Bob le Flambuer (France 1956)
Herman Melville is the master of cool, but as in reality cool masking a nihilist vacuum. Stylistically Melville’s noirs have a formal perfection, and rank as great cinema. And nihilism is as valid a world view as any other. Whether it is worthwhile is debateable of course. As a personal philosophy I find it destructive and largely a cop-out. It seems to say that meaninglessness justifies anything, by denying the possibility of the individual finding value in living. Nihilism is a kind of death in life and is the easiest response to existence. You have no responsibility and no need to explore and justify your choices. This is where Sartre and existentialism take us somewhere beyond the cold denial of meaning. We can see this dialectic by comparing Bob le Flambuer with Dassin’s Rififi, also set in Paris the year before, both about aging hoods, and both worlds apart.
Bob “the High-roller” Montagné is a midnight gambler living his nights out in the gambling dives of Pigalle. A reformed hood he has been straight for 20 years until a run of bad luck leaves him hard-up. A heist seems the way out, and as is the way of heists in the noir world, things don’t go to plan. The ending is downbeat and not so down-beat: the death of a protégé quickly forgotten, and the closing pathos reserved solely for Bob’s abandoned American convertible parked along a deserted stretch of beach in the South of France. A rabid misogyny propels the plot with the blame for things going wrong clearly down to the stupidity of a young harlot and the vicious revenge of an ambitious housewife.
The first 10 minutes are a tour-de-force with a doco-style introduction to the streets and denizens of Pigalle in the early morning after the night before. This technical brilliance is sustained through to the end. It is the cynical resolution and less-than-human dynamics that lose favour in my eyes.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Writers: Robert Rossen (screenplay), John Patrick and Robert Riskin (story)
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and John Meehan
Score: Miklós Rózsa
With these credentials you are bound to be presented with elegant entertainment, and this is exactly what you get. A gloomy, moody, melodramatic, and misanthropic gothic noir set in a company town that harbours a dark secret. A murder and a serpentine psychopathology played out in a domestic viper’s nest where fear and hatred do battle across the sexes, fuelled by evil avarice, guilt and alcohol.
Complicity in the death of an innocent man tethered by moral weakness are the essential story elements interpreted with real wit by Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas (in his first role), Van Heflin, and Lizabeth Scott.
Somewhere in the Night (1946)
In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night an amnesiac war vet travels to LA to find his identity – and trouble. John Hodiak and Richard Conte star with the disarmingNancy Guild. Hodiak and Conte are rather wooden and leave the screen for Guild and the supporting players to serve up really engaging portrayals. While the byzantine plot is not without its moments and to a degree intriguing, the presentation is sometimes flat and takes a bit too long to pan out.
Mankiewicz who also wrote the screenplay gives us some very juicy characters. Guild who looks like Ella Raines and has as much charm, is truly engaging as the cabaret singer who is “nuts” about vet Hodiak. Her smitten boss Conte is forlorn but offers to help his rival. Lloyd Nolan is good as a benevolent cop with a savvy sense of humour. The final line in the picture is spoken by him and is as cute a piece of satire as you will hear in any noir. Indeed, the dialog is peppered with film references, and the best lines are delivered by some obscure bit players with panache.
Viennese refugee Fritz Kortner is a delight as a Euro-villain in the mould of Sidney Greenstreet’s Mr Gutman. His last words in the movie are corny but the delivery is a scream: “The jig is up.” Obscure bit-player Margo Woode is enchanting as a b-girl in cahoots with Kortner. Her first encounter with Hodiak at his LA hotel is all sex and cheap perfume, and she pulls it off beautifully! Later she crackles when she fights against being the fall-girl for Kortner – again a la Gutman. Amongst the earnestness of Hodiak and Conte, and the high-jinks of the bit-players, there is a damned serious interlude with another obscure actress Josephine Hutchinson as a lonely spinster.