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Tag Archives: Film Noir

He Walked By Night (1948)

Richard Basehart shoots at the police

He Walked By Night is a crime procedural/film noir. What mostly makes it noir is the stunning cinematography of Robert Alton. And the fact that the film was mostly directed (though he didn’t receive screen credit) by Anthony Mann.

The film follows the investigation of the L.A. police into the murder of one of their own police officers by a skilled burglar, Roy (Richard Basehart), who has the police baffled and seemingly unable to track him down. Scott Brady is Sgt. Marty Brennan, a good friend of the murdered police officer, determined to be the one to find the killer. Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) provides the authority, Jack Webb is the forensics expert, and Whit Bissell is the electronics dealer duped by Roy into selling stolen wares.

It’s very much an ensemble piece and we never get to know anyone well. Even the motives of the killer, Roy, remain opaque. We know he’s a psychopath, brilliant, knows electronics and radio, but we are never sure what  he wants or why he’s doing what he does.

The film feels like a documentary at times. There is even a super-serious narrator to lend an aura of authenticity. We are assured at the beginning of the film that what we are watching is a true story, only the names have been changed. The story was actually inspired by a real incident involving a veteran of WWII, who’s exploits were chronicled in the newspapers.

The stand-out performance is definitely by Richard Basehart, a chilling presence who nevertheless manages to make you feel his paranoia and fear when he’s on the run or removing a bullet from his side.

Removing a bullet – you can’t help but cringe in sympathy

That scene were Roy extracts a bullet from his side is perhaps the most remarkable scene of the film, except the drainage system finale. He’s shot by the police and nearly caught, and so has to remove the bullet himself. What makes it a remarkable scene is how Anthony Mann stages it. The camera stays unflinchingly focused on Basehart’s face, dripping with sweat and twisted in pain, as he probes for the bullet.

Instead of focusing on the wound, we are focused on his face, which is probably Code dictated, since excessive gore was not allowed. But the effect is to focus the audience, not on the wound, but on Roy’s reaction to the wound. It forces us into his shoes and I found myself squirming as I watched his face and couldn’t help imagining myself trying to do something similar. It’s an example of how showing a character’s reaction to something can be more powerful than seeing the actual something. A wound has no intrinsic emotional meaning (apart from the gross factor) unless we see what its effect is on a person. It’s intense and well acted by Basehart.

The police procedural was a pretty new genre and would, after WWII, become increasingly popular both in fiction and TV. It never became as common as a film genre, though John Sturges also directed another fine early police procedural in 1950 called Mystery Street, starring Ricardo Montalban. It could be argued, with its primary focus on evidence and detection rather than character, that it works better as a TV episode than a full length film. He Walked By Night itself is only 79 minutes. Interestingly, Jack Webb, who plays the forensics expert in He Walked By Night, would produce and star in Dragnet, the TV series from the 1950s that is often credited with popularizing and even defining the police procedural.

There are noir aspects to He Walked By Night, however. It’s set in L.A., the home of film noir and hard boiled detective fiction. The post war focus on human corruption is also present, with war equipment, navy electronic equipment, a German Luger, and war veterans floating around the criminal underworld. But what really gives the film its noirish aspects is the cinematography by Robert Alton. His cinematography style could practically define Noir.

An example of Alton’s use of lighting

Instead of the blanket lighting approach – where sets were illuminated from above to highlight everything in the scene – Alton chose to light his sets by carefully hiding lights in select locations. The result was that his sets appeared to be lit by sources of light from within the scene, like lamps, matches, and flashlights.

He also would light his sets darker than anything I’ve ever seen on film. Almost pitch black at times, especially in the drainage tunnels. The crispness of his black and white photography is beautiful. It elevates simple scenes of streets and tunnels to poetry. Rarely has a city look so beautiful.

The end of the film is the highlight, however, when Roy flees into the drainage system of L.A.. Drains and sewage systems have always been an exciting place for a showdown. Victor Hugo got the ball rolling in 1862, with the confrontation between Jean Valjean and Javert in the sewers of Paris.  Interestingly, the characters of both Valjean and Javert were inspired by the memoirs of Eugene Vidocq, a convict turned police inspector, known for his undercover work. His memoirs inspired many early writers, from Hugo to Poe to Emile Gaboriau (who may have inspired Conan Doyle).

Apart from the many film versions of Les Miserables, in 1949, Orson Welles would meet a picturesque end in the sewers of Vienna, while giant mutant ants have to be battled in the very same drainage pipes of L.A. in the 1954 Them! Drains and sewers have been good to cinema.

Below are some examples of the gorgeous work of Robert Alton.

Richard Basehart loads his gun

Into the drain

Because the dog is so cute – Roy’s dog

Roy dives for the drain culvert

An example of just how dark the screen could often be – Roy runs down the drains

The police wear gas masks

Roy lights a match

The police prepare to surround Roy’s house

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2017 in Movies

 

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What Does Kathie Moffat Want?

jane-greer

Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat…contemplating murder

The first time I saw Out of the Past, I had never seen a film noir before and was not aware that I was watching one of the quintessential films of the (dare I called it?) genre. And the film did not make much of an impression on me at the time.

It was Double Indemnity that really got me going and after many years I thought it was time that I gave Out of the Past another chance. I enjoyed it much more this time. But one question still tantalizes me. What does Kathie Moffat, the femme fatale played by Jane Greer, really want?

Generally, femme fatales have pretty specific goals. Phyllis Dietrichson wants money. Brigid O’Shaunessy wants the Falcon (and money). Mrs. Grayle wants to be free of her past so she can go on enjoying money and men. But what is Kathie’s overarching goal?

This is a puzzler, because she behaves in such a contradictory fashion. She shoots gambler Whit (played by Kirk Douglas) and steals $40,000, running off to Mexico. When she is tracked down by private detective Jeff (Robert Mitchum), instead of giving him the slip, she hangs around and starts an affair with him. She even returns to American and hides out with him in shady places (not something I could ever imagine Phyllis Dietrichson doing – she’d have skipped town and gone to South America). When Jeff’s former partner shows up and tries to blackmail them, she shoots him and Jeff suddenly realizes that she’s not as innocent as he had believed (he believed that she did NOT steal the $40,000).

Now without Jeff, she returns to Whit, who she seems to not like very much. When Jeff comes back into their lives, she tries to have him framed for murder and later just plain murdered. Finally, when backed in a corner by Jeff AND Whit, she shoots Whit and blackmails Jeff into going away with her, saying that she always did find him a kindred spirit. When Jeff betrays her, she shoots him, too.

So, what are her motivations? Money? Doesn’t seem to be her main one. She stole that $40,000, but she seemed perfectly willing to stay in hiding with Jeff instead of dashing off to greener pastures. Their scenes are played like a romance movie. She’s always coming out of the sunlight, moonlight, headlights, running in the sand in her bare feet with her hair down like a woman renewed while Roy Webb’s romantic score romances away.

jane_greer-328125519_stdShe says she’s afraid of Whit (assertions one has to take with a salt flat), but Whit’s attitude towards her is more one of possession than the bedazzled fascination of Jeff, so perhaps there’s some truth to what she says. But after all her running and hiding from Whit, even shooting Jeff’s partner when he threatens to tell Whit about them…she just returns to Whit and tells him everything about her and Jeff?

My sister’s theory is that she doesn’t have a specific goal; she’s living in the moment. She gets tired of Whit’s overbearing ways, so she shoots him and takes enough money to cover expenses (gambling and clothes and such). She’s attracted to Jeff, so she hangs around. She shoots Jeff’s partner, because he threatened her in the moment. Jeff loses his illusions about her, so she goes back to Whit. She kills Whit and has Jeff in her power – why not take him along with her?

It all seems rather unpremeditated. The only consistent thing I can see is that she likes to be in charge (and who can blame her). Still, it make Kathie Moffat a bit of an enigma and prevents her from seeming like a total force of evil. She’s mostly reacting to the moment and she doesn’t come off as any worse than anyone else. She’s a sociopath, but…I don’t know. Somehow, I found myself kind of on her side. Maybe it’s Robert Mitchum. Maybe he’s just too cool for me. Somehow, I rarely find myself firmly rooting for him in any of his films. It’s not that I dislike him or think he’s a bad actor. It’s just that I never quite make the leap towards being fully, emotionally on his side.

But what about you? What do you think Kathie Moffat really wants?

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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Pitfall (1948) and Raymond Burr

Poster - Pitfall (1948)_09Two words to describe Raymond Burr in Pitfall are menace and ooze. He oozes menace, but he also just oozes. You almost shudder whenever you see him. When Lizabeth Scott’s Mona tells Dick Powell’s Johnny that she’s “seen some weird ones in [her] time, but that one frightened [her] half to death,” I believe her.

I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr as the upstanding Perry Mason, so I was mildly surprised to discover that before his career defining TV show, he often played villains in film noir. And not just villains, but nasty villains. Creepy, brutal, hulking, psycho villains. His MacDonald in Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is one of his nastiest.

Pitfall is something of a downer, even for film noirs. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) is an insurance agent who must reclaim for the insurance company all the items that a man named Smiley (Byron Barr) bought for his girlfriend using stolen money. Johnny is bored with his life, his wife (Jane Wyatt), but mostly it seems with himself. When he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the girlfriend of Smiley, she snaps him out of his funk by demanding he not just be an insurance automaton, but a human being with sympathy. They embark on a brief affair, until she discovers that he’s married. She’s deeply hurt, but is too nice a person to make a stink about it and all seems to be over.

Except there’s MacDonald (Burr). He’s a private detective who was hired by Johnny’s company to find out what Smiley did with the stolen money and he’s decided that he’s in love. Mona is not interested, but MacDonald is not put off. He stalks her and when she threatens to go to the police, he threatens to tell Johnny’s wife about the affair. Once again, Mona is simply too nice a person to want to ruin Johnny and asks Johnny what she should do. But instead of telling Mona to go to the police, he says he’ll take care of it. He’s too scared to tell his wife or own up to his own actions, even though his wife knows something is wrong. His continued refusal to admit what he’s done causes Mona’s life, as well as his own, to spiral out of control.

Amazingly, everyone’s gut instinct seems to be to cover up. Johnny tells a friend of his what he’s done and his friend advises Johnny not to tell his wife (never mind that keeping Johnny’s secret is giving MacDonald leverage over Mona). Even Johnny’s wife’s initial reaction when she finally finds out what is going on is to demand Johnny not tell the police. In a telling scene where Johnny’s son has a nightmare, Johnny thinks it’s caused by the comic books he reads and tells him the secret to not having bad dreams is to essentially only look at nice things (ignoring the fact that his son is probably picking up on the unspoken tension in the house).

this scene never actually occurs in the film

this scene never actually occurs in the film

But MacDonald is a menace that cannot be ignored, covered up or dealt with by oneself. Johnny tries to play the tough guy and frighten MacDonald away, but MacDonald is not really deterred by that. He’s not deterred by anything. He honestly doesn’t seem to appreciate how repulsive he is to others, especially Mona. He really believes that if he can get rid of the men in Mona’s life then she would go away with him (as Princess Leia said, “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain”). He’s a cunning man at exploiting people’s weaknesses, but in many ways he’s completely obtuse.

Of course, if everyone had simply gone to the police, the film would have been over halfway through and a lot of heartache, violence and betrayal could have been avoided. Dick Powell is possibly at his least sympathetic in this film, with his tendency to feel sorry for himself and his inability to deal with things squarely (like telling Mona he’s married, telling his wife what is going on – as his wife tells him, “either it’s a marriage or it isn’t” – and the way he tries to save his own skin and leaves Mona with few options in dealing with MacDonald). He covers one lie with another and betrays so many people, there’s no way he can ease his conscience by the end. He’s just going to have to live with himself. It’s an excellent performance.

I really like Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall, too. She’s often compared with Lauren Bacall, but in this film she is warmer, more vulnerable, and looks like a person who has been kicked around a lot by life and other men. But she’s also a thoroughly nice, sympathetic person and she ends up being the real victim of the film.

In the case of Raymond Burr, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, being sleazier, slimier, more sure of himself. When he visits Mona’s workplace where she models gowns and makes her model several for him, your skin crawls. There is no ambiguity about his character – he is pure evil. Ironically, he used to work with the police force and likes to position himself as being “in” with the police, but at the same time a simple call to the police probably would have solved everything. Is he meant to be symbolic? The dark side of the system (government, authority)? Moral rot? A presence that boredom, fear and insecurity allows to assert itself? Whatever he is, Raymond Burr makes him one of the creepiest villains in film noir.

This post is part of “The Great Villain Blogathon.” My thanks to Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings for hosting! Be sure to check out all the other villainous posts, here.

villain-2016-anderson

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Movies

 

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