The term “film noir” didn’t exist in the 1940s and early 1950s. The late Larry Gelbart, who wrote the noir-inspired stage musical City of Angels, once told me that back then “film” was something you got if you didn’t brush your teeth. People went to “the movies.” But ever since the term was taken up by American film buffs and scholars in the 1970s it has created a special allure for those dark, hard-boiled melodramas that studios ground out so effortlessly in the post-War era. What’s more, since today’s audiences have no trouble digesting cynicism, these films seem positively modern as opposed to the apple-pie wholesomeness of other Hollywood product from the period.
The ongoing popularity of noir has impelled studios and distributors to dig deep into their vaults and inspired some exceptional writing and scholarship. Editors Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini and Robert Porfirio have expanded and updated their landmark 1979 volume The Film Noir Encyclopedia (Overlook Press). There are many new entries, overview essays, and a section on—
—“neo-noir.” The entries themselves vary in quality, as they were written by a number of contributors, some savvier than others, and some better writers. I don’t know if any one volume on this vast subject could be called definitive, but this is certainly an important book to have on your shelf.
I find these films singularly compelling and I’m glad so many continue to make their way to DVD. VCI and Kit Parker Films have restored, and released, the independent production New York Confidential (1955) which has never been on video before. It’s interesting and disappointing at the same time: interesting for its superficial attempt to “blow the lid” off the dirty secret of how organized crime has infiltrated its way into mainstream America, disappointing in its obvious plotting and mediocre staging. Russell Rouse wasn’t much of a director, and his second-string cinematographer Eddie Fitzgerald didn’t give him any help in conceiving dynamic camera angles or setups. In sharp contrast to a steady stream of vigorous dialogue, the movie looks flat.
It is fun to watch Broderick Crawford spit out his lines with a speed and ferocity few actors could ever match. Never mind that he’s supposed to be Italian and doesn’t look or sound it. The young actress who plays his daughter, Anna Maria Italiano—better known as Anne Bancroft—all but steals the film, because seen today her naturalism and underplaying pulls the rug out from under the Hollywood veterans who surround her.
Bancroft’s cool demeanor—with emotions simmering just under the surface—also serve another movie well from this period. Nightfall (1957) has just made its DVD debut as part of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 2 (Sony) and it’s a welcome opportunity to call attention to this underrated picture. Aldo Ray stars as an ordinary guy who meets Bancroft in a Hollywood bar, thinks they’ve hit it off, then gets abducted by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond—and believes she helped them. The thugs are after Ray because he supposedly knows the location of a cache of stolen money. Meanwhile, insurance investigator James Gregory is on Ray’s tail. The tough, well-plotted story plays out in the present day and a series of flashbacks, seamlessly guided by director Jacques Tourneur on a variety of interesting locations in Los Angeles and Wyoming, well photographed by Burnett Guffey. (I first saw the film at the Noir City Festival several years ago, and like my fellow audience members, took delight in realizing that the opening scenes of Hollywood at night were shot just around the corner from the Egyptian Theater, where we were watching the picture!)
Nightfall is a well-paced, 78-minute B-plus movie with no pretensions whatsoever. It’s also thoroughly satisfying because it has everything one could ask of a movie: an original, unpredictable story, tart dialogue, crisp direction, and a first-rate cast. This was only the second feature-film credit for screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who was in the early stages of a prolific career in film and television. He had a good blueprint from which to work, a story by David Goodis, who is best remembered as the author of the novel that became Shoot the Piano Player.
So many of today’s films are more interested in sensation than storytelling, it’s refreshing to step into a world where the writer takes over and creates both characters and atmosphere that draw you in. I’ll discuss more film noir releases in my next posting.