LATE NOIR

©2019 by M. Keith Booker

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) has often been considered the last film of the classic noir cycle, though it comes dangerously close to pushing past noir into parody. I think it can also be considered the first in a series of films that one might call “late noir” films that provide a transition between the original noir cycle and the onset of fully neo-noir films that consciously look back on noir from a distance. Any number of films reside in this transitional category, which might be said to begin with Touch of Evil and extend through Point Blank (1967). There are, however, a few specific highlights that are indispensable for any comprehensive understanding of the noir phenomenon.

One such film is Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961), which is notable partly because it adheres so closely to the noir formula, yet still doesn’t seem fully noir simply because of when it was produced. Baron himself plays Frankie Bono, the film’s deeply disturbed hit-man protagonist, and he makes him a sympathetic figure, even if he’s not exactly someone you would be likely to want to hang out with. It also includes plenty of sinister gangster and a particularly grim demise for Frankie, though it somehow has the feel of acting out motifs from the past rather than generating new ones. The film thus provides an important reminder of the importance of historical context. Making a film in 1947 might mean one thing; making exactly the same film in 1961 might mean something significantly different.

In his recent survey of American “noir” culture in the 1950s, David Cochran singles out Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman as “independent” filmmakers of the era whose work exemplifies the noir sensibility. In particular, Fuller’s films, he concludes, were ideally suited to the decade’s B-movie market, because they were “too weird and idiosyncratic for other venues.” At the same time, Cochran concludes that, while Fuller worked “comfortably” within the constraints of the B-movie system, he also managed “to subvert many of the conventions and deconstruct the formulaic and generic expectations of B-movie audiences” (134). Indeed, Fuller escaped the expected bounds of B-movie banality so successfully that he joined respected directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, as auteurs celebrated by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics as exemplary of artistic achievement in film.

Of course, Fuller’s auteur reputation was particularly solidified by his later, weirder noir films, especially Shock Corridor (1963)and The Naked Kiss (1964), both of which appeared at the very end of the long 1950s (1945–1964) and at a time when film noir as cultural phenomena was well past its peak. In fact, these films appeared at a time when it would have been difficult to make a “straight” film noir that did not take an ironic stance toward the genre. But Fuller, in these two films, made a virtue of necessity by using this situation to push to boundaries of the genre to an absurd, campy extreme, in the process producing works whose self-consciously ironic relationship to their own genre marks them as postmodern. Of course, making a virtue of necessity had always been central to the genre. For example, many of the distinctive lighting effects associated with the genre were largely necessitated by budgetary restraints. In Fuller’s case, the budgets are still low, and the subject matter is lower yet. But both films display surprising depth and complexity beneath seemingly tawdry surfaces.

It is this surface that is emphasized in the theatrical trailer for Shock Corridor, which promises audiences material that is shocking indeed. Beginning with an announcement that, in the film, ‘the motion picture screen opens the door to sights you’ve never seen before,” the trailer suggests that audiences will be treated to numerous lurid and voyeuristic views of aberrant sexual conduct if only they will come to see the film. For example, the trailer features what is undoubtedly the film’s most notorious scene, in which protagonist Johnny Barrett (described in the trailer as himself suffering from “erotic dementia”) accidentally wanders into what the film actually calls the “nympho ward,” but what the trailer more euphemistically calls the “ward of love-maddened women” in a mental hospital. In the scene, Barrett is savagely set upon by the ward’s sex-hungry inmates, barely escaping with his life.

Audiences who came to see the film based on this trailer might have been taken aback to see that the actual film begins with an epigraph from Euripides: “WHOM GOD WISHES TO DESTROY HE FIRST MAKES MAD.” They might have been further puzzled by the truly strange opening scene, which nicely sets the stage for a truly strange film. In the scene, Barrett (Peter Breck) turns out to be, not a sex-crazed lunatic, but an ambitious newspaper reporter, who decides to feign mental illness in order to go under cover as a patient in a mental hospital. In so doing, he hopes to solve a murder that was recently committed in the hospital—but he mostly hopes to win a Pulitzer Prize. Barrett has been coached for a full year by a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), so that his imitation of mental illness will be effective. However, Barrett’s financée, Cathy (Constance Towers) is appalled by the idea, which she rails against in this opening scene as sick and disgusting. In particular, in a variant of a typical 1950s degeneration fantasy, Cathy is afraid that Barrett, by being around so much mental illness, will himself become legitimately mad. And she reinforces this suggestion with a literary allusion, calling it a “Jekyll-Hyde idea.” Indeed, at least in this scene, literary illusions form a substantial portion of Cathy’s conversational stock. When she asks Barrett why he doesn’t give up this “psychoanalytical binge,” he responds, “Because it’s what people buy.” In return, Cathy reminds him, rather anachronistically and irrelevantly, that “Mark Twain didn’t psychoanalyze Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. Dickens didn’t put Oliver Twist on the couch.”

Of course, Cathy’s penchant for allusion may not be surprising, given that Barrett describes her in the scene as “an intellectual.” However, she is an intellectual who doesn’t seem to understand why Dickens and Mark Twain wouldn’t reference Freud and who happens to work as a singing stripper in a sleazy nightclub, an occupation she has chosen to pursue so that she can make money to put away toward her upcoming married life with Johnny. After all, she explains, “singing in that sewer with a hot light on my navel … pays more than shorthand or clerking or typing.”

Eventually, Cathy angrily stomps out of the room in this opening scene, refusing to participate in the scheme, in which she is slated to pose as Barrett’s sister, with whom he will pretend to have been sexually obsessed since childhood. “Hamlet was made for Freud[i],” she tells him as she exits, “not you.” The film then cuts to the voluptuous Cathy singing in her club, where she dances suggestively (if somewhat clumsily), grinding her hips and stripping down to a scanty costume while singing “I Want Somebody to Love.” She does not, however, have a hot light on her navel, because her final costume, however skimpy otherwise, includes a strategic bit of cloth that hides her navel from view. Of course, that contradiction is relatively minor, compared to the oddities that have already piled up in the first ten minutes of the film. There is, in fact, something out of whack about this entire opening sequence. For one thing, Barrett’s motivation is completely venal. There is nothing here of the crusading investigative journalist, hoping to expose abuse and neglect in the care of the mentally ill. He does hope to solve the murder, but only because that solution might garner him a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. And he explains that, even if he finds nothing of sufficient journalistic interest to win such a prize, he can always write a novel or play based on his experiences in the hospital and cash in that way. At the same time, however questionable Barrett’s motives, Cathy’s disgusted reaction seems out of all proportion to the nature of his project. She clearly has no sympathy for mental patients, but instead regards them as dangerous and loathsome perverts whom she wants nowhere near her man. 

Meanwhile, that Cathy is forced to work as a stripper to make a decent income might potentially be an interesting commentary on the lack of opportunities available to women in American society, especially since she sees no alternative other than secretarial work, even for a presumably well-educated and literate intellectual as herself. One problem, however, is that she does not really seem to be that much of an intellectual. Her literary allusions thus seem pretentious and pointless, and one might easily conclude that they represent a pointless pretentiousness on the part of film itself, which seems to be striving for a sort of legitimacy by showing that it can refer to works from the high-cultural tradition. On the other hand, Cathy’s inept use of literary allusions in this opening scene might also be read as a subversive assault on that tradition that tends to call into question the notion that the canonical works of the past hold the answers to our problems in the present. In any case, Cathy ultimately loses her battle with Barrett: he simply gives her the cold shoulder until she reluctantly gives in, finally acknowledging that it is important for a woman in love to stand by her man, even though the film ultimately verifies her initial fears. Barrett solves the murder and writers his story, which does indeed seem to be potential Pulitzer material. But he also goes mad in the process, becoming a “catatonic schizophrenic” and a permanent inmate of the mental hospital. As one of the hospital’s doctor’s sadly puts it, “What a tragedy. An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.”

This outcome might lead someone who had not seen the film to suspect that Shock Corridor is a critique of the mental health system, Barrett’s descent into schizophrenia seeming to bear out Erving Goffman’s analysis of the way in which the institutional organization of mental hospitals tends to produce, rather than prevent, schizophrenic symptoms in their patients. Alternatively, less cerebral viewers might see the film as a continuation of the critique begun in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published one year earlier. In point of fact, however, there is very little real criticism in Shock Corridor of the mental hospital as an institution, and the film clearly attributes Barrett’s schizophrenia, not to his treatment in the hospital, but to his degeneration as a result of exposure to the hospital’s other degenerate inmates.

However, one should not conclude that Shock Corridor is a mere bit of sensationalism. It is, in fact, a film with a strong social consciousness. For example, it turns out that most of the inmates we encounter have become insane, not through their natural tendencies, but through their experiences as victims of American social ills, such as racism and sexism. All in all, the film seems to want to suggest, however indirectly, an ugliness at the heart of an America that had just spent a more than a decade of Cold War rhetoric proclaiming to the world (and to itself) how pure and wholesome it was. As Cochran puts it, “Fuller most fully stood in contrast to the dominant midcult sensibilities of Cold War America in his insistence on portraying the ugliness of life” (142).

The Naked Kiss makes many of the same points. It begins as Kelly (Towers again) uses her purse to beat the crap out of a man, then takes from him the $75 he owes her, leaving the rest of the $800 that is in his wallet. Cut to two years later and we see Kelly, now with her own hair grown back. (It turns out that the man she bet up had drugged her and shaved her head to make a sadistic point.) She arrives by bus in the peaceful town of Grantville, seeking to ply her trade as a hooker. Soon after she arrives, she walks by the town moviehouse, where the marquee indicates that movie currently showing is, as it turns out, Shock Corridor. A few moments later, Kelly sits on a park bench and reads a 1944 pulp novel, The Dark Page, by none other than Sam Fuller.These bits of early self-referentiality serve as a hint that this film is going to be anything but a simple, straightforward narrative. It will be the work of an auteur, carefully crafted, but also just slightly out of kilter. As the story proceeds, it becomes clear that Kelly is a prostitute, but also the protagonist of the film, a combination that would have been nearly unthinkable when the Code was at the height of its power. Then the subject matter gets darker and darker, veering into a world of hyprocrisy and pedophilia that lies just below the surface of the seemingly idyllic Grantville.

Kelly, meanwhile, is just the opposite. A ten-dollar hooker on the surface, she has the proverbial heart of gold underneath. Indeed, soon after arriving in Grantville, she decides to give up prostitution and to devote herself to doing good works and living a respectable life, subsequently going to work at the local hospital for disabled children, where she becomes an inspiration to the patients. She has also apparently been working on self-improvement, turning to a program of self-study of the Romantics. She is a big fan of the “Moonlight Sonata,” for example, and she likes to quote Goethe (though she doesn’t know how to pronounce his name, indicating that she is an auto-didact with little formal education[ii]). Her favorite poet, though, is Lord Byron (favorite poet of sensitive high-schoolers everywhere), again suggesting the sensitive side to her character, but also possibly showing a lack of genuine sophistication in her reception of poetry. She still has her violent side, though, as when she administers a cautionary thrashing (again with her purse) to the madame (Virginia Grey) of the bordello in the “dirty” town across the river (and the state line) from Grantville after the madame attempts to recruit one of the hospital’s nurses as a sex worker.

The film’s darkest character is J. L. Grant (Michael Dante), the town rich guy and a direct descendent of the town’s founder. Grant is much admired and respected in the town, especially for his works of philanthropy, such as his support for the hospital where Kelly works. All of Kelly’s dreams seem to be coming true after a whirlwind courtship leads to her engagement to Grant. It turns out, however, that his love for children is not as altruistic as it appears, which Kelly discovers just as she is on the verge of marrying him. Enraged, she kills him by beating his head in with a telephone receiver. She is arrested and seems headed for a murder conviction; then, when Grant’s pedophilia is revealed (on rather thin evidence, actually), all is forgiven and Kelly is released. Apparently, murdering pedophiles is allowed in this town, providing a subtle, but unstated reinforcement to the notion that its wholesomeness has a dark side. In the end, Kelly leaves town, realizing that it is not the clean environment for starting over that she had hoped it would be.

NOTES


[i] If this reference also seems anachronistic, we should not forget that one of the nost famous Freudian readings of literature was Hamlet and Oedipus, a reading of Hamlet performed by Freud’s protegé and biographer, Ernest Jones, first published in 1949.

[ii] This mispronunciation was intentional. Towers has said in interviews that she cringed at it, but that Fuller insisted on it.