Part II-The Great Directors by William Hare, author of LA Noir and Early Film Noir
The French Touch: Out of the Past (1947)
“Impassive! That is what I want. Do you understand?”
The director pronounced that all-important word with a decided French accent to sound, “impasseeve.”
“I told him I knew what he wanted,” actress Jane Greer chuckled, recalling the unforgettable conversation on the RKO Studios sound stage. “I had studied French in high school.”
Jane Greer had been signed to an RKO contract while she was singing with a band and prettily performing modeling assignments in Washington, D.C., where she had been born and raised. Jacques Tourneur’s father Michael (born Michael Thomas) had been a famous French director, and it was a fitting form of creative symmetry that a French touch would be provided for one of the most memorable film noir epics, and one with a distinct existentialist touch – Out of the Past.
Greer provided the distinct touch that Tourneur sought, a smooth, incredibly brilliant iciness of a beautiful brunette. While young on the exterior, the femme fatale possessed an inner awareness and destructive hypnotism over the opposite sex of someone as old as time itself.
Tourneur received valuable experience in the RKO school of churning out excellent product in a short and economical time frame by working under low budget producer Val Lewton, who became a legend before dying at his creative peak of a heart attack at age 46 in 1951. Tourneur directed Lewton’s cult horror film classics Cat People (1942) along with I Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man, both 1943 releases.
After Tourneur left Lewton’s horror film unit two other future Hollywood directing greats stepped into his shoes in Robert Wise and Mark Robson.
Tourneur’s successful entry into noir immortality was enhanced by the sharp-edged, brilliantly honed script of Daniel Mainwaring with capable assistance from Frank Fenton. Mainwaring adapted his own novel, Build My Gallows High, which was authored under the name Mainwaring used for book fiction, Geoffrey Homes. The book’s title was used in the British version.
The phrase “Build my gallows high” is used by Mitchum with a “we’re finished now” tone of tired irony in a conversation with Jane Greer near the end of the film. This comes after she has disposed of mob boss Kirk Douglas after having made an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Mitchum’s life.
The significant contribution of actor-scenarist Frank Fenton was revealed in notes unearthed recently from RKO files. He was credited with providing the worldly narrative that Mitchum delivers to the film’s positive female role model in contrast to the predatory and nihilistic Greer. Virginia Houston plays a sweet blonde from the small and innocent Northern California town of Bridgeport, where Mitchum settles after fleeing from life in the fast lane with icy brunette Greer and ruthless mobster Douglas.
One of the most memorable pieces of laconic dialogue in a film containing a veritable feast of same is after Houston, following Mitchum’s recounting of his life en route to Lake Tahoe and what will be his last meeting with both Greer and Douglas, occurs when Houston tells him that “nobody is all bad.” Worldly former detective Mitchum crisply quips, “She comes the closest.”
Was there a line in Out of the Past that typified the nihilistic, devil may care existence of Jane Greer as femme fatale Kathie Moffat as well as the existential direction of the film? One possibility comes when Mitchum and Greer visit an Acapulco casino. When Greer displays nonchalance about her reckless gaming strategy and belief in the fate of chance and the ultimate loss at the end of such an effort, Mitchum explains that she can at least “lose more slowly.”
In concert with the above dialogue is another pearl of wisdom offered up by worldly philosopher Mitchum. When Greer indicates that everyone is destined to suffer death, he explains his intention to “die last.” To sum things up, Mitchum knows about the numerous pot holes along life’s rocky highway, but in the essence of the definitive survivor he will stubbornly hang on to the end.
Out of the Past sparkles with script witticisms from beginning to end without ever abandoning its laconic dialogue and never ventures into preaching. As a major work of script craftsmanship it stands alongside such giants as Double Indemnity and Chinatown.
As for Tourneur’s directorial imprint, it came in the very French noir style provided in evening shots, where the famous shadow effect indicative of the genre makes its impact. During the period when Mitchum and Greer are hiding out from mob boss Douglas they become creatures of evening. Mitchum concedes that he was scraping the “bottom of the barrel” but also states that it did not matter because he “had her.”
The cinematography chores were handled by RKO veteran Nicholas Musuraca.
Another brilliantly rendered series of evening sequences occurs when Mitchum agrees to undertake one more job for Douglas, after which presumably he will have earned his freedom. Instead he realizes he is being double-crossed and set up by Douglas to take the rap for killing his detective partner Steve Brodie, who was actually murdered by Greer.
As Mitchum whizzes from event to event in bustling San Francisco, a cab driver friend of his captures the spirit and essence of what is happening by stating, “You look like a guy in trouble.” When Mitchum asks why, the cabbie quips that it is because Mitchum is trying so hard look like he is not in trouble.
Mitchum will be in nothing but trouble as long as he is around Greer, realizing that his problem stems from his ultimate inability even to want to shake her, much less make a fervent effort to do so.
Noir with Big City Backdrops: The Naked City (1948), Night and the City (1950)
Major cities can loom as veritable jungles, particularly when one figuratively becomes a beast of prey. It is fascinating to observe the cat and mouse game that follows as forces seek to kill or capture the beast of prey.
New York and London were the cities showcased brilliantly in two Jules Dassin films that have ultimately endowed him as one of the true kings of noir, capturing the mood of those two larger than life cities within pulsating mystery settings.
In the first film, The Naked City, producer Mark Hellinger, one of New York’s most famous newspaper columnists, serves as narrator, describing the city along with the elements of adventure appearing within the drama. The narration was a tough assignment for Hellinger, who was very ill and died not long after the film was completed.
Barry Fitzgerald, Irish brogue intact, one of cinema’s favorite priests, does just the right amount of preaching in The Naked City, but this time in a different capacity. Fitzgerald is cast as a wily veteran plain clothes detective for the New York Police Department.
Fitzgerald’s subject, rather than being a church congregation, is his young partner Don Taylor, who film fans of that period recall played the husband to be, then spouse of glamorous young Elizabeth Taylor in two light comedy hits, Father of the Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951).
Veteran cinematographer William Daniels captures the city as star with the same tender care he exuded when photographing Greta Garbo, who called him her favorite photographer. Fitzgerald teaches young partner Taylor investigative technique as they seek to track down the killer of a beautiful young model.
Receiving a golden opportunity to impress in an early role and doing so convincingly is Howard Duff, who cracks under interrogation at police headquarters. He concedes that he is a thief and a liar but denies killing the victim, who was his girlfriend.
The sharply moving script of Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald makes sure that the city of New York remains a star as well as the “who done it” nature of the mystery, which reveals the solid gumshoe semi-documentary style of searching for leads and interrogation.
The Naked City succeeded handsomely enough to spawn two popular television series’ of the fifties. One was the evocative The Naked City series while the other was launched by a shrewd young actor from Los Angeles named Jack Webb. Webb decided that L.A., another major metropolis, could furnish the backdrop for a semi-documentary style television series based on the playbook of the film The Naked City.
Dragnet quickly caught viewers’ imaginations, showcasing sprawling Los Angeles in the manner that the 1948 feature revealed New York. Webb both produced Dragnet as well as starring as the program’s lead detective, the unforgettable Sergeant Joe Friday. He began his episodes with the memorable line, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California.”
Dassin’s two films held a basic thematic thread as each involved the world of professional wrestling. In The Naked City the team of Fitzgerald and Taylor, after tenaciously pursuing leads, focus on Ted de Corsia, a professional wrestler. De Corsia, at home in criminal roles, played a bad cop who joins Sterling Hayden’s robbery team in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 noir gem, The Killing.
The Killing also contains a link to professional wrestling. Kubrick tapped wrestler Kola Kwariani to play a strong arm tough who starts a fight at the race track where Hayden’s team plans on robbing the proceeds from the track’s largest race day. Kwariani had previously been a chess playing crony of Kubrick’s from his New York days.
The propensity to incorporate professional wrestling and wrestlers into noir films of the late forties and fifties is probably due at least in part to wrestling’s popularity in the early days of television, when it recorded its highest ever consistent weekly ratings with presentations scheduled in venues virtually every evening in certain major American cities.
One of the most popular wrestlers of that period in the Los Angeles and New York areas gravitated between wrestling and movie acting. Mike Mazurki frequently played the role of a tough guy who had been shortchanged in the brains department. This was the opposite of the real life figure. Mazurki was an articulate television talk show guest who was college educated and worked on Wall Street before launching his pro mat career during the Great Depression.
Night and the City was filmed in London. This was a period when Jules Dassin had left Hollywood during the hysteria of the McCarthyite right wing anti-Communist blacklist and the shrill paranoia that embodied it.
The film featured a “cat and mouse” element in which Richard Widmark, playing a fast talking street hustler, needles Mazurki into seeking a match with a rival wrestler that he believes will launch him into the lucrative post-World War Two London professional wrestling scene.
Widmark, not long removed from his dynamic breakthrough role as sadistic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947), plays Harry Fabian, whose scruples are totally missing in action. Fabian connives to the point where he bums money off nightclub singer girlfriend Gene Tierney and fakes a love interest with Googie Withers as a means to conning her into enticing money from her wealthy husband, Francis L. Sullivan, who owns and operates the nightclub where Tierney sings.
Widmark as Fabian sees a short cut onto the London wrestling scene by befriending Stanislaus Zbysko, a case of true life casting. The Poland born Zbysko was one of the most heralded heavyweight champions in professional wrestling history. In the film Zbysko plays a former champion who brings his protégé to London in an atmosphere he detests, preferring the earlier era when he competed, a period with less commercialism and showmanship.
Defying numerous warnings by Tierney, who unsuccessfully seeks to get Widmark to take a legitimate job and go straight, the daredevil con man gets in big trouble when he seeks to promote a match between Zbysko’s wrestler and Mazurki. Widmark needles Mazurki during a period when the wrestler is heavily drinking in a West End restaurant. He enrages the wrestler until he rushes angrily to the nearby gym where Zbysko is supervising a training session with his protégé.
Widmark’s plan blows up in his face. After Zbysko’s wrestler sustains an injury while grappling with Mazurki, the mentor, who detests Mazurki and his style of wrestling, takes his place in a grudge match devoid of promotion and cash proceeds, and which Widmark is helpless to stop.
The film features a part of London that many visitors and even local residents never see, the subterranean world of night where the small time hoodlums of the underworld ply their trade. Great evening photography by Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene) captures the tiny streets of the old city that zig and zag, extending back to the world of William Shakespeare and beyond.
Dassin shows his comfortable familiarity with noir as he lets the story develop to the point where Widmark’s con artistry makes him a beast of prey for an enraged Mazurki, who ultimately realizes he has been played for a fool and seeks to kill him.
Widmark becomes a victim to be with a price tag placed over his head by London underworld boss and wrestling promoter Herbert Lom, the father of Zbysko, after the former wrestling champion succumbs following his grudge match with Mazurki.
Night and the City, which was based on a novel by Gerald Kersh with screen adaptation by Philip Eisenger, graphically depicts a terrified con man who has run out of places to hide. Meanwhile he is pursued from the small twist and turn streets of the West End to the Thames River.
These are the familiar haunts of Widmark. He desperately seeks help from criminal elements. Widmark hopes to find a place to hide and ultimately escape from the city before it is too late, before his time expires.
We see London’s mean streets and a hunted man trying to desperately to elude death’s ultimate clutches.
Jules Dassin died last week in Athens at the age of 96. Dassin’s rare instinct for developing a suspenseful story by utilizing brooding black and white photography, highlighting the eerie darkness of late evening, earned him a deserved place within the ranks of film noir’s superlative masters.