The Noir File: Early Germanic examples, a wicked Western and noir through New Wave eyes

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Breathless” (1960, Jean-Luc Godard). Thursday, Nov. 8, 6 p.m. (5 p.m.)

A guy named Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car, drives from Marseilles to Paris, sings of a girl named Patricia (Jean Seberg), finds a gun and in the process reinvents film noir à la the New Wave.

That’s “Breathless,” the 1959 black-and-white Jean-Luc Godard French film that, like Orson Welles’ 1941 “Citizen Kane” – another masterpiece by a revolutionary cineaste still in his 20s – changed the ways we look at film. It changed also the way moviemakers shot movies and critics wrote about them, and perhaps a bit the ways we look at life too.

There’s a key difference though. Welles made us all believe that, if you could get all the tools of the movie industry at your disposal, you could tell stories so magical and deep, they’d open up a whole new world. Godard made us believe that, if you’d seen enough movies, you could grab a camera, walk out on the street, and just start shooting. You could make a movie not according to industry rules and protocols, but right out of your own life. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.)

Elisha Cook Jr. plays a hapless patsy accused of murder in “Stranger.”

In this knockout of a B-movie, a breezy newspaper reporter (John McGuire) and his plucky lady friend (Margaret Tallichet, later Mrs. William Wyler) descend into a mad, bad dream. The reporter testifies against a hapless patsy accused of murder (Elisha Cook Jr.), sees him convicted and then finds himself facing a murder charge of his own. Meanwhile, the real murderer may just be that strange little man with a long scarf (Peter Lorre) who prowls around the streets, looking sad and mad and dangerous, as only Peter Lorre can.

Directed by Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, “Stranger” is often cited as the first film noir. And indeed, it has a lot of the elements, all suddenly jelling: the dark city streets, the pathological characters, the wise-cracking reporters, the tough cops and the sense of impending doom. It has Nicholas Musuraca cinematography, Roy Webb music and, as a bonus, art direction by Van Nest Polglase (“Citizen Kane”). Most of all, it has one of the screen’s truly memorable nightmare sequences: an eerie delve into crime and punishment, full of wild angles, dark shadows and insane persecutions.

Sunday, Nov. 4

12 a.m. (9 p.m.) “Pandora’s Box” (1929, G. W. Pabst). One of the great German silent films and one of the great precursors of film noir: G. W. Pabst’s somber, relentless tale of the playgirl-turned-prostitute Lulu (the sublime Louise Brooks), whose stunning, black-banged beauty helps make her one of the most appealing and tragic of femme fatales. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

Thursday, Nov. 8

The three treasure hunters strike gold, but they also hit a vein of darkness.

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.) “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948, John Huston).

Based on the classic novel by the mysterious B. Traven, a lacerating portrayal of greed, the movie is a classic as well. “Treasure” is perhaps the finest work by writer-director (and here, for the first time, actor), John Huston. It’s one of the great westerns, a supreme western noir, one of the best literary adaptations and one of the great Humphrey Bogart pictures.

Bogart is Fred C. Dobbs, a down and out American in 1925 in Tampico, Mexico, who hooks up with two other Yanks: tough but decent Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and fast-talking, grizzled, expert prospector Howard (John’s father Walter Huston; he won the Oscar). The three treasure hunters strike gold in the Sierra Madre mountains, but they also hit a vein of darkness: the discord and violence that sudden riches can bring.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Sunrise” (1927, F. W. Murnau). Murnau’s first film in Hollywood is a beautiful-looking cinematic ballad of a good wife (Oscar-winner Janet Gaynor), a bad woman (Margaret Livingston), a confused husband torn between them (George O’Brien) and the screen’s most poetic train journey from country to city. Selected in the last Sight and Sound film poll as one of the 10 greatest films of all time. It is. (Silent, with music and intertitles.)

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Stylish and subversive, ‘Gun Crazy’ showcases Lewis’ talent

Gun Crazy/1950/King Brothers Productions/86 min.

Peggy Cummins at the TCM festival screening of “Gun Crazy” on Saturday. Photo by Jason Merritt

Peggy Cummins as Annie

It’s pretty much a given in film noir romance that red flags go unheeded and wake-up calls are ignored. An unforgettable example: the protagonist in Joseph H. Lewis’ groundbreaking noir “Gun Crazy” (1950) in which John Dall plays Bart Tare, a World War II vet who’s gifted with guns. After a circus clown tells Bart that he’s “dumb about women,” Bart simply shrugs and rushes off to do his femme fatale’s bidding, which in this case means robbing banks and living on the lam.

To be fair to Bart, however, this is a femme fatale like no other: rodeo performer Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) loves guns as much as Bart does but whereas he doesn’t want to kill anyone, she’s cool with that possibility. Blood-chilling and unfailingly bold, this svelte blonde ranks as one of the hardest women on the screen.

Cummins appeared last weekend at the TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of “Gun Crazy” and spoke with Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Muller described Cummins’ interpretation of Annie as “the most ferocious female performance in American cinema.”

Bart (John Dall) and Annie (Peggy Cummins) prefer guns to roses.

Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox brought Cummins to Hollywood in 1945 – she was 98 pounds and had an 18-inch waist, she said.

When the opportunity arose to portray a bad girl for Lewis, Cummins said she was ready. “I loved the idea of it. The tendency was then if you’re a bit short, blonde and reasonably pretty, you were always playing rather pretty-pretty little parts. But this was a meaty part. I always wanted to play all the Bette Davis parts and I was never offered one. She was too good.

“An actor is always so thrilled to get a chance to play against what their character may be or the sort of person they are.”

It was Cummins’ most famous part (Dall is best remembered for this picture and 1948’s “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock) and the film, as subversive as it is stylish, influenced directors for decades to come. In fact, it is one of the primary bridges between classic Hollywood movies and the French and American New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” from 1960 and 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” by Arthur Penn.)

On the run, playing it straight with some studious specs.

Director Lewis was a solid B-movie director and, with A-list status eluding him, he took advantage of the freedom lower-budget Bs offered to experiment, innovate and break cinematic rules. In his time he was underrated but, because of his inventive style, he was rediscovered and praised by American and French critics in the ’60s.

In “Gun Crazy” when the pair robs the first bank, Lewis shot on location and used real people to play the bystanders. And leading up to the crime, Lewis (via cinematographer Russell Harlan) uses one long, unbroken shot taken from the backseat of the getaway car, from the criminals’ point of view, immersing the audience in the robbers’ subjective reality. During this scene, said Cummins, she and Dall improvised the dialogue.

MacKinlay Kantor and Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s finest scribes, wrote the screenplay based on a short story of Kantor’s. But when Trumbo was blacklisted, his work on this film was credited to Millard Kaufman.

Annie’s got some great lines, for example, when she explains her aspirations: “Bart, I want things, a lot of things, big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who will do anything, a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Renamed “Deadly is the Female” for its British release, “Gun Crazy” is insanely good noir.

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