For fans of noir nightmares from Double Indemnity to A Simple Plan---especially those who like a dash of absurdity as in Blood Simple---Prime Video's Blow the Man Down is a very interesting little film.
We start with a volatile situation: two sisters at their mother's funeral inherit nothing but problems. One doubles down on taking charge; the other goes wild. There's a murder, and covering it up turns into a farce. We are deep into noir territory.
But, there's a chorus of fisherman with surprisingly operatic voices singing sea chanteys. The movie is set in a New England fishing town, so, I guess, they're musical scenery.
And there's a trio of older woman who keep turning up . . . at the funeral . . . out for a walk in the village . . . they're always around. And there's Margo Martindale playing a matriarch as few other can.
There are plot twists. There are surprises. Ominous things turn out to be unimportant. Little things loom large. When it was done, I had to mentally reverse-engineer some developments to see if they made sense. But I was always fascinated.
This low-budget film was made in the year World War II ended, the threshold of film noir. Only 67 minutes long, it is not one of the great films in that genre, but it was favorably reviewed when it was released and each time it was rediscovered. In 1992 it was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Most of the critical raves focus on the director, Edgar G. Ulmer. In his review, Roger Ebert said Ulmer "was an assistant to the great Murnau on 'The Last Laugh' and 'Sunrise,' and provided one of the links between German Expressionism, with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt."
This film could be a textbook on making a low-budget film without disappointing the audience. Street scenes in New York show two characters standing under a street sign surrounded by fog. Stock footage of a switchboard operator tells us the hero is making a long-distance call. Visually it's minimal, but enough.
I must say the acting was the least enjoyable part of the movie. For whatever reason, the two main characters were reduced to a single attitude and every line is delivered in the same tone.
The story is perhaps the most interesting and most noirish part of the movie. A singer decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood. Her boyfriend, a fine pianist, decides to follow her. His luck goes from bad to worse as he hitchhikes across the country. As he says at the end, fate can destroy anyone at any time.
The film is based on Martin Goldsmith's 1939 novel, Detour, adapted by him and Martin Mooney.
The film is in the public domain and is freely available from online sources. Be sure to look for the restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2018. available from the Criterion Collection.
As you can see in the "Movies" 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.
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?
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."