January 9, 2020

LOST NOIR: Overlooked Film Noir Thrillers

LOST NOIR: 10 Overlooked Film Noir Thrillers from the Classic Era (with one exception)

Essay by D.M. ANDERSONšŸ’€

I'm relatively late to the party when it comes to film noir. Sure, I've seen the indisputable classics, but wasn't until doing Blu-ray reviews that I've come to love this dark new world. Well, new to me anyway.

Part of my growing appreciation for the genre comes from the good films that, for one reason or another, have somehow fallen into relative obscurity compared to, say, Double Indemnity. The following essay is a round-up of some noteworthy, lesser-known examples of film noir released during the genre’s heyday (with one more modern exception). So while you won’t find any Mitchums, Stanwicks or elusive falcons, these films are worth checking out by noir fans looking for something beyond the classics. And fortunately, all have recently been given new life on home video, making them easy to find.


THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF (1950)

Edward Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) is a hardnosed San Francisco cop whose married girlfriend, Lois (Jane Wyatt), shoots and kills her estranged husband. Accidentally? Hmm...that's debatable, but Cullen dumps the body near the airport, making it look like a mugging before tossing the gun into the bay. Ironically, his younger brother Andy (John Dall) is assigned the case. New to the force and eager to make a good impression, Andy looks to Edward for assistance and advice. This sets up a wonderfully complicated quandary for Edward: mentoring his brother through the investigation of a crime he took part in. Naturally, circumstances begin to spiral wildly out of control.

Lean, mean and economically made, The Man Who Cheated Himself is a solid example of classic film noir on a limited budget. The casting is interesting, as well. Cobb displays an outward cynicism that's perfect for the character; even as his plan begins to unravel, it's almost as though part of him expected them to. I've always admired John Dall's work in Rope and Gun Crazy and he's equally interesting here, playing against-type as someone who's actually likable and sympathetic. However, I do concur with the general consensus that Jane Wyatt is out of her element. Fortunately, most of the film focuses on the Cullen brothers' increasingly adversarial relationship.

Seldom mentioned among the great noir classics of the era, The Man Who Cheated Himself is nevertheless a lot of seedy fun, with a perfect final shot that speaks volumes about the genre's enduring appeal without using a single word.

SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946)

Though largely unheralded, Joseph H. Lewis created some wonderful films with limited budgets. He was a B-movie master in a variety of genres, though film noir was where he excelled. Granted, I haven't seen many movies on his resume, but thought 1950's Gun Crazy was a quirky little gem. So Dark the Night, on the other hand, is a lot more perplexing, since it certainly doesn't appear to fit the textbook definition of film noir...at least initially.

In fact, the tone is almost whimsical at first. When we first meet our overly-congenial protagonist, Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), he's strolling down a Paris street with a grin on his face, giving friendly greetings to children and shopkeepers. Hell, I have-expected him to break-out into song while skipping down the sidewalk.

Cassin is France's most famous detective who decides to take a break from police work to vacation in the country, where he meets Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), the young daughter of an innkeeper. She's half his age and, complicating things further, already engaged to hunky, hot-headed young farmer Leon (Paul Marion). Everything's still bubbly at this point, though Nanette's manipulation of both men suggests she could turn out to be some sort of femme fatale.

When Nanette later turns up dead, Cassin must put his renowned detective skills to work. He initially suspects Leon, at least until his body is discovered later. For the first time in his illustrious career, Cassin has no leads and is completely baffled. So are we...right up until the killer's identity is finally revealed.

So Dark the Night doesn't play by the rules. It unfolds like a whodunit yet offers no clues. The final revelation is nearly a red herring, a narrative suckerpunch with no overt foreshadowing. Yet at the same time, this is definitely what puts the film in noir territory, because in the end, all of Cassin's questionable decisions and subsequent problems are due to the love of a woman. Isn't that the narrative which drives so many movies of this genre?

THE BIG CLOCK (1948)

As noir goes, The Big Clock isn’t a perfect fit – there’s too much breezy humor present for that – but has enough of the same inherent aesthetic and narrative stamps to draw favorable comparisons to the best the genre has to offer. It also happens to be a hell of an entertaining film.

Ray Milland is George Stroud. As the editor-in-chief of Crimeways magazine, he’s an expert at using clues and evidence to track-down suspects who’ve eluded the police. The publication is run by ruthless, time-obsessed mogul Earl Janoth (a wonderfully-repellent Charles Laughton), who expects George to yet-again postpone an oft-delayed honeymoon with his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan). When George refuses, he’s fired. Stopping at a bar before he meets his wife for their honeymoon, he meets Pauline (Rita Sullivan), Janoth’s former mistress who suggests a blackmail scheme as payback. Unfortunately, George loses track of time and Georgette leaves without him. Angry that she wouldn’t wait, George spends the rest of the night drinking with Pauline, acquiring a sundial from a local dive bar along the way.

He awakens at Pauline’s apartment the next morning and makes a hasty exit just before Janoth shows up to speak with her. During a heated argument in the apartment, Janoth kills Pauline with the sundial. Rather than go to the police, he turns to his lawyer, Steve (George Macready), who suggests they re-enlist George and his staff to lead an investigation, hoping to frame Pauline’s ‘mysterious’ visitor. It’s a brilliant set-up for an intriguing plot in which George and his staff are investigating his own actions that night, interviewing witnesses and following leads which threaten to expose him. George has no choice but to play along, trying to cover his own tracks while attempting to find the real killer himself.

The Big Clock is everything a good thriller should be: intelligent, suspenseful and engaging right from the opening scene. It’s often very funny, some of the best bits coming from Elsa Lanchester as a wonderfully eccentric artist. In fact, most of the characters are well-rounded and perfectly cast.

GUN CRAZY (1950)

True to fashion, Bart Tare (John Dall) is a troubled sort whose life spirals out of control due to piss-poor choices for the sake of a woman.

He’s been a gun lover his entire life. As much as he loves shooting them, Bart detests the thought of actually taking a life. As a teen, his obsession leads him to actually steal a gun, resulting in four years at a reform school.

Following a stint in the military, Bart returns home and reunites with childhood friends, Dave and Clyde. He also meets his soulmate, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a sharpshooter performing with a traveling carnival run by her sleazy & jealous boss, Packett (Barry Kroeger). The two venture off and get married, but soon they are broke. At Annie's urging, they embark on a cross-country crimewave, robbing stores, banks and eventually a company's payroll, which gets the FBI involved. Though Bart doesn't want to hurt anyone, Annie has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in their way.

It's a timeless story told with a lot of flare and Gun Crazy is a superior example of modestly-budgeted film-noir. But even the most stylish film-noir is nothing without its morally questionable characters, and Dall is especially effective. Bart's no saint - nor the brightest crayon in the box - but Dall instills the character with an increasing sense of remorse over the couple's escalating actions, making it difficult not to feel sorry for this poor rube, doomed from the moment he lays eyes on Annie. Sure, he ultimately brings all this misery on himself, but Dall's performance assures us Bart was never a truly bad man...just a conflicted one.

PHANTOM LADY (1944)

Who says you can't find good help these days?

Unhappily married engineer Scott Henderson has a fight with his wife and goes to a bar to drown his sorrows, where he meets a mysterious woman. She seems morbidly depressed, too, so he suggests they attend a show he already has tickets for. She agrees, so long as they remain anonymous. Afterwards, Scott goes home, only to find wife murdered - strangled by one of his own neckties - and he's the police’s number one suspect.

Since Scott’s only alibi is a woman whose name he doesn't know, Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) has a hard time believing his story, especially since potential witnesses claim they never saw Scott with a woman that night. But his dedicated secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), is convinced of his innocence. With 18 days left until he's executed, she goes out on her own to find this mysterious woman and clear his name.

If you ask me, that level of dedication makes Carol a shoo-in for Employee of the Month. Well, she is secretly in love with Scott, which I suppose is good motivation. She eventually gets help from Burgess and, almost too conveniently, Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), a friend of Scott's who later flies into town upon hearing about his conviction.

A minor and obscure entry in the film noir genre, this crime caper moves along at a brisk enough pace that we don't question most of the story implausibilities until it's over. Despite the billing order, Raines is the real star of the film and she's quite engaging. So while we ain't talking Hitchcock or Huston here, Phantom Lady no classic, nor does anything about it doesn't resonate much afterwards, but certainly entertaining in the moment.

TRAPPED (1949)

While hardly the most stylish thriller ever made, Trapped has some nifty surprises along the way.

Many of those surprises are found in the plot itself, particularly during the first half. Incarcerated counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) is offered a reduced sentence if he helps the Treasury Department track down the same engraving plates he once used to print fake bills. Agents plot a staged escape, but Stewart double-crosses them, which they actually expected to happen, having already bugged girlfriend Meg’s (Barbara Dixon) apartment and planted uncover agent John Downey (John Hoyt) as a low-level gangster in anticipation of Tris returning to his old ways. But the plot twists don’t end there.

For me, the biggest surprise was in the casting. Predating his days as an underwater man-of-action or glue-sniffing buffoon, Bridges is tough, cold-blooded and menacing as Stewart. Conversely, Hoyt – mostly known playing arrogant bad guys – makes a formidable adversary, ultimately becoming the story’s main protagonist. Their roles could have been reversed and the film would have been fine, but watching them play against type adds an extra layer of fun.

Economically directed by Richard Fleischer, Trapped is entertaining and unpredictable, with interesting characters bolstered by solid performances. For film noir lovers, Trapped is worth rediscovering.

THE SET-UP (1949)

Film noir and boxing go together like cops & doughnuts, and for my money, there isn’t a more effective example than The Set-Up. More so than The Killers or The Harder They Fall, we really feel like we’re examining the underside of a rock.

Robert Ryan is terrific as “Stoker” Thompson, an aging boxer who never hit the big time. Still, he clings to the hope that he’ll win again someday. And he’s just one of a dozen-or-so others who fight each weekend at the seedy Paradise City Arena. Some are young hopefuls, others are as worn-out and weary as Stoker. Though it’s never spoken, most of these men seem aware they’re destined to serve as cannon fodder for up-and-coming boxers bankrolled by crooked gamblers.

Thompson’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias) arranges for him to take a dive during his next match, but since Stoker has lost his last 27 fights, neglects to inform him. Meanwhile, Stoker gears-up for the match, confident he can win this time. However, his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), refuses to watch him take another beating. In fact, she wants him to quit so the two of them can start a new life.

Primarily a character study, The Set-Up is presented almost in real time, from the deal Tiny makes with local mobster Little Boy (Alan Baxter), through the revealing, introspective locker room moments and culminating in Stoker’s match. By this time, his quiet desperation not-only has us rooting for him, but fearing for his life since he’s completely unaware he’s supposed to lose.

Director Robert Wise has made a slew of iconic classics in a variety of genres, which tends to overshadow how skillfully he could put together a comparatively small, visceral piece of film noir, particularly in his early years. The Set-Up is a prime example of the genre, full of intriguing character-driven moments, a bruising climax and a bittersweet resolution.

APPOINTMENT WITH CRIME (1956)

Leo Martin (William Hartnell) is a smash & grabber, hired by local boss Gus Loman (Raymond Lovell) to hit a downtown jewelry store. During the job, however, Leo’s wrists are broken and Loman leaves him behind to be apprehended by the police. After doing his time, Leo is released and plots revenge by framing Loman for a murder. But Loman answers to an even bigger crime boss, Gregory Lang (Herbert Lom), the actual owner of the gun Leo used. Meanwhile, Leo hooks up with local dancer Carol Dane (Joyce Howard) in order to provide an alibi and throw local police off his trail.

This is typical film-noir fodder with the usual tough-guys, femme fatales and overwrought performances, Hartnell’s in particular. Although Appointment with Crime offers nothing new (Leo still refers to the police as coppers), the story is told with enough panache to maintain interest. Old school Doctor Who fans will enjoy seeing Hartnell unleash his inner Cagney and it’s always a pleasure to check out the late, great Herbert Lom before he gained worldwide notoriety as Inspector Clouseau’s oft-suffering police commissioner.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956)

There's a serial thrill-killer (John Drew Barrymore) who preys on young women in their apartments. At the scene of his latest kill, he scrawls a cryptic message, "Ask mother," on the wall with lipstick, prompting the press to dub him the Lipstick Killer.

Meanwhile, Kyne Inc., one of the city's media empires, is thrown into turmoil after its owner suddenly dies. Kyne's son and heir, Walter (Vincent Price), is an arrogant douchebag who uses the Lipstick Killer story to manipulate three of his greedy underlings into competing for second in command. One newsman who wants no part of this is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), who’s more concerned with catching the killer than getting a promotion and keeps abreast of the investigation through a friend on the force, Lt. Kaufman (Howard Duff).

Not much sleeping gets done in this city (though there's some sleeping around) as everyone undermines each other's attempts to be promoted, to the point where the film sometimes plays more like a soap opera than hardcore film noir. Still, the story and subplots are just interesting enough to keep our attention until this perpetually perspiring perve strikes again. Andrews' no-frills acting style serves his character well, while Rhonda Fleming & Ida Lupino make terrific temptresses who are as conniving as they are easy on the eyes.

A relatively minor late-career directorial effort from the great Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps is nevertheless an engaging potboiler. Though not particularly memorable, it's efficiently-made, fast-paced and sometimes quite humorous.

NIGHT MOVES (1975)

Night Moves isn't from film noir's Golden Age, but like the rest on this list, it never really found an audience during its initial release. Is it a lost classic? Not quite, but it does showcase another great performance by Gene Hackman.

Despite a murder mystery thrown into the mix relatively late in the story, this is mostly about Harry Moseby (Hackman), an ex-football player, now a private detective who's been hired by a has-been starlet to locate her wayward, free-spirited daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith, in her debut). Harry meets a variety of eccentric folks along the way, some who are in the movie business, others eking out a living on the Florida coast. But all of them have some sort of connection to Delly. Harry's also trying to come to terms with his cheating wife (Susan Clark) and her lover (Harris Yulin), which forces him to re-examine his own life.

It's a leisurely-but-enjoyable ride peppered with interesting characters, including a quirky early performance by James Woods (he hasn't changed much since). The movie belongs to Hackman, though. I don't know if the role was created for him, but he embodies Harry's world-weary cynicism perfectly.

Night Moves has grown in stature over the years, though it's hardly a cinema milestone compared to Hackman & Penn's previous collaboration, Bonnie and Clyde. Still, Hackman is compulsively watchable, as usual, and as a solid mid-70s' spin on classic noir, it's an interesting curiosity worth rediscovery. 

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