There’s never been a better excuse to watch as many noir films as humanly possible than the cinephile community’s current favorite portmanteau. Deadshirt has decided to throw in with a month of essays highlighting some of our favorite works in the pantheon for Noirvember…
The classic cycle of noir (as highlighted in a previous article of mine) was very much reflective of its era–the paranoia of post-WWII America and the sense of desperation in an unfamiliar world runs rampant throughout the genre. This sense of loss can be found everywhere from the bright lights of Hollywood, to a private detective’s office, to a border town.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.
Many noir films (perhaps the majority) were B-movies in their day, only given their proper due when French scholars defined and studied the genre well after their run in theaters. Sunset Boulevard is one of the outliers in this regard, since it was a mainstream movie with a truckload of star power. Nonetheless, it is still a full fledged noir, with dark tones and voiceover narration, with its look at the seedy underbelly of success, and its characters getting caught by fate and their own hubris. It’s also quite possibly the definitive film about Hollywood, by one of the biggest names in Hollywood and noir: Billy Wilder.
Sunset Boulevard follows Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter mired in debt. When fleeing from repo men who are after his car, he blows a tire and swerves into the driveway of a derelict looking mansion owned by former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). Norma still believes herself to be a star, despite the public moving away from her, and has written a script with which she plans to return to the screen. The script is awful, but Joe convinces her to hire him as a script doctor so he can escape his debts. Joe moves into Norma’s mansion, and the two slowly become codependent. He needs her money and security, and she needs his companionship to stave off her isolation. Joe later learns that Max has been going to great length to preserve Norma’s delusions of grandeur, to the point where he’s been writing most of her fan mail. Meanwhile, behind Norma’s back, Joe starts working with Paramount script reader Betty Schaefer on one of Joe’s rejected scripts, and they start to develop a relationship, despite the fact that Betty is dating one of Joe’s best friends. The cycle of lies and codependence continues until it comes to a fatal end.
The film isn’t so much a tribute to Hollywood with dark undertones (which was far more common in those days) than it is an outright skewering of it. Hollywood changed so fast in those days, even faster than it does today, that even the brightest star was due for a collapse. One of the more poignant scenes in the film is a card game between Norma and the “waxworks”–other silent film stars who never made the transition to talkies–Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner. All giant stars in their time, forgotten by Hollywood when the times changed.
Sunset Boulevard remains one of the most brilliantly cast movies in Hollywood history. Gloria Swanson plays the role to a level of brilliance seldom seen on screen, in part because she was Norma Desmond. During the early years of Paramount, Swanson was one of their biggest stars. She lived on Sunset in a mansion, and never made the transition to talkies. Holden’s chemistry with newcomer Nancy Olson was so strong that Paramount paired them up in three movies over the next year. The film was also a career zenith for her; other than her roles in the Absent-Minded Professor a decade later and a part in disaster film Airport 1975, she wasn’t able to parlay her bit in Sunset into anything bigger. And though von Stroheim hated his role, there’s no denying the power of his performance as the authoritative German butler.
The cinematography is brilliant for its era. For the opening shot of Joe dead in the pool, Wilder set up a series of mirrors to get the proper shot without damaging his equipment. Cinematographer John Seitz would sprinkle dust in front of the camera for effect, giving scenes the right level of mystique.
Despair can be found even in one of the brightest places in the country: the spotlights and marquees of Hollywood. And even when you have everything you ever wanted, you can still find yourself trapped. Fate is not your friend.
Touch of Evil (1958)
An old lady on Main Street last night picked up a shoe. The shoe had a foot in it. We’re gonna make you pay for that mess.
The classic noir cycle shares a few similarities with the WWE WWF’s “Attitude Era.” It’s nearly impossible to pin down the exact moment either of them started; their tropes and characters are so iconic that even people who aren’t familiar with the genres will recognize them, and they both have a near universally agreed upon endpoint. For the Attitude Era, it’s Wreslemania X-Seven. For film noir, it’s Touch of Evil. (By my math, this also means Bogart is Steve Austin, The Maltese Falcon is King Of The Ring 1996, and Double Indemnity is the Montreal Screwjob.)
Touch of Evil came out just as noir was becoming aware of itself. The genre’s tropes were now well known instead of being accidentally used or copied from similar films. Like so many of Orson Welles’ films, the original version was sliced against his wishes, but was eventually posthumously restored to something close to his vision.
Touch of Evil follows Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Mike is forced to interrupt their honeymoon after he witnesses a carbombing–the car exploded on the US side of the border, while the bomb was planted on the Mexican side. Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) takes charge of the case on the US side and quickly arrests a suspect, but Vargas catches him planting evidence, only to have Quinlan wave off his accusations. Vargas begins a campaign to find out more about Quinlan’s corruption. Meanwhile, the Grandi crime family, against whom Vargas had been mounting a case in Mexico city, use this opportunity to strike at him.
It’s a story with intrigue, police corruption, crime, and questions about whether the ends justify the means.
It also features quintessential mid-career Orson Welles: overweight, intimidating, grumpy, loud, and concerned about his legacy. This is paralleled in Quinlan’s behavior. At one point he visits a brothel he used to frequent, but the owner (played by the incomparable Marlene Dietrich) barely recognizes him. One of the final lines of the film–“What does it matter what you say about people?”–comes across as Welles trying to reaffirm that he knows he is what he is and doesn’t need anyone’s approval.
It’s impossible to talk about Touch Of Evil without mentioning the opening scene. Noir has many great long takes (the robbery scene from Gun Crazy comes to mind) but this tops them all. The three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot ranks among the all-time great shots in cinema history. During this long take we get a look at several vibrant city blocks, cars and their drivers, people walking about town, Heston and Leigh talking with border patrol agents, all complete with distance shots, close up, and constant movement. All of this is done while following one car through town without directly focusing on it. I’d go so far as to say the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas wouldn’t exist without this scene.
Touch of Evil reaffirms how much of a debt the cinema world owes to Orson Welles. He was ahead of his time while being completely in tune with it.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
You want to avenge the death of your dear friend. How touching. How sweet. How nicely it justifies your quest for the great whatsit.
Few things are more identified with film noir than detectives, and few are more iconic than Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, perhaps the pulpiest hardboiled detectives of his era. Even though he’s featured in only three movies made during noir’s classic cycle, his name should ring at least a few bells, likely because he punched those bells. With his fists. He was violent, is what I’m saying.
Kiss Me Deadly starts with Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) giving a lift to a woman (Cloris Leachman, in her film debut) who is clearly on the run. They get attacked by thugs, who kill the woman before putting them both in his car and pushing them off a cliff. When Hammer wakes up in the hospital, he dedicates himself to pursuing the case, both of out vengeance and out of the suspicion that there’s something larger at stake. With the help of his assistant/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper), he begins his search for the woman’s murderers and “the great whatsit”–despite many forces, including the police, attempting to stop him.
The film is pure pulp, with sexy blondes, tough detectives, police corruption, a chase for a MacGuffin, and a villainous conspiracy. Like many noirs, there’s an argument to be made that it’s more about the method of investigation than the investigation itself, but both are compelling and raw. Kiss Me Deadly is also quite violent for its era and genre. One of the first scenes in the film features a woman getting tortured to death barely off screen. A key character, who basically acts as comic relief, also dies after getting crushed by a car. The film’s violence and sexuality were so blatant that the famed Kefauver Committee tried to label it a menace to American youth.
The ending, involving the opening of the “great whatsit” and a mini nuclear explosion, is completely bonkers. It’s a massive tonal shift that comes totally out of left field, and is an absolute classic. If it looks familiar, you need look no further than Vincent Vega opening the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.
Kiss Me Deadly was very much of its era, reflecting the fear of nuclear war and nuclear weaponry, but doing it in the goofiest way all while remaining deadly serious.
Check Deadshirt.net next Friday for another installment of our Noirvember essay series!