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Film Noir box

It’s time to redefine film noir. Or perhaps refine the living definition. Or return to the original definition and work from there. Or scrap the whole genre and its outmoded definition and start over.

You think you know what noir is, don’t you? You think film noir is a minor genre that thrived from the early 1940s to 1958, one that focused on troubled men lured into criminal situations by their own bad judgment and the wiles of a seductive woman, all ending when fate, in the form of the law, reaches out its long arm to snatch them all up? You think that film noir is a heightened genre in which the visuals tell half the story, in which long shadows and venetian blinds and rain swept corners and curling plumes of cigarette smoke are as important as dialogue, if not more so.

If this is your definition, then how do you explain the presence of such films as House on Telegraph Hill, Panic in the Streets, House of Bamboo, or Dillinger in recent sets of supposed films noir. Or put another way, how loose of a definition of film noir do you want?

The DVD distributors no doubt want a definition as fluid and flexible as they already seem to have. Or maybe a definition ever more porous. Film noir is probably the most popular of the genres that sell on disc. Its films come in mostly well-priced and attractive boxes in bright colors and fun typefaces, they seem to epitomized “classic” Hollywood, and they break the color barrier: i.e., kids who normally abjure black and white films will watch noirs. Critically, each box is greeted as if it is the salvation of motion pictures. They don’t make like they used to! What great old films, each and every one!

If a person truly loves noir, shouldn’t they also be seeking out the films of French poetic realism of the 1930s, films such as Pepe le Moko or Le Jour se leve? Or, some of the films of pre-World War II German expressionism, such as Lang’s M, films whose visual style clearly pre-dated the use of shadows and unusual angles in true American noir. The answer is yes, they should: but they don’t. Noir has become a wholly American thing, its roots in other cultures ignored by consumers, its life span artificially elongated, like a dying patient on life support, a very un-noir way to go.

And is noir even a genre? When the two Toulouse-based intellectuals Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton came to write their book A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941 - 1953, they called it a “series” rather than a genre. It’s an interesting distinction to make, because it ends up emphasizing the short lived nature of the cycle of noir films. In their book, which was finally published in English in 2002, they don’t define the genre, but rather offer a set of five key noir characteristics (roughly: dreamlike, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel) that proves not to be especially helpful, and then they give you a list of noirs, a subdivided taxonomy from which we are supposed to infer a definition. Later, when Raymond Durgnat came to attempt a definition of noir for the British magazine Cinema, he ended up sub-dividing the films by cycles and motifs, such as sociological films, prison films, juvenile delinquent films, and so on. Thus, in 1970 when the article first appeared, and just two years after Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg had introduced the term “noir” to American criticism in their book Hollywood in the Forties, noir was already out of control, a casserole pot for whatever likes or linkages the critic cared to include. The first chapter of James Naremore’s book More Than Night offers the best treatment I’ve found of the difficulties of defining noir.

But here’s an easy definition of film noir: it’s a film whose images are used to illustrate the cover of a film noir book (and there are a lot of them: I have over 50 noir books on my shelves).

The current pro-noir situation is only one instance of a wholesale celebration of the cinematic past as if there had never been a bad movie made in Hollywood. Is there no film so bad it doesn’t deserve a special edition with a making of, the trailer, a booklet, and two or three audio commentaries in which the same film noir specialists pontificate and the surviving filmmaker, regardless of how minuscule his role, is dragged from the the precipice of the grave to have one final day in the sun?

I share a lot of these prejudices. Noir is my favorite genre, and I love collecting the discs and reading up on the films. But at a certain point one has to admit that nor every film out of the past is of equal weight. But in any case, these were the issues plaguing me as I work my way through the new Warner Bros. five-disc, 10-movie set, Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4.

Crime Wave title

Decoy title

The disc people will probably take out first is No. 2, which features Crime Wave, with an audio commentary track featuring crime novelist James Ellroy, along with the related film Decoy. In any case, that’s what I did. Crime Wave (released in 1954, but shot in 1952) proved to be an interesting little policier presented in the documentary mode, with stylistic roots in the Hellinger style of street realism. Shot in only 13 days by notable Hollywood director Andre de Toth for Warner Bros., it is an urgency and rawness that is only accentuated by its brash lighting, especially in the interiors, its tinny, almost drive-in movie level sound production, and its authentic locations.

Crime Wave Hayden

Sterling Hayden is the Robbery-Homicide cop investigating a cheap little gas station knock over that balloons into a manhunt for a team of crooks that includes Charles Bronson (under his real name), Ted de Corsia, and Timothy Carey. It’s worth noting that Hayden, de Corsia, and Carey would appear together again two years later in Kubrick’s The Killing, and that Kubrick’s film may also have borrowed its look from Crime Wave, as the audio commentators point out.

Crime Wave gang

What the yak trackers don’t point out is that Crime Wave has a plot that is an expanded version of a subplot in Michael Mann’s Heat, and that when we first meet the film’s innocent, ordinary couple, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk, they are in bed together, a single bed, not the dual beds the MPAA equivalent demanded. Otherwise, Eddie Muller and his pal Ellroy cover all the film’s bases, from the exact locations where the film was shot to the backgrounds of the film’s cast. Ellroy clearly tickles Muller, who generously and sincerely laughs along with Ellroy’s shtick. Among the things we learn about Ellroy in the two-way chat is that he is self-conscious about going bald, and he thinks that Crime Wave is a better film than Chinatown. It is unclear whether he had ever seen Crime Wave before, however, as Ellroy dissolves into loud canine panting whenever a recognizable location, such as the original Bob’s Big Boy or the LA police department, pops up, as if the film were new to him. On a side note, this track appears, from internal evidence, to have been recorded early in 2006. Is it possible that Warner, in creating this set, combined what would have been two separate boxes, thus holding back a few of the films whose audio commentary tracks might have been more timely if released closer to recording?

Crime Wave de Toth

In addition there is the film’s trailer, and a short new “making of” featuring, for no discernible reason and to no profitable end for the viewer, that pontificating windbag with nothing to say, Richard Shickel. Fortunately he is joined by others who do have something to say, including Oliver Stone, Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, Christopher Coppola (who sounds just like his brother Nicolas Cage), and de Toth himself in archive footage. In any case, Crime Wave is an efficient programer, but I’m not so sure that it is a noir, what with its photorealism and its reasonably happy ending.

Decoy Gillie

Warner Bros has cleverly paired Crime Wave on the same side of the second disc with Decoy, as Decoy is written by one of the actors in Crime Wave, Ned Young, a writer and actor who suffered at the hands of HUAC. It’s a complex tale adapted from a radio play by Stanley Rubin concerning a femme fatale named Margot Shelby (British actress Jean Gillie, who was briefly married to the film’s director Jack Bernhard , and who died a few years later with very little of a film career), who contrives to ensorcel a doctor (stage actor Herbert Rudley ) into reviving her sugar daddy, a dead row inmate (Robert Armstrong), after his execution, so that she and her third lover (Edward Norris ) can dig up the buried loot. The plot isn’t told in an orderly fashion, however. After a mysterious, zombie-film style opening, the tale is told in elaborate flashback form by Shelby to tough guy cop Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who also figures in a lot of her flashback, as she lay dying.

Shelby is touted as filmdom’s cruelest femme fatale, but I didn’t find her so “bad.” Her crime career is carefully motivated, and she kills with less lurid excitement than Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy. She is an entertaining creation, however, because she seems fully fleshed out by the script and by Gillie: literally it seems, as her daring cleavage was commented on by Variety, as the disc points out.

In any case, though Decoy doesn’t bear any of the visual traces we associate with, or should associate with, noir, it does include a essentially moral man whose will is sapped by the demoness who takes down everyone with her in her pursuit of money. But that may be due to the fact that the film was made for Monogram, the so-called poverty row studio, which later became Allied Artists, only to be consumed by Warner, itself in turn consumed by Ted Turner. Hence the film’s presence in the set.

Decoy Rubin

As with all the films in the box, Decoy comes with an audio commentary track, this one with writer and producer Stanley Rubin, hosted by Glenn Erickson, a film editor, filmmaker, and writer (he says on the track that the site DVD Savant is his, while I always thought it was attached to DVDTalk). Erickson is giddily enthusiastic to have Rubin on the air, and solicits many amazing little nuggets of Hollywood lore from him, such as that he almost “discovered Marilyn Monroe, and that he also cast Clint Eastwood in his first movie, years later collaborating with him again on White Hunter, Black Heart. The little making of that follows is shorter than the one for Crime Wave, but features a more interesting selection of pundits, including Dick Cavett and Molly Haskell. But I will have more to say about the pundits and audio commentators for this set in future installments.

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