In his scathing review of Robert Siodmak's 1944 film Phantom Lady, critic Bosley Crowther rattles off what is essentially a laundry list of stylistic hallmarks of the not-yet named genre that Siodmak would later be recognized as a master of: film noir. "[Phantom Lady] is full of the play of light and shadow, of macabre atmosphere, of sharply realistic faces and dramatic injections of sound," Crowther writes. “People sit around in gloomy places looking blankly and silently into space, music blares forth from empty darkness, and odd characters turn up and disappear.” He ends his dressing-down by taking Siodmak and producer Joan Harrison (a former screenwriter for Hitchcock) to task for overlooking “one basic thing” in their efforts to get the film's look right: “a plausible, realistic plot.”
History has proven Crowther wrong; or rather, it has proven that he got everything but the part about plot right. Fans haven't kept returning to film noir's “macabre atmosphere[s],” its “sharply realistic faces” in “gloomy places looking blankly and silently into space,” and its “play of light and shadow” to simply find out whodunit each time. In noir, style can be substantive with the storyline often but a means to those ends. Just look at Robert Aldrich's Kiss me Deadly (1955), whose wildly careening plot and stylistic excessiveness puts it about as far from plausible and realistic as you can get, and yet it has been hailed as the sine qua non of the genre for those very reasons.
Coincidentally, Phantom Lady and Kiss Me Deadly bookend this year's I Wake Up Dreaming series, the Roxie's annual two-week spring celebration of noir's shadiest titles. Under the banner of “the legendary and the lost” series curator Elliot Lavine has assembled a survey of stylistic extremes that demonstrate that noir's allure doesn't solely lie in watching a parade of familiar characters (the world-weary antihero, the predatory villain, the woman who loves too much) get shuffled between equally familiar scenarios (a secret plot is uncovered, a job goes wrong and someone must take the fall, the framed fight to prove their innocence, etc.).
What actually happens in The Amazing Mr. X (a.k.a. “The Spiritualist,” 1948) is not as important as how it all looks, thanks to John Alton's remarkably expressive and, at times, baffling cinematography (watch for the brief sink basin POV shot). Likewise, the dialogue-free oddity Dementia (1955), while certainly no Repulsion (1965), achieves an intensity all its own thanks to George Antheil's haunting score and vocals by Hollywood's then-leading playback singer, the "Ghostess with the Mostess," Marni Nixon.
Even when the screenplay is adapted from a master such as Cornell Woolrich, who could construct a plot tighter than a well-tied noose, the end product is often entirely its own thing—for better or for worse. Aside from "Phantom Lady," Woolrich stories are also the basis for B-grade mistaken identity caper Street of Chance (1942) and the great Edward G. Robinson vehicle The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1944), whose striking opening set piece—a wealthy heiress' attempted suicide at a train yard at night—choreographs a ballet out of billowing engine steam, twinkling stars and fluttering chiffon that dances rings around its author's original prose.
Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Robert Montgomery's adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel of the same name and one of I Wake Up Dreaming's most anticipated not-on-DVD rarities, grazes from its source material but avoids the de-fanging that Nicholas Ray would give to Hughes' far more terrifying In A Lonely Place four years later. Set in the border town of San Pablo on the eve of an annual fiesta, Pink Horse brings to mind both Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) and Anthony Mann's Border Incident (1949). But it's Montgomery's star turn as Lucky Gagin, Hughes' laconic hit man-with-a-heart-of-gold, which makes this Southwestern noir far more sentimental than either Welles or Mann's, even as it bests both in terms of onscreen Mexican stereotypes.
However, it is those films which fall into the "lost" half of I Wake Up Dreaming's rubric that perhaps make the strongest case for celebrating noir's elevation of style as substance. Certainly, this is true for those B-movies churned out by Poverty Row studios that lacked the professional credentials and polish of many of the aforementioned titles. Dance Hall Racket (1953), the only dramatic feature comedian Lenny Bruce (who also wrote the terribly unfunny screenplay) would star in, is about as well-made as its paltry particleboard sets but it's one train wreck you can't take your eyes off of. With a non-professional cast that actually could've been pulled from the type of waterfront dance hall the film is set in, Dance Hall Racket's anti-aesthetic stays true to the gritty, unglamorous world of washed-up showgirls and small-time crooks it paints in awkward, ungainly strokes.
Director Phil Tucker deserves his place in the gonzo pantheon next to early-career John Waters or Ed Wood, who, it turns out, wrote the screenplay for The Violent Years (1956), the opening film on Dance Hall Racket's double bill hosted by Johnny Legend. Juvenile delinquency never looked so suburban as in this hour-long PSA, warning parents of the dire consequences of neglecting their teenage spawn. What happens to good girls when they're left to their own devices? They become vicious career criminals who rob gas stations, trash classrooms and force other girls' boyfriends to have sex at gunpoint, of course.
Sure, The Violent Years is cheesy as hell, but, just like the most hardboiled of noirs, it sends the moral compass spinning. Its preachy frame narrative pays lip service to the censors, while the rest of the film practically luxuriates in its stylized depictions of evil as a virus undetectable, one that infects even the most stalwart members of the community. The girls don male clothes when they commit their heists, looking like handsome rough trade in their denim and handkerchiefs. This is as much a trespass as their actual crimes, something not lost on director Thomas Morgan or, Wood, whose own cross-dressing proclivities would make him particularly aware of the transgressive potential of the wrong clothes on the wrong body. It is one of those little things—much like the stylistic affectations singled-out by Crowther's Phantom Lady review—that just goes to show that in film noir the devil is truly in the details.
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