©2019, by M. Keith Booker
The gangster films of the 1930s were often criticized for romanticizing crime and for making their gangsters into outlaw heroes. Many recent heist films—the Ocean’s 11 franchiseis emblematic—have done much the same for their criminal figures. Noir heist films, however, tend to do just the opposite. In them, the criminals planning heists are often depicted as thieves with no honor, plotting against each other even as they plot their heist. Alternatively, they are depicted as essentially working-class figures, just ordinary guys doing their jobs and trying to get by.
High Sierra is an early heist film that provides a sort of bridge between the gangster films of the early 1930s and the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. For another, it was the film in which Humphrey Bogart established once and for all the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold persona that would make him one of the major figures in American cinema for the next twenty years. The film was also an important landmark for screenwriter John Huston, who soon afterward turned to directing his own films, beginning with the noir classic The Maltese Falcon (1941). Despite such anticipations of the future, High Sierra projects a strongly elegiac tone, presenting its protagonist (Bogart) as an aging criminal whom the world has passed by. As Nick Roddick puts it, “it depicts a world where values have slipped and nothing can any longer be relied on” (86). In this sense, though in a displaced way, the film recalls the sense of a loss of the American dream that, according to Michael Denning, pervades American leftist culture in the Popular Front period.
Bogart plays Roy Earle, a notorious but past-his-prime criminal who begins the film by receiving a pardon and a release from the Illinois State Prison. On the outside, he learns that he is expected to participate in a Los Angeles hotel robbery planned by Big Mac (Donald MacBride), the criminal mastermind who was responsible for securing his pardon. But the heist seems doomed from the beginning. When Earle arrives in California he finds that he is expected to work on the job with a gang of young and highly unprofessional criminals. In addition, two of his cohorts, Babe Kozak (Alan Curtis) and Red Hattery (Arthur Kennedy), have picked up a woman, Marie Garson (Ida Lupino). They have not only told her all about the planned robbery, but are meanwhile at each other’s throats fighting over her. Earle tries to get rid of her but eventually befriends her and becomes her protector. To top things off, Earle finds that he is adopted by Pard, a mongrel dog who apparently carries a curse, all of his former owners having come to bad ends, a fact Earle learns from Algernon (Willie Best), the film’s comic black, presented via blatantly racist stereotypes.
In the meantime, Earle, the son of Indiana farmers, meets a farm family from Ohio who have traveled to California in search of economic opportunity. He becomes smitten with Velma (Joan Leslie), the club-footed granddaughter of the family. He pays for the surgery to correct Velma’s club foot, only to find that she is in love with someone else and therefore has no interest in Earle’s proposal of marriage. Predictably, the robbery goes badly as well; Earle shoots and kills a policeman during the job, while Red and Babe are killed in the getaway. Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde), the final member of the gang, is captured and identifies Earle to the police. Earle manages to make off with half a million dollars in jewels and takes them to Big Mac to exchange them for cash, only to find that Big Mac has died. Earle then goes on the run with Marie and Pard, eventually taking refuge at the top of Mt. Whitney, only to be killed by a police sniper. Marie, accompanied by Pard, walks away in tears, proclaiming that Earle is free at last, thus suggesting the way in which American society refused to allow him any path out of criminal conduct other than death.
Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) was perhaps the first great noir heist film. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, the film actually revolves around a heist that took place several years before the present-day events of the film, carried out by a gang that includes ex-boxer Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster), who is essentially a working-class figure, and that is led by the conniving Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), who plots to steal the loot from his own gang. The present-day events of the film begin when a gas station attendant known as Pete Lund (actually Anderson, who has by now assumed another identity) is tracked down and killed in a small town in New Jersey. Most of the film is then told in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) seeks to unravel the mystery of Lund’s killing. In the process, he discovers that “Lund” was actually Anderson and that Anderson was killed by henchmen hired by Colfax. Anderson is killed to cover up the fact that, years earlier, Colfax had managed to make off with all the loot from a payroll heist, while making it look as if the money had actually been taken by Anderson. And Anderson had been an easy target, thanks to being wrapped around the finger of femme fatale Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), who was actually in league with (and married to) Colfax.
Very few details of the actual heist are included, no doubt partly because of Code restrictions. Meanwhile, much of the mystery Reardon is trying to solve has to do with uncovering the reasons for the passive and fatalistic way in which Anderson accepts his fate. Anderson’s attitude helped to make this an iconic noir expression of the hopelessness of existence, while the performances of both Lancaster and Gardner helped to propel them to major Hollywood stardom. It is also one of many noir films that suggest the difficulty of ever overcoming a mistake in one’s past. As Anderson says at one point, explaining his predicament, “I did something bad once.” The film was remade in 1964 (under the direction of Don Siegel). This version, less in the noir style than the original, is notable mostly for the fact that it features future president Ronald Reagan (in his final film role before going into politics) as sadistic gangster Jack Browning (who replaces Colfax from the original).
Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949)is an excellent heist film in which protagonist Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) returns to L.A. after drifting for months to recover from his breakup with wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), only to discover that she has now taken up with small-time gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). Steve is clearly obsessed with Anna, who has feelings for him as well, but quickly marries Slim after it appears that a reunion with Steve is not in the offing. Steve and Anna rekindle their relationship nonetheless, and Steve concocts a plan to rob the armored car company for which he works so that he can get the funds to run away with Anna. The robbery goes awry, and Steve is badly wounded in the resultant shootout. He is declared a hero for his efforts, though long-time pal (and local policeman) Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally) suspects the truth. When one of Slim’s henchmen abducts the wounded Steve from the hospital, Steve bribes him to take him to the hideout where Anna is waiting for him with the loot. Unfortunately, Anna looks out only for Anna. As Barton Palmer puts it, “Incapable of love, she can only betray, not only the man who wants to use her (Dundee) but the one who truly loves her (Steve)” (69). Thus, Anna coldly tells Steve there is only enough loot to support her, not the two of them. Slim then shows up and shoots them both, ending the film. Dundee is then shot down by police, completing the slaughter.
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is perhaps the ultimate noir heist drama, one of the defining works of that genre. It combines an effective film noir look with a taut and suspenseful plot, while at the same time making some important observations about modern capitalist society. As the title indicates, the film portrays the modern city as a jungle, drawing upon a literary tradition that dates back to such illustrious predecessors as Upton Sinclair and Bertolt Brecht. (The city of the film is unnamed, but it seems very close to Kentucky and within driving distance of Cleveland, so it is probably Cincinnati.) In particular, The Asphalt Jungle suggests that crime and violence pervade every aspect of modern urban society—on both sides of the law. At the same time, the film explores the link between crime and capitalist acquisitiveness in a particularly insightful manner. This social analysis leads Thom Anderson to consider the film an example of what he calls the “film gris”—films that have much in common with film noir but with greater social and psychological realism (183). The Asphalt Jungle gained four Academy Award nominations, including best director and best screenplay, but it won no awards, perhaps because of its dark message. In addition, the film was widely criticized for its sympathetic treatment of its criminal characters, who are generally presented as far more virtuous than the film’s solid citizens.
The film begins as criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh out of prison, immediately begins to carry out an elaborate jewel robbery that he had first planned seven years earlier, just before his imprisonment. He goes about the operation in an extremely professional manner, suggesting clear parallels between the workings of crime and the workings of everyday American business. For example, his first step is to secure investment capital, which he seeks, using the bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) as a middle-man, from respected attorney Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Emmerich also agrees to help with the marketing of the stolen jewels. Meanwhile, Doc hires a crew of professional specialists, including safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), getaway driver Gus Ninissi (James Whitmore), and gunman Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden).
This carefully assembled group is presented in a largely positive light. Doc is cold and calculating, in many ways a typical example of the negative image of intellectuals (especially German intellectuals) in postwar America. Even his human side, which surfaces primarily in his irresistible attraction to young girls, has a sinister aspect. At the same time, he is not really evil; he abhors violence and steals only from the rich. Louis, meanwhile, is a skilled professional who commits crimes only because of his devotion to his family, and Gus is a warmhearted hunchback who helps out unfortunates and loves cats. Dix is in many ways the central character. Not the brightest guy in the world, he shows evidence of genuine kindness and commits crimes largely to further his dream of recovering his family’s lost farm back in Kentucky. In short, the film’s actual “workers” are upright and sympathetic, while the only really evil characters are the corrupt bourgeois Emmerich, the criminal capitalist Cobby, and the corrupt cop, Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley).
The robbery seems to go off well until alarms unexpectedly sound, drawing the police. Doc and his gang still manage to secure the jewels and to make their getaway, though Louis is seriously wounded by a gunshot (in a freak accident) in the process. Meanwhile, the gang is double-crossed by Emmerich, who turns out to be desperate for cash due to his profligate lifestyle, which among other things involves the keeping of an expensive mistress, Angela Phinlay (played by Marilyn Monroe, in a small role that nevertheless shows evidence of her future star quality). Emmerich thus unsuccessfully attempts to steal the jewels for himself; in the process, his henchman, Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter), is shot and killed by Dix, who is in turn wounded by Brannom. Doc then suggests that, with the heat on, Emmerich should try to make a deal with the insurance company for the return of the jewels at a discount price, no questions asked.
The insurance company agrees to pay $250,000 for the return of the jewels. Unfortunately, the police are closing in, and the whole plan seems to be collapsing, especially when the police identify Doc as their principal suspect. Eventually, Cobby spills his guts to the police, who begin to round up the gang. Retribution is swift. Gus and Ditrich join Cobby in jail; Emmerich shoots himself to avoid arrest; Louis dies of his wound. Doc seems on the verge of escape when he manages to find a German cab driver who agrees to take him to Cleveland. However, on the way out of town they stop for food at a roadside diner, where Doc becomes fascinated by a teenage girl dancing to the jukebox and ends up lingering so long that police arrive and arrest him. Dix, though weakening from loss of blood, manages to drive all the way back to Kentucky, accompanied by his faithful moll, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen). He then staggers onto his family’s old farm and drops dead on the land he loved, surrounded by horses. The film is then wrapped up as Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) talks with reporters and explains all of the recent developments as typical episodes in modern city life.
In addition to films that focus on private detectives and on the police, many noir crime films stand apart from the usual fare of classical Hollywood film in that they focus (often sympathetically) on the perspectives of the criminals. One of the most important kinds of films in this category is the heist film, in which a criminal gang goes to elaborate ends to plan their big score, only inevitably to have things go badly wrong. Because the criminals almost always fail, noir heist films were on solid ground with the Production Code on that score. However, because such films are mostly about the detailed planning and execution of a crime, heist films were constantly battling against the requirement of the Code that no criminal activity could be presented in detail. As a result, noir heist films often have to leave out so many details that they can be quite confusing.
Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955) is a full color remake of The Street with No Name (1948), and it’s a significant improvement on the original, even if it might sacrifice a bit of noir ambience due to its (excellent) color cinematography. It also transposes the story of The Street with No Name from the American Midwest to a postwar Japan still occupied by U.S. forces, whence arise the most interesting aspects of the film. House of Bamboo is essentially a heist film that tells the story of an American crime ring that is operating in Japan, scoring big-ticket, well-planned heists against a variety of targets (including the American military)—until they are infiltrated by a U.S. army spy, Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack), whose efforts finally lead to the downfall of the gang and the death of their leader, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). This main plot is effectively told, with some particularly impressive action scenes, including the climactic death of Dawson atop an amusement park ride. The main interest of this film, however, is its story of cross-cultural encounter. It is, as Silver and Ward note, the only film even metaphorically to suggest that there was something criminal about the U.S. occupation of Japan (133).
The film’s representation of the U.S.-Japan relationship is highly ambivalent, however. For example, Kenner’s halting love affair with a highly sympathetic Japanese woman, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) nicely allegorizes many aspects of the postwar relationship between the U.S. and Japan. The shy and submissive Mariko is quickly taken with the manly Kenner, though the screen that chastely separates them at night when they sleep indicates literally the difficulty of cross-cultural communication between the two lovers and figuratively the gap between American and Japanese culture. At one point, Mariko massages Kenner’s stiff neck, at which he compliments her on her skills and asks where she got them. “In Japan,” she says, “a woman is taught from childhood to please a man.” “Mmmm,” he responds. “It’s the best custom yet.” The element of Orientalist fantasy here is almost palpable, as is the sense of feminine Japanese subservience to masculine American power. American culture appears to exert superior force at another point in the film as well. Here, Dawson hosts a private party for his gang, complete with Japanese dancing girls in traditional costumes, twirling and waving their fans to traditional Japanese music. Then, in a sudden and almost shocking moment of cultural convergence, the music shifts to a jazzy, upbeat Western style, while the dancers throw off their Japanese costumes, revealing modern, Western clothing underneath. Joined by some of the men, they then launch into a frenetic jitterbug.
This switch, of course, recapitulates the modern history of Japan, with its sudden and rapid modernization, especially in the postwar years. But the modernization and Americanization of Japan are presented in House of Bamboo as far from an unequivocal triumph for truth, justice, and the American way. For one thing, there is the fact that the film’s criminals are American. Moreover, even Kenner—the film’s principal “good” American—is a problematic figure in that he betrays Dawson after winning the latter’s trust and respect (and perhaps his homosexual love). Capitalism brought affluence and rapid development to postwar Japan, but it also brought new forms of corruption and cutthroat competition.
Before he became known as one of the great artists in American cinematic history, Stanley Kubrick made several low-budget, black-and-white films, including two noir films: the truly strange boxing film Killer’s Kiss (1945) and the heist film The Killing (1956), co-written by Kubrick and hard-boiled crime novelist Jim Thompson. The Killing is something of a rough-edged masterpiece that clearly anticipates Kubrick’s future greatness; it is also an effective crime thriller that has exerted a significant influence on future filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino. Its style of voiceover narration also adds an element of documentary realism that makes the film even more compelling. Here, a character played by noir veteran Sterling Hayden heads a group that plans the robbery of a Los Angeles racetrack, carries out the robbery successfully, then has it all fall apart in the end, largely due to the machinations of the femme fatale played by Marie Windsor, who had been a femme fatale in such noir films as Force of Evil (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952). Ultimately, though, Hayden’s character is done in by sloppy baggage handling at the airport, emphasizing the way in which ordinary, everyday events can conspire against noir protagonists.
The anticommunist witchhunts that descended on Hollywood at the end of the 1940s meant that it became virtually impossible to produce films that were critical of American capitalism, especially if they even hinted at the possibility of socialism as a viable alternative. As a result, any political films made in the 1950s had to deal with issues that did not represent a systemic critique of capitalism. One of the most important directions taken by such films was to critique social phenomena such as racism, though it should be noted that, in such film, the racism is generally displayed by aberrant individuals or groups who are themselves presented as un-American. Films of this type were produced in many different forms, including film noir. For example, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950) features the screen debut of the now-legendary Sidney Poitier as Luther Brooks, a young black medical doctor who is menaced by maniacal racist, played with his typical manic aplomb by noir great Richard Widmark. Widmark’s character, Ray Biddle, is a denizen of “Beaver Canal,” a sort of hellish white-trash enclave within the city that is famous for its racism, which is depicted almost as a congenital disease. The film’s sympathies are clearly with Brooks and the film’s other black characters, as are the sympathies of all representatives of official authority in the film, so that its critique of racism is never presented as a critique of America or its institutions. One white character, played by Linda Darnell (also from Beaver Canal), even starts out as a racist but learns to overcome that inclination through her interactions with the film’s black characters, especially the virtuous Brooks, who even acts to save an injured Biddle after Biddle has just shot and wounded him in a murder attempt.
One of the last heist films of the original noir cycle is Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which joins No Way Out to bracket the anti-racist noir films of the 1950s. Odds Against Tomorrow is, in most ways, a competent (but not extraordinary) noir heist film. However, this film gains additional interest from the friction that occurs between two members of the gang planning a bank heist. Tough guy ex-con Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) is a dyed in the wool racist who makes quite clear his hateful attitude toward Harry Belafonte’s Johnny Ingram, a black jazz musician driven to crime because of his gambling debts to the mob. Written by black-listed leftist screenwriter Abraham Polonsky (for whom John O. Killens stood in as a front), the film makes a number of powerful anti-racist points, though one could argue that (at least by twenty-first century standards), the ending is a bit heavy-handed, even if it is striking. On the run from the cops while simultaneously battling each other, Ingram and Slater climb (in a scene with some terrific noir visuals) atop the tanks of a fuel storage depot, ultimately igniting the tanks with their gunfire into a fiery apocalypse that consumes the entire facility. Afterward, viewing the charred bodies, the authorities can’t tell which of them is which.