The Year of Noir

A Scene from the Noir Film The Big Combo (1955)

For me, 2019 has been the year of noir—both film noir, and somewhat less markedly, noir literature. I have just finished reading the New York Review edition of Elliott  Chaze’s 1953 novel Black Wings Has My Angel.

In my Goodreads.Com review of the novel, I quote this incredible passage from page 35:

After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many really delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it out for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.

I wondered in my review why, after attaining a dominant position in the world after World War Two had crippled most everyone else, and after years of growing prosperity, the pessimism of noir became such a persistent theme in literature, film, and even art (q.v. Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”).

The best film noir productions I have seen in the last twelve months include (in the order I have seen them):

  • Joseph H. Lewis: The Big Combo (1955)
  • Byron Haskin: Too Late for Tears (1949)
  • Robert Montgomery: The Lady in the Lake (1947) – based on Raymond Chandler’s novel
  • Anthony Mann: Border Incident (1949)
  • Phil Karlson: 99 River Street (1953)
  • Norman Foster: Woman on the Run (1950)
  • Edmund Goulding: Nightmare Alley (1947) – based on William Henry Gresham’s novel
  • John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
  • Samuel Fuller: Pick-Up on South Street (1953)
  • Fritz Lang: The Big Heat (1953) – probably the best of the bunch
  • John Huston: The Maltese Falcon (1941) – an early outlier
  • Fritz Lang: Clash by Night (1952)
  • Frank Tuttle: This Gun for Hire (1942) – based on Graham Greene’s novel A Gun for Sale
  • Abraham Polonsky: Force of Evil (1948)
  • Alexander Mackendrick: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

More than half the films were viewed on the TCM channel’s excellent “Noir Alley” series hosted by movie scholar Eddie Muller.

Although I consider myself an auteurist critic, I included the directors’ names in the list because of how widespread film noir productions were, especially in the postwar period, coming from a variety of studios and many different directors. Many were produced on shoestring budgets and sneaked through even though they were opposed by many studio heads, such as Louis B. Mayer of MGM.

Later this week, I will present a list noir writers who were partly responsible for the film trend.

 

 

A Stroll Down Noir Alley

TCM’s Eddie Muller, Doctor of Noir

Of late, I have become addicted to TCM’s Noir Alley, which screens Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 9 am (both times Eastern). It was my friends Alain Silver and James Ursini who introduced me (and most Americans) to the genre with their books on the subject. Now that I am retired, I have pursued the subject on my own, both in films and literature. Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley, shows an interesting array of noir films and provides excellent introductions and background info—when he is not plugging wines for the TCM Wine Club.

Last night, for example, he screened Too Late for Tears, a 1949 United Artists film on how the prospect of money can warp one’s thinking and emotions. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Lizbeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, and Don DeFore. Although the film tanked when it was first released, it is worth a second look; and now that a restored print has been created by the wizards at the UCLA Film Archive, such a second look is now possible.

Pressbook for Too Late for Tears (1949)

Aside from Too Late for Tears, the noir films I have seen on Noir Alley in the last few months have included, in the order I’ve seen them:

  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte
  • The Hunted (1948) directed by Jack Bernhard, startring the strangely beautiful Belita
  • The Sniper (1962) directed by Edward Dmytryk, about a misogynist serial killer
  • The Threat (1949), directed by Felix Feist, with Charles McGraw as an escaped murderer bent on revenge
  • The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, perhaps one of the very best noir films ever made

Many of the films shown are pictures you’ve probably never seen or heard of, yet all are interesting explorations of the underside of the American psyche. I look forward to seeing what Muller selects from week to week.