This fall we continue our survey of noir films that enter a more extroverted arena, exploring several international neighborhoods. Pickup on South Street as well as five other masterpieces will be interposed with others which have often been underrated by critics and audiences. I will be showing one lemon that does rate the guilty verdict, but other films have been chosen for the music, performances, or locations. Many of these have been entirely forgotten.
The format of the class will be to discuss the important chapter of these 12 films. We will also look at important scenes from 17 earlier films which will give you a background of my own vision of the noir disease. This will begin with the eminent North German psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Dr. Mabuse: Inferno of Crime. We will be showing a copy of the original out-of-print score by Konrad Elfers.
Students will compose and develop five-note themes that depict the journey of evil throughout the period. As the semester continues, these themes will evolve through our international travels.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is John Huston’s mid-career landmark. It concerns the planning of a bank heist and examines the moral code of a small group of criminals. Those who carry out the crime do have scruples; others who sit back in their suburban couches are inwardly corrupt and smile indulgently while conceiving diabolic Mabusian schemes.
The acting is first-rate. Jean Hagen appears as a pathetic, loyal supporter of the high-wired Sterling Hayden. Even more effective is the performance of the lesser-known actor Sam Jaffe. These performances are unvarnished. The entrancing denouement features a rugged jukebox and a black horse peacefully resting in a delightful pasture patiently waiting for the return of our hero.
Strangers on a Train (1951). When Alfred Hitchcock emigrated from London to Hollywood, after having created such masterpieces as Blackmail and other fine gems, his first U.S. films floundered, due in part to dislocation from the 1939 vintage of jet lag, and due particularly to the sanitizing influence of movie mogul David O. Selznick, who insisted on turning his fast-paced style into something more genteel. By the mid-40s Hitchcock had recuperated and proceeded to direct such cinematic treats as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and The Rope.
Strangers on a Train may be his most unique film of the 1950s. Here he combines the very fast-paced action of his earlier period with scenes of acute psychological punches. Wait till you meet the Agatha Christie lookalike who enjoys strangulating martinis, while the soundtrack plays “The Band Plays On.” Farley Granger, Robert Walker, [the mother], and Hitchcock’s own daughter Patricia.
The next film is Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). Ward Baker delivers this melodrama, which marks Anne Bancroft’s debut and boasts a cameo by film noir veteran Elisha Cook, Jr. But the knockout moments are delivered by Marilyn Monroe, who portrays a babysitter who never should eat chocolate. Movie fans consider Some Like It Hot as her best vehicle, but here her erratic mood swings are mesmerizing, and she delivers the performance of her career.
The Narrow Margin (1952). Marie Windsor, who is never given a moment of kindness on celluloid, stars in this nifty thriller, most of which takes place on a train with many surprises. We will be showing the original version. Who is the fat man? Don’t look here for New Wave philosophical themes. The train keeps accelerating.
On Dangerous Ground (1951). This small underrated gem takes place in a noir city relieved by beautiful alpine scenes in northern New York communities. Robert Ryan leads the investigation. The film has two notable strengths: the music of Bernard Hermann, and the luminous performance of Ida Lupino.
The Blue Gardenia (1953). This is a fun experience, a rather lightweight one, by Mabuse director Fritz Lang. Although little of his work can compare of his earlier period where he directed his masterpiece M, his later work after he narrowly escaped Nazi Germany and settled in Hollywood did cleverly evoke the depths of the underworld. Raymond Burr alias Perry Mason, and Anne Baxter almost magically recreate a replica of the seduction scene in Hitchcock’s Blackmail. There are flashbacks to an earlier era, and who can forget the remarkably beautiful blind woman (played by Celia Lovsky) who hands a blue gardenia to Nat King Cole?
Pickup on South Street (1953). Samuel Fuller explores the seamy side of the neighborhoods of New York during the Red Scare of the early Fifties. The film is invigorated by Leigh Harlin’s stunning score for wind ensemble, as Richard Widmark and Jean Peters play games on this landscape. There are spicy moments that concern the sale of neckties and the bittersweet lyric from a 1947 ballad (“There’s a small café, Mam’selle”) but the revelation here is the performance of Thelma Ritter, who gives one of the classic film noir performances of all time.
The Wild One (1953). Marlon Brando gives his least subtle, perhaps most outrageous, performance here, even if there are moments of camp. Leith Stevens composed the score, which was beautifully recomposed a couple of years ago by Ken Schaphorst. The vehicle of transportation here is a Star Trek version of the motorcycle.
Black Widow (1954). Here we spend a Tuesday afternoon in the 42n Street theater world of decadent 1950s Manhattan. The film has too many flaws on which to elaborate. However, there are a few nice scenes with Peggy Ann Garner, the child star of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ginger Rogers gives an over baked soufflé caricature, occasionally modified by Gene Tierney, Otto Kruger, and George Raft. Their saucy, snappy dialogue bounces through the film, both before and after the discovery of a murder. Whodunit?
Les Diaboliques (1955). Here we journey to desolate northern France, visiting a dingy prep school where the kids’ cuisine not only in not recommended but might have poisonous effects. Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot (a leading actress from Spain and France) plan a late night murder. It is recommended that students and visitors hire an escort, as New England Conservatory does not have insurance policy to combat flashbacks. This is scary.
The Night of the Hunter (1955). Why didn’t Charles Laughton direct another movie? This is a seminal film of early Americana that Booth Tarkington and Grandma Moses never portrayed, one with infusions of evil. One of the delights of the film is the performance of silent screen star Lillian Gish, who many students saw last semester as the nun in Portrait of Jennie, which might be called fantasy film noir. Critic and pianist Alexandra Greenwald, a noir devotee, acknowledged positively a few minutes but added her acid conclusion, “The film is a slow burn. “ Laughton uses profound imagery here, such as an underwater shot of Shelley Winters’ dead body , and eerie nightmare visions as Robert Mitchum. Our young hero spies the preacher’s figure in early dawn riding a horse.
Our season ends with Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). This film is a bit of a mess, and includes a few decent moments by Janet Leigh before her famous shower scene in Psycho. The Hollywood sets feature southern locations describing Kansas City and New Orleans life. Peggy Lee gives a devastating performance as Rose Hopkins; in her final scene she sings Arthur Hamilton’s “Sing Me a Rainbow,” a ballad recently re-discovered and performed by the Portuguese artist Sara Serpa. The musical highlight of this potpourri is Ella Fitzgerald’s naughty rendition of “Hard-Hearted Hannah.”
Please comment at the bottom, and special thanks to John Campopiano, Blair Dutra, Alexandra Greenwald, Aaron Hartley, Liz Helfer, Gardiner Hartmann, Steve Mardon, and Isaac Wilson!