“I sat down at the desk and watched the light fade. The going-home sounds had died away. Outside the neon signs began to glare at one another across the boulevard. There was something to be done, but I didn’t know what. Whatever it was, it would be useless.” – Philip Marlowe, in “The Little Sister” by Raymond Chandler.
Eddie Muller is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, co-programmer of San Francisco’s Noir City film festival, and has provided commentaries on a number of DVD releases. So he is in a perfect position to talk about the world of film noir. Some of the bleakest films of the 1940s and 1950s, film noir provided a necessary corrective to the more wholesome, but saccharine, films being cranked out by the major studios. Muller’s journey through Dark City – filled with films both familiar and unfamiliar, from both Hollywood and independent companies – takes the form of visits to some of the iconic symbols of noir: The Precinct, Hate Street, Vixenville, Blind Alley, The Psych Ward, and so on.
The films now known as film noir were initially simply dubbed “crime dramas.” But before noir, the criminals and those fighting crime, the bad guys and the good guys, were pretty easy to identify. But as Muller points out, those boundaries broke down in noir, and the police chief and captain of industry are as likely to be corrupt to their depths as the local petty thief. Muller points to Force of Evil (1948), with John Garfield as a lawyer who plots to turn the system to his advantage, as one of the first films to deal with this theme. As Garfield’s character Joe Morse says in the film, “I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption, but I had enough strength to fight for a piece of it.” Muller also quotes a mob boss in Samuel Fuller’s Underworld USA (1961): “There’ll always be people like us. As long as we keep the books and subscribe to charities we’ll win the war. We always have.”
Along with those crime dramas, there were also domestic noirs set in suburban homes. Muller relates them to the “women’s pictures” of the day, and contrasts them with the scenes of domestic bliss that were being sold by the advertising world and more mainstream Hollywood films. James M. Cain is cited as a major influence here, with his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity, all of which were turned into famous and influential noir films (and spawned countless imitators).
The modern cityscape – sprawling, bustling, overwhelming, its occasional sparkling surfaces masking the corruption beneath – is the setting for many of these films. Its skyscrapers are a testament less to man’s ingenuity than to the mechanistic inhumanity that dwarfs his meager efforts at carving out a satisfying life for himself.
A lot of the standard noir tropes, Muller tells us, were born in the magazine Black Mask, created in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Among the authors to get a regular spot in its pages was Dashiell Hammett. A former Pinkerton detective, tubercular and alcoholic, Hammett brought a particular dark, cynical world view to crime fiction. As Muller says it, “In Hammett’s world, deducing truth was a war of attrition, in which the detective had his work cut out for him outlasting all the liars. No one spoke the truth. Solving a case was the mission, but keeping your balance and retaining a shred of integrity was also a priority.” Among his most famous efforts was The Maltese Falcon, which John Huston brought faithfully to the screen in 1940 with Humphrey Bogart in his career-making turn as private investigator Sam Spade.
Hard on Hammett’s heels was another hard-boiled writer, Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who didn’t take up writing until his mid forties. With books like Farewell, My Lovely (adapted for the 1944 Dick Powell vehicle Murder, My Sweet) and The Big Sleep, both featuring Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler quickly made his name and became a Hollywood mainstay.
Add a little psychosis and nihilism to the mix and you get Mickey Spillane, the source of one of film noir’s strangest detours, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its violent, cynical, mildly perverse hero Mike Hammer. Muller sums up the difference between Hammett, Chandler and Spillane and their respective central characters: “As Spade slickly pitted his antagonists against each other, while Marlowe wearily prescribed himself another shot of wry, Hammer just waded in and busted heads.” Muller profiles not only these major writers but also lesser-known, prolific pulp writers like Cornell Woolrich, whose novels and short stories were adapted again and again into B films like Phantom Lady (1944), Black Angel (1946), and Nightmare (1956). One of his short stories, “It Had To Be Murder,” was turned into 1949’s The Window but found lasting fame when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it as Rear Window (1954).
Muller spices his tale with the stories of some of the artists that brought these films to life. Their actual stories often sound like something from their noir films. There’s Joan Crawford, who from a poor background remade herself as a dancer, then silent film ingenue, then one of the most powerful and successful actors of her day, a noir mainstay. Muller details her well-known eccentricities, multiple marriages and miscarriages, and her mistreatment of her adopted children. From much the same background as Crawford, and enjoying in part a similar career path, was Barbara Stanwyck. Without much schooling or formal training, Stanwyck became a dancer, then acted on Broadway and in the films. By 1944 she was the highest paid woman in the United States, justly famous for, among many others, noirs like Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
Remarking on its “elegant moodiness,” Muller calls the classic film Laura (1944) “a popular entertainment rich in subtle deviance.” Gene Tierney, of course, starred, and Muller relates Tierney’s own complex personal and romantic story, perhaps as ill-starred and shocking as Laura’s and that of “the most deranged femme fatale ever,” Tierney’s Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). With another noir favorite, Lizabeth Scott, Muller is particularly taken with her voice: “It sounded soaked in gin and burnished by endless cigarettes, hung over from long nights of laughing or crying too hard. It could talk you into things never dreamed of. If you had to have a voice whispering in your ear, hers was the one.”
Then there are the men of noir – those that Muller sums up as “Saps. Fools. Marks. Flunkies. Dupes. Chumps.” While any poor guy would do, even the most heroic of Hollywood actors could meet a sordid fate in Dark City. Muller writes of one, Burt Lancaster: “Starting with The Killers, Lancaster appeared in a series of noirs I which the main attraction was the somewhat kinky spectacle of a chiseled Adonis mercilessly flogged, either by brutal authority or treacherous women.”
Then there was Robert Mitchum, another frequent visitor to Dark City: “When a beautiful woman looked deeply into Mitchum’s sleepy eyes and told him to pack his bags for the ride of his life, it was definitely check-out time at the Prize Chump Hotel.” Muller pays full tribute to one of my favorite films, and apparently one of his, Out of the Past (1947). With masterful direction from Jacques Tourneur, atmospheric photography by Nicholas Musuraca, and memorable turns from Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas – “Mitchum, the slow, rolling piano theme beneath Kirk’s insistent bass and Jane’s sexy saxophone.”
In a blurb on the back cover, author James Ellroy cites the “freaks, geeks, commies, nymphos, hopheads, has-beens, red-baiters, and all-purpose fiends who made this genre great.” His assessment is in part a reminder that the classic era of film noir was also the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Cold War loyalism – a frequent undercurrent of noir films. Many actors, writers and directors who took a hard line found themselves blacklisted and their careers curtailed.
As the themes of film noir continued to darken in the early to mid 1950s, the films moved into new realms of psychopathology. Muller quotes Paul Schrader: “After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity and, finally, psychic stability.” While some see Orson Welles’s classic Touch of Evil (1958) as the last classic film noir, Muller rather sees the end of the classic noir era as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Muller writes that Psycho “loosened all the bearings, shattered all the preconceived notions of how things worked, and it ushered us into a strange new American fear-scape where suspicion replaced complacency as the pervasive national backdrop.” It also, says Muller, made sensationalism a prime selling point to movie audiences, who were no longer satisfied with subtlety, artistry, or even good storytelling.
There are only two shortcomings I can find in Muller’s book – other than the fact that I wouldn’t have minded if it was twice as long and covered twice as many films. One is his choice to focus almost exclusively on the classic period of film noir, from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Unfortunately, for me at least, he addresses only in passing the derivations of film noir’s visual style from the atmospheric lighting and skewed camera angles of German Expressionist films from the silent and early sound era. There are also the early crime films that set the tone for noir, like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), that Muller mentions only in passing or not at all. The same goes for most non-American examples of film noir – like Jules Dassin’s hit Rififi (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville films like Le Samourai (1967), Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), or one of the greatest, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) – and later noirs and noir tributes that are lasting classics – Cape Fear (1962), Chinatown (1974), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and L.A. Confidential (1997), just to mention a few that come to mind.
Muller provides handy, colorfully written summary plot lines of many of the films he covers. While enjoyable in themselves, these summaries comprise the other shortcoming of his book – if you haven’t seen the films before, the summaries are loaded with spoilers, an inevitable problem in a book like this. If you really want to check out the excellent films he covers in some depth, you might want to skim over some of the plot details.
As a stylish introduction to some of the greatest films ever made, Muller’s book is essential.