In Gary Leva’s 2006 documentary Bringing Darkness To Light, James Ellroy, one of the world’s greatest crime writers, describes film noir as “a righteous, generically American film movement that went from 1945 to 1958 and exposited one great theme and that is – you’re fucked. You have just met a woman and you’re inches away from the greatest sex of your life. But within six weeks of meeting the woman you will be framed for a murder you did not commit and you’ll end up in the gas chamber. And as they strap you in and you’re about to breathe in the cyanide fumes, you’ll be grateful for the few weeks you had with her and grateful for your own death.”
In the same documentary, the writer Henry Rollins says “In noir people go to jail. Good men die. Criminals win. Evil triumphs over good.”
The style of film noir originated in Europe but it was America that shaped it into the recognisable form we know today. Matthew Sweet, author of Shepperton Babylon, his entertaining and often hilarious history of the British film industry, laid out the five rules for the genre in his excellent 2009 BBC documentary The Rules of Film Noir. They are:
1. CHOOSE A DAME WITH NO PAST AND A GUY WITH NO FUTURE.2. USE NO FICTION BUT PULP FICTION.3. SEE AMERICA THROUGH A STRANGER’S EYES.4. MAKE IT ANY COLOUR, AS LONG AS IT’S BLACK.5. IT AIN’T WHAT YOU SAY, IT’S THE WAY THAT YOU SAY IT.
By 1946 the dark themes of revenge and fatalism in film noir became darker and harder edged. This was in no small way due to the actions of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and the communist witch-hunts that took place in Hollywood from 1946 through to the late 1950s, forcing many actors, directors, and screenwriters to leave the United States to find work. Two noir films made during that period (both directed by Europeans) stand head-and-shoulders above the rest.
In 1947, under the pernicious shadow of HUAC, Jacques Tourneur, a master director of mood and atmosphere, made Out of the Past (known in Britain as Build My Gallows High), a film that ticks all the boxes in Matthew Sweet’s rules and has to hold the gold star for being the most fatalistic, downbeat noir movie ever made. The ace up its sleeve, however, was Robert Mitchum’s compelling performance as retired private eye, Jeff Markham, whose past catches up with him and he is forced to repay a debt of honour to shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas).
|Out of the Past Original Poster|
Robert Mitchum, unlike John Wayne (who he was often unfairly compared to) was a skilled and versatile actor who, despite his ‘lazy’ style and apparent dismissiveness of the art of acting (preferring instead to go on mammoth drinking sessions) proved to be a natural talent and appeared in many thoughtful and artistic productions. Although I’m a big fan of John Wayne’s films, he never really played a bad guy (The Searchers doesn’t count because he becomes good in the end) and his acting range was rather limited, which meant he spent most, if not all, of his career playing himself - a misogynist Republican.
Conversely, Mitchum excelled in a wide range of character studies: as rapist and murderer Max Cady in J. Lee Tompson’s superior version of Cape Fear (1962); as drunken deputy J.P. Hannah in Howard Hawks’ rousing western Eldorado (1966), a remake of his own earlier Rio Bravo (1959); as low-level Boston gangster turned snitch in Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973); as retired cop Harry Kilmer in Sydney Pollack’s violent thriller The Yakuza (1974); and as hard boiled Private Eye Philip Marlowe in Dick Richards’ terrific version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (1975).
Out of the Past tells Jeff Markham’s story of why he’s beholden to Sterling in flashback along with Mitchum’s laconic narration. Sterling had sent him to Mexico to track down and bring back his girlfriend, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who he says had shot him and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Markham finds her easily enough, but she protests her innocence and he unwittingly falls in love with her. He knows he can’t trust her, but they go on the run all the same.
In one scene the couple are on a beach. It’s night time. They’re lying by a boat in each other’s arms. Kathie knows that Markham doesn’t trust her. She says: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t. Won’t you believe me?”
Markham replies, “Baby, I don’t care.”
It’s a pivotal scene in the movie because it marks the beginning of Markham’s downward spiral into hell.
Jacques Tourneur was good at unravelling his main characters lives, as he did so effectively in his 1957 horror classic Night of the Demon, a tightly written, beautifully photographed and immensely frightening film that scared audiences rigid on its release because of the fact that almost throughout its entire length you don’t see anything. Everything is implied and Tourneur used the power of suggestion to terrify audiences that went to see it. It’s still frightening today and is consistently voted as one of the top 50 horror films of all time. Unfortunately, the producer of the film, Hal E. Chester, wanted audiences to see a monster and Tourneur and his screenwriter Charles Bennett refused to give him one, so Chester just got another director to do it and the results show for themselves what a mistake it was. In an interview Tourneur said that Chester had turned ‘what was once a work of art into a piece of shit’. Charles Bennett was a little more forthright and aggressive about Chester’s changes – he said, “If he walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”
Mitchum’s role of Jeff Markham in Out of the Past may have secured his star status, but it was his role as a monster in human form that is perhaps his lasting legacy and the one for which he will be forever remembered. In 1955, towards the tail end of the noir period, actor Charles Laughton made his only film as a director and it turned out to be one of the most extraordinary films ever made. Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is a film that can genuinely be called a true American masterpiece. Mitchum is Harry Powell, a charlatan preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles of each hand and a psychopathic misogynist murderer bent on ridding the world of ‘perfume smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair’. He is a calculating and evil man with no redeeming features, who uses the power of religion to take advantage of poor, God-fearing country folk. After marrying the widow of a hanged cellmate, played by Shelley Winters (who also puts in an excellent performance) he murders her and goes after her two children, who he knows has their dead father’s stolen money hidden somewhere. The children’s flight takes on a Homeric, dreamlike quality as they travel down river in a skiff across the Depression era South, eventually reaching safety in the form of Lilian Gish’s saintly, but tough, Miss Cooper.
|The Night of the Hunter Re-release Poster|
It’s as if Laughton the director made a David Lynch film a full 22 years before David Lynch made one himself. The images in the film are astonishing – Shelley Winters’ dead body, bound by rope and sitting upright in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair flowing like seaweed in the current; giant spider webs in the foreground and weeping willows silhouetted in the background during the river journey; Lillian Gish sitting on an armchair with a shotgun in her lap, joining in with Mitchum as he sings Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, just before he breaks into the house.
‘The Night of the Hunter is one of the finest movies ever made in any genre. If it doesn’t transcend genre entirely. It is almost impossible to categorise,’ wrote film critic Adam Smith for Empire magazine. Neil Smith of Total Film described it as ‘one of cinema’s true originals: a Gothic parable, part film noir, part expressionist fairy tale, that ranks alongside Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films ever made by a first-time director.’
Charles Laughton is reported to have pitched the role of Harry Powell to Robert Mitchum by saying, “He’s a terrible, evil shit of a man.” Mitchum, eager to sink his teeth into the role after his potentially career damaging prison term for possession of marijuana, replied, “Present,” and together the two men, along with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, created an artistic triumph and an overwhelming experience that was way ahead of its time, which was probably the reason it never found an audience and was unjustly neglected on its original release. As a result, Laughton, sadly, never directed another film. But The Night of the Hunter, thankfully, did not disappear along with Laughton’s directorial career and it was to achieve true cult status through late-night showings on television (which, ironically, was partly responsible for the demise of film noir). Its ultimate recognition, however, and the highest praise it could ever receive was given when a character with Luv and Hat tattooed across his three-fingered hands appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, which served to reinforce and remind us of the film’s impact and the continuing influence it has on modern culture.
To that end, it is now rightly regarded by today’s critics, filmmakers and cineastes not just as one of the best American films from that period, but as one of the best films ever made anywhere at any time. Period.