The Criterion Shelf: Fox Noir

Five That Shelf contributors dip into the dark offerings of one of Hollywood's most iconic movie studios.

The genre of film noir got underway at the beginning of the forties, inspired as it was by the dark perspectives brought on by World War II. Twentieth Century-Fox joined every other studio in capitalizing on their popularity almost immediately with the release of their first entry, I Wake Up Screaming in 1941. Talking about film noir tends to bring our minds to popular Warner Bros. classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, tales of Los Angeles detectives and double-crossing blondes, but Fox had its own spin on noir that Criterion rightfully highlights in a collection meant to help us come down from spooky Halloween treats and enjoy a grim Noirvember.

Film critic Imogen Sara Smith hosts an introduction to this collection that is required viewing for anyone looking to explore it. She points out that, unlike the primarily west-coast films best associated with noir that take place in grimy underworlds, Fox’s films presented the social binary of upper class milieus brimming over with people obsessed with fame and image. Most of them are set in New York City with titles that evoke thoughts of grimy urbanity (Panic in the Streets, Night and the City).  Hangover Square is a rare treat, a noir combined with a prestige period piece, but when the streets are lit by gaslamps, there are even more shadows to be enjoyed. Moreover, a great deal of the studio’s output frequently folded the concerns of the Social Problem movie into noir plots:  Where the Sidewalk Ends questions the wisdom of police authority, No Way Out and Elia Kazan’s Panic are both woefully relevant today and tell us how much class warfare is at the heart of issues of racism and public health, while Somewhere in the Night uses a soldier’s battlefield amnesia in the service of a juicy mystery plot.

For Smith, a great deal of this more pensive style of noir storytelling has to do with the filmmakers themselves, who either came from a theatrical background (Otto Preminger, John Brahm, Kazan) or began as screenwriters before turning to directing their own scripts (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Samuel Fuller, Nunnally Johnson). Jules Dassin made some marvellously dark films in the post-war period. His view of America was inspired by his own wrangling with the powers that be, finishing Night and the City in England before being exiled to Europe during the Blacklist. Samuel Fuller’s response in Pickup On South Street is to fill a plot about American patriots fighting communism with Americans who don’t actually know what communism is.

Given that the Fox Noir collection is devoted to one genre, there might be concern that it’s the same movie over and over again, but there is actually rich variety in these selections, containing as it does some undeniable textbook entries (Preminger’s Laura, a film that still gleams) as well as Technicolor efforts (Niagara, Black Widow) that find darkness in the plush hues of Marilyn Monroe’s blond hair and a series of gorgeous New York apartments. At the heart of all these movies, though, is the noir obsession with hubris: Widmark does unto others what he eventually does to himself in a number of these films (except when he’s the good doctor saving the world from an epidemic, and is as commanding a good guy as ever he was a villain), Marilyn, Dana Andrews, and the femme fatale of Black Widow create webs in which they only catch themselves. Nightmare Alley, one of the juiciest indulgences in this collection, has Tyrone Power fly too close to the sun before coming back down to Earth.  Despite the trappings of the genre seeming to promise an indulgence in immorality, it turns out to be the most morally astute genre of them all.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou, Emma Badame, Marko Djurdjic, Barbara Goslowski and Rachel Ho where noted.

 

MUST-SEE FOX NOIRS

 

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Emma Badame: There are precious few movies that could be considered perfect, but Otto Preminger’s Laura is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of them. Adapted from Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel, the film is often noted (and lauded) for David Raksin’s evocative and eerie theme but, with an enviably sharp script and a pitch perfect cast, it’s a film noir that lands squarely at the top of its class.
An impossibly beautiful Gene Tierney appears as the titular murder victim, Laura Hunt, a fashionable and intelligent New York advertising executive whom men admire and women envy. Her supercilious but snarky best friend Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) describes her as possessing an “authentic magnetism” and, once audiences and detective Mark McPherson (the oft underappreciated Dana Andrews) get a gander at her (cinematically famous) portrait, it’s not hard to see why. As the detective gets drawn into the investigation, we’re also introduced to Laura’s Aunt and to Laura’s wise-cracking but cowardly fiance, played deliciously by Judith Anderson and Vincent Price respectively. As the plot thickens and McPherson becomes the latest in a long line of men to obsess over Ms. Hunt, it’s clear that the shadows of this particular noir reach far past the physical and straight into the complexities of the mind.  A supremely well-crafted whodunit, this is often the standard by which all other ‘40s film noirs are measured. And that’s as it should be.

 

Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan, 1950)

Barbara Goslawski:  A captivating neorealist noir hybrid, director Elia Kazan’s assured hand fashions a taut stylized thriller that manages to glide ever so gently into an evocative documentary style. Kazan harnesses the nervous energy and despondency of certain locales of its setting, New Orleans, to lend a profound authenticity.  Following a card game gone wrong in the wharf area, Blackie (a dazzlingly sinister Jack Palance in his film debut) sets his men on the winner. The body is discovered to be carrying a deadly virus and Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark in an unusual turn as a good guy) must turn into a detective in a race against time to retrace the man’s steps. The good doctor must inoculate everyone who crossed paths with the dead man, who incidentally was smuggled in on a ship.  Tension mounts as Reed encounters difficulties at every turn. The police don’t care much about the murder of an illegal alien, the residents of the area struggle to protect their insular world and they must guard against law enforcement and criminals alike.  With the killers confused as to why there is so much sudden attention being paid to this murder, they get jumpy, which is when some truly bizarre things can and do happen. When the darkest, basest instincts kick in to Panic in the Streets, it’s unforgettable.

 

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Emma Badame: Perhaps not as well known to movie audiences as it should be, Nightmare Alley is among the rarified 100%-rated films on Rotten Tomatoes–a well-deserved honour the film shares with better-known noir classic, Laura. Though not a hit upon its release in 1947, it has more recently become a staple on genre best-of lists and for good reason. 20th Century-Fox allocated the Edmund Goulding-directed feature a sizable budget, which provided the resources to nab big-named talent in front of and behind the screen–a rarity for noirs of the era. It helped that top box office draw Tyrone Power was on board from the get go, the matinee idol had been searching for material miles away from his usual swashbuckling romances and when he found William Gresham’s novel, he knew he’d found just the thing.  Nightmare Alley follows ambitious and amoral con man Stanton Carlisle (Power) as he schemes and lies his way from a spot in a mind-reading carnival act to a job as the wildly successful “Great Stanton”, a popular clairvoyant frequented by the Chicago elite. It’s a dark and heavy story, with very little to lighten the mood along the way, but the characters are so intriguing and complex that it’s almost impossible to look away. Joan Blondell, Ian Keith, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes and Coleen Gray are all terrific in their parts, deftly holding their own opposite Power at his very best. From his first moment on screen, Power is required to be charming and unsavoury in equal measure and the actor absolutely nails it, accomplishing everything he’d hoped for when asking Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the original novel.  Before the Guillermo del Toro adaptation hits theatres this December, treat yourself to an evening with the original. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

WORTHY FOX NOIRS

I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941)

Bil Antoniou: The shadows loom large in Fox’s first major attempt at film noir, which had great success at the box office thanks to a twisty plot and star casting. Carole Landis is found murdered and brooding detective Laird Cregar is sure that her boyfriend and promoter Victor Mature did it after she told him she was leaving him to pursue a Hollywood career. Through Mature’s testimony and that of the dead woman’s sister (Betty Grable) we learn of Landis’s rise from waitress to cover girl, the clues not stacking up in Mature’s favour until he eventually must go on the lam to prove his innocence. Even the revelation of the murderer isn’t the final twist in the plot. While this one plays like a B movie being executed by A talent, following its thread is a fun game.

 

Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945)

Bil Antoniou: Noir is combined with prestige period films for a dark and moody romantic tale of love and madness. Laird Creger plays a composer who is distracted from his symphonic ambitions by a low-class chanteuse (Linda Darnell) who manipulates him to write songs for her. He has also been experiencing period blackouts that he cannot explain, unaware that while in this state he has been committing a series of grisly murders (one which involves a bonfire disposal that is still shocking today). The two strands of the plot combine in a magnificently shot climax at a live music concert that really shows off Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score.

 

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

Rachel Ho: Well known for being Jules Dassin’s last film before being relegated to Hollywood’s Blacklist, Night and the City, while unappreciated in its day, is now widely considered a seminal piece of classic film noir. It follows American hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) as he plots and deals to survive in London, bargaining with members of London’s dark underbelly and finding himself in precarious situation after precarious situation. Dassin creates a claustrophobic and ominous London, each twist and turn along the city’s cobblestones comes with a sense of urgency that the world will close in on Fabian at any minute. What makes the film so intriguing is how little we care for the morally bankrupt Fabian’s well-being; this lack of sympathy, along with the hostile atmosphere Dassin builds, would all become hallmarks of film noir. A hallmark in the genre’s history, Night and the City is as dastardly as they come.

 

No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Barbara Goslawski: The film that launched Sidney Poitier’s career, No Way Out is much more than a film noir: it’s a powerful indictment of anti-Black racism in 1950s’ America. Considered bold for its time, the film was controversial for its depiction of racial violence, and while it’s a difficult watch now considering the racist language, it has a profound impact. It is also notable for its Black cast, marking the first time that Ossie Davis (in his film debut) and Ruby Dee appeared together on screen (both uncredited). Poitier portrays Dr. Brooks, a new intern at the county hospital, the only doctor available to treat two brothers, both of whom have been shot in the leg by police. Despite Brooks’ best efforts, Johnny dies after exhibiting some strange symptoms, while his brother Ray (Richard Widmark), a hate-filled racist, vows revenge for what he calls his brother’s murder, enlisting his brother’s ex-wife (Linda Darnell) to incite a race riot. Thematically and stylistically, No Way Out is every inch a solid noir, director and co-writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz has firm control over the material. Poitier is quietly luminous while Widmark is the embodiment of menacing hatred. If you can handle listening to Widmark doggedly scream the worst of racial epithets (it’s a lot), there is a payoff in the film’s final moments.

 

Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

Emma Badame:  Otto Preminger dusts off his genre muscles and directs Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in this very watchable mystery–a feature often eclipsed by their first collaboration, the seminal noir classic Laura. Though not hugely successful upon its initial release, largely due to comparisons to its 1944 predecessor, it succeeded in leading the way into a newer sub-genre of noir:  the gritty police melodrama.  Andrews stars here as harsh police detective Mark Dixon–a recently demoted man looking to atone for his own father’s life of crime. When Dixon accidentally kills a murder suspect while defending himself from an attack, he looks to pin the death on mob kingpin Scalise (Gary Merrill). The cover-up backfires when Dixon’s new lady love, Morgan (Tierney), who also happens to be the dead man’s estranged wife, has the finger of the law pointed straight at her protective father. Corruption and collusion abound in the back alleys of Manhattan, and Preminger isn’t afraid to zero in on the seedy lowlifes who reside there, likewise unafraid to show the tarnished side of his leading man. Dixon isn’t quite an anti-hero but he’s as close as you can get, and Andrews excels at walking that thin line. Opposite him, Tierney finally gets the opportunity to play a hardened and weary dame–a rarity for a star unfairly known more for her fine, porcelain beauty than her acting chops. Seeing the sparks fly once more between these two very capable leads is worth the price of admission, as is the excellent supporting turn from Gary Merrill as Dixon’s crime-boss nemesis. The 1950 release marks the last picture directed by Preminger as part of his contract with 20th Century-Fox. If you’re going to choose a film to go out on, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Where the Sidewalk Ends.

 

Black Widow (Nunnally Johnson, 1954)

Rachel Ho: A classic femme fatale tale with deliciously convoluted twists and turns, Black Widow lays the ground work for contemporary stories like Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. Led by strong performances from Ginger Rogers and Van Heflin, it is the story of innocent Miss Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) who has moved to New York City with her eyes set on becoming an esteemed author. When Ordway is found dead in her friend Peter Denver’s (Heflin) apartment, a tangled web of lies and revelations unravels. Filmed in colour and using CinemaScope, its aesthetic is a far cry from the deep shadows we normally associate with film noir: the bright, expansive sets, especially inside the apartments where much of the film is set, contrast with the dark tone of the story. Rogers’ portrayal of Lottie Marin — a rather haughty lady of the house — is an excellent example of film noir’s treatment of women: she betrays the conventional confines of being a woman in the 1950s, but in doing so, conforms to the idea that such women are difficult bitches.  Black Widow isn’t the most sophisticated film noir on the shelf, but its murder mystery plot will keep you fixated.

 

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Bil Antoniou:  Noir is associated with monochrome but a number of highly effective films in the genre have been shot in colour, including this juicy little thriller that contributed to making Marilyn Monroe an A-list star in the early 1950s. Honeymooning couple Jean Peters and Max Showalter come to the popular honeymoon destination of Niagara Falls (shot on location, mostly on the Canadian side) for a few restful days but instead are drawn into a dangerous murder plot, one in which Marilyn is gaslighting Joseph Cotten in order to arrange his murder before running off with a lover. The sultry star bursts off the screen at her physical peak and director Henry Hathaway gets a lot of great shadowy imagery out of the otherwise bright and beautiful location (so much so that the Niagara Falls MPP took exception to the film).

 

FOR THE CURIOUS

Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946)

Barbara Goslawski: This twisted psychological thriller doesn’t always look like film noir, but it packs some key fundamental elements into its protagonist: George Taylor (John Hodiak) is an amnesiac, a war vet and a private detective. Otherwise, the film is a muddled concoction, visually slick and sometimes humorous, slow to descend into the requisite darkness, while conjuring enough existential angst to satisfy.  The strong supporting cast of noir favourites certainly helps, including Richard Conte, Lloyd Nolan and Sheldon Leonard with German Expressionist film veteran Fritz Kortner tossed into the mix.  With few clues to his identity, Taylor searches for Larry Cravat, a man who has left him some money, but quickly discovers that everyone he meets is after Cravat. The more he searches for this supposed friend the more menacing the situation becomes, he literally stumbles into showgirl Christy’s (Nancy Guild) life who then becomes his only actual friend.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a novice director at the time and proves incapable of maintaining suspense in this unwieldy and often derivative narrative, and his lead performances also fall flat. The script’s witty repartee is reminiscent of some of Bogie and Bacall ‘s finest moments but these two actors aren’t them, there’s much that’s familiar in Somewhere in the Night, but unfortunately there’s little original spark.

 

Pickup On South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Marko Djurdjic: After lifting a wallet off delivery-girl/angelic femme fatale Candy (the always sensational Jean Peters), pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) bites off way more than he can chew in Samuel Fuller’s 1953 espionoir.  Set at the height of McCarthyism, Fuller’s pulpy exposé of law enforcement bureaucracy, political treason and underworld sleaze features his trademark tracking closeups and long-takes, which add a juxtaposed sensuality to the brutal, messy violence. While the tension and action are palpable, the film’s Red Scare politics, which were ubiquitous at the time, have aged poorly, and show how American cinema—both onscreen and behind it—contributed to the perpetuation of anti-communist sentiments and McCarthyism. While Skip’s apolitical, even unpatriotic stance is evident (including his rather biting reproach, “Are you waving the flag at me?”), the film’s “U-S-A!! vs. The Commies” theme is indicative of post-war American sentiments, and I couldn’t care less for it. Nevertheless, Pickup is a noir with a surprising amount of humour, something quite unusual for the oft-morose genre, which may act as an ironic subversion of its rather conservative tone.



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