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 more 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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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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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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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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This film owes more to the conventions of stage performance than to the still developing craft of film-making, relying heavily on static indoor dialogue, though there are innovative crossovers, such as the seven-minute, single-take scene showing Bogart and Gutman ‘walk ‘n’ talk’ through four sets.

It was an incredible camera setup. We rehearsed two days. The camera followed Greenstreet and Bogart from one room into another, then down a long hallway and finally into a living room; there the camera moved up and down in what is referred to as a boom-up and boom-down shot, then panned from left to right and back to Bogart’s drunken face; the next pan shot was to Greenstreet’s massive stomach from Bogart’s point of view. … One miss and we had to begin all over again.

— Meta Wilde, Huston’s longtime script supervisor.

Cinematographer Arthur Edesons’s low-angle work,is unobtrusive if you don’t look for it, and can summon the vague discomfort of a claustrophobia not quite realised in framing ceilings and walls as containers. More obvious are his exaggerated shots of Greenstreet’s already considerable girth, and the barred shadows or patterns he used in various places to resemble the steel cage of a jail cell. The visualisation bears watching with the sound off just for its own sake.

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Insomnia, dead of night, and film noir

This essay has been superseded in my thinking about film noir by my more recent critiques, especially the ones on Crossfire, Dark Passage, and especially Key Largo. I haven’t yet been able to spend the time to make a better effort of this piece, and it will remain here until I can.

Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the 'hard-boiled' genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.
Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.

Insomnia, I have discovered, can be put to good use if exploited the right way. Long hours of still darkness in which there is little to do but read, write, and … watch old films.

Some recent sleepless nights have been devoted to watching old American black and white films, each one proclaimed rather crassly as a ‘film noir classic’ on cheaply designed DVD jackets.

I became intrigued by the concept of a ‘black’ or ‘dark cinema’ and I broadened my ‘portfolio’ to include other films from the 1930s to the 1950s for which no such claims were made. Nevertheless, I came across a tangible but hard-to-describe common thread that linked a whole batch of these films by something other than genre, directors, actors or plot similarities.

One of the elements of this common thread was that many of these old films, though mostly devoid of special effects, colour or grand spectacle, were simply better than their contemporary successors. Somehow the stories seemed more meaningful, the visualisations more sophisticated, and the impact of the cinematography more powerful.

Another dynamic was that I thought I was beginning to get a somewhat deeper understanding of the psychology not only of the artists who made these films, but also of the imagined audiences they ‘spoke’ to with their art.

Underlying my thoughts on these dynamics was a deliberate search for common elements and patterns that I could apprehend as this elusive category of film noir.

That investigation was not as simple as it might have seemed, and ended up in a fairly personal survey of the films reviewed here.

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