to pin the murder on fellow soldier George Cooper, but the sergeant of the group, shrewd Robert Mitchum, sees through the ploy and assists Washington, D.C. police detective Robert Young to trap Ryan into revealing his guilt. One of the films most clever devices, which also appears in the novel from which the film was adapted, The Brick Foxhole written by soon to be top film director Richard Brooks, is when Mitchum decides that the best place to hide murder suspect Cooper until he can be cleared is in an all-night movie theater, where the group members periodically interact to quietly hatch strategy.
One of the German émigrés who, along with brother Curt, helped form the talent surge, consisting also of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, escaped Hitler’s Third Reich and achieved success in Hollywood. Siodmak’s directing star was launched in lockstep with the rise to acting super stardom of Burt Lancaster, who starred in two great Siodmak noir gems along with their final film together, The Crimson Pirate (1952).
1) Phantom Lady (1944) – This is a film that has ascended significantly in popularity in recent years, bolstered by the surge of interest in film noir. The strong mystery element permeating this classic commences with a meeting of Alan Curtis and a hat wearing lady he meets in a New York City bar, played by Ann Terry. Curtis is in the midst of a terrible marriage and asks Terry to accompany him to see a popular Broadway musical. Initially she declines, but he ultimately persuades her by telling Terry that they can enjoy the show together and never see each other again. She agrees. When Curtis returns to his apartment he finds police detective Thomas Gomez and colleagues on the scene investigating the murder of Curtis’ wife. Ultimately Curtis is arrested, tried and convicted of murdering his wife, but there are two people who doggedly believe in his innocence and seek to save him from the electric chair by finding the mysterious hat wearing woman. One is Curtis’ faithful secretary Ella Raines, who has fallen in love with him. The other is Thomas Gomez, who initially arrested him. Franchot Tone delivers a brilliant performance playing against type as a homicidal genius architect who is superficially Curtis’ best friend, but who seeks to frame him for his actual murder of Curtis’ wife. Tone assumes an element of fanatical terror in a classic scene when he confronts terrified professional drummer Elisha Cook Jr. in his apartment.
2) The Killers (1946) – Producer Mark Hellinger makes a brilliant gamble that pays off in signing two screen newcomers to fill the film’s starring roles. This is unusual strategy, but when the newcomers possess the kind of screen dynamism of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, Hellinger could not help but look brilliant. The film was based on the short story of the same name, which included only the initial scene of the film, when big city hoodlums Charles McGraw and William Conrad walk into the diner of a small New Jersey and ask where they can find Lancaster. It is obvious to everyone that they intend to kill him. From there the film becomes the innovative creative invention of scenarist Anthony Veiller. Insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien, who starred in the 1949 noir classic D.O.A., links up with Philadelphia police detective Sam Levene to unravel the story of how Levene’s boyhood buddy Lancaster, who became a prominent local boxer, was shrewdly used by the husband and wife team of femme fatale Ava Gardner and her husband, mobster Albert Dekker, to use Lancaster’s passion for Gardner to pull off a double cross. Gardner plays Lancaster’s passion for all it is worth as she leads him into a trap, using him as a fall guy as they double cross the robbery gang and keep all the funds from a hat factory robbery.
3) Criss Cross (1949) – This is another film in which Burt Lancaster is putty in the hands of a wily and ruthless femme fatale operating in conjunction with a mob boss husband. The scenery of early post-war Los Angeles forms the backdrop for a drama in which a decent young man, played by Lancaster, cannot shake the image of a woman he deeply loves, played by Yvonne De Carlo, even after they divorce following a brief and rocky marriage. After a period of absence he returns to Los Angeles and immediately learns that his effort was a failure as he immediately meets her at the nearby nightclub-bar that they frequented. After De Carlo marries mobster Dan Duryea and makes Lancaster seethe with helpless jealousy, she cajoles him into using his new job as an armored car driver to help her attain freedom from a husband she claims ruthlessly beats her. This is the same ploy that was used in The Killers by the team of Ava Gardner and Albert Dekker.
In my book Early Film Noir I called Nicholas Ray “the laureate of night.” His films evoke an eeriness of late evening, which is one of the hallmarks of film noir, making him a natural for the genre. In addition to providing two brilliantly crafted works to the genre, Ray is also notable for directing Rebel Without a Cause, the most impactful scenes of which occur in the darkness of evening when fellow youthful rebels James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo dramatically interact.
1) They Live by Night (1949) – This was such an RKO sleeper that it took England to awaken executive producer and studio head Dore Schary into releasing it after it had been sitting on the shelf gathering dust. It was an immediate hit in the land of Shakespeare, where there is a great understanding for deep, dark, probing and moody drama. The film underscores the difficulty of young men and women like Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, the doomed lovers, to rise above their lot in life as victims of the Great Depression. Granger is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit and sprung by two veteran criminals, played by Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva. Since they have provided him with his freedom as a result of a daring prison break they declare that he must remain with them in the criminal enterprise of robbing banks with Granger as driver and lookout. O’Donnell recognizes Granger as a Depression outcast like herself and they marry with her quickly becoming pregnant. Even after achieving freedom from Flippen and Da Silva following their deaths, the hunted duo will inevitably be captured by authorities. The irony is that they live in an Oklahoma wilderness of occasional small towns but punctuated basically by dusty roads and sagebrush. Their dilemma, accented by beautiful camera work via helicopter shots showing their desolation in the Oklahoma wilderness, is the phenomenon I termed in my book L.A. Noir as “open spaces claustrophobia.”
2) In a Lonely Place (1950) – This is the most autobiographical film of Ray’s career. The setting of a series of apartments situated around a courtyard in Beverly Hills was reportedly a Ray former residence, but this was not the major point of dramatic irony in this highly unique noir drama. The point of ultimate irony was that the performer selected to play the female lead after Lauren Bacall was compelled to drop out due to another commitment was Gloria Grahame, at the time the wife of Ray and the woman he later acknowledged to be the love of his life. The film was produced by Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions and starred the dark, brooding definitive noir leading man as a highly volatile, explosive screenwriter. Though possessing genius at his craft, Bogart’s explosive temper has put him in precarious positions with the law and has hampered his writing career. When a hat check girl at the restaurant he frequents leaves his apartment early in the morning after providing him with a verbal synopsis of a bestselling novel he has been asked to adapt to the screen and turns up dead, he becomes the prime suspect. While he is investigated as a possible murder suspect Bogart falls in love with his neighbor who lives across the courtyard, a film actress pursuing bigger parts played by Grahame. She fears his violence streak and Art Smith, who plays Bogart’s longtime agent, tells her bluntly that with the explosive screenwriter one has to accept “the total package.” The film ends in a unique manner; Bogart is cleared of the murder charge just after he has attacked Grahame and grabbed her by the throat, prompting the end of their affair. The script was written by longtime Bogart friend Edmund North.
CAROL REED AND KEN ANNAKIN
This tandem selection comes under the heading of British noir and has an interesting connecting link. When Ken Annakin was working as a cameraman making films to stimulate the British war effort he encountered the already legendary director Carol Reed, who was sufficiently convinced of Annakin’s promise that he told the young Yorkshireman to “come over to our side,” bringing him into the directing profession. The documentary wartime period was followed by a full-fledged leap into the field of feature productions. The older director’s film and that of his protégé came eight years apart from one another and had a further bond, with each resulting from a story from prominent British author Graham Greene.
1) The Third Man (1949) – The rain-slick, cobbled streets of Vienna in the days of the black market and occupation of the three leading military powers of the recently concluded World War Two, Great Britain, the U.S.A. and Russia, formed the intriguing backdrop of the Graham Greene screenplay. A well-intentioned but bungling and frequently alcohol-plagued American played by Joseph Cotten flies to Vienna at the behest of boyhood chum Orson Welles. A writer of low grade pulp western novels in America, Welles has informed Cotten that he wishes to employ him as a writer in his new line of work dealing with medical charities. Initially Cotten is stunned to learn that Welles has been killed in an automobile accident, but he later learns that the presumed death is a ploy and that Welles is mixed up in a racket to steal penicillin from the city’s hospitals and sell it in diluted form on the black market. In the midst of almost getting himself killed by some of the city’s most ferocious racketeers Cotten falls in love with Welles’ former girlfriend, played by Italian star Alida Valli. His feelings are not reciprocal and she still carries a torch for the faithless Welles, who we learn has betrayed her. Meanwhile British Army officer Trevor Howard seeks to enlist Cotten to help him capture the wily Welles. Robert Krasker won the film’s lone Oscar for his brilliant camera work, highlighted by some scenes employing crooked angles to underscore that crooked actions and double dealing were occurring.
2) Across the Bridge (1957) – Rod Steiger delivers one of the most spellbinding performances of his impressive career cast as a wealthy international business magnate whose life crashes after he learns that Britain’s Scotland Yard has uncovered corruption in his practices and is en route to the United States to arrest him and extradite him back to London. Guy Elmes scripted based on a Graham Greene story. When Steiger takes a train to Texas with the desire to escape capture by crossing into Mexico, he brutally subdues a fellow passenger to steal his identity. As he disembarks, preparing to cross into Mexico, Steiger is surprised to be given the other man’s dog, which he is obligated to take to make things look proper. When he reaches Mexico he learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a revolutionary wanted for killing the governor of a Mexican province. To help his own cause he turns in the revolutionary. After the revolutionary is killed in a gunfight with authorities Steiger becomes a loathsome figure. The revolutionary enjoyed popularity with the people of the border town and townsfolk sympathize with his widow wife. Steiger’s money is refused and he is forced to sleep in the street. Ultimately his only friend is Dolores, the dog he many times attempted to chase away. Meanwhile Bernard Lee of Scotland Yard, who also appeared in The Third Man, waits for him across the bridge on the Texas side. This movie is another example of the use of open spaces claustrophobia, along with They Live by Night.