Posted by David Kalat on February 19, 2011
FOR THE LOVE OF FILM NOIR’S BLOGATHON: a weeklong multi-platform tribute to film noir, as a way of generating awareness of the Film Noir Foundations’s laudable efforts to restore Cy Endfield’s THE SOUND OF FURY. Click this link to make your donation to that worthy cause—and keep reading here for a look back at the Very First Film Noir.
The Blogathon provided the impetus to write this now, but it’s something I’ve been mulling over for years. About ten years ago, I was putting out a handful of obscure crime thrillers on DVD that I billed as “Pulp Cinema,” and touted as “lost gems of film noir.” These sold like hotcakes—but, specifically, like hotcakes in an uninhabited wasteland where nobody ever ate hotcakes. I’d have been better off selling empty boxes without any discs in them, because it would have been cheaper and nobody would have noticed the difference.
But clearly somebody bought these things, because he started to write to me. My one lone customer, perpetually writing to complain. What right do you have calling these film noir? he wanted to know. I’ve never heard of them before and they’re not in any book on film noir I’ve ever read.
If there’s one thing I enjoy as much as sharing obscure movies with people, it’s getting into arguments with strangers on the Internet. So I took the bait, and wrote back, trying to argue that it didn’t make a difference whether he’d heard of them before. Film scholars can only write about things they’ve actually seen, or at least heard about, and the movies I was marketing had never been available in the US before, and so hadn’t been accessible to people writing about the genre. And in any event, it isn’t like there’s a Film Noir Licensing Board issuing Certificates of Film Noir Authenticity. Noir is in the eye of the beholder—and it was mostly identified after the fact. If a movie strikes me as being noir, then I’m entitled to make the case that it is noir.
I never persuaded my Internet pen-pal, and eventually he just stopped writing. But it did start me thinking, why would something strike me as being noir? What are the key noir characteristics?
These are the kinds of questions you’d have to answer to be able to identify some starting and ending points for the genre. When did crime thrillers start to accumulate enough of these attributes that they tipped over into being something new?
According to Silver and Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, “the first true film noir” was Boris Ingster’s THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. Noir historian Eddie Muller seems inclined to agree, writing “Once upon a time, movies were all about order,” and after STRANGER, that comfort zone was removed. Film historian Richard Jewell calls it “a premature film noir, a picture that should, by all historical rights, have been produced in 1944 or 1945, not 1940.”
So where did it come from and why?
In the late 1930s. . . let’s be specific and say 1938, the top dog at RKO, Leo Spitz, told Lee Marcus, the guy in charge of their B production unit, to go make some sensationalistic exploitation pictures. Those were his words, even. So Marcus went looking for some ex-journalists to bring their firsthand experience with the seedier side of American life, and pair them up with some visionary European talents looking to experiment with production technique. Basically, he figured he’d create a mashup between the Gothic horror of German Expressionism and the raw, documentary approach of social problem films and see what happened.
So, here’s our ex-journalist, writer Frank Partos, who writes a script about a newspaperman much like himself (played onscreen by John McGuire). The story is filmed by Boris Ingster, a Russian émigré not known as a director. Ingster was himself a screenwriter, and among his prominent credits past was THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935) and prominent credits future would be Fritz Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER (1946). Ingster has some craaaaazy ideas about what to do with Partos’ script—such that he needs a special effects supervisor! So, here comes special effects supervisor Vernon L. Walker, and he and Ingster carefully storyboard all 243 scenes of their proposed 64 minute feature, then build miniatures of the various sets to work out the technical details of the effects before full-scale work begins. This was not normal working practice for a low-budget shoot, mind you.
Thanks to such attention to detail, Ingster managed to finish the project in the blink of an eye. He started shooting on June 3rd 1940, and audiences were watching it in theaters on August 14th.
Add to this team art designer Van Nest Polglase. He had made his (hard to pronounce) name designing the luscious art deco world that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced through, and now he was making a world of grit, sleaze, and grime. Within the year, Polglase would be making sets for Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE. These would then be lit by Director of Photography Nicholas Musuraca. If that name isn’t already setting of film noir alarm bells in your head, let me offer this summary of key movies he would photograph in the years to come: CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, OUT OF THE PAST, WHERE DANGER LIVES, CLASH BY NIGHT, THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BLUE GARDENIA. Oh yeah, and the bad guy is played by Peter Lorre.
But simply wowing you with the impressive pedigree of THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR isn’t the point. There are five essential ingredients of noir that all appear in full bloom in this unassuming 1940 thriller—no single one of which alone makes a film noir, but in the right combination certainly do. Let’s take these attributes one by one:
ONE: A DISRUPTED NARRATIVE LINE.
When I quoted Eddie Muller above saying that this film vandalized Hollywood’s usual promises of order, that could be taken more than one way. One of those possible interpretations is that Hollywood complacently sold audiences very conventional, linear stories, that proceeded from point A to point B in a systematic fashion. STRANGER veers unpredictably across its story like a drunk driver—it may eventually get to a logical ending point given where it started, but the audience has no assurance of this along the way.
The story begins with reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) as a witness at the murder trial of cabdriver Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Ward isn’t an eyewitness—he has no affirmative proof that Briggs is guilty of anything, but the circumstantial evidence is damning, and the weight of Ward’s testimony seals the deal. Briggs is condemned. . .
Ward’s girl Jane (Margaret Tallichet) isn’t so sure, and frets that an innocent man has been convicted.
It is at this point that our two heroes proceed to do absolutely nothing whatsoever to further that plot. They don’t try to reopen the investigation, or do any amateur sleuthing on their own to establish the facts of the case—although this is exactly what past experience with movies would likely lead you to expect at this point. Nope. As far as the viewer knows, that plot strand is simply dropped altogether.
Instead, we enter a stretch of paranoid hallucinations as Michael Ward imagines that his next-door neighbor (Charles Harlton) has been murdered by a creepy weirdo (Peter Lorre) he saw hanging outside the apartment. The only piece of evidence he has to even initiate this line of thinking is that the neighbor usually snores and now isn’t. On the basis of that flimsy observation, Michael’s imagination runs riot as he spins an absurd scenario where not only has the guy been killed, but Michael is wrongly accused of the crime and successfully prosecuted.
Now, here’s where the film jumps a track out of the ordinary and into that realm of genius normally reserved only for the most ambitious of A-films: Michael’s lunatic fever-dream fantasy instantly comes true! His neighbor is dead, and Michael is arrested for the crime! It all happens just as he imagined! Take that, subconscious mind!
At which point, if you’re expecting the film to turn into some high-n-mighty critique of the justice system, maybe with a smooth-talking lawyer defending Michael in a length courtroom drama (again, just what you might expect from any previous movie), this film decides to once again take a wild left turn and start over with a different protagonist. Michael vanishes from his own movie, and Jane takes over as the main character, racing the clock to find evidence of the mysterious stranger. Her task is made all that much harder by the fact that only Michael’s ever seen the stranger, so she has to go on the basis of his description.
Thankfully, his description happens to be of Peter Lorre, which does simplify things. “Darling, you have to find a mysterious stranger.” “What does he look like?” “He’s got bugged out eyes like an evil frog.” “Oh, well there he is.”
And only as the movie ends does it close the loop and fit all its disparate pieces together—it’s only linear in hindsight. At any given point along the route, the filmmakers consistently dare to defy audience expectations.
TWO: FLASHBACK AND NARRATION
This is of course related to the disrupted narrative line described above, but it is a separate issue.
Although CITIZEN KANE (made after STRANGER) is the movie that famously made flashbacks cool, the notion did appear sporadically beforehand. In 1939, William Wyler’s adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS relied on a significant flashback for its story structure—and I’m not just picking that title out of a hat. Mrs. William Wyler was Margaret Tallichet, the first actor cast in STRANGER—before McGuire, before Lorre—and so the makers of STRANGER can be assumed to have been quite familiar with WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Perhaps there was a direct influence? In any case, it’s safe to say STRANGER’s flashback structure appeared onscreen during that critical 1939-1940 era in which the device gained currency and cultural acceptance. Flashbacks would become a common device in noirs—see DETOUR, THE KILLERS, OUT OF THE PAST, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. . .
Another recurring stylistic motif of noir is the voiceover narration, often tied to the implementation of a flashback. Voice over narration was a cost-saving convenience that allowed budget-strapped productions to efficiently convey incidents and emotions that would otherwise be difficult, costly, or time-consuming to film normally. As some scholars have noted, an added benefit is that narration allows the film to develop a dissonance between a character’s self-perception and the audience’s perception of them.
In the case of STRANGER, the narration permits an insight into Michael’s deteriorating psyche. In self-doubt, he fears for his own sanity—a moment that alarmed censors more than almost any other aspect of the film. The moral protectors of the nation saw STRANGER’s blunt descriptions of brutal violence and a casual sexual relationship between the leads—but those were minor quibbles compared to the fact the film dared depict insanity.
When the film finally passed the censors, the Production Code seal of approval came with a warning: “The British Board of Film Censors will delete scenes of Peter Lorre if they regard him as insane.”
THREE: VISUAL STYLE
The censors’ worries over depictions of insanity meant they had their eyes keenly tuned on sequences like this:
But DP Musaraca and art director Polglase didn’t segregate all of their visual bravado into the dream sequence. The entire movie seems to take place in a nightmare of suffocating shadows and bleak urban wastelands.
In many ways, the arguments over what is and what isn’t film noir tend to revolve around arguments over style. For some, visual style was all that mattered—and such thinking leads to contemporary films trying to mimic film noir by having light filtered through venetian blinds. (I’m writing this in a room lit through venetian blinds, and it’s pretty dark in here. I wonder if I’m living in a film noir reality!)
FOUR: THE WRONG MAN
Above I said that Muller’s quote could be read two ways, and I set to interpreting it to refer to narrative style. In context, though, Muller was clearly talking about moral order: “The biggest blow to normalcy in the film is the obsolescence of the old moral compass. Truth is relative, Frank Partos’ script suggests. Who you are isn’t as important as how other people perceive you.”
This is big stuff. A lot of nineteenth-century detective fiction is premised on the assumption that criminals look different than law-abiding folks. The pseudo-science of phrenology is all about reading a person’s inner character by the shape of their head. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY presupposes that a sinful life would have to be visually expressed in a person’s appearance—and Dorian’s supernatural portrait allows him to keep that inevitable outward manifestation private. These were comforting notions of a culture that wanted to believe the sinners and the saints could be kept apart. But noir challenges the very premise—not only don’t criminals look different, they simply aren’t all that different.
At least not in most cases. You get the psychologically disturbed (I won’t say insane) like Peter Lorre’s stranger, but bear in mind he’s an outsider even in his own movie. The rest of the film is prepared to operate as if cabbie Briggs is a killer, and Michael one too. The machinery of society believes it has apprehended the right parties, and established their guilt with sufficient evidence. The scariest part of the movie isn’t that there’s a bug-eyed nutjob going around knifing people, it’s that being innocent has absolutely nothing to do with whether you are convicted of a crime.
FIVE: A CORRUPT JUSTICE SYSTEM
This isn’t quite the same thing as #4 above, but it is related. You could imagine a fully functioning justice system that occasionally made mistakes, and then managed to right them. The many “wrong man” films of noir offer a good many examples of this in action. The problem in STRANGER is that the machinery of the law, as depicted, are so deeply flawed as to make errors frequent if not inevitable.
Here a few of the more acute jabs and insults this film has for conventional justice:
The judge is too busy doodling to notice when the defense counsel objects.
And the jurors are asleep.
In short, there’s something here to unnerve anyone. And it’s only 64 minutes long!
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