Lake, Ladd and a Lady

Continuing to liberate titles from the Universal library, TCM’s Vault Series this week offers “Dark Crimes,” a three disc set of noir (or at least noir-like) films that, amazingly enough, have never been released on American home video: the two middle entries in the Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd cycle, Stuart Heisler’s “The Glass Key” (1942) and George Marshall’s “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), plus Robert Siodmak’s first American noir, the 1944 “Phantom Lady.”
A review here in the New York Times.

I’ve always found the Siodmak film a little disappointing — despite the striking cinematography by the great Woody Bredell, it turns into a standard whodunit, with the marginal novelty of a female detective (the stunning Ella Raines) and not much of the real noir spirit (it’s a perky, cheerful kind of noir). It seems even more disappointing once you’ve seen “Pieges,” Siodmak’s last French film before his departure for Hollywood, which follows the same basic formula with the added interest of a startling, “Psycho”-style twist that involves one of the stars. “Phantom Lady”‘s most famous sequence — that steamy basement jam session, in which Elisha Cook, Jr. drums himself into an erotic frenzy as Raines, disguised as a hooker, stares him down with those cold, blue eyes — is shot in a stylized, self-conscious fashion that I used to assume was directly inspired by Gjon Mili’s amazing 1944 short “Jammin’ the Blues,” shot by Robert Burks, edited by Norman Granz and featuring Lester Young, Harry Edison, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones and others. But as it turns out, “Jammin’ the Blues” was released on May 5, 1944, while “Phantom Lady” came out on January 28 of that year. Did Siodmak somehow get an early look at it, or did the influence run in the other direction? Or is it all just one of those spooky, film noir coincidences?

135 comments to Lake, Ladd and a Lady

  • Blake Lucas

    The article “Visual Motifs in Film Noir” was co-written by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, a cinematographer. Since both were friends, I just wanted that to be accurate.

    I don’t think it was an idiosyncratic position at the time to consider it a style and for me it was the correct position. The phrase “film noir” is thrown around way too much now, even by those who once defined it more narrowly–and though I understand the reasons for this, from a critical perspective, some of them are not too good.

    In my piece in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD in UNDERCURRENT I made a point of taking the position the movie is not a film noir and gave my reasons. No one ever argued with me about this but I’d be interested to hear any disagreement.

    It’s worth remembering that through the whole period of classic film noir as it is now considered, not one director, cinematographer, writer or producer ever said, “I’m making a film noir right now.”

  • Blake Lucas

    I tried to edit this a little and I guess the time ran out. I wanted to qualify one phrase to “consider it essentially a style…” I do think there are to an extent common subjects, motifs, themes and world view in what we call film noir, though these are flexible (no femmes fatales in Nicholas Ray’s three for example–the heroines are all positive characters, just as Kansas is in PHANTOM LADY). But for example, I don’t believe there are any noir Westerns or Western noir, just films in that genre that have stylistic inflections commonly found in what we now consider film noir of the period.

  • Robert Garrick

    I’m glad Patrick Henry made the point about Fay Helm, after whose character the film “Phantom Lady” is named. She’s only in the first few minutes of the film, but the sadness she projects, while still remaining attractive and interesting, is unforgettable.

    As for defining “film noir”–that a tedious exercise, not unlike the inevitable “form versus content” debates that infect entry-level film and literature classes. But some things can be said and some things need to be said. Certainly a film noir comes from more than just a photographic style, and it comes from more than just a story based in criminality.

    Earlier in this thread I mentioned Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” which was the first major thing written in English on the subject. You can find the essay online and read it in ten minutes. Just about everything that I might say about the definition of noir is in that essay. To Schrader (and to me), noir is not a genre, and it’s more than a style or a type of story. It’s also defined by its historical time. Schrader correctly points out that “most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements,” and he sets the outer limits of noir at “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and “Touch of Evil” (1958). (My own starting point would be “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940), but I doubt Schrader had seen that film in 1972.)

    In general, this has been a terrific thread with interesting contributions from almost everyone.

  • “The article “Visual Motifs in Film Noir” was co-written by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, a cinematographer. Since both were friends, I just wanted that to be accurate.”

    Thanks for the correction Blake. Lowell Peterson certainly deserves acknowledgement for his contribution.

    It seems to me that style is a good place to start, maybe using style as the independent variable when factoring in other elements (but this would exclude “The Maltese Falcon” as a film noir.)

  • Robert Garrick

    Many scenes in “Phantom Lady” involve the Ella Raines character Kansas walking through dark, unsettling New York City streets or subway platforms. She’s alone, and she’s frightened, and danger seems to be everywhere. These scenes had to be influenced to some degree by the early Lewton films, all of which included similar sequences that often were quite extended and that all involved courageous and even heroic female characters. Jane Randolph’s walk in “The Cat People” (1942) introduced us to the concept of the Lewton “bus,” a false scare that comes at a time of heightened suspense. “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) climaxes with Frances Dee’s walk through the bamboo, to the voodoo ceremony. “The Leopard Man” (1943) is full of the clicking of heels on shadowy streets full of unseen menace. And near the end of “The Seventh Victim” (1943), Jean Brooks walks through a terrifying Greenwich Village after escaping from the devil worshippers.

    Jean Brooks, incidentally, was a married name. The actress, who was unforgettable in “The Seventh Victim,” was married at the time to Richard Brooks.

  • Barry Putterman

    Maybe we should just ban the term “film noir” from the site. Really folks, all that was said (and I should know, since I said it) was that there were ELEMENTS OF noir in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Which is to say tha there are stylistic and thematic threads in that film which can be related to other films of the period such as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, PITFALL and THELMA JORDON. That’s all. No need for a tug of war about whether it should be invited into the club. No need for a debate regarding “strict construction” of the noir constitution. I thought it was a rather innocuous observation, but maybe Mr. Heller and the Times Book Review are really on to something.

    By the way Blake, given Columbia’s house lighting style, it is very hard to make a case for many of that studio’s films as noirs.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I’d like to chime in with the praise for Fay Helm, and to give her full credit she reappears and has one of her best scenes near the end of the film, when an employee of the hatmaker admits to copying the hat with which she can be identified, and she is questioned by Ella Raines.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Of course no one ever said “I’m making a film noir” in the forties because the word, or phrase, hadn’t been invented yet. Interestingly too, the word continued to remained ignored, or unknown, long after it had been invented in France. Actually the label “film noir” started being used in the USA long after the genre (assuming it’s a genre!)had more or less disappeared. How come Hollywood filmmakers didn’t realize they had created a new style (or genre), while French critics did? I agree of course with Durgnat who wrote: “In 1946 French critics, having missed Hollywood films for five years, saw suddenly, sharply, a darkening tone, darkest around the crime film…” but there ends the quote because I’ve always disagreed with what followed — which pretty much did what lots of people have been doing recently: seeing, or pretending to see, “noir” cinema in films that are only tangentially if at all noir.

    I have always thought that the French invention of the film noir concept had a lot to do with French people’s surprising taste for all things noirish in the years following the end of WWII. That was when Gallimard launched the immensely successful “SERIE NOIRE” which mostly published American crime thrillers — many of which had been, or later would be, made into movies (Jacques Prevert is said to have come up with the name).

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Maybe we should just ban the term “film noir” from the site.’

    Barry, discussion is useful to me. I would like to understand about film noir concept and other problem questions discussed at this site. Many informed film scholar writing here, precious opportunity to learn because I can ask question to them.

  • david hare

    Jean-Pierre, a very belated welcome back from me too. Very glad to see you again.

    Along with the postwar Serie Noire, when and why was it decided by French writers to assign to American Film Noir the description “Polar”, as one sees in French TV Guides, Pariscop, etc?

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, of course I wasn’t literally suggesting that we ban “film noir” or any other term from the site. The problem comes with trying to become too precise about definitions which were coined retrospectively to give historic coherence to a group of films which shared a more generalized and unstated artistic impulse.

    As Blake said, nobody during the 1945-1955 decade thought they were making “film noirs.” By the same token, nobody in the 1935-1945 decade thought they were making “screwball comedies.” Once, when I was doing research on Claude Binyon, I read a trade paper story on the then upcoming TRUE CONFESSION, describing it as being among the “crazy comedies” which were currently in vogue.

    By the way, the Museum of Modern Art will soon begin a series called “Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960-1986.” Can you offer us any thoughts about how to navigate this series?

  • Peter Henne

    “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir” is an interesting article. Thanks to X and Blake for citing it, I hadn’t read it before. The authors take considerable trouble to detail style traits in film noir. They collect together some of the most commonly recognized visual aspects of noir, like reduced fill light and off-center angles, and discuss each one concisely and articulately.

    As I see it, a pitfall to the article is that for the most part it takes each of the traits in isolation instead of in contexts of additional traits which help give shots and scenes their full meaning. Moreover, other shots and scenes provide more context, which the article also does not address. The authors seem to take the presumption that each style trait under their discussion elementally rings a certain emotional impression, but that simply isn’t so. For example, a tight close-up cropping off a little of the top or bottom of a face is not automatically “obtrusive and disturbing,” because it might be sympathetic or neutrally investigative instead. It becomes a “choker” only when some additional traits are present. Not all of the traits in their inventory are specific to noir, either, even when they yield an emotional impression similar to noirs. For instance, they note, “compositional balance within the frame is often disruptive and unnerving…. In the better film noirs [are seen] bizarre, off-angle compositions of figures placed irregularly in the frame, which create a world that is never stable or safe, that is always threatening to change drastically and unexpectedly.” Exactly the same framing and effects are fairly standard issue for ’50s war films. Noir doesn’t own this device. Similarly, when they discuss depth of field turning out “each character as just another facet of an unheeding environment that will exist unchanged long after his death,” couldn’t they just as well be citing pioneers etched into the eternal desert landscapes of Westerns?

    I’m not convinced that any of the traits the authors discuss, taken out of context of a film’s complete style and genre expectations, particularly yield the response that they take for granted will obtain. I end up agreeing with Blake where he includes locating meaning in “common subjects, motifs, themes and world view.” The article tends to reduce noir to a bag of tricks, and my problem with that is the tricks don’t tell you enough about personal expression. To come back to my BRIEF ENCOUNTER example, you can look up the title on Google images and find some high-contrast urban images that look akin to noir, but I think I made a good case before that that set of lighting, framing and setting alone doesn’t have to indicate threat emanating from the condition of city living. The combination doesn’t necessarily spell noir. You can use contrast on a street at night in long shot to express all sorts of things, not just what noir archetypally does. I think even the authors would agree that BRIEF ENCOUNTER doesn’t fit the noir profile, for they use identifying descriptions like “tough, unromantic,” “paranoia, delirium and menace,” “sinister or demented.” That doesn’t sound like the trembling, attentive romance that I know.

  • More feature shared among Robert Siodmak films:

    Garages:

    garages maintaining cars in Berlin: People on Sunday,
    cabby has cab up on hoist: Phantom Lady,
    dispatcher’s office: Criss Cross

    Theaters:

    theater: Phantom Lady,
    early silent film show: The Spiral Staircase

    Jazz music with drumming:

    Elisha Cook as drummer: Phantom Lady,
    night club dance with Rumba players: Criss Cross

    Victorian decor:

    heroine’s apartment, Elisha Cook’s apartment: Phantom Lady,
    mansion: The Spiral Staircase

    Mirrors:
    mirror behind bar, Franchot Tone’s dressing room: Phantom Lady,
    large circular mirror in dressing area: Cobra Woman,
    mansion staircase: The Spiral Staircase,
    over diner window at start, tilted mirror in restaurant finale: The Killers,
    hospital: Criss Cross

    Staircases:

    station: People on Sunday,
    prison, asylum, outdoor stairs to elevated: Phantom Lady,
    steps leading to throne: Cobra Woman,
    hotel, three staircases at mansion: The Spiral Staircase,
    Swede’s, entrance to room with shallow steps, mansion: The Killers,
    nightclub with descending levels, sloping exit of armored car company, staircase at Lancaster’s, Angel’s Flight: Criss Cross,
    shallow steps of hero’s office building: The File on Thelma Jordon

    Counters:

    lunch stand: People on Sunday,
    Anselmo’s bar: Phantom Lady,
    diner: The Killers

  • The new 25 films added to the National Film Registry:
    http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2012/12-226.html

    There are so many I still haven’t seen!

    But I do know and love The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (Maurice Tourneur, 1914).
    Go ahead, Library of Congress, and make my day!

  • David Cohen

    Mike, AP’s story on the Film Registry list leads with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” `’Dirty Harry” and “A League of Their Own” … I would have thought “The Matrix” would be the most recognizable title on the list.

    I have to say I haven’t thought about “They Call it Pro Football” in probably 40 years.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    To David Hare: thanks, David! “Polar” is a slang word for “policier”. Crime novels and movies used to be called “roman policier” and “film policier” or just ” “un policier” but the word “Polar” was never used by writers and critics in the forties and fifties. I think it appeared in conversation in the sixties (I don’t remember myself or anybody else using it earlier, especially in writing). Starting in the late sixties a frenzy of slang or slangish words and phrases swept over the country and it became fashionable to use them even in writing, in articles and books (French crime novels, by the way, are slangish with a vengeance, and that includes the translations of American thrillers). Thus “Polar” has become the accepted name for “film/roman policier”, a term that would seem old-fashioned to most people if you used it nowadays. Lots of colloquial or slangish words have thus replaced the original. One example: the word “livre” (book) has been almost completely replaced by the old colloquial word “bouquin” (even a dignified publishing firm calls one of its collections “Bouquins.”)

  • Johan Andreasson

    A bit off topic (but French crime novels were mentioned), and just out of curiosity: From the little I know of the French crime writer Léo Malet (who has never been translated into Swedish, except for a couple of cartoonist Jaques Tardi’s adaptations, which Malet seems to have approved of) his work seems to be very much in the film noir mood, and in the hard boiled style of Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald and other American writers I imagine were in the Série Noire. Is that true also from a French perspective?

  • Dear Mike, thanks for the link to the National Film Registry. It’s another inspired choice of 25 films, and the introductions in the newsletter are well written. I hope TWO-LANE BLACKTOP will now become easier to access in its full scope glory. There are titles there I had never even heard before, including THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL, “the Citizen Kane of sports movies”.

  • patrick henry

    I used to have a video of BLACK ANGEL, and whoever wrote the copy on the box gave us a helpful definition of film noir (I think mentioning its “darker imagery” ), which was belied by the film itself. IIRC, every scene (except Dan Duryea’s nightmare/flashback) is brightly lit, even in settings where a darker look would be logical (e.g., Duryea in his fleabag hotel room, where a 40 or 60 watt bulb is what you’d be likely to get). Since R.W. Neill did not stint on dark scenes in the Sherlock Holmes movies, I wonder why he avoided them in this one? (Maybe had to do with his “moving up” to A pictures?)

    Incidentally, on the commentary track to DRESSED TO KILL, Patricia Morison says she can’t remember anything about Neill! But she has a few charming anecdotes and sounds great, not at all like an old lady. Sounds just the same as in the movie. She must’ve led a charmed life.

  • Robert Garrick

    Patrick, a few years ago I asked Anne Jeffreys what it was like working for Anthony Mann in “Sing Your Way Home” (1945). Jeffreys has a major role in the film; she sings in it; she was twenty-two years old and it was something of a breakthrough role for her.

    But she had no recollection of the film at all.

  • Alex

    It seems to me there are three main criteria used to identify film noir: (1) high-contrast expressionistic cinematography of Weimar vintage, especially in B&W and for indoor and night sequences; (2) a thematic tendency to resolve protagonist character “development” and narratives in a pessimistic/fatalistic fashion; and (3) narratives within an overlapping set of crime (investigative and psychological) and thriller genres. To 3 I’d add that I buy Krutnick’s (1991) view of a broadly a distinctive thriller genre stressing male anxieties (both tough guy in the traditions of roles well suited for the likes of Bogart and Lancaster and effete/fragile ones in the traditions of roles well suited for the likes of Lorre and Elisha Cook.) .
    Each of these criteria categorizes films rather loosely on its own, but any pair does. Use of all three gives us just about what Silver and Ward stress once one deletes films they find insufficiently pessimistic/fatalistic (e.g., where the protagonist survives sane and not morally monstrous).
    Criteria 1 and 2 give us problematical cases like KANE and LOST WEEKEND; criteria 2 and 3, such visually flat noir As THE BLUE DAHLIA and such color noir as color noir as LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN; 1 and 3 such less darkly resolved stuff like THE BIG DAHLIA. There are, of course tough, cases like THE MALTESE FALCON, whose cinematography is marginally expressionistic and whose resolution for Spade might be viewed by some as insufficiently morally atrocious. A single criterion gets one nowhere very nourish though it might show up affinities between the likes of BEST YEARS OF OUT LIVES and noir.

  • alex

    Maybe they’ re iconic criteria as well: no noir without fedoras and/or borselinos.

  • Some features widespread in film noir – but definitely not in every noir movie:

    Crime Drama
    Femme Fatales: Romances which lead to crime or murder
    Cruel Villains

    Obsession
    Alienation
    Irrational Forces
    Doom
    Governmental Corruption
    Hero in hospital
    Betrayal of Hero

    Urban Characters
    A Locale exclusive to a Racial Minority
    Gender role reversals

    Black and White
    High Contrast photography

    High and Low camera angles
    Tilted camera angles
    Complex Mirror Shots
    Frames within the frame
    Foreground objects
    Choker closeups

    Rain
    Water scenes: / Dock, pier, sewer scenes
    Unusual Clocks
    Stairs
    Bed banisters
    Tear Gas and Gas Masks
    Gas stations
    Night driving

    Pinstripe Suits
    Leather Jackets
    Uniforms

    Flashbacks
    Voice over narration
    Lying characters
    Unseen but named characters who play a major role in the plot

    Important disclaimer: Many of the the above are NOT original to me. Instead, they are taken from writers in:
    Film Noir Reader (1996); Film Noir Reader 2 (1999). Both edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini.

    ***
    Film Noir Reader 2 reprints Lloyd Shearer’s NY Times article, “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen” (August 5, 1945). It has quotes from Hollywood figures and mystery writers, about “the trend in Hollywood” to make “crime films”.
    No one in 1945 Hollywood had heard of “film noir”.
    But both Hollywood and the US press knew all about “crime films”.

    Whether you call them crime films or film noir, this was a real genre, whose practitioners were fully conscious of what they were doing.

  • Barry Putterman

    I should think that there is quite a bit of difference in saying that something is a crime film, a story category which was well established even before the invention of cinema, or a film noir, a critical term invented after the fact to define a group of films made during a specific historical period.

  • Barry,
    There is a definition of film noir (by Alain Silver and James Ursini?) which defines a noir film as:
    “a crime film made in the 1940′s or 1950′s which is not a series whodunit (such as the Saint or Crime Doctor movies).”
    In practice, just about all crime films of that era have in fact been considered as “film noir”.

    I agree, the idea that crime films of this era have unique characteristics that set them apart, is indeed a significant claim.

  • Alex

    Mike and Barry,

    The criteria I suggest are criteria that only make sense for defining noir when used jointly.

    So I never said that a crime film qualified as a film noir, any more that I’d say that life in the water qualifies an animal as an amphibian –though it does help differntiate an alligator from a Kimodo dragon.

    Infact, I never stipulated “crime film” as a criterion. although my third criterion was “3) narratives within an overlapping set of crime (investigative and psychological) and thriller genres”

    Indeed, I wrote that “A single criterion gets one nowhere very nourish.” Indeed, the third criterion get you nothing but “narratives within an overlapping set of crime (investigative and psychological) and thriller genres,” nowhere that’s distinctively noir at all.

    A logically unstructured set of “features widespread in film noir” will never define a genre called “film noire.”

    A genre is noir the same as a formula and needn’t be consciously pursued to exist. Indeed, initial examples of a genre are not created to template called “genre.” Cervantes didn’t think of himself writing picaresques nor Goethe Bildungsromanen.

  • Barry Lane

    Otto Penzler has an informed definition of noir posted. Just google Otto Penzler “noir”. should come up.

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, if that indeed is the definition of a film noir, then DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD is most definitely a qualified club member and you should inform Blake post haste.

  • alex

    When asked for a definition of noir Penzler does reluctantly offer up a literary definition of it that stresses “loser” protagonists and an elaboration of the familiar “pessimism” related set traits but that eschews film style (centrally literary though the “definition” is).

    But I would hardly presume to say that Penzler was not informed.

  • Peter Henne

    Barry P wrote, “the Museum of Modern Art will soon begin a series called ‘Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960-1986.’” I’ve since learned the series travels to the PFA in the Bay Area in February. Anybody know if the series turns south to Los Angeles?

  • Barry Lane

    Otto Penzler’s article defining “Noir” was published in The Huffington Post on 08/10/2010. It should still be available online.

  • Barry Lane

    Otto Penzler’s article defining “Noir” was published in The Huffington Post on 08/10/2010. It should still be available online.

  • Alex

    Penzler give a very incisive definition of noir – entirely literary/ narrative and never explicitly cinematic though it may be—in his “Noir Fiction Is About Losers, Not Private Eyes’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/otto-penzler/noir-fiction-is-about-los_b_676200.html). However, its narrow focus on the loser strikes me as excessively exclusive of central noir narratives when Penzler writes that the “private detective story separates itself from noir” because the PI “ has a character with a moral center” and his “story is optimistic, even if the detective is not…. A heroic figure stands at the center of the private eye novel; there are no heroic figures in noir fiction…. One is dependent on its hero maintaining the ethical high ground while most everyone with whom he interacts lies, cheats, steals and kills. The other features people who wallow in the sty that is their world. The machinations of their lust, whether for money or love (which, in noir fiction, is a four-letter word for sex), will cause them to be blinded to rudimentary decency as they become entangled in the web of their own doom.”

    This view excludes such “heroic” as “Build My Gallows High” (“Out of the Past”).
    and misinterprets one if its own key texts when it excludes “The Maltese Falcon” as noir because “Sam Spade knew that when somebody kills your partner, you’re supposed to do something about it,” instead if including Spade for seeking the falcon as venally as Gutman or Cairo and subordinating his love for Brigid O’Shaughnessy to his focus on maintaining a commercially and socially viable identity as a PI as coldly as Gutman abandons beloved gunsel Wilmer into the fate of “fall guy.”

    Kapsis’ focus on masculine anxieties has no more problem with the egotistical Spade, the homophobic Marlow or the heroic Jeff of “Build My Gallows High” (and “Out of the Past”).

  • Alex

    Ooops! “Kapsis’ focus” should read Krutnick’s” focus (confusing my cinephilically neglected film studies academics).

  • D. K. Holm

    At the risk of beating Mr. Thomson further over the head, I got his latest book, having all the others, including the early novels, the book on Scott, and even a slim book on soccer -football. I read a bit of the intro then flipped to a section on Tarantino, a subject most people know a disproportionate amount of info. There were numerous factual errors, plus certain leaps of association that defied logic. Plus all those stylistic quirks. In Have You Seen …? I’ve been underlining them, such as “Never mind” (26 and counting) and the tendency to recast or redirect movies, or follow fictional lives beyond the film, as if they were real people. I don’t begrudge him the obsession with Kidman … After all Sarris once chanted “Girls! Girls! Girls!” … But on the other hand he seems to have stopped having new ideas around the time he said books were better than movies in an intro to slater edition of the Dictionary. An example is The Godfather, to which he returns with no new insights. That he “won” the Sight and Sound film books poll is disheartening, but perhaps attributable to a large presence in British newspapers.