Is The Green Cockatoo (UK 1937) the first film noir?

The Green Cockatoo (1937)

I came across this article in The Guardian (UK) today by film writer, Andrew Pulver:
Is Graham Greene the father of film noir?.

Graham Greene wrote an original script for a British crime thriller called The Green Cockatoo (aka Four Dark Hours or Race Gang), released in 1937, which is hardly-ever screened and is available only from the British National Film Archive. Pulver requested a screening and in his article he reports that the movie “has a similar [to film noir] commitment to the boiled-down essentials of the crime genre” . He also discusses these Greene noirs: The Third Man, Ministry of Fear, Brighton Rock, The Fallen Idol, and This Gun For Hire.  Coincidentally, Allan Fish of Wonders in the Dark posted an excellent review of Brighton Rock yesterday.

I have not seen The Green Cockatoo, so I must rely on the writing of others. I have not seen The Green Cockatoo, so I must rely on the writing of others. The Green Cockatoo since reviewed on December 3, 2010.

The Green Cockatoo was screened at the 43rd New York Film Festival in September 2005 and was reviewed by Keith Uhlich of Slant, and his closing remarks seem to establish its noir credentials: “Director William Cameron Menzies, an award-winning production designer, grounds The Green Cockatoo in expressionist shadows that anticipate Carol Reed’s The Third Man (the ne plus ultra of Greene’s cinema output) and the writer himself is evident via the piece’s sense of a veiled, yet inescapable moral outcome with which each character must deal.”

Hal Erickson in the All Movie Guide says of the film: “Filmed in 1937, the British Four Dark Hours wasn’t generally released until 1940, and then only after several minutes’ running time had been shaved off. The existing 65-minute version stars John Mills, uncharacteristically cast as a Soho song and dance man. When Mills’ racketeer brother Robert Newton is murdered, Mills takes it upon himself to track down and punish the killers. Rene Ray, the girl who was with Newton when he died, helps Mills in his vengeful task.”

Bosley Crowther in the NY Times: “With all its disintegration, though, it is still better melodramatic fare than is usually dished out to the patient Rialto audiences… An unknown here, Rene Ray, is very attractive as a wide-eyed country girl unwittingly involved in the Soho proceedings.”

James Naremore’s in his book on film noir, More Than Night (UCLA, 1998), in a chapter titled ‘Modernism and Blood Melodrama’, explores the noir sensibility and the English literary critique of modernity found in the writings of Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and of course, Grahame Greene, in the first half of the last century. Naremore discusses Greene’s 1939 novel Brighton Rock and the 1947 film adaptation in considerable detail. This quote from Naremore when analysing the influence of French poetic realism on Greene, is relevant:

Greene recognized that film was a mass medium, and he believed that highly charged poetic imagery should rise out of popular narrative. He insisted that ‘if you excite your audience first, you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth’. The logical formula for such effects, he observed, was ‘blood melodrama’. The problem in England was that ‘there never has been a school of popular English blood. We have been damned from the start by middle-class virtues, by gentlemen cracksmen and stolen plans and Mr. Wu’s’. The solution was ‘to go further back than this, dive below the polite level, to something nearer to common life’. If the British could only develop ‘the scream of cars in flight, all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire, then we can begin—secretly, with low cunning—to develop our poetic drama… Our characters can develop from the level of The Spanish Tragedy toward a subtler, more thoughtful level’.

Naremore does not mention The Green Cockatoo, and I wonder if he knew of the movie when he wrote the book. It is worth noting that the film’s score was one of the first from Miklós Rózsa.

4 thoughts on “Is The Green Cockatoo (UK 1937) the first film noir?”

  1. I’d like to see this film, The Green Cockatoo, and I think I will at some point in the not-too-distant future. I like some of the British noir I’ve seen. I have a copy of Brighton Rock on VHS, it’s been a few years since I’ve last watched it, think I might revisit it tonight. I also have Cavalcanti’s They Made Me A Fugitive, I’ve watched it a number of times, very good, but veddy British, their crime films were a bit more quirky as compared to ours. Two other films worth mentioning are They Drive By Night, from the late Thirties, and Daughter of Darkness, from the late Forties. Siobhan McKenna is very good in the latter, and even though the film takes place in a rural setting, the film is very moody, very shadowy, McKenna is a femme fatale as country girl. A friend gave this to me on VHS a few years back but I haven’t been able to locate it, dammit, I’m dying to see it again. Lance Comfort directed DoD, and right around the same time he directed another film I’m dying to see, but no one’s seen it or has it that I know of, entitled Temptation Harbour, with Robert Newton and Simone Simon. About They Drive By Night, Ernest Thesiger (best remembered as Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein) plays a serial killer who goes about strangling women with nylon hose. Emlyn Williams is Shorty, who, fresh out of prison, goes to visit an old flame, only to find her dead in her bed, strangled. He goes on the run for fear that someone will blame him for her death. Great scenes of roadside truckstops, truckers driving in darkness through heavy wind and rain. Movies Unlimited has this I believe, I bought it from them years ago. Public domain, but still worth seeing. When it comes to noir I’m always looking to expand my horizons.

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  2. Great post Guy! Thanks. I was not aware of Daughter of Darkness and Temptation Harbour, so you have certainly widened my horizons. I reviewed an interesting British noir, The Good Die Young (1954), here . Btw, I have added Noir Woodcuts to my Blogroll.

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  3. Superb posts- Especially the possibility of Green Cockatoo pre-dating the supposed u.s 1st noirs- Please check my brand new Fragments of Noir blog & give your opinion- Cheers

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  4. Hi Alan. Since writing this I have gone further back with Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) and Renoir’s La Nuit de Carrefour (1932). I still haven’t found a copy of The Green Cockatoo.

    Just visited Fragments of Noir. An interesting visual approach – and a greater header image. I see you have a shot from Kar Wai Wong’s In the Mood For Love, which I love, though I consider his 2046 more noir. I will add your blog to my blogroll.

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