The modern metropolis cannot be imagined without the automobile. Along with the skyscraper, teeming streets of humanity, and barely functioning decrepit mass transit, the automobile defines the noir city. Dark deeds, heists, police pursuits, escapes, betrayals, and death all happen in and around cars – the darker and wetter the streets the better to deliver justice or not. Wailing sirens, screeching tyres, and the crack of gunshots from and into car windows mark out the celestial territory of film noir.
Check out the new FilmsNoir.Net Trailer ( It looks even better on YouTube.)
Robert Wise’s classic film noir Odds Against Tomorrow – see my review here – was shot on location in New York City and in the Hudson river town of Hudson, NY. Noir aficionado and film-maker Ray Ottulich visited Hudson this month and has kindly allowed me to publish his photographs of locales used in Odds Against Tomorrow matched to actual frames from the movie. I have taken some liberties with the montages to present them here, cropping and super-imposing shots to hopefully make the comparisons more dynamic. Ray’s creative talent and invaluable contribution to film noir history is to be applauded. After all, as the years roll on, the odds are against these locales remaining as they are. Great work Ray!
Hudson is where the heist, which is the dramatic focus of the movie, takes place, and a fair amount of screen time is spent observing the central characters as they wait out the day of the heist which goes down that night.
When director W.S. Van Dyke commissioned a screenplay from Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, a throw-away story about a retired gumshoe drawn back into the business to investigate a series of murders in NYC, he asked for a comic script. He got an enjoyable if innocuous screwball comedy playing on the dick, Nick Charles, being married to a wealthy dame, both of them being lushes, and having an eccentric mutt.
The casting is perfect with William Powell as Nick and the saucy Myrna Loy playing Nora his better-half. The mutt is played by a wire fox terrier called Asta – think ‘Eddie’ from TV’s Frasier. A frothy mix of mystery, sleuthing, and wry banter delivers a diverting movie which has you smiling if not laughing.
DP James Wong Howe is integral to sustaining interest. While the comic antics are fun and add spritz to a weak story, and true both leads are delightful, it is the darkly lit mystery scenes set-up by Howe that impress cinematically. It is of course hard to delineate where the DP’s contribution starts and ends, though I would venture to say that with a less talented DP I doubt there would have been the same fluid camera work and darkly expressionist counterpoint that sustains the narrative.
Some additional frames from the movie to support my case:
In Irving Rapper’s 1946 dark melodrama Deception (1946) Bette Davis is no longer young and as fiery as in pictures past but she still packs a mean punch. Her co-star Claude Raines chews up the scenery and dominates as a vain and vindictive lover. Though Bette gets to plug him in the end. Apparently during production Davis was so scared of Raines stealing the picture, she had the ending changed so that she literally put matters to rest. Director Rapper was reported as not being too happy with this change, but to my mind the scenario’s trajectory points to nothing less.
The story revolves around a passionate love triangle with the other co-star Paul Henreid. Raines has been ‘mentoring’ struggling émigré pianist Davis and things change when her lost lover and cellist Henreid turns up. These creative types set to it with a vengeance, with Davis establishing her own tragic entrapment by lies and an obsessive distrust of Raines, who plays at the homme-fatale. An impressive modern classical score by Erich Wolfgang Kor is used to wonderful effect.
Deception is a strange film with a metropolitan gothic ambience. Quite avant-garde for a Hollywood soapie of the period, with inventive low angles and expressionist lighting deftly overcoming set-bound constraints. Amazingly, Davis later admitted that Raines made the picture! The direction is certainly elegant and the collaboration with ace DP Ernest Heller and Art Director Anton Grot produced masterly monochrome visuals ranging from the sumptuous almost decadent elegance of Raines’ palatial home to the stark modernist lines of Davis’ NY loft apartment. This apartment has the city as a brooding backdrop exposed by a massive window running the length of a wall of the tenement.
A must-see noir melodrama. Check out these other frames from the movie.
Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film The House on 92nd Street for 20th Century Fox was the first of the doco-noirs that presaged the gritty realism of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948…
Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film The House on 92nd Street for 20th Century Fox was the first of the documentary-noirs that presaged the gritty realism of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948.
Although the story of the FBI’s breaking-up of a Nazi spy-ring isn’t strictly noir, it has all the elements of the police-procedural that ushered in a shift in the classic noir cycle from the early 1950s: documentary footage with a news-reel feel, stentorian narration, and a rousing musical score. All elements driven towards the portrayal of a great US institution “implacably” committed to the defense of American freedoms and the destruction of internal threats.
Based on a true case, the producer had full access to FBI surveillance footage and to FBI establishments and staff, and the opening scenes feature J. Edgar Hoover working at his desk. Wisely director Hathaway chose to shoot in actual New York City locales, and his DP Norbert Brodine delivered NY in compelling deep focus. Interesting also is the highlighting of then cutting-edge technology used in the pursuit of the spies: including a punch-card reading computer finding a finger-print match, and spectrography enlisted to identify the brand of lipstick found in a suspect’s ashtray. The whole affair balances real drama with a solemn purpose that has you engrossed.
What I found particularly fascinating was the adroit expressionism of the tense finale, which is clearly evident in the following frames from the movie. You sometimes find art in the strangest places.
©2012 Anthony D’Ambra. All rights reserved.
John Alton’s cosmic framing for the opening and closing scenes of The People Against O’Hara (1951) – an otherwise average noir – are tantalising glimpses into what could have been…