Thursday, May 7, 2015

Out of the past: Three film noirs lost to time

Film noir is a small, but influential genre. Largely confined to Hollywood films released between the mid Forties and the late Fifties, it has added many classics such as Double Indemnity, Asphalt Jungle and Laura to the canon of great films. However, like any genre there are always a few gems that deserve more recognition.

Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947)
Robert Wise started out as the editor on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and then picked up the pieces on The Magnificent Ambersons. He would go on to a productive, eclectic career as a director, beginning with the Val Lewton horror films of the Forties, and continuing through musicals such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, science fiction in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek - The Motion Picture, and horror again with The Haunting. Not as well known, Born to Kill stands out as one of Wise's best genre efforts -- a blackly comic, nihilistic tale of greed and madness that feels ahead of its time in its sheer, uncompromising brutality. While it boasts the usual noir ingredients such as chiaroscuro lighting, a femme fatale and an abortive murder plot ala The Postman Always Rings Twice, the success of the film is based on the central figure of psychopathic loner Sam Wilde played by perennial heavy Laurence Tierney (most well known for playing crime boss Joe in Reservoir Dogs). Stretching the limits of the Production Code, Wilde is a rage-fueled monster who has no compunctions about murdering anyone who gives him even the slightest provocation -- in an early scene, he breaks into an old girlfriend's house while she is entertaining someone else and bludgeons them both to death. While he is unbalanced, Wilde is not the only character who is Born to Kill. He is matched by Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), an amoral widow who pines for the good life. Even less sympathetic than Wilde, she leads him into the contained world of her wealthy relations, fully aware of what he will end up doing. While the story is fairly predictable, Wise's sure hand and two committed performances from his leads ensures that, far from being just another low-budget potboiler, Born to Kill possesses a crude, unsettling power that lingers long after the bloody, abrupt finale.

Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952)
The coldest and least known of the classic noirs, Angel Face is a encapsulation of what makes the genre great. Otto Preminger, an underrated master of the genre, is usually heralded for 1944's perverse, glacial Laurabut it is Angel Face which represents his best work. Narratively, the film is highly reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, any close comparison between the films is pointless - in Angel Face, every familiar plot point and character archetype is pushed to the cruelest extreme. The film's most unique element is its treatment of the femme fatale -- a child-like sociopath played by Jean Simmons in her best performance. A black widow in training, she shares a intimate, troublingly Elektra-like relationship with her father which colours and feeds into her growing infatuation with Robert Mitchum’s cynical ambulance driver. Like a spoilt child, she expects to get everything she wants -- whether it is ridding her father of her wealthy, controlling stepmother, or stealing Mitchum away from his fiancé. Like all great noir, Simmons gets everything she wished for -- just not in the way she expected.

The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952)
In this wonderfully terse B movie starring veteran  hard ass Charles McGraw, a cop has to get a Mob witness across the country in time for a major trial while dodging the various hitmen who have been assigned to wipe her out. While clearly a noir, this movie should be seen as a forerunner to the genre of Die Hard-on-a-something flicks of the nineties. Barely 70 minutes long, director Richard Fleischer gives the filmmakers of today a lesson in how to create a tight, economical genre movie that moves like a bullet. Once the action starts it never lets up until the nail-shredding finale, as McGraw moves hell and high water against a legion of unseen enemies. One of the highlights is a gritty, bruising fight between McGraw and one of the hitmen in a cramped bathroom. Shot with a hand-held camera, it stands up to most of the shaky-cam brawls of today. Filled with twists, suspense and a wry sense of humour, The Narrow Margin was the beginning of a long directing career for Fleischer and was Oscar-nominated for its screenplay. 

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