Inspecting two low-key, razor-sharp thrillers from Columbia’s Film Noir Classics II.
Though by the 1950s the popular appeal of film noir cinema continued to warrant big-budget productions including Sunset Boulevard and Ace In The Hole, its broken heart and weary soul remained in smaller-budget, smaller-scale efforts that commonly made up for in story and performance what they lacked in production costs. As Paul Shrader pointed out in his seminal 1972 essay “Notes On Film Noir,” by the 1950s noir had grown self-aware, the films’ characters realizing the despair and “disintegration” of their lives and acting through their end-of-the-line existential contempt.
The second volume of Columbia Pictures’ Film Noir Classics series contains five films from this end stage of the genre’s development, and the best two films contained in its set almost seem to groan under the weight of that ennui. Nevertheless both sets have been shrewdly compiled – perhaps better than their competitor’s offerings – providing noir fans obscure works that nevertheless can satisfy the casual observer as well.
The best of Volume II‘s set, Human Desire, reunites director Fritz Lang with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in an adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1890 novel La Bete Humaine. Lang had previously and famously directed Ford and Grahame in The Big Heat the previous year, but where that gangland revenge saga prided itself on muscular dramatics and an almost grotesquely heated tone, the focus this time rests on despair and self-recrimination. It’s a smaller, quieter effort, but that shouldn’t be confused in any event with a less worthwhile result. Quite the contrary: that anyone attempted such a uncompromising look at working class squalor during the artificial sunshine of the Eisenhower Era cuts to the heart of noir’s lasting contrarian value, and all three principal actors are at the top of their game.
Railroad engineer Jeff Warren (Ford) returns from years of service in the Korean War to the exact same job he left in the exact same dreary Pacific Northwest town. He’s even boarding with the same family, though their teenage daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) has matured enough to pursue him with wide-eyed splendor. Ellen wants to give Warren the stable life of fishing trips and evenings at the movie theatre he says he wants, but in short order he’s distracted by Vicky Buckley (Grahame), the sultry wife of his boozy, irascible yard boss Carl (Broderick Crawford.)
When Carl blows his cool and gets sacked, he devises a scheme to use Vicky’s wiles on a local businessman in order to regain his position. But Vicky and the big shot have a sordid past, and Carl realizes too late he’s cuckolded by their affair. Enraged, he beats Vicky and plots the businessman’s murder on the return train from the city. Warren, wandering the train’s corridors, sees a shell shocked post-crime Vicky and, after some introductory kissing, lets himself get used for her alibi.
The two fall in love in short order, holding an illicit romance in some of the least romantic locales imaginable – the railroad break yard, a sleazy apartment in the city, Vicky and Carl’s drab cottage. Nevertheless, Warren gets hooked on Vicky’s charm full throttle. Vicky, an archetypal femme fatale is ever one was put on film, wants Warren to murder her husband so that they can be together, the local gossip be damned, the better to get from beneath Carl’s blackmailing heel.
Warren is tempted, for reasons beyond Vicky’s charms. He’s bitter about his wartime experience, not just the rigors of combat but also the division of wealth and status among the troops. Asked about girls overseas, he bitterly remarks that the officers got all the pretty ones before he arrived. His affection for Vicky reflects that class envy: he doesn’t kiss her so much as try to swallow her whole.
But double crosses and treachery abound, and deciding if Vicky has been completely forthcoming all along is part of the film’s snaky allure. Lang and cinematographer Burnett Guffey fully deploy the rich potential of the trains’ visuals, showing their quick swerves and sudden jerks as lucid metaphors for fate and random twists of circumstance. Moreover, the still locations of indifferent taverns, rustically furnished tract houses and cheap apartments seem ephemeral, ready to be packed up or discarded at a moment’s notice. Human desire is fleeting, the film suggests, and fraught with disaster at a moment’s lapse of judgment.
Similarly, director Richard Quine uses tight, enclosed spaces to structure his enthralling suspenser Pushover, elevating the routine setup promised by Roy Huggins’ script into something else altogether. It’s a sharp suspense film that rests disaster on the timing of an elevator or the turn of a hallway, and makes you feel each tick of the clock along the way. It manages all this thanks in no small part to the precision of Fred MacMurray’s performance as (shades of Double Indemnity a decade previous) a previously straight arrow getting pulled into crooked acts by an irresistible blond (Kim Novak, in her debut role.)
When the early morning bank heist by a ruthless thief (Paul Richards) results in the murder of a security guard, Los Angeles detective Paul Sherman (MacMurray) cozies up to the thief’s girlfriend Lona (Novak) to help set up a stake out of her apartment. Teamed with his cynical partner (Philip Carey) and a veteran (Allen Nourse) with both feet dangling off the wagon, Sheridan finds staying away from Lona harder to do when she’s under his constant inspection. The two slink around the corners of her fortress-like apartment building to see one another, avoiding Sheridan’s colleagues and planning to murder her boyfriend once he shows up with the $200,000 taken from the heist.
Sheridan’s plan to distract his teammates seems foolproof (has anything good ever come after the phrase “seems foolproof”?), but in short order one twist and circumstance happens after another to bring the lovers’ hopes crashing down. The alcoholic detective steps inside a corner bar for a quick nip, missing his cue in Sheridan’s plan; the nurse that lives next door (Dorothy Malone) spots Sheridan coming out of Lona’s apartment. The thief gets caught, but Sheridan impulsively shoots him dead, casting suspicious doubt on his motivations that results in compels him to kill one of his fellow detectives and face the ire of their commanding officer (E.G. Marshall).
It’s the biggest treat of the movie that so much happens so quickly, and with such precision staging that the events never for a moment seem forced. Rather, Quine milks each character’s turn down a hallway or glance at the right moment to be fraught with peril, as indeed it is. In many ways all the characters, in true noir fashion, are trapped in a maze of manipulation and deceit in which each decision plays directly into the last. Cinematographer Lester White makes full use of the noir tropes of wet, glistening city streets but also takes advantage of the small sets and empty spaces of an L.A. that’s still expanding with post-war prosperity. Perhaps most chillingly, the empty darkness of a vacant lot seems to hover constantly on the horizon of every external shot, as if an abyss waiting just in the near distance. Overall, the production looks small-scale and modestly budgeted, but doesn’t look cheap, either.
MacMurray is effortlessly charismatic and repulsive at the same time, coolly planning betrayal with a minimum of moral conflict. Sheridan is something of a stock role, but he and Novak both invest their characters with a strange quality, not entirely unlike sympathy, that brings them the viewer’s support. Malone is perky and all-American, and perhaps reveals the film’s odd comment on gender roles: the women live in comfortable apartments, while the men sit in cold, wet exteriors or hunker in abandoned living rooms, watching them and imagining the happiness and comfort they promise. Carey, Marshall and Nourse are competent in largely stock roles, but their very anonymity works to give them a calm, unassuming universality that for genre fans will work firmly in its favor.
The second half of this compilation’s reviews includes coverage of The Brothers Rico, Nightfall, and City of Fear.
- Michael Kabel