I'm going to introduce a classic film noir double feature of KISS ME DEADLY and SCARLET STREET at the Stateside (next door to the Paramount Theatre) tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 7:15. Here are my notes on the films in case you can't make it to the show.
Here’s something you need to know. In the 1940s and ‘50s, no one ever said, “hey, there’s a new film noir playing at the Bijou, let’s go check it out!” Why not? Because even though the works that we now classify as film noir existed at the time, the term itself did not. Any movie from that period that is now considered film noir was at the time of its production and release simply a mystery, a crime film, a thriller or a drama. It wasn’t until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that French film critics took a long, deep look at these American films and brought forth the term “film noir” (literally “black film”). The term stuck.
But what is film noir? Books have been written on the subject and it’s still being debated as to whether film noir is a style of film, a cycle of films or a distinctly codified film genre. Generally speaking, films noir almost always concerned themselves with crime or some deep moral dilemma. They were marked by distinctive and highly stylized visuals both in camera angles and the chiaroscuro of black-and-white cinematography. Their protagonists were usually seriously flawed people who may or may not triumph over their situations. There is usually a femme fatale of some sort, a dangerous female character who often spells doom for the hero. And make no mistake about it film noir is loaded with doom. In many of the films, no matter what happens, no matter how many twists and turns the plot takes, things are most certainly not going to end well.
This fatalistic view of a dark and dangerous moral and physical landscape populated by murderers, thieves, blackmailers, gangsters, corrupt cops and crooks of every stripe, perfectly captured the postwar angst and anxiety that permeated American society. After all, after something as horrific as World War Two, how could the world ever be seen again as a nice place?
Most film scholars agree that what is now regarded as the classic, first great golden age of film noir began with John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s seminal crime novel The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Orson Welles’ baroque masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958). In between there were dozens of films that came to be classified after the fact as film noir. Some were “A” pictures from major studios. Many more were tough and gritty “B” pictures that managed to transcend their budgetary limitations and achieve some measure of greatness. Two of the very best examples of film noir are on display here.
German director Fritz Lang became the poet laureate of American film noir with such renowned touchstone films as You Only Live Once (1937), Clash By Night (1952), The Big Heat (1953), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956). While at Universal Studios in the 1940s, Lang was granted his own semi-independent production unit which made The Woman in the Window in 1944. A first rate noir, Woman starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. Lang reunited this cast the following year for Scarlet Street, a reworking of Jean Renoir’s 1931 French classic La Chienne.
Robinson plays a middle-aged, low-paid cashier, the weakling husband of a domineering nag (Ivan) who forces him to paint, his dearest hobby, in the bathroom. By chance Robinson takes a different way to the Greenwich Village subway one night and meets Bennett, who says she’s an actress in a play that closed that night (in reality, she’s a “working girl”). Urged on by her lowlife boyfriend (Duryea), Bennett plays Robinson for the fool, getting him to embezzle money to rent her a studio apartment-on the pretext that he can paint there. By chance, a major art critic (Barker) sees Robinson’s paintings and thinks them exceptional. Bennett says she painted them and accepts large sums of money when they’re sold. You can see where this is going.
Lang rings in the classic film noir themes: a man falls for a femme fatale and falls into fate’s trap, everyone becomes his enemy, an innocent man is convicted of a crime and the startling ending is unbearably cruel.
Coming in at 11 on the cruelty scale is Robert Aldrich’s brilliant, ahead-of-its-time masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly. Based on the pulp crime novel by Mickey Spillane, Kiss stars Ralph Meeker as private detective Mike Hammer. But this Hammer is no knight in armor, shining or tarnished. He’s a caveman with a gun instead of a club, a brutal misanthrope who gets a perverse delight out of breaking fingers and other body parts.
A chance encounter on a deserted highway at night opens the film with Hammer encountering a terrorized Cloris Leachman running for her life. She gives him a shred of a clue before they’re captured by the bad guys. She dies, Hammer is worked over and when he regains consciousness, the hunt is on. The object of the search is a mysterious box, a Pandora’s Box if you will, that provides the narrative link that makes Kiss Me Deadly part science fiction, part film noir and all bleak.
Hammer prowls the streets of Los Angeles (the film was shot on many locations that have long since undergone radical changes) looking for clues. He hates almost everyone he meets. He has a love/hate relationship with the L.A.P.D. and shows affection only for his auto mechanic buddy and Velma, his steadfast secretary (although he uses her in twisted ways to gain evidence in other cases he works). Everything comes to a literally apocalyptic ending at a Malibu beach house when the mysterious box is opened.
Director Robert Aldrich’s stylized visualizations and editing prefigure the soon to come French New Wave films and the cast is uniformly superb with such venerable character actors as Jack Elam, Percy Helton and Strother Martin turning in small but memorable bits. The original ending was cut from the film and believed to be missing for many years. Without it, things end rather abruptly. The missing 82 seconds were eventually found and restored to the film. The sequence adds clarification to the action but it does nothing to lessen the impact of this end-of-the-world thriller. But if the world can produce such monsters as Hammer and the villains he encounters, is it really worth saving?