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Yet Still More Noir Even

The noir boom continues — at least, the studios have found one way to market old movies — with a pair of lush sets from Sony (five titles) and Warners (eight). For the most part these are mid to late period titles, moving from the baroque stylization of Anthony Mann’s 1947 “Desperate” to the stripped-down stylistics and opaque characterizations of Irving Lerner’s 1959 “City of Fear.” The streamlined noir of the 50s finds its most consistently interesting practitioner in Phil Karlson, represented here by two of his best films, “The Brothers Rico” (in the Columbia box) and the semi-documentary “The Phenix City Story” (in the Warners set).

As usual, it’s debatable whether some of these films are noir at all, as opposed to police procedurals (Richard Fleischer’s tight little “Armored Car Robbery”) or juvenile delinquent dramas (Don Siegel’s “Crime in the Streets,” with an early John Cassavetes performance and a very Playhouse 90 script by Reginald Rose). It may have gotten in on a pass, but there is probably more to say about Gerald Mayer’s “Dial 1119,” a topical drama from Dore Schary’s deflated MGM about an escaped mental patient (Marshall Thompson) who holds half a dozen hostages in a back-lot bar through 75 minutes of more or less real time. Unfortunately, the film isn’t very well directed, but it does suggest that by 1950 people were already concerned about the baleful influence of live television on breaking news stories (and makes “Ace in the Hole” look a bit less innovative in the process).

My New York Times review is here.

211 comments to Yet Still More Noir Even

  • I’ve just received Criterion’s von Sternberg set and now I am beginning to wonder if Underworld was the birth of American noir. Dave will likely review the set when the time comes, but I am wondering what the current theory is about Sternberg’s authorship of his autobiography. Is it generally accepted that he wrote it himself, or has a ghost been unearthed in recent years?

  • Here is a crazy idea that should cause outrage – why not take silent films and add sound? Even the dialogue. You could get lip readers in there to get the dialogue right, and have Walter Murch create a whole effects palette. The only real problem is that shots of people speaking lines are often cut in half by the title cards. And yes, I know that this is a ridiculous idea, the aural equivalent of colorization, but if one things of certain Hitchcock silents, such as The Ring, a film that was screaming for sound to arrive, it could make the experience last alien. Yes, yes, I know, untenable, and absurd. Just a thought.

  • Johan Andreasson

    D. K., I believe that’s what Disney did with the Mickey Mouse shorts PLANE CRAZY and THE GALLOPIN’ GOUCHO after STEAMBOAT WILLIE was a success. And surely, in the period of transition between silents and talkies, the same thing must have happened with some films that started out as silents. Speaking of Hitchcock, isn’t there both a silent and a sound version of BLACKMAIL?

  • Blackmail Yes, there are two versions, sound and silent, and the sound version is a “part talkie.” I haven’t had a chance to compare them, but I am sure that Tom Ryall does in his BFI monograph on the film(s).

    One argument against putting sound to, say, Underground is that the voices would not be those of the original actors, but then, that was never a problem in Italy.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Not for BLACKMAIL either, I think. I’ve only seen the part talkie version, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t the voice of Anny Ondra, who was Czech, that we’re hearing.

  • Right, I believe she was dubbed by an actress standing off camera.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Yes, Ondra was voiced by Joan Barry, who subsequently starred in RICH AND STRANGE.

  • Peter Henne

    Gregg, Taking a cue from Schwarz herself, I couldn’t resist breaking up her paragraph, coming in the middle at times and adding my own commentary on top of whatever she means, since I’ve grown tired and impatient with linear thinking:

    “The movies of my childhood, a more stable, trusting era, were linear, their plots meant to be comprehended.”

    As opposed to today’s audiences, which suck up however many predictable storylines and product placements that can be thrown at them.

    “And yet the effort of reassembly, I see now, was very much like watching today’s movies, so many of which are built of fragments scattered in a jumbled time frame.”

    Fragmentation-lite, functioning within reassuring limits which has flattering the audience at the bottom line, and which hardly ever more than brushes against delivering the promise for reassembly which a figure like Resnais, mentioned here, dismantles as a matter of play.

    “Arriving in the middle transformed these simple movies of the past into postmodern films, the kind that set us down in the center of a labyrinthine design and abandon us.”

    Simple like Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Ophuls, Powell–hey hold on a danged second there

    “We were, in a sense, being prepared for the future, for movies that replicate, unwittingly, our experience of arriving in the middle.”

    Replicate their own formulas on a loop that seems to only consolidate its possibilities as it spins over time.

    Thanks everybody. Enjoy your postmodernist mash-up…er, investigation.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Again, the word “simple” reflects the author’s childhood perspective on the old Hollywood movies she saw then, not necessarily what Wright would say seeing these films as an adult. It would probably be better if people responded to/ critiqued Wright’s full essay. Unfortunately, it’s not available at the Threepenny Review website (I just checked again). Check better libraries everywhere.

  • Peter Henne

    Fair enough, Gregg, but when Schwartz contrasts “simple movies” to “postmodern films,” it’s very hard to avoid an impression of the author turning up her nose at the former, by the words she uses for the medium if nothing else. Likewise, a “jumbled time frame” instead of plotting that plays to “stable, trusting” expectations sounds oh-so-more-sophisticated. Well, right about now I could use a diverting, postmodern movie to wash down what look like unwitting double standards to me.

  • jbryant

    D.K.: I suspect many silent actors strayed from the script, knowing they weren’t being heard. I’ll bet lip readers have some great stories to tell about watching silents. 🙂

    I just finished reading A. Scott Berg’s bio of Samuel Goldwyn, and it relates that when Vilma Banky made her first American picture, THE DARK ANGEL, she was still learning English (with difficulty) and so during shooting spoke her lines in “a mixture of pidgin English and Hungarian.”