RARA-AVIS: Re: From David Peace to Politics in Writing

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 05 Jun 2010

  • Next message: Patrick Kennedy: "Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: From David Peace to Politics in Writing"


    Re your comments below:

    "First, excuse me for getting the title and date of HE WALKED BY NIGHT wrong. I didn't realize I was walking into a shredder. I'll watch my step in the future."

    Well, it's a fairly important movie in film noir's lexicon, after all, and the title you used could have been easily mistaken for the British version of THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, the American version of THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT with noir icons George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, or Nichols Ray's 1949 noir, THE LIVE BY NIGHT.  The only reason I was able to figure out that you meant HE WALKED BY NIGHT was because you called it a police procedural (which seems to be about the only thing you DID get right).

    Seriously, I know this is a friendly list and everything, but getting such a material fact incorrect is going to confuse people.

    "My point was that HWBN was a reaction to film noir, which arguably began in 1944 with PHANTOM LADY and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Of course there's a history prior to that, in film and books. I get it."

    HWBN wasn't reacting to (and, by inference, against) film noir.  It WAS film noir.  At least according to virtually all the standard references on noir that mention the film.  And it's not hard to see why.  It was directed (or at least co-directed) by one of the directors most identified with film noir, Anthony Mann.  It was photographed by John Alton, the cinematographer who practically single-handedly put the "noir" in film noir.  It stars such common noir actors as Richard Basehart and Scott Brady. You really have to take a long trip around the back 40 to come up with a way to describe HWBN as something other than film noir.  That's in the first place.

    In the second place, "reacting to film noir" presupposes that there was a recognizable "movement" against which the HWBN could be reacting, and this simply was not the case.  Film noir was a term that came to be used mostly in retrospect long after most of the films given that sobriquet had already been made.  Many of the filmmakers most identified with 40's/50's film noir never even heard the term until long after the films were made. 

    In the third place, "reacting to film noir" presupposes that films noir had some kind of uniting, overarching theme that HWBN was opposed to.  And that, David, is just a lot of silly, pseudo-intellectual twaddle.  Films noir were simply nicely crafted crime movies that shared certain visual, stylistic flourishes such as chiarascuro uses of light and shadow to heighten mood.  The term covers a wide spectrum of different types of crime films, from PI films like MURDER, MY SWEET to gangster/caper films like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to romantic whodunits like LAURA to social commentary films like CROSSFIRE to comic strip-inspired "B" movies like DICK TRACY - DETECTIVE.  There is no overarching theme, just generally similar visual flourishes.

    In the fourth place, well, forget about the fourth place.  In the interests of keeping this response to a reasonable length, I'll forego pointing out all the films noir that precede PHANTOM LADY and DOUBLE INDEMNITY.  You make some grudging admission of this anyway, but the fact that you're ignoring such obvious entries as the Bogart/Huston THE MALTESE FALCON or,a year earlier, THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, to say nothing of all the films noir that came between them and DOUBLE INDEMNITY strikes me as deliberate deck-stacking to make a point.

    If HWBN was reacting to anything, it was to the success of THE NAKED CITY, which showed that the newly popular "semi-documentary" technique could be applied just as successfully to dramatize a fairly routine local police homicide case as it had been to major federal investigations in films like THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET or THE STREET WITH NO NAME.

    This is, I grant you, all speculation, but really which of the two scenarios seems more likely:

    The honchos at Eagle-Lion films are sitting around trying to decide what their next project should be.  Suddenly someone says, "Hey, guys.  You know films like DOUBLE INDEMNITY are subverting the moral order by suggesting that criminals are just like everyday people, and anyone's capable of adultery and murder.  Let's bring all the forces of the might behemoth that is Eagle-Lion films to bear, and show those two-bit outfits like Paramount and MGM not to fool with societal mores, and make a story that shows how noble cops are and how evil criminals are."


    The honchos at Eagle-Lion films are sitting around tyring to decide what their next project should be.  Suddenly someone says, "Hey, guys.  Universal has a real hit with THE NAKED CITY.  We did real well when we followed 20th/Fox's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET and THE STREET WITH NO NAME with our own film about federal agents, T-MEN.  Let's follow THE NAKED CITY with our own semi-doc about local, big-city police.  But we can't afford to go to New York and do all that expensive location work.  Let's stick right here in L.A.  That Erwin Walker case is still fresh in everyone's mind.  Let's do a movie based on that."

    I mean, honestly, doesn't that seem a lot more likely than that someone at Eagle-Lion had a hair up his ass about DOUBLE INDEMNITY?   

    "As for the villain-humanizing touches you claim to exist in HWBN, making a villain intelligent only likens him to Lucifer, the archetypal arch-villain; giving him a pet makes him sentimental, which is cheap emotion; making him charming, especially when the charm is a mask, perfects the portrait of a sociopath. If these are humanizing touches, God save us from dehumanizing ones."

    And Lord knows no human being has ever been a sociopath.  Liking pets may be sentimental, but it's a common device in film to get audiences to identify with, and sympathize with, a particular character.  So, whether you think the device is hackneyed or not, it was still an attempt to humanize the character.

    And let's remember that Roy Martin was based on a real-life bad guy, Erwin "Machine-Gun" Walker, who really had been making headlines just a few months before the cameras started rolling on HWBN.  And Walker really was a scientific genius (he'd gone to the Calif Insitute of Technology).  So they didjn't turn him into an electronics whiz just so he'd seem like a modern-day Moriarty or Fu Manchu.  He really was a brainiac.  And, by all accounts, he really was a charmer. 

    The corollary of your argument is that, in "true" film noirs, those movies HWBN was responding to, we see criminals who aren't mere sociopaths, but just everyday people like you and me.  Criminal characters who are truly "humanized."  So, by that argument it follows that Phyllis Dietrichsom (Barbara Stanwyck's character in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is just an All-American girl.  Yet she's at least every bit as pschyopathic as Roy Martin in HWBN.  It's implied that she's already killed her husband's first wife.  And she draws Walter Neff (MacMurray) into her murder scheme with relish.  And everything she does she does strictly out of selfishness and with a cold-blooded deliberateness that's truly chilling.  Far more than her counterpart character, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, who at least seems to be driven to her crimes by desperation rathan than cold-blooded selfishness.


    Or take the villain from you other example, PHANTOM LADY.  Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) has not only murdered his best friend's wife, he's cold-bloodedly framed his best friend for the crime, paid off witnesses who could provide his friend with an alibi, and committed at least one murder and is, when he is caught, in the act of committing a third, all to make sure his friend is executed for the murder he committed.  He even insinuates himself into the secretary's private investigation into the murder just to keep it from succeeding.  Does he really so many more redeeming qualities that Basehart's character in HWBN?


    "As for your remarks on real life criminals, I'll leave it alone, except to say I worked in the crime field for fifteen years, and I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree."

    I'm still working in the crime field, and have been in that field since I was 19. Of course, I'm one of those "brave, virtuous" neanderthals whose response to criminality is to try to put them in jail.

    I grant you that skews my views a little, but you really are being simplistic when you suggest that only the "Left" sees people in nuanced shades, and that police procedurals, by their nature, never show cops warts and all.

    Kirk Douglas's character in DETECTIVE STORY, based on Sydney Kingsley's 1949 Broadway play, and widely regarded as a benchmark in the police procedural sub-genre, is a man whose single-minded pursuit of justice has turned him into a retributive monster. His inability to countenance giving a guy a break when it might be called for, his very inflexibility in his attempts to be perfectly virtuous has the effect of leading him away from virtue.

    Edmund O'Brien's character in SHIELD FOR MURDER is a good cop who succumbs to monetary temptation and turns corrupt. So is Fred MacMurray's character in PUSHOVER. They both pay the price, but they have sympathetic moments, nonetheless.

    Robert Taylor's character in ROGUE COP is the flip side of O'Brien's, a corrupt cop who finally rejects the criminality he's been embracing to try to redeem himself when his honest cop brother is murdered by the Mob.

    Glenn Ford in THE BIG HEAT is a good, decent man who is nevertheless driven to the point of murder when his wife is killed, and is saved from committing this act, not by his own conscience, but by the timely intervention of some brother cops. He pulls back from the edge, but just barely.

    And film noir's most famous bad cop, Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in TOUCH OF EVIL, uses evil means to gain good ends, framing evidence to convict suspects, suspects he sincerely believes are guilty, but suspects he convicts with phonied up evidence.

    These aren't all paragons of rectitude. They are men, some good, some bad, but all flawed.

    And all of them turned up in the '50's, which you specifically identify as a decade of unnuanced portrayals of law enforcement and criminality. And, signficantly, thee of the characters mentioned, O'Brien's in SHIELD, Taylor's in ROGUE, and Ford's in HEAT, were all originally created in novels by William P. McGivern, hardly a creature of the Left.



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