Underworld U. S. A., (1961), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, treats the subject of organized crime with a complexity and sophistication that rivals Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).
As a teenager, Tolly Devlin sees his father beaten to death in an alley by four men. Grown to manhood, he vows to find them and take revenge.
I’ll admit I expected the movie from here on to be repetitive: find one, gun him down, move on to the next. But Fuller accomplishes much more.
The process of finding each man becomes a psychological chess-game as he trades information to get the names of the murderers who are only shadowy figures in his memory.
Finding them exposes a criminal organization disguised as a legitimate business that supports benevolent social programs.
The process of killing each man involves uneasy partnerships with law enforcement
There is no romance about extended Italian families in this movie. Fuller’s take-down of organized crime is unsentimental. This movie reminds readers of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, that he spent his early years as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in New York.
It was a special pleasure to see Underworld U. S. A. in the Castro Theater, as part of the Noir City festival.
Having recently read Samuel Fuller’s autobiography, I jumped at the chance to see one of his best films on the big screen at the Castro Theater.
Pickup on South Street (1953) starts with a scene worthy of Hitchcock. On a crowded subway train in New York City, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet from a woman’s (Jean Peters) purse.
Two men watch the theft unfold without interfering. Since they seem to have no interest in arresting the thief, why are they following his every move?
In the next few scenes, we learn that the wallet contains a formula stolen by a Communist cell bent on compromising America’s security. The men watching the pickpocket on the subway are FBI agents searching for “Commie” sympathizers.
Pickup on South Street was showing as part of Noir City, an annual ten-day festival. It is regularly cited as a classic film noir, as are some of Fuller’s other films.
And yet, I couldn’t see this film as noir.
The pickpocket and the “B-girl” ultimately give up selling the formula and work with law enforcement. Order is restored and all’s right with the world because two unlikely souls look past their own interests to serve their country. And their idealism is rewarded.
How can we reconcile this with Roger Ebert’s definition of film noir as "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending?"
Or with Otto Penzler's description: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Pickup on South Street has all the furnishings of film noir---fedoras, slang, street-wise characters, beautiful black-and-white photography---but it’s really a morality play. Good is rewarded and evil is punished.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Fuller’s storytelling craft is impeccable. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to go to the Castro Theater, San Francisco’s last art-deco movie palace.
I’ve read some silly things about this movie. I saw it yesterday, enjoyed it, and wondered why some critics were disturbed.
For instance, Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor writes, “This is one of those radical change-your-image performances that tries too hard to defy our expectations.”
Actually, I thought it was one of those performances in which an actor changes her appearance and changes the way she thinks, walks, and talks to fit the character. In other words, acting.
Peter Keough in the Boston Globe writes about the movie’s “confused, convoluted chronology.” Through most of the movie there are two parallel timelines: the present and fifteen years ago when the conflict began. It’s not that hard to follow. Her hair is longer in the past.
The ending surprises the viewer with a series of flashbacks to earlier scenes in the film. We realize these scenes did not mean what we thought they meant. The flashbacks are surprising, but we saw this done at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995).
Other reviewers wrote that Destroyer did nothing that hadn’t already been done in the rogue cop genre, which has been owned by male actors. Robert Horton in HeraldNet writes, “Switching the sex around doesn’t make it fresh.”
Actually, it does. Remember when Jodie Foster played the lead in a remake of Charles Bronson’s revenge thriller, The Brave One (2007)? I was much more enthusiastic about watching her take revenge on those who victimized her than I was watching Charles Bronson, and I wondered why.
I had a similar reaction to Destroyer. Director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deserve credit for meeting viewers’ expectations of the genre while expanding it to work with a woman in the lead.
Most critics liked Destroyer It scored 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, but deserves better. Some praised it as a good neo-noir. Sure enough, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Plus, this one has that tragic dimension in which a character with noble ambitions never has a chance to realize them.
I went to Shoplifters expecting a crime-caper, a film full of ironic humor about a rag-tag bunch who survive through petty crime, but are good people underneath it all. I was not expecting noir, but I'm forced to the conclusion that's what I saw.
I doubt anyone thinks of noir when they see the trailer or advertising for this award-winning Japanese film. Most of it happens in broad daylight. The colors are pretty. The people are happy. Where is the darkness that gives noir its name?
Without wading into the quagmire of defining noir, I will recall that in noir films, novels, and stories, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. This is where Shoplifters throws us a curve. The tone is not grim. It is upbeat.
But the morality is ambiguous to say the least, and . . . well, you'll have to see it and decide for yourself whether the worldview is ultimately pessimistic. A case could be made for that.
At the beginning, it appears to be a crime-caper film. A man and a boy move skillfully through a grocery store plying their trade with hand signals and deft deceptions. It's hard not to celebrate with them when they go out for snacks afterward.
On the way home, they come to the aid of a little girl crying outside a house where adults are having a violent altercation. When they take her home with them, it seems obvious they are rescuing her. But soon the question arises: is this a kidnapping?
Throughout the film, we are accomplices in each of the survival schemes, and we cringe as we learn more about what is really going on beneath the pleasant exteriors.
It's noir enough for me.
As you can see in the "Noir" section of this blog, I've been happily commenting on various films as examples of film noir. In doing so, I've relied on Otto Penzler's definition.
Now I learn there's more to it than that---much more. In the table of contents for the Wikipedia article on film noir, the first item is "Problems of definition." It turns out there are so many problems, and they are so complicated, that, "There is no consensus on the matter."
Yet the article tells us that in film noir the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Penzler says essentially the same, and this article refers to Roger Ebert's description, "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending."
All this sounds depressing, yet film noir (and neo-noir such as Chinatown, Raging Bull, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Training Day and many more) remain popular for the same reason tragedy has always been popular (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Doll's House, Death of a Salesman).
We hope that Good conquers Evil and that Love is the answer, but we know those statements are are not always true. Too often in life a force greater than ourselves overwhelms our best efforts. The Greeks called it fate. The twentieth century called it socio-economic conditions.
We watch a play or a movie about an imperfect man or woman who struggles for happiness, knowing all the while they will lose. We suffer with them as they fight the good fight. When they lose, we experience a purgation of fear and pity, which Aristotle called catharsis. And we feel better.
Reviews of this fine film have focused on how well it handles its central issue, drug addiction, and how suspenseful it is. I found it compelling for the suspense alone.
Lee Child has written that creating suspense is simple: ask or imply a question, and postpone giving the answer. Writer-director Peter Hedges seems to have learned this lesson well.
From the beginning, the film methodically implies its questions. A young man runs around a house peeking in windows. When his mom and sister return from church, he says his sponsor suggested he spend a weekend at home, on leave from rehab. If so, we wonder, why weren't they expecting him? Wouldn't he have called?
His mom is thrilled to see him. His sister is not. Why aren't they on the same page? We find out soon enough, but not before several more questions have been raised. Throughout the movie, Hedges's screenplay keeps us waiting for the next revelation.
Some critics fault the film for being a drama about a social issue that mimics the conventions of thrillers. I see it as a thriller that involves addiction, the way Hitchcock's North by Northwest, for instance, involves espionage.
The problem of addiction gives the film an extra dimension for fans of noir. Though we're pulling for the main characters all the way through, we sense that their fate is sealed, no matter what they do.
In a recent article Manohla Dargis wrote, "I have a particular weakness for the kinds of dangerous, sometimes unhinged femmes fatales in film noirs like 'Gun Crazy' and 'Out of the Past.'" That put both movies on my watch list.
Gun Crazy certainly meets Otto Penzler's definition of noir, as well as my speculation that noir is related to the twentieth-century tendency to see people as defined by their circumstances.
Bart Tare (John Dall) is fascinated by guns, but a childhood trauma gives him a horror of killing. Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a sharp-shooter, is the star attraction at a carnival, but the boss says she belongs to him.
They bond over their expertise with firearms, and they set out to liberate her by running free and robbing banks (echoes of Bonnie and Clyde). They are doomed because she is willing to kill, but he cannot stand it.
The movie starts slow with scenes of Bart as a boy, a teenager, and a young man. But once he meets Annie at the carnival, it is a sharp, suspenseful thrill ride.
Excellent performances by the two stars made me wonder why they weren't household names like, for instance, James Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck.
John Dall came off two Broadway hits to win an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in The Corn is Green. He played the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, but it flopped. He played the lead in Gun Crazy and it flopped. After that, he worked mostly in television at a time when TV was less prestigious and less lucrative than movies.
Peggy Cummins similarly came close to stardom. She had the title role in Forever Amber, but, when the production was halted for re-writing the script, she was replaced. She went on to have a steady career in British films, but no career in Hollywood.
Life ain't fair, on-screen or off.
In The Driver (1978), Ryan O’Neal, known for playing romantic roles, convinces us he has some ice water in his veins, playing a driver who hires out to help thieves make their getaways.
As the cop determined to arrest the driver, Bruce Dern proves once again he has the perfect touch for playing playing losers who haven’t yet noticed they’re losers. The script gives him plenty of invitations to overplay his part with lines like, “I’m very good at what I do,” but he keeps it light.
Dern is really the protagonist of this noir film, doomed by his vanity to fail. O’Neal makes a fine antagonist---sinister, inscrutable, evil for no particular reason.
The film is at its best when it focuses on their rivalry. There are sequences with other characters that get unnecessarily talky, but all is forgiven as the clockwork plot winds down and nobody gets what they signed up for.
It will come as no surprise this movie has car chases. When it hit theatres in 1978, audiences had already been wowed by the iconic car chases in Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). The Driver keeps it exciting by including techniques from demolition derbies.
Under Walter Hill’s direction, the storytelling couldn’t be any tighter.
It’s not the darkest of noir, but it’s entertaining.
Not to be confused with Driver (2011) or Baby Driver (2017) . . . but perhaps to be compared with them.
As with so many of my favorites, I saw the movie before I read the book. I came away wondering, "Why is it called The Postman Always Rings Twice?" There is no postman in the story (book or movie). We don't hear anyone ring twice, and no one mentions a postman ringing twice.
Wikipedia has an interesting article on this title. In the preface to another of his classics, Double Indemnity, James M. Cain said this title came from a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who grew so anxious about his manuscripts being returned he would leave the house when the postman was due, causing the postman to ring twice.
That may explain the origin of the title, but it doesn't explain why Cain adopted it as the title of the book.
The article suggests three other possible explanations for the title. I don't find any of them persuasive because each would assume the reader (or viewer) had some specialized knowledge of events or ideas not contained in the story. That's a lot to ask.
For me, the title works because it is senseless. Like naturalistic classics by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and others, noir stories suggest our actions are determined by our circumstances. If so, what we do has no more meaning than the wind blowing or a river running.
Why should a title make sense?
This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
I've been reading a lot of Jim Thompson lately. Perhaps I should be worried. Most people I know say his books are too dark.
Which brings us to the subject of noir. In the 1930s the French word for black was used to describe black-and-white films in which there's more black on the screen than white. Since then noir has come to describe a type of story, as Otto Penzler explains in his Foreword to Best American Noir of the Century:
"Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories are existential, pessimistic tales about people . . . who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Noir comes out of the early twentieth century, which also saw the rise of the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. These sciences said, "If you want to understand human beings, study their circumstances."
The early twentieth century also saw the rise of the naturalistic novel in which characters struggle with their circumstances as well as with each other. Jack London's stories aren't so much man against nature as man subject to nature. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about working conditions in the meat-packing industry. In Native Son, Richard Wright shows how crime grows out social conditions.
The naturalistic novel asks the reader, "How well would you fare in these circumstances?" I see noir as a sub-species in which the answer is, "Not very well." This prompts compassion.
A lot of people don't like the idea that we are a product of our circumstances, but to some degree we are. To think otherwise is false pride, the kind that goeth before a fall.
Thompson's books are noir but reading them does not depress me. I feel compassion for his characters.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
A fellow writer asked what I was reading. When I said Jim Thompson, she asked what kind of novels he wrote. I told her The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is considered his masterpiece. It's a novel about Lou Ford, whose father, a physician, explained to him that his personality fits the definition of psychopath.
"Like Dexter," said my fellow writer, referring to the popular TV series with Michael C. Hall. True, except that Lou Ford's father does not teach him a moral code. Lou freely indulges his sadistic tendencies and does whatever serves his own interests. Since he is the sheriff in his hometown, he remains above suspicion.
As if that weren't chilling enough, The Killer Inside Me is in the first person. Lou Ford tells his own story. He speaks directly to us. The Killer Inside Me is not Thompson's only first-person, bad-guy novel. Pop. 1280, A Hell of a Woman, and Savage Night are also fine examples.
Though most critics think Thompson was at his best with this type of novel, I think his others are well worth reading. The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Getaway are powerful examples of noir suspense told in the third person.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was my introduction to stories in which we root for the bad guy. I may have read the book before seeing the 1996 film version by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others. Either way it was an eye-opener.
Patricia Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, seems an ordinary man, just getting by in life, though he does so by running petty scams. In the course of the story he progresses to greater crimes and reaps greater rewards. I admit I was delighted to see it all work out for him. When I shared that with a friend, he said, "No, that movie was a little too dark for me."
Why would we hope he succeeds? Whenever I have encountered grifters and con artists in real life, I have loathed them.
Matt Bird, in The Secrets of Story, says an audience will empathize with any character who is making decisions, doing something difficult, and having to improvise. His prime example is the second half of Hitchcock's Psycho.
So perhaps it's not so much that we are rooting for the bad guy, but rather that we empathize. And maybe we wonder what it would be like to take whatever we want without being bothered by feelings of guilt. But, of course, we would never do that.