LOST-MAN NOIR

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

While it is famous for its strong (and sometimes deadly) women characters, film noir remains a male-dominated genre. The vast majority of film noir protagonists are male, though these protagonists are often a different sort of male. Many of them are more villain than hero; some are downright psychotic. They are often weak, confused, unsteady; they are anything but the strong, capable protagonists that are typical of mainstream classic Hollywood films. Sometimes, they are led to their doom by conniving women—or by perfectly innocent women who just happen to bring out the worst in these men. More often, however, they are led to their doom by the circumstances in which they live, so that their failures can be taken as a criticism of the capitalist system and of the whole concept of the American dream.

Of the films originally associated with film noir by Frank and Chartier, two are lost-man films of this type, both directed by Billy Wilder. In Double Indemnity (1944), insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) leads a soulless existence—then thinks he has spotted a chance to achieve wealth, romance, and adventure thanks to meeting Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck). The resulting web of seduction, murder, and deceit would make this one of the classic noir films, while making Dietrichsen the prototypical femme fatale character and Stanwyck the ultimate femme fatale actress. Co-written by Wilder and hard-boiled legend Raymond Chandler epitomizes film noir as much as any other single film.

The other Wilder film identified as an original noir film was Lost Weekend (1945), a film that is these days often considered not to be noir at all because its plot differs so substantially from those of most noir films. Lost Weekend also seems a bit outside the noir tradition in that it was accepted so enthusiastically into the Hollywood mainstream, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, an Oscar for Best Director for Wilder, and an Oscar for Best Actor for Ray Milland. (It won a fourth Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Wilder and the woman science fiction writer Leigh Brackett.) Here Milland stars as Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer who gradually unravels as a result of his malady. In this sense, it is very much a lost-man noir film, except for the fact that, in the end, Birnam (with the help of a good woman) triumphs over his demons, gives up drinking, and resolves to write a novel about the evils of alcohol. Even this ending, though, cannot obscure the darkness of the remainder of the film.

Fritz Lang, the other great master of the lost-man film noir was, like Wilder, an import from the German film industry. In Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), mild-mannered psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) bemoans the fact that middle age finds him living a stodgy, routine, and increasingly uninteresting life. Then he spots a portrait of a woman in a store window that sends him drifting into fantasy, only later (apparently) to meet the woman who is the subject of the painting. Predictably, especially with his matronly wife and their kids out of town for the summer, Wanley’s meeting with femme fatale Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) leads only to trouble. But the trouble becomes surprisingly intense when Reed’s paramour, millionaire Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft), bursts into her apartment and attacks Wanley, who then kills Mazard in self defense. Wanley and Reed decide to dispose of the body and hope the whole thing blows over, but of course it isn’t that easy, partly because Wanley rather ineptly dumps the body and partly because he spends the whole next segment of the film taking every opportunity to try to incriminate himself. Meanwhile, Reed is confronted (and blackmailed) by Mazard’s sleazy bodyguard, Heidt (Dan Duryea), who suspects her involvement in his former employer’s death. Things go from bad to worse (including a botched attempt to murder Heidt by poison), until Wanley finally decides to commit suicide, in an ending made more tragic by the fact that, in an apparent deus ex machina twist, Heidt is shot down by police, seemingly letting Wanley and Reed off the hook, but too late. Never fear, though, Wanley then awakes to find that the whole misadventure was a dream—an ending that was necessitated by the Hollywood Production Code, which sometimes forced film noir to become more complex and clever, but in this case simply imposed a fairly lame Wizard of Oz ending on what is otherwise a genuinely interesting film noir—though it does at lest call attention to the way in which the failure of the American dream is so important to this film. In particular, The Woman in the Window indicates the ways in which bourgeois comfort and respectability can lead to a numbing routinization, but can also be taken away in a heartbeat, especially if one breaks even the tiniest rule of bourgeois propriety. The depiction of the professor as out of his element in this world of seductive women and violent men is also a variation on a key noir theme (the ordinary man unable to cope with extraordinary circumstances and thus driven to his doom), though the fact that he seems to act so stupidly when faced with the real world, rather than the theoretical one of his books, is a bit problematic and potentially anti-intellectual.

Very similar themes would be revisited in Lang’s Scarlet Street the very next year, with much the same cast. This time Robinson stars as Chris Cross, a henpecked middle-aged husband and lowly cashier who dreams of being an artist. Bennett returns as Kitty March, a femme fatale who becomes the focus of Cross’s fantasies of escape from the boring routine of his life. Duryea returns as Johnny, her boyfriend, who helps her con Cross into stealing money to rent an apartment for her, with predictably disastrous results. This one ends with another would-be suicide—which couldn’t succeed, due to the Production Code), though what follows is perhaps even darker.

Robinson’s two films with Lang show the way in which the American dream can fail, even for respectable, seemingly ordinary American men. Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), on the other hand, focuses on a much more marginal figure. Here, Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is one of life’s outcast losers, excluded from the American dream altogether. Detour is a much more marginal film as well, shot quickly and on a shoestring budget. The result, though, is a noir masterpiece that illustrates much of what has made film noir such an important part of American cinematic history. Though he attempts to achieve his dreams, Roberts is a pessimist who finds it hard to believe that life can bring him anything but misery. Events of the film tend to suggest that he is right, though they also suggest that capitalism, rather than fate, is the real culprit.

In contrast to Detour, W. Lee Wilder’s The Pretender (1947) shows how flat and uninteresting low-budget noir can be. For one thing, the lost man of this film, financial advisor Kenneth Holden (Albert Dekker), is an unmitigated cad, and it is hard not to feel that the bad things that happen to him are well deserved. For another, despite being directed by the older brother of Billy Wilder, the film simply lacks any sense of verbal or visual inventiveness, telling its story in a straightforward and lackluster way. Basically, as Holden’s own investments go sour, he starts to embezzle from the trust fund of heiress Claire Worthington (Catherine Craig), which he manages. When things do from bad to worse, he decides to marry her in order to gain full legal access to her financial resources and cover up his embezzlements. The problem is that she is about to marry virtuous young doctor Leonard Koster (Charles Drake), so the nefarious Holden (who even sports a Snidely Whiplash moustache) hires a hit man to murder Claire’s financé. Then Claire decides that Koster is too busy with his work to marry her, so she suddenly reverses course and elopes with Holden—which then makes Holden the target of the hit man, who does not know who hired him, but only knows that he is supposed to kill Clare’s new husband. Much hilarity ensues—which is a real problem, because this story is apparently supposed to be an illustration of the tragic consequences of ruthless greed such as Holden’s.

André de Toth’s Pitfall (1948) is something like Double Indemnity lite. Here insurance man John Forbes (Dick Powell) is ultimately led by his illicit love for a woman, but the killing isn’t really murder (since the man is planning to kill him) and the woman involved, Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) is just a lonely girl trying to get ahead and not quite manipulative enough to be a true femme fatale. In fact, the real villain of the piece is a private detective named MacDonald (Raymond Burr), whose (barely encouraged) lust for Stevens and unscrupulous methods in pursuing that lust are the real source of all the film’s trouble. Even MacDonald, though, doesn’t rise to the level of psychopathic evil that is often found in film noir, remaining at the level of mere swarminess.

Nevertheless, Pitfall is an effective film that makes a number of points about the elusive nature of the American dream. Successful in his work and relatively happy at home with his wife and child, Forbes is nevertheless restless, increasingly overcome by a sense of sameness in his life from one day to the next. Thus, as the film opens, he is clearly ready for an adventure that will take him away from the mind-numbing boredom of day-to-day life in postwar capitalist America. Meanwhile, his imminently sensible wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) does not seem a likely partner in the kind of adventure he is looking for. Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that he becomes fascinated by the seductive Stevens when he meets her in the course of working an insurance case. They have a brief affair, but then break it off because he does not wish, ultimately, to endanger his marriage. Unfortunately, when Stevens rebuffs MacDonald’s advances, he blames Forbes, subsequently initiating the events that leads to the killing of still another of Steven’s boyfriends by Forbes, after which MacDonald himself is shot down by Stevens when he pressures her to go away with him. She is arrested for the shooting, but he still clinks to life as the film ends, making it unclear whether he will die, leading to a murder charge.

Silver and Ward call Pitfall “the key film noir detailing the fall of the errant husband from bourgeois respectability” (228). This aspect of the film, of course, is a bit clichéd, and Wyatt’s Sue is something of a stereotypical American wife who remains faithful through her husband’s infidelity, though she is no doormat and does at least threaten to leave him while issuing warnings of dire consequences should his behavior be repeated. But the film’s exploration of the emptiness of the American dream is, in fact, quite cogent.

D.O.A. (1950), directed by the talented noir cinematographer Rudolph Maté, features another bored American male who gets into trouble while in search of adventure—though in this case the trouble actually emanates from his routine work and not from his attempt to escape that work. This film also, as much as any other noir film, illustrates the tendency of many noir protagonists to be doomed, no matter what they do in the present day of the film, possibly for something they did much earlier. The film begins with a frame narrative in which Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien), an accountant in the small California town of Banning, staggers into a Los Angeles police station to announce that he has been murdered. Most of the film is a flashback, detailing the story he then tells the police.

As this story begins, a restless Bigelow travels to San Francisco to sow his wild oats before potentially settling down to life in his unexciting job and with his devoted (but also a bit unexciting) secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton). He checks into the St. Francis Hotel and spends most of his time ogling women. (Every time he sees one, a comic wolf whistle sounds, which, given the nature of the film, strikes a very discordant—not to mention sexist—note). Bigelow goes out to a bar, where a stranger slips him a poisoned drink. The next morning, he wakes up feeling ill and goes to a doctor, where he is informed that he has been fatally poisoned with “luminous toxin” and that there is no hope for him. “You’ve been murdered,” the doctor tells him in a memorable line.

Bigelow spends the rest of the film searching for his killer, and learns that L.A. businessman Eugene Philips has apparently just committed suicide because he was going to be arrested for stealing and reselling a shipment of iridium. In fact, he has been murdered by the real thief, who has also poisoned Bigelow, who notarized a bill of sale proving Philips acquired the iridium legally and thus could clear Philips (and subsequently could provide evidence that Philips, who could have easily cleared himself, was murdered rather than committing suicide.

After some false starts, including encounters with the gangster Majak (Luther Adler) and his henchmen, including the sadistic Chester (Neville Brand), as well as with Philips’s beautiful wife (a woman of questionable virtue, played by Lynn Baggett, who has been having an affair with Halliday—played by William Ching—the controller of Philips’s import-export business), Bigelow deduces that the real culprit is Stanley Philips, Eugene’s brother. But then Stanley is also poisoned. Mrs. Philips finally reveals that Halliday is the real culprit. Bigelow confronts Halliday and shoots him down, then staggers off to the police station, uttering Paula’s name as he dies. (He has finally realized, too late, that he truly loves her.)

Among the many other “lost-man” noir films, special mention should be reserved for Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), which (among other things) features Humphrey Bogart in what is perhaps his greatest noir performance. Though set within the Hollywood film industry, this genuinely dark postwar film actually contains little overt criticism of the film industry, leaving it for audiences to draw their own conclusions in that regard. Instead, the darkness of this film itself derives almost exclusively from the personal demons of protagonist Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a bitter and violent screenwriter. Steele’s radical alienation may arise in part from his experiences with the film industry (and with capitalism as a whole), but that possibility is never overtly explored in the film. Instead, we are left to speculate on the causes of his angst, with hints that it might be rooted in his experiences in World War II.

Humphrey Bogart as the embittered Dixon Steele in In a Lonely Place.

One of the central types of lost-man noir films involves the motif of the innocent (or at least relatively innocent, by noir standards) man who is wrongly accused of a crime, often leading to his destruction. In some cases, this man is, in fact, a criminal, but is done in by criminal associates who are far worse than he. A good example of this type of noir film is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), based on a 1942 novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish). Here, circumstantial evidence sends engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) to death row for the murder of his wife, his only alibi bing a mysterious woman he doesn’t really known and can’t find. Luckily, Henderson’s loyal secretary, Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines), happens to be in love with him and takes up the task of finding the missing woman, with the help of police inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez). In the process, Richman discovers that Henderson’s best friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), who turns out to be a psychopath, is the real killer. Ultimately, Henderson is cleared, as is the path toward a happy life together for him and Richman. This one is thus unusual both for its woman detective and for its happy ending. It also has some truly strange moments, including a memorable jam by a “jive” band in an underground club, highlighted by the demented drumming (dubbed by Dave Coleman) of a character played by noir staple Elisha Cook, Jr. Raines is also a hoot in a sequence in which she poses as a sexy dame to try to get information from Cook’s character.

In Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) has been involved with crime boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) in an unidentified crime that netted $50,000. Sullivan, as the film begins, is in prison, having taken the fall for Coyle. Meanwhile, Coyle, not wanting to have to share the loot with Sullivan, tricks Sullivan and his girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) into planning an escape, assuming that Sullivan will be killed in the attempt. Meanwhile, law clerk Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), who works for the firm that represented Sullivan at the trial, tries to convince Sullivan to wait patiently in prison until they can get him a parole.

Regan and Martin thus form a version of the good girl-bad girl dichotomy that appears so often in film noir, though Regan basically means well, as long as she can be with Sullivan. Unfortunately, for her, love gradually blooms between Sullivan and Martin in the course of a plot in which Sullivan does escape from prison, but spends the rest of the film on the run from both the police and the smarmy Coyle. Sullivan kills Coyle in a battle to the death, then he himself dies in Ann’s arms from wounds incurred in the battle, seemingly having found peace at last in a strangely recuperative final turn.

Night and the City (1950) stars Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, a two-bit hustler with million-dollar dreams. Or perhaps million-pound dreams, because one of the unusual features of this noir film is that it is set in London—where it was also filmed under the direction of Jules Dassin, an American director who worked mainly in Europe in the 1950s to escape the repressive political climate in the U.S., where he had become a victim of the blacklist. From the beginning of Night and the City, it is clear that Fabian’s talents do not match his ambitions, and that his schemes generally go awry. For once in a noir film, Widmark does not play a psychopath, but Fabian is a rather unscrupulous figure, willing to lie, cheat, and steal to further his own goals, which he still generally does not achieve. In this case, he concocts a scheme to become big-time promoter of Greco-Roman wrestling, which he hopes to offer as an alternative to the American-style professional wrestling that is becoming more and more popular in London, where it is dominated by big-time promoter Kristo (Herbert Lom). Of course, this scheme has no chance to succeed: Greco-Roman wrestling and the past traditions it represents will never have the commercial appeal of the circus-like entertainment that is modern American professional wrestling, thus introducing a theme of modernity/commodificaion vs. tradition/purity that lies at the heart of the film.

To make matters worse, Fabian is able to proceed with his plan at all because he receives financial support from nightclub owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), who invests in Fabian’s scheme only because he knows Fabian will run afoul of the powerful Kristo, and thus perhaps be removed from the scene once and for all. Nosseross, after all, is aware that a former relationship between Fabian and Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers), Phil’s wife, might not be entirely over. Meanwhile, Fabian and the self-serving Helen are plotting against one another, while good-girl Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), who unaccountably seems to be in love with Fabian, is pretty much left out of the loop. Ultimately, though, Fabian is defeated by his own maneuvers. He hopes to outwit Kristo by gaining the support of Kristo’s beloved father, a former legendary Greco-Roman wrestling champion who wrestled under the name Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko), but his alignment with Gregorius ultimates leads to his (and Gregorios’s) downfall.

Night and the City is in many ways a classic noir film (the hapless protagonist, the paired female characters, the seedy underworld settings, the treachery), yet it is made more interesting by the ways in which it deviates from the norm of noir. In addition to the London setting, the very fact that the film is set in the world of wrestling adds an element of strangeness, given that noir films of this type are typically set in the world of boxing. But the film takes its wrestling milieu quite seriously, and one of the highlights of the film is an extended sequence in which Gregorius wrestles with Kristo’s champion, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Both Zbyszko and Mazurki were former professional wrestlers, and they are able to give their scene (in which Gregorius is ultimately killed) a very authentic feel. Kristo then blames his father’s death on Fabian, which ultimately leads to Fabian’s killing at the hands of The Strangler as well.

Perhaps the greatest of all of these wrong-man noir films is actually entitled The Wrong Man (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchock, this film features Henry Fonda as a jazz musician who is also a dedicated family man and all-around responsible citizen. This fact, however, does not prevent him from being wrongly arrested for armed robbery, with near-catastrophic results, though the film (partly because of the strictures of the Code) manages to tack on a redemptive ending.