Posts Tagged ‘film noir’

Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.

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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.