I just started a new monthly column for the Film Noir Foundation that searches out and showcases classic film noir available to stream. Here is the debut installment….
As any fan of classic movies seeking treasures on streaming services knows, it’s a wasteland out there. There are oases, of course, but at any given time there are fewer options for pre-1970 movies between the three major streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu—than you could find in your better neighborhood video stores twenty years ago.
Given that, there are some treasures to be found out there, especially on Prime Video. The problem is knowing what to look for. Since the shuttering of FilmStruck, there really isn’t a service that curates its catalog of classics (Kanopy, a free service offered from public and college libraries, is an exception). So, consider this your guide to streaming noir, and, for this inaugural installment, we’ll look at the options among the big three streamers.
Netflix is first in subscriber numbers but last in its commitment to classic movies. It does, however, currently feature a couple of noir classics. Many services offer a copy of Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946), with Orson Welles as a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Edward G. Robinson as the government agent on his trail. Netflix, to its credit, presents the superb Kino Classics master, which is also streaming on Kanopy.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) Moonrise (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) Gun Crazy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) No Orchids for Miss Blandish (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lee J. Cobb takes the lead as Lt. Ed Cullen, a veteran Homicide detective in a secret affair with socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt) while she’s in the midst of a divorce, in The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), an independently-made film noir shot on location in San Francisco. When she shoots her soon-to-be-ex-husband (in self-defense), Ed looks over the incriminating evidence and decides that a cover-up is in her best interest. When he’s assigned the case, all looks good, except that his rookie partner—his newlywed and newly promoted younger brother Andy (John Dall)—digs into the evidence and uncovers contradictions in the case, despite Ed’s efforts to nudge him in other directions. It’s a classic good cop gone bad set-up but Ed isn’t greedy or corrupt, merely protective of the woman he loves, which gets complicated because he’s equally protective of his kid brother determined to pull at every loose thread. Wyatt is an unlikely femme fatale, less cold-blooded than practical, but Cobb is excellent as the tough mug of a cop swayed by love and the two deliver a beautifully understated coda that sums up their relationship without a word, merely glances and body language that suggests a tenderness that still exists between them. Dall is the opposite as the bright and energetic rookie on the trail of his first big case, with wide grins and a twinkle in his eye.
The title of 1983, a murder mystery turned conspiracy thriller from writer/creator Joshua Long, is more than an oblique reference to George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a parallel 2003 where the Berlin Wall never fell and the Communist Party has a chokehold on Poland, this alternate history opens on the 20th anniversary of devastating terrorist attacks. The national myth of martyred victims murdered by resistance groups and the necessary guidance of a benevolent government is trotted out in ceremonies celebrating Polish resilience. Katejan (Maciej Musial), a fresh-faced law student orphaned by the attacks and raised on such propaganda, is jolted from his complacency after his mentor, a beloved judge with deep Party ties, posits an unexpected question in his oral exams: what if the attacks didn’t backfire at all? What if they accomplished exactly what they were supposed to? When the professor is murdered by one of his students, Katejan starts to question everything he believes.
Stephanie Smothers, a suburban overachiever played by Anna Kendrick with spunky energy and self-effacing deflection, is the widowed mother of a son in elementary school. Into her life steps Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a sleek urban professional with no maternal instincts––like a high- society shark forcibly moved from her hunting ground to a tranquil aquarium tank. Their odd relationship is the core of A Simple Favor, a neo-noir of suburban pep and middle-class warmth meeting cool sophistication. Playdates, cocktails, and dark secrets are shared.
After the 1970s recast film noir in shades of nostalgia (Chinatown, 1974, The Late Show, 1977) and private eye revisionism and cynicism (The Long Goodbye, 1973, Night Moves, 1975), the eighties gave it a burst of color and energy with Neon Noir. John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) doesn’t have the self-consciously chiaroscuro lighting we associate with noir (Landis uses light for clarity, not atmosphere) but otherwise he takes a classic noir story—the middle-class innocent jolted out of his protected but dull existence and plunged into a nightmarish odyssey into the urban underworld—and treats it right. It was a commercial disappointment in its day and tends to be forgotten in the annals of post-noir crime cinema but if anything it looks better today than it did in eighties.
Jeff Goldblum is our married suburban everyman Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer whose dreams of space have been grounded in cubicle land, sleepwalking through his days and unable to sleep at night. “My life is a dead-end,” he tells his carpool coworker (Dan Aykroyd), “I feel like I’m from another planet,” and things don’t improve when he finds his wife having an affair (but slinks away rather than confront her). This isn’t a man bored by his compromises to conformity, but a man unsure why he is so unfulfilled after doing everything right.
The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.
Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.
Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act
It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.
You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).
Throughout the years of Noir City’s Seattle residency, the programming has taken brief detours from the mean streets of hardcore noir to explore side alleys, from early influences on noir to noir influences on other genres. The 2017 festival, which runs February 16-22 and is the biggest to date (20 films in seven days), takes more leeway than usual for “The Big Knockover,” a week of capers, heists, and holdups. A lot of the films don’t qualify as pure noir. The heist genre occupies its own corner of the crime movie universe, sometimes embracing the dark heart of film noir’s world of corruption and desperation and doom, just as often skipping into lighthearted crime comedy or slipping into cool, calculated caper spectacle. You could say that the heist film is the original antihero team endeavor, the supervillain squad combining their unique skills to a common cause—in this case, the impossible robbery. This is one of those times when we root for the bad guys.
Most of the time, anyway.
John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It’s a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston’s wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.
Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.
Laird Cregar is The Lodger(1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.
While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.
This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.
Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.
Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.
On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.
Ryan carries his contempt for the denizens of the mean streets of his beat on his sleeve. “Why do you make me do it?” he says to one small time hood who goads him into losing his temper and then shrinks in panic when Jim rises to the bait. It’s less a question than a justification for meting out his own righteous justice, but that malign neglect kicks him in the gut when promises one tawdry blonde (Cleo Moore) that she won’t get hurt for turning informant and then promptly forgets her, until he finds the underworld carrying out its own street justice on the very same girl. The entire episode simply bleeds hard-boiled attitude: a brassy good-time girl with a come-on pout and a masochistic streak to her flirtations, a cop who barely considers human, and an explosion of fury fueled in part by guilt. The handsome, controlled camerawork by George Diskant (a noir standout who also shot Ray’s debut They Live By Night and such low-budget noirs as The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential) loses its composure momentarily in a turbulent handheld shot as Jim chases one of the thugs, just a few seconds long but so startling it’s like a glimpse through the eyes of an adrenaline-powered rage.
It’s what finally gets him sent out “to Siberia,” out of the way as the media firestorm when his victims lands in the hospital and call out the police brutality, and the beginning of the emotional journey of his country sojourn. Ida Lupino is Mary Malden, a single woman in a remote home and the older sister of the troubled young man hunted for the murder of a schoolgirl. She’s neither fragile nor bitter and all she asks of Jim is to bring in her brother without violence. Ward Bond is the father of the murdered girl, a man worked into a vicious fury that makes him leery of everyone else on the manhunt, and a dark mirror of Jim’s own contempt and anger reflected back at him. He’s so suspicious that he winds up to slap Mary just to prove she’s faking her blindness. For the first time in the film, Jim is protective rather than aggressive. Mary rekindles his compassion.
On Dangerous Ground is an unusual film noir in more than the simply the journey from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country. It opens as a police procedural but the rhythms are unexpected, the procedural elements simmer with the desperation and conniving of the underworld characters swept into the investigation or drifting in on their own, and the journey out of urban garbage heap into the peace of the country has both a contemplative and a pensive quality to it. Is there a film noir that spends so much time watching the landscape change from the driver’s seat of a moving car, and then find the same fury and intolerance is here in the heartland too?
This is a beautifully remastered and restored edition, clean and clear and shadowy. The Warner Archive Blu-ray don’t claim to be restored but they are consistently beautiful and this is no different. Carried over from the 2006 DVD release is a commentary track by film critic Glenn Erickson, which is informative and well organized, like a lecture and or a formal presentation. “This is a cop film where the hero never fires a gun.”
Road House (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) is a film noir in the sticks with a big dose of romantic melodrama. Ida Lupino is in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a real tough and knowing role. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.
Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir.
Features commentary by film noir historians Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan recorded for the earlier DVD release.