Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship

Jonathan Auerbach, Professor of English at the University of Maryland and regular presenter at film noir screenings, has just published his much anticipated book on film noir, Dark Borders…

Jonathan Auerbach, Professor of English at the University of Maryland and regular presenter at film noir screenings,  has just published his much anticipated book on film noir,  Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship, a study which connects the sense of alienation conveyed by American film noir in the 40s and 50s with the anxieties about citizenship and national belonging in mid-20th century America, by providing in-depth interpretations of more than a dozen noir movies.  Professor Auerbach shows how politics and aesthetics merge in these noirs,  where the fear of  subversive “un-American” foes is reflected in noirs such as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Border Incident, Pickup on South Street, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Chase, and Ride the Pink Horse.  These anxieties surfaced during a series of wartime and post war emergency measures, beginning with the anti-sedition Smith Act (1940), the Mexican migrant worker Bracero Program (1942), the domestic internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry (1942), and the HUAC hearings in 1947.

Professor Auerbach, in 2008 in an issue of the scholarly Cinema Journal (47, No. 4, Summer 2008) in an article anticipating his book and titled ‘Noir Citizenship: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident’, posits an ambitious thesis about national borders and the borders of film genres:  “Looking closely at how images subvert words in Anthony Mann’s generic hybrid Border Incident (1949), this article develops the concept of noir citizenship, exploring how Mexican migrant workers smuggled into the United States experience dislocation and disenfranchisement in ways that help us appreciate film noir’s relation to questions of national belonging.” The article offered a rich analysis of Border Incident, and developed a fascinating study of the sometimes antagonistic dynamic between the police procedural plot imperatives of the screenplay, and the subversive visual imagery fashioned by cinematographer John Alton.  The scene in Border Incident where the undercover agent Jack, is murdered by the furrowing blades of a tractor is one of the most horrific in film noir, and Professor Auerbach rightly observes that the agent “gets ground into American soil by the monstrous machinery of US agribusiness… [this is] a purely noir moment of recognition that reveals the terrifying underbelly of the American farm industry itself in its dependence on and ruthless exploitation of Mexican labor”.

The paperback is available for only US$20.48 from Amazon.  A great price for a book offering an original perspective that demands the attention of anyone interested in the origins of film noir.

Sidney Falco checks out: Vale Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

Tony Curtis’ best role has to be the sleazy publicist Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick’s acid noir Sweet Smell of Success (1957).   Burt Lancaster’s manipulative NY celebrity columnist enlists  the amoral Falco to destroy his younger sister’s suitor. These guys are as bracing as vinegar and cold as ice: ambition stripped of all pretense.   The chemistry between Lancaster as the sinister chat columnist  and Tony Curtis as the ruthless publicist is palpable.  It is also DP James Wong Howe’s sharpest picture –  the streets of Manhattan have never looked so real.

La Pantera Negra (Mexico 2010): The Black Panther

Featured this month at the Edinburgh International Film Festival: “Dishevelled private eye Nico Beamonte’s latest case comes from God himself – possibly. He wants Nico to find the mysterious Black Panther. But who, or what, is the Black Panther? And what has this got to do with a cryogenically frozen Mariachi singer and a 1950s flying saucer? Surrealism, Mexican-style – as if film noir had collided with props left over from a Ray Harryhausen film.”

New DVD Set: Film Noir Collector’s Edition

Questar Entertainment on May18 will release a 6-DVD Box set of 7 classic films noir. Questar has kindly sent me a complimentary promotional copy.

The nicely boxed set presents each DVD in it’s own case with high quality stills and artwork, and the DVD menu has a cool animated noir motif and voice-over. While the titles are in the public domain and the image quality is variable, all but two of the transfers are of higher quality than files currently available on the Internet. Sound quality on all transfers is very good with no hiss.

The Movies

Disc 1:


DOA ( 1950) ‘I want to report a murder…mine.’ Edmond O’Brien stars as an accountant whose number is up when he is poisoned, and spends his last desperate hours trying to find out who ‘killed’ him and why.

A taut thriller with a bravura performance from Edmond O’Brien as Frank Bigelow. From the Cardinal Pictures factory and directed by Rudolph Maté, this movie packs so much in 83 minutes. It starts off slow, but once the action shifts from a sleepy rural burg to San Francisco and LA, the pace is frenetic. The streets of these cities are filmed in deep focus, and there is a sense of immediacy in every scene.

The image quality is good, but I have seen a better transfer on late-night TV.

Disc 2:


Detour (1945) ‘What did you do with the body?‘ A hitchhiker gets into the wrong car and picks up the wrong woman. Roger Ebert: ‘No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it’.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s cult poverty-row noir .  Filmed on a shoe-string, this story of a guy so dumb he blames fate for the consequences of his own foolishness, is pure pulp noir, with a career-best from Anne Savage, as the street-wise conniving dame, who incredulously falls for the sap.

This is the best transfer of Detour I have seen.

Disc 3:

The Stranger (1946) Orson Welles stars in this tense thriller as a small-town professor who will stop at nothing to conceal his Nazi past, with Edward G. Robinson as the Nazi hunter out to expose him.

A strong thriller with Orson Welles directing and playing the lead in a screenplay by Victor Trivas. Edward G Robinson is solid – as always – as the investigator, with the beautiful Loretta Young perfect as the innocent and loyal wife. Welles’ deft direction and the camera-work of Russell Metty transform an over-the-top thriller into a moody and intelligent noir, where Jungian concepts of the unconscious are woven with a taut psychological study of the deranged mind of a desperate man.

Image quality is good.

Disc 4:

Scarlet Street (1945) stars Edward G. Robinson as a henpecked husband who falls under the spell of a scheming femme-fatale.

This classic film noir from Fritz Lang, shattered the closed romantic realism of Hollywood. It is unremitting in its pessimism. A dark mood and pervading doom are devastating in their intensity.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946 ) Stars Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. A dark tale of small town secrets, obsession, and murder.

A very dark noir rife with fascinating psychological puzzles.

The image quality for these two transfers is poor to fair.  For Scarlet Street (1945) the KINO digitally restored DVD can’t be beat.  I have seen a better transfer of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers on television.

Disc 5:

Killer Bait (aka Too Late for Tears) (1949) stars Lizabeth Scott as a woman who will do anything to keep $60,000 that falls into her lap.

From the opening scene of the silhouette of a car speeding up a winding road on a hill outside LA one dark night, you know you are in noir territory. Soon a preposterous chance event launches a wild descent into dark avarice and eroticised violence as perverse and relentless as fate itself.

Image quality is Ok.

Suddenly (1954) stars Frank Sinatra in his most controversial role as a psycho who holds a family hostage while plotting to assassinate the president.

A fast-paced b-thriller with a viciously violent protagonist.

Image quality is Ok.

Disc 6:


  • Featurette: What is Film Noir?
  • Featurette: Femme Fatale – The Noir Dame
  • Film Noir poster gallery
  • 38 Film Noir trailers

The two short featurettes are good intros but fairly unsophisticated. What makes them very entertaining is the skillful editing of themed montages of film clips.  There were a few posters I hadn’t seen before in the Poster Gallery.  The trailers included a few sleepers I was not aware of, with the image quality variable.

The Verdict

The high quality of  the packaging make the set compelling, and the better image quality of five of the seven movies over downloads is a definite plus, but the recommended retail price of  US$49.99 is on the high side.  It gets down to how much you value the convenience of easily loading a DVD into your DVD-player and watching the movies on a large screen television.  Amazon is taking orders for the special price of US$44.99.  At this price, with each movie costing you only US$6.42, the set is Ok value.  All  the pictures, bar Suddenly, are essential noirs, and for many chronic noiristas,  a good quality transfer of  Detour would be worth a lot more.

Extrae! Extrae! Numbers Racketeer Goldman Sachs Indicted

wishful thinking...

Further to my February 25 post on Goldman Sachs’ manipulation of the CDO market, The Numbers Racket… , the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has filed fraud charges against Goldman Sachs for allegedly selling investors a financial product based on sub-prime mortgages that was secretly designed to lose value.

The SEC alleges that Goldman Sachs created and marketed a financial product known as a collateralized debt obligation, often referred to as a CDO, the value of which was linked to that of home loans.  “The product was new and complex but the deception and conflicts are old and simple,” said Robert Khuzami, director of  SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “Goldman wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio, while telling other investors that the securities were selected by an independent, objective third party.”

Source:  The Washington Post

Film Noir: Forthcoming Books

Cover for 'The Film Noir Encyclopedia'

The Film Noir Encyclopedia (new editon)
Alain Silver; Elizabeth Ward; James Ursini; Robert Porfirio
Release Date: May 13th, 2010  Pre-Order

Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood (Working in the Americas)
Prof. Dennis Broe
Release Date: April 1st, 2010  Pre-Order

Cover for 'Historical Dictionary of Film Noir'
Historical Dictionary of Film Noir
Andrew Spicer
Release Date: April 15th, 2010  Pre-Order

New on DVD: Bad Girls of Film Noir

Bad Girls Vol 1Bad Girls Vol 2

Sony has released a new twin DVD-set of 8 b-girl movies from the Columbia vaults titled Bad Girls of Film Noir.  Mostly pot-boilers, but Night Editor is a must-have cult noir.

Volume 1

Evelyne Keys
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) directed by Earl McEnvoy

Lizabeth Scott
Two of A Kind (1951) directed by Henry Levin
Bad for Each Other (1953) directed by Irvin Rapper

Gloria Grahame
The Glass Wall (1953) directed by Maxwell Shane

Volume 2

Cleo Moore
Night Editor (1946) directed by Henry Levin
One Girl’s Confession (1953) directed by Hugo Haas
Over-Exposed (1956) directed by Lewis Seiler

Ida Lupino/Cleo Moore/JanSterling/Audrey Totter
Women’s Prison (1956) directed by Lewis Seiler

Noir Digest: Noir City 2010

Noir City 2010

Red Light (1949)

San Francisco’s NOIR CITY 8 film noir series returns to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre January 22-31 2010. The full program is here.

Movies not on DVD on the program:

FLY BY NIGHT (1942) Dir. Robert Siodmak
DEPORTED (1950) Dir. Robert Siodmak
CRY DANGER (1951) Dir. Robert Parrish, newly restored
THE MOB (1951) Dir. Robert Parish
THE GANGSTER (1947) Dir. Gordon Wiles
HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951) Dir. John Berry
ONE GIRLS’ CONFESSION (1953) Dir. Hugo Haas
WOMEN’S PRISON (1955) Lewis Seiler
RED LIGHT (1949) Dir. Roy Del Ruth
WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948) Dir. Gordon Douglas
SLATTERY’S HURRICANE (1949) Dir. Andr? de Toth
INSIDE JOB (1946) Dir. Jean Yarbrough
HUMAN DESIRE (1954) Dir. Fritz Lang
ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945) Dir. Budd Boetticher
  • FLY BY NIGHT (1942) Dir. Robert Siodmak
  • DEPORTED (1950) Dir. Robert Siodmak
  • CRY DANGER (1951) Dir. Robert Parrish, newly restored
  • THE MOB (1951) Dir. Robert Parish
  • THE GANGSTER (1947) Dir. Gordon Wiles
  • HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951) Dir. John Berry
  • ONE GIRLS’ CONFESSION (1953) Dir. Hugo Haas
  • WOMEN’S PRISON (1955) Lewis Seiler
  • RED LIGHT (1949) Dir. Roy Del Ruth
  • WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948) Dir. Gordon Douglas
  • SLATTERY’S HURRICANE (1949) Dir. Andr? de Toth
  • INSIDE JOB (1946) Dir. Jean Yarbrough
  • HUMAN DESIRE (1954) Dir. Fritz Lang
  • ESCAPE IN THE FOG (1945) Dir. Budd Boetticher

Columbia Noir DVD Set

The Sniper

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1 a new noir collectors DVD set has just been released. The films in the set:

  • The Big Heat
  • 5 Against the House
  • The Lineup
  • Murder by Contract
  • The Sniper

The special features include commentaries by Michael Man, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Eddie Muller, and James Ellroy.