Like a second-place contestant on Jeopardy, my fellow students and I weren’t allowed to leave our class on 1940’s film noir without a parting gift: our instructor Elliot Lavine sent us links to seven further films that he claims he could have added to our pile of twenty-four had their only been time. Not all of them are great, but at least one of them, Body and Soul, was supposed to be one of our main entrees, if only there had been an available link at the time our class began. Elliot advised us to watch one of these a day, but this baby pretty much binged them all. Below you will find my quick impression of each.
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The Mark of the Whistler (1944)
Every week from May 1942 to September 1955, audiences would gather around their radios to listen to another tale of The Whistler. He was a sort of Rod Serling figure who introduced stories brimming with suspense and Irony (with a capital “I”!) Unlike Serling, whose hosting duties for his two most successful anthology programs The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery consisted of a brief introduction and closing remarks, the Whistler would interject taunting comments throughout to the characters in order to let them and us know that it is impossible to cheat fate. He also, of course, whistled the show’s spooky theme at the beginning and end of each episode.
Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the Whistler, preferring the early seasons of rival series Suspense, some of the episodes of which were written by John Dickson Carr and which featured many of Hollywood’s finest stars. I also loved Jack Benny’s parody of The Whistler, which he called “The Fiddler:” Jack would both narrate and play the ill-fated lead, and he would scratch out the trademark Whistler theme on his violin. (Click here to listen to an episode.)
In 1944, Columbia Pictures debuted the first in what would be a series of eight low-budget pictures based on the radio series. Four of these were directed by William Castle, who had served as Orson Welles’ assistant on The Lady from Shanghai and would go on to become one of the most successful horror schlockmeisters of all time. Most of his films bordered on the ludicrous but were entertaining enough – and made more so by various gimmicks Castle perpetrated on movie audiences, like wiring certain theatre seats with electric buzzers for The Tingler so that whenever anything scary happened, lucky patrons would receive a shock and jump screaming out of their chairs. Castle redeemed himself as a producer with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a true classic.
All but the last of the Whistler films starred Richard Dix, who had begun his film career in 1917 and worked steadily through the age of silent pictures well into the sound era, earning one Oscar nomination in 1931 for Cimarron. Even though he grappled with alcoholism, his credits include two or three films a year until his final picture in 1947. (He died in 1949.)
The Mark of the Whistler is the second film in the series. Elliot picked it not only for Castle’s direction but because the screenplay was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich called “Dormant Account.” The title refers to the number of bank accounts set up for people that have been, for one reason or another, abandoned. Banks would put ads in the newspapers to let readers know of these accounts, and the lucky person who could provide proof of their identity might walk away with a fortune.
Dix plays Lee Selfridge Nugent, a down-and-outer who reads one of these ads and discovers that a man with the same first and last name is being sought to claim a fortune left by his mother. Our Lee is a clever man, and the first ten or so minutes of this hour-long feature show how Lee researches the missing man’s life and then sets himself up to be identified as the other Lee. This was the most entertaining part of the movie for me, and although Dix seems a little old for this part, he was charming enough that you wanted to root for him through the ups and downs of his scheme.
To be honest, it was hard to find much more to love about this movie. Up to the final moments, the plot pretty much covers the same territory of Hollow Triumph, a much better picture, and then it caves in with a happy ending that severely lessens what sting the film possesses. Plus, if you don’t think Lee is going to run into the real heir – and if you can’t spot immediately who that person is! – then you had better go take a class in film noir and then come back and talk. The film was shot by someone named George Meehan, and between him and Castle, there’s nothing particularly distinctive going on, except for the shadowy appearances at the beginning and end of the picture by the Whistler himself!
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Now this is more like it, at least at the start. Framed begins with a man (Glenn Ford) careening down a mountain road in a truck with no brakes. He manages to guide the out-of-control vehicle down the main street of a small town and stop it with minimal damage. You might figure that this would lead to a 75-minute-long flashback about how that man got into that truck, but no! It turns out to be one of the best entrances ever made by a hero in a fairly average film noir.
Ford plays a mining engineer named Ima Chump – er, Mike Lambert, whose inability to find a good job has led him to driving this rickety truck. When the trucking company owners refuse to pay the damages made to another man’s car as a result of the crash, Mike flashes his good guy credentials by giving his salary to the man, an old miner named Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan). A short while later, Mike finds himself on the receiving end of a good deed when he is arrested for reckless driving and avoids jail when Paula Craig, the gorgeous barmaid he saw earlier, pays his bail.
Of course, Paula (Janis Carter) has ulterior motives, involving her bank executive lover and an embezzled $250,000. Before the film is over, Mike will learn two things: watch how much you drink, and be wary of blondes who talk a good game but seem incapable of any facial expressions. The ultimate question becomes just how fatale can this femme be, which leads to one good twist; other than that, this is fairly standard noir.
The director, Richard Wallace, made many films, most of them forgettable. (He did direct A Night to Remember, the 1942 adaptation of the Kelley Roos mystery classic, The Frightened Stiff. But the cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, would go on to make some classic films and win the Academy Award for two of them, From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde. Glenn Ford is likable as always and gives some poignancy to Mike’s predicament, and Barry Sullivan and Edgar Buchanan both elevate the material they’re given.
Janis Carter was another one of those actresses who appeared in a couple of dozen movies (comedies, dramas, mysteries) in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and then gravitated to television. It turns out that she appeared as the femme fatale in The Mark of the Whistler, too. My favorite bit of trivia is that the same bank set appears in both these films, and each includes a scene where a pivotal character finds everyone in the bank looking at them. The context of each scene couldn’t be more different, but they each mark a high point in an otherwise so-so movie.
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When I signed up to take the class, I assumed that Mildred Pierce could very well be one of the films we watched. I’m glad it wasn’t – I’ve seen the film a dozen times – but it is certainly considered one of the “A” list noir films of the 40’s. That might be a reason why Elliot didn’t consider it: he was a penchant for “B” pictures, and his stress on those is why I was privileged to see so many pictures for the first time.
With Possessed, it looks like we weren’t going to escape Joan Crawford after all. Don’t get me wrong: I like Crawford well enough; I just don’t love her like I do some of the other studio personality actors of the day. I truly believe Bette Davis was a better actress than Crawford, but the latter proves herself in many of her 30’s MGM films. I genuinely love her in Grand Hotel and The Women. I like her in Mildred Pierce, too, but then I think I like everyone else in that picture a little bit more.
Bette Davis was supposed to play Mildred, but she turned down the role. She was also supposed to play Louise Howell, the troubled nurse prone to murderous fantasies, in Possessed, but she became pregnant, and Crawford was offered the role.
Gosh, I would have loved to see what Davis made of this part of a woman whose obsession with the wrong man is exacerbated by her own mental illness. (Louise calls it schizophrenia, but it seemed like a bad case of Glenn Close-it is to me!) What Crawford does is dial up the pitch to extreme levels. In her cute civilian wardrobe, she tips over into hysteria at the hint that she isn’t going to get what she wants. In her nurse’s uniform, she is robotically obeisant. And in the framing tale that starts the movie and serves as a launching point to a series of flashbacks explaining how Louise ended up in the “psycho ward” of a Los Angeles hospital, she is catatonic.
This last is the best and most believable state in Crawford’s acting job here. Maybe it’s because she’s acting opposite two men playing doctors who rattle off this ridiculous medical babble throughout and treat her more like a talking lab rat than a very sick woman. Crawford’s problem in the other scenes is that she is acting beside Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, and Geraldine Brooks, all of whom give far more naturalistic and attractive performances. Elliot calls Heflin’s character the homme fatale of the story, but while he isn’t very kind to Louise, one can almost sympathize with him as she gets crazier and crazier around him throughout the film.
Possessed is worth watching for its look, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph Valentine and for the inclusion of several sequences that turn out to be fantasies in Louise’s sick mind, causing us to doubt the veracity of anything she tells her doctors, including the criminal act she claims to have committed. I just wish Crawford’s performance hadn’t set my teeth on edge; I think I would have enjoyed this one more.
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Born to Kill (1947)
As we cross the halfway point on this list, we finally reach a film that I wish we had watched (and discussed) in class. Like Possessed, Born to Kill centers around a troubled woman and her obsession with the wrong man; unlike the Crawford film, this one possesses all the right noir credentials: a troubled production schedule (lasting two years); a troubled leading man (Lawrence Tierney) whose real-life scrapes with the law mirrored the gangsters and psychopaths he played; a perfectly cast cadre of women, led by Claire Trevor; expert direction by Robert “West Side Story” Wise – the fact that this is the guy who would direct The Sound of Music blows my mind – and cinematography by Robert De Grasse, whose work was the highlight of The Leopard Man; a story set mostly in San Francisco, my home town; and, last but not least, another fantastic turn by noir stalwart Elisha Cook Jr..
Trevor plays Helen Brent, who first appears to be a wealthy, classy woman who is about to receive her divorce after spending six weeks in Reno at the boarding house of Mrs. Kraft, a raucous drunk (Esther Howard, who appeared in 108 films in just over twenty years). On her last night before returning home to San Francisco, Helen hits the casino, making eyes with the handsome but weird guy throwing craps. She meets Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), Mrs. Kraft’s next-door-neighbor and best friend, a good-time girl who has brought her date with her to make her real boyfriend jealous. Three guesses as to who the boyfriend is; bonus points if you can figure out his reaction.
Laury and her date are murdered by the jealous beau, a guy named Sam Wilde, and Helen ends up finding the bodies. She tries to make a quick escape to SF without getting involved and ends up meeting Sam on the train. The rest, as they say, is tragedy!!
The story unfolds as all good noir should, with the plot and characters twisting and surprising us throughout. The effectiveness of the film goes far toward proving the argument that noir is better without the gloss of an “A” picture like Possessed; the cheap, spare look works much better in a tale of perverse desire and out-of-control violence. Halfway through the picture, Helen, who is engaged to a rich and kind, but boring, executive tells Sam that her soul is in constant struggle between the good girl she suspects she could be and the rottenness she knows lies within. Helen claims it all depends on which man she chooses, but in the end it’s safe to say that Helen owns her inner rot.
Mention must be made of Walter Slezak who plays a sleazy P.I., part Miles Archer, part Mr. Macawber, who Mrs. Kraft hires to find Laury’s killer. Slezak steals the picture with his funny portrait of this jovially immoral man. I also loved Elisha Cook, Jr. as Mart, Sam’s . . . . what? Best friend? Part-time lover? (They have shared a bed for five years, and Mart shows that he alone can sometimes handle Sam’s rages with great tenderness and would even kill for him). Tierney’s portrayal of a psychopath is disturbingly believable – I have never seen this guy on screen, so I clearly need to watch Reservoir Dogs! And Trevor, who replaced Tallullah Bankhead to play Helen and has shown herself more than adept at revealing the hidden softness behind tough girls (Stagecoach, Raw Deal), creates a brilliant portrait of a woman losing all control of her morals over her love for the wrong man.
The film was banned for years, the Catholic League citing its acceptance of divorce as a viable choice (that part of the movie takes up three minutes). Bosley Crowther called it “reprehensible.” In short, this is must-watch noir!!
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Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Robert Montgomery directs and stars in this film, co-adapted by Ben Hecht (one of the wittiest screenwriters of all time) from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, who also wrote the book that became the classic noir, In a Lonely Place. Montgomery plays Lucky Gagin, a war veteran who comes to a small town in New Mexico at fiesta time to confront, blackmail and/or kill mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) for killing Lucky’s friend Shorty.
The premise of seeking revenge for a friend or family member’s killing is common in noir and, in fact, in many crime dramas of all shapes and sizes. But there is nothing common in the way this trope plays out here. There’s something delightfully off kilter about every aspect of this film: the characters, the setting, the plot and the payoff. The gorgeously pristine re-issue by Criterion has made its way to the internet archive, and the combination of the clarity of the print and the odd sensibilities of the film made it almost a dreamlike experience for me, something both out of the past and of the moment.
Montgomery had recently completed the same task of directing and starring in another noir, the flawed but fascinating Lady in the Lake, where the entire film is shot through Montgomery/Philip Marlowe’s POV. Here, his work is more traditional but no less striking, and he has a brilliant way of allowing us to read the faces and attituded of even the most minor character in each shot. The cinematographer, Russell Metty, who later won an Oscar for Spartacus, is best known as Douglas Sirk’s camera guy for eleven films. Here, you can see why Sirk would choose Metty to be at his side to make all those lush melodramas.
For much of the film, Montgomery, who I watched all during the pandemic in various charming roles in early 30’s romantic comedies and dramas on TCM, plays the antithesis of this: stiff, cold, snarling at anyone who comes within his sphere, prone to bursts of violence. At first I thought he was playing a sociopath, and then it seemed like me might be suffering from PTSD. In the end . . . I’m not sure what’s going on, but I tend to think that Lucky Gagin represents all the returning soldiers I spoke about in my first post about this class – he’s one of thousands who returned and were expected to pick up as if they hadn’t suffered through multiple battles and watched their comrades die. Lucky has come to this strange place to find justice for his buddy. He asks Hugo for a little money, and everyone – Hugo himself, his girlfriend, and his goons, all accuse Gagin of being stupid for not taking the best advantage that he can of the situation.
The film is populated by fascinating variations on stock characters: a T-man who is as fatherly as he is tough; a seriously classy femme fatale, a “secretary” to the mobster who everyone hates. And the native New Mexicans are not played as typical 40’s stereotypes of ethnic characters. These are the film’s good guys, and they are presented not as a single type but as individuals. The one exception is Pila, a teenaged girl who befriends Gagin. She is played by Dixie Wanda Hendrix, a white actress, in dark makeup. This was done a lot in those days, with leading roles especially (the other townspeople all seem to be played by actors of color), and while she’s perfectly fine in the role of this quirky, full of surprises, young woman, it’s the one sour note that struck this modern viewer.
The climactic scene directly addresses the plight of veteran soldiers as Gagin’s choice is laid out for him and he has to decide whether to give into the cynicism that has plagued him since his return home or whether he can find the strength to embrace the ideals that led him to represent his country at war. This may sound overly lofty the way I’ve expressed; believe me, the scene is wonderfully written and played, and it provides the final humanizing touch to Gagin’s weird character arc. This was a first-time viewing for me, and I almost can’t wait to watch the film again.
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Body and Soul (1947)
I have a charming but tenuous relationship with this film, which I saw for the first time this week. It is heavily referenced in an episode of my favorite sitcom of all time, The Dick Van Dyke Show. In “Body and Sol,” Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) reminisces about his time in the army when he was a celebrated boxer known as Pitter Patter Petrie and was set up for a big fight against Boom Boom Bailey, who outweighed Rob by many pounds. Rob’s then girlfriend/later wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) wanted Rob to take a dive to avoid any serious physical damage, to which Rob replied, “You’re no Lilli Palmer.”
And that was pretty much all I knew about the picture – until now. Body and Soul is that rare thing, a noir sports film. Half the actors and the director ended up being blacklisted by HUAC, and James Wong Howe, the celebrated cinematographer, was “grey listed” due to the past connections his wife had to the Communist party. The blacklist indirectly killed star John Garfield, who suffered with heart problems; his name would be much better known today had he been given the chance to have a long career.
Another victim of the blacklist was Canada Lee, who had appeared as Banquo in Orson Welles’ Macbeth with an all-black cast and as the humane steward Joe in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Lee was also blacklisted and died of a heart attack at 45 before he could testify before the Senate sub-committee. One of the best aspects of the film is the relationship between Garfield’s boxer, Charlie Davis, and Lee’s Ben Chaplin, his rival turned trainer. These two men shared a dream of rising out of their tenement lives through boxing, and both fell victim to the machinations of sports promoters and crooked gamblers. Through their struggles, they form a friendship that shapes the kind of man Charlie will ultimately become.
This is considered one of the finest films about boxing, and if a modern reader comes upon it and dismisses it as stuffed with all the cliches of a sports movie – the path to success can spoil you, the climax to a fighter’s career is when he’s told to take a dive, and so on – remember that this is 1947 and films like this created these tropes. Yes, there are a million things you’ve seen before (in later films, mind you), but they’re beautifully filmed by Howe: the training montage, the “too much success” montage with images of nightclub signs and liquor freely pouring, the tragic but dramatically well-timed deaths of a parent or a friend. All the same old same old, wrapped in its original package, beautifully trimmed . . .
And at the center is the love affair between Garfield’s Charlie Davis, whose only dream was to be a champ, and Palmer’s Peg Born, an artist and designer who much prefers the “before” Charlie to the “after.” There are all the touches to make it noir: the gangsters, the femme fatale who says, “I don’t care where his heart goes, I follow the money,” the shadows on the urban streets and in the training gyms. The fine character actress Anne Revere plays Anna, Charlie’s mother (despite having been only ten years older than Garfield), and it’s nice for this old bar mitzvah boy to see goodness represented by a working-class Jewish neighborhood. When Charlie, in the chips, tries to persuade his mother to give up the candy store she and his father have owned for decades, leave the tenement and come live in his overstuffed apartment with the bar that musically revolves into the wall – “someplace nice” – Anna replies, “I live in someplace nice.”
The tension here is whether or not Charlie will wise up, embrace the values he was raised with, and come back to the girl who loves him before it’s too late. Given the noir credentials of this film, the odds are not in Charlie’s favor. But ultimately, this is a sports movie, a completely different animal than film noir, and in a beautifully filmed final fight sequence, when we spot Lilli Palmer in that crowd, we know exactly where this film is going.
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Thieves Highway (1949)
My introduction to director Jules Dassin came earlier this year when our class watched Brute Force. It was a prison drama unlike any other, with the institution run like a fascist state and the doomed inmates played as morally righteous souls with a code of honor lacking in anyone in law enforcement. It was also stunning to look at, thanks to cinematographer William H. Daniels. This time Dassin has teamed up with Norbert Brodine, a veteran of over 100 films during his career, including notable 40’s noir pictures like Somewhere in the Night, Boomerang, and Kiss of Death.
If a lot of noir thrives on cliches, Thieves Highway was one of the most unpredictable films I’ve watched this spring, with an unusual setting (the produce market on the San Francisco docks), a plot that surprises you, and a compelling set of characters, most of whom transform into someone utterly different than they were when the film started.
Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, another war veteran who returns to his small California hometown to hopefully pick up where he left off, with his parents, with his job prospects, and with his girl Polly (Barbara Lawrence). But he comes home to find that his dad, a fruit farmer, has lost his legs due to a deal gone bad with crooked San Francisco produce dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Mr. Garcos has sold his truck to local dreamer Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) who has entered into a deal with a pair of – I can only describe them as “characters” -named Pete and Slob (Joseph Pevney, Jack Oakie) to buy a fine crop of Golden Delicious apples and drive them to San Francisco.
Nick goes to Ed to buy his father’s truck back, but despite the fact that the truck is just short of a heap of junk, Ed needs it for the deal. And so Nick decides to go into business with Ed, replacing Pete and Slob, drive the apples to the City and then find Mike Figlia and force him to pay what he owes Nick’s dad.
Nothing goes as planned.
Never has a film about driving apples to Frisco been so loaded with suspense. Every person in this ninety-minute film is a fascinating character study, capable of the most unexpected behavior. Dassin cleverly leavens the tension with humor, especially as Pete and Slob tail Ed along the highway, hoping his truck will break down, Even the goons who work for Mike Figlia are charming when they’re not lethal, and more than once the laughter abruptly shifts to violence or tragedy.
Soon after he arrives in the City, Nick encounters a French streetwalker named Rica (Valentina Cortese), and it seems like Dassin has presented us with the standard balance between sweet, blonde Polly back home and this sensuous and angry woman who is clearly out for herself. But then the plot switches things around – and switches them again – and you begin to realize that you can’t count on your noir glossary this time; this ending won’t be certain until the credits roll.
Thieves Highway is a perfect way to end this bonus journey through 1940’s film noir. I know there are a lot more films of this decade to explore (I’d love to hear some suggestions in the comments below). In less than two weeks, I start another class with Elliot Lavine on some of the most important representatives of “new cinema” spanning the mid-60’s to mid-70’s. And then in the fall, we’re going to study my favorite film director of all time – that’s right: ten weeks of Hitchcock! That will give me plenty of time to work on Elliot in order to convince him to offer a class on film noir from the fifties!!!