At the Crossroads: Blind Alley (1939) and 13 East Street (UK 1952)

“I am going to destroy him. Take his brain apart and show him the pieces.”

“Psychoanalysis has furnished the detective film with many features of a noir psychology. To begin with, it has underlined the irrational character of criminal motivation: the gangster is a neurotic whose behavior can be fully understood only in utilitarian terms; aggressiveness, sadism, and masoch­ism are self-serving; the interest in, or love of, money is often only a cover for libidinal fixation or infantile conflict. This, moreover, is the argument of the first explicitly psychoanalytic film, Blind Alley, adeptly directed by Charles Vidor: a gang boss hunted by the police hides out with his mistress and some of his men in a psychiatrist’s house in the country. A hideous night­mare (depicted in negative in the film) prevents him from re­laxing. The doctor gains his confidence and manages, despite the usual resistances, to link the dream to a secret from his child­hood. The gangster, freed from his complex, has no more need to kill and will be gunned down by a policeman. Under the title The Dark Past, Rudolph Mate directed a remake of the film in 1943.

Let’s think back to the dramatic motif of the ambivalence of feelings: in such an individual, sadism is openly twinned with masochism, sympathy masks hostility, etc. The importance of this trait in the definition of film noir has often been remarked. In the end, there’s a certain cynicism in the views of Freud that accords well with the moral decor of the series. Psychiatry no longer believes in traditionally defined good or evil. It knows that criminal behavior patterns often hide self-destructive reactions or guilt complexes, while moral conscience (the super­ego) is linked to the instincts it represses by means of an entire network of complicity.

Thus the ambience of this “depth psychology,” as the Ger­mans put it, with its ambiguous or secret meanings, its infan­tile background, is transposed in the enigmatic situations of film noir, in imbroglios of intentions and of traps whose ulti­mate meaning remains remote and appears to recede indefi­nitely.”

– A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953) by Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton, pp 19-20

In 1955 when Borde and Chaumeton published their seminal survey of American film noir it is reasonable to assume they had not seen Boris Ingster’s The Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO 1940), considered by many as the first film noir of the classic cycle, but they had seen King Vidor’s Blind Alley (Columbia 1939). Indeed Blind Alley breaks the new ground otherwise credited to Ingster’s film: criminal behavior presented as psychosis and the use of expressionist dreams and flashback to find meaning in the past.

The “gang boss” in Bind Alley, a just-escaped con who kills without compunction or remorse, is played with convincing manic menace and infantile frenzy by veteran tough-guy Chester Morris. The scenario is played out in the lake-side home of a compassionate shrink, where Morris and his gang hold the occupants hostage while waiting for a boat across the lake. Think of Key Largo out-of The Petrified Forest. Ann Dvorak adds a strange level-headed yet lunatic loyalty as the killer’s moll. The shrink played with an unnerving pipe-smoking Walter Pidgeon-like affability by the ultimate nice-guy Ralph Bellamy, ups the ante, after a tragic killing at the house, when he resolves to psychoanalyse the hood: “I am going to destroy him. Take his brain apart and show him the pieces.”

The screenplay is quite adept in the time allowed – 59 minutes – in holding the tension with a thriller arc, while the shrink does his brain work. We even get a nice line-drawing explication of the unconscious, and an ironic opening scene with the shrink lecturing college students on the thin line between normality and psychosis. The dream and its motifs are intriguing and deftly drawn, with a sure trajectory to the final denouement, which has us feeling unomfortably ambivalent about the villain’s fate.

What is the connection with 13 East Street an undistinguished b-movie from across the Pond? Essentially the subversiveness of film noir. Where our moral compass is hijacked by scenarios and characterisations that bring a perverse pathos and empathy to bear on our feelings for the ‘bad guys’. In 13 East Street a London cop goes undercover to nab a heist-gang. While this movie is no Raw Deal and does not have any ambitions beyond similar police procedurals of the period, it does manage to have us rooting for the crooks.

The cop executes a fake jewel heist, is nabbed, imprisoned with a member of the gang. A friendship develops. Then they break-out and the cop is introduced to and joins the gang. The boss is a Yank and gives the erstwhile cop a fair shake in the face of hostility from another gang-member. The boss’s moll is hot and has melting eyes for the cop. They hatch a double-cross. A triple-cross really as the cop has his own agenda. The cop feels nothing for the girl, a charming cheeky gamin, who has your heart from the get-go, and is played by a b-stalwart of the period, Sandra Dorne, a rather classier forerunner to Diana Dors. By the end you have a certain contempt for the self-satisfied cop and sincerely hope that two-timing broad got away.

2 thoughts on “At the Crossroads: Blind Alley (1939) and 13 East Street (UK 1952)”

  1. Sad to say I come to this tremendous post not having seen either of the two films being showcased to establish a compelling psychological underpinning in film noir. But I still saw the dots connected most persuasively with yet another scholarly examination of what motivates the gangster. I am thinking of several of Cagney’s roles, others by Muni, Robinson and Mitchum, and how this general perception can be applied. I completely agree that the subversiveness of noir allows for an accurate gage in this parallel.

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  2. Thanks Sam.

    Blind Alley is definitely rewarding. Vidor’s handling of the denoument is brilliantly visual. There is a poignant irony relayed using purely the mis-en-scene and the viewer’s knowledge of a physical disability – saying any more would risk revealing a spoiler.

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