The Noir City: Manhattan Transfer 1925

image

“Dusk gently smooths crispangled streets. Dark presses tight the steaming asphalt city, crushes the fretwork of windows and lettered signs and chimneys and watertanks and ventilators and fireescapes and moldings and patterns and corrugations and eyes and hands and neckties into blue chunks, into black enormous blocks. Under the rolling heavier heavier pressure windows blurt light. Night crushes bright milk out of arclights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green into streets resounding with feet. All the asphalt oozes light. Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky.”

– John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (NY 1925)

 

1946: The numbers and the when and why of Film Noir

Kiss of Death (1946)
An ad for Kiss of Death in a 1946 issue of the Hollywood trade journal ‘The Film Daily’

Some film noir academics dispute the widely held view that the “expanding cycle of hard-boiled and cynical films” (as Bosley Crowther described them in the New York Times in his May 1946 review of The Blue Dahlia) produced in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period, necessarily reflected a darker pessimistic mood in American society in the shadow of WW2, as there was still plenty of Hollywood’s traditional romantic and escapist fare screening in the US at the time, and that the movies retroactively labelled as film noir were not big box office.

Mike Chopra-Grant in his 2006 book, ‘Hollywood Genres and Postwar America’, put this view as follows (my emphasis):

“when I began to look at the rental revenues earned by films in the American market in 1946 no single mood or tone could be identified that uniformly characterized all of the most popular films, although the dominance of musicals and comedies suggested a lighter and more exuberant mood than the emphasis on film noir in academic writing would suggest… Despite the inconsistency between the number of upbeat musicals and comedies among the most popular films of the early postwar period and the “mood” of that period suggested by much film noir scholarship, I do not entirely reject the suggestion that the “tough” movie represents one response to the disruptions and uncertainties of the wartime and postwar period. I do, however, take issue with the suggestion that this kind of film represented the typical response of Hollywood filmmakers, and with the implication that the “tough” movie captured the zeitgeist of American culture in the period after the Second World War: the evidence provided by the popular films suggests otherwise, and in the contradictory impressions of the period presented by the combination of the most popular films and the “tough” movies the very notion of zeitgeist is revealed to be highly problematic…  Although explaining these films in vague sociological terms, as a manifestation of historically existing social anxieties, produces an inadequate account of their place within the wider culture, examination of these “tough” movies in relation to the specific themes and discourses already discussed in relation to the popular films of the period does provide a way of understanding the position of film noir within its historical setting without the need to resort to common-sense truisms about the “mood” of the culture.”

On the other side and in the same year in her book ‘Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir’, Sheri Chinen Biesen argues that the dark expressionism of crime movies that started to appear during WW2 arose out of the economic constraints imposed on Hollywood by the war effort, such as the shortage of film stock and electricity rationing, dark lighting to hide cheap sets, and other deprivations, together with growing audience demand for “red meat” entertainment.

The other day I was idly ‘flipping’ through on-line archive copies of The Film Daily, a Hollywood trade journal of the period, and came across an interesting tabulation in the Friday May 23, 1947 issue: The Broadway Run Score Board comparing the weekly runs of new release movies in Broadway cinemas for the periods Jan-June 1946 and Jan-May 1947. The Scorecards are reproduced at the end of this article.  I have highlighted all the movies that are now identified as films noir. There are quite a number, and more than a few had exceptional runs. Some prestige noirs did very well. Clearly, there was something going on.

How we account for these numbers I leave to the experts, but I do have a view which I set out in my article What is Film Noir. Basically, while many see film noir originating in post-WW2 trauma, I believe the origins of film noir lie largely elsewhere. Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WW2. This is not to say that the experience of WW2 did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of émigré European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30’s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornel Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30’s. Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression.

The Score Boards – Double-click on the image to zoom:

The Film Daily Score Card - click to to zoom in
The Film Daily Score Board- click to to zoom in

 

Alienation in the Modern Metropolis: The built environment New York 1964

These frames from The Pawnbroker (1964) illustrate how Director, Sidney Lumet and Cinematographer, Boris Kaufman deftly cast the high density built environment to visually portray the isolation of the individual in the modern metropolis.

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

Some films  challenge you. Engage you. At the end the screen goes blank and you have to pull yourself back to who and where you are. You question all the facile assumptions you use to order your life and give it some meaning – reasons to get up each and every morning. Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker is such a film.

Then you start reading what the “critics” have said.  Andrew Sarris called it “drivel” and Pauline Kael said it was “terrible”.  Film scholar David Bordwell in a feint valedictory for Lumet largely agrees with these pronouncements from – his term – “the critical intelligentsia”.  I give not two figs for this intelligentsia and their pretensions.

The Pawnbroker is a great film. An attempt to comprehend how a person can survive the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust and live. Pawnbroker Sol Nazerman exists. It is hard to say he does anything more. His living is to deny life has meaning beyond the sordid need to make money. He is not a brutal man just indifferent to others and consumed with his own pain. A pain bearable only to the extent that he denies it. The broken lives that confront his caged counter every day are simply triggers for stamping a pawn ticket and handing over a few dollars from the till. That these others suffer does not enter his comprehension.  He is not above fooling himself though. He launders money for a black racketeer with indifference – until he discovers that prostitution is one the rackets.

The Pawnbroker the film has large ambitions. It succeeds manifestly by drawing out the lives of small people. The people who go to a movie for relief, an escape from an existence that denies their worth, a world not interested in their suffering, and a fate standing ready to smack them down by whim alone. Not the kind of people who read the Village Voice.  A mother alone trying to bring up a boy who lives on the streets,  loves a girl, tries to build a decent life, goes wrong, then does right, only to pay the ultimate price alone amid squalor and indifference.  The man who feels no pain for a moment gets out beyond himself – but it is too late.

All the elements of this film deliver. The screenplay weaves the past and the present by juxtaposition, with what is not said, and is economic when words are needed. Each player  has a convincing sincerity. Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Nazerman is a tour-de-force and his nominations for an Oscar and other accolades are richly deserved.  The other players are as real – even if for a few short scenes.  The direction reviled by the “intelligentsia” as being heavy-handed and overwrought to my eyes is a revelation. Stillness is respected, movement followed not led, and the camera ready to be unanchored by what is happening on the screen. The score is savagely alliterative, so much so that you take it as your own heart-beat, arcing from aching to pounding. The editing is fluid and manages the shift from the past to the present almost seamlessly.  Apart from an opening scene in a suburban backyard indistinguishable from the other backyards around it, a scene which has a meaning of its own, the streets of a proletarian New York form a backdrop and a chorus to the intersecting lives that ebb and flow on their pavements, and sometimes collide. People looking out from tenement windows attuned to the spectacle of existence played out below. While they are desensitised to the trauma and tragedy that breaks out onto those streets, it happens not often enough to deny a spectacle yet is sufficiently familiar to hold their interest for only a short time.

All you need to let this film move you and pull the world from under you is compassion. Leave your self-importance in a jar by the door. Suffering is universal and suffered by each soul alone.

Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962): A love greater than greatness

Requiem For A Heavyweight (1962)

Most of us reach a point in our lives when we come to the realisation that we are also-rans. Life has not delivered fame nor glory. If we are lucky we can settle into a relatively safe obscurity with family and friends, holding down a job that keeps the wolf from the door, and hope death takes us quietly and not too soon. For some though as Eric Burdon put it, all the good things have been taken, and even a safe obscurity cannot be wrangled.

Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) fights his last boxing match against Cassius Clay and is out for the count after seven rounds. Rivera is washed up – risking blindness if he fights again. Trouble is Rivera’s manager Maish (Jackie Gleason) has taken a big bet Rivera would be down no later than the fourth round. Maish has to pay big money owed to a heavy for that bet, and is desperate to get something more from that battered body, even if it means Rivera has to sell his soul in the humiliating charade of wrestling. River and Maish, and cut man Army (Micky Rooney), have been together 17 years, and all they have to their name is what each can pack into a suitcase.

There is no easy way out, not even through the concerned efforts of an employment agency worker (Julie Harris), but deep down despite bitter betrayal there is a kind of love. A love greater than greatness. Redemption? No way. Great men of no importance. Was it ever thus.

Requiem for a Heavyweight is a great film not only for its humanity but also for the craft with which it was made. Rod Serling’s screenplay is lucid and deeply compassionate, economical, and never melodramatic.  The production team takes this scenario and in just under 82 minutes tautly builds a closely realised character study, supported by a cast that delivers soulfully and with a leanness that is rarely matched.  Director Ralph Nelson and DP Arthur J. Ornitz have your attention from the first frame, with a brilliant POV opening scene as Rivera is battered across the ring by Clay, with blurred vision, massive close-ups, and after the knockout, a demented retreat to the dressing room through an ugly hostile crowd.  Low angles, graceful pans and dollies, and long deep focus shots on New York streets make for a truly cinematic experience. You can’t imagine the picture other than in the crisp and evocative monochrome that fills the screen. Editor Carl Lerner stitches it altogether seamlessly, and a hard bluesy jazz score by Laurence Rosenthal adds a true pathos.

A movie that you will never forget. A salute to what Hollywood can achieve with an intelligent screenplay and committed film-making talent. It doesn’t get better than this.

Rod Serling’s teleplay of Requiem for a Heavyweight was first broadcast on television as a Playhouse 90 feature in 1957 and won an Emmy. Jack Palance played Mountain Rivera, after Anthony Quinn had knocked back the role. Director of the movie Ralph Nelson wrote to LIFE magazine in 1963 saying he thought Palance would have been better in the movie than Quinn!

Mister Buddwing (1966): A neo-realist astringency

Mister Buddwing (1966)

Mister Buddwing is a late monochrome portrait of amnesia played out in almost surreal fashion on New York City streets.  There is only a tenuous connection with noir, and this relates more to the loss of identity trope than a broader concern with alienation in the modern metropolis.

James Garner wakes up in Central Park with amnesia. The only clues to his identity are a couple of pills, a phone number scrawled on a slip of paper, a train timetable, and an engraved cygnet ring. He is well-dressed in a suit and tie, and well-polished brogues. The opening scenes are from the protagonist’s POV, as in Dark Passage and The Lady in the Lake, until Garner sees himself reflected in a glass door. Embarking on a search for his identity he rings the telephone number and begins a day and night spent traversing the city and encountering a series of women he strangely mistakes for a woman called Grace. Meantime he gives himself the moniker of  “Sam Buddwing”. The encounters and the city’s streetscapes grab your attention.  Overall the script is uneven with the overarching story weaker and less convincing than the episodic vignettes that propel the action.  It is these episodes that entertain, with some rally sharp absurdist humor, and great cameos from the actresses who variously portray the women Sam pursues.

The film is best described as a crazy dream disturbed by waking moments of  lucidity and lapses into banality.  Garner as Sam has a certain charm but his less than stellar performance means the heavy load is carried by the other players.  The first encounter is with the scruffy dame who answers Sam’s phone-call, played nicely by an ageing Angela Lansbury, who “puts out” offering the guy coffee, a hug, and some lucre; and sends him on his way.  A hungry Sam then has an hilarious breakfast with the Jewish owner of a hash-house.  Followed by a taxi-ride – a deftly written and sharp New York cabbie vignette – with Sam pursuing a female college student (Katharine Ross), who he thinks is his wife Grace. This interlude is the weakest with an overly long and overwrought fantasy sequence, but is redeemed by a coda that brings together a menagerie of Greenwich Village types; a hapless cop, nascent hipsters and beats, a gay guy, and a vagrant who thinks he is God – “really Kooksville”. Sam then hooks up with a quirky young off-broadway actress payed beautifully by Suzanne Pleshette.  She breathes real life into the picture at this point with her beauty, her charm, and her street-smarts.  While the fantasy episode this woman provokes tends to melodrama, Pleshette invests the sequence with a real pathos. Finally, Sam encounters a wealthy lush who likes to slum it in taxis, played with relish and boozy charm by a blonde Jean Simmons.  The best scene in the picture then follows when Garner and the blonde crash a high-stakes crap game  in a low-rent gambling den. This is a darkly-lit bravura sequence where the camera of DP Ellesworth Fredericks goes into contortions. The bit-players do a sterling job in creating the emotion and rising delirium of being on a roll.

The movie has received a bad rap from critics, including a withering review in the New York Times on its release.  There are deep flaws, yes. The direction could have been tauter and the screenplay less melodramatic – the final scene is overly cliched and a let-down. But what director Delbert Mann and cameraman Fredericks have done is created a memorable portrait of a great city with both its grandeur and its desolation, together with a cavalcade of worthy denizens that give a real flavour of the zeitgeist.  There is certainly also a high degree of elegance and craft in the intelligent use of close-ups, tracking, aerial, and low-angle shots that command and sustain visual interest. The outside deep-focus scenes have a neo-realist astringency and sad beauty, and many compositions linger in the memory.  An edgy minimalist jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins adds a nice contemporary feel.

A must-see portrait of New York on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties, which follows in the tradition of films like The Naked City, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Sweet Smell of Success.

Thanks to Cigar Joe for the heads up on this recent Warner Archive DVD release.

Slightly Scarlet (1956): No surprises

slightly-scarlet-1956

The Museum of Modern Art in New York over the last month has held a retrospective of films by Hollywood producer, director, and writer Allan  Dwan.  His career spanned over 40 years beginning with silent movies in the 1920s and ending with his last film in 1961.  It is only since the early 70s that Dwan has attracted the interest of film scholars.  It is debatable whether he has auteur status, though he seems to have had certain mannerisms in his late output.  Signature stylistics include the use of bright primary colors in his technicolor work, the placement and tracking of actors within the frame to delineate attachments, jealousies, and conflicts, and the use of phallic motifs and the like.

You can see all these elements in the 1956 film, Slightly Scarlet, an overwrought gangster movie, based on a novel by James M. Cain. The ambitious lieutenant of a  gambling racketeer contrives his elevation to boss of the outfit, while setting up a favour bank with a pliant cop and a crusading mayor.  Add two gorgeous redheads to the mix and you have the makings of a pot-boiler.  Some critics give the picture film noir status. I don’t buy it. There is an homme-fatale, crime, sex, corruption, and greed. Yet these elements don’t gel into a recognisable noir.  It is more a revenge chronicle filmed in lurid color not in shadows.  DP John Alton is given little to work with as the scenes tend to be stagey, though he manages to create a malevolent atmosphere through shadow artifice and areas of black from under-exposing some internal scenes. Dwan’s use of gaudy colors is visually tiring but rendered to good effect in filming the racketeer’s opulant bungalow and the interior of a beach house, where Dwan theatrically stages the violent scenes that end the picture. Indeed, he places the protagonists in the living area and on a staircase, mapping out the dynamics of the final resolution of the conflicts that have propelled them to the inevitable bloody confrontation.

A plodding pace and no surprises however make for a dull 100 minutes. Only Rhonda Fleming in short shorts, tight skirts, and pointy brassiere is (very) distracting. John Payne is ok only as the ambitious hood, and Arlene Dahl as Fleming’s slutty kleptomaniac sister completes the triangle.