Bad Girls of Film Noir

Both “bad girl” and “film noir” are terms to be understood loosely in this two-volume, eight-film collection from Sony, but I’m more than willing to put up with a little hype if it means bringing some fresh material to market. To say the least, this isn’t a director-oriented collection; the strongest personality here is the redoubtable Hugo Haas, represented by “One Girl’s Confession,” one of his least pathological productions (this time, Cleo Moore is the masochist).

There are two anonymous efforts by Lewis Seiler (“Women’s Prison,” 1955; “Over-Exposed,” 1956); two somewhat more flavorful films from Henry Levin (“Night Editor,” 1946; “Two of a Kind,” 1951) that suggest Levin had a little more kink in him than his bland Fox comedies would suggest; and a half-hearted medical melodrama from Irving Rapper (“Bad for Each Other,” 1953) which manages to make Charlton Heston look like a much worse actor than he actually was. More intriguing are the two on-location thrillers, “The Killer That Stalked New York” by Earl McAvoy and “The Glass Wall” by Maxwell Shane, both of which show the very strong influence that neorealism was bringing to bear on Hollywood practices, even on this marginal level of production. The latter film goes so far as to import Vittorio Gassman, in his first English language role, to play a Hungarian displaced person on the run in New York City; his attempts to find refuge in Times Square were filmed, according to the trailer, with “hidden cameras” — probably 16-millimeter rigs loaded with high speed newsreel stock.

The performers, of course, are the center of attraction here, and if the set offers a little too much of the fleshy Cleo Moore (in three films, including the all-star “Women’s Prison”), it does showcase Lizabeth Scott (in two films), Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, Gertrude Michael, Juanita Moore and Mae Clarke (all in “Women’s Prison”), Evelyn Keyes (“The Killer That Stalked New York”) and the underrated Janis Carter — whose enthusiastic interpretation of a decadent socialite who gets turned on by the prospect of examining a battered corpse in “Night Editor” makes her the baddest girl of this bunch. That’s her above, with William Gargan. My New York Times review is here.

373 comments to Bad Girls of Film Noir

  • Peter Henne

    Larry, I agree that there are some remarks on the camera, and I didn’t say that there were none. But they seem to me disconnected and way played down. What the piece foremost consists of are references to character exchanges and periodic admonishments to Sirk’s Champions, mostly in a declarative fashion along the lines of, “You got it wrong, pal.” For such a long piece that seems to want to set the record straight on Sirk, so little emphasis on camerawork and so much on snatches of dialogue is disheartening. I still say the essay’s heart is in a literary understanding.

    Kent, I think I see where you’re coming from, and I will let it rest. I believe we’re simply using a term differently.

  • nicolas saada

    The french edition of the german films of Sirk can be found here

  • Kent Jones

    dan, what can I say? For me, I’M NOT THERE amounted to more than an assemblage of paper thin elements, because I thought the juxtaposition of the constituent parts created a very powerful whole. For you, it didn’t. But we do agree on NO DIRECTION HOME. Great movie.

    Peter, I think we’re pretty much on the same wavelength here. I just think that the term Brechtian was wildly overused for a while there. It’s not the same as saying Proustian or Twainian or Hitchcockian. It implies a political action. As if Brecht had made some kind of scientific discovery, when he was always just a great theater artist.

    Gee, I always kinda liked ERIN BROKOVICH.

  • Alex Hicks

    Is Sarah Jane turning “bad girl” in IMITATION OF LIFE really much more ridiculous and over the top than Vida (Veda?) going “bad” in MILDRED PIERCE. Maybe. However, it’s always seemed to me that one has to engage in about the same degree of acceptance of melodramatic convention and suspension of disbelief with MILDRED PIERCE as with IMITATION OF LIFE (though the latter seems to get more flack for melodramatic excess that the latter).

    Is sleeping with Stepdadday less “probable” or more shocking than trying to “pass” as White? (Am I way off on the wrong track in thinking about an apparent inconsistency between common responses to IMITATION and MILDRED?)

  • dan

    Kent, obviously its all a matter of opinion. I just raised the subject again because I wanted to make clear i’m not misunderstanding you.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jean-Pierre, we can nip that ugly rumor about me knowing everything in the bud right here and now, because I have no idea where that quote came from. Nor, despite my best efforts, can I seem to distinguish Sandra Bullock in THE BLIND SIDE from Julia Roberts in ERIN BROCKOVICH. But it’s alright….then….

  • Johan Andreasson

    Dan, in reply to your post at 1:29 yesterday: I haven’t seen IT FELT LIKE A KISS, but I’d very much like to. The films of Adam Curtis seem not to be available on DVD (difficulties with rights to all those clips I guess), but so far I’ve managed to see PANDORA’S BOX, THE CENTURY OF THE SELF, THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and THE TRAP, and like them all very much. Especially THE CENTURY OF THE SELF was an eye opener to me. I knew that advertising was influenced by Freud’s ideas, but I didn’t know that the influence was this direct.

  • Nic, if you use the link tag I won’t have to individually approve your posts every time you (very kindly) offer us a web address.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Nicolas, are the German Sirk films in the French box subtitled in any other language than French?

  • Larry and Peter — By far the best essay on Sirk’s visual style is Fred Camper’s pioneering essay in Screen, Volume 12, No. 2, from 1971. It’s not so easy to come by, alas, but Fred did provide a nice precis of his thesis when he reviewed a Sirk series for the Chicago Reader in 2006. It’s here on Fred’s site.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry, the “Putterman” quote is from a Patricia Highsmith short story, “Uncertain Treasure.”

    I am reading Joan Schenkar’s superb biography of Highsmith — one of the best bios I’ve ever read and possibly the most exciting (and well-written). This is not totally off topic since PH has her place in cinema history (and since she was a VERY bad girl too).

  • Tony Wiliams

    That SCREEN issue on Sirk containing Fred’s article was very good and I’m glad I borrowed an original to photocopy when still in the UK. I’d recommend contacting interlibrary loans and getting a copy since it is really worth it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jean-Pierre, if Patricia Highsmith is off topic, than the topic should be changed to Patricia Hghsmith.

  • Jonah

    “Every idea is so well formulated by the director that you feel your work as an audience is narrowed to a certain degree. ”

    I just wanted to contribute to say that this is an excellent observation re. Todd Haynes’s work. At least, it accounts for a certain disappointment I feel after I’m allowed to think about the films for a while (they nearly always impress me on first viewing). I think his Dylan film suffers from this sort of “overthinking” the most, and SAFE most nearly escapes from it. His films often feel like diagrams, or the illustration of theses–an obvious result of the feedback loop between academic film criticism and Haynes’s filmmaking.

    That said, I can’t help but have an enormous degree of respect for Haynes’s intelligence and talent, in part because his pastiches and “deconstructions” show enough respect for their sources to be uncannily pitch-perfect in their accumulation of period style and mood (think of the bohemian couple’s early-1960s apartment in I’M NOT THERE).

    As for Sirk’s visual style, which Haynes so carefully approximates in FAR FROM HEAVEN, Lutz Bacher (author of an excellent, extremely detailed book on Ophuls’s American films) wrote an excellent dissertation on this very subject, which has never been properly published.

  • Jonah

    I apologize for using the word “excellent” three times in a single post!

  • Jonah,

    I’m a great admirer of Lutz Bacher’s work.
    But have never encountered his Sirk piece.
    Where is it?

  • Jonah

    OK, now, embarrassingly, I can’t find the reference. Will keep looking!

  • Jonah

    Gosh, I’m doubly embarrassed–I think I read a different piece on Sirk at the same time as I was reading something by Bacher, and somehow confused the two in retrospect! It doesn’t appear Bacher’s published anything on Sirk. Now to track down whatever it was that I _was_ reading. Apologies to all!

  • Jonah,

    Please don’t worry.
    You have already gone to much greater efforts than I ever intended.
    Thank you for your help.

  • Lutz Bacher

    On pages 202 and 203 of MAX OPHULS IN THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS,I compare Ophuls and Sirk’s working methods at Universal, the kinds of coverage they provided, and the consequent ranges of editing choices available to the editor. Sirk’s methods were considerably more adapted to classical Hollywood norms and hence viewed more favorably by the studio’s management.

  • I’d say the best and truest film noir on these DVDs is “Night Editor.” You’ve got your sap: a police detective led astray by a Hitchcock blonde. The double cross. Cinematography by film noir hall-of-famer Burnett Guffey. It’s by far the oldest film in the collection. Janis Carter, as Dave noted, puts on a clinic in heartless bitchery. Very bad girl. Good film noir. (The weird bookends come from the movie’s roots in an old radio show.)

    So there are some bad girls on these sets, but not many films noir. At least the Columbia titles all have some something to do with crime, cops and deception. I wrote up the film noir collection on DVD Spin Doctor.

  • Steve Johnson

    Note to Jean-Pierre,
    Cleo Moore was not Mrs. Hugo Haas. That was Marie Bibikoff, who died about a year ago. They were, however, lovers, which some have said impaired Haas’s ability to reach greater potential. It’s interesting how closely his life played out according to his films in some cases, and the more you find out about the man the more you appreciate what he put on film. The operating principle in most of his work was guilt, as it was for a large part of his life.

  • Dave, This is a comment, out of the blue, from “Save Film @ LACMA” organizer, Debra levine.

    Lizabeth Scott fans will enjoy reading my brief commentary on her June 28, 2010 (rare) public appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/debra-levine/film-noir-honey-lizabeth_b_633725.html

    Wishing you the best, Dave, and more power to the bad girls, Debra L.