Posts Tagged ‘film noir’

Night and the City (1950)

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Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is often noted as a seminal noir, an early example of the British version of a classically American genre that pits bad guys against worse guys. It’s an extraordinarily pessimistic film, its central character just as unlikable as the villains who surround him.

Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler who works at the Silver Fox Club, where his girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is a singer. Fabian’s main purpose is to find a way to live a “life of plenty,” which to him means slowly conning his way up the criminal social ladder. To this end, he decides to become a wrestling promoter, taking business away from the local magnate Kristo (Herbert Lom) by enlisting the latter’s father to train wrestlers. Subterfuge piles on subterfuge: Harry obtains his start-up money from his boss’s wife Helen (Googie Whithers) by promising to help her get a license to start her own nightclub and leave her husband Phil (Francis L. Sullivan, doing his Sidney Greenstreet impression). But all of Harry’s machinations threaten to destroy him, as he sweet-talks one dangerous criminal after another and places himself, and everyone connected to him, in harm’s way.

Night and the City‘s complex plot belies its fairly short running time, with a lot of plot development packed into a very small space. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it film: one minute Harry is on top of the world, the next in the gutter trying to talk his way out again. It’s hard to root for anyone here except perhaps Mary, who suffers mightily at the hands of a man who refuses to see that he’s always going to a failure. Just as Harry is supremely unlikable, the other villains have levels of pathos: Kristos is tortured by his father’s abandonment, Phil passionately in love with a wife who hates him, Helen desperate to escape from a loveless marriage. The film’s climax is inevitable without being predictable: Harry is doomed and everyone but him knows it from the start. There is no hope underlying Night and the City’s pessimism: the criminals have almost no fear of the law, but each of them is trapped in their personal hells of ambition.

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One of the most striking and brutal scenes occurs between Kristos’s father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two competing wrestlers tussle together for an extended sequence that is fascinating and painful to watch: this is real wrestling, not the staged matches that Kristos specializes in. The camera documents their fight with an unflinching gaze, bringing us so close that you can almost smell the blood and sweat. If this film has an argument, it’s present in this one climactic moment. Forgotten are Harry’s fancy word games and Kristos’s gangland posturing; the melodrama that has been played out for most of the film falls back in the face of a brutal match between two men who are treated as animals. As with the rest of the film, there’s no one to root for: it’s violence without purpose, compelling and meaningless.

Night and the City’s reputation has certainly been earned: it’s an influential film with a strong cast and striking images that will be played out, in different forms, across cinematic history. It’s not one to end an evening on, though: few films are as hopeless as a European film noir, and in this one it’s hard to even cry for the loss of innocence. This is a film where innocence does not even exist.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

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Over the course of a long career, George Cukor made any number of excellent films. While he delved into melodrama (and made some great pre-Code films like The Animal Kingdom), he was primarily known as a director of light drama and even lighter comedy like Dinner at Eight and The Philadelphia Story. A Woman’s Face is an anomaly in Cukor’s career: a noir-ish thriller with undercurrents of psycho-sexual tension, mental trauma, and physical abuse.

The film begins with witnesses coming forward at the murder trial of Anna Holm (Joan Crawford). As each character tells their version of the story, the film develops a strikingly serious and personal narrative. Following a childhood trauma that left the side of her face horribly scarred, Anna becomes a blackmailer and the leader of a criminal ring. She meets Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), the first man to look at her with no horror and no pity, seeing a woman as outwardly and inwardly corrupt as himself. After falling in love with him and becoming his partner in crime, Anna comes across a doctor (Melvyn Douglas) who believes that he can repair the damage done to her face. Her physical transformation begins to transform Anna’s psychology and she finds herself torn between her desire for a normal life, and her continued attraction to the criminal world.

While the film largely follows a linear narrative, despite the numerous narrators, it cannily avoids revealing too much at a time. Who it was that Anna actually killed – there are at least two candidates for murder as the film proceeds – and whether she is guilty of the crime plays second fiddle to the development of Anna’s psychological state. Her scar covers several symbolic layers: at first an apparent indication of evil, then a tragic example of violated innocence, and finally a physical manifestation of the world’s cruelty. Its removal does not really change the person that Anna is, but the way that the world treats her, as she finds the tenderness and acceptance she always craved. Yet one wonders if the scar was used more as a guard against emotional understanding and involvement, an excuse for evil rather than the cause of evil in itself.

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The cast of A Woman’s Face are a combination of 1940s character actors and stars. I’ve never been a big fan of Joan Crawford, but she plays Anna with a mixture of pathos and defiance that made me side with her even when she was doing awful things. Her anger at the world is understandable, as is her underlying desperation to simply be loved. She has a perfect counterpart in Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring, a man for whom cruelty and sadism is an expression of love. Veidt is as terribly fascinating as a sleek jungle cat, slinking across the screen and offering one hell of an argument for the dark side. Set against him, physically and morally, is Melvyn Douglas, as earnest and likable a lead actor as you can come by. The three form a moral triangle with Anna at the apex; it’s anyone’s guess which side she’ll finally belong to.

There are missteps in A Woman’s Face, however. Several comic moments feel out of place, as though Cukor was trying to inject some lightness into a very serious script. The film is occasionally predictable – I could tell you the ending halfway through, though not necessarily the exact form it would take. Cukor seems a trifle uncertain how to handle the subject matter – the most intense example of chiaroscuro taking place during an extended conversation between Barring and Anna, as the former finally expresses his nascent madness and fascist tendencies. Barring’s implied fascism might not surprise (this is 1941, after all), but it does rather puncture some of the intense psychological sparring that the film took such pains to set up. It smacks of an attempt to bring current historical concerns into the film, but comes off feeling a bit clumsy and a little too pat.

Mild flaws aside, A Woman’s Face is a fascinating film, by turns surprising and curiously satisfying. I left the film with a sense of having seen something unique, something unexpected from a Hollywood of 1941. There are some films that have you saying that they don’t make ’em like this anymore. A Woman’s Face had me wishing that they made more of ’em.

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Is there anything that better exemplifies Gallic cool than Jean-Paul Belmondo in a trenchcoat and fedora? No? All right, then, we agree.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s exercise in film noir Le Doulos gives Belmondo ample space to be icy cool, and that’s just the way I like it. The film opens with our main character Maurice (not Belmondo, but Serge Reggiani) walking down suburban streets. He enters a darkly lit house and has a cryptic conversation with an old jewelry fence named Gilbert, the importance of which will only be understood in retrospect. The entire opening sequence sets the tone, though: this is a film of the underground, with gangsters that act like Humphrey Bogart in the midst of an existential crisis.

Maurice is recently out of prison, planning that ever popular ‘final job’ that will enable him to run away with his girl Therese (Monique Hennessey). He involves his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ‘doulos’ or police informant of the title. Silien’s entrance shows us nothing but an overcoated, hatted figure shrouded in darkness. Belmondo keeps his hat and overcoat on through most of the first hour of the film, only removing them when he enters a nightclub. He wears the costume of his trade.

As expected, the heist goes horribly wrong and Maurice finds himself in the unenviable position of having shot a police officer with his partner’s gun. Things go from bad to worse for Maurice, as we follow Silien – apparently the one who betrayed him – as the police ask their informer about the murder. Silien’s motives are obscured – he beats up and then apparently murders Therese, yet does not tell the cops that Maurice was the other man involved in the robbery.le-doulos-1

Much of the plot is initially confusing, made all the more so by Melville’s roving camerawork. I would have to watch it again, but I’m 95% positive that Silien’s interrogation scene is filmed all in one take. The camera moves rapidly, turning to follow Superintendent Clain (Jean Desailly) as he circumnavigates the room. Belmondo remains the fixed point that occupies the center of the frame, practically stopping the camera’s kinetic movement each time it lights on him.

The audience does not know where their sympathies lie for much of the film, as Silien moves from one inexplicable act to another. Belmondo’s impenetrable gaze and ice-cold stare give nothing away, nor does the somewhat detached nature of Meville’s camera. The script is as dense as a Raymond Chandler novel, the characters flitting in and out and speaking in clipped, arcane tones. There’s almost no music to build the tension or clue the viewer into a sympathy with one character or the other. Belmondo jumps between iciness and sudden, frightening violence, but remains the anchor of the film. This is a gangster flick, after all.

I can’t complain about a single moment in Le Doulos, except to say that the final reveal is a bit of a let down. While it explains everyone’s actions, I confess that I wanted a bit more subterfuge. The film set me up for that, and I would have loved to see it fulfilled.

Le Doulos is an exercise in noir tones, a French version of an American gangster film, but in my opinion better than anything Godard ever came up with. This is post-war French filmmaking at its finest.