Another book on film noir directors. Do we need another? Arguably rather we need more books on film noir screenwriters, cinematographers, and composers. That said, a new book on film noir is almost always worth reading, and this goes for Alain Silver’s and James Ursini’s latest editorial effort.
Film Noir: The Directors a book of nearly 500 pages covers 28 directors and is loaded with over 500 images, mostly production stills and on-location shots of directors at work. Contributions come from the editors and a wide-range of writers, with a strong leaning toward academics. Each chapter focuses on a director with a short bio, a noir filmography, and an analysis of each of their noirs. There are very few actual frames and this is disappointing.
Most names you would expect are included: Robert Aldrich, John Brahm, Jules Dassin, André de Toth, Edward Dmytryk, John Farrow, Felix Feist, Samuel Fuller, Henry Hathaway, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Joseph Losey, Ida Lupino, Anthony Mann, Max Ophuls, Gerd Oswald, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer, Raoul Walsh, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and Robert
But there are major omissions which I find hard to fathom: auteurs like Abraham Polonsky, Robert Rossen, Richard Fleischer, Vincent Sherman, Rudolph Mate, and Phil Karlson, spring to mind. The editors acknowledge there are omissions in their Introduction, and put them down to a rather cryptic rationale “the best directors are not necessarily the best examples”, and they don’t elaborate. The result is that a number of seminal and important films noir are not included in this otherwise comprehensive compendium.
In a book about directors one shouldn’t complain of that focus, but despite acknowledging the contributions of writers there is a tendency in the essays to conflate story elements as the work of the director. Certainly many noir directors were closely involved in the development of scripts, but the contribution of the scenarist demands greater recognition. Equally the contributions of the cinematographer and the composer in major noirs were integral to the output, with a director’s better movies often made in collaboration with a particular DP or with the aid of a great score.
After recently viewing Felix Feist’s The Threat (1949), in this post I have chosen to look at the chapter on that director by noir writer and blogger Jake Hinkson. Hinkson offers analyses of Feist’s four noir films:
- The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)
- The Threat (1949)
- The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
- Tomorrow is Another Day (1951)
Hinkson’s writing is rather flat, in keeping I suppose with the book’s academic slant. He reads rather too much into these movies which are solid b’s and, apart from The Man Who Cheated Himself, not highly distinguished. Tellingly Feist was said to see himself not as an artist or craftsman, but as a story-teller as related by his son in an interview with Hinkson.
Hinkson uses the concept of POV (point of view) as a fair (but less then revelatory) approach in studying the dynamics of the noir protagonist’s interaction with the other characters in these films. In doing so Hinkson confuses the story told by the script with the director’s rendering of the playbook, by talking about a character’s POV as both a visual device and as an element of the story. While Hinkson is aiming to highlight how the director uses mis-en-scene to give visual cues to the dominance of the protagonist in each of the movies under discussion, the character’s actions are largely self-evident. (It is also hard to reconcile Hinkson’s focus on an aggressive protagonist with concluding his essay by saying that Feist consistently portrayed “weak-willed male protagonists”.) In any event it is the screenplay that determines this and Feist wrote the scenario for only one of these pictures, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, which was based on the 1937 novel by Robert C. Du Soe. I am happy with Hinkson’s solid treatment of that movie, though it is the strength of Lawrence Tierney’s perverse characterisation as the bad guy that distinguishes it from other b’s of the period.
Hinkson’s reading of The Man Who Cheated Himself, which I consider Feist’s best noir, is problematic. Oddly, Hinkson sees it as Feist’s weakest noir. In this film Feist goes beyond the confines of the b-picture and presents an overt moral ambivalence and a complex conflicted protagonist. Hinkson considers that Feist fails to convince the viewer of Lee J. Cobb’s infatuation with wealthy socialite Jane Wyman. He describes her as “sexless” and asserts “that Feist has a characteristic lack of interest in eroticism”. To the contrary, I think Wyatt is great in her role as the selfish society dame getting her kicks with an aging cop. Her narcissism and predatory sexuality are there – just not delivered with a sledgehammer. Ironically Hinkson later in his review of Tomorrow Is Another Day describes the relationship of the two lovers on the lam as an “amour-fou”. (Incidentally Hinkson fails to acknowledge that this amour-fou develops into a stable almost banal domestic intimacy that precipitates the protagonists’ redemption. In The Devil Thumbs a Ride there is also a strong sexual undercurrent with one of the abducted woman attracted to the violent Tierney.)
The Threat (1949) is an interesting screener. A vicious killer and gang-boss played by chronic bad-guy Charles McGraw breaks out of prison and hatches an elaborate plan to high-tail it to an isolated air-strip in the California desert where an accomplice will fly him out of the country. For vengeance and insurance he abducts the cop and the DA who put him in stir, and the ex-girlfriend of his plane-flying accomplice. (He thinks the dame sold him out to the cops.)
What is interesting is that McGraw’s protagonist is ruthlessly intelligent, hatching a wily ruse to get him past police road-blocks. Immediately after the break he repairs to a neat suburban home to lay low while he abducts his captives and readies his trip to the desert in a removalist’s van. Hinkson does a good job of dissecting the structure of Feist’s direction and his use of mis-en-scene. Although he incorrectly describes the staging hide-out as a “flop house”, and thereby misses a pivotal symbolic element.
McGraw holds the whole thing together and the scenario plays out in a decidedly subversive way. McGraw fails only because of chance after persistently outwitting the cops and the machinations of his hostages when they get the jump on him. His dénouement is one of retribution and driven by very primal instincts.
I hope to review other chapters in the coming months.