STRANGE NOIR

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

Many, if not most, noir films contain an element of strangeness. Some, however, elevate their strangeness to a new level, making it their predominant feature. Arthur Ripley’s The Chase is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (The Black Path of Fear, 1944), whose novels in fact provided the source for more noir films than any other writer. Everything else about The Chase is pretty unusual, though. It particularly pushes the dreamlike quality often associated with noir to extreme levels. Set mostly in Miami, it tells the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-on-his-luck World War II vet, who gets a job with a local gangster, Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), after returning the latter’s lost wallet. Most of the plot involves Scott’s efforts to help Roman’s wife Lorna (Michèle Morgan) escape from her husband’s abusive control, though the efforts are complicated by Scott’s own uncertain purchase on reality due to the lingering effects of wartime trauma. Among other things, Scott’s condition means that he has trouble remembering from one moment to the next what he was supposed to be doing. In one sequence, for example, they escape to Cuba and are both murdered there. Scott then wakes up to discover that this whole sequence had been a dream—but then most of the scenes in the entire film are rather dreamlike. Ultimately, Roman and his henchman Gino (played by noir stalwart Peter Lorre) are killed in a car crash and Scott and Lorna, now apparently in love, are free to go to Cuba for real. Or are they? This one is so out of kilter from the very beginning that we never ultimately know for sure what is real.

 The Woman on the Beach (1947), one of the American films directed by French film legend Jean Renoir, is perhaps most notable for that distinction. It also features noir acting stalwarts Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett, as Ryan plays a traumatized Coast Guard officer who meets and develops an obsession with a married woman played by Bennett. To complicate matters, her husband (played by Charles Bickford) is a once-great artist who is now blind and unable to paint. The embittered artist mistreats his wife, almost leading to his murder at the hands of Ryan’s character. In the end, though, the artist seems to see the error of his ways and offers his wife her freedom, though it is not clear whether she will take him up on it as the film ends somewhat ambiguously. Lots of (maybe too much) psychological drama makes this film seem a bit overwrought by twenty-first-century standards, but some interesting visuals and an effective score definitely make it worth watching, even if Renoir’s sensibilities don’t quite seem in tune with the usual noir mode.

The Tyrone Power vehicle Nightmare Alley (1947) was not only unusual in featuring such a major star, but also had an unusually large budget and unusually high production values overall, at least by the standards of film noir. The result is not entirely fortunate, however, as the high-profile status of the film probably drew extra attention from the Code’s enforcers, while other noir films sometimes slipped under the radar. Nightmare Alley still gets away with a lot, though, while its combination of sordid content and slick filmmaking adds an extra element of strangeness from which the film actually benefits. It begins as Power’s Stanton Carlisle works as a carnival barker who seems to feel vaguely superior to most of the other carnival performers, including the alcoholic Pete, a former vaudeville star, and especially the carnival’s resident geek, the lowliest of the carnival’s motley crew. Carlisle flees the carnival after accidentally causing the death of Pete by giving him wood alcohol to drink, thinking it to be moonshine. In one of the twists that occur so often in film noir, this misfortune turns out to be something of a lucky break, though Carlisle will be haunted by guilt over Pete’s death throughout the rest of the film.

Using techniques he picked up in the carnival (from Pete’s wife Zeena, played by Joan Blondell) Carlisle goes on to become the star of a club act as a mentalist, aided by his new wife Molly (Coleen Gray), the surprisingly innocent young carnival performer he had been forced to marry by the other carnies after their secret romance was discovered. Molly joins him in his club act, which is a considerable success, though he seemingly hits his real jackpot after meeting up with faux psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), whose patients include many of Chicago’s rich and famous—who have shared with her secrets that allow her and Carlisle to bilk them of considerable amounts of money by playing upon their secret weaknesses and desires.

This portion of the film is perhaps the most interesting, as Carlisle here becomes essentially a spiritual conman, supposedly able to communicate with the dearly departed of wealthy clients, but also offering them general spiritual advice. In this sense, Carlisle’s spiritualism becomes a stand-in for religion—and Molly herself points out to him. This connection, meanwhile, comes close to suggesting that religion in general is a con game built upon the needs of the vulnerable. Indeed, Carlisle often wins the confidence of his marks by employing the terminology and rhetoric of religion. He even cons Molly with this rhetoric, justifying one of his scams by telling her that it will help the mark develop religious belief: “A man’s faith is trembling in the balance. A man who was a confirmed skeptic about anything relating to religion now stands upon the threshold. … What should I do? Should I let the man’s soul be lost forever?” This critique of religion is, however, only hinted out and never really followed through to a logical conclusion, no doubt partly due to the ban on critique of religion built into the Production Code. Meanwhile, Molly immediately expresses skepticism about his argument, telling him that he is “goin’ against God.” It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she cannot resist blowing the whole plan, after which Carlisle is himself bilked by Ritter, leaving him penniless and on the run. Turning to the bottle (and thus following in Pete’s footsteps), Carlisle sinks lower and lower until, in the end, he is reduced to performing as a geek in another carnival (after failing to convince the carnival boss to hire him as the rather Orientalist “Sheik Abracadabra, a top-money mind reader”). Descending to geek status is too much for him, though, and he seemingly goes insane at having sunk so low, only to be reunited with Molly in the film’s false-ringing conclusion—though it is not clear whether she will be able to do anything to save him at this point.

The film thus neatly circles back to its beginning. But in film noir, which tends to depict a world that is messy indeed, such a neat structure is not necessarily a virtue. The carnival portions of the film (made more realistic by the construction of a full-scale carnival for use as a set) particularly dramatize the marginalized outsider status of so many noir characters, while the overall air of corruption and decadence is also typical of noir. The carnival itself, meanwhile, becomes a stand-in for the seamier side of consumer capitalism. Molly, an innocent young woman cursed by her love for a corrupt man, is also a type frequently found in noir, as is Ritter, who can hold her own with any man in terms of ruthlessness, corruption, and intelligence.

Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (1947) (scripted by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer) employs a classic noir plot, but displaces it to the sleepy New Mexican town of San Pablo, a town that in fact has very much the flavor of Mexico itself, connecting this film to the many noir films that involve Mexico directly. Tough guy protagonist Lucky Gagin (Montgomery) arrives in the town on the eve of its annual “fiesta,” which seems to be about the only thing that ever happens in the town. Looks can be deceiving, however, and the quiet town is also the headquarters of gangster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), whom Gagin has come to town to blackmail, having come into possession of evidence (a canceled check) incriminating Hugo in the bribery of a federal official. The feds are on the case as well, and Bill Retz (Art Smith) is also in town, investigating Hugo and hoping to get the check from Gagin.

As is typical of film noir criminal protagonists, Gagin has righteous motives for blackmailing Hugo. For one thing, Hugo had supposedly used the bribe to avoid military service in World War II (though, oddly, Hugo is nearly deaf and seems too old for the draft), while Gagin served in the war. The film thus subtly introduces the notion that many who served in the war returned to an America that did not truly appreciate their service, while many who failed to serve in the war actually profited from it. In addition, Hugo’s minions had earlier murdered Gagin’s war buddy Shorty in an effort to retrieve the same canceled check. But this very fact makes it obvious that Gagin is in severe danger from the moment he hits town, where he has other difficulties as well, including being unable to find a hotel room due to the upcoming fiesta. He is also decidedly out of his big-city element in the sleepy town, where most of the locals seem to speak primarily Spanish. Luckily, he is befriended by the Falstaffian Pancho (Thomas Gomez) and by the diminutive Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who has just arrived in San Pablo from an even smaller town.

Predictably, Hugo tries to have Gagin killed. And, just as predictably, Gagin triumphs (with the help of Retz, Pila, and Pancho), though he has a turn toward virtue and hands the check over to Retz to use as evidence against Hugo. Other elements of the film, however, are much more interesting. Pancho, the good-hearted, disheveled rogue, is something of a stereotype of the kind often seen in the ethnic characters of 1940s Hollywood. Pila, on the other hand, is somewhat more interesting. At first glance a combination of ethnic (she is also Hispanic) and gender stereotypes, she seems naïve, submissive, and almost desperately eager to please and impress the cynical Gagin, who treats her rather rudely and dismissively throughout the film, partly because of his general misognyny. Lunching with Pila in a restaurant (where the rustic young woman feels decidedly uncomfortable and out of place, he explains to her that “dames” are “not human beings. They’re dead fish with a lotta perfume on ‘em. You touch ‘em and you always get stung. You always lose.”

Pila, of course, begins to grow on him as the film proceeds, though he is unable to overcome his general suspicion that she is trying to “get her hooks in” him. Then, when the film ends, he tells her goodbye, clearly expecting her to beg him to stay or to take her with him when he leaves San Pablo. Instead, she surprises him (and, perhaps, most viewers) by accepting his exit rather nonchalantly, then joking with her new friends in the town about her experiences with Gagin, which have apparently made her something of a hero to the locals. It is clear by this ending that both Gagin and many viewers have underestimated her strength and independence throughout the film. Figured as the sweet innocent (who stands in opposition to Hugo’s tough moll Marjorie Lundeen, played by Andrea King) throughout the film, the petite Pila is easy to overlook, especially as her lack of worldly experience and poor facility with English make her seem a bit simple minded. She turns out, however, to have depths of courage and resourcefulness that a superficial estimate would not reveal.

Capitalism is, in many ways, at the core of the film, as it often is in film noir. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to a Vienna in which the supply of almost all commodities relies on black market distribution and in which almost all of the citizens participate in the black market. An early shot of a floating corpse, however, reminds us of the potential fate of those who dabble in this market and helps to set the tone for the entire film. The actual plot of the film then begins as American novelist Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a writer of pulp Westerns, comes to Vienna to assume a job offered him there doing publicity work for a “medical charity” run by his old friend, the American Harry Lime (Orson Welles). On his arrival, however, Martins is told that Lime has just been killed in a street accident. When Martins subsequently attends the burial, he meets the British military policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who informs him that Lime had been the mastermind behind the blackest of black market schemes. Lime and his ring, Calloway claims, were stealing penicillin from local hospitals, then diluting it and selling it at huge profits on the black market. But the diluted drug was ineffective, resulting in horrible suffering and gruesome deaths for those who were treated with it.

Martins, a sort of American naif abroad, is at first incredulous and decides to seek evidence of Lime’s innocence so that he can exonerate his friend. In the process, he meets (and eventually falls in love with) Lime’s former girlfriend, the beautiful Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). He also meets a weirdly sinister cast of Lime’s former associates in Vienna, including Baron Kurtz (wonderfully played by Ernst Deutsch as a sort of degenerate vampire and figure of the decline of the European aristocracy), Dr. Winkel (played by Erich Ponto in a clearly Naziesque mode), and the sleazy Romanian Popescu (Siegfried Breuer). The more evidence Martins collects (especially from the porter of the building in which Lime had lived), the more suspicious appear the circumstances surrounding Lime’s death. Those circumstances then appear even more suspicious when Lime himself (played by the great Orson Welles) suddenly emerges from the shadows (both literally and figuratively), initiating a shocking chain of events.

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949), later known as The Black Book, is a noir film so unusual that it might not even be regarded as a noir film had it not been directed by a director who at that time was best known for his work in noir. In point of fact, The Black Book contains almost all of the classic elements of film noir, especially visual ones (thanks to the cinematography of noir master John Alton), except for the fact that it happens to be set in 1794 France, in the midst of the French Revolution. The film stars Robert Cummings as Charles D’Aubigny, who leads an intrigue that is ultimately successful at derailing Maximilien Robespierre’s efforts to establish himself as the dictator of France, hoisting Robespierre on his own petard as he is sent to the guillotine.

The Black Book is an effective drama in its own right, but is most interesting for the way in which its historical setting, so unusual for a noir film, actually reflects on a number of contemporary political issues. For example, much of the political rhetoric of the film is somewhat anachronistic, as when Robespierre is repeatedly described as a potential dictator at a time when that term had not yet taken on its modern pejorative meaning. Meanwhile, the actual politics of the French Revolution are almost completely ignored in the film. Anyone watching with no knowledge of French history would be hard pressed to tell that a monarchy had been overthrown and would be likely to think that a country with a tradition of democracy was suddenly in danger of losing that democracy to a dictatorship.

In a more specific sense, the Black Book of the title, in which Robbespierre keeps the names of his enemies, slated for arrest and execution, clearly echoes the Black Book in which the German Nazis kept a list of the names of nearly 3,000 prominent British residents they planned to arrest once they secured control of Britain and which had been discovered shortly after the end of World War II. Robespierre thus becomes a stand-in for the Nazis, who were in fact prominent villains in film noir. On the other hand, The Black Book was made just as the Cold War was hitting its stride, and it was a fact that American historical assessments of the French Revolution took a dramatic negative turn during this period as part of a general attempt to associate it with the Russian Revolution, thus discrediting that revolution as well. One is thus tempted to see The Black Book as a participant in this phenomenon—perhaps as part of an attempt to assure Congressional investigators of Hollywood’s loyalty in the battle against the Soviets.

Several elements of The Black Book would seem to support this reading of the film as a piece of anti-Soviet propaganda. For example, the soldiers who enforce Robespierre’s orders in the film look oddly Russian, dressed in Cossack-like outfits that American audiences would be likely to associate with the Soviets (even though Cossack troops generally sided with the czarist forces that battled against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War that succeeded the Russian Revolution. And then there is a moment late in the film when Robespierre’s supporters, realizing that many of them are listed in the Black Book, turn against him. Soldiers, still supporting Robespierre, stand behind him with bayonets crossed in a way that fleetingly resembles a hammer and sickle, the well-known emblem of the Russian Revolution. And yet, at this same moment, a mob rear-projected behind the main action presents an image so patently artificial that it threatens to stand the whole scene on its head. (Such projections have often been used, for example, in the plays of the communist playwright Bertolt Brecht to comment upon the action taking place in the foreground.)

A very Cossack-like French soldier enforces the will of Robespierre in “The Black Book.”

Soldiers supporting Robespierre cross their bayonets in a manner that resembles the hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Russian Revolution, while a rear-projected mob in the background threatens to undermine the entire scene by announcing its fictionality.

His Kind of Woman (1951), though set in Mexico, might have been a relatively conventional film noir had it not been for the meddling of Howard Hughes, who became unusually interested in the film and insisted on a number of changes that made it something of a jumbled mess. The film was originally directed by John Farrow, who is credited as the director, but it includes a significant amount of additional insisted upon by Hughes that was directed by an uncredited Richard Fleischer when Farrow refused to accede to Hughes’ demands. The basic plot of the film includes a plan by Italian gangster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr, whose own casting is a story in itself), recently deported from the U.S., to get back into the country by luring loner Dan Milner (the ever-present Robert Mitchum) to Mexico, then murdering him and substituting himself (altered by plastic surgery to look like Milner) for Milner so he can re-enter the U.S. That basic plot, supplemented by the romantic heat generated by the chemistry between Mitchum and Jane Russell while their characters are in Mexico, might have made an excellent noir. But Hughes insisted on completely changing the second half of the film into an action comedy (featuring a number of disparate elements that really don’t work together). Most of these elements involve a movie star character played by Vincent Price, who is actually pretty amusing, but the changes largely undermine the original film, even if the result is still fun to watch. It’s amazing how good even bad noir films can be.