Noir's Displaced Persons: Despite Cain's efforts to ground national culture in the "authentically" American vernacular of tough-guy prose, the social world of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is dedicedly uncertain and unstable.
Frank, a vagabond and petty hustler, and Cora, the proprietress of a roadside tavern in California, fall hard for each other.
Having pulled off their risky plan, the pair is unhappy and more insecure than ever: Frank, wrongly convicted of Cora's murder, is sentenced to die at the hands of the state.
Cain uses the threat of Frank's rootlessness in a fashion consistent with period understandings of the tramp's erotic impropriety, which, as Michael Trask has argued, consistently likened the vagabond's excessive desire to "the risks of dislocation and commingling that imperiled the imagined community of national culture". For Giddens, the key agents of modern disembedding are the "expert systems". In the US of the 1930's, the force of these systems intensified under F.D.R.'s New Deal, a series of aggressively interventionist regulatory regimes and benefits programs, such as social security, designed to assuage and reverse the effects of the Depression. As Sean McCann argues, the tradition of 1930's American hard-boiled crime fiction was particularly cynical about this version of the welfare state.
These knotted systems are most evident in the novel's extended subplot concerning the legal battle between the lawyers involved in Nick and Cora's case and the three insurance companies.
EDDIE MULLER, Author and Playwright: "There is a classic femme fatale in 'The Drug'. She’s the only woman in the play and the focal attention of all the men in the play. So, I’ve got that character covered. I’ve had a bit of a revisionist theory about a lot of this Noir stuff. There is a character that has always fascinated me – the incredibly sophisticated professional woman. So, in 'An Obvious Explanation', I wrote the character of a very ambitious doctor who is also very sexy, but super strong and very much in charge. To me, that is every bit as much a Film Noir character as is the femme fatale.
She would have been played by Ella Rains, Geraldine Fitzgerald or Audrey Totter. That character has always intrigued me because it was in Film Noir that women were allowed to be the equal of men. They were just as smart, just as strong, and just as capable. And, of course, they can be just as corrupt and cynical". Source: www.sanfranciscosentinel.com
Sylvia Sidney as Nan Cooley in "City Streets" (1931) directed by Rouben Mamoulian, based upon a story written by Dashiell Hammett
French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton ("A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953") never allude to the Marquis de Sade’s Julliette, one of the most famous sexual terrorists in French literature, but the character they describe resembles her in every respect save the fact that she is “fatal even to herself”.
Beautiful, adept with firearms, and “probably frigid,” this new woman contributes to a distinctive noir eroticism, “which is usually no more than the eroticization of violence”. Her best representative on the screen, Borde and Chaumeton argue, is Gloria Grahame, who, even though she was seldom cast as a femme fatale, always suggested “cold calculation and sensuality”.
American author Ernest Hemingway with actress Marlene Dietrich
Death in such films usually takes the form of a professional execution (a locus classicus is 'The Killers', a 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway) or a sadistic ritual: in 'The High Wall', a publisher of religious books murders an elevator repairman by hooking an umbrella under the stool on which the man is standing, sending him plummeting down an empty shaft; in 'Kiss of Death', a demented gangster laughs as he shoves a little old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs;
“In this incoherent brutality,” Borde and Chaumeton remark, “there is the feeling of a dream”.
Indeed, the narratives themselves are often situated on the margins of dreams, as if to intensify the surrealist atmosphere of violent confusion, ambiguity, or disequilibrium that Borde and Chaumeton regard as the basis of noir. “All the components of noir style,” they write, are designed to “disorient the spectator” by attacking certain conventions: “a logical action, an evident distinction between good and evil, well-defined characters with clear motives, scenes that are more spectacular than brutal, a heroine who is exquisitely feminine and a hero who is honest”.
The “vocation” of film noir is to reverse these norms and thereby create a specific tension that results from the disruption of order and “the disappearance of psychological bearings or guideposts”. As if to signal the end of a cycle, urban thrillers were increasingly produced for the lower end of the market. Hence, the two pictures of the 1950s that the Panorama singles out as truly disorienting were both filmed on relatively low budgets, without stars.
The first is Joseph H. Lewis’s 'Gun Crazy' (1950), the story of a murderous heterosexual couple of “exemplary beauty”, which allows the woman to wear pants and act as the aggressive partner.
Borde and Chaumeton regard 'Gun Crazy' as a profound and unselfconscious expression of the surrealist credo; in their words: “one of the rarest contemporary illustrations of L’AMOUR FOU (in every sense of that term),” and it deserves to be called “a sort of L’Age d’Or of the American film noir”.
For Borde and Chaumeton, the essence of noirness lies in a feeling of discontinuity, an intermingling of social realism and oneiricism, an anarcho-leftist critique of bourgeois ideology, and an eroticized treatment of violence. Above all, noir produces a psychological and moral disorientation, an inversion of capitalist and puritan values, as if it were pushing the American system toward revolutionary destruction. We might debate about whether such qualities are in fact essential to the Hollywood thriller (if any quality can be essential), but there is no question that they are fundamental to surrealist art.
Existentialism was despairingly humanist rather than perversely anarchic; thus if the surrealists saw the postwar American thriller as a theater of cruelty, the existentialists saw it as a protoabsurdist novel. For critics who were influenced by existentialism, film noir was attractive because it depicted a world of obsessive return, dark corners, or huis-clos.
It often employed settings like the foggy seaside diner on the road between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 'Fallen Angel', where Dana Andrews gets off a bus and seems unable to leave. (“I’m waiting for something to happen,” he tells Alice Fay. “Nothing’s going to happen,” she responds.)
Or it was like the dark highway in 'Detour', where Tom Neal keeps thumbing a ride, trying to avoid his brutal destiny.
In 1946, even Faulkner was a relatively neglected figure in the United States, where much of his income came from movies like The Big Sleep and from a story he had published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; meanwhile, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as a “god.”) The interest of Parisian intellectuals in a certain kind of American literature became so intense that the British author Rebecca West teased Cain, “You were a fool not to be born a Frenchman. The highbrows would have put you in with Gide and Mauriac if you had taken this simple precaution.”
Albert Camus confessed that he had been inspired to write The Stranger after reading Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice.
Bazin’s style of existentialism is everywhere apparent in his 1957 eulogy for Humphrey Bogart, written only two years before Bazin’s own death. According to Bazin, Bogart was important because “the raison d’être of his existence was in some sense to survive,” and because the alcoholic lines visible on his face revealed “the corpse on reprieve within each of us”. Jean Gabin, the star of prewar French films noirs, seemed romantic by comparison;
Humphrey Bogart was a man “defined by fate,” and because he was associated with “the noir crime film whose ambiguous hero he was to epitomize,” he became the quintessential “actor/myth of the postwar period”. Bazin argued that Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade was equivalent to the almost simultaneous release of 'Citizen Kane': “It must be the case,” he wrote, “that there is some secret harmony in the coincidence of these events: the end of the prewar period, the arrival of a certain novelistic style of cinematographic écriture, and, through Bogart, the triumph of interiorization and ambiguity.”
For the French especially, an American star like Bogart epitomized these moods. Bogart’s persona was tough, introspebtive, emotionally repressed, and fond of whiskey and cigarettes; within certain limits, he suggested a liberal intellectual, and he was sometimes cast in the role of a writer or director. Hence the Bogart thriller became a mirror in which European cinéastes could see their own faces.
By the 1990s, noir had acquired the aura of art and had evolved into what Dennis Hopper describes as “every director’s favorite genre.”
Claire Trevor plays two-bit hooker Francey in "Dead End" (1937) directed by William Wyler
After an art-historical category has been named and its key members identified, critics usually try to explain its causes or genealogy. This is the task undertaken in the second chapter of Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain, in which the authors discuss six major “sources” of American film noir. Three of the sources are sociological: a new realism about violence in the wake of World War II, a rise in the American crime rate, and a widespread institutionalization and popularization of psychoanalysis. The rest are artistic: the hardboiled crime novel, the European cinema, and certain Hollywood genres of the 1930s—especially horror films at Universal, gangster movies at Warner, and classic detective pictures at Fox.
Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala in "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958) a French noir directed by Louis Malle
Somewhat surprisingly, Borde and Chaumeton argue that European cinema was a “feeble” influence and that American noir should be understood chiefly within the “Hollywood professional context.”
In the leading role, Humphrey Bogart establishes Sam Spade as one of the cinema’s enduring icons, but he also gives the character more psychological “depth” than Hammett had done. Sullen, brooding, and edgy, he seems obsessed with Brigid. When he kisses her for the first time, his face is twisted with anguish, and when he announces that he is turning her over to the police, he looks almost desperate.
The success of the 1941 version of 'The Maltese Falcon' inspired Paramount to remake 'The Glass Key' in 1942. This adaptation was scripted by pulp writer Jonathan Latimer, one of Hammett’s imitators, and was designed as a vehicle for Alan Ladd, who had achieved great success that same year in Paramount’s 'This Gun for Hire'. 'The Glass Key' could be described as Hammett’s novel of the Dark City, his version of The Waste Land. He was reading Eliot at the time he wrote the novel, and Lillian Hellman claimed that when she first met him in 1930, they spent hours talking about the poet. Eliot wrote about an “unreal city” made up of cheap hotels, half-deserted streets, rat-infested canals, newspapers in vacant lots, lonely typists in empty rooms, snippets of banal conversation, and random scraps of pop tunes.
Alan Ladd plays Philip Raven in "This Gun for Hire" (1942) directed by Frank Tuttle
When 'This Gun for Hire' reached Paris in 1946, it was received as a key work in a developing noir “series.” Borde and Chaumeton ranked it among three seminal pictures: 'The Maltese Falcon' provided film noir with its criminal psychology; 'The Shanghai Gesture' created a distinctive noir eroticism; and This Gun for Hire established both a new character type (the “angelic killer”) and the convention of a surreal chase through an urban landscape. The opening sequence of the Greene adaptation was singled out for special praise: from a low angle, we see Alan Ladd sitting on a bed in a sleazy boardinghouse, loading a gun while honky-tonk music drifts through a window...
Historians have long known that Billy Wilder originally filmed a different ending to 'Double Indemnity'. In the first version, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) was put to death in a California gas chamber. Wilder once told an interviewer that Neff’s death was among “two of the best scenes I’ve ever shot in my whole life” (the other being the original opening to Sunset Boulevard). Then again, Wilder may have cut something important because of pressure from both the studio and the Breen Office, which insisted that the gas chamber sequence was “unduly gruesome.”
Edward G. Robinson in a publicity still from the lost ending of 'Double Indemnity' (1944) that was edited from the final version of the film
Walter Neff’s death in the gas chamber (which was not suggested by the James M. Cain novella) is a logical outgrowth of several important motifs in 'Double Indemnity', and it reveals the full implication of those motifs. Without it, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) seems a less morally complex character, audiences are left feeling a bit more comfortable, and the film’s critique of American modernity becomes less apparent.
Wilder, Chandler, and Cain shared an outsider’s or modernist intellectual’s ambivalence toward Los Angeles, where Cain’s novel was set. Under Wilder’s supervision, this ambivalence was intensified to the point where the city seemed less like the urban sprawl described by Cain, and more like a dangerously seductive Eldorado—a center of advanced capitalism, instrumental reason, and death.
The truly controversial aspect of the original film was not so much its depiction of sex and murder, but its grimly sardonic vision of a “Taylorized” or assembly-line America, culminating in the gas chamber sequence.
James M. Cain seated at restaurant table with Lana Turner, 1946.
Of the three writers connected with the project, Cain was the least inclined to see California in dystopian terms—this despite the fact that he began his career as a journalist and college teacher on the East Coast and served briefly as an editor of The New Yorker. Like Dashiell Hammett, Cain was a veteran of World War I who wrote about violence and who published with Blanche and Alfred Knopf.
The celebrated first sentence of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' was in fact a quintessential example of the hard-boiled manner: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” But Cain avoided the pulps and did not write detective fiction; instead, he specialized in Dostoyevskian narratives of criminal psychology, transposed into lower-class America and strongly influenced by the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser, the modernism of Ring Lardner, and the cultural criticism of H. L. Mencken.
Chandler was not exactly a cosmopolitan, but he was not a typical American either. To his English publisher, he wrote, “It is possible that like [Max] Beerbohm I was born a half a century too late, and that I too belong to an age of grace. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for. So I wrote for Black Mask. What a wry joke”. Chandler was the greatest of all writers about Los Angeles. He bestowed style upon the place, enabling his readers to enjoy the flanerie of driving past its beaches, mountainsides, and vividly contrasting neighborhoods.
This experience, moreover, was always tinged with a deliciously Baudelarian atmosphere of decadence, corruption, and decay; hence a novel like 'The Big Sleep' sometimes recalls T. S. Eliot’s darkest, most reactionary visions of London.
Phyllis the femme fatale in Cain’s novella, is an ordinary, rather earthy woman with a “washed out face” and a “shape to set a man nuts”. The character portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck is much more blatantly provocative and visibly artificial; her ankle bracelet, her lacquered lipstick, her sunglasses, and above all her chromium hair give her a cheaply manufactured, metallic look. “She was perfect,” Walter remarks at one point. “No nerves, not a tear, not even a blink of the eye.”
The only important woman director of the 1940s, Ida Lupino, was responsible for several movies that could be classified as noir, as were women writers such as Daphne du Maurier, Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Leigh Brackett.
In 'His Kind of Woman', Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell find themselves in a Baja California resort that looks as if it had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the resort functions as a playground for rich Yankees, and the Mexicans themselves are in evidence only as strolling musicians or bumbling cops.
And in 'Out of the Past', there is a moment when a corner of Mexico suddenly becomes New York: “There’s a little cantina down the street called Pablo’s,” Jane Greer says. “It’s nice and quiet. A man there plays American music for a dollar. You can shut your eyes, sip bourbon, and imagine you’re on 59th Street.”
Poster of "In a Lonely Place" (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray and Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele
The original ending had Dix strangling Laurel to death in the heat of their argument. Sgt. Nicolai comes to tell Dix that he has been cleared of Mildred's murder but arrests him for Laurel's. Dix tells Brub that he is finally finished with his screenplay, and the final shot was to be of a page in the typewriter which has the significant lines Dix said aloud to Laurel in the car (which he admitted to not knowing where to put) "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
This scene was filmed halfway through the shooting schedule, but Ray hated the ending he had helped write. Ray later said, "I just couldn't believe the ending that Bundy (screenwriter Andrew Solt) and I had written. I shot it because it was my obligation to do it. Then I kicked everybody off stage except Bogart, Art Smith and Gloria.
And we improvised the ending as it is now. In the original ending we had ribbons so it was all tied up into a very neat package, with Frank Lovejoy coming in and arresting him as he was writing the last lines, having killed Gloria. Huh! Romances don't have to end that way. Marriages don't have to end that way, they don't have to end in violence. Let the audience make up its own mind what's going to happen to Bogie when he goes outside the apartment."
Whenever the important female characters are seen from Mitchell’s perspective, they seem momentarily fantastic: Ginny (Gloria Grahame) appears suddenly in close-up, her hair framed by an aureole of light and her entrance announced by a dance-hall band playing “Shine”; Mary (Jacqueline White) is like a ghost or an apparition from suburbia, moving through the smoky beams of a projection booth in an all-night movie theater.
Robert Ryan as Montgomery, Robert Mitchum as Sgt. Peter Keeley and Robert Young as Capt. Finlay in "Crossfire" (1947)
Meanwhile, nearly all the males are sinister or strange. Monty, an obvious psychotic, is photographed with a grotesquely distorting 25 mm lens, but even Detective Finlay looks offbeat—a professorial detective who speaks in a weary, alienated monotone from around a pipe or a cigarette that rarely leaves his mouth. The most Kafkaesque and memorable character in the film is the nameless man in Ginny’s room (Paul Kelly), who had troubled Joseph Breen from the beginning. (One of his first lines of dialogue is “You’re wondering about this setup, aren’t you?”)
Paul Kelly and Robert Ryan as Mr. Tremaine and Montgomery in "Crossfire" directed by Edward Dmytryk
Robert Ryan, wearing a khaki uniform shorn of insignia, makes the villain seem like the United States equivalent of the petit bourgeois Europeans who had worn black and brown shirts before the war—a crude bully, ill educated and transparently deceitful, who can temporarily influence southern farm-boys like Floyd and Leroy (Steve Brodie and William Phipps), but who is no match for more polished fellows like Finlay and Keely (Robert Young and Robert Mitchum).
In Scott’s final draft of the script, when Monty tries to escape down a dark alley, a military policeman with a tommy gun advances methodically, “slowly chewing gum, expressionless,” and shoots him down. For the released picture, Captain Finlay shoots Monty from the window of the police tation. The new ending was improvised by Schary and Dmytryk, in order to avoid what Schary called a “storm trooper” attack on Monty.
The 1947 “Waldorf Declaration,” a document authored by the most powerful men in Hollywood (including Dore Schary), announced that people like Scott and Dmytryk had performed a “disservice to their employers” and had “impaired their usefulness to the industry”. Crossfire was certainly not the last nor even the best social problem movie, but it marked the close of a distinctive phase in the national history.
Dalton Trumbo and his wife Cleo at the 1947 HUAC hearings that resulted in his imprisonment
After 1947: The purge of Hollywood leftists was part of a larger right-wing campaign to rid the country of industrial unions and Roosevelt-style socialism —a campaign conducted against the background of internal struggles within the Democratic Party and of growing economic insecurity within the movie colony.
The widely publicized HUAC hearings, filled with celebrities of the Left and the Right, were paradoxically useful to the Hollywood moguls, who faced not only picket lines but also antitrust proceedings and increased competition from television. In this environment, which was filled with bitter personal animosities that had been growing over the past decade, it was easy for studio administrators to exploit the fear of communism and thereby defeat the formation of an industrywide union. The political, cultural, and economic structure that had sustained Hollywood during the war was on the verge of collapse; the studios needed to shrink and reorganize themselves, and their executives must have thought: why not use the blacklist to rid ourselves of troublemakers?
Still of Bruce Willis and Angela Jones in "Pulp Fiction" (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino
Not surprisingly, the narrative events in 'Pulp Fiction' are borrowed indiscriminately from other movies. Butch (Bruce Willis) wakes from the dream to find himself in a situation that resembles noir boxing movies such as 'The Killers', 'The Set-Up', and 'Body and Soul'. After killing his opponent in the ring, he jumps out of his dressing room window and into the back seat of a taxicab, which is driven by a beautiful woman just like the one in 'The Big Sleep' (through the windows of the cab, we see a black-and-white process screen). This use of mostly lowbrow materials is strongly reminiscent of the original auteurists. And indeed the early Godard is especially important to Tarantino, who likes the feeling of “movies commenting on themselves, movies and movie history”.
Sources: "Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization" (2009) by Justus Nieland and "More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts" by James Naremore (1998)