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Friday Five: 5 Nifty Noir Films from Before 1955

Do you want to watch some film noir?

I hope so, because I have five films to suggest. Films about dames gone wrong, poor doomed saps, murders, sex and modern knights errant. I suppose, to me, noir films are shadowy films about darkness seeping in and seeping out. If you like these films, you might want to look a little more into the filmographies of Jacques Tourneur, Ida Lupino, Edgar Ulmer, Nicholas Ray, and John Sturges.

Meanwhile, beware of spoilers. I tried to keep some secrets, but in the end, I'm a femme fatale. I've always got my own game going. 


Out Of The Past / Build My Gallows High (1947) (Jacques Tourneur)


Some people, most people even, think of Double Indemnity (1944) as the quintessential film noir, but my Double Indemnity is Out Of The Past. It stars Robert Mitchum as private detective Jeff Bailey. (90% of Mitchum's characters are named, “Jeff” no matter what IMDb says).

Jeff was hired by a man of clearly illegal means, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to recover his special lady, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). But Jeff isn't sure that Whit loves Kathie, especially after it turns out she shot Whit and stole $40,000 from him. Whit assures Jeff that Kathie's too valuable for him to kill. He even compares her to a thoroughbred horse. So Jeff heads off to Acapulco, where he finds Kathie. And that's where Jeff gets in too deep. Jeff is in love - or in obsession with - Kathie. Even when she tries to tell him she's bad, he says, in one of the best line deliveries in all of film noir, “Baby, I don't care.” They run away together, but it starts to go bad when Jeff's old private investigation partner finds them. Kathie seems to like violence a little too much—she shoots Jeff's partner and flees. Jeff doesn't follow. 

One of the reasons I like Mitchum so much is that he's one of the few film noir heroes who sees his doom coming down the tracks and tries to get away. In Where Danger Lives (1950), Mitchum's Jeff is a doctor who's trying to get out of a messy not-exactly-love triangle with Faith Domergue and Claude Raines. But before he can make a clean getaway, he is conked on the head, leading to a concussion and some impaired decision-making. In Angel Face (1952), he plays a man not named Jeff who is trying to extricate himself from a relationship with a dangerously obsessive young woman (Jean Simmons). Except she's his boss' daughter and he is a live-in chauffeur. He does get as far as packing his suitcase, but makes the mistake of giving in to her plea to wait a few days.

Out Of The Past actually begins with Jeff out of it. He has his own gas station. He even has an employee (Dickie Moore). And he has a nice girlfriend named Ann (Virginia Huston) who doesn't seem interested in watching men beat the hell out of each other at all. He's escaped the event horizon of Kathie and Whit's nasty relationship. But Whit has sent someone for Jeff, and there's an implicit threat against not only Jeff, but his gas station, his friend and his girl. So Jeff goes back, because that's what noir heroes do. And I'm okay with that because it's a pleasure to see Robert Mitchum's low-key acting against Douglas' edgy, jovial Whit and Greer's watchful, calculating Kathie, working with what she has to get out from under Whit's thumb. It's a gorgeous film, classic noir black shadows with a femme fatale in white. And director Jacques Tourneur is one of my favorite directors. He made a bunch of films that straddle the line between horror and psychological thrillers, including Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon (1957).

The Hitch-hiker (1953) (Ida Lupino)


The Hitch-hiker shares cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca with Out Of The Past, but it's a brighter film, set in the chapparal of Baja California, Mexico. It's directed by Ida Lupino, who, along with Collier Young and Robert L. Johnson, adapted a story by Out Of The Past's then-blacklisted screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring. Lupino was an actress, but she was also one of classic Hollywood's few female directors.

 The Hitch-hiker opens with the statement:   

This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours - or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.

Then we shift to the view a man standing on the road, most of his figure is hidden. Two men stop to pick him up thinking he's had car trouble and that the car he's standing next to is his. Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are on a fishing trip and had decided to drive into Mexico instead of driving on to the Chocolate Mountains in California, where they had told their wives they were going. Why they wouldn't go to some place called the Chocolate Mountains is way beyond me. But it turns out that they're also thinking about maybe taking in some of the sassier shows in Tijuana.

It's in Mexico that they pick up Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers' character is based on Billy Cook, who killed six people between December, 1950 and 1951. The murders were very recent when The Hitch-hiker was made and many of the story elements are drawn directly from the story, including Myer's eye that cannot close. (Intriguingly, Cook had “HARD LUCK” tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand. You can see it in the Life Magazine photos reprinted in Time's “Billy 'Cockeyed' Cook: Portrait of an American Spree-Killer”). Lupino even interviewed  one of the two traveling salesmen who Cook had kidnapped.  

In the film, Myers taunts and torments the men, driving them to emotional extremes. He tries to play them against each other, even forcing one to shoot at the other. He forces them to drive him to Santa Rosalia, where he believes he can escape the manhunt he's been tracking via radio bulletins. But Myers hasn't reckoned with the fine people of Mexico and the Mexican police, particularly Capt. Alvarado (José Torvay).

One the things I like best about this film is that not only do Mexican actors play Mexican characters, but that the Mexican characters are not caricatures or racist stereotypes. I also appreciate that the Spanish dialogue is not translated, though even if you don't speak Spanish, the meaning and implications  are clear. Lupino's also fantastic at building tension and dread, two main components of a fine noir film. And I appreciate the humanity of Collins and Bowen. While in a lot of ways The Hitch-hiker is a film about masculinity, Collins and Bowen are not impervious heroes representing the finest of American masculine virtue, they're two middle class, middle-aged white guys who pick up trouble on the road and must figure out how to survive under evil's constant, baleful gaze. 

Detour (1945) (Edgar Ulmer)


Detour is another film about the dangers of hitchhiking and about guys who just can't imagine themselves ever being victims. This time, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a pianist in a juke joint, decides to follow his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) to Los Angeles. Sue left town to take a chance on making the big time as a singer. Al had been kind of passive-aggressive about it and stayed behind.

Al decides the most cost effective way to reach L.A. is to hitchhike. He's is picked up by Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a beefy and hearty but also jovially threatening man. Haskell tells him about the hellcat he just let off. “I got that dueling,” Haskell says about a gash on his forearm. Haskell tells him a lot of vaguely creepy things, things that would have most women figuring out how to leave without setting Haskell off. Al has no sense, though, and rides along even after he has the chance to get away at a diner.   

Instead, after dinner, Al takes the wheel while Haskell sleeps. When it starts to rain, Al goes to wake Haskell, but discovers the man has died. In a voiceover, Al explains his reasons for dragging Haskell's body into the desert. The police will believe Al has killed Haskell if he doesn't. Al explains that Haskell doesn't need his money anymore. And Al almost sounds reasonable. A victim of circumstance or fate. Like it could happen to anyone and anyone would have to make these choices. Al even explains that he needs to take Haskell's ID because his own doesn't match the driver's registration in Haskell's car. If he doesn't, the police will think Al killed Haskell and stole his car. Al decides it's better for him to become Charlie Haskell Jr. and ditch the car once he's reached L.A. and Sue. But then Al picks up a hitchhiker of his own, Vera, played with fantastic venomousness and brutally sharp eyebrows by Ann Savage.

Vera thinks she sees right through Al - and she might be right about him. She tells him they should sell the car. And when they find out that Haskell's coming into a big inheritance, she tells Al he should be Charlie Haskell Jr. for just a little while longer. For his part, Al tells us that everything that goes wrong in his life is just fate dealing him a dirty hand.  

When I first saw Detour, I was disappointed that it seemed like it had a tacked on ending assuring us all that crime pays and the guilty will be caught. But then I realized the voiceover and the arrival of the police in the end undermines Al's story, because it's the story he's telling the police, not a story we're seeing with our own eyes. A short, sharp film that makes me wonder more and more.

In A Lonely Place (1950) (Nicholas Ray)


Screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is having a tough time ever since the war ended. None of his recent screenplays have been hits. He's bitter, angry and filled with self-pity. He's drinking too much. He punches out people who can make life hard for him professionally. In fact, despite his sense of fairness, he has a long rap sheet of assaults.

His only chance of getting something going in Hollywood again is by adapting a novel he thinks is beneath him and a waste of his talent. So after getting into two fights at his favorite bar, he asks the hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) to come back to his apartment to tell him the plot of the book. She loves it - and he can't bear to read it. His suspicions that he hates the book confirmed, Dix sends Atkinson home with cab fare and retires to his nightly alcoholic stupor.

The next morning, he's awoken by his old army friend, Det. Brub Nicolai, and told that Atkinson has been murdered. Despite the fights of the previous evening and his wrap sheet, Dix lucks out. His neighbor across his apartment complex's courtyard, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), says she saw Atkinson leave by herself.

While Dix has been looking at Laurel, Laurel's been looking at Dix. And with this introduction, they settle quickly into a relationship without much concern for conventional morality. Not that it's really risqué, though there's a strong implication that Laurel is bisexual. (And there's some suspicion that a stock butch Lesbian might've killed Atkinson because she's jealous of Dix' attentions (titter) to Laurel). Dix and Laurel are both adults. They've both been around. And they both think they know what they're getting into. Dix stops drinking and starts writing. But after one scary car ride where Dix demonstrates how he would kill Atkinson - that then ends with Dix nearly beating another driver to death with a rock, Laurel is scared that he might kill her. And it doesn't help that she's not sure that Dix is innocent. But the thing is, they do love each other, it's just that Dix might be a man who needs to kill, who might enjoy it. And the fear is too much for Laurel. 

In A Lonely Place is an adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' eponymous novel. The novel is even darker than the film, and I recommend both. As well as all the Hughes you can get your hands on.  

Mystery Street (1950) (John Sturges)


Ricardo Montalban is one of those actors whose career was so clearly constrained by racism. Sometimes, in the strangest places, there are visions of what might have been if his possibilities weren't so circumscribed. His voice work in the dubbed American version Franz Peter Wirth's 1960 Hamlet, for example, is remarkable. (The voice actors were directed by notable noir director Edward Dmytryk).

I suspect that, with Mystery Street, Montalban was attempting to make a shift in his own career. In the 1940s, he performed in a lot of musicals and starred in three with Esther Williams. He played the Latin lover in romantic movies and was even in one called, of course, Latin Lovers (1953). In Mystery Street, Montalban plays Boston police detective Pete Morales. When a skeleton is found on the beach, Morales is called in. He begins an investigation using the modern techniques of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) and Harvard's “Department of Legal Medicine.” (They are not so modern that they can escape the Motion Picture Code, and so must explain how to determine a skeleton's sex without mentioning the poor woman's pelvis.)  

It's fun to see early forensic science and a prototypical police procedural. It's even more fun to see the fantastic Elsa Lanchester as the murdered woman's landlady, Mrs. Smerrling. Montalban even gets to pretend he doesn't see Mrs. Smerrling's collection of beefcake musclemen pinned up around her mirror. Unfortunately for everyone, Mrs. Smerrling decides not to tell Detective Morales everything she knows. Instead, she uses the knowledge she gleans from him to fund a trip to Europe with some quick blackmailing.

It's a fairly straight-forward story, but it's well-made. John Alton's cinematography is beautiful. And it's nice to see Ricardo Montalban play a police detective - his Pete Morales is humane and compassionate. He just wants justice for the dead Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). And it's nice to watch a movie from the 1950s that doesn't provide a justification for a Latino detective. He's just damn good at his job, bringing modern methods to his work in hopes of doing right by one murdered woman.


Carol Borden's reviews can be found at The Cultural Gutter. Her fiction - including several noir offerings - can be found in The Girl at the End of the World, Drag Noir, Noir Carnival and elsewhere on this site.

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