The Fight Movie and Film Noir

The Set-Up 1949

The Set-Up (1949)

Film-maker David Mamet, in an interesting piece in today’s New York Times on his new film, Redbelt, about a movie fight director, has written eloquently on the fight movie and film noir:

Fight films are sad. There is nobility in effort, in discipline and, if not in suffering, in trying to live through suffering and endeavour to find its meaning… the fight film is a celebration of submission, which is to say, of loss. As such, it finds itself on the outskirts of my beloved genre of film noir. The punch-line of drama is “Isn’t life like that. …” But its elder brother, tragedy, is the struggle of good against evil, of man against the gods. In tragedy, good, and the gods, are proclaimed winners; in film noir, which is tragedy manqué, the gods still win, but good’s triumph gets an asterisk… The true story of any true fight must be sad. As Wellington said, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Mamet explores this thesis that “All fighters are sad” by analysing the scenes featuring real-life fighters playing fighters in Jules Dassin’s Night And the City (1950) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), and goes on to explore it more deeply in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).

Surprisingly, Mamet does not mention two other films noir: Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), or Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949). The wrestlers in Night and the City and The Killing are not central characters, while in Body And Soul and The Set-Up, a boxer is the central character, and the tragedies played-out in these two movies more strongly evoke the existential angst of the ‘fight’. Indeed, The Set-Up as a real-time evocation of one fight, brilliantly confronts Mamet’s theme of the melancholy duality of winning and losing. Robert Ryan, also once a real-life boxer, as the aging fighter, “Stoker” Thompson, refuses to throw the fight and by winning loses when the heavies, who paid his trainer for the fall, cripple him in a dark back-alley outside the stadium.

Crime Wave (1954): On The Streets of LA

Crime Wave 1954

An ex-con trying to stay clean is sucked into a bank heist when a former cell-mate turns-up at his apartment after a late night gas-station smash and grab goes wrong and a cop is killed.

Andre de Toth’s Crime Wave (1954) gives star billing to Sterling Hayden as the LAPD homicide detective hunting down the killers, but all major players in this police procedural have equal presence. From the gas-station attendant to the crooked vet who patches up wounded hoods on the run, and the aging parole officer woken in the night by a call from one of his ‘boys’, each character is deeply drawn.

A very tight story of 74 minutes played out on the streets of LA, has a feel so authentic, you think it happened yesterday and for real. The noir theme of an inescapable past propels the drama at a personal level in the claustrophobic constraints of an apartment, while out on the streets and in police headquarters the camera observes the manhunt with detachment and precision.

A masterwork.

Crime Wave 1954  Crime Wave 1954

Crime Wave 1954   Crime Wave 1954

Murder, My Sweet (1944): A face like a Sunday school picnic

Murder My Sweet (1944)It was a nice little front yard.
Cozy, okay for the average family…
only you’d need a compass
to go to the mailbox.

The house was all right, too,
but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.

I had to wait
while she sold me to the old folks.
It was like waiting to buy a crypt
in a mausoleum.

Watching Murder, My Sweet (aka Farewell My Lovely – 1944) , is the most fun you will ever have with a film noir. Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled prose crackles in this screen adaption by John Paxton, with moody noir direction by Edward Dmytryk.

Inhabiting a plot about a rich dame’s stolen jade necklace almost as convoluted as The Big Sleep (1946), the cast is superb. Dick Powell has a comic edge that brings a lightness to the shenanigans, and is a superb foil to the camp turn by Claire Trevor as the putative femme-fatale. Anne Shirley is as cute a 40’s starlet as ever graced the screen. The bad guys are bigger than life and truly entertaining, and rub each other out without ceremony or prevarication. It looks like a film noir, but the bad guys and gals are truly bad, and the good guy and gal are incorruptible.

Look out for the innovative “purple haze” sequence, after PI Marlowe is drugged by a crooked quack.

Murder My Sweet (1944)

Panic In the Streets (1950): Neo-Realist Noir

Panic In The Streets (1950)Local authorities track down violent hoods infected with a virulent infection.

Panic In the Streets (1950) is an interesting documentary-style noir set on the docks of New Orleans: a fast-paced on-the-streets thriller with little time or inclination for deep characterisation. The movie picked up the Venice International prize in 1950, and an Oscar for Best Writing in 1951. Tautly directed by Kazan and with strong street cred: the climax on a ship’s mooring rope is elegantly metaphoric.

Richard Widmark is cast against (then) type as the local health official pushing the cops to track down the killers of an illegal alien who has infected the hoods with pneumonic plague. Paul Douglas is well-cast as the reluctant cop who heads the police task force. Jack Palance and Zero Mostel are strong as the hoods, with a certain tension between them: Palance is focused and brutal, while Mostel is nervous and obsequious. Cinematographer, Joe MacDonald, who did similar work in The Dark Corner (1946), has filmed the night scenes with moody noir atmospherics.

Panic In The Streets (1950)

Given Kazan’s tendency for emotional distance and the cinema-verite approach, there is a strong social dimension to the picture. The working people in the docks milieu distrust the cops and are uncooperative, and the cops and local bureaucrats are reluctant partners. The mood is of dysfunction and the trajectory is that it is only the doggedness of Widmark and Douglas that saves the day.

All this points to Kazan’s complexity and contradictions. While those on the edge of criminal society are fairly portrayed, there is the feeling that they are stubborn and boorish, and need to be bullied by authority. At the same time, public institutions are seen at logger-heads and can only function effectively if commandeered by strong personalities.

Conventionally, Widmark and Douglas develop a grudging respect for each other and by the end of the story are friends. Strangely, this relationship for me is the core of the film, and comes not only from what happens on the screen, but also from a backward almost nostalgic perspective. Both these actors invest their roles with an essential integrity: they are not perfect, struggle financially, and their personal lives have their share of bewilderment and angst, but they are thoroughly decent men doing tough jobs, for lousy pay, and little social recognition or thanks. These guys inhabit a lost black and white world of simpler times when normal lives seemed to have greater decency. Perhaps also this perception is colored for me by Paul Douglas, a wonderful actor who always came across as a totally solid guy that you would love to have as your friend.

Panic In The Streets (1950)

Double Indemnity: The Unseen Ending

Double Indemnity (1944)

The final draft of the screenplay of Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler in the Motion Picture Academy Library in Los Angeles – download from here – includes a final prison execution chamber scene and a line of dialog that was spoken by Walter Neff, just after he said “I love you.” to Barton Keyes. With sirens wailing in the background, Neff says: “At the end of that trolley line, just as I get off, you be there to say good bye. Will you, Keyes?” The story then shifts to the execution.

This sequence was filmed but cut (by the studio?) from the production release.

Double Indemnity (1944)

James Naremore in his 1998 book on film noir, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, offers this penetrating analysis and critique:

… the execution described in the longest version of the script greatly increases our sympathy for Walter, all the while raising questions about the criminality of the state. It also provides a tragic recognition scene for Keyes, who is shaken out of his moral complacency. This last point is especially important, because Keyes functions as a representative of the insurance company. Although he approaches his work with the intuitive flair of an artist and the intellectual intensity of a scientist, he remains a loyal agent of industrial rationality—a talented bureaucrat who, in effect, has helped to create the office building, the drive-in restaurant, the supermarket, and all the other landmarks of modern Los Angeles that the film relentlessly criticizes… One of the many virtues of Wilder’s original ending is that this complex, brilliantly acted character would have been made to confront his inner demon and to experience poetic justice. Keyes would have been brought face-to-face with the culminating instance of instrumental reason, the “end of the line” for industrial culture: the California gas chamber… For the original version of Double Indemnity, Paramount built an exact replica of the [San Quentin]  gas chamber, depicting it as a modern, sanitized apparatus for administering official death sentences. At considerable expense, Wilder photographed the step-by-step procedure of execution, emphasizing its coldly mechanical efficiency. There was no blood, no agonized screaming, and, for once in the movie, almost no dialogue. Much of the sequence was shot from Walter’s point of view, looking through glass windows at the spectators outside the chamber—an angle creating a subtle parallel between the chamber and the “dark room” of a movie theater. When the fatal pellets dropped, clouds of gas obscured the windows, and we could barely make out Keyes standing amid the witnesses, turning his head away. Soon afterward, a doctor entered the chamber to pronounce Walter dead. According to the script, the original film ended as follows:

… All the witnesses have now left except Keyes, who stares, shocked and tragic, beyond the door. The guard goes to him and touches his arm, indicating to him that he must leave. Keyes glances for the last time towards the gas chamber and slowly moves to go out. CORRIDOR OUTSIDE THE DEATH CHAMBER CAMERA SHOOTING IN THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR AT KEYES , who is just turning to leave. Keyes comes slowly out into the dark, narrow corridor. His hat is on his head now, his overcoat is pulled around him loosely. He walks like an old man. He takes eight or ten steps, then mechanically reaches a cigar out of his vest pocket and puts it in his mouth. His hands, in the now familiar gesture, begin to pat his pockets for matches. Suddenly he stops, with a look of horror on his face. He stands rigid, pressing hand against his heart. He takes the cigar out of his mouth and goes slowly on toward the door, CAMERA PANNING with him. When he has almost reached the door, the guard stationed there throws it wide, and a blaze of sunlight comes in from the open prison yard outside. Keyes slowly walks out into the sunshine, a forlorn and lonely man.

Until someone rescues this scene from the Paramount vaults, we will never know if it is superior to the current version, and even then there may be room for debate. One thing, however, is clear: Keyes’s lonely walk out of the prison would have thrown a shadow over everything that preceded it. It was not until Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole that Wilder would produce such a savage critique of modernity. Although the released version of his famous thriller remains an iconoclastic satire that challenges the censors, it is a lighter entertainment than the original and a much easier product for Hollywood to market. (According to the Paramount press book, photographs of Barbara Stanwyck in her wig and tight sweater were circulated to American soldiers overseas, and Edward G. Robinson’s performance enabled the studio to obtain a tie-in from the Cigar Institute of America.) No matter how much we admire the film that was exhibited in 1944, the form of cinema that the French described as noir is probably better exemplified by another Double Indemnity, which we have yet to see.

The rare (Spanish?) poster featured at the top of this post features a rendering of Neff from the gas chamber scene. Note also the nightmarish imagery which has a definite surrealist quality, making this perhaps one of the most intriguing film noir posters ever. I am unsure of its origin or the artist. Perhaps a reader of can help in tracing its origin? The signature seems to be “Lopez Riem”?

Night And the City (1950): A Near Perfect Noir

Night And the City 1950Night and the city.
The night is tonight, tomorrow night…
or any night.
The city is London.

This anonymous voice-over introduces Jules Dassin‘s Night and the City (1950), which has to be one of the great noirs: a near-perfect work.

Dassin crafted a mesmerising study of thwarted ambition and tawdry betrayal into a dark existential journey of the human soul, played out in the dives and night-clubs of post-war London fashioned as the quintessential noir city. This is not a b-movie, the production values are high, and Dassin has total command of his mise-en-scene.

But the achievement is not Dassin’s alone. There is also a literate script by Jo Eisinger, wonderful expressionist photography from Mutts Greenbaum, who cut his teeth in the German silent cinema, and deeply moving portrayals by the major players. Richard Widmark’s performance is frenetic and real, and the soft counterpoint of an achingly elegant turn by Gene Tierney as his girl, transubstantiate Harry’s demise into the stuff of tragedy. Each supporting role is vividly drawn by an excellent ensemble cast.

You know Harry Fabian is doomed from the start: a dreamer of wrong dreams and sympathetically amoral, he is no match for fate and the immoral traffickers of wrestlers and cheap champagne, who plot his destruction. He is a hustler yes, but not in the same league as the big guys, the “businessmen” whose greed has no bounds and whose actions are never tempered by remorse. Harry thinks he knows all the angles, but he is not ruthless enough for that.

Harry. Harry.
You could have
been anything.
You had brains…
You worked harder
than any 10 men.

But the wrong things.
Always the wrong things.

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