Category Archives: Noir

Homage

to John Garfield

by Nicholas Christopher

The heat’s on, dead wind shoots up
9th Avenue, a white T-shirt flutters
On the convertible’s antenna
Outside Billy’s Pool Parlour.
New York’s last tough guy
Walks down 44th Street, bums a smoke
And shows a good left
While feinting punches.
He crosses town, watches
East River tugs link the bridges
With foam in afternoon glare;
Whatever died in the last war
Left Brooklyn harbor, maybe
Is still out at sea.
After Hollywood, the big money,
Blacklisted out of pictures
When he won’t give names;
His voice a hoarseness,
Health gone to hell,
Caught up in gin and rumpled raincoats,
He lives in West Side hotels
With ex-society girls,
B-actresses and three old bankbooks.
He drinks for nine months straight,
Stirs endless ice cubes
In the narrow bars off Broadway,
Blacks out regularly at 4 a. m. ,
Dies at 39 in hotel sheets,
Journalists delighted to report
An English girl, under-aged
And on junk, in bed
With him at the time.

Uptown in a Bronx trainyard Three kids grown past stickball
Play blackjack under an overpass,
Blow dope and belt cough medicine
Over a low fire—the one
In the black sweater loses,
Can’t pay up, leans back
And watches rain come down
On a southbound express.

Double Jeopardy (1999)

A bad film with a great premise, Double jeopardy could have taken its audience deep into noir territory with a few alterations in character and motive. Ashley Judd plays rich mom Libby Parsons, who is married to an arrogant financier (Bruce Greenwood). Waking in the middle of the night aboard their recently acquired yacht Libby finds herself covered in blood and her husband missing. Convicted of his murder, she’s sent to a surprisingly mild prison where she works out a lot and meets new people, eventually learning by chance that her late husband Nick is actually alive, living with the woman she thought was her best friend. Years pass and Libby is released on parole to a halfway house, under the supervision of former law professor turned PO Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones)– a man with his own tragic past and a relatively low key drinking problem. Having learned in prison that the principle of double jeopardy forecloses the possibility of being tried for the same crime twice, Libby violates her parole to collect her son and get payback.

Two aspects of the film are particularly noteworthy. First, Double Jeopardy is an early example of the Internet Thriller, featuring suspenseful search engine queries which require Libby to get other people to use their computers to answer vital questions. Second, a couple of fairly over the top action sequences pad out the pursuit of her son and treacherous husband. But the most perplexing vagary of the film is its reluctance to delve deeply into the dark side. It’s almost as if the Production Code was still in effect, insisting that the characters embody uncomplicated moral stances rather than embracing the dissolution and ambivalence of the noir mode at its best. If Travis were crooked, for example, willing to exploit Libby for his own gratification, the dangers she runs would have been compounded and the story made more thrilling. Wounded by the death of a daughter roughly Libby’s age, a sleazier version of Travis could have been manipulated by her in a vaguely incestuous manner, summoning some of the Oedipal energies that animate film noir at its most uncompromising. In fact, Double Jeopardy is far too cop friendly, confident in the good intentions of the institutions that have helped to destroy Libby’s idyllic, affluent life. Had her prison experience been harsher, she might have become harder and less appealing, perhaps even repelling her son at their reuinion. In the final struggle between Nick and Libby, we get the retribution we’ve been led to expect but it’s justified as an act of self-defense rather than as a cathartic crime of vengeance. For all the blood, action, and fleeting nudity in Double Jeopardy, it’s a conservative story unwilling to relinquish an exhausted Code-era template of moral clarity.

The Suspect (1944)

This gaslight noir tells the story of a likable if fairly passive accountant (Philip Marshall, played by Charles Laughton) married to an absolute harridan, who finally snaps and commits murders. Remarried to a charming and age-inappropriate friend (Ella Raines), Marshall seems to be having a stroke of good fortune until an irritatingly persistent Scotland Yard detective begins a campaign of low-grade harassment. When the sinister, wife-beating drunk next door (Henry Daniell, incidentally one of the best Moriartys in the Sherlock Holmes film canon) attempts to blackmail Marshall, the temptation to snuff out a looming threat and an everyday villain proves too appealing to resist. Featuring an oddly procedural reconstruction of the first crime The Suspect is fundamentally noir in its sensibility even if, in the end, the Production Code ensures our sympathies are frustrated.

Impact (1949)

Brian Donlevy stars as Walter Williams, a successful businessman whose faithless wife (Helen Walker) sets him up to be murdered by her sleazebag lover. Bludgeoned unconscious and left for dead, Walter catches a ride in a moving van and discovers that his assailant was killed in an accident immediately afterward. Finding a body burned beyond recognition, the authorities initially conclude that the dead man is Walter, who pauses awhile in a small town in Idaho, working as a mechanic and meeting a local girl (Ella Raines). When his wife is charged with murder he returns to his old life only to experience a sudden reversal. Charles Coburn– whose screen persona is a thousand times more appealing than his real-life political convictions– plays the Irish-American detective on the verge of retirement whose instincts and energy help solve the riddle.

Story of a Love Affair (1950)

In the absence of action or dynamic camerawork a film often depends on dialog to engage its audience. Unfortunately, a combination of tinnitus-inducing sound quality and often near-invisible subtitles render Michaelangelo Antonioni’s adaption of James M. Cain’s seminal hard-boiled novel The Postman Always Rings Twice extremely hard to watch without becoming a bit impatient. If you’re interested in Italian versions of that story it might be best to go with Visconti’s Ossessione.

Four Ways Out (1951)

This exceedingly Italian noir begins with a soccer stadium robbery before following four thieves who’ve scattered to escape the police. Both deterministic and humanistic, Federico Fellini’s (et al) script not only addresses some of the social forces leading to crime– above all, poverty– but guarantees that none of the titular four ways out actually leads to a successful exit. Gina Lollabrigida receives top billing but it’s Cosetta Greco who does most of the heavy lifting as Lina, a resourceful young mother whose husband Luigi is clearly out of his depth.

Drunken Angel (1948)

An alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) treats a young yakuza for tuberculosis only to see him stumble back into his old life. A very rakish Toshiro Mifune plays the doomed Matsungana, whose weakening health makes him vulnerable to his former criminal associates. Abandoned by his glamorous girlfriend, set up by his boss, his death ultimately serves little purpose. Takashi’s Dr. Sanada, the drunken angel of the title, is a curious figure, irascible, unsentimental but not callous, and pretty much disgusted with the yakuza hoods who run the show, calling them a relic of the feudal mentality. There’s a bit of art house in this movie, as with Matsugana’s fever dreams or his epic fight with the reptilian Okada. This is a fantastic early-ish film by Kurosawa.