Despite some marvelous outliers, March has not been the greatest of months. I spent too much time in too much pain and especially during the middle weeks of the month I did not write about any of the movies I watched from my couch because it was hard enough just to finish my day work on time. Most of them were film noir; it really is a comfort genre for me. Now that my critical faculties are beginning to return, I thought I might at least mention them in passing. Think of it as a very slow marathon.The Tattooed Stranger
(1950) boasts the rare pulp title that describes its premise exactly: when the shotgun-blasted body of a young woman is discovered by a dog-walker in Central Park, the only identifying mark on her is the eagle, globe, and anchor of the United States Marines Corps inked at her wrist. A streetwise homicide veteran and a science-minded rookie pursue their meager leads through the beaneries and tattoo parlors and overgrown vacant lots of low-budget location-shot New York. Alas, the execution can be judged by the fact that for the next two or three movies I watched, spatch
had to listen to me saying, "Well, it can't be worse than The Tattooed Stranger
." It's not an incompetent or an offensive movie. It's just an extremely routine programmer of a police procedural released by RKO during the profligate and inefficient tenure of Howard Hughes when it seemed that in order to get greenlit, a picture either had to star Jane Russell or cost chump change to make. The latter is the case here, with the plot built out by director Edward Montagne and producer Jay Bonafield from their documentary short Crime Lab
(1948) but any human interest angle left to fend for itself—I like that an invaluable clue is provided by an invasive species of grass and that the brisk botanist who identifies it at the Museum of Natural History is female, but her ensuing romance with the rookie cop is less intelligible to me than the long string of insurance rackets the Jane Doe turns out to have been running. No one gets a charisma assist from the script. I found myself most compelled by the characters of the tattoo artists who practice on a decidedly gritty clientele in the Bowery and the Navy Yard ("Picturesque, painless, and permanent—$5 and up, depending on the size and artistry required") and otherwise the real star of this 64-minute B-filler is New York City incarnated in hospital basements and boarding-house walkups, skyscrapers eclipsed and traffic divided by the soot and shadows of the Third Avenue El. A suddenly chiaroscuro sequence with a knife-wielding bum is more out of place than scary, the rest of the film is so flatly documentary. Much better is a chase scene through the boards and weeds and laundry lines of tenement back gardens and best of all the climactic shootout among the whited sepulchres of a stonecutters' yard, its conclusion an ironic chime of more tattooed anonymity. I do like the skeptical veteran being reminded by his captain, "Grow up, Corrigan. This business has changed since we were chasing runaway beer wagons on Bleecker Street."
If the title of Scene of the Crime
(1949) doesn't tell you it's a procedural, the pre-credits image of a sprawled dead body with a gun painstakingly retrieved from the sidewalk cement just beyond reach of its fingers should give a clue. Under the rest of the titles, we observe a ballistics test, the examination of bullets by comparison microscope, an investigation report filled out by the crime lab of the LAPD. It's an assurance of technical authenticity that the film itself will be only sort of interested in following up on, but at least it's never dull as it chases a cop-killing mixed with the unpredictable violence of two downstate hoods making trouble for the local bookmaking syndicate who might or might not have had the protagonist's former partner on their payroll. Roy Rowland's direction is unfussy, the majority of the low-lit atmosphere—the one day scene in this picture is reserved until the crime plot's been wound up—velvetily supplied by the cinematography of Paul Vogel. Charles Schnee's screenplay turns the true-crime source material into a ricochet game of hardboiled rhetorical figures, a delicious half-tone off from real human slang. "You're dealing in dirt with the dirtiest, but it's pay dirt." "Look at that eye. Belongs on a bun with relish." "A figure like champagne and a heart like the cork." "There's a crime on every page to fit me." It's A-noir from MGM, but it mitigates the gloss by casting all three of its stars against type: all-American boy-next-door Van Johnson as a tough-humored detective lieutenant, frequently fatale Arlene Dahl as his devoted wife, and ingenue Gloria DeHaven as a baby-doll stripper, a piece of blonde candy you could break your teeth on. Above all, the film is a showcase for character actors, from second billing to indelible bit players. My favorites among the latter include Tom Powers as a bookie-joint boss lining up his own suspects like a precinct captain of the underworld and Robert Gist as a dolefully rumpled shamus nursing his second shiner of the week and lamenting the deleterious effects of the movies: "Every schmegegg thinks he can beat up a private eye—and I'm no Humphrey Bogart. He gets slugged and he's ready for action. I get slugged and I'm ready for pickling." William Phipps and Jeff Corey can be glimpsed among the local color. Bespectacled and stogie-chewing, John McIntire desperately confused me by looking like a dead ringer for Christopher Lloyd, but the scene-stealer is Norman Lloyd as the "Sleeper," a bored-eyed stool pigeon with a noisy jacket and a quiet voice, always touched with the flick-knife of a smile. This movie ends with a car-ramming mid-street machine-gun battle still impressive by the action standards of today, but its real menace traces to bland-browed Lloyd, gently shaking his head in the back seat of our hero's car: "You know, I really could've killed you, huh? Yuck-yuck."
I started watching Violent Saturday
(1955) for the title; then it turned out to be a noir in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope, which is not usually how the genre goes. It was shot in Bisbee, Arizona and if you ever wanted to see an open-pit copper mine look really good, this movie is it. By day, "Bradenville" looks baked bright as a mural; by night it shimmers somberly. I like the idea and even the effect of a noir that's anything but and it uses its horizon-line stretch and its alternately raw and carefully toned palette for some stunning shots, like a high-speed train streaming toward the camera out of a sky of far blue mountains, the long trees of telephone wires, and a clear early sun through white stacks of industrial smoke; it vanishes in a cloud-banded distance like turquoise. I just can't rhapsodize quite as much about the plot. Scripted by Sydney Boehm, it's an ambitious dovetailing of a Spoon River Anthology
-like portrait of a small town with the ticking bomb of a bank robbery planned by outsiders who can bring in chaos but not corruption; we are already privy to too many of the seams and foibles of this community, of which infidelity, alcoholism, furtive theft, and blatant voyeurism are just a few of the flavors on offer. Only the Amish family on the outskirts of town appear to be free of dark secrets, which mostly means we fear all the more for their innocence. We have been promised the title; the characters in their self-absorbed, self-destructive orrery have no idea. The differing protocols of noir and melodrama make the fallout of their inevitable collision hard to predict. Unfortunately for me, I found myself responding to this model of tension-building as if it were a disaster movie, where the audience knows that any storyline, no matter how high-stakes, can be short-circuited by the sudden advent of earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, icebergs, and I sort of checked out on the narrative momentum and ended up caring most about individual moments. However sticky an end I was guaranteed of him meeting, I really enjoyed Lee Marvin as a benzedrine-snorting hard case whose night-before nerves manifest not in edgy violence but in quiet reminiscence about his ex-wife and her winterlong colds. I am ambivalent about the ultimate payoff of the thread with Victor Mature, whose young son has become ashamed of him because his wartime job was stateside copper production, not punching Nazis, but I like that the mine manager himself has nothing to prove: "Things like that, it's better if they didn't happen to you at all." I could have watched even more of the minimal subplot concerning the librarian played by Sylvia Sidney and the bank manager by Tommy Noonan: he catches her stuffing a stolen and emptied purse into the garbage, but is stopped mid-condemnation by her contemptuous realization that he was only loitering in the alley because he was peeping through an uncurtained window at his crush object undressing; not knowing the explosive day they're in for, they part on the bad terms of mutual blackmail and make respectively triumphant and timorous eye contact in the bank the next morning. And it's all smashed to pieces when the third act hits, but director Richard Fleischer at least knows how to stage a hold-up, a chase, and a gunfight for maximum sweat and shock, even if his characters all spin around bloodlessly when shot. Allowing for these small niceties of the PCA, the violence levels in this picture point due Peckinpah.
Gerald Mayer's The Sellout
(1952) is sometimes stiff and sometimes superfluous and I'm not sure its bait-and-switch of protagonists works as well as the similar trick in Psycho
(1960), but I disagree with the contemporary review highlighted by TCM which dismissed it as an "Eastern . . . Instead of horses, the principals use late model autos, no wide brim Stetsons but snap brim soft hats, long barreled .44's are replaced by snub-nosed .38's to inter the squealer and incarcerate the crooks." Without getting into a critical appraisal of the Western and its relations with other genres, I really think this film's just noir. Really noir, philosophically-sociologically as well as stylistically. The puzzle-pieces of its plot are cops and criminals and newspapermen, but its big picture is the trivial ease with which it observes the systems of American law enforcement and criminal justice to be corrupted; if it hedges its bets a little by positioning its villain as an unusually bad apple, it's still playing for keeps when it points out how healthily he's anchored to the tree. After a speed-trapped traffic stop leads to a night of brutality—both witnessed and endured—in the cells of a county sheriff accustomed to running his jurisdiction like his own little for-profit prison (Thomas Gomez), the crusading editor of the St. Howard News-Intelligencer
(Walter Pidgeon) devotes himself to a blistering exposé of the "Robber Baron of Route 54" only to disappear as sharply as a pulled story just as the state government gets involved. Now a state's attorney and a local police captain take up the thread of the investigation; they are played sympathetically and not infallibly by John Hodiak and Karl Malden, they hold idealistically opposed opinions on the editor's vanishing act, and they are enmeshed in the system they are trying to fight. Even without witness intimidation and evidence tampering, it's uphill work to get anything on Gomez's Burke. He may be abusing the law, but that's not necessarily the same as breaking it. What's not noir about that? I wish the film itself were as tight as its convictions; it has a tendency to lose focus and jump to catch up and none of the leads, despite their casting, are as vivid as the bit parts, like the sexily but criminally wasted Audrey Totter as a roadhouse B-girl or razor-straight little Frankie Darro as one of the goons of Burke's jail. I forgive it a lot, however, for giving the moral clarity to Whit Bissell as the only one of Burke's victims willing to say as much in court—an almost stereotypical little guy, especially early on in his flat cap with two bits and a bus token to his name, but his voice is just as deep and steady as his thin elfin face almost never looks and it doesn't falter, even when he tells the prosecutor how his wife's got the article about his arrest clipped out in the family scrapbook. The courtroom scene, for the record, is a preliminary hearing, not a trial. The ending is better than equivocal, but when the law goes up against its enforcers there are no guarantees.
The trouble with Scandal Sheet
(1952) is that I liked it and I'm not sure what else I have to say. It was directed by Phil Karlson from a hardboiled novel by Samuel Fuller called The Dark Page
(1944); its cinematographer was noir veteran Burnett Guffey, who starts the shadows rolling with the drums of the printing press that the five-cent title credits are hot off of; it stars Broderick Crawford as a tabloid editor on the brilliantly cynical hook of a crime he can't keep his newshounds from investigating because it's exactly the bread and butter of a sleaze-rag like the New York Express
. His best ambulance chaser is John Derek, whose puppy-eyed ice-cream face camouflages his readiness to retraumatize a witness just so long as he gets all the gory details of a domestic slaying before the police run him off. His staff photographer is the sleazily cigar-sucking Harry Morgan, who evaluates corpses like pin-ups: "You know, that wasn't a bad-looking dame. Too bad the guy used an axe on her head. Spoiled some pretty pictures for me." The only person within shouting distance of the newsroom who seems to have a conscience is feature writer Donna Reed and she's an endangered, albeit tenacious holdover from the pre-Broderick days. But the real blast from the past is Rosemary DeCamp as an inconvenient abandoned wife—vicious and poignant, her scenes spill a long shadow across the rest of the story, black as printer's ink or gelatin silver blood. Once Morgan's snapping her picture, there's little doubt about the eventual endgame of this story, but getting there is a seamy, rackety, irony-rich ride and it looks and sounds just as acrid as it should, from a self-righteous shareholder denouncing Broderick's latest circulation-grabbing stunt as "A newspaper staging a cheap vulgar display in order to attract the stupid slobs of the city!" to Broderick himself grinning at the clichéd threat of needle and haystack: "A needle's nothing but a hunk of steel if you got nothing to sew." Most of its New York is studio and suggestion, but it opens with an airy pan of skyline that almost at once burrows down into matchsticked demolition sites and union suits flapping off fire escapes in the flat glare off the East River. A later nighttime sequence on Skid Row may discreetly employ rear projection, but it still leaves wind chill in your bones, the lateral lights of the elevated rattling by above the shuttered storefronts, as incandescent and out of reach as stars.
And the trouble with While the City Sleeps
(1956) is that it deserves its own post, because it didn't totally work for me and I keep thinking about it. In the improbable alternate history where Fritz Lang and Casey Robinson would have taken my advice, I can tell you what I would have cut out: not only is the characterization of the leather-jacketed mama's boy "Lipstick Killer" lazily reliant on predigested pop-psych and Senator Estes Kefauver's feelings about comic books, it's utterly unnecessary for him to have any characterization at all. He's the MacGuffin. He strangles a woman with his motorcycle gloves on and leaves a tauntingly Freudian message lipstick-scrawled on her wall; after that his mortal particulars matter only insofar as an embarrassment of top-drawer talent—Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Howard Duff, Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino for God's sake—are cutting one another's throats to catch him in exchange for a newly created right-hand position in the Kyne media empire. Never mind that the prize might be booby, dangled by a spoilt heir who just doesn't want to waste his jet-setting time running the business himself. It's sufficient excuse for enough conniving, backstabbing, and seduction to fuel a primetime soap; the sheer shamelessness of it is almost black comedy, except that women's bodies are piling up while the reporters, editors, and broadcasters of Kyne Enterprises are busy playing Diadochoi. All of this is scabrously great and doesn't even twitch my accidental misogyny tripwires, not least because the women of City
scheme too actively to register as mere collateral benchmarks even when endangered by their machismo-distracted men. I can't think right now of another noir in which a woman seduces a man to compromise him—not to enthrall or distract him, just to dent his reputation and diminish his authority, a liaison dangereuse
of the dark city. (The woman is Lupino and the man is Andrews and their brandied-up back-seat grappling is paired perfectly with a miserably hungover Andrews the next morning, insisting to about-to-be-ex-fiancée Forrest that nothing happened because he got sick while homicide detective Duff mercilessly and correctly reminds his old friend that failure to launch does not absolve him of intent to explode.) We're braced for one or more of the female characters to fall to the killer, especially after a brazen on-air callout offers up the nicest of them as bait, but not for their encounters to play more like final girl than damsel in distress. Combined with the careening amorality of the newsmen, their resilience gives the film some of the pleasingly pre-Code overtones that can be found in noir, encouraged further by the overstuffed pace and the occasional audience spit-take, as when wire chief Sanders mordantly eyes a mercenary slob of a reporter: "Well, then how can I be sure of him? Do I sleep with him?" And then at the last minute some kind of moral order appears to assert itself. Perhaps I should blame the source novel by Charles Einstein, but the film really earns its cynical ending which sees our antiheroes finishing last for not having sold out their principles enough
, and then it all but reverses these downer deserts for an epilogue that owes less to established characterization than wishful thinking. I'd've cut that, too. All the same, the majority of the movie is fast, intricate, brassy late noir, lensed by Ernest Laszlo with a kind of sharp lack of affect until the subterranean finale, and everyone at least once in their lives should get the chance to hear Dana Andrews enunciating precisely, "The fact that I can say 'inimical' proves just how drunk I am." If I have to go around muttering the song by Saint Eve
, now you do too.
I have to include Blackmail
(1929) as a kind of bonus round because I can't by any stretch of linear time call it a film noir, but it is absolutely an ancestor. It has the abyss that opens in the midst of everyday life, the assumption of familiar objects into nightmare, a deeply ambivalent ending that calls into question the security of everything from justice to love. I had seen the silent version seven years ago, at that time thinking mostly about how it fit or didn't into its director's canon: supposedly shot with a stealthy ear to sound release, it was Alfred Hitchcock's last silent and first talkie. Perhaps because this time I could hear the rhythms of speech and silence in real time, I couldn't help but notice how persistently the heroine (played by Anny Ondra but voiced, eat your heart out, Singin' in the Rain
, by Joan Barry live on set because the post-sync technology that would have made it possible to dub over Ondra's Czech accent didn't exist yet) is talked over, spoken for, and otherwise shushed up by the systems that are supposed to amplify and protect her, crystallized by the take-charge misapprehension of her policeman boyfriend (John Longden—good-looking but stolid, which is all the part needs). Like a forerunner of The Blue Gardenia
(1953), Ondra's Alice goes home with a charming artist only to leave a most uncharming scene for the forensic services of Scotland Yard, but then on top of the guilt that conjures Shakespearean daggers from cocktail-shaker neon and repeatedly jabs the word knife
out of a stream of breakfast-table gossip, she has to contend with the insinuations of an opportunistic "sponger," which is where Longden's Frank half-cluelessly steps in. Surely we can't be intended to imagine him a hero, with his grim satisfaction at railroading the man who threatened his girl. Dude is bringing a nightstick to a slapfight. Cyril Ritchard's Crewe was at least a smooth operator with his light comedy singing and his racy line drawings. Donald Calthrop's Tracy is a shabby little nobody, a petty ex-con who lounges ostentatiously with a cigar he hasn't paid for and tucks heartily into someone else's breakfast when he thinks he's got the upper hand; he has a clever character face and a trick of diffidence even at his slimiest, a stubbly, menacing shadow against a dead man's door by night and a much less impressive figure on the killer's doorstep the next morning, a nervous actor somewhat overplaying his big scene. All he's got is the glove in his pocket, his word against a woman's reputation. He's such small fry and the danger he poses to Alice so real that I was struck almost as much by his nonentity as by the way he collapses into sympathy when pinned for the crime he didn't commit, all his stolen swagger knocked out of him as physically as if he'd taken a punch in the ribs. You can make an audience feel for anyone when they're prey: he panics and he's hunted and it doesn't erase the savor he took in holding his evidence over a woman already daywalking through trauma, but it is hard to feel that his fate really is justice served. I got the title quote of this post from him. I might as easily have taken it from Alice herself: "Well, I don't think I want to go to the pictures." The chase scene through the British Museum is still great.
Normally at the end of a marathon I go for donuts or take a nap or something, but in this case I just attended rehearsals and saw doctors and slowly recovered from the medical whammy of this month. I watched six of these movies on TCM and one on Kanopy and I am sure most of them can be found on various home formats; I regret none of them, even if just for the scenery. Whatever else this genre is doing, at least it's trying to think
. This lineup brought to you by my questioning backers at Patreon