I am a pushover for a solidly told 1940s-early 1950s crime drama shot in the film noir style. And by film noir, I am referring to those gritty, atmospheric, mostly post-World War II Hollywood films that depict the dark and woeful underbelly of crime and corruption.
These films mirror the post-war reality that atomic bombs had been exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sure, these blasts ended the war in the Pacific, but they also made the world aware in sobering fashion that wars no longer were fought merely with guns and tanks. Science had created weaponry that could kill or maim millions, all in an instant.
Film noir dramas also mirror a certain melancholy that existed in the post-war years. The Great Depression may have been history, the Allies had beaten the hated Germans and Japanese, and veterans now were marrying, starting families and, hopefully, living happy-ever-after lives. Still, there was a certain gloom in the air. This gloom was the result of all the sacrifices that individuals and families had made in order to win the peace. It also reflected the reality that millions, soldiers and civilians alike, did not survive the conflict.
All of this comes to mind with the release, by Turner Classic Movies, of a DVD box set titled “Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV.” Included are five titles. Granted, none are bona-fide classics of the caliber of a DOUBLE INDEMNITY, GUN CRAZY, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE BIG HEAT, or THE BIG SLEEP. But happily, each is a solid entertainment.
A representative title is JOHNNY O’CLOCK, which dates from 1947. Dick Powell, who in the 1930s was a youthful singing star in Warner Bros. musicals, then was carving out a new screen persona playing hard-bitten film noir heroes. Here, Powell is the title character, a slick gambling club overseer and night owl who finds himself a prime suspect in a couple of murders. One reason why I am attracted to the best film noir dramas is that they feature sharp, tough dialogue. Such is the case in JOHNNY O’CLOCK. At one point, a cop tells Johnny that he’ll give him a break. Johnny promptly responds, “My arms or my legs?”
There also is smart writing in 1950’s BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN. The heroes are two war veterans-turned radio car cops who are determined to bust a racketeer. At one juncture, one of the cops offers a thug some sound advice. “Buy yourself a new head,” the cop suggests. “One with a brain in it.”
What distinguishes 1952’s WALK EAST ON BEACON is its on-location filming on the streets of Boston. When it was made, Hollywood was regularly churning out films with clear anti-Communist content, and WALK EAST ON BEACON is one such title. It involves an FBI effort to thwart some commie spies.
WALK A CROOKED MILE, from 1948, was produced just as the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was holding hearings involving alleged pro-communist content in Hollywood movies. It too features a pair of heroes, one a G-man and the other a Scotland Yard agent, who come together to battle subversives who are pilfering nuclear formulas. Parts of the film were shot on location in San Francisco, and a bearded Raymond Burr, years before playing Perry Mason on TV, offers a vivid performance as a commie thug.
Films like WALK EAST ON BEACON and WALK A CROOKED MILE are not pure film noir, but they are fascinating historically as mirrors of McCarthyism.
Finally, the sleeper in the set is near-classic noir. SO DARK THE NIGHT, from 1946, is a B-film with a short 71-minute running time. Its star is Steven Geray, an Austro-Hungarian-born character actor who mostly was seen in supporting roles. Here, Geray plays a celebrated Parisian police detective who finds himself enmeshed in murder while vacationing in a small French town. There are plot twists and surprises galore here, as well as sharp direction by Joseph H. Lewis, a cult filmmaker if there ever was one. Lewis was an expert at turning low-budget tripe into high art. His films are stunningly visual, and he was a master at creating atmosphere via stark lighting, fast pacing, clever camera angles, extreme close-up, and an extra-special attention to detail.
His signature directorial touches make SO DARK THE NIGHT a real treat.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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