The Key Largo hypothesis: Brooks and Huston set the noir context

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My re-discovery of Key Largo (1948) unwound in two parts, beginning on an apparently well-known terrain of technique and visible content, but progressing to something else entirely as I fell into the rabbit hole of previously unseen discourses.

Most of what I have to say is from inside that rabbit hole, but it is a journey that may be more explicable if I begin with my own starting point, which was to look again at Key Largo, with a view to adding a critique to my small collection of film noir commentaries.

A re-enounter

Like Dark Passage, Key Largo had struck me as slow and ponderous the first few times I saw it in the 1970s and ’80s, but something else about it grew on me. Perhaps the combination of Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, or the broodingly oppressive atmospherics simulating the arrival and passing of a Hurricane, which rang intimately true for me after the first tropical cyclone I experienced in the far north of Western Australia during the early 1980s.

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Dark Passage (1947) as locus of film noir

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In 2008 I scratched out some notes on the Bogart and Bacall vehicle Dark Passage in my longhand journal. Those notes seemed just a little too conspiratorial for me, and I did not follow up on them, until they came to mind in the past few days, when I read some other perspectives on film noir that prompted me to reconsider.

What I had written in 2008 was an interpretation of Dark Passage as an allegorical condemnation of the anti-communist witchhunts that began in the US during the later 1940s, and that have never really subsided since that time.

I saw in the film’s first person ‘point of view’, as it was called in the 1940s – the camera showing us what the protagonist sees rather than the actor portraying the protagonist – an earnest attempt to propose to us, the audience, that we are the fugitive. An innocent man accused of murder whose redemption hinges on others telling the truth, but encountering instead a spiteful and relentless persecution, ameliorated only by a handful of decent people, willing to believe in fairness and having the courage to act on that belief, even at great risk to themselves.

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Kansas City Confidential (1952)

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Phil Karlson’s dark and quaintly dishonest redemption story had me from the beginning, with its hypnagogic scene-setting and its unrelenting pessimism about the kind of thugs who are both gangsters and police.

It is possibly the finest example of film noir never acknowledged as such. How it comes to be that is a story buried deeper than earnest examinations of film techniques and aesthetics, let alone the all too frequent marketing claims made for old stock pitched at new markets.

Reactions to the film by its contemporaries hold some interesting, if speculative clues about both noir and American audience expectations in the 1950s.

In common with many other B-films of the period, no one thought this movie worth enough to note precise details about box office takings, back-stories, or to preserve a better quality print than the one from which the DVD I watched was digitised. That’s almost a signature of film noir from the later 1940s.

It is said to have been a moderate success for a B-grade film, but not everyone was content to let it go at that.

The New York Times has done a great job making available some of its archives electronically. Among these archives are film reviews by its long-time film critic of yesteryear, Bosley Crowther, whose unlikely name is almost fit to grace a noir character.

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Laura (1944)

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Fingered by French film critic Nino Frank as one of the films that gave rise to the term film noir, I don’t see any noir elements in it. If there is some layered meaning hinted at but not stated explicitly, it is the possible homosexuality of Waldo Lydecker, played convincingly by Clifton Webb.

But the film is no more than a brooding whodunnit.

Despite the subject matter, the film oozes optimism and borrows heavily from the Pygmalion theme of artless girl turned into society sophisticate.

Dana Andrews gives a nicely understated performance as the detective uncovering the mystery by the Wittgensteinian, non-linear, intuitive approach of eliminating the confusing elements of the story to expose what is left, as mentioned by Keith Dromm (‘The facts before our eyes: Wittgenstein and the film noir’ in Film-Philosophy Journal, volume 17, number 1, 2013, pages 1-18).

Nevertheless, the process of elimination leads to a deus ex machina solution: there aren’t enough clues to lead the audience to a solution, even if the oily Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is so obviously presented as a reprehensible opportunist that he can’t be the villain.

As a matter of opinion, I thought Gene Tierney’s performance just didn’t meet the long build-up to the sophisticated and professional career woman that makes up the early part of the film.

Without my focus on film noir in watching this movie, I would have been tempted to classify it as mild murder mystery with strong elements of romantic melodrama. It’s not that it is a bad film, but that it doesn’t fit the bill as either a straight crime drama or a film noir.

If there were any political overtones to this story, such as those in many of Preminger’s later films, I missed them.

Credits

20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, black and white.

Directed and produced by Otto Preminger. Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, based on the novel by Vera Caspary. Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Music by David Raksin.

Featuring Gene Tierney as Laura Hunt, Dana Andrews as Det Lt Mark McPherson, Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker, Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell.

Suddenly (1954)

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Probably the first time, but not the last, that Frank Sinatra tried to be Humphrey Bogart on screen. Little did he know that he had enough of his own presence to make the part fly.

Ostensibly the story about a putative assassination of the US President (that would have been Eisenhower at the time (a German noun meaning metal beater, or iron worker, making him suspiciously German for a guy who beat up the Germans). Ir maybe they were talking about Truman. Not so ostensibly a film Sinatra needed to earn some money at a time his career was flagging for heroin abuse and delusions of grandeur.

Not much here that wasn’t on TV at the time too, with Sterling Hayden coming across as one of those loud and unsympathetic cops I loathed as a kid when watching American TV shows. Nor did I like the kid, whom I’d have beaten up between classes for being a right little Nazi.

The reason this is nowhere near film noir is that it wears its heart on its sleeve, with no need to hide or allude to anything. Everything is right out in the open, and none of it really means anything. Except, perhaps, the idea that violent gun crime can be unpredictable and acceptable. Is this where that idea started?

Credits

United Artists, 75 minutes, black and white.

Dirercted by Lewis Allen. Written by Richard Sale. Cinematography by Charles G Clarke. Produced by Robert Bassler. Music by David Raksin.

Featuring Frank Sinatra as John Baron, Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw, James Gleason as Peter ‘Pop’ Benson, Nancy Gates as Ellen Benson, Kim Charney as Peter ‘Pidge’ Benson III, Paul Frees as Benny Conklin, Christopher Dark as Bart Wheeler. Willis Bouchey as Dan Carney Paul Wexler as Deputy Slim Adams, James O’Hara as Jud Kelly, Kem Dibbs as Wilson, Clark Howat as Haggerty, Charles Smith as Bebop.

Crossfire (1947)

crossfire-blog-001Brooding shadows, a murder mystery, a sultry blonde, and a fatalistic sense of an inevitably disconsolate outcome give Crossfire the film noir credibility claimed for it by reviewers, but especially by contemporary marketers of home video DVD and BluRay discs, looking for a way to dress up the merchandise.

Crossfire doesn’t really need to be dressed up like a cheap streetwalker. It has significant appeal in its own right, albeit not as the film noir I think it is despite itself.

Strong performances are delivered by Robert Ryan as the fearful Montgomery, Robert Mitchum as the reliably cynical anti-hero Keeley, and Robert Young as the disconsolate homicide detective Finlay. Gloria Grahame as the even more sad and embittered dance-hall girl, Ginny, was nominated for an Academy Award despite, or maybe because of, representing the unpalatable truth about how a generation of such women got by.

These performances, and the positive contemporary reviews it attracted, went a long way to earn the film a reputation rising far above its $500,000 B movie status. But there was far more below that surface.

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Citizen Kane (1941)

An escalated commitment to exceptionalism

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For years I intended to write a scholarly paper on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).  It never came.  Then I intended to write a review just because I hadn’t written the paper.  That didn’t come either.  Last time but one that I looked, I wanted to write a review as an adjunct to my equally unfinished treatment of film noir, and again I didn’t follow through.  The reason in each case was that I could not understand why it was that I don’t regard this film nearly as highly as so many academics, film connoisseurs, journalists, and sundry critics.  Worse, I thought it was because there was something about it that had eluded me, and that there could be nothing I might say that hadn’t been said a hundred time already.

Last weekend, however, I read the following lines in a newspaper:

… its reputation has soared to the point where it is regarded as a classic, a near-automatic inclusion on any list of “the 10 best films ever made”.

A number of books have been written about the film and its demanding director.

No, it’s not about Citizen Kane.  It’s director Bruce Beresford commenting on John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a film of which he declares himself ‘not a huge fan … despite efforts through the years to convince myself it is a great film.’

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Lady in the Lake (1947)

lady-in-the-lakeRobert Montgomery without his face is just awful; the accent doesn’t carry the hard-boiled tough guy, and I don’t care that he had to direct the film as well: the message is the medium, and the medium is the message, pilgrim!

The ‘point of view’ gimmick of not showing the lead rather than what he sees is just twee. It might work for porno blow jobs, but it doesn’t really cut it for thrillers – not when the intended voyeur has to share the hicksville Montgomery accent.

All the same, Audrey Totter had her moments as the gold-digging prick tease. I have known some girls like that I almost did everything for. Almost!

It’s a shame Steve Fisher didn’t get the screenplay under control, or maybe editor Gene Ruggiero was smoking weed when he glossed over continuity.

The Christmas chorus theme in the film score worked well; I always did think the carols by the hypocrites had an ominous ring to them.

Credits

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 105 minutes, black and white.

Directed by Robert Montgomery. Written by Steve Fisher, from the novel by Raymond Chandler. Cinematography by Paul Vogel. Produced by George Haight. Music by David Snell.

Featuring Robert Montgomery as Phillip Marlowe, Audrey Totter as Adrienne Fromsett, Lloyd Nolan as Lieutenant DeGarmot, Tom Tully as Captain Fergus Kane, Leon Ames as Derrace Kingsby, Jayne Meadows as Mildred Havelend, Richard Simmons as Chris Lavery, Morris Ankrum as Eugene Grayson.

This Gun For Hire (1942)

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Despite its literary lineage and stunning debut of actor Alan Ladd, not to mention the darkly atmospheric misè en scenes of Seitz and taut direction of Tuttle, this film appears to have slipped off the horizon as a Hollywood great. As far as I’m concerned it’s a seminal work and classic film noir.

Some liberties were taken with Graham Greene’s original story, but that was to be expected given the peculiar obsession by Americans to appropriate all aspects of life and experience as uniquely American. There was also the unexpected entry of the USA into the second world war at what must have been near the middle of the production; Pearl Harbour was bombed on 7 December 1941, This Gun for Hire was released in May 1942.

Greene’s hideous, hare-lipped assassin hired by a wealthy steel magnate to kill the Czech minister for war becomes a strikingly handsome killer, Alan Ladd as Philip Raven (shades of Edgar Allen Poe?), disfigured only by a badly broken wrist and hired by a chemical tycoon via proxy to assassinate a blackmailing industrial chemist who’s threatening to reveal a secret plot to sell a poison gas formula to the Japanese.

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The Glass Key (1942)

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Ostensibly a story of political corruption, betrayal and vengeance, the film is really a character portrait of Ed Beaumont (Ladd), go-to-guy for the somewhat shady political kingmaker Paul Madvig (Donlevy). More than that, the character that emerges is a hard-boiled archetype: smart, tenacious, aloof, cynical, devious, tough, resilient and possessed by his own sense of honour that is his moral compass regardless of whether it’s to his advantage or not. I am tempted to guess that Beaumont has more than a passing resemblance to Hammett’s self-image.

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