Since my previous post about TCM’s Summer of Darkness film festival we managed to squeeze in a few more films noir. We had to watch The Killers again—that one is a classic of the genre. Who can argue with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner? William Conrad and Charles McGraw, who play the hit men of the title, give particularly menacing performances. After that it was Border Incident, 99 River Street, The Lady in the Lake, Out of the Past (my all-time fave!), Act of Violence, The Lady from Shanghai, They Live By Night, Shadow on the Wall, Marlowe, On Dangerous Ground, Cause for Alarm, No Questions Asked, Macao, Split Second, The Narrow Margin, His Kind of Woman, Angel Face, Brute Force, and Desperate.
Highlights? The Orson Welles-helmed The Lady from Shanghai is a bizarre, rambling epic with the maestro himself starring as an Irishman, complete with a begosh-and-begorrah accent. It showcases his wife at the time, the amazing and under-appreciated Rita Hayworth. Dazzling camera work is featured throughout and culminates in the unforgettable final scene in the funhouse hall of mirrors in San Francisco’s Playland-on-the-Beach. There’s a panoply of creepy minor characters and the goofy plot almost feels like an in-joke. Welles was a legendary show-off and rarely shot a sequence where he couldn’t wow you with his technical brilliance. This was a hard one to take your eyes off of!
The aforementioned Charles McGraw (who was also in Border Incident, Brute Force, and His Kind of Woman) brought his gravelly voice and seething machismo to the sensational The Narrow Margin which also starred the spectacular Marie Windsor. Most of the studio system starlets were dwarfed by the stacked and statuesque Windsor who could dish it out with the best of them. It’s a shame she never became a big star—her physicality would play well in today’s films but was a little too much for the cramped confines of the B-movie sets. The Narrow Margin is superbly paced and packs a lot into its 87 minutes. Imagine a modern movie under an hour-and-a-half in length!
Brute Force, another Burt Lancaster vehicle, is notable for its excellent villian, Captain Munsey, played by Hume Cronyn in a brilliant bit of against-type casting. The shootout/jailbreak climax is as dark and depressing as anything in noir. Other than Robert Mitchum no actor exemplifies “loser” or “chump” in the noir canon better than Lancaster. Being handsome, manly, and athletic does not insulate you from the ass-kicking ways of fate. With his perfect teeth, broad shoulders, and rolling dancer’s gait, he was that guy we were always shocked to see fall. (My favorite Burt role is as Yvonne de Carlo’s doomed lover in the terrific Criss Cross.) Mitchum, of course, was the quintessential noir leading man (with apologies to Humphrey Bogart). The hang-dog look, the mumbling, the I-don’t-give-a-shit vibe, and the languid, sleep-walking style all combined to make Mitchum movies (Macao, His Kind of Woman, Angel Face) unforgettable. Bogie was the ultimate tough guy and could only be taken down by a hail of bullets. Mitchum would lead himself into his own destruction, which is what noir is all about. He had a believable, everyman persona and we were never surprised when he came to his sad and lonely end.
Director Anthony Mann (Desperate and Border Incident) cut his teeth in the noir realm and later worked with actor James Stewart to make several excellent Westerns (The Far Country, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73) that are notable for their dark themes and sinister performances from their leading man. Stewart was a beloved actor and these roles not only enlarged his screen range but set the style for the grittier, harder-edged Westerns of later years.
Another treat was watching James Garner’s take on Raymond Chandler’s P.I. in Marlowe. It’s an overlooked and perhaps underrated film and is notable for an appearance by Bruce Lee. Garner, like Stewart, was not known for noir, being too likable and good-looking to really pull it off. Garner found his perfect niche not long after Marlowe with his TV show The Rockford Files, where he is regularly beat-up, ripped off, harassed by cops, and taken for a ride by mobsters. Despite the double-crosses, betrayals, and murders it’s too lighthearted to be called noir. Nonetheless Garner is one of the few actors who could make the lone private detective appealing as a person and not simply a vehicle to tell a story. And it would take a very brave director to send him down into the cesspool and kill him off! You need Mitchum or Lancaster for that.
As much as I love the movies of the film noir era I hesitate to say that they are “better” than today’s cinematic efforts. What they are is something distinctive and a product of a particular time. I am very attracted to the themes and to the style of storytelling. My mother, to whom I owe my love of this genre, always says “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” And that is certainly true. I would not, however, want anyone to attempt to re-create these movies, any more than I would want to hear someone trying to sing or play like Louis Armstrong. (I want artists and performers to be themselves and not some ersatz version of someone else.) I’m glad today’s movies are different than those made in Hollywood “back in the day.” I’m especially glad there is still an interest in these older works as evidenced by the popularity of noir festivals like Summer of Darkness.