Now that Thanksgiving is over and we’re all slowly regaining consciousness from that last serving of turkey stuffing, The Retro Set wanted to spend the remaining moments of November 2014 with a much-belated salute to Noirvember. Chances are you’ve got the day off, and if you’re not quite ready for Christmas, here are some can’t-miss noir picks from the Warner Instant Archive to keep you warm. Ok, and hot.
This week we’ve got the hard-boiled Dick Powell in one of the all time great noirs, Edward Dmytyk’s Cornered (1945); a hard-as-nails Joan Crawford in Vincent Sherman’s delicious melo-noir The Damned Don’t Cry, and a hard look at the American justice system in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936).
Wade’s Pick: CORNERED (1945)
I don’t care what some people think; I dig Dick Powell’s tough guy roles. When he played Philip Marlowe (he was the first), he offered up a very different spin on the no-nonsense detective archetype. He was vulnerable. He was softer than Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep), and more emotional than Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake). He was more conflicted, often “in over his head”, sweated his decisions and complained. Basically, he was human.
Cornered, reteamed director Edward Dmytryk with Powell only a year after he had reinvented himself from the happy-go-lucky song & dance man to the world-weary Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, and proved that lightning could strike twice. This time, Powell is a WWII Canadian RCAF flyer, released from a P.O.W. camp and returned to France, just after the ending of the war. He is a man on a mission; his wife of only 20 days was executed as part of the French Resistance, and he wants to find the party responsible. He follows a labyrinthine trail that leads him in and out of the clutches of several nefarious characters; always with the same, single minded objective; revenge.
The fact that he is not an intimidating presence, not very smart, but carries a toughness that lives deep in his soft belly, is actually what makes the film, and Powell in this role, work so well. Even more profound, the character and the film reflect some extremely prescient and mature themes about war that are quite surprising when you realize it was made so closely to the end of WWII.
Cornered’s director, Edward Dmytryk , was one of HUAC’s Hollywood Ten, who ended up admitting his Communist affiliation. His script, then, for Cornered, was brimming with anti-Fascist sentiment, as well as ideals that seem torn from today’s headlines. One character, an escaped Nazi, points the finger at Gerard and the “West” as the creators of their own worst enemies. “I’m afraid the Anglo-Saxon is a poor fanatic. He only takes action when you disturb his visceral emotions.”
Cornered is a must-see for any lover of Noir and pulp thrillers. Given the period, it’s an amazing time capsule of a country weary of war, unsure of its future, and grappling with horrors that stir just beneath the surface.
Carley’s Pick: THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950)
Oh, Joan Crawford. You crazy bitch. Enough is never enough for you, is it? You think you would have learned that lesson in Mildred Pierce, but oh no. You gotta go and try climbing the latter to affluence again thinking it means happiness, and where does it land you? In another fine mess. This time around, Crawford is Ethel Whitehead, an opportunist who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “enough” in Vincent Sherman’s The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).
When her only son is killed, she takes off in search of the good life. She woos men who can serve her socially and financially (poor Kent Smith) and drops them like a hot potato for bigger fish. In this case, the big fish it’s David Brian, a big shot New York gangster. He sees potential in Crawford, lavishes upon her the beautiful things in life she’s always dreamed of, and reinvents her, passing her off as a beautiful heiress named Lena Hansen Forbes. But in reality Crawford is still just the gangster’s moll (Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill, anyone?), and when she finds herself running dirty errands for her lover, cupid inevitable strikes again. And so does karma. Noir style.
The Damned Don’t Cry is a pulpy, gripping noir that shows, at 45 years old, Crawford was still a damn good actress who could not only still carry a film, but obliterate every other person on the screen. Talk about star power.
Jill’s Pick: FURY (1936)
Fury has the distinction of being director Fritz Lang’s first American feature, after fleeing his native Germany upon the rise of the Nazi Party. As the story goes, the Reich’s own minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was actively courting Lang to become the head of Germany’s UFA as he was so impressed with Lang’s work. Lang had, after all, been the creator of two undisputed masterpieces: Metropolis and M, all by the age of 40. Goebbel’s offer was lucrative to be sure, but by 1934 Lang was very rightly worried about his Jewish heritage and, eventually, left for the United States. (He also left his wife, who had become a Nazi sympathizer.)
The master of German Expressionism came to Hollywood that year, where he signed with MGM, and began work on Fury. In the film, Spencer Tracy is Joe Wilson, a man arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. While awaiting a fair trial (hopefully), word of the crime and his arrest spreads throughout the town. Naturally, details are left out or exaggerated, causing anger and confusion amongst the community. This anger turns irrational with the chaotic formation of a mob, marching on the jail to demand Wilson be handed over for swift “judgement.” When they aren’t given Wilson, the mob takes matters in to their own hands by burning down the jail. Although he’s believed to be dead, Wilson actually escapes relatively unharmed–but he’s a different man. He swears revenge on those who tried to kill him, but he can’t let anyone know he’s alive. Co-starring the exceptionally beautiful Sylvia Sidney, who holds her own admirably opposite Tracy, Fury is a flawed film, but still an engaging drama that resonates will into the 21st century.
Admittedly, Fury is not a film noir. It is one of the social-consciousness pictures so prevalent during the troubled mid 1930s. But Fury, also is hardly an example of the German Expressionism that Lang’s earlier work had come to define. Instead, what we have, is the birth of film noir, which is the reason for its inclusion in this week’s Noir-themed Must Watch Warner Archive Instant pick. Thanks to the Studio system’s habit of butchering of product, Lang’s bold Expressionist flourishes were here restrained. Muzzled. And that simmering repression which exists in Lang’s complicated shadows is largely responsible for the genre of film noir that this month of November has been dedicated to. Watch those broodish, tones and textures of film noir first take shape here, in Fritz Lang’s Fury.