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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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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