©2019, by M. Keith Booker
Whereas noir detective films achieve an off-center view of the world of crime by presenting it from the perspective of private eyes who frequently skirt the law themselves, there is also an entirely family of noir films that do focus on the police, though the police of these films can sometimes be brutal or degraded themselves. Some films that are normally considered to fall within the realm of noir present a much more positive view of the police, however. Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), for example, is a classic police procedural featuring the unusual gimmick of having its voiceover narration delivered by producer Mark Hellinger, who introduces himself at the beginning of the film. In the film, a beautiful girl from an immigrant family comes to New York to make her fortune as a model, changes her name to Jean Dexter, and ends up involved in a jewelry theft ring, leading to her murder, which is really the beginning point of the film. Avuncular but wily Irish American homicide detective Lt. Daniel Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) heads the investigation that leads to the identification (and death, shot from a bridge tower by police) of her killer. The film then ends with images of Jean Dexter being forgotten once the case is solved, with the memorable voiceover, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Though often considered a noir film, The Naked City is more of a conventional police procedural that serves as a demonstration of the significant difference between such procedurals and typical noir films. In this case, the competence, honesty, and authority of the police are affirmed; they do their jobs in a thoroughly professional, if unspectacular, manner, making it possible for ordinary citizens to live, for the most part, in safety. Noir films tend to suggest that the peaceful routine of day-to-day life might be disrupted by violence at any moment. At the same time, they suggest that day-to-day routine can itself be stifling. The Naked City assures us that vigilant forces are in place to protect our routine and that routine is largely a good thing, ensuring that most people will be able to live happy and productive lives. Meanwhile, this affirmation of the routine is reinforced by the methodical way the cops go about their work, which is presented as work, rather than some sort of romantic adventure. Thus, while the film gives us some glimpses of the dark underbelly of modern urban life, it presents those glimpses as deviations from a generally placid norm.
Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), scripted by Ben Hecht, is a cop film that illustrates many of the classic features of film noir much more directly. Noir regular Dana Andrews plays Mark Dixon, a tough New York police detective with a penchant for beating confessions out of his prisoners. He’s a man haunted by the fate of his father, a criminal shot down by police, and has lived his life trying to avoid a similar fate. Gene Tierney, meanwhile, plays Morgan Taylor-Paine, a good girl victimized by a bad man—in the person of her husband Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), a former war hero who has now fallen in with bad company and who has a tendency to take out his frustrations by treating his wife like a punching bag. A murder investigation leads Dixon into an altercation with Paine, who is accidentally killed. Given his reputation, Dixon suspects that no one will believe the death was an accident or that Paine started the fight. As a result, he disposes of the body and tries to make it look as if Paine skipped town, though the body is soon discovered.
Meanwhile, Dixon begins a romance with Morgan, who has been separated from her husband for three months. Unfortunately, the ongoing investigation points toward Morgan’s loving father, cab driver Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully), as Paine’s killer. Dixon manages to manipulate the evidence so that gangster Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill) is implicated in the killing of Paine, but at the last minute Dixon has a change of heart and confesses everything. As the film ends he is headed for jail, confident that Morgan will be waiting for him when he gets out. And she very well might: Morgan is this film’s biggest weakness. Unlike many women in film noir, she seems to lack the courage and independence firmly to resist mistreatment or disappointment by the men in her life.
This seemingly neat ending, however, is unable to overcome the rest of the film, which depicts the world as anything but a place of peace and justice. Here, the cops are as corrupt and violent as the criminals, and the line between the good guys and the bad guys is a thin one, indeed. Dixon, a fundamentally good man plagued by childhood demons and general bad luck, lacks the resources truly to overcome all the forces that are arrayed against him. One feels that his final turn toward rectitude at the end of the film is not a sign of a fundamental change, but just another in a series of desperate moves to somehow achieve a life of which he can be proud. And Morgan’s ongoing faith in him seems more a sign of weakness than of faithfulness.
Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951) is unusual among noir films for all sorts of reasons—and Ray in general might be noir’s most eccentric director. Many other principals in this film are noir mainstays, however, from screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, to producer John Houseman, to actors Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. The score by Bernard Herrmann is also a notable noir score, though Herrmann seldom worked in straight noir films, skirting the boundaries of noir with his scores for films such as Citizen Kane and Psycho. And, for the first thirty minutes of its runtime, On Dangerous Ground is a classic noir police story, highlighted by George Diskant’s extremely effective and realistic urban cinematography. Here, Ryan’s alienated tough-guy cop Jim Wilson is presented as a cynical loner, so worn down by eleven years of life policing the city’s mean streets (the city is never named, but it appears to be Los Angeles) that he trusts no one and assumes that everyone has an “angle.” Wilson is a loner, with no friends, only colleagues, lacking the family lives that even the other cops seem to manage to carry on. He is also a boiling cauldron of frustration and emotion, liable to go off at any moment and at the slightest provocation.
The film then takes a sudden turn when Wilson’s propensity for beating up suspects leads to his being sent out of the city up north to “Siberia,” to a snow-covered rural locale where the local sheriff is ill equipped to deal with a shocking murder that has just occurred there. As it turns out, a young girl has been murdered, possibly in the course of a rape, though all we learn is that the mentally ill young man who killed her was trying to “make her smile” because she was so “pretty.” Motifs such as rape and prostitution often sneak in around the edges of film noir, even though it was difficult to mention them directly due to the restrictions of the Production Code. The perpetrator, meanwhile, is actually treated quite sympathetically, as someone who is ill, rather than evil, himself a victim of his own disease.
One thing that is striking about the last nearly 2/3 of the film is the outdoor cinematography, actually shot in Colorado, though the action is presumably taking place in northern California. As if to emphasize that this setting is somewhat out of place in a noir film,[i] Wilson traipses about the snow-covered countryside in his city clothes and shoes in search of the killer, looking very much out of place alongside the local who joins him. That shotgun-toting local is Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the slain girl, who is bent on killing the man who killed his daughter, thus placing Wilson, for once, in the role of the voice of reason, bent on capturing the killer and brining him to justice appropriately. In fact, once he gets out of the city and into the country, Wilson is essentially transformed, becoming calm, and even kind, if still a bit aloof. His transformation is then made complete when he meets and falls in love with Lupino’s Mary Malden, the blind sister of the murderer. Except for her seriously ill brother (who is inadvertently killed in the manhunt), Mary is every bit as alone in the world as Wilson, and, by the end of the film, she and Wilson have established a life together, providing each other with shelter from the cruelty of the world.
This sentimental and rather contrived ending certainly seems at odds with the stark noir film that constitutes the first half hour of On Dangerous Ground, though one could also argue that it functions as a statement, via contrast, on how alienating and dehumanizing modern urban life can be. Once Wilson gets out of the city, he is able to regain his humanity. Once he establishes a genuine human connection with Mary, he is able to retain that humanity, even after returning to the city. Read more cynically, On Dangerous Ground demonstrates the impossibility of achieving a happy ending in the world of the first thirty minutes of the film; instead the filmmakers have to shift the action into a whole new world and make Wilson into a completely different character in order for happiness to be achieved. In this sense, the film can be read as a subtle critique of the happy endings of so many mainstream Hollywood films and as a suggestion of the greater realism of the typically dark ending of noir films.
Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) features Glenn Ford as Dave Bannion, a virtuous (but embittered) police detective who begins the film already disgusted at the fact that his department in in the grip of political pressures that leave their city essentially at the mercy of a powerful mob leader. Then the mob (in an apparent attempt to kill Bannion, instead murders Bannion’s wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister). At this, Bannion goes all out for revenge and is removed from the force when it becomes clear that he will no longer play their games. This film features a young Lee Marvin as Vince Stone, one of the mob leader’s key lieutenants, and Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh, Stone’s moll, who ends up allied with Bannion after the sadistic Stone goes a bit too far in brutalizing her. Bannion emerges victorious, but leaves a trail of bodies behind him, including virtually every woman (including Debby) that he meets in the course of the film.
Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955) is a noir police procedural in which police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) struggles to gather the evidence he needs to put local mob leader Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the head of the “Big Combo” of the title, behind bars at last. It drifts into noir territory, however, because Diamond (however virtuous) is so obsessive in his devotion to getting Brown, partly because he has fallen in love with Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace, then Wilde’s real-world wife). The most distinctively noir elements of this film, however, are the music of David Raksin and the striking cinematography of John Alton, perhaps the greatest of all noir cinematographers. The fresh-faced, sweet-voiced Wallace plays Lowell as a good girl who has simply fallen into bad company and can’t seem to break free. In fact, Brown seems to have a sort of magnetic hold over those in his power, including his two almost comically mean-spirited henchmen, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). Diamond becomes even more devoted to getting the goods on Brown after Fante and Mingo gun down showgirl Rita (Helen Stanton), Diamond’s sometime girlfriend, in an attempted hit on Diamond. The dark beauty Rita is a sort of bad girl who has fallen into good company and thus serves as a thematic (and visual) counterpart to the pale, blonde Lowell. In the end, Diamond manages to get the evidence he needs to take down Brown, and Diamond and Lowell walk away together into the foggy night, but still separated by the gulf that life has established between them. (They do come closer together at the very end, but do not join hands.)
[i] On the other hand, noir films employ non-urban settings more often than is typically recognized. See, for example, the study by Smith.