Lost Souls

Reflections on film noir inspired by three screenings at MoMA
by Imogen Sara Smith  posted October 30, 2013
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As part of its annual series To Save and Project, The Museum of Modern Art is presenting three neglected films noir, Crashout, Try and Get Me!, and Alias Nick Beal. Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, will introduce the screenings on November 2, 2013..

Moral seriousness has always been film noir’s dirty little secret. Hollywood’s original marketing campaigns sold the movies we now call noir with breathless promises of pulpy thrills, all hot lead and ice-veined blondes. Filmmakers were able to smuggle out bleak, startlingly caustic visions precisely because the genre of crime thrillers attracted little attention or prestige. But even today, when these once taken-for-granted movies are among the most popular products of classical Hollywood, for many fans noir resides in the shadow of a hat-brim, the angle of a turned-up trench-coat collar, the patterns of cigarette smoke and Venetian-blind shadows, the gleam of dark lipstick and high heels on wet pavement. Noir is reduced not merely to a style but to an enticing, consumable fashion.

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Alias Nick Beal

Complicating matters, the integrity of noir films was distorted by the Production Code, which mandated stories confirming that crime does not pay, that sin is always punished and virtue rewarded, resulting in many blatantly tacked-on moralizing conclusions. But even if one could strip away the Code-imposed conventions, the fact would remain that a strong moral vision underlies most noir stories. In the best films this moral vision is ambiguous and richly shaded, but it is also frequently punitive and fatalistic. “I did something wrong, once,” Burt Lancaster intones in The Killers (1946), explaining why he makes no effort to save himself from his executioners. Comparing Robert Siodmak’s film with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake is instructive: the earlier version takes a sorrowful interest in the wounded psyche of Lancaster’s character, while in the latter, Lee Marvin’s refusal of engagement—“Lady, I just don’t have the time”—sums up the amoral, emotionless chill that snuffed out the classic noir period in the late 1950s.

Despite the cool, masked remoteness of the hard-boiled style, classic film noir is driven by intense feelings—love, lust, greed, fear, hatred, guilt, obsessive memory—and by a weighted, iron-bound certainty of consequences. You’re tempted, you make a mistake, and you pay. What makes noir both quintessentially American and radically subversive is its pessimism about ambition: it is always wanting more, wanting a better life, wanting to “be somebody” that destroys people. Of course, they want it the easy way, skipping the part about hard work, yet still, the sense of desire itself as an agent of corruption and destruction gives noir its current of negative energy.

The timeless theme of the Faustian bargain is implicit in many noir stories, in the moment where the protagonist takes that first wrong step, thinking that somehow he will be able to get the reward without paying the price. Some version of this motif lies at the heart of three films that will be screened during the Museum of Modern Art's 2013 edition of the series To Save and Project, introduced by FNF founder Eddie Muller (November 2). In Try and Get Me! (1950) a decent family man, out of work and desperate, is seduced into crime by a flashy thug who plunges him, with a single act of pointless violence, into a hell of guilt and horrifying punishment. In Crashout (1955), an intelligent convict, already fallen to the temptations of greed, makes a deal to help a vicious killer in exchange for a chunk of loot. And in Alias Nick Beal (1949), the devil himself pursues the soul of an ambitious politician.

The soul belongs to Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), a do-gooding District Attorney. Nick Beal (Ray Milland), as the devil calls himself (combining Old Nick with a variation on Baal or Beelzebub), tempts his prey not merely with the chance to be governor, but more crucially with the opportunity to convict a racketeer he has vainly pursued. Foster is actually corrupted through his virtue, his desire to see the gangster punished at all costs—nicely pointing out that all intense desires can be dangerous, not only sinful ones.

Director John Farrow’s ardent Catholicism suffuses the film, which ultimately turns on faith in the miraculous; for the nonbeliever, it’s here that suspension of disbelief ends. Nonetheless, Farrow’s Satan, like most from Milton onward, upstages the representatives of virtue pitted against him: a saintly priest (George Macready, cast startlingly against type) and a wife who acts as a nagging conscience. “I’m fed up with cant, righteousness, and sanctimony,” Foster announces at one point, and his holier-than-thou reformer friends are enough to drive anyone to self-serving corruption. His gradual drift away from his principles is convincing without any sulfur and brimstone.

Milland plays a suave, rum-drinking devil whose nastiness gradually shows through his seductive manners. What makes his performance so effective is the chilling degree to which he seems genuinely inhuman. He gets help from wonderful cinematic effects—the dense fog always swirling around the waterfront dive that is his headquarters; the eerie tune he whistles; his trick of knowing in advance what’s about to happen, which he employs with a con man’s flourish to unnerve people. But it’s also something Milland does with his eyes, a way of tilting his head and rolling back his upper eyelids so the eyes have a flat glitter like the pennies on a corpse’s face. You get the feeling that his skin would be icy to the touch—only he doesn’t like to be touched, recoiling when his victim reaches out in a pleading gesture, and viciously slapping away a woman who tries to seduce him.

It is this complex and tragic woman, Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), who really makes the movie noir. She’s both an instrument of the devil, enlisted by Beal to seduce Foster away from his vigilant wife, and a tarnished mirror of the Faust figure. Presumably the devil finds her soul too shop-soiled to be of value, but she experiences the same degradation as she realizes, long before Foster does, that she’s merely a puppet controlled by an infernal force.

She’s a dame scraping the bottom when he picks her up on the docks and makes his pitch, mixing blackmail with the usual bribery of furs, jewels, and a luxurious apartment. The scenes between the devil and the fallen woman have a peculiar resonance as his manipulative, omniscient power meets her damaged, earthy frailty. Their transaction has nothing to do with sex, yet the atmosphere has everything to do with sex. Totter is vulnerable, desperate, yet full of life; she enters the movie with a flailing cat-fight and exits with a magnificent drunk scene, sitting at an empty bar wrapped in an enormous fur coat, telling the bartender she’s “gonna disappear…I’ve got a railroad ticket to nowhere.” And with that she does disappear into the endless night, neither lost nor saved.
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Alias Nick Beal

By bringing to attention overlooked movies like Alias Nick Beal, the Film Noir Foundation expands the boundaries of noir beyond familiar genre clichés, demonstrating that its range extended from supernatural melodramas to gritty neorealism, from lurid escapism to tough social criticism. Several of the treasures recently unearthed by the Foundation have been mined from a particular vein of stinging, disillusioned realism. Cry Danger (1951), set in a scruffy Los Angeles trailer park, depicts postwar America as a battered, jaded place that has turned cynicism into a running gag. The film’s beguiling tone, at once glum and snappy, recalls the gallows humor of the pre-Code era. “What’s five years?” Dick Powell says of a stretch he did for a crime he never committed. “You could do that just sitting around waiting.” Joseph Losey’s scathing The Prowler (1953), which moves from an upper-middle-class suburb to a desert ghost town, lays bare the shabbiness and vacancy of the American dream, a front for toxic envy and grasping opportunism. It’s hardly surprising that The Prowler was the last film Losey made before fleeing the country to escape persecution by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Like Losey, Cy Endfield, a one-time magician and protégé of Orson Welles, fled to England to escape the blacklist and never returned. Recently restored under the auspices of the FNF, his film Try and Get Me! (also known as The Sound of Fury) belongs to a remarkable spate of films about mob violence that all came out around the same time, including Losey’s The Lawless (1950), The Well (1951), Storm Warning (1951), and any number of westerns featuring lynch mobs and craven towns where “necktie parties” form the chief entertainment. Other films like The Phenix City Story (1955), Flamingo Road (1949), and The Captive City (1952) expose towns where entrenched political corruption poisons not only communal ties but even personal relationships. All these films, products of the ostensibly conformist 1950s, express a gut-level distrust of crowds, a conviction that people en masse are either sheep-like flocks of moral cowards or bloodthirsty packs of wolves.

Try and Get Me! was adapted from Jo Pagano’s novel The Condemned, itself based on the real story of a 1933 lynching in San Jose, the same that inspired Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). Not merely an anti-lynching tract, the film is first of all a ruthlessly detailed portrait of a crass, materialistic society. Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy, in his best performance) is an everyman who moved his family out to the fictional California suburb of Santa Sierra in search of a better life. “I can’t help it if a million other guys had the same idea,” he complains bitterly. Now he can’t find a job; his pregnant wife worries about paying the grocery bill and frets over the humiliation of using a charity clinic, while his whiny little boy demands money for a baseball game: “All the other kids are goin’!” They live in a drab little bungalow behind a wire fence: it looks like a cross between Levittown and a P.O.W. camp. Howard’s casual encounters all sharpen his sense of humiliation in a crude, money-obsessed culture. A bartender in a bowling alley sneers at him when he complains about being given a more expensive imported beer that he didn’t order.

If Howard were not so dejected by these incessant reminders of his low status and failure as a provider, he would never fall under the influence of Jerry (a manic, funny yet scary Lloyd Bridges), a vain braggart he meets in the bowling alley. Primping and preening, flexing his muscles and boasting about his bankroll and his sexual conquests, Jerry treats the modest Howard like his valet. He offers him a tempting proposal, “nothing risky”—just driving the getaway car for his holdups. Jerry is a sleazy Mephistopheles who both dazzles Howard with his fancy shirts and expensive aftershave, and belittles him as a loser. At the end of his rope, Howard signs on.

Their first job is knocking over a cheap motel where Jerry easily intimidates an elderly couple and pistol-whips their son. Intoxicated by the easy money, and a few stiff drinks, Howard bursts in on his family with armfuls of groceries. His wife gasps at the extravagance of baked ham and canned peaches, and he brags that now they can get a TV, instead of going over to watch their neighbors’. Soon Howard is buying his wife new shoes and dresses with stolen money, telling her he has a night job at a cannery. His little boy sports a cowboy outfit and ambushes his jumpy father with toy guns.

One night when Howard wakes her coming in, his wife (Kathleen Ryan) tells him about the lovely dream she was having: she had the baby, and this time there was no pain at all; “I got right up out of the hospital and took her shopping. I was buying her a pinafore.” Even in her sleep she’s a consumer, subconsciously linking commercial goods with the fantasy of a painless life. Howard listens to her in a daze of horror: he’s just returned from a bungled kidnapping. Jerry, unsatisfied with penny-ante crimes, schemes to hold a wealthy young man for ransom. He’s overcome by envy as he fingers the victim’s tailor-made suit, and after they’ve taken him out to a gravel pit in a disused army base, Jerry panics and kills him. He insists there’s no reason they can’t go ahead and collect the ransom anyway.

As Howard mentally unravels, the vulgarity and callousness of the culture around him takes on an almost phantasmagoric quality. “Cow on a slab!” a waitress yells in the diner where Jerry shows him the ransom note over a steak sandwich. For cover, they go out of town to mail the letter, taking along Jerry’s glossy blonde girlfriend (Adele Jergens) and a lonely manicurist she has dug up for Howard. Hazel (Katherine Locke) is at once pathetic and spooky, so desperate to find someone that she falls for the drunk, despairing Howard, until turning on him when she learns of his guilt.

The film has another, more didactic side, which follows a journalist (Richard Carlson) who is pressured by his boss into writing a series of sensational articles depicting the petty criminals as a powerful Eastern mob—outsiders. It’s these articles that ultimately stir up a frenzied mob that drags the two men out of jail, a truly terrifying crowd led (as in the real case) by college boys. The script’s weakest element is the injection of a moralizing Italian scientist who lectures about “the breakdown of social decency.” There’s absolutely no need for this spelling out of a message that is conveyed unforgettably by the howling of the vigilantes and by the annihilating guilt that leads Howard to go passively, almost in relief, to his death.

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Try and Get Me!

Unrelentingly grim and capped by a harrowing climax that leaves the audience at once stunned and queasy, Endfield’s film was one of those anomalies the Hollywood studios occasionally produced as if by accident. Originally released as The Sound of Fury, it was quickly pulled by United Artists and later re-introduced under the title Try and Get Me! with a ridiculous ad campaign touting it as a sexy, pulse-racing thriller. The film’s neglect on its release and over the years is hardly surprising; unlike most “message movies,” which allow the audience to feel the satisfaction of moral superiority or uplift, this one leaves an overwhelming aftertaste of sadness and guilt, a sense of how easily even good people can do unspeakable things.

Crashout is not about temptation or downfall; it is about men who have already fallen as far as they can go, and whose hopes for escape or redemption are plainly delusions. A wilderness of rocky, scrubby mountains provides an appropriately stark and brutal setting, recalling the harsh, primitive landscapes of Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Directed by Lewis R. Foster, Crashout was released by Lupino’s production company, The Filmakers. (Dave Kehr, in The New York Times, noted the “strong possibility” that Cy Endfield contributed to the script un-credited.) The films also share frightening performances by William Talman, and a gritty focus on the dynamics of violent men forced together in desperate situations.

Crashout follows six men who break out of prison and try to make their way to where one has stashed the money he stole from a bank. They are determined to stick together to avoid betrayal, but there’s not one shred of loyalty or friendship among them. The leader, Vance Duff (William Bendix) is wily, brutish, and utterly amoral. He’s badly injured in the prison break, and convinces the others to help him only by promising to split his hidden loot with them—not that he ever intends to do so. His life is saved by a doctor (Percy Helton) whom the convicts kidnap; rather than merely leave his savior gagged and tied up, Vance insists on killing him, quipping coldly: “It takes all kinds to make a world—especially suckers.”

Vance doesn’t actually do the killing: he seems to have an almost mesmeric power over Luther (William Talman), a religious fanatic who likes quoting scripture and listening to hymns, yet readily murders on command. With his vacant eyes and zombie-like manner, Talman is intensely creepy. When he thinks Vance is dying, he insists on baptizing him in a murky pool of water in the cave where the men are hiding out. This dank rocky hole, so dark that the men’s semi-lit faces look deformed and leprous, is the first setting in which we get to know these modern cave men, most of whom operate strictly on the reptilian brain. Monk (Gene Evans) talks about little except how hungry he is, and at one point darts out to try and catch a rabbit with his bare hands. Pete (Luther Adler, with an Italian accent as heavy as meat-sauce) is an irritating braggart who talks about nothing except how women go crazy for him, “but I just-a spit in their eye.” Bill (Marshall Evans) is a nice kid who wants to start over clean.

But there’s no way they can start over; they’re “branded…The only way we can get anything out of life is to grab it and run.” This is the philosophy of Joe (Arthur Kennedy), who crashes the crashout with no invitation. The odd man out, Joe is intelligent and articulate, a seemingly decent man warped by greed—he was sent up for embezzlement, the only white-collar criminal in the bunch, and he is obsessed with the need to get hold of money now that he’s free. With his sharp features and boyish blond hair, Arthur Kennedy excelled at ambivalence, playing likeable villains (Bend of the River), unlikable heroes (Rancho Notorious), weak men corrupted by ambition and resentment (The Lusty Men), and detached, intellectual skeptics (Elmer Gantry, Lawrence of Arabia.) He is, in a way, a little of all of these things in Crashout, and he elevates the film with his complex, delicately shaded performance.

Nearly every element in the script is familiar from other movies about criminals on the lam: the coercion of a doctor into treating a wounded fugitive; the hold-up of a roadhouse, and the threat to a female hostage from sex-starved prisoners; the take-over of an isolated farm-house; the encounters of the two sympathetic men (Bill and Joe) with women who offer glimpses of an alternative life. But though these situations may be unoriginal, the film never feels stale or predictable. It is set apart from the mass of B noir by a keen, uncompromising script and a style at once raw and incisive. There is almost no music apart from muffled tunes heard on radios, and the score also uses environmental noises like the monotonous clanging of a bell on a stopped train to ratchet up tension. A majority of scenes are shot at night, and the great cinematographer Russell Metty (best known for his work with Douglas Sirk) reverses standard noir tropes: instead of sculpting with shadows, he uses light like a knife to chisel shapes out of blackness. There are images far more shocking than anything typically seen in films of the 1950s: ants crawling over a bloody hand, a man felled by a knife thrown into his back, another man writhing as he’s consumed by flames. There are a few beautiful shots, like a train cutting through the night with a black-on-black plume of smoke, or the men walking through a field of weeds taller than they are, but there is little that’s pretty in this world.

The movie’s one peaceful interlude ultimately does nothing to soften its outlook. It comes late in the story when the surviving four men take over a farm-house while waiting for a truck to be repaired so they can continue their journey. There they meet Alice (Beverly Michaels), living alone with her mother and young son. The fleeting but intense connection between Alice and Joe is surprisingly believable: they recognize in one another a weary acceptance of past mistakes and a stifled yearning for something better.

An Amazonian blonde with a sullen deadpan, Beverly Michaels was usually typecast as a heartless tramp. Here she has a dignified melancholy, and bonds with Kennedy in an understated version of the quintessential noir love scene, in which a man and woman talk about how rough life is, how rotten people can be, and how dissatisfied they are as a prelude to a passionate kiss. An unwed mother, Alice tells Joe that love and money are the same: there’s a dirty kind and a clean kind. When she turns away from him it’s because, she notes sadly, “This is the way it was the last time. I wanted it to be different.”

Crashout’s ending recalls Stroheim’s Greed, with grainy fake snow standing in for Death Valley’s parched sands, as the men battle savagely over a metal box filled with cash. Luther turns on Vance, proclaiming him the devil and blaming him for all the deaths the band has suffered and caused. The devil is a convenient fiction, of course, a way of attributing evil impulses to an external source. But in Alias Nick Beal he turns the tables, smugly observing that “in every man there is an imperfection, a seed of destruction.” Who better than the devil to sum up noir in a nutshell?


 

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Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Alias Nick Beal
Photo Gallery: Lost Souls

RELATED CALENDAR ENTRY

October 9–November 12, 2013 To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

THE AUTHOR

Imogen Sara Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy

More articles by Imogen Sara Smith