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Before Film-Noir: Proto-Noir

proto-noir precursors to noir film noir

39 replies to this topic

#1 Marianne

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Posted 13 September 2017 - 02:05 PM

Sabotage (1936, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

 

A movie theater owner, Verloc, accepts one more act of sabotage, the task of setting off a bomb in London, because the money is good. His greed gets the better of him. Once he accepts this task, he gives little thought to the consequences of his actions, even when they have a direct effect on his family. He doesn’t realize at first that he is under suspicion by Scotland Yard. A police sergeant, Ted Spencer, is keeping him under daily surveillance, and some of Ted’s fellow officers tail Verloc occasionally. During the course of his surveillance work posing as a grocer next door to the Verlocs’ movie theater, Ted becomes emotionally attached to Verloc’s wife, Winnie, and the narrative thus becomes even more complicated.

 

I give Sabotage 12½ out of 18 on our list of proto-noir characteristics.

 

*****Spoilers*****     *****Spoilers*****     *****Spoilers*****     *****Spoilers*****

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2.  Flashbacks N/A

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes: The film opens with a carefully planned act of sabotage, and another act of sabotage is planned and carried out in the rest of the film.

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

5.  The instrument of fate Winnie Verloc’s brother is in the wrong place at the wrong time. His fate is emphasized for moral effect.

6.  Angst Winnie Verloc suffers the most from despair and angst in Sabotage. She is betrayed by her husband and distraught over the death of her beloved brother Stevie.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence The entire film is about sabotage and escalating the forms of sabotage for greater effect. It is a theme stated by Verloc’s handlers, and it is their intention to intimidate Londoners.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings The film takes place in London, and it opens with a blackout, which is the result of Verloc’s sabotage.

9.  Greed Verloc’s greed induces him to agree to a second act of sabotage and eventually leads him to a callous summation of his criminal act.

10. Betrayal Verloc betrays his wife’s trust by committing violence and destroying their family as a result.

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness N/A

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) N/A

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes I’m going to give this a half-point. A case could be made the saboteurs are motivated by postwar political situation. Superintendent Talbot tells Sergeant Ted Spencer that the saboteurs are interested in “[m]aking trouble at home to take our minds off what’s going on abroad. . . .”

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films Lighting plays a very important role, especially at the start of the film, when London undergoes a blackout as a result of sabotage.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Hitchcock uses unusual shots, especially at the beginning of the film. I especially liked the sequence in the plant where Verloc sabotaged the machinery with sand. He also uses cutting techniques to show Winnie’s state of mind after she learns the news about her brother’s death. The entire sequence makes her culpability ambiguous in regard to what happens to her husband at their dinner table.

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Hitchcock worked in Germany and was influenced by German expressionism. Some expressionistic techniques are evident in some shots and in the use of lighting.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) See number 18. Although the forces of good and evil seem to be arrayed on opposite sides for most of the film, Winnie Verloc and Ted Spencer are left in a morally ambiguous position at the film’s conclusion.

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Expertise does triumph, but the final case of Verloc’s death isn’t really solved. Ted, the police sergeant, compromises his professional ethics to protect Winnie Verloc, the woman he loves. The ending of the film is ambiguous: Good seems to triumph, but the quest for truth does not.



#2 Marianne

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Posted 07 September 2017 - 05:38 PM

We are repeating the list of film noir characteristics we have been using to investigate proto-noir. Please use as many or as few characteristics as you like to discuss proto-noir. I started the discussion thread as a way to continue applying what we learned in Dr. Edwards’s course, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir (aka Summer of Darkness: Investigating Film Noir).

 

Also included (below the list of characteristics) is the most up-to-date list of proto-noir films; we have been adding—and continue to add—titles to the list. The running list is alphabetized as a whole in case that’s easier for some folks to find what they are looking for. I will alternate between the film list alphabetized by decade and the list alphabetized in its entirety.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development

2.  Flashbacks

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder)

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale

5.  The instrument of fate

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst)

7.  Violence or the threat of violence

8.  Urban and nighttime settings

9.  Greed

10. Betrayal

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia)

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.)

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on)

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on)

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good”

 

List of alphabetized proto-noir titles (note that some of these films may be hard to find):

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), dir. Michael Curtiz

 

La bête humaine (1938), dir. Jean Renoir

Blackmail (1929), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Blue, White and Perfect (1942), dir. Herbert I. Leeds

 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene

City for Conquest (1940), dir. Anatole Litvak

Crime and Punishment (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Crime without Passion (1934), dirs. Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur

 

Dangerous to Know (1938), dir Robert Florey

The Devil Is a Woman (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

The Docks of New York (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), dir Fritz Lang

 

Fury (1936), dir. Fritz Lang

 

The Glass Key (1935), dir. Frank Tuttle

G Men (1935), dir. William Keighley

 

Heat Lightning (1934), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

The Hole in the Wall (1929), dir. Robert Florey

 

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James Whale

I Wake up Screaming (1941), dir. H. Bruce Humberstone

 

Le jour se lève (1939), dir. Michel Carné

 

The Kennel Murder Case (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

 

The Last Command (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

Let Us Live (1939), dir. John Brahm

Little Caesar (1931), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

 

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942), dir. Herbert I. Leeds

Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940), dir. Eugene Forde

The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

 

Night Train to Munich (1940), dir. Carol Reed

 

Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes) (1938), dir. Marcel Carné

Private Detective 62 (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

 

The Roaring Twenties (1939), dir. Raoul Walsh

 

Sabotage (1936), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Scarface (1932), dir. Howard Hawks and Richard Rossan

The Secret Six (1931), dir. George W. Hill

Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Sleepers West (1941), dir. Eugene Forde

Smart Money (1931), dir. Alfred E. Green

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), dir. Boris Ingster

 

They Drive by Night (1940), dir. Raoul Walsh

The Thin Man (1934), dir. W. S. Van Dyke

Thunderbolt (1929), dir. Josef von Sternberg

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

 

Underworld (1927), dir. Josef von Sternberg

 

You and Me (1938), dir. Fritz Lang

You Only Live Once (1937), dir. Fritz Lang


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#3 HEYMOE

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Posted 23 May 2017 - 05:12 PM

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

dir. Josef von Sternberg

 

The predominate characteristic below is the Femme fatale who proves detrimental to all the men who crosses her path. Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich) catches the eye of Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) who follows her home, then secures a rendezvous for later in the evening. In the interim, he runs into an old friend, Don Pasqual Costelar (Lionel Atwill) who after learning that Antonio has an interest in Concha, tells of his experience with the femme fatale.

“That Woman has ice where others have a heart. Not only did she wreck my life, there were others as well.”

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development N/A

 

2. Flashbacks Yes

The story is mostly told in flashback.

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) N/A

Although an illegal duel is agreed upon, there is nothing sinister about it and so it does not add to the aura of noir.

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Yes

Concha Perez has her way with the men she encounters. She definitely has Pasqual’s number.

Concha: I came to see if you were dead. If you had loved me enough you would have killed yourself last night.

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes

Pasqual: I don’t believe that destiny is controlled by a throw of dice, but it couldn’t have been merely a succession of accidents.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes

Concha is driving Pasquale mad.

Pasqual: All that night I walked the streets with a fever. I cursed myself. I called myself a coward. I burned with shame this despicable role I played. I told myself there were only two ways out. Either leave her or to kill her. I chose a third.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes

Assault & battery (heard off camera)

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings N/A

 

9. Greed Yes

Concha can’t get enough. She keeps returning to the well.

Pasqual: You play with me as if I were a fool. What I gave gladly, you took like a thief.

 

10. Betrayal Yes

Concha’s audacious betrayals are heartbreaking for Pasqual.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes

Pasqual: I love you, Concha. Life without you means nothing.

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes

Pasqual is obsessed with Concha.* Nothing can keep him away. Concha manipulates men to secure the things she desperately wants and/or needs.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) N/A

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes

There are many slow dissolves between scenes. Also the director is not shy in having the camera pan to follow action as opposed to editing. For example when we first see Concha, the camera pans down from a balcony until we see a balloon-filled horse carriage carrying Concha and follows it moving left-to-right. It then abruptly reverses course, moving left to follow another carriage, all without a cut.

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes

The mise-en-scene gives the film a realistic feel. Backdrops and sets look as if they are lived-in and not pristine. Sets are fill with knick-knacks, some with balloons and confetti, and in others we see walls with imperfections or sloppy brick work. A lot of attention is given to details; nothing seems to be out of place. In one scene we see a snowbound train stranded as a result of an avalanche almost buried in snow. This unrefined look is later employed by directors and art director of film noir.

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) N/A

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

* His obsession reminds me of a Percy Sledge song:

When a man loves a woman, Down deep in his soul, She can bring him such misery

If she plays him for a fool, He’s the last one to know, Loving eyes can never see

 

The Devil Is a Woman has 11 of 18 proto-noir characteristics, but never really felt noir. The absence of any criminal activity may be the reason. (It is a personal preference.)

Marlene Dietrich is brilliant as Concha; a memorable performance; one I’ll never forget.

 

 

 


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#4 HEYMOE

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Posted 17 March 2017 - 07:34 PM

Le Jour se Leve (1939)

(Daybreak)

dir. Marcel Carne

 

We hear a gunshot coming from behind an apartment door, then see a man tumbling and falling down a flight of stairs; he is dead. Next, we see a blind man walking up the stairs, and hearing the commotion exclaims, “What happened? Did someone fall?” With his  white cane, he traces the body. “Someone fell! Help! Is anyone there?”

The murderer decides to hole up in the apartment instead of running away, and when the police arrive demanding he open the door, he refuses. After much pacing back and forth, he begins to recall the events that led to his predicament.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes

The bulk of the story is divided into three distinct parts and presented in a series of flashbacks, interwoven with the drama unfolding inside the apartment with Francois and the police.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes

Francois recalls the events that led to he killing Valentin, who we first see exiting the room in the first scene.

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes

Assault

Menacing

Murder

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes

Francoise gets lost attempting to deliver flowers and by chance, enters a factory to ask for help. There she meets a worker by the same name - Francois/Francoise. Later they learn that each comes from an orphanage and as a result, a bond develops between them.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes

Two examples:

Francois and Valentin are each jealous of the other over their involvement with the same two women.

 

Francois becomes desperate when he realizes that he’s running out of time and options, as police get closer to apprehending him.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes

The setting is an unnamed industrial town with tall tenements, factories- some having multiple tube chimneys, and a commuter rail running through it. Many nighttime scenes.

 

9. Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes

Francois isolates himself not only from the police but from society as well. He yells at a crowd below his window: Let me alone! Alone do you hear? All I ask is to be left in peace!… I’m so tired. I don’t trust anyone anymore. It’s all over. Who is Francois? I don’t know him! He doesn’t exist anymore.” 

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes

Clara, talking to Francois, says of Valentin, “He can talk you into anything. Take the Riviera, for instance, he starts talking about it and you’re right there. That’s how he got me.”

Valentin boasts to Francois, “Love. Romance. Of course, they love you! It’s wonderful to be loved, eh? They don’t love me, but I attract them. That’s the whole secret. And as I attracted her, she and I…Silly of me - I adore youth. Interested? Like to hear more?”

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes

Excellent black and white photography by the 4 cinematographers who worked on the film. They captured a beautiful sunset at twilight with high clouds and the sun at or near the horizon. There are many scenes that employ the technique particularly, in the last moments, when police prepare their final assault and Francois contemplates his next move.

The mostly still camera focuses ahead; our attention is drawn to the thick white smoke on the floor at the other end of the room. The camera slowly moves back, as a light above begins to illuminate the window and smoke while the rest of the room remains dark. The sudden blare of fanfare breaks the silence, signaling the end of the story. Lights and shades, along with music, brings dramatic emphasis to the conclusion of scene and film.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes

The first time we see the door to Francois’ apartment, there is a shadow cast from the staircase’s vertical posts across its frame giving the impression of a jail cell.

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes

There are several examples of French poetic realism in the film:

First, there is the pessimistic view of society. Francois speaking of himself, tells Francoise: “Unemployment, lousy jobs…the jobs I’ve had to do. All kinds, but all the same. Spraying paint, red lead, that’s bad for you too. It’s like sandblasting. After a bit, I had to give up. Things were going badly. I set up on my own. It’s like waiting for a tram in the rain. It doesn’t stop, it’s full. And so it’s the second or third. You stand there waiting, like a fool.”

Second, are the themes it covers: bitterness, disappointments, disillusionment, and nostalgia. Finally, its melancholic ending. *

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes

On the one hand there’s the caring father who only wants what is best for his daughter, only we learn later that his motives are actually on the sinister side.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

* French Poetic Realism- https://cinewiki.wik... Poetic Realism

 

13 of 18 proto-noir characteristic for this well made, foreign language film. I would say the story plays as a tragedy in that character flaws lead to undesirable fates.

 


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#5 HEYMOE

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Posted 13 March 2017 - 05:05 PM

 

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

dir. Boris Ingster

 

I finally had a chance to see the wonderful film again. I still think it could go in either the proto-noir or the film noir category. I’m not wild about categories anyway, and I don’t think the decision about placement of Stranger on the Third Floor would ever be final anyway. But I do agree that it’s noir all the way! And it’s such a great film, no matter what we want to call it.

 

HEYMOE: We differ on two of the characteristics below, but the net result is the same: 13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for Stranger on the Third Floor. My responses below are in purple.

 

*****Spoilers*****          *****Spoilers*****          *****Spoilers*****

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes Yes

2. Flashbacks Yes Yes

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes Yes

Loitering

Robbery

Trespassing

And, of course, murder!

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes Yes

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes Yes. In addition, the neighborhood is on edge. Jane mentions this to The Stranger near the end of the film. See number 7.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes Yes. The neighborhood is on edge because a killer has not yet been caught and may be responsible for the two murders. Jane mentions this to The Stranger near the end of the film.

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes Yes

 

9. Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes Yes

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes Yes

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films Yes Yes. Let me emphasize here that the chiaroscuro lighting is used throughout the film, not just the dream sequence. And it is magnificent, as you point out.

Cinematographer Nick Musuraca . . . does magnificent work here with the lighting, shadows, and contrast. The chiaroscuro works to perfection in the moments when [Michael] begins his paranoid thinking, leading to and including the dream sequence.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes Yes

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes Yes

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes No, for this one. The Stranger was indeed capable of empathy for the dog, and modern viewers might be able to feel some sympathy for him because he talks of the horrors of being institutionalized. But I think Michael, Jane, and people living and working in the neighborhood regard him as mostly evil.

How could anyone capable of purchasing fresh meat to feed a stray dog be suspected of evil-doings or anyone as evil as to commit multiple murders, be so benevolent?

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A Yes, for this one. Jane becomes an expert at finding The Stranger. The implication in the film, with the numerous people and the fades in and out, is that she canvasses the neighborhood exhaustively. And justice prevails, although it has the potential to be thwarted, even accidentally, and the true identity of the killer is learned; however, it’s not the court system’s justice that prevails because the killer is killed in an accident and is never brought to “true” justice.

 

Still 13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for Stranger on the Third Floor.

 

Marianne, I truly appreciate your input here as well as your willingness to share your perspectives and opinion. Your annotations complements the write-up so well, giving it more balance.

 

I will accept this as a collaboration between us with no changes necessary.

It now stands as a write-up with Two Yeses.

 

Let me take a moment here and acknowledge the one year anniversary of this Proto-Noir thread

created by you March 6, 2016. Congrats to all contributors!

 

Thanks again, Marianne.


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#6 Marianne

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Posted 11 March 2017 - 05:55 PM

 

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

dir. Boris Ingster

 

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

dir. Boris Ingster

 

I finally had a chance to see the wonderful film again. I still think it could go in either the proto-noir or the film noir category. I’m not wild about categories anyway, and I don’t think the decision about placement of Stranger on the Third Floor would ever be final anyway. But I do agree that it’s noir all the way! And it’s such a great film, no matter what we want to call it.

 

HEYMOE: We differ on two of the characteristics below, but the net result is the same: 13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for Stranger on the Third Floor. My responses below are in purple.

 

*****Spoilers*****          *****Spoilers*****          *****Spoilers*****

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes Yes

2. Flashbacks Yes Yes

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes Yes

Loitering

Robbery

Trespassing

And, of course, murder!

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes Yes

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes Yes. In addition, the neighborhood is on edge. Jane mentions this to The Stranger near the end of the film. See number 7.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes Yes. The neighborhood is on edge because a killer has not yet been caught and may be responsible for the two murders. Jane mentions this to The Stranger near the end of the film.

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes Yes

 

9. Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes Yes

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes Yes

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films Yes Yes. Let me emphasize here that the chiaroscuro lighting is used throughout the film, not just the dream sequence. And it is magnificent, as you point out.

Cinematographer Nick Musuraca . . . does magnificent work here with the lighting, shadows, and contrast. The chiaroscuro works to perfection in the moments when [Michael] begins his paranoid thinking, leading to and including the dream sequence.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes Yes

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes Yes

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes No, for this one. The Stranger was indeed capable of empathy for the dog, and modern viewers might be able to feel some sympathy for him because he talks of the horrors of being institutionalized. But I think Michael, Jane, and people living and working in the neighborhood regard him as mostly evil.

How could anyone capable of purchasing fresh meat to feed a stray dog be suspected of evil-doings or anyone as evil as to commit multiple murders, be so benevolent?

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A Yes, for this one. Jane becomes an expert at finding The Stranger. The implication in the film, with the numerous people and the fades in and out, is that she canvasses the neighborhood exhaustively. And justice prevails, although it has the potential to be thwarted, even accidentally, and the true identity of the killer is learned; however, it’s not the court system’s justice that prevails because the killer is killed in an accident and is never brought to “true” justice.

 

Still 13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for Stranger on the Third Floor.


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#7 Marianne

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Posted 01 March 2017 - 03:13 PM

Cleary Strangers on the Third Floor is a transitional film and therefore is a link between the two categories.

 

And I do believe another way to look at the film.

 

I can't resist, though, saying again that Stranger on the Third Floor is a great film. Full of angst and doubt and uncertainty. What I admire about film noir.

 

And then there's Peter Lorre. It's one of his best performances.

 

I have the darn thing on reserve from the local library; I just wish it would show up already!!!


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#8 jamesjazzguitar

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Posted 01 March 2017 - 03:01 PM

Stranger on the Third Floor is one of my favorite noirs. I saw it a while back and need to see it again (it's on my list), especially after reading your write-up.

 

Some put this Stranger on the Third Floor in the film noir, not the proto-noir category. Some even call it "the first noir": http://www.brattlefi...t-1-proto-noir/. As you know, I'm not a big fan of keeping to strict categories, and I am happy putting Stranger on the Third Floor in both the proto-noir and film noir categories.

 

No matter what we call it, it's a great film! I just want to see it again.

 

Cleary Strangers on the Third Floor is a transitional film and therefore is a link between the two categories.


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#9 Marianne

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Posted 01 March 2017 - 02:49 PM

 

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

dir. Boris Ingster

 . . . . . . . .

 

13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for this absorbing film lasting but 1 hour and 4 minutes. The film reminds me of Ministry of Fear, in its chiaroscuro, and the Dream Sequence of The cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its German expressionist style.

 

 

Stranger on the Third Floor is one of my favorite noirs. I saw it a while back and need to see it again (it's on my list), especially after reading your write-up.

 

Some put this Stranger on the Third Floor in the film noir, not the proto-noir category. Some even call it "the first noir": http://www.brattlefi...t-1-proto-noir/. As you know, I'm not a big fan of keeping to strict categories, and I am happy putting Stranger on the Third Floor in both the proto-noir and film noir categories.

 

No matter what we call it, it's a great film! I just want to see it again.


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#10 HEYMOE

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Posted 26 February 2017 - 12:45 AM

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

dir. Boris Ingster

Michael Ward (John McGuire) is the key witness in a murder case. He and his fiancé, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) are in a diner discussing the case and his very first byline in the newspaper:

Jane: I didn’t know he was so young. He looks like a kid.

Michael: Some of them start young.

Jane: Do you really think he killed Nick?

Michael: Certainly.

Jane: I don’t know, but I have a funny feeling.

Michael: What?

Jane: Somehow, I wish you’d never been near Nick’s place that night.

Michael: What you talking about? That’s the break I’ve been waiting for. If I hadn’t, there’d be no story, [no $12 raise,] and we wouldn’t be getting married.

The film examines the trial and conviction of cab driver Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) for the murder of Nick Nanbajan, the proprietor of a café. It also looks at how afterward, Michael grows uncomfortable with the verdict and begins to question his role in the trial along with the lack of physical evidence. Michael thoughts are narrated: …After all, I didn’t see Briggs actually kill Nick. All the rest of the evidence was circumstantial too.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes

Michael’s troubles begin when he starts to question the murder conviction of Joe Briggs, who he testified against. The narration extends from his inner thoughts, as he considers the rationale for having such doubts. It’s unusual because it has the same effect as a flashback in that we learn of what happened and couldn’t know otherwise. It is also unusual because Mike is not narrating a story to anyone, rather the voice-over is him thinking to himself.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes

Here it is used very effectively. Mike tries to assess his confusion by recalling incidents that continues to trigger doubts. Each flashback is introduced by these transitional phrases:

“I’ll never forget the way we met.”

“Oh yes I have. That time at Nick’s.”

“Wait a minute. “How about last month, the night it rained?”

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes

Loitering

Robbery

Trespassing

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes

What are the odds of finding the bodies of two murder victims only weeks apart or that a person you have not yet met but desperately are looking for, suddenly appears before you?

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes

A jury convicts Joe Briggs of murder and he wails: No! No! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! Let me go! Let me go! Mr. Ward. Mr. Ward. I didn’t! do it. You know I didn’t do it.”

Those words begin to play on Mike’s mind and he worries; could Briggs be innocent? “Sometimes they do get the wrong man…Now they’ll have to give him the chair. He’ll die, and I’ll never know for sure.”

Guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion… we see all of these angst throughout the film.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes

Attempted murder

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes

The story takes place in Manhattan. We see the familiar row of Brownstones with a diner in the corner. Twice we see characters walk from the diner to the building at night.

 

9. Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes

Mike experiences paranoid thoughts that are having alienating effects. He begins to question his innocence to a crime he only envisions and has not committed. He stops short of opening a neighbor’s door, remembering something said at trial, “You forgot that fingerprints will always give you away.” Moments later, “Why should they think I had anything to do with it?”

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes

In a way, Mike brainwashes himself with his paranoiac thoughts. He works himself up into believing he will be found guilty of murder; he even dreams of it.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes

Cinematographer Nick Musuraca, (Out of the Past, The Hitch-Hiker) does magnificent work here with the lighting, shadows, and contrast. The chiaroscuro works to perfection in the moments when he begins his paranoid thinking, leading to and including the Dream sequence.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes

Mike’s paranoia is getting to him. I can’t think straight anymore.” The camera begins to move in closer towards him. If I could only drive it out of my mind, and get some sleepThe lights begin to dim, the music grows louder as the film makes its transition from reality to a dream sequence. When the camera pulls back, he awakens amid the dream. (see # 16)

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes

The eight-minute-long Dream Sequence is filmed entirely in German expressionistic style: Diagonal lines across walls and floors, exaggerated sets, dramatic facial expressions, unusual camera angles, bold black & white contrasts and finally, melodramatic acting.

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes

How could anyone capable of purchasing fresh meat to feed a stray dog be suspected of evil-doings or anyone as evil as to commit multiple murders, be so benevolent?

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

13 of 18 proto-noir characteristics for this absorbing film lasting but 1 hour and 4 minutes. The film reminds me of Ministry of Fear, in its chiaroscuro, and the Dream Sequence of The cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its German expressionist style.


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#11 HEYMOE

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Posted 24 January 2017 - 06:06 PM

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

dir. Raoul Walsh

 

It is 1918 and America is fighting a war in France. Three Americans, each more different than the other, discuss their plans for after the war. Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn) aspires to open a law office. George (Humphrey Bogart) will return to the saloon business aware that prohibition may come soon but confident the law can’t be enforced. Eddie (James Cagney) says, “I’m going to get my old job back in that garage. Save my money, someday have a shop of my own. It’s my idea of heaven, boys. A grease bucket, a wrench and a cracked cylinder.” This film tells their story: dreams, hopes, failures, and downfalls.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes

The film is narrated in documentary style with numerous montages, highlighting historical events over the course of a decade and a half (1918-1933)

 

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes

Armed robbery

Bribery

Piracy

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes

A fateful occurrence starts it all; three soldiers from the same town, meet for the first time in a foxhole, then return home and stay in touch, never suspecting that their lives would be gravely impacted by each other’s choices.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes

The angst of unrequited love is two fold here: Panama (Gladys George) loves Eddie, Eddie loves Jean, and she loves Lloyd. Eddie does not know how Panama feels but he should and Jean knows that Eddie loves her but can not bring herself to say she does not feel the same. Both women show their anguish whenever they are alone with Eddie. Panama wanting him but knowing he looks at another; Jean liking him but not wanting to break his heart, I can’t hurt him. He’s been so good to me.”

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes

The story takes place in New York City, and its nighttime scenes are well photographed by cinematographer, Ernest Haller (Gone With The Wind). An example is the scene where Eddie walks Jean to her home at night; Mr. Haller made it look so realistic and not staged.

 

9. Greed Yes

Bootlegging, piracy and robbery play a role in this story and greed is the reason.

 

10. Betrayal Yes

There are several betrayals. This one concerns Eddie and George crossing Nick Brown:

George: Look here, Eddie. It won’t be easy the next time. Brown isn’t going to stand for you hijacking his boat. Next time he’ll be ready for you…

Eddie: Go on.

George: Well, it’s like this. I got the organization to bring the stuff in, and I know where to get it. You’ve got the organization to peddle it.

Eddie: You mean you want to double-cross Brown.

George: It’s been done before, you know. What do you say?

Eddie: That sounds like a pretty good basis for a partnership. You’re on, it’s a deal.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes

Jean receives a threat: “…your boyfriend should bury what [he’s] got on [George] because if your boyfriend don’t bury it, he’ll get buried instead.” In despair and needing help, she runs out looking for Eddie, unaware that he has hit rock bottom. When Jean finds him in a saloon, he’s in no condition to help her- he’s drunk, disheveled, and lamenting his loss of her to another man. Eddie will not go to bat for Jean. He tells her, “Maybe a pasty once, but never twice.” Panama makes him realize, “the race is over… we’re both finished out of the money…it’s over for all of us… you, me and George.”

Their ship has sailed.

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) N/A

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes Yes

Eddie, George, and Lloyd meet in the battlefields during World War One. The returning soldiers quickly realize that times have changed and conditions back home are not the same.

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes

The chiaroscuro may not be prevalent, but it is impressive:

Like in the interior of a railroad train car, at night- a conductor sits hidden in silhouette at the rear of the car, while seven rows in front, Jean and Eddie sit under a bright light. The seat in front of them is dark and empty with the seat adjacent and across the aisle occupies a gentleman asleep under a bright light again. All creating a noir effect.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) N/A

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes

After the war, Eddie knocks down the man who replaced him at his old job, goes into the illegal bootleg business, and defrauds consumers with scaled-down booze, proudly proclaiming “Cheating, yes. Cheating if you get caught.” He goes on to commit armed robbery, hijack a cargo ship and kill two unarmed men; one in the back. Then there’s the “respectable” Eddie who Panama thinks is “… a pretty decent guy,” and whose partner-in-crime, George, calls “…a fair guy.” He protects his friend, “Danny you go outside and watch. There may be some trouble around and I don’t want you here.” He helps a talented and ambitious young woman get her foot in show business by insisting that a club owner hire her and that he would pay 65% of her salary.

Like a chameleon, he changes, depending on his company.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

The Roaring Twenties is an excellent film, well acted, and never dull. It is a proto-noir with 12 characteristics noted.


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#12 Marianne

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Posted 22 December 2016 - 02:47 PM

Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940, dir. Eugene Forde)

 

Michael Shayne is a down-on-his-luck detective who is hired by Hiram P. Brighton to protect his daughter Phyllis from her own gambling problem. Someone Phyllis knows is murdered, and Shayne has to prove that neither he nor Phyllis committed the crime.

 

I enjoyed this film, and I think it qualifies as proto-noir, even if just barely: It gets 7½ out of 18 on our list of characteristics for defining proto-noir, at least according to my count, but it still has the makings of noir. The use of lighting was especially noticeable, I thought. See numbers 14 and 15 below.

 

Michael Shayne, Private Detective is utterly lacking in angst, however: The story includes too much humor and too much sympathy for the characters, especially the detective Michael Shayne. But its main character is a detective, and there is a murder and thus a mystery to be solved. And I do believe there’s room for humor in noir, so I’m happy calling this film a proto-noir.

 

One point for modern-day viewers: A lot of cultural references that 1940 viewers would have understood are hard to figure out without research. For example, Phyllis’s Aunt Olivia mentions The Baffle Book, and even the person who captioned the film didn’t understand what she was talking about! From my own online search, I discovered that it was indeed a published book that was popular in the early 1940s: The Baffle Book: Fifteen Fiendishly Challenging Detective Puzzles, by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay (hardcover, 286 pages, published in 1928 by Doubleday, Doran & Company).

 

One more point (from information I read on Wikipedia): Michael Shayne, Private Detective (released almost exactly seventy-six years ago) is the first in a series of twelve films. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne in seven of the films until the series was dropped by Twentieth Century Fox. These seven films were released from 1940 to 1942. When the series was picked up by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hugh Beaumont took over the role of Shayne for five more films, all of which were released in 1946. (I haven’t been able to find any trace of the PRC Shayne films.)

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2.  Flashbacks N/A

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Murder, theft, gambling

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

5.  The instrument of fate Maybe a half-point. Shayne and the chief of police don’t get along, which isn’t explained completely for viewers. Shayne always manages to show up at the wrong place at the right time and thus manages to look like the one guilty of murder.

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) N/A

7.  Violence or the threat of violence Shayne’s life is threatened as he investigates a murder and tries to clear his own name with the chief of police, who holds a grudge against Shayne.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings The city is not specified, and the action often takes place at night.

9.  Greed The plot is set in motion because someone steals money and then is murdered.

10. Betrayal N/A

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness N/A

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) N/A

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) See number 15. Some scenes (one example is the one where Shayne breaks into an apartment looking for evidence) are shot with chiaroscuro lighting.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Many of the scenes seem to be lit from the side so that the shadows cast are askew. The shadows don’t obscure quite like they do in films noir, but the use of lighting is noticeably different.

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) N/A

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) N/A

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Expertise and good triumph, but the police are depicted as bumbling fools and the perpetrator is allowed to give what sounds like a reasonable explanation for the crime. He is arrested and will be charged with the crime; the explanation is for the benefit of viewers.


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#13 Marianne

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Posted 04 December 2016 - 01:14 PM

I am repeating the list of film noir characteristics we have been using to investigate proto-noir. Please use as many or as few characteristics as you like to discuss proto-noir. I started the discussion thread as a way to continue applying what we learned in Dr. Edwards’s course, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir (aka Summer of Darkness: Investigating Film Noir).

 

Also included (below the list of characteristics) is the most up-to-date list of proto-noir films; we have been adding—and continue to add—titles to the list. The list is broken down by decade, and alphabetized within each decade.

 

In the future, I’ll alternate between the proto-noir film list alphabetized by decade and the list alphabetized in its entirety.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development

2.  Flashbacks

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder)

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale

5.  The instrument of fate

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst)

7.  Violence or the threat of violence

8.  Urban and nighttime settings

9.  Greed

10. Betrayal

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia)

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.)

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on)

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on)

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good”

 

List of proto-noir titles alphabetized by decade (note that some of these films may be hard to find):

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene

Convict 13 (1920), dirs. Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

The Docks of New York (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), dir Fritz Lang

The Last Command (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Thunderbolt (1929), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Underworld (1927), dir. Josef von Sternberg

 

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), dir. Michael Curtiz

La bête humaine (1938), dir. Jean Renoir

Crime and Punishment (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Dangerous to Know (1938), dir Robert Florey

The Devil Is a Woman (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Fury (1936), dir. Fritz Lang

The Glass Key (1935), dir. Frank Tuttle

G Men (1935), dir. William Keighley

Heat Lightning (1934), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James Whale

Le jour se lève (1939), dir. Michel Carné

The Kennel Murder Case (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

Let Us Live (1939), dir. John Brahm

Little Caesar (1931), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang

The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes) (1938), dir. Marcel Carné

Private Detective 62 (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

The Roaring Twenties (1939), dir. Raoul Walsh

Sabotage (1936), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Scarface (1932), dir. Howard Hawks and Richard Rossan

The Secret Six (1931), dir. George W. Hill

Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Smart Money (1931), dir. Alfred E. Green

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

The Thin Man (1934), dir. W. S. Van Dyke

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

You and Me (1938), dir. Fritz Lang

You Only Live Once (1937), dir. Fritz Lang

 

Blue, White and Perfect (1942), dir. Herbert I. Leeds

City for Conquest (1940), dir. Anatole Litvak

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942), dir. Herbert I. Leeds

Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940), dir. Eugene Forde

Sleepers West (1941), dir. Eugene Forde

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), dir. Boris Ingster

They Drive by Night (1940), dir. Raoul Walsh


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#14 HEYMOE

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Posted 28 November 2016 - 06:05 PM

The Secret Six (1931)

dir. George W. Hill

 

Louis Scorpio (Wallace Beery), aka Slaughterhouse, joins his friend, Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy) for dinner telling the waiter, Give me a gob of spaghetti and a bottle of cow with it. Over dinner they discuss each others weekly earnings. Johnny notices that Scorpio is impressed.

Johnny: Got a rod?

Scorpio: Sure.

Johnny: Got it on you?

Scorpio: Sure.

Johnny: If you’re interested, come on along.

Just like that, Scorpio enters the world of crime, bootlegging, corruption, murder, and betrayal. This film follows Scorpio’s rise and fall in that life of crime.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes.

Bootlegging

Bribery

Kidnapping

Jury tampering

Political corruption

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Yes.

In proto-noir, this characteristic is not yet defined, and so we look for examples of the femme fatale prototype. Anne Courtland (Jean Harlow) makes friends with a couple of reporters- Hank (John Mack Brown) and Carl (Clark Gable) out investigating a murder. When Scorpio learns that one of the reporters is crazy about Ann, he asks her to interfere with their reporting. She does so successfully and is compensated.

A woman who either pursues, persuades, or entices a man for personal needs or causes could debatably be a starting point for defining future femme fatales.

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

Johnny Frank’s fate becomes inevitable the moment he sets up an associate for certain execution. Scorpio’s fate is sealed when he seeks out revenge and the ‘favor’ is returned.

A case of “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes.

We see angst in the eyes of a kidnapped victim, the facial expression of a gangster about to be doubled-crossed, and in the demeanor of a couple of witnesses about to testify in the trial of a murderous mobster.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Assault

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Half.

We see the urban skyscrapers of a fictional town, but there’s an inference from a radio broadcast regarding a district called, The South Side which may refer to either Chicago or Pittsburgh. Several nighttime scenes are not conducive to noir. Half only.

 

9. Greed Yes.

A murder is committed as a direct result of greed.

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

There are plenty of betrayals and a couple of double-crosses to boot.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness N/A

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes.

Jimmy Delano is loyal to a fault. Attorney Richard Newton (Lewis Stone) manipulates this fact and falsely accuses Delano of murder:

Chief of Police Donlin: He wouldn’t kill [him]. He hasn’t got the guts.

Newton: No? See if you can get him to admit he didn’t do it.

Donlin: Yeah, I know he won’t squeal. He’s afraid of what the gang will do to him.

The first time we see Delano, he is defending himself against false accusations and slaps to the face by Johnny. His “loyalty” is really a result of brainwashing by intimidation.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes.

The B&W contrast is never better than when Johnny and his men rush into a room with the lights out. The camera pans left to show Newton sitting in a drunkard stupor. The only light source coming from a streetlight outside, shining in through the window and then on to him. Technically flawless.*

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.

There is a car chase involving rival gangsters where cameras are positioned at various locations, capturing a variety of point-of views, both inside and outside of each vehicle. It makes for exciting action. I suggest that the filming and editing of this chase sequence may have significantly influenced how car chases were filmed thereafter. For example, the technique used here brings to mind the car chase from the neo-noir film, The French Connection (1971).

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) N/A

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) N/A

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

The tally comes to 10.5 of 18.

 

Although this film is well made and I do recommend it, it is far from perfect. I noted 3 awkward moments; a reporter ordering a cop to escort a friend home and then readily acquiesces, a revolver (6-shooter) that shoots rapidly like a machine gun, and finally a car chase involving rival gangs and no police, yet we hear police sirens.

Also, the title is rather peculiar in that we never see or hear much from the Secret Six, a tribunal of lawmen assigned to, “fight and destroy the vicious power of the gangster.” They each hide their identity by wearing masks that cover their eyes but we never learn why. At the end, when the “bad guys” are rounded up, the group never shows up.

 

Jean Harlow’s performance, particularly when her Anne Courtland testifies at trial, shows her range as an actress: under direct examination she is composed, then under cross-examination she slowly begins to fall apart; we see it in her nervous hands, tension in her answers, and in her teary eyes and quavering voice.

 

* This film was made by MGM and it shows. The film quality stands out.


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#15 HEYMOE

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Posted 17 November 2016 - 05:34 PM

 

Convict 13 (1920, dirs. Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

 

I think a case can be made for regarding Convict 13, a short film by Keaton, as an example of avant noir, or a precursor to noir. The film has many dark elements, even though it was shown as a comedy short almost exactly 96 years ago. It’s in the public domain, and it’s less than 20 minutes long; you can view it at the Internet Archive by clicking here or going to the Internet Archive website and searching for the film’s title.

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Convict 13 was released eight months after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it’s possible that Keaton had been able to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Some comparisons can be made between Keaton’s experience in the prison and the scenes in the asylum in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I don’t think Convict 13 has any expressionistic elements. (See number 16 below.)

 

Keaton is out on the golf course with his girlfriend, and he accidentally knocks himself out with his own golf ball when it ricochets off a wooden fence. The subsequent amnesia sequence has all the noir elements discussed below. I give Convict 13 8½ out of 18 on our list of proto-noir characteristics: definitely a comedy with noir elements.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development Almost half the film is told from the point of view of an unconscious Buster Keaton, which I suspect was unusual for 1920. And it’s a bit unusual even by today’s standards because the plot is split between Keaton the golfer and Keaton who has knocked himself out with his own golf ball.

2.  Flashbacks N/A

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Prison riot, abduction

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

5.  The instrument of fate Can fate be comic? Can fate be a comedian? I say yes. Keaton seems to be at the mercy of fate and his own fantastic imagination.

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) In addition to the comedy, fear is a predominant emotion. The prison sequence presents one fearful situation after another. In fact, I found more fear than comedy in some of the bits.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence Again, the prison sequence inspires fear because of the threat of violence: the death by hanging thwarted at the very last moment, the prison riot, the girlfriend’s abduction.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Half-point because of the prison setting, although I wouldn’t argue if anyone wanted to give the prison setting a full point.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Half-point because Keaton is alone in the prison. The only person who doesn’t wish his execution is his girlfriend. One of the guards sells snacks to the other prisoners, who boo when the execution attempt fails.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Amnesia inspires most of the second half of the film

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films N/A

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Half-point. Keaton’s short predates the period of French poetic realism, but there are some overlapping themes: a focus on the everyday protagonist, pessimistic view of society. Love does triumph in the end for Keaton, however.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) The prisoners and the prison guards are on the “same side” occasionally. For example, all of them root for Keaton’s execution.

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

 

I recently saw Convict 13 and want to compliment you in having the vision to recognize this short film’s many proto-noir traits. I do not believe I would have been as observant.

Also, thank you for providing the link, allowing us quick access to the film.

 

Keaton and avant-noir- who would have guessed.


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#16 Marianne

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Posted 08 November 2016 - 08:31 PM

Convict 13 (1920, dirs. Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

 

I think a case can be made for regarding Convict 13, a short film by Keaton, as an example of avant noir, or a precursor to noir. The film has many dark elements, even though it was shown as a comedy short almost exactly 96 years ago. It’s in the public domain, and it’s less than 20 minutes long; you can view it at the Internet Archive by clicking here or going to the Internet Archive website and searching for the film’s title.

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Convict 13 was released eight months after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it’s possible that Keaton had been able to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Some comparisons can be made between Keaton’s experience in the prison and the scenes in the asylum in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I don’t think Convict 13 has any expressionistic elements. (See number 16 below.)

 

Keaton is out on the golf course with his girlfriend, and he accidentally knocks himself out with his own golf ball when it ricochets off a wooden fence. The subsequent amnesia sequence has all the noir elements discussed below. I give Convict 13 8½ out of 18 on our list of proto-noir characteristics: definitely a comedy with noir elements.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development Almost half the film is told from the point of view of an unconscious Buster Keaton, which I suspect was unusual for 1920. And it’s a bit unusual even by today’s standards because the plot is split between Keaton the golfer and Keaton who has knocked himself out with his own golf ball.

2.  Flashbacks N/A

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Prison riot, abduction

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

5.  The instrument of fate Can fate be comic? Can fate be a comedian? I say yes. Keaton seems to be at the mercy of fate and his own fantastic imagination.

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) In addition to the comedy, fear is a predominant emotion. The prison sequence presents one fearful situation after another. In fact, I found more fear than comedy in some of the bits.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence Again, the prison sequence inspires fear because of the threat of violence: the death by hanging thwarted at the very last moment, the prison riot, the girlfriend’s abduction.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Half-point because of the prison setting, although I wouldn’t argue if anyone wanted to give the prison setting a full point.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Half-point because Keaton is alone in the prison. The only person who doesn’t wish his execution is his girlfriend. One of the guards sells snacks to the other prisoners, who boo when the execution attempt fails.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Amnesia inspires most of the second half of the film

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films N/A

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Half-point. Keaton’s short predates the period of French poetic realism, but there are some overlapping themes: a focus on the everyday protagonist, pessimistic view of society. Love does triumph in the end for Keaton, however.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) The prisoners and the prison guards are on the “same side” occasionally. For example, all of them root for Keaton’s execution.

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A


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#17 HEYMOE

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Posted 31 August 2016 - 03:14 PM

Little Caesar (1931)

Dir. Mervyn LeRoy

 

Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are not only partners in crime but also good friends as well. Early in the story, both are sitting in a diner having just held up a gas station and murdering the attendant.

Inspired by a newspaper headline “Underworld pays respects to Diamond Pete Montana” Rico hastily decides to change course.

Rico: Diamond Pete Montana. He don’t have to waste his time on cheap gas stations. He’s somebody. He’s in the big town, doing things in a big way. And look at us, just a couple of nobodies, nothing… I could do all the things that feller does, and more, only I never got my chance.

Joe: You’ll get there, Rico… You’ll show them.

Rico: This was our last stand in this burg. We’re pulling out.

Joe: Where are we going?

Rico: East. Where things break big.

 

9.5 of 18 for this early and well made gangster proto noir.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development N/A

 

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes.

Armed robbery

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

5. The instrument of fate N/A

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes.

Very few characters go angst-free in the film.

Tony Massa ( William Collier Jr.) the gang’s driver is scared from the very beginning:

Tony: I couldn’t sleep last night. I was up worried. I don’t want to take any chances. Not now the way they’re closing down on us.

Rico: What’s the matter, Tony, getting yellow?

Tony: No, but jeez, none of us want to hang, do we?

 

Tony’s anxiety interferers with his getting rid of the get away car, which leaves him in a state of hysteria and crying to his mother. Soon afterwards we see him walking in a daze on the streets, and turning down his split of the stolen money.

 

Joe Massara also goes through a period anxiety at one point, when his life is threatened.

Joe: We've got to get out of here. Anywhere, as long as we get away!

Olga: Sit down, Joe. We’ve got to think.

Joe: I don’t want to think. I don’t want to sit down.

Olga: Don’t you see? It would be no use! Where would we go? Where would we run to? There’s no place he wouldn’t find us.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Murder

Threat of murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings half nighttime scene Half

The name of the eastern city that Rico heads to, is never revealed. (see No. 10 below) There are indications of an urban setting owing to the large neon sign outside the nightclub and a walk Rico takes on a commercial city street. Later Rico and Otero are chased at night through the back alleys by police. These three examples are but peeks and so half a point for the semblance here; just not enough for a full point.

 

9. Greed Yes.

Greed for power and money are the norm in Gangster films, and here Rico has a knack for taking over other’s operations and loots.

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

Rico turns on his boss Sam Vettori, (Stanley fields) taking over his operation with words only:

Rico: I’ve taken orders from you too long.

Sam: You’ll keep on taking orders too or you’ll get out of here so fast…

Rico: Maybe it won’t be me that gets out.

Sam: No? Well maybe the boys have got something to say about that. What about it?

The boys say nothing.

Rico: Yeah, that’s it, all right. You can dish it out, but you’re getting so you can’t take it no more. You’re through.

 

Rico also turns on his long-time friend:

Rico: We started off together, didn’t we? Well, we got to keep going together. [I have] just been handed the whole North Side (Chicago?) but it’s too much for one man… I need somebody to work with me, a guy like you, [who] I can trust.

Joe: It can’t be me, Rico. I’ve quit.

Rico: Nobody ever quit me. You’re still in my gang. Do you get that? That Jane of yours can go hang. It’s her that’s made a softie out of you.

Joe: You lay off …

Rico: I ain’t laying off her. One of us is going to lose and it ain’t going to be me.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

In a way, Rico alienates himself with society in the manner he goes about realizing his ambition to “Be somebody. Look hard at guys and know they’ll do anything you tell them.” To fulfill those dreams he kills, forcefully takes over an operation, and threaten a life-long friend. Before long, his uncompromising will and assertiveness gets him in trouble and he is forced to abandon all. At the end, he is left with nothing and no one.

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes.

By playing to Rico’s weakness, Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) succeeds in manipulating him out of hiding.

I knew we would hear from that guy if I kept giving it to him in the paper.”

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes.

In the opening nighttime scene, we see an image of a gas station; two gas pumps brightly lid by lamps above and about ten feet away a service station brightly lit from inside. The total darkness in the background makes for an ideal chiaroscuro look.

Also, most of the scenes taking place at The Bronze Peacock make use of contrasts effectively.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.

There’s a montage sequence consisting of superimposed images of the midnight robbery at The Bronze Peacock. Each image last less than a second showcasing various aspects of the crime; the entrance into the club, the crooks pointing their guns, an image of Rico facing the camera, Tony waiting in the get-away- car, the guarding of the front door, and the cash being put in moneybags.

The lighting scheme in the opening scene reminds me of a 1940 painting by Edward Hopper titled Gas. The film’s opening scene, described in #14, is a contrast between darkness and light, while the painting is a contrast between natural light and artificial light.*

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) N/A

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on)

N/A

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

_____________________

 

An Observation

I believe that director Francis Ford Coppola may have had Little Caesar in mind when he filmed The Godfather (1972), particularly in the following scene.

Sam Vettori goes see Little Arnie Lorch at his office. Lorch stands with hair neatly combed back and wearing a handsome tuxedo with a bow; a splitting image of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, in The Godfather. A few feet away, Sam sits in an armchair, knee-knee leg cross, arms resting on the armrests, and wearing a fashionable homburg hat, looking very much as Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in the same film. The similarities are striking, I think.

 

* http://www.moma.org/...80000?locale=en 


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#18 HEYMOE

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Posted 20 July 2016 - 05:23 PM

Crime and Punishment (1935)

dir. Josef von Sternberg

 

This film is an adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel Crime and Punishment. It concerns a deliberate, cold-blooded murder along with the guilt that overcomes the perpetrator afterwards, while also alluding to the effects of poverty on two families.

No longer able to bear the hardship affecting his family and friend, Roderick (Peter Lorre) takes drastic measures in order to bring relief to them.

“Mother, he did it for us. He did it for us.”

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development N/A

 

2. Flashbacks Half

As Roderick prepares to execute his plan, a montage with images of characters he has recently had discussions with, is superimposed on the screen. Initially, we think this is all it is, but then we see him responding and even taking a swing at a police officer who is not really there. The flashback helps us see his state of mind after he decides how to proceed.

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) N/A

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

In a twist of fate, Roderick is asked by Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) to assist in the investigation his own murder.

Inspector Porfiry: I’d like to have you help us on a brand new murder case. It would give you a chance to see how the blundering police work.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes.

Two players are grief-stricken by poverty; Sonya (Marian Marsh) who needs money for her siblings (My little brother and sister haven’t had a thing to eat all day,) and is taken advantage of by a penny-pinching pawnbroker; and Roderick, who when becoming aware of his family’s dire needs, finds his credit over-extended (actually, nothing left to pawn) and unable to offer assistance.

Later on, a murder suspect is arrested. His fear, confusion, and desperation leads to a false confession.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Murder (cold and calculated)

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings N/A

All the sets are indoor and staged.

 

9. Greed Yes.

A pawnbroker takes advantage of all those impoverished who come to her in need; she undervalues the items they present. Also, a gentleman suitor secures an engagement, by promising success and good fortune instead of by love: Are you going to let him buy her future?”

 

10. Betrayal N/A

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

We see Roderick’s guilt beginning to weigh on him. His sense of despair and hopelessness explains this exchange:

(On a bridge looking down at the water)

Roderick: You’re lonely, aren’t you?

Sonya: You are too.

Roderick: I wonder how many poor devils have found an answer to their questions down there. If only the dead could ever come back.

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes.

Manipulation by way of insinuation

As Inspector Porfiry lights up a cigarette, paces back and forth, and drums with his finger, he begins to play a mind game on Roderick.

 

Inspector Porfiry: Would you believe it. Every time I am brought face-to-face with a guilty man, I smoke, I drum with my fingers, pace up and down the room, talk about all sorts of irrelative things, just to avoid getting to the point. Absurd isn’t it? If this case isn’t cleared up soon, I’m afraid I am going to have a break down…

Roderick: Why don’t you say what you want to say instead of hounding me.

Inspector Porfiry: I don’t hound a man I think is guilty. I leave him alone. I sit back and wait. But I give him just a little hint that I know all about his crime- that I’m watching him night and day. The chances are he’ll try to escape and that’s when I like to catch him.

If he’s in continual fear and suspicion, he’s bound to lose his head and do something that will make his guilt as plain as the fact that there is no poker in this room… I wonder how far away from me he is at this moment.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes.

Although the film is entertaining, it is also sad and depressing and therefore it is not surprising that it exhibits dark tones and shadows which helps heighten its melancholy mood. Very early, Roderick meets the landlady in the stairways. Bright light cast dark shadows in areas where the light source is obscured. There’s a moment when he stands on the stairs in near silhouette, and we see the interior, beyond an open door, brightly lid; bring about a balanced arrangement of shades and brightness to the entire frame.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Half because it’s minor in scope.

The filmmakers make a social commentary on the plight of poverty, perhaps indicating an inspiration from French poetic realism in drawing attention to uncomfortable truths about society.” *

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes.

Roderick has a generous heart; instead of paying his rent, he gives all the money he receives from a pawnbroker to Sonya and her family. Even so, he exhibits a cold heart with his willingness to commit murder.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Yes

Inspector Porfiry proves he’s a better criminologist than Roderick.

 

Peter Lorre is brilliant in this film, in fact every scene with him and Edward Arnold is truly a joy to watch.

 

Crime and Punishment is a dynamic film with excellent dialogue concerning much more than the title suggests. Faith, morality, poverty, guilt, love is a shortlist of themes the film covers.

Here is a sample of how rich the dialogue is. The mother knows only that something is wrong with her son, Roderick.

Roderick is kneeling with his head on his mother’s lap:

Mother: Roderick- the greatest happiness a mother knows is when her children come to her for comfort.

Roderick: You believe that I am good, don’t you?

Mother: I know you are.

Roderick: You know that I always wanted to help you and Toni.

Mother: You’ve always been good to us Roderick.

Roderick: No mother, I haven’t. When I wanted to help you most, I forgot you most.

A 10 point proto-noir from 1935.

 

* https://cinewiki.wikispaces.com/French+Poetic+Realism 


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#19 Marianne

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Posted 07 July 2016 - 03:05 PM

The Letter (1940)

(dir. William Wyler)

 

The Letter was released a week after I Wake up Screaming in 1940 (New York City), but I find it easier to classify the latter film as noir. The Letter was melodramatic at times, but with two strong female leads, a case could be made that it’s either proto-noir or film noir. I would put it in the proto-noir category.

 

The Letter gets 10 out of 18 on our list of proto-noir characteristics.

 

*****SPOILERS*****

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2.  Flashbacks N/A

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Murder, blackmail.

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Both Mrs. Hammond and Leslie Crosbie could be called femmes fatale.

5.  The instrument of fate N/A

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Leslie experiences none, as far as I can tell. Her husband holds the monopoly on self-doubt and confusion over what his wife has done.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence N/A When the knife from the shop in the China quarter shows up on Leslie’s doorstep, viewers get a preview of what’s to come, but otherwise there is no threat of violence.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings N/A The film takes place mostly on plantations in Singapore.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal Leslie Crosbie betrays her husband. Howard Joyce betrays the ethics of his legal profession by agreeing to Leslie’s plan to buy back the letter from Mrs. Hammond.

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness The secrets involving Leslie’s manipulations about the facts of the crime make the participants alone in their knowledge, of course. And Robert Crosbie is in love with his wife no matter what she has done or plans to do.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Leslie manipulates her husband (although she doesn’t have to try very hard because he’s willing to forgive her) and she manipulates her lawyer. She does everything she can to manipulate the facts of Mr. Hammond’s murder to her own advantage.

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Maybe a half-point. A lot of the film takes place at night, and there is some attempt to use shadow and light to express Leslie’s predicament and her attitude toward it, and the attitudes of other characters.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques One detail I noticed was that Leslie Crosbie tells the story of what happened to Mr. Hammond with her back turned to her husband, her lawyer, and the constable and to the audience. Sometimes she is facing the camera and the audience, but her back is still facing the other male characters. I got the impression that she was struggling to make herself look innocent and didn’t want to betray her guilt. And there’s the presence (and absence) of the moon and moonlight. The moon is almost like a character keeping an eye on events.

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) N/A or maybe a half-point. Is it possible that French poetic realism is an influence here? The story is definitely realistic, with a tragic ending and lots of unruly, unpleasant emotions for the Crosbies and Mrs. Hammond.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Leslie Crosbie seems incapable of remorse. But everyone else seems to be enthralled by her and what she is capable of. If they don’t maintain their ethical standards, it’s because Leslie offers them a convincing argument for helping her get what she wants.

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Howard Joyce wins his court case, but he has compromised his professional ethics thanks to his client.


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#20 HEYMOE

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Posted 04 June 2016 - 12:15 AM

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

dir. Fritz Lang

 

This film concerns Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an evil man who disguises into many different characters and uses hypnosis and powers of persuasion not only to swindle a financial institution, but also to aide in a kidnapping, destroy a marriage, betray loyal ones, drive innocents to commit suicide, and lastly, to order murders. He is a well respected psychoanalyst; the problem is that he is also a gambler, alcoholic, misogynist, hypnotist, and above all, an authoritarian bully whose one redeeming feature, he boasts, is, I‘m no Pickpocket.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge is phenomenal as the conniving Dr. Mabuse in this German Expressionist film, with elaborate set designs, that help establish the dark world that he wants to control.

Aud Egede-Nissen’s heartbreaking performance as Cara Carozza is memorable. She’s not on screen long but the film would not be the same without her.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Half.

The delineation of a film, I’m guessing could be construed as aiding a narrative and/or a narration. If so, here we have a film of unusual length- 4 hours and 30 minutes divided into Part 1 (2hrs 35 min.) and Part 2 (1hr. 55 min) then divided further into 6 acts each.

These pauses work wonderfully because they give structural breaks as determined by the film makers, as opposed to the audience arbitrarily choosing when a break is necessary. The longer the film, the better the benefits of this strategy.

 

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes.

Counterfeiting

Kidnapping

Sabotage

Theft

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

Cara Carozza tells Dr. Mabuse:

You gamble with money, with people, with fates, and most horrifying of all, with your own self.

Later he acknowledges his appreciation for the power fate:

nothing in this world is interesting in the long run, except for one thing. . . Gambling with people and with the fates of people.

Anyone who crosses paths with Dr. Mabuse, risks losing control of their destiny and having their fate altered.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes.

Having once fallen under Dr. Mabuse’s hypnotic spells, his subjects come to appearing confused. An example is when prosecutor Von Wenk walks into his office and Dr. Mabuse, sitting quietly reading a book in the corner, suddenly makes his presence known by slamming the book shut. After walking the Doctor out, there is this exchange between Von Wenk and the men who guard his office:

Von Wenk: How did it happen that this man was let into my office without anyone informing me of it? Can’t you be counted on for anything?

The men (subordinates) look to each other befuddled: Yes, how did that happen?

Dr. Mabuse’s powers are far-reaching.

All who work for Dr. Mabuse are fearful of ever crossing him because they have witnessed the implication of their Termination Agreement: death.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes.

I do not recall the name of the city being mentioned, or ever seeing a wide view of the city, however there were numerous inferences suggesting an urban location: stock exchange floor, jam-packed with floor brokers and sales agents; a big and lavish hotel with high-society guests roaming about. There’s even an underground infrastructure used as an escape route.

 

9. Greed Yes.

Dr. Mabuse cheats the stock market and makes a bundle. He cheats at poker and has others cheat for him. He’s also involved in making counterfeit money.

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

Dr. Mabuse betrays his loyal and devoted assistant Cara Carozza.

Here she has been arrested for participating in one of Dr. Mabuse’s schemes and Prosecutor Von Wenk pays her a visit in prison.

 

Von Wenk: You have yourself to blame for your predicament, Miss Carozza… If you finally resolve to help us clear up Hull’s murder, I could obtain certain privileges for you. You sacrifice yourself for a rogue (Dr. Mabuse) who has abandoned you to your fate. You sacrificed yourself in vain because we’re right on his trail.

Cara: He’s stronger than all of you! He can destroy whomever he wants to. He will even destroy you, if you stand in his path.

Von Wenk: The man for whose sake you are being held has tossed you like fruit that’s been squeezed dry. He knows full well that your life is at stake, yet doesn’t lift a finger to help you…

A short while later, Dr. Mabuse is told, “Wenk is softening Carozza. She can‘t be counted on to keep her mouth shut.” He then instructs the informer, Then get rid of her,” and hands him a vile. See No. 16-1 for more.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

In a way, Cara alienates herself from social norms, mostly because her loyalty blinds her of certain truths. As Dr. Mabuse personal assistant (if not more) she knows of his crimes and schemes even recently stating,Nobody knows who he really is… He towers over the city. He is Damnation and heavenly bliss. He’s the greatest man alive.” Her devotion is such that it costs her life. See No. 16-1 for more.

 

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Yes.

Dr. Mabuse is a master hypnotist. Disguised as Mr. Hugo Balling, he hypnotizes millionaire Edgar Hunt and joins him at a table to play cards. After a long losing streak lasting 3 hours, Mr. Hull insists on one last hand. He draws a natural (10 of clubs and an Ace) twenty-one, and declares, “I’ve lost again.” Mr. Balling leaves the room a richer man all thanks to he manipulating Hull’s mind through some form of psychic, mental telepathy.

Once alone with his friends, Mr. Hull has this conversation with them:

Hull: I played and I lost. But to whom exactly?

Friend: To your friend.

Hull: Friend? What do you mean? It’s the first time I see the man. Who brought him into the club?

Friend: I think you’ve had to much to drink, Hull. First with your bad luck, you call “Go bank” and then you claim not to know the very man that you yourself invited into the club.”

Hull now sees the hand again, eyes wide open in disbelief.

Friend: You call “Go bank,” you’ve got the highest cards in your hand and you throw them away?

Hull: What’s the matter with me?

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes N/A

 

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.) Yes.

Chiaroscuro lighting is used throughout particularly to contrast dark alleys, elevated rail trains, streets, gambling rooms, and occupants in car interiors. See No. 16-2 for more.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Half

It doesn’t seem right not to give this a yes. The camera captures so much and always seems to be at the right position and proper angle, but as was the norm in the silent film era, there is little camera movement in this film. I give it a half point because I believe the lighting/shade techniques used throughout, has an effect on the drama itself and the characters’ visual expressions. See No. 16-2 for more.

 

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) Yes.

Most of the emotions observed on individuals are advanced by Fritz Lang’s Expressionist directing. Some characters seem like caricatures and their expressions exaggerated.

Here are two examples:

1. Immediately after Von Wenk’s last visit, Cara exclaims “Idiot” in disgust to his notion that she would ever help him build a case against her boss, Dr. Mabuse. Later, the informer/guard enters her cell and she’s taken aback by the stoic expression on his face. She senses something is wrong. He reaches into his pocket and offers her a vile (poison):

Cara: From him?

He nods.

Cara: But why? I’ve done nothing to him.

At first she is reluctant, shaking her head and holding her throat with both hands.

When she at last she accepts the poison, we see all joy being sucked out. Her shoulders, once rigid, droop lifelessly; her head then follows, hanging down as if asleep. When we see her next she lifts her head, walks a few steps to her bunk, sits and ingests the poison. There’s a look of despair on her face as she reaches out with both hands extended, yearning, saying, You? until she falls to her knees and dies (all in dramatic manner).

 

2. There is a scene, (Part one Act 4), approximately six minutes long, that for me, typifies the use of chiaroscuro to heighten expressionism in films. It begins with Von Wenk entering the actual game parlor and ends with he exiting it. Von Wenk is disguised and hopes to lure the unidentified swindler, Dr. Mabuse, who now happens to sit across from him at the table. Quickly noticing that Wenk has plenty of money, Mabuse pulls out a pair of eyeglasses and begins his exploits as a hypnotist. The images that follow are too many to describe in detail ( extreme close-ups, isolation shots, slow zoom-ins, double exposure, special effects, make-up, acting, editing), but I would say that it is film making at its best, of any era.

 

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) Yes.

Dr. Mabuse is a well respected psychoanalyst who lectures in conference halls to professional colleagues. We also see him mingle at social gathering with the affluent societal circle where once he is asked, “What do you make of expressionism, Doctor?”

Away from this world, the doctor is a monster and no one is privy to this except his pursuer, Von Wenk.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” N/A

 

13 of 18 listed and an early proto-noir.

 

It is possible to present another write-up for this film using the same list and not draw on any of the scenes or examples included here; such is the vast amount of material never covered here:

 

Music (very appropriate and grows on you)

Mise-en-scene (very detailed )

Train Heist (the theft of strategic bag aboard a speeding locomotive)

Car Chases (two that are well photographed)

The spacious rooms in Countess Told’s residence and its art collection

Characterization of various disguises (all brilliant and amazing)

The Sandor Weldmann Hypnosis show and chase that follows (A highlight for sure)

The final act 6 (The pursue and apprehension of Dr. Mabuse)

 

There is no doubt that this is a German expressionist film and that director Fritz Lang was influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

 

Going in, I did not expect much from this film. Having seeing it, it is one of my favorites.

This write-up is based on the restored version, running 4 hours 30 minutes, which aired on TCM last April.

 

 

 


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Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: proto-noir, precursors to noir, film noir

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