Tag Archives: film noir

What is one to do?

“I did write for a while in spite of them,” says the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” Writing as a woman is a dangerous act. Gilman knew it, and I suspect Lucy Beatrice Malleson knew it, too. Malleson’s breakthrough as a writer came in her late twenties, when she began publishing mysteries under the pen name “Anthony Gilbert.” Ostensibly this was done to maintain her privacy and avoid the appearance of capitalizing on her uncle Miles’ recent fame. But it’s hard to imagine that the financial and professional advantages of a man’s name didn’t factor into this decision.

1941 saw the release of the “Anthony Gilbert” novel The Woman in Red. A few years later, under the auspices of Columbia Pictures, screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton adapted it into what director Joseph H. Lewis would later call “a damn near perfect script.” My Name Is Julia Ross premiered in November of 1945. The film opens in rain-soaked London, Malleson’s lifelong home. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, an unmarried woman behind on her rent and desperate for a job. Tipped off by a newspaper ad, she nabs a plum secretarial position with a rich widow and her grown son. But overnight, this dream job becomes a nightmare: the family and their servants drug her, kidnap her, and install her in a locked bedroom at the rear of a country mansion overlooking the sea.

There, Julia’s assigned the name Marion Hughes along with a monogram-adorned wardrobe, both of which belonged to the son’s late wife. Her would-be employers crowd around her bedside, speaking to her in infantilizing tones: “You haven’t forgotten us again, have you, Marion?” asks the mother, played by Dame May Whitty, when Julia protests. “Please don’t excite yourself so. You’ll just bring on another attack.” The remainder of the film plays out as a tit-for-tat psychological game. Julia scribbles a plea and tries to smuggle it into the outside world; her tormentors tear it up. (“Correspondence is so often destroyed… that the film starts to appear contemptuous toward text,” wrote Joseph Jon Lanthier in 2013.) Julia smuggles her own body off of the mansion’s grounds, only for a well-meaning vicar to deliver her right back into the arms of her homicidal “husband” because he’s been told that she’s mentally ill.

In a twist that prefigures Vertigo, it turns out that the husband and mother-in-law have been planning to orchestrate Julia’s “suicide” as cover for an uxoricide that left Marion’s corpse drifting in the froth of the sea. In a twist that matches real life, it turns out that you can get virtually anyone to abet your conspiracy if you tell them a woman’s not in her right mind. Lewis repeatedly frames Foch in two shots next to characters—her “husband,” the groundskeeper, a young maid—who calmly, logically explain to her why she isn’t who she is. “You have a beautiful home, nice relations, pretty clothes. Everything a woman would want!” insists the maid. “You’re letting yourself be took up by illusions.” The title of the film becomes not merely a statement of fact, but a radical assertion of self.

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“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, — a slight hysterical tendency, — what is one to do?” asks the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like Julia Ross, she’s a prisoner who can gaze through a window out onto a vast estate. Like Julia Ross’s story, hers bears glimmers of Gothic horror. Both women are confined to haunted houses, but in place of ghosts, they’re bedeviled by interior design or noises in the night or the men who’ve been entrusted with their care. Of the two, Julia Ross is probably luckier, since she’s the target of an actual murder plot, and plots can be foiled. (A happy ending for “The Yellow Wallpaper” would require the full-on overturning of medical science.)

Latter-day critics tend to identify Julia Ross as film noir, no doubt influenced by the nature of Lewis’s subsequent output (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo); Burnett Guffey’s stark cinematography; and the villains’ involved criminal machinations. They’re not wrong, but that genre designation doesn’t paint the full picture, since Julia Ross lies at a three-way intersection between noir, melodrama, and horror. In his contribution to the new anthology Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade, academic Ian Olney writes that

Horror movies of the immediate postwar era reflect the greater independence and mobility women enjoyed as a result of their role during World War II… The male monsters in postwar horror represent the threat of women losing everything they had achieved during the war years and being forcibly restored to the domestic sphere; indeed, the home and women’s traditional place in it are the primary source of horror in these films.

Olney then uses this framework to analyze The Spiral Staircase, a film that shares with Julia Ross its old dark house setting and patrician psychopath. Although I’m wary about applying his schema to a wide swath of movies, it rings true with Julia Ross. The film’s heroine is a working-class woman swept up across class lines into a gilded cage. “My husband? …Mrs. Hughes?” she mutters, examining the wedding ring on her finger. She can’t comprehend the marital status that’s been inflicted on her. (The film’s depiction of marriage as a waking nightmare renders ambiguous its abrupt, single-shot denouement, in which Julia instantly accepts a proposal from the man who saves her. Is it earnestly happy, because this time it’s a choice? Her fiancé’s description of a wife—“combination secretary, nurse, companion, housekeeper”—is so off-putting that it inclines me to interpret the resolution as darkly ironic.)

Not unlike Mildred Pierce, which was released a couple months prior, Julia Ross speaks on “woman’s film” issues of romantic and economic dependence via genre-specific narrative motifs. Around the time it was entering theaters, Columbia ran a pair of ads in The Film Daily (dated November 13 and 23) that indicated, if nothing else, how the studio’s publicity department wanted exhibitors to understand their product. “Here is a ‘SLEEPER’ if ever there was one!” crows one tagline. Illustrations splashed across the ads recreate scenes from the film rich with traditional horror imagery: the shadow of a prowler’s hand stretching across Julia’s blanket; Julia cradling a black cat in her arms. One ad features a number of excerpts from positive reviews, which bandy about genre terms like “thriller,” “melodrama,” “mystery,” and “thrill-o-drama” (as well as adjectives like “tight-throated” and “corking good”). In the words of the Brooklyn Eagle, the film “keep[s] you on the edge of your seat,” and it does so as a means of getting at the truth and terror of women’s lives.

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“There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house,” says “The Yellow Wallpaper”s narrator. “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.” As with Julia Ross, her husband fears that she’s “letting herself be took up by illusions.” She’s in danger of constructing her own reality, just as Julia has a personal narrative (“They’re holding me here by force”) that she asserts no matter how insistently her “family” may contradict it. For a woman to write, whether she’s writing a short story or a mystery novel or a note to the police or a diary of her rest cure, is to carve a record of her truth.

That’s what makes these two tales of feminine horror especially scary. If a woman can be disabused of her truth—if Julia consents to being Marion—then that truth is gone. Poof. Their husbands already have the power and the money, so if they come to dominate those rooms of one’s own inside their wives’ heads, then no more Julia. Her very self depends on that mere sliver of resistance. And while My Name Is Julia Ross may be a work of macabre fiction, Julia’s experiences are recapitulated in miniature every day: “it’s not a big deal”; “you’re too emotional”; “your body is public property.” Living as a woman is a dangerous act.

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.”

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.” —“The Yellow Wallpaper”

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Punch Drunk

John Larch in The Phenix City Story | Brian Keith in 5 Against the House

Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.

That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)

Alleyways in Phenix City and 5 Against the House’s Reno

In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.

Richard Kiley in The Phenix City Story | 5 Against the House’s parking garage climax

This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.

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Straight Down the Line

Inviting me to select my favorite image from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), as The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series has done this week, is a little like asking that I single out my favorite limb. I’ll make the choice eventually, sure, but it’ll be a reluctant one and involve lots of nervous glances from hand to foot and back again. What I’m trying to say is that Double Indemnity is an unusually beautiful film noir, shot by cinematographer John Seitz as a tapestry of shadows and key lights—a lustrous labyrinth of insurance offices and Venetian blinds leading “straight down the line,” as Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale repeatedly puts it.

But, well, the challenge is to pick one shot, so I picked one, and it’s at least pretty emblematic of Wilder and Seitz’s technique throughout the whole of the film. See, for example, the inventive patterns in which they’ve scattered light across the frame, drawing our eyes straight to the space between Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. The lighting supplements the actors’ already white-hot chemistry, suggesting a downward sloping line from his face to hers and a region of the screen that’s buzzing with sexual magnetism. Mere seconds before this, MacMurray was pacing the room, going on and on in voiceover about how “the hook” (read: his own cock) was pulling him toward her,

so at 8 o’ clock the bell would ring and I’d know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world…

And there she is, lit up like a vision from heaven (or elsewhere). The curls of her blond wig are shimmering and her body assumes an irresistible pose beneath that heavy trench coat. This is her about to cross the threshold into his dark bachelor pad, about to make the relationship between them more than just one of flirtatious salesman and client. It’s the seed of her anklet blossoming into adultery, and murder.

I suppose that’s why this shot—which, incidentally, lasts a full minute and fifteen seconds, this image emerging roughly in the middle—calls out to me: it’s so tentative, so teeming with potential. Double Indemnity is like the tale of the scorpion and the frog if it were about two scorpions trying to ferry one another across a river, and this is a shot of those deadly predators, each sizing the other up, separated only by a doorway. A couple other details I enjoy here: the shadow of the rain outside, barely visible on the seat of MacMurray’s pants; and that picture of a bare-knuckle boxer just to the right of the door.

Three more similarly framed prints grace the wall above his couch, and while I’ve never been able to fully integrate them into my reading of the film, they suggest to me an antiquated notion of brawny masculinity. Perhaps they hint at a kind of visceral thrill that MacMurray’s Walter Neff, this bundle of machismo and libido stuffed into a white-collar job, is pursuing whether through his relationship with a married woman or his attempt to “crook the house.” Those boxers, always lurking in the background, could signify the primal man lurking inside the skin of a mild-mannered insurance salesman.

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Under the Gun

Edward Dmytryk was fresh from the Hollywood Ten when he made The Sniper (1952), which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s an especially intense little noir, lingering as it does over the pained face of its title character, who’s played by Arthur Franz in what I swear is one of the 1950s’ most underrated performances. Rarely have I seen an actor capture psychosis so vividly, yet with surprising subtlety. The closest thing Franz has to a co-star is Adolphe Menjou—a leader of the Hollywood witchhunts, as a matter of fact—as police detective “Frank Kafka.” Yeah, it’s a surprisingly literate thriller!

Incidentally, in that piece I mention Dmytryk’s “bisected compositions,” and I’d like to briefly expand on that. I’m consistently impressed by the mise-en-scène in this movie, as Franz is pressed to one side of the frame and something about the world he loathes (stranger, coworker, dunk tank woman, smokestack painter, landlady) occupies the other. It’s such an economical use of screen space, such a visceral way of visualizing misanthropy, and thanks to Dmytryk’s bold use of lines and angles, it also results in some beautiful compositions. The Sniper is top-shelf noir in an pulpy, unassuming package.

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Link Dump: #63

Following up last week’s Jean Vigo kitty, we have one from Vigo’s short À propos de Nice. It’s just sitting by a sewer grate in Nice, when all of a sudden, there’s Jean Vigo and Boris Kaufman! And now it’s immortalized in film history. Yay kitty! Now here are some links:

We had a smattering of fantastic, strange search terms this past week. Like “docters do the opration of chute pussy.” Or the very valid inquiry “why is it called porn and not something else”? Imagine a world where it’s not called porn. Just imagine it! And lastly, “google to sex women to women love firends both lesbian gether weddnig pussy pussy in is the moives.” Jesus, that’s an epic search term!

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Hate and Anger

You were born with hate and anger built in. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive!

Lionel Stander growls these words in the opening minutes of Blast of Silence (1961) as a train barrels through a tunnel. He isn’t onscreen. He isn’t even playing one of the film’s characters. He’s just the voiceover. It’s such a wild formal gambit: wall-to-wall voiceover, directed at “you,” that narrates the film as a sustained, misanthropic rant. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Stander’s snarl is like a scar on the film’s face, its uniquely identifying feature. You may forget a lot of crime movies you see. You don’t forget Blast of Silence.

Even without the voiceover, it’d still be noteworthy. Shot on a shoestring in wintry New York, it’s a minor indie landmark in the fashion of Little Fugitive or Shadows. The no-star cast is led by writer/director Allen Baron, brusquely playing a contract killer cut off from humanity. He’s the kind of taciturn sociopath familiar to noir devotees—forcing a smile when he has to, but more comfortable speaking through a silenced pistol.

In keeping with that minimal performance, Baron and his friend Merrill Brody shoot the city streets with a nasty crispness. The film’s so visually subdued, so scummy yet honest, as if every shot were a crime scene photo. The hit man, Frankie Bono, always looks like a stranger caught unawares, camera-shy and sneering, peeved half to death by Manhattan at Christmastime. And sliding over these visual textures are a tense jazz score and Stander’s choleric croak.

That voiceover has such pungent rage to it. No sooner does Frankie glance at a photo of his mark than Stander declares it “the kind of face you hate.” A character actor in his fifties, Stander chomps into these angry, evil words and spits them into the audience’s face. His performance has a secret history to it: in 1961, Stander was long out of work, having been blacklisted after his disastrous HUAC testimony a decade earlier. His feature-length monologue was written by Waldo Salt, a similarly blacklisted screenwriter (and future Oscar winner).

So this isn’t just an angry voiceover. It’s fueled by the life experiences of two men who’d been witch-hunted and fucked over by the film industry. It’s the howl of the outsider, a voice from hell. Not to mention really well-written—it digs into Frankie’s back story, but doesn’t grow too expository or reductive; it’s always pissed off, but never histrionic. It hypothesizes about pasts and futures, hurls out nihilistic epigrams, and badgers Bono when his mind starts wandering.

Stander’s voice slinks throughout the film, but takes some breaks to let dialogue or ambient noise sink in. It’s the interior counterpart to Baron’s totally exterior performance, cluing us in to how calculated Frankie’s most casual gestures are. How hard it is for him to naturally act like a human being. Thanks to Salt and Stander’s uncredited contribution, Blast of Silence is a psychological study and an infernal travelogue. It raises the movie’s temperature from red hot to white.

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One Against All

By Andreas

Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.

These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.

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