For the love of film (noir)

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A couple of dames over at the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films are hosting a fundraising blogathon this week called For the Love of Film (Noir). If you know what’s good for ya, you’ll help support film preservation by donating to the Film Noir Foundation here.

My little contribution to this blogathon is divided into several sections, each one devoted to a key element of film noir: cinematography, femmes fatales, hard-boiled dialogue, music, and memorable death scenes. By no means do I intend this as an exhaustive survey of any of these categories; it’s simply an opportunity for me to briefly discuss a few of my favorite things about film noir.

But before the main attraction begins I’d like to kick off the festivities with a noir-inspired cartoon, The Super Snooper, starring Daffy Duck as Daffy Drake, a web-footed private dick duck embroiled in a baffling whodunit, the prime suspect of which is a se-duck-tive femme canard fatale. Unfortunately, it’s far from a Looney Tunes classic, but at least it fits the occasion quite nicely.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

The best noir cinematographers were visual artists on a par with great painters. The set was their easel, the camera their brush, light and shadow their paint. Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, photographed by Milton Krasner, has a couple of scenes that practically define the noir style for me. One appears at the beginning, the other at the end.

Scene #1:

The taut narrative of The Set-Up unfolds in real time, heightening the film’s sense of urgency as it counts down to aging boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson’s rendezvous with destiny. Stoker’s introduction is film noir at its best: the camera pans from the rundown boxing arena, where an evening of bouts is just getting underway, to the Hotel Cozy across the street, then slowly moves toward an open window of the hotel, pushes past curtains blowing atmospherically in the night breeze, and finally enters the dingy room where Stoker, quickly established as a washed-up fighter who’ll “always be one punch away,” prepares to leave for what will prove to be his final fight. The scene has everything that makes noir great: atmospheric camerawork; a seedy milieu; a world-weary hero raging against his fate; and, naturally, a hot dame.

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Scene # 2:

But it’s the climax which strikes me as a quintessential example of the film noir style. Having refused to take a dive Stoker sneaks out the back door of the arena trying to evade some pissed off gangsters. From the alleyway he can see the light from the window of his hotel room, a tantalizingly close beacon of safety, where his girl awaits his return hoping to start a new life. Only gangsters stand in his way. The situation is fraught with tension, with angular compositions, shadowy lighting and oppressively tight close-ups of Stoker’s petrified face emphasizing the claustrophobic traps he’s in. The visuals more than anything provide the power and meaning to this extraordinary sequence, which plays like a textbook example of what film noir is all about, as if Wise and Krasner shot the sequence anticipating that one day it would be studied by film students.

Nothing evokes the menacing, fatalistic world of film noir better than shadowy, chiaroscuro photography. Here are a few more examples of superb noir lighting.

The Killers by Woody Bredell

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Out of the Past by Nicholas Musuraca

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T-Men by John Alton

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Border Incident by John Alton

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Night and the City by Max Greene

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The Third Man by Robert Krasker

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The Night of the Hunter by Stanley Cortez – if it’s noir

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Sweet Smell of Success by James Wong Howe

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Touch of Evil by Russell Metty

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FEMMES FATALES

“She looked like a very special kind of dynamite wrapped in nylon and silk” – They Won’t Believe Me

If anything gives the lie to the notion that women are by nature nurturing and peaceful it is the existence of that deadly species of woman known as the femme fatale. Endowed with devious minds and alluring bodies, these treacherous dames exert their sexual power over men to get what they want. One such woman is Margo Shelby from the obscure poverty row noir, Decoy. Stunningly portrayed by British actress Jean Gillie, Margo may not be as well known as, say, Phyllis Dietrichson or Annie Starr, but she’s just as ruthlessly, heartlessly amoral, if not more so.

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At the beginning of Decoy Margo has a big problem: one of her boyfriends, Frankie, is soon to be executed but the jerk refuses to tell her where he buried $400,000, lest she run off with it with her other criminal boyfriend, Vincent, who does indeed want a piece of the action. She’s got to stop Frankie’s execution somehow, not out of love mind you, but in order to make him spill where the loot is hidden. Her solution is one of the most outrageous schemes ever devised: she plans to revive him after the execution with an antidote to cyanide gas called methylene blue! But in order to pull this off she’ll need help from the man who oversees the prison executions, and so Margo sets her flirtatious sights on boyfriend number three, idealistic Dr. Lloyd Craig. Before long the good doctor succumbs to her seductive charms, obeying her every command like a well-heeled puppy dog.

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Of course, Margo needs these guys only insofar as they remain useful to her; once they’ve served their purpose they become instantly expendable. All three of them will learn this the hard way. When Frankie is miraculously revived after his execution he rejoices over his second chance at life, only to be promptly shot dead moments later after naively telling Margo and Vincent where the money is hidden. The poor sap is executed twice in the span of like an hour! Margo must improvise to get rid of Vincent. On the way to the money’s hiding spot, Margo lets air out of one of the car tires and tells Vincent to put the spare on. Vinnie obeys. Big mistake. He soon realizes that it’s best not to be in front of a car Margo is behind the wheel of, especially when she’s on her way to pick up $400,000 of stolen loot. With two saps out of the way only Lloyd stands between Margo and her money. She makes the good doctor dig up the loot for her, then plugs him repeatedly and runs away with the booty giggling and gleefully rejoicing, “it’s all mine!” like some homicidal spoiled child. Clearly nobody ever told Margo it was nice to share. Purringly seductive, sizzlingly sexy, and diabolically murderous, Margo is every guy’s ultimate fantasy and darkest nightmare rolled into one dangerously alluring package. Sadly, Gillie died just three years after making Decoy, but her portrayal of Margo Shelby is memorable enough to secure her place among the great femmes fatales of film noir.

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Here are a few more duplicitous dames who deserve more notoriety. Ignore them at your peril:

hangover_square_1945_21.jpgLinda Darnell as Netta in Hangover Square

300full-leave-her-to-heaven-screenshot1.jpgGene Tierney as Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven

scarlet-street-bennett1.pngJoan Bennett as Kitty in Scarlet Street

tony-curtis-yvonne-de-carlo-in-criss-cross-19491_stdoriginal1.jpgYvonne DeCarlo as Anna in Criss Cross

angelface11.jpgJean Simmons as Diane in Angel Face

marie_windsor_elisha_cook_jr_the_killing_19561.jpgMarie Windsor as Sherry in The Killing

HARD-BOILED DIALOGUE

In a world populated by cynical dicks, duplicitous dames, world-weary losers and violent thugs operating in an environment rife with paranoia, disillusionment, hopelessness and amorality, is it any wonder film noir tends to have barbed and unsentimental dialogue? If you want cheeriness go watch Mary Poppins. But if you get off on stinging put-downs, sarcastic one-liners and cynical observations, well, then you’ve come to the right place.

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My all-time favorite bit of hard-boiled noir dialogue comes from Double Indemnity:

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for the money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

With those words, perhaps the most memorable of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s endlessly quotable script, Walter Neff just about sums up the despairing, doom-laden essence of film noir. Walter got himself ensnared by one of the most treacherous FF’s in the annals of noir, Phyllis “I’m rotten to the heart” Dietrichson, who manipulates him into murdering her husband for insurance money, and by the time Walter realizes he’s been played for a fool it’s too late, his overpowering sexual obsession for Phyllis already having sealed his fate.

Here are some of my other favorite lines:

The Maltese Falcon (1941):

Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Sam Spade: When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it!

Wilmer Cook: Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Sam Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, eh?

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The Glass Key (1942):

Rusty: My first wife was the second cook at a third-rate joint on 4th Street

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Double Indemnity (1944):

Walter Neff : Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.

Walter Neff: How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

Phyllis Dietrichson: I think you’re rotten.
Walter Neff: I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.

Phyllis Dietrichson: We’re both rotten
Walter Neff: Only you’re a little more rotten

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Laura (1944):

Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dripped in venom.

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The Unsuspected (1944):

Steven Howard: I like matches. You never have to refill them. And when you’re through with them, you simply throw them away… like people.

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Scarlet Street (1945):

Kitty March: How can a man be so dumb? I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face since I first met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you. Sick, sick, sick.”

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Detour (1945):

Vera: I’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!

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The Big Sleep (1946):

Vivian: So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?
Philip Marlowe: I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.

Phillip Marlowe: You know what he’ll do when he comes back? Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.

Phillip Marlowe: She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.

Phillip Marlowe: My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.

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Out of the Past (1947)

Kathie Moffat: Is there a way to win?
Jeff Bailey: There’s a way to lose more slowly

Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I’m gonna die last.

Ann Miller: She can’t be all bad. No one is
Jeff Bailey: Well, she comes the closest

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Desperate (1947):

Walt Radak: You’ve gotta study to get that stupid.

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Hollow Triumph (1948):

Paul Henereid: You’re a bitter little lady.
Joan Bennett: It’s a bitter little world.

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Sleep My Love (1948):

Daphne: We’ve got a lot – but we haven’t got everything. I want what she’s got. All of it. I want her house, her name, her man. And I want them now. Tonight.

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The Third Man (1949):

Holly Martins:Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Harry Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.

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Impact (1949):

Brian Donlevy: I’ll never think of our moments together without nausea.

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950):

Dix Handley: Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.

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In a Lonely Place (1950):

Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

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His Kind of Woman (1951):

Mark Caddigan: If you used that needle to sew, you’d be a much happier woman.

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Cry Danger (1951):

Darlene LaVonne: You drinkin’ that stuff so early?
Delong: Listen, doll girl, when you drink as much as I do, you gotta start early.

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Kiss Me Deadly (1955):

Dr. G.E. Soberin: Listen to me as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell. I will tell where to take it. But don’t, don’t open the box.

Mike Hammer: You’re never around when I need you.
Velda: You never need me when I’m around.

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The Killing (1956):

Johnny Clay: You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.

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Sweet Smell of Success (1957):

J.J. Hunsecker: I’d hate to take a bite out of you – you’re a cookie full of arsenic.

J.J. Hunsecker: You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried

J.J. Hunsecker: Here’s your head; what’s your hurry?”

J.J. Hunsecker: My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years

Sidney Falco: Dallas, your mouth is as big as a basket and twice as empty!

Steve Dallas: That’s fish four days old. I won’t buy it!

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Sometimes fists can get a point across much better than words. Consider this exchange from Armored Car Robbery (1950):

Dave Purvis: What are you doing here? I thought you were going to help Foster.
Al Mapes: Oh, he can handle that alone. Besides I wanna find out something.
Purvis: Yeah?
Mapes: What about Benny’s cut?
Purvis: What about it?
Mapes: Well, he’s out so I figured we’d split three ways.
Purvis: Well, you figured wrong.
Mapes: Oh, I did? Well, maybe you could give me a good reason.
Purvis: I can give ya two good reasons. First, Benny had a wife. I’m gonna see she gets his whole share.
Mapes: Well, ain’t that just dandy. Big hearted Purvis playin’ Santa Claus to his pal’s widow – a burlesque queen [chuckling].
Purvis: You got a big mouth, Mapes. I don’t like the conversation.
Mapes: Oh, I hit the bull’s-eye. You know, she is a pretty slick number. And I understand her heart didn’t exactly belong to Benny. Maybe you owe her that dough, huh Purvis?
Purvis: I told ya how it’s going to be. Get used to the idea.
Mapes: Wait a minute. You said there was another reason.
Purvis: There is…

Purvis then proceeds to punch Mapes in the gut, and when Mapes falls to his knees clutching his stomach Purvis follows up by smacking him hard on both sides of his head with the palms of his hands.

Purvis: Want any more reasons?

Noir doesn’t get much more hard-boiled than that!

MUSIC

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Dementia by George Antheil

Conceived as the visualization of a disturbed young woman’s psychosexual nightmare, Dementia is a bizarre concoction of Freudian symbolism, German Expressionism, Buñuelian surrealism and film noir, in which said woman wanders through a nocturnal urban dreamscape populated by alleyway drunks, sex degenerates, corrupt cops, wife beaters, pimps and prostitutes, where sex and violence abound and phallic symbols run rampant (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud famously said, but not in this film).

George Antheil must have jumped at the chance to score Dementia, not only because its avant-garde leanings hark back to his musical roots but also because, apart from an occasional sound effect, the film is essentially silent which provides ample opportunity for Antheil to demonstrate his compositional skills. Antheil rose triumphantly to the occasion: by turns dramatically intense, evocatively oneiric and imaginatively dissonant (the scratching of violin strings is used to suggest the sound of a dead man’s hand being sliced off), Antheil’s wall-to-wall score, augmented by the haunting, otherworldly vocalizations of Marni Dixon, is a tour-de-force.

Deemed “indecent, inhuman and likely to corrupt morals and incite crime” by the New York Censor Board, Dementia was banned for two years before it was finally released in a modified version under the title Daughter of Horror, which featured risible narration by Ed McMahon. The narration, alas, reduced the film to the level of camp and prevented it from being seen as the bold, experimental avant-garde film it is. Now that the original version is available on DVD I’d be surprised if its reputation didn’t soar in the coming years.

Other great “noir” scores include:

Double Indemnity by Miklós Rózsa

Laura by David Raksin

Murder, My Sweet by Roy Webb

Hangover Square by Bernard Herrmann

Leave Her to Heaven by Alfred Newman – music begins at 2:10 minute mark

The Lost Weekend by Miklós Rózsa

The Spiral Staircase by Roy Webb (creepy theremin music at the 6:55 minute mark)

The Killers by Miklós Rózsa

The Secret Beyond the Door by Miklós Rózsa

The Third Man by Anton Karas

Sunset Blvd.  by Franz Waxman

Angel Face by Dimitri Tiomkin

On Dangerous Ground by Bernard Herrmann

Sudden Fear by Elmer Bernstein go to 6:30 minute mark

The Big Combo by David Raksin – fabulous jazz cue over the opening credits

The Wrong Man by Bernard Herrmann

Sweet Smell of Success by Elmer Bernstein

Touch of Evil by Henry Mancini

Murder by Contract by Perry Botkin

Odds Against Tomorrow by John Lewis

MEMORABLE DEATH SCENES

No discussion of film noir would be complete without mention of a few memorable death/murder scenes:

Pickup on South Street (1953):

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My favorite is the death scene of Thelma Ritter’s Mo, a stoolie who ekes out a living at the bottom of the criminal food chain. She lives in a dingy apartment above a tattoo parlor, and it is in this hovel where she meets her tragic end. Lying in bed, exhausted by life, and resigned to her fate, Mo bravely looks up at her murderer and says with quivering lips, “look mister, I’m so tired you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d blow my head off”, and as the camera pans to a record player next to her bed a gunshot rings out ending her life just as the scratchy phonograph needle reaches the end of the melancholy song she was listening to. Film noir doesn’t get any more potent than this.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945):

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Heartless Ellen Berent finds her young, paraplegic brother-in-law Danny intensely annoying because the kid just won’t let her and her lover have a minute alone, which is why she impassively ignores little Danny’s pleas for help as he drowns in a lake. The vivid Technicolor photography contrasts beautifully with her pitch black deed. It’s an extraordinarily chilling scene, though I must say I kind of understand why she does it. After all, that cloyingly wholesome kid really is insufferably annoying with all his “goshes”, “gees” and “swells”. Is that wrong?

Detour (1945):

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Accidental strangulation by telephone cord finally shuts up despicable FF Vera’s venomous mouth. Thankfully, the cordless phone hadn’t been invented yet. I hope there’s no remake.

Kiss of Death (1947):

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Richard Widmark made a memorable film debut as the giggling psychopath who ties a handicapped old lady to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and pushes her down a long flight of stairs. Her hysterical screams and his maniacal giggles vie for dominance on the soundtrack.

Border Incident (1949):

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When a U.S. agent’s cover is blown, a baddie takes him out to a field to be killed. He’s shot and rifle-butted into immobility, but that ain’t quite sadistic enough to satisfy the bloodlust of these thugs. Nope, it’s time to put a real hurtin’ on him. It’s time to break out the tiller. The poor agent’s desperate attempt to crawl away proves futile, and he’s ground to bits by the tiller’s blades, returning him to the soil from which he sprang. It’s one of the nastiest, most agonizing death scenes I’ve ever seen.

Nightfall (1957):

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Tiller, smiller. Villainous Rudy Bond gets his grisly comeuppance when a runaway snowplow mistakes him for a snowdrift. I couldn’t find a still of the scene.

Criss Cross (1949):

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Gimpy Dan Duryea limps out of the shadows and shoots lovers Steve and Anna, leaving their lifeless bodies slumped together for the haunting final shot.

White Heat (1949):

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“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

The Big Combo (1955):

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Sadistic mob boss Mr. Brown is really just an old softie: before having his hearing-impaired underling shot, Mr. B removes the guy’s hearing aid and consolingly tells him, “I’m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it so you don’t hear the bullets.” In an imaginative use of sound, or non-sound as the case may be, the guy is subsequently machine-gunned full of holes in eerie silence.

The Night of the Hunter (1955):

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Poor Shelly Winters. Has anyone suffered and died as much as she has in movies? Never mind the drowning in The Poseidon Adventure, this poor gal has been murdered by some of Hollywood’s best-known leading men, including Ronald Colman (A Double Life), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), and James Mason (Lolita). Her fate is no different in The Night of the Hunter, in which she’s victimized this time by Mitchum’s homicidal preacher. We don’t actually see the murder, but that creepy underwater shot of her spectral corpse, with throat slit, body bound, and hair floating amid the surrounding seaweed, is the stuff nightmares are made of.

5 Responses to “For the love of film (noir)”

  1. oh this post is too wonderful.

  2. What great examples; you’ve really gone all out here. Thanks!

  3. A delicious post! I think I need to watch a noir now….

  4. This post is as intriguing as the films you speak of! The photos are a great addition – the stunning photography (lighting) illustrates the atmosphere beautifully. Although I haven’t seen all of these films as yet, you’ve compelled me to rectify this!

  5. You did a lot of work on this — thanks.