The longevity of television’s Dexter speaks to audience interest in and creative potential of the premise in which an authoritative figure, a Bloodstain Pattern Analyst in the case of the Showtime drama, commits the very crimes he or she is specialized in thwarting. The morally ambiguous nature of said character, the possible venues to create tension, the commentary on institutions dedicated to crime investigation, and more are ripe for commentary. Films have also concerned themselves with the subject, such as the Italian psychological drama Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the film under review this week, 1956’sTime Table, directed by and starring Mark Stevens.
After all the dust had settled and leaked blood had dried following the nightmare that was World War II, the Allied states co-organized a special commission for the purpose of investigating the details thought out by the sick minds of the Nazi regime who perpetrated the ghastly horrors in Europe. Tribunals were established shortly thereafter to convict the culprits, two English-language films having been the subject of said tribunals: the aptly titled Judgment at Nuremberg (the city where the prosecutions occurred) and its more recent remake, Nuremberg, which aired on television as a miniseries in 2000. History has also taught that several of the more slippery Nazi members attempted escape from their formerly secured bastion of terror and lay low elsewhere around the globe. Just because the war and their plans of exterminating a race had come to a resounding failure of a conclusion did not mean they had altered their philosophies, still harbouring unspeakable thoughts of the most violent form of racism imaginable.
Who can tell when they are being conned? Or lied to for that matter? Some people are blessed (or cursed) with a potentially dangerous gift, that of being able to fool their way into earning other people’s confidence. It is a perverse talent to say the least, a double-edged sword. When caught in a rut, the ability to smooth talk one’s way to calmer shores is commendable, but when the same talents are applied by someone with far fewer moral scruples, then the consequences may ultimately prove painful for both the con victim and the artist. Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, is a bit of an anomaly within film noir for its setting and the sort of protagonist the story evolves around. In fact, the case can be made that he is more antagonist than protagonist.
A reoccurring question in the ongoing study and appreciation of art is whether art reflects life or vice versa. The real answer ostensibly lies somewhere in the middle, each informing and influencing the other, both embraced in seamless synchronicity. Knowing that, it stands to reason that art can, in effect, comment on itself and has at many a given opportunity in history. When done well one artistic medium may be utilized to comment on another, such as in the 1946 film Crack-Up, directed by Irving Reis. By no means a project lacking in potential, it misses the mark in some key respects, staying afloat with handsome visuals and capable leading actors.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the major international powers and their smaller, less imposing friends aligned themselves along two extremely divisive ideological lines: the Western pro-capitalists and the Eastern Bloc, the latter driven by a bastardized version of communism. The present column shan’t delve into lessons of political or economic history of the mid-twentieth century, save to mention the above detail and tie it into film noir. So much has been written and said about the aftermath of WWII and its impact on American cinema in the 1940s and 1950s that stumbling upon a noir film which directly relates to the terrible red scare that afflicted the United States in the aforementioned decades (and then some) comes as a surprise for the simple reason that fewer exist than one might come to expect. The much lauded and controversial filmmaker Samuel Fuller took that very step with his 1953 effort, Pickup on South Street.
Where would people be without their mothers? Whether by birth, adoption or simply maternal figures, these great dames have, since time immemorial, commanded love, admiration, respect and devotion from their children. Codes of conduct, signs of affection, life lessons, mothers are so often considered the obvious heart and soul of one’s family, the father more commonly seen as the backbone. Appreciation for one’s own mother and, at the very least, respect for another’s mother are understood as basic concepts that, if challenged, speak gravely ill of the offending party. Sometimes the devotion stretches too far, venturing into eerie symbiosis, as was the case with poor Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960). While James Cagney’s Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett in White Heat does not belong in quite the same category as Bates, his closely knit relation with his dear mom (Margaret Wycherly) does encourage some rather unhealthy behaviour.
Visual effects have come a long way since the 1920s when pioneering directors the likes of Carl Theodore Dryer and Jean Renoir, amongst many other notable filmmakers, attempted to marry real life actors and sets with added optical illusions, bridging the gap between the real and the artificial. Today, the meshing of effects work and live action has reached the stage where the actor becomes the effect through the popularized motion capture process. A strong proponent of the technique is director Robert Zemeckis, but before dabbling in it he started out pushing the boundaries of visual effects in one of the most impressive and visually unique projects of the 1980s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a film that has actors like Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd constantly interact with two dimensional animated creatures.
There are, arguably, two minds when it comes to intricately plotted, complex mystery stories. There may exist other, more nuanced opinions, but it feels safe to assume that most people fall into one of the following categories. First, there are those who simply do not have or, quite frankly, want to award said story their time and patience. Too many names, too many different subplots, made up alibis and in the end it often seems like much ado about, well, not a whole lot. Second are those who either genuinely enjoy trying to wrap their heads around all the large and minute details a protagonist follows in his or her quest to uncover the truth or maybe do not even invest much stock in the minutia yet still discover a level of satisfaction in seeing someone a bit sharper than themselves unwrap the mystery. Fictional private detective icon Philip Marlowe, a creation from the mind of famed author Raymond Chandler, was one such character who always succeeded in putting millions of puzzle pieces together. 1944 saw the release of a great film adaptation of a Marlowe story, Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell playing the aforementioned private dick. 1946 was the year a Philip Marlowe adventure with a lot more star power behind it was bought to the silver screen, The Big Sleep, directed by legend Howard Hawks and starring none other than Humphrey Bogart.
Sometimes, there is no eluding one’s past, regardless of how hard one tries. The reasons are numerous. Perhaps the emotional and psychological weight of an event in one’s life are too great to shake off. In other instances the shackles exist because an individual is condemned to spend years actively correcting previous errors in judgement in the hopes of earning long sought after redemption. There exists another set of circumstances, the most deceptively simple of the lot, that being when a person merely walks away from an embarrassing, shameful and deeply regrettable episode, but deliberately creating separation from their history is no guarantee that the old ghosts will acquiesce to letting them be. When one least expects it, a new challenge presents itself from…Out of the Past.
A detective’s work is challenging enough already without the complications that arise when he or she is involved with one of the suspects of a crime. Determining the innocence or guilt of an individual or party would be a lot simpler were it not for the mind games suspects so often play with investigators, evading conviction with lies and half truths. The sudden emotional attachment to one of the targets of police suspicion could send everything into a tailspin, provided the assigned investigator is capable of keeping a lid on his or her emotions. However, what if a detective grew attached to a person he could not physically relate to, such as the victim of a murder? What if, after believing the object of one’s desire was unattainable, a new reality suddenly set itself in which made the impossible possible?
The Friday Noir column has been tugging along at a steady pace for well over a year at this point. After being privy to so many double-crosses, back stabbings, bleak outlooks and cynical one-liners, it feels like the right time to shine some proverbial light on the sinister world of film noir. What follows is a list of five previously movies reviewed that best exemplify many of the alluring qualities of this fondly remembered and frequently emulated genre.
Some pertinent details details about the list below need be shared with the readers in the hopes of anticipating and preventing any head scratching. First, the list is comprised strictly of films from the classic noir era, thus limiting the candidates to such films made and released in the mid 1940s up until the late 1950s. Neonoirs, and there are excellent ones, make no mistake about it, are therefore ineligible. The list aims to tackle the source of noir rather than its imitators. Apologies to L.A. Confidential fans.
Second, some commonly regarded masterworks are absent. As great as The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard and Touch of Evil are, they obvious are selections and by that nature less inspired choices. They are wonderful films, as is Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past for that matter, but who would not mention them in a typical compilation of film noir favourites? Readers are invited to think of the following as recommendations of some great film noir entries other than the popular classics. And now, with those details finally out of the way…
Stripped of the glamorousness that gives other film noir pictures their appeal, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour presents us with the genre, in its rawest form. This B picture, from PRC (Producer’s Relations Corporation) has every element of classic noir films, from the use of flashback, to a doomed romance, to the femme fatale, and of course, a murder. Unlike Detour’slarger budgeted, star-studded counterparts, these elements aren’t seamlessly disguised, behind a shroud of intrigue.
Detour begins in flashback. New York City nightclub pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) loses his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake) to the allure of the west coast. Determined to join her across the country, in LA, and live out his dreams, Al hitchhikes to Hollywood. He is picked up by bookie, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). When Charles unexpectedly dies, Al believes the the police will suspect him and takes Charles’s identity. Al then takes on another hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who knew Charles, and she blackmails him.