Noir City #1

Book news is going to be slight the next week. Or not. Or somewhere in between. I mention this for people who come to this site for this reason.

For all those stomping their boots on the shag, you can thank Eddie Mueller for this. Mueller’s the man behind Noir City, a local film festival dedicated to the greatest cinematic genre that humanity may have produced: film noir.

A few words on noir, and why I love it, and why I am devoting a sizable chunk of my spare time covering it: noir takes no prisoners. It profiles people who are down on their luck, people who I’ve always been able to relate to better than those flawless paragons of virtue we’ve become so accustomed to in film. You won’t find Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez here, no sir. We’re talking gravel-voiced thugs like Lawrence Tierney or endearing sycophants like Elisha Cook, Jr. or ladies who have what it takes like Barbara Stanwyck. These people are ugly and they will screw you over in a New York minute. Some of them are overweight, or ugly, or downright frightening like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death or Ann Savage in Detour. Noir has guts, whatever its trappings (and they can get quite melodramatic indeed). Only in noir will you have Widmark push a handicapped person ruthlessly down the stairs and think nothing of it. Only in noir will people make significant life choices based off of lust, or the big score, or some problematic decision that sensible people avoid, or not. Only in noir will you have ordinary people fuck up and face the consequences of their actions in a timely way. People with more problems than you could ever hope to accumulate in a single day.

And this is why it is all compelling. Film noir has more twists and turns than your typical Hollywood movie. It relies upon action, yes, but also character. It profiles working people or characters trying to operate under desperate conditions, or people hoping to escape something they can’t avoid. Often, the photography and the acting is fantastic. Since the budgets for many of these films were so miniscule, the filmmakers behind these magnificent films were forced to find creative solutions. And so we get Joseph Losey’s remarkable Gun Crazy, in which a man is trumped by a woman who can shoot better than he can, and the competitive battle between the sexes is waived by ability. The common misconception about noir is that women are either scheming femme fatales or plain Janes who go along for the ride. As if to combat this, Mueller has programmed a festival in which women are more prominent — specifically, dwelling upon female characters who are extraordinary in their own right.

Because of other commitments, I missed out on the first three days of the festival. And, besides, Mueller was showing films I had seen dozens of times. But, today, I got around to seeing two. As the festival continues, I hope to chronicle the little-seen gems that have been laid down and offer my thoughts as time carries on.

Tomorrow is Another Day (1951): The arc of this film is Steve Cochran. Film snobs might know Cochran as the man who wandered around Italy in Il Grido, who holed up at a gas station for a while, but who ultimately succombed to the standard Antonioni malaise. Here, Cochran plays a guy right out of prison. The reasons behind his imprisonment are abstract, but the gist is that he ended up in the joint at thirteen. Eighteen years later, he’s out. And the warden is lecturing him about the hopeless life he’s doomed to live. But Cochran will have none of this. As he says to the warden, “You’re on my time now.”

Since Cochran has spent most of his formative years in prison, he’s playing catchup. And this is where the film (and Cochran’s performance) succeeds. Cochran conveys this with incredible desperation. You can see it in his eyes. Cochran’s so good that we see the remnants of 13-year-old Cochran at every turn. And Felix E. Feist is a skillful enough director to permit Cochran to act solely with his back during one later scene in the film. But early on, Cochran’s hoping he can get laid, or at least adapt to this newfound life. He’s lonely. He’s perplexed by the features of the convertible. And he’s so relieved to be out of the tombs that he orders three different slices of pie, befudding the denizens of a local diner.

He gets into a scuffle with a journalist, who capitalizes upon Cochran’s recent release, and, to avoid the effects of subsequent opportunism, he ends up in New York, where he meets Ruth Roman at a dime-dancing hall. Basically, the way a dime-dancing hall works is this: you buy a series of tickets and each ticket gets you a minute dancing with a lady. After a minute, a loud buzzing sound emanates. And the lonely male is then forced to either tear off another ticket to dance for another minute, or buy another one. This is, to say the least, a disturbing concept, but apparently a legitimate one in the fifties. Anyway, Cochran is so fixated upon Roman that he follows her home and somehow convinces her to show him New York. But the two of them end up getting involved in a manslaughter self-defense deal, in which Cochran doesn’t really know the facts because he’s so disturbed by holding a gun in his hand again after so long. There’s a spectacular scene involving the unlikely duo sneaking into one of those trucks that carries multiple cars.

The two escape this predicament. And the film deals with the blossoming relationship between Cochran and Roman, which is carried out within a Grapes of Wrath aesthetic. But Cochran is a bit paranoid, given the earlier rumble. And Roman is doing her best to convince Cochran that all is okay. But she’s not your standard nuturer stereotype. Because she’s willing to tell Cochran that his paranoia is getting in the way of his rehabilitation. Indeed, we eventually learn that she’s willing to do anything necessary to keep Cochran in check. The two of them work well with each other.

But I’ll say no more, except that this film really had me floored. I was fascinated with the photography, with its low angles and daring panoramas through windows in the migrant trailer park. I was completely entranced by the characters. While the film felt the need to compensate with some over-the-top narrative components towards the end, Tomorrow‘s success was steeped in its ambitious explorations into rehabilitation, and how humanity at large takes for granted the efforts of recently released prisoners to commingle the real world with the imprisoned one.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): I’ll confess right now that, dated notions of gender roles or no, James M. Cain’s novel is one of the finest examples of to-the-point prose I know. I’ve read the novel four times. I’ll also admit that, despite having seen nearly every other Cain film adaptation (including Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Wife, Husband and Friend and the disappointing Serenade), the 1946 Tay Garnett version eluded me. I had seen the Mamet-Rafelson version of 1981 and was, quite frankly, disappointed. Mamet had taken great care to captue the spirit of the novel. But I’d like to think that what worked in the novel was meant to be confined to the novel. For whatever reason, Cain’s prose couldn’t quite make the cut. And certainly, in 1946, the subject matter was verboten, given the cinematic limitations involving primal lust.

Needless to say, aside from Hume Cronyn’s amusing portrayal of attorney Arthur Keats (“I can handle it”), I was disappointed. John Garfield, for one, was too clean-cut and all-American to be that scuzzy guy from the streets so glorified in Cain’s novel. It was as if Tom Hanks was called upon to be the guy who had hopped around on trains. You couldn’t believe him. Instinctively, I could not trust him. It didn’t help that Garfield’s facial expressions were limited to a slight facial tic on his right side and an otherwise blank expression (with endless cutaways during a courtroom scene). Of Lana Turner, little can be said, except that drag queens have plenty of deliberate artifices to pilfer from. Turner was so unconvincing as Cora (not Greek at all here; Papadakis has been diluted to Smith), that I couldn’t imagine any heterosexual male finding anything worthwhile to be attracted to. Her Cora has been dumbed down from the Cora we know in the book. It doesn’t help that anytime Turner and Garfield kiss, the orchestra rises. And we’re left an auditory clue signaling indecent couplings.

The highway dive looks and feels like a soundstage. There wasn’t a whit of dirt or grime, and you couldn’t see dirty dishes. I have to say that, for all of its flaws, I prefer the 1981 version. But even that is not enough. Cain, it would seem, works best on the page. Garnett would go on to direct episodes of Wagon Train and Rawhide. Screenwriter Niven Busch would write the silly Jennifer Jones vehicle Duel in the Sun. Really, you’re better off with Double Indemnity. But then Wilder and Chandler were smart enough to understand what made Cain stick on the screen.

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  1. It’s also a good idea to check out Eddie’s novels, THE DISTANCE and SHADOWBOXER. Boy, are they noir, and damned good novels too. He’s also one of my favorite people, I must say–utterly cool and wicked intelligent.

  2. Cinetrix: Been meaning to.

    Sarah: Mueller’s a sharp cookie and he knows his noir. Haven’t read his novels yet, but it’s always been in the back of my mind.

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