Noir. Black. Black on black. Its own spectrum, with gradations. In the Oxford English Dictionary, its entry is preceded by the proviso that "black" is a "word of difficult history", and then defines it as "the absence of total absorption of light", as its opposite "white" arises from "the reflection of all the rays of light". In Old English, the word black is also found with a long vowel, blace, blacan and is thus confused with blàc (shining, white). Black blurring into white.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigates the life of an attractive advertising executive (Gene Tierney) after her murder in "Laura" (1944) directed by Otto Preminger
ANDREWS, DANA (1909–1992). Dana Andrews came to prominence as the enigmatic, obsessive Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Andrews was the ideal Preminger actor because his minimalist style, subtle underplaying, and bland good looks could project a fascinating ambiguity, a suggestion of powerful depths and a deep confusion at the core of his identity. He was equally effective in two further films for Preminger: Fallen Angel (1946), where he played a gold digger masquerading as a bogus medium who is being framed for a murder he did not commit, and as a conflicted rogue cop in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).
Andrews’s suggestion of a darkness lurking within the average American male was also exploited by another émigré director, Fritz Lang, in two late noirs, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). In the former, Andrews plays a television reporter who shows disturbing similarities to the serial killer stalking New York; in the latter, having agreed to pose as a murderer, he eventually reveals to his wife (Joan Fontaine) by accident that he was indeed the killer. These films are the culmination of Andrews’s “postheroic” persona beneath whose apparent solidity lurk repressed criminal desires. Andrews’s other noirs are The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Boomerang! (1947), Edge of Doom (1950), and Brainstorm (1965).
Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in "The Woman in the Window" (1944) directed by Fritz Lang
DURYEA, DAN (1907–1968). Dan Duryea was able to play both leading man and villain, but his flaccid good looks and rakish charm made him more memorable as rogues. He played louche, scheming lowlifes in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), and the slimy gangster Slim Dundee in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949). In the “B” feature, Black Angel (1946), based on a Cornell Woolrich story, Duryea had a starring role as an alcoholic nightclub pianist and songwriter who, despite being revealed as the murderer, is a sympathetic figure, haunted by desires and aspirations that can never be fulfilled. He played a sleazy and corrupt private eye in the undistinguished Manhandled (1949) and a more complex one in Robert Aldrich’s World for Ransom (1954). Duryea reprised the part he had played in a successful noir television series, China Smith (1952–55), as world-weary Irish gumshoe Mike Callahan, adrift in the Singapore underworld, who clings to an old-world chivalry in trying to protect the husband of an old flame.
His most complex role came in Paul Wendkos’s The Burglar (1957), adapted from a David Goodis novel, as a cheap crook, Nat Harbin, who gradually becomes a tragic figure in his determination to protect Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) and so keep his pledge to the dying wish of his mentor and surrogate father figure. Harbin’s chivalrousness is at odds with his own sexual impulses and the squalid world he inhabits. Duryea’s other noirs are The Great Flamarion (1945), Lady on a Train (1945), Ministry of Fear (1945), Too Late for Tears (1949), One Way Street (1950), The Underworld Story (1950), and Storm Fear (1956).
Gloria Grahame plays "good-time girl" Ginny in "Crossfire" (1947)
Crossfire envisages the returned soldier's mileu as a meandering, melancholy nightlife, fusing a professed inability to do anything other than 'crawl' with an emergent cityscape that is both extended horizontally and compressed vertically, via a peculiarly metonymic narrative, whose dialogue tends to take the form of repetitive, obfuscating, circuitous vagaries, and a near-replacement of overhanging light with low lamps, cigarettes and headlights, such that virtually every space is crushed by blackness.
This, in turn, reduces bar, floor and gutter to an abject common denominator, of which the central hate crime is a mere symptom, softening the slightly awkward transition from Richard Brooks' original novel, which dealt with homosexuality, and problematising 'location', to the extent that tension doesn't arise from uncertainty about the culprit, nor even from the investigative procedure in itself, but from the twin attempts to map the trajectory of the (wrongfully accused) suspect, and the subsequent trajectory of the culprit.
That said, Robert Ryan's portrait of the insecure, chummy bigot is surprisingly three-dimensional, while the rapport between policeman (Robert Young) and sergeant (Robert Mitchum) helps mitigate the inclination towards heavy-handedness, as do a series of memorable bit parts opened up by the sprawling ambit, most notably the dynamic between a brittle nightclub waitress (Gloria Grahame) and her partner's compulsive self-reinvention.
Robert Ryan plays Montgomery in "Crossfire" (1947) directed by Edward Dmytryk
RYAN, ROBERT (1909–1973). Ryan was one of the most important noir male actors, appearing in 15 films. His craggy good looks, imposing height, taut muscular body, and dark, impenetrable eyes made him a cross between heavy and leading man, thus perfect as a disturbed or ambiguous noir antihero. He played troubled veterans in Crossfire (1947) —for which he was Oscar-nominated -in Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach (1947) and in Act of Violence (1949).
In each, his character is an unstable, violent loner who can explode at any moment. This also typified his compelling performance as the bitter and resentful cop on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). His anguished outburst when he beats a confession out of a petty criminal, “Why do you make me do it?” encompasses the sense of incoherent rage and neurotic self-destructiveness that permeates all his performances. In the later scenes Ryan also reveals a tender and vulnerable side that came through strongly in an earlier outstanding performance as the aging boxer Stoker in The Set-Up (1949), brutally beaten up by mobsters because he would not throw the fight but who retains his dignity and can return to his wife (Audrey Totter).
Ryan played a psychotic handyman in Beware, My Lovely (1952), whose murderous rages are obliterated by amnesia, and gangsters in The Racket (1951) and House of Bamboo (1955), less complex roles but with the suggestion of troubled depths. Ryan was again compelling in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) as the racist, self-loathing criminal whose trajectory, as always, is toward self-destruction. Ryan appeared in two neo-noirs, The Outfit (1973), in which he plays a powerful and ruthless syndicate boss, and Executive Action (1973), as one of the right-wing conspirators. Ryan’s other noirs are Berlin Express (1948), Caught (1949), I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949), The Secret Fury (1950), Born to Be Bad (1950), and Clash by Night (1952).
The Set-Up (1949) abandoned the rise-and-fall narrative to concentrate on the misery and physical toll that boxing exacts. Robert Ryan plays an aging prizefighter beaten up by two thugs after he refuses to throw a fight. Retaining his integrity, he can return to his wife (Audrey Totter), but only now that he is finished with boxing. The theme of corruption that runs through these films is the principal focus of The Harder They Fall (1956).
Humphrey Bogart, as fading sports columnist Eddie Willis, is hired by a ruthless impresario (Rod Steiger) to promote a talentless Argentinian boxer in a series of fixed fights so that he is slaughtered in a championship decider. A disgusted, disillusioned Willis decides to write a series of exposés of the fight game, whatever the cost.
BOXING NOIRS. Like the gangster, the boxer embodies a distorted version of the American success ethic; ambitious to break free from working-class or ethnic poverty, his rise and fall exposes the moral and emotional price of success. These thematic and ideological preoccupations meant that the boxing film could be assimilated into the concerns of film noir, particularly to those of the left-wing cycle.
Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky, was a paradigmatic example, starring John Garfield as the ghetto-boy Charley Davis determined to escape poverty but whose success and material wealth associate him with gangsters and alienate Charlie from his loved ones. He eventually has the courage to defy the mobsters, rediscovering his humanity. Champion (1949) had a similar storyline but lacked Rossen’s idealism; its central character (Kirk Douglas) is nastier, a ruthless egomaniac intent on getting to the top, and the ending is bleaker.
GARFIELD, JOHN (1913–1952). John Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of New York City, and he worked for the left-wing Group Theater in New York before gaining a contract with Warner Bros. He became an important star, acting in a number of seminal films noir before the blacklist helped hasten his premature death. Garfield played a succession of tough, battling working-class loners, struggling to make their way in an unsympathetic world, often unsuccessfully.
His subdued style, almost immobile, mouth taut, only the eyes moving, suggestive of a suppressed violence ready to erupt, expressed Garfield’s doomed, despairing, misunderstood, and thwarted persona. Garfield played falsely accused outsiders in the noir precursors They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Dust Be My Destiny (1939), gangsters in Castle on the Hudson (1940), East of the River (1940), and Out of the Fog (1941), and emotionally scarred troubled veterans in The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946).
But his most celebrated early noir role was as the working-class drifter Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Frank, who narrates the story in flashback from his prison cell awaiting execution, embodies Depression America—rootless, disaffected, and forced by circumstances and his infatuation with Cora (Lana Turner) into murdering her husband.
When his Warner Bros. contract expired in 1946, Garfield was one of the first Hollywood stars to go independent and became part of Enterprise Productions, playing the lead in two films that reflected his own left-wing views: Robert Rossen’s boxing noir Body and Soul (1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948).
John Garfield and Hazel Brooks as Charley Davis and Alice in "Body and Soul" (1947) directed by Robert Rossen
In these allegories of exploitative capitalism, Garfield’s self-made man eventually recognizes how he is being exploited and determines to put things right. In The Breaking Point (1950), he played a troubled veteran forced into smuggling by economic circumstances.
His final film was He Ran All the Way (1951), written by Guy Endore (Dalton Trumbo) and Hugo Butler and directed by John Berry, all victims of blacklisting. Garfield plays petty thug Nick Robey, who can only experience family life at gunpoint by holding an ordinary working-class family hostage as he tries desperately to avoid capture by the police for the murder he committed. Shot by the woman he befriended, Peg (Shelly Winters), while protecting her father, Nick dies wordlessly in the gutter on the dark, wet, windswept street. Placed on the blacklist in the early 1950s for his left-wing sympathies, Garfield refused to name names in April 1951 and was found dead of a heart attack only a year later.