FAVORITE NOIR FILMS
compiled via Tim Broun
On the 2010 release, The Fix Is In, James Chance very successfully puts his own spin on jazz and R&B, in a very similar way he usually has fusing funk and punk - best known via his groundbreaking releases with The Contortions. After recently starting to work with James - helping him out with an online presence (see his website here, and his Facebook page here) - I came to find out just how knowledgeable he is about an era of film and literature that his music has always hinted at. The era being noir, beat, mystery, dimestore, detective, all of the above, whatever you'd like to call it. I asked James to put together a list of his top 10 film noir movies, and here is part one of the result. Part two will be available in the next issue of Perfect Sound Forever.
James' latest album, Incorrigible, is available now, and he begins a European tour on Valentine's Day. See all upcoming shows on his website here.
Big thanks to James for putting this together. My Netflix queue is suddenly much more hip and interesting!
1) The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
John Huston's archetypal heist film is, to me, the one film that best depicts the noir underworld and its assorted denizens. From the top of society to the bottom, they're all here, each with his/her own fatal flaw. From twitchy bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to hooligan Dix (Sterling Hayden) with his quixotic quest to return to the horse farm of his youth. From whores with (Jean Hagen) and without (Marilyn Monroe) hearts of gold to criminal genius Doc Reidenschnieder (Sam Jaffe) who could have gotten away to Mexico with the jewels if he hadn't stopped for the length of a 78rpm record to watch a young girl dance to a jukebox. In the words of bent lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), "Crime is just a left handed form of human endeavor.”
The Asphalt Jungle must hold some sort of record for the noir film most remade in other genres- as a Western in 1958 (The Badlanders with Alan Ladd as the mastermind of a gold ore heist), what I term 'noir exotique' in 1960 (Cairo with George Sanders and the hooligan character as a hashish addict) and finally blaxploitation in 1972 (Cool Breeze with the marvelously named Thalmus Rasulala). All the screenplays were by the author of the original novel, W. R. Burnett. That's what I call recycling!
2) Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles' gallery of grotesque delinquents in a Mexican border town (actually filmed in Venice, CA, of all places) take delicious delight in tormenting Janet Leigh with forbidden pleasures- "Do you know what a maree jane ees? Do you know what a mainliner ees?" to the refrains of Henry Mancini's down and dirty rock'n'roll & mambo. But what's truly scary is watching Welles' corrupt detective Capt. Quinlan decomposing before your eyes. Chili joint proprietress Marlene Dietrich takes a huge drag on her cigarillo and sums it all up- "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"
3) Nightmare Alley (1947)
The movie that proves that the geeks that you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on the way down. In fact, you just might be meeting yourself. This brilliant evocation of the intersecting worlds of the top (the high end spook racket) and the bottom (the carnival) of show biz is toned down a bit from the original novel by William Lindsay Gresham. In the book, the tycoon wants to go all the way with the deceased love of his life after mentalist the Great Stanton (Tyrone Power) has "materialized" her, not just catch a glimpse of her as in the film.
I was amazed to discover in reading William Kalush's biography The Secret Life of (Harry) Houdini (who waged a lifelong war against con man spiritualists) that Nightmare Alley is based on a real incident. In Chicago in 1893, a wealthy elderly gent named Schiller died of a heart attack in the arms of a prostitute who had been hired to impersonate his late wife by a magician named Zanzic and his partner Billy Robinson, who had designed and built a state of the nineteenth century art séance parlor. Of course, the same hoary scam is still going strong today, except that its top practitioners now have "reality" TV shows. In the words of slick psychologist Dr. Lillith Ritter (Helen Walker) who pulls the ultimate gypsy switch on the Great Stanton, precipitating his plunge into dipsomania and geekhood, "It takes one to catch one. You must consider this all one long nightmare."
4) Gun Crazy (1950)
B-movie genius Joseph H. Lewis's reimagining of the Bonnie & Clyde legend gains its doomed romantic intensity from a crucial role reversal- the cowgirl sharpshooter played by Peggy Cummins is the ruthless killer ("You're just a two bit guy and I want ACTION!" she snaps as she dumps carnival operator Berry Kroeger), while her male counterpart John Dall is incapable of murder despite his gun fetish & overwhelming attraction to her. In all the voluminous analysis of this film I've read, no one seems to have noticed how Victor Young's ultra-romantic score drives the action, especially the ballad "I'm Laughing on the Inside (but Crying on the Outside)" which the band is playing as the fugitive couple wanders despairingly thru a dance hall. "We belong together - like guns and ammunition."
5) Raw Deal (1948)
Raw Deal was produced by an independent studio of the late 1940's called Eagle Lion which appears to have existed for the sole purpose of perfecting the B noir thriller. Between 1947 and 1950, Eagle Lion released no less than 19 B noirs that I've found listed in various reference books, including Canon City, a semi-documentary about a prison break in a blizzard, Ruthless, a kind of B Citizen Kane directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, & Richard Fleischer's very tough Trapped, the screen debut of the doomed Barbara Payton, not to mention one with the ultimate noir title - The Sun Sets at Dawn. But Eagle Lion hit its creative peak with four films all directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton - He Walked By Night, The Black Book (a period noir set during the French Revolution), T-Men and Raw Deal.
Eagle Lion was also probably the only Hollywood studio to have a real life gangster as not only a financial backer but an associate produce, and not just any mobster, but Johnny Roselli, himself, one of very few who lived up to the noir image- suave, cultured yet steeped in menace and duplicity underneath. The menace derived from the Chicago Outfit. Roselli was their man in Hollywood in the 1930's and 40's. In the 50's and 60's, he became their peripatetic ambassador to the intersections where crime meets business and politics, including Vegas, Miami, Havana and points south, which led to his taking the CIA's contract on Fidel Castro. His final payoff was as grisly and merciless as any in a film noir- his body was found floating in a canal near Miami, stuffed inside an oil drum, minus its legs (for the details of his career, read Roselli's biography, All American Gangster by Charles Rappleye & Ed Becker).
It's not known what influence, if any, Roselli had on the actual content of Eagle Lion's films- one reason for his position there was as a cover to mollify his parole officer. But certainly the Eagle Lion crime films exhibit a realism unusual for the time.
Raw Deal has a dream like atmosphere rare in an action film, even as it begins at a peak of intensity few films ever reach and builds from there. Much of this is due to John Alton's photography- most of the film takes place at night and you can freeze the frame at virtually any point and see a gorgeous, subtly disturbing image tattooed with intricate shadows. The foreboding mood is further heightened by Paul Sawtell's score which, avoiding the typical suffocating over orchestration of the period pares the music down to a single haunting minor melody played by a few strings and a theremin, which recurs at crucial moments, leaving mostly silence in between (Paul Sawtell was another unsung specialist in B pictures, having scored dozens of noir, horror & sci-fi flicks during the ‘40's & ‘50's).
There are no law enforcements heroics or even authority figures of any type here– the story is told in an unusual female voiceover by Pat (Claire Trevor), a standup broad if there ever was one, to the point of personally breaking her man, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) out of a prison in the Pacific Northwest, where he's doing time for the "Spokane Mills job". Dennis O'Keefe is an unjustly neglected noir tough guy, here playing an unabashed if honorable thief instead of his usual undercover man or hardboiled reporter. Meanwhile in San Francisco's Corkscrew Alley, Joe & Pat's old stomping grounds, lurk his partners in the heist, whom he has taken the fall for, led by Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), whose name is apropo, since he's as tightly coiled and poisonous as a cornered rattlesnake.
Before he became institutionalized as Perry Mason & later fossilized as Ironside, Raymond Burr was one of the great heavies of classic film noir, and his portrayal of Rick Coyle may be his nastiest. Coyle clearly aspires to the sophistication of a Johnny Roselli, but he suffers from a monumental anger management problem. When a stranger accidentally spills a drink over his shoulder at a nightclub, Coyle ripostes by dumping a blazing flambe (his birthday treat from the management) over the head of the man's date. Then he barks "Take her away - she should have been more careful!"
The rest of Rick's crew of misfits have equally apt names - the sardonically sinister torpedo Fantail (John Ireland), the flunky Spider, and a bent taxidermist named Grimshaw.
To this well worn "stand up guy busts out of stir" plot, screenwriter John C. Higgins (who wrote four other Anthony Mann noirs) adds an explosively unstable romantic triangle when after Joe & Pat's car is disabled by guard's bullets as they flee from the prison, Joe sneaks in the bedroom window of Ann Martin(Marsha Hunt), a paralegal from his lawyer's office who has been visiting him in jail, and kidnaps her in order to use her car. The demure but sexy Ann is the film's only representative of straight society but she's fatally compromised by her sexual attraction to Joe, which she pretends is liberal altruism. When she realizes that Joe is totally prepared to gun down a cop if necessary, she turns on him venomously- "I may have romanticized you before but now I know you- you're something from under a rock." Joe, Pat & Ann then cram themselves into the front seat of Ann's small roadster, shooting looks of laser-like intensity at each other as they attempt to elude the tightening noose of the dragnet.
Later, when Rick Coyle decides to pay off Joe with a bullet instead of the 50 grand he thinks he has coming, Ann is forced to shoot Fantail after one of the most knock down drag out fights ever, staged in Grimshaw's taxidermy shop- at one point Fantail's ear is impaled on the antler of a mounted deer.
I'll leave the reader to discover all the other twists packed into the 79 minutes of Raw Deal. Suffice it to say that everyone involved receives a raw deal in the end- Rick Coyle falls thru a burning window in a karmic payback for the flambé peccadillo, after he tortures Ann and fatally plugs Joe while Pat is left alone in the ruins of Corkscrew Alley as the cops mop up, presumably to be imprisoned herself for helping Joe escape. Joe's last words are "Well, I got my breath of fresh air"- little enough to die for.
see James Chance's website for European Tour dates
Part II of this article will be in our next issue
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