Before diving into the next set of double features, let’s have a quick refresher on some of the characteristics of film noir.
In addition to film techniques like high contrast lighting and skewed framing, an important feature of noir is the atmosphere created by the story and characters. Two common character types are the loner protagonist, sometimes, but not always, a cynical detective, and the irresistible woman, sometimes, but again, not always, a calculating femme fatale. The world these characters inhabit is often a gritty, urban landscape, filled with greed, corruption, and a sense of foreboding.
This is perhaps why I embrace the idea of noir as a genre. Yes, noir is basically stylized crime melodrama, but there is a lot more to it than style. And, though I have realized through this project that I most often enjoy those noir films that have a “happier” or more romantic ending than others, I truly appreciate noir’s aversion to happy endings and its gritty, subversive nature. That is probably due to my strong sense of justice and the tendency of noir to reinforce the idea that no one can escape the past. Plus, I love a good mystery or puzzle and noir is almost always based on a mystery framework of cross purposes and double crosses.
Speaking of double crosses, let’s take in some other doubles, shall we?
Double Boiler: The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang) and Raw Deal (1948, Anthony Mann)
The Big Heat is the only film noir to date that has made me tear up. Both times. Because, yes, this was one of those films that was good enough to watch again almost immediately. The Big Heat was new to me and I wanted to make sure I saw it mostly because everyone kept posting this GIF of Gloria Grahame to celebrate the arrival of Noirvember.
As one might guess from Grahame’s demeanor here, this is another movie that doesn’t really have a traditional femme fatale. Perhaps that is one reason I liked it so much. As I’ve discovered through this series, I prefer the softer noirs, especially ones with a bit of romance in them, as we will see below.
The basic story of The Big Heat is that Sergeant Dave Bannion, played by Glenn Ford, is investigating local corruption linked to the suicide of a fellow policeman and in so doing becomes a target himself, along with his family. He also becomes entangled with resident thug Lee Marvin, the less-than-sugary sugar daddy of Gloria Grahame—who at one point gets so enraged that he throws a pot of boiling coffee at her, scalding half her face.
But it is hard to capture the charm and savagery of this film in such a brief description, you’ll just have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already.
You’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.
—Gloria Grahame to Glenn Ford in The Big Heat
Raw Deal contains a similar act of savagery to Marvin’s, and is why I initially paired these movies together. In an early scene, soon after we are introduced to a sadistic mobster played by Raymond Burr, he throws a flaming dish of crêpes Suzette at his girlfriend. Yikes. Savagery aside, Raw Deal was not my favorite. I just didn’t buy the characters or story. However, it does have excellent cinematography that is worth a look. It also contains the unusual feature of having voice-over narration by a woman. However, since I couldn’t get into the sappy love triangle presented as the main plot point, I couldn’t be sympathetic to the narration, even though it was Claire Trevor, who I really liked in Murder, My Sweet.
Double Barrel: Laura (1944, Otto Preminger) and His Kind of Woman (1951, John Farrow)
If I could only take one film noir to a desert island screening room, it would be Laura. I’ve long been a fan of this movie, which stars Gene Tierney as Laura, Dana Andrews as the detective investigating her murder (a double-barrel shotgun to the face—ouch!), Vincent Price as her fiancé, Clifton Webb as the witty columnist who narrates much of the story, and Judith Anderson for good measure. I finally read the novel by Vera Caspary last year, and it’s also quite good. This is one of those films that is more about atmosphere than classic noir visuals—and the atmosphere is incredible. Told in flashback, with Laura’s portrait looming over much of the story, we fall under Laura’s spell along with the hard-boiled detective played by Andrews. If you’ve never seen it, drop everything and find a way to watch it. You won’t be sorry.
I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.
—Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Laura
I would count His Kind of Woman among those delightful discoveries of this series, with a caveat: It is rather long and the back end goes on forever. In fact, I was rather confused by the shift in tone and focus until I read that Howard Hughes came in and insisted the film be recut, rewritten, and re-shot. Or, as Jane Russell once put it, “It was a good film until they took John Farrow off and put in this nonsense at the end.” Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell are a great pair and Vincent Price as a hammy actor—who tries to save the day in real life—is hilarious. There is also a terrific cast of bit players. At times, the film really meanders into screwball territory, despite the presence of regular noir heavies like Raymond Burr. I wish more people had easy access to this delightful film.
That was one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen. They ought to make ‘em all like that. None of this nonsense about social matters. People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is. They go there to eat popcorn and be happy.
—Jim Backus as Myron Winton in His Kind of Woman
Double Take: Fallen Angel (1945, Otto Preminger) and The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears)
If most film noirs are simply stylized crime melodramas, Fallen Angel is a noir with the emphasis on the melodrama part. It’s the story of a con man who ends up in a small California town, comes up with a few schemes, and finds himself being pulled into something he didn’t quite count on. It sounds promising but somehow it lacked oomph for me. I’m not sure if it was the acting or the script, I just didn’t quite buy any of it, except for Anne Revere who played Clara, the sister of Alice Faye’s June, and John Carradine, who played Professor Madley.
You got a great calling: spook promotion… I hope to see you in my room later. I have a fine collection of friendly spirits there, Scotch ancestry.
—John Carradine as Professor Madley in Fallen Angel
Since they both focus on con men, I had already decided to pair Fallen Angel with The Grifters when I started looking for their poster images, which, needless to say, seemed to reinforce my decision (see above). However, these films don’t really have too much in common. Set in a very retro-looking Los Angeles, The Grifters is perhaps the most noir of all neo-noirs. Watching it today, it seems somewhat dated, but some of the scenes are just as chilling as when I first saw them.
Double Blind: The Narrow Margin (1952, Richard Fleischer) and Union Station (1950, Rudolph Maté)
When I heard that The Narrow Margin took place entirely on a Chicago-Los Angeles train, I was pretty excited. I love trains, I love books about trains, and I love Silver Streak. Throw in Marie Windsor as a gangster’s widow under police protection heading to L.A. to testify to a grand jury and I am there. Despite not being familiar with the other key players (though lead Charles McGraw had a small role in His Kind of Woman), I loved this one. It is a great story that you probably don’t want to know too much about going into it. Suffice it to say that it is extremely tense and probably the most Hitchcockian of the films I’ve watched so far.
I sing my song for the grand jury, and spend the rest of my life dodging bullets… if I’m lucky! While you grow old and gray on the police force. Oh, wake up… This train’s headed straight for the cemetery. But there’s another one coming along, a gravy train. Let’s get on it.
—Marie Windsor as Mrs. Neall in The Narrow Margin
Union Station also revolves around trains. And, much like The Narrow Margin, this is more of a thriller than pure noir. Set mostly in Chicago’s Union Station, the plot centers on a railroad policeman played by William Holden, who is approached by a train passenger, Joyce (Nancy Olson), who suspects that two travelers aboard her train are up to no good. It later turns out that her boss’s blind daughter has been kidnapped and Union Station becomes the location to pay off the ransom. The plot is rather ridiculous, and the film has some odd tonal shifts, but there are some great set pieces, including a pursuit through the El, and some lovely moments between Holden and Olson.
Double or Nothing: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Tay Garnett) and Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky)
The first time I saw The Postman Always Rings Twice was for a large introductory film class where I was the reader (that is, I read and graded student papers and exams for the professor). It was my first teaching assistant position in graduate school. Grading papers for 100 students at a time was brutal, but it certainly taught me a lot about the grading process and at least the assignments were fairly interesting. However, the first assignment, which was to analyze a single shot from the first five minutes of either of the week’s films, almost proved to be my undoing. The two films were adaptations of the same novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which the students also read. To start with, almost no one chose to write about the other film, Ossessione, Luchino Visconti’s first feature film. And then almost everyone else chose to write about the same shot: the lipstick rolling across the floor. It is one of the greatest shots in all of noir, but after about 75 papers on the topic, I was pretty darn sick of it. I hadn’t seen the film since.
So I wasn’t sure what I would think when I watched it again. Mostly I kept thinking how much Lana Turner looks like Beyoncé. It was really distracting. [Side note: After a quick internet search, I was happy to see I wasn’t alone in this.] Anyway, this is really great noir, with some interesting twists and turns, although it gets bogged down in court shenanigans about two-thirds of the way through.
Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing a man’s car, that’s larceny.
—John Garfield as Frank in The Postman Always Rings Twice
I have to admit that Force of Evil is probably my least favorite of this series so far. Although I think John Garfield actually gives a much better performance here than in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the plot just isn’t interesting at all and I hated the female lead. The script seems to be aiming for a poetic morality play, and relies heavily on biblical allusions, but the locations and shooting style don’t quite match up with that. Plus, I found it hard to follow at times. Perhaps the biggest crime of all is that it gives Marie Windsor so little screen time. It does have some great cinematographic moments, but there were too few to sustain my interest in the narrative.
Not the best note to end on, but still, this was a pretty good collection of films as a whole.
Tune in next time when I take on such classics as The Lady from Shanghai and new-to-me selections like The Blue Dahlia and Ace in the Hole. In the meantime, if you have a lesser-known classic film noir that you would like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.
Fallen Angel (1945)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Force of Evil (1948)
Raw Deal (1948)
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Union Station (1950)
The Narrow Margin (1952)
The Big Heat (1953)
The Grifters (1990)