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Marianne

Before Film-Noir: Proto-Noir

41 posts in this topic

This discussion thread for proto-noir, like the Film Noir to Neo-Noir discussion thread, is based on ideas taken from the Summer of Darkness, HEYMOE, VanHazard, and me (Marianne). This discussion thread is 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).

 

We are updating the list of film noir characteristics to start an investigation of proto-noir. Please use as many or as few characteristics as you like to discuss proto-noir and how a particular film could presage the coming classic period of film noir. We’re working on defining proto-noir and all its subcategories and on compiling a list of proto-noir films. I hope the discussion includes reactions to seeing some of the films.

 

Also included (below the list of characteristics) is a list of proto-noir films; we will be adding titles to the list. The running list is alphabetized in its entirety. 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

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

City for Conquest (1940), dir. Anatole Litvak

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

The Docks of New York (1928), 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

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

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

Little Caesar (1931), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang

The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

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

Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg

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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This discussion thread for proto-noir, like the Film Noir to Neo-Noir discussion thread, is based on ideas taken from the Summer of Darkness, HEYMOE, VanHazard, and me (Marianne). This discussion thread is 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).

 

We are updating the list of film noir characteristics to start an investigation of proto-noir. Please use as many or as few characteristics as you like to discuss proto-noir and how a particular film could presage the coming classic period of film noir. We’re working on defining proto-noir and all its subcategories and on compiling a list of proto-noir films. I hope the discussion includes reactions to seeing some of the films.

 

Also included (below the list of characteristics) is a list of proto-noir films; we will be adding titles to the list. The running list is alphabetized in its entirety. 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

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

City for Conquest (1940), dir. Anatole Litvak

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

The Docks of New York (1928), 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

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

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

Little Caesar (1931), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang

The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

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

Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg

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

 

What a wonderful opportunity to discover the “birth” of Film Noir!

I am familiar with some of the titles you list and am curious as to what we will discover in terms of contributions and influences to the genre.

 

I welcome the Proto-noir discussion thread and am looking forward to contributing and continuing learning from all participants.

Thank you for introducing it.

 

Great idea!

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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

dir. Mervyn LeRoy

 

In what ways does this film presage the coming classic period of film noir?

 

1. Early use of visual narration? (telling by showing, not saying) (No. 1)

In a subtle way, the variation of narration, (visual narration), used here very briefly, may have influenced some film noirs. An example could be the opening sequence in Strangers on a Train where without a spoken word we learn so much about the two men that seem to be criss-crossing, albeit metaphorically, even before we meet them.

(Not a major breakthrough in terms of presage, but I did not want to ignore it in case we see further evidence, down the road employing the same technique.)

 

2. Early use of flashback? (No. 2)

The flashback here lasts but five seconds and has no bearing on the story as a whole, but not being familiar with earlier films which use this technique, it seems appropriate to bring it to light, in the event that it is an early use of flashback.

 

A third point is listed immediately after the list of characteristic. It’s a better fit there, as it is closer to its corresponding characteristic.

* * * * * *

 

World War I veteran Jim Allen (Paul Muni) returns home hoping to do something worthwhile: I've been doing engineering work in the Army and that's the kind of work I want to do now. A man's job where he can accomplish things, where he can build, construct, create, do things.”

Jim takes a job in a shoe factory to appease his family and when he complains that it has become monotonous, he tells them, I was hoping to come home and start a new life - to be free, and again, I find myself under orders, a drab routine, cramped, mechanically even worse than the Army.”

Jim hit’s the road, traveling across the country, looking for that ideal job where he can “build and create.” Instead, circumstances beyond his control land him on a chain gang facing 10 years hard labor.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes.

As Jim Allen travels by train from New York to Boston, a map is superimposed on the screen as a train speeds along the tracks. There is no dialogue, so it acts as a visual aid for the viewer to show or explain where the character is headed.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes.

A narrative device we see in the classic noir era, is used here very briefly to identify someone who dies but whose name was not mentioned when we first meet him. The brief flashback helps the audience know who is in the coffin. Early use of flashback.

 

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

Armed robbery

Blackmail

Prison break

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Yes.

The self-centered, money-oriented Marie, is in the habit of overspending every month and expecting Jim to take care of the overdrafts. Hers, is a marriage of wealth not love. When Jim sees signs that she is cheating, he asks Marie for a divorce. She replies in part:

I told you I was satisfied with the way things are...I'm happy. I'm taking no chances of letting you go. Hey, listen, you're gonna be a big-shot some day with plenty of sugar, and I'm gonna ride right along. Get that? I'm no fool. I'd be a sucker to let you go now.”

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

A chance meeting with a generous, destitute man (oxymoron, I know, but true) proves life-changing for Jim.

 

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

Jim first met Marie when he became her tenant and both became “good” friends. When Jim decides to move on, Marie, knowing he is a wanted fugitive, blackmails him:

 

Marie: . . .Of course, when a fellow wants to ditch a girl, he'll do most anything providing it doesn't land him back on the chain gang where he probably belongs. I wouldn't tell if I had a reason to protect you.

Jim: What do you mean?

Marie: I wouldn't tell if you were my husband.

Jim marries her and again finds himself confined, only this time, in a loveless marriage.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

****

Killings

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings N/A

For most of the film this characteristic takes a backseat and never really shows its face.

We see the city for about 1 minute total time.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

At one point in the story, Jim is double-crossed by the state. He agrees to waive extradition and voluntarily surrenders to State authorities, who promise a pardon upon he serving 90 days in prison. The state reneges on that promise but grants him a new hearing. A final report is prepared and he is told: “They have suspended decision indefinitely.” Jim is devastated.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

Jim Allen is falsely accused and convicted for armed robbery. As a former sergeant in the U. S. Army, he deserved better representation and certainly should not have been sentenced to ten years hard labor for stealing $5 while a gun was pointed at him.

 

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

Jailed for something he didn’t do, married to a woman he does not love, flogged while in prison, double-crossed, blackmailed, and on the run from the law; Jim Allen seems unable to catch a break. How can he not be anguished by it all.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes Yes.

Sergeant Jim Allen worked in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I.

When he returned home, Jim had a tough time finding a job, even traveled around the country with no success.

 

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.

Jim Allen starts out with such high hopes for a bright future but by the end, those hopes have turned to despair. Moreover, he finds himself unemployed, homeless, and still a fugitive. His only recourse, by his own admission, is stealing. Jim literally and figuratively lives in the shadows and the director’s darken shadowy chiaroscuro conveys this on screen. The film is never as dark, as in the end. More on this below (# 16a)

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques- Yes.

The lighting lends to German expressionism. See # (16b) below.

 

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

There are two scenes in the film where German expressionism is at work.

 

a) When Jim is told that the final decision on his parole has been suspended indefinitely, his reaction to the news is all anguish. It begins with a close-up shot of the head, one side of the face shaded, making the contortion on his face seem exaggerated; as his eyes begin to water, his lips are shut wide like if holding back a gasp; his head and shoulders begin to tremble; unable to remain sitting, he slowly begins laying back, his arms bent up towards his face baring tighten fists; suddenly, as if stricken with a spasm, he slams his head back onto the bed. The last image we see, right before the fade out, are of two tightly clasped fist and the full bottom side of his chin/jaw from the foot of the bed POV. The contrasts helps define the agony of the scene.

 

B)B)In the last moments of the film, the primary color is black. A car pulls into a garage. A woman dressed in black gets out. A bright light reflects off her dress but the scene remains unlit, dark (the magic of movies). Someone cries, “Helen!” Cut to black screen. A silhouette takes one step forward- Jim Allen appears. He seems disheveled. But on close inspection his hands are clean, his face is clean-shaven, he wears a tie. The director in this scene uses his chiaroscuro, in a manner that gives the illusion that Jim is not doing well.

Jim and his girlfriend Helen, meet one last time:

 

Helen: But you could have written. It's been almost a year since you escaped.
Jim: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace. Keep moving. That's all that's left for me. Forgive me, Helen. I-I had to take a chance to see you tonight. Just to say good-bye.
Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.

Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've got to go.

 

As Jim walks backwards (facing the camera) his eyes are wide open, and the shadows on his face makes him appear like a wild animal, in fear or about to attack.

 

Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money? (He shakes his head no.) But you must, Jim. How do you live?

Jim: I steal!

 

By the time Jim says, I steal,” he has walked outside of the light source and is in complete darkness.

Excellent visual effect. Great noir affect.

 

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

______________________

 

3. German expressionism influence (No. 16)

The two scenes above adhere to the following partial description:

* “The films were shot in studios where they could employ deliberately exaggerated and dramatic lighting and camera angles to emphasize some particular affect - fear, horror, pain.” All three facial expressions are displayed by Jim Allen in those scenes.

 

Definitions and descriptions for German Expressionism, have included the words: exaggeration, lighting and mise-en-scene. I used this as a guide for No. 16

 

I suggest that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a proto-noir because it may have influenced film noir in three areas; visual narration; early use of flashback; German expressionism. 

 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Expressionism

Should this link not work for you, search Wikipaedia or Wikipedia for German Expressionism.

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The John Brahm film LET US LIVE, with Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Sullivan, definitely belongs on your list. The French poetic realism style, as in PORT OF SHADOWS, also belongs there.

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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

dir. Mervyn LeRoy

 

In what ways does this film presage the coming classic period of film noir?

 

1. Early use of visual narration? (telling by showing, not saying) (No. 1)

In a subtle way, the variation of narration, (visual narration), used here very briefly, may have influenced some film noirs. An example could be the opening sequence in Strangers on a Train where without a spoken word we learn so much about the two men that seem to be criss-crossing, albeit metaphorically, even before we meet them.

(Not a major breakthrough in terms of presage, but I did not want to ignore it in case we see further evidence, down the road employing the same technique.)

 

2. Early use of flashback? (No. 2)

The flashback here lasts but five seconds and has no bearing on the story as a whole, but not being familiar with earlier films which use this technique, it seems appropriate to bring it to light, in the event that it is an early use of flashback.

 

A third point is listed immediately after the list of characteristic. It’s a better fit there, as it is closer to its corresponding characteristic.

* * * * * *

 

World War I veteran Jim Allen (Paul Muni) returns home hoping to do something worthwhile: I've been doing engineering work in the Army and that's the kind of work I want to do now. A man's job where he can accomplish things, where he can build, construct, create, do things.”

Jim takes a job in a shoe factory to appease his family and when he complains that it has become monotonous, he tells them, I was hoping to come home and start a new life - to be free, and again, I find myself under orders, a drab routine, cramped, mechanically even worse than the Army.”

Jim hit’s the road, traveling across the country, looking for that ideal job where he can “build and create.” Instead, circumstances beyond his control land him on a chain gang facing 10 years hard labor.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes.

As Jim Allen travels by train from New York to Boston, a map is superimposed on the screen as a train speeds along the tracks. There is no dialogue, so it acts as a visual aid for the viewer to show or explain where the character is headed.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes.

A narrative device we see in the classic noir era, is used here very briefly to identify someone who dies but whose name was not mentioned when we first meet him. The brief flashback helps the audience know who is in the coffin. Early use of flashback.

 

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

Armed robbery

Blackmail

Prison break

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Yes.

The self-centered, money-oriented Marie, is in the habit of overspending every month and expecting Jim to take care of the overdrafts. Hers, is a marriage of wealth not love. When Jim sees signs that she is cheating, he asks Marie for a divorce. She replies in part:

I told you I was satisfied with the way things are...I'm happy. I'm taking no chances of letting you go. Hey, listen, you're gonna be a big-shot some day with plenty of sugar, and I'm gonna ride right along. Get that? I'm no fool. I'd be a sucker to let you go now.”

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

A chance meeting with a generous, destitute man (oxymoron, I know, but true) proves life-changing for Jim.

 

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

Jim first met Marie when he became her tenant and both became “good” friends. When Jim decides to move on, Marie, knowing he is a wanted fugitive, blackmails him:

 

Marie: . . .Of course, when a fellow wants to ditch a girl, he'll do most anything providing it doesn't land him back on the chain gang where he probably belongs. I wouldn't tell if I had a reason to protect you.

Jim: What do you mean?

Marie: I wouldn't tell if you were my husband.

Jim marries her and again finds himself confined, only this time, in a loveless marriage.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

****

Killings

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings N/A

For most of the film this characteristic takes a backseat and never really shows its face.

We see the city for about 1 minute total time.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

At one point in the story, Jim is double-crossed by the state. He agrees to waive extradition and voluntarily surrenders to State authorities, who promise a pardon upon he serving 90 days in prison. The state reneges on that promise but grants him a new hearing. A final report is prepared and he is told: “They have suspended decision indefinitely.” Jim is devastated.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

Jim Allen is falsely accused and convicted for armed robbery. As a former sergeant in the U. S. Army, he deserved better representation and certainly should not have been sentenced to ten years hard labor for stealing $5 while a gun was pointed at him.

 

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

Jailed for something he didn’t do, married to a woman he does not love, flogged while in prison, double-crossed, blackmailed, and on the run from the law; Jim Allen seems unable to catch a break. How can he not be anguished by it all.

 

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes Yes.

Sergeant Jim Allen worked in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I.

When he returned home, Jim had a tough time finding a job, even traveled around the country with no success.

 

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.

Jim Allen starts out with such high hopes for a bright future but by the end, those hopes have turned to despair. Moreover, he finds himself unemployed, homeless, and still a fugitive. His only recourse, by his own admission, is stealing. Jim literally and figuratively lives in the shadows and the director’s darken shadowy chiaroscuro conveys this on screen. The film is never as dark, as in the end. More on this below (# 16a)

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques- Yes.

The lighting lends to German expressionism. See # (16b) below.

 

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

There are two scenes in the film where German expressionism is at work.

 

a) When Jim is told that the final decision on his parole has been suspended indefinitely, his reaction to the news is all anguish. It begins with a close-up shot of the head, one side of the face shaded, making the contortion on his face seem exaggerated; as his eyes begin to water, his lips are shut wide like if holding back a gasp; his head and shoulders begin to tremble; unable to remain sitting, he slowly begins laying back, his arms bent up towards his face baring tighten fists; suddenly, as if stricken with a spasm, he slams his head back onto the bed. The last image we see, right before the fade out, are of two tightly clasped fist and the full bottom side of his chin/jaw from the foot of the bed POV. The contrasts helps define the agony of the scene.

 

B)B)In the last moments of the film, the primary color is black. A car pulls into a garage. A woman dressed in black gets out. A bright light reflects off her dress but the scene remains unlit, dark (the magic of movies). Someone cries, “Helen!” Cut to black screen. A silhouette takes one step forward- Jim Allen appears. He seems disheveled. But on close inspection his hands are clean, his face is clean-shaven, he wears a tie. The director in this scene uses his chiaroscuro, in a manner that gives the illusion that Jim is not doing well.

Jim and his girlfriend Helen, meet one last time:

 

Helen: But you could have written. It's been almost a year since you escaped.

Jim: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace. Keep moving. That's all that's left for me. Forgive me, Helen. I-I had to take a chance to see you tonight. Just to say good-bye.

Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all going to be so different.

Jim: It is different. They've made it different. I've got to go.

 

As Jim walks backwards (facing the camera) his eyes are wide open, and the shadows on his face makes him appear like a wild animal, in fear or about to attack.

 

Helen: Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money? (He shakes his head no.) But you must, Jim. How do you live?

Jim: I steal!

 

By the time Jim says, I steal,” he has walked outside of the light source and is in complete darkness.

Excellent visual effect. Great noir affect.

 

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

______________________

 

3. German expressionism influence (No. 16)

The two scenes above adhere to the following partial description:

* “The films were shot in studios where they could employ deliberately exaggerated and dramatic lighting and camera angles to emphasize some particular affect - fear, horror, pain.” All three facial expressions are displayed by Jim Allen in those scenes.

 

Definitions and descriptions for German Expressionism, have included the words: exaggeration, lighting and mise-en-scene. I used this as a guide for No. 16

 

I suggest that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a proto-noir because it may have influenced film noir in three areas; visual narration; early use of flashback; German expressionism. 

 

Wow! What a great start. I have to move I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang further up on my list. I know I've seen the final sequence several times (it's a classic example of the use of light and sound), but I don't think I've seen the entire film.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Dir. Robert Wiene

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

I have never been fond of categories, and for me, there’s no reason why The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, most often classified as a horror film, can’t also be called a proto-noir. No matter how one prefers to classify it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is well worth seeing. I saw it years ago and then again in the last few weeks. It’s a great film that stands the test of time: almost 100 years!

 

I give The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 12 out of 18 on our list of characteristics for classifying proto-noir.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development The film includes a frame story, and the main plot is told in flashback, and the main plot (flashback) includes flashbacks. The unusual plot twist near the end of the film is quite unsettling, which is perfect for noir. But there’s another subplot involving the first Dr. Caligari, from Italy, who also toured local fairs with a somnambulist.

2.  Flashbacks See number 1. Use of flashbacks within a flashback. Iris shots introduce the flashbacks and bring viewers back to the present flashback, and show movement back and forth between plot threads.

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Murder definitely. Involuntary institutionalization may be another.

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A (not applicable)

5.  The instrument of fate Cesare can predict the future; he predicts that Alan will die before daybreak. There is the sense that Dr. Caligari and Francis are serving fate because of the back story of the Dr. Caligari from an earlier century, the one who toured Italy with his somnambulist.

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Plenty of grief, fear, confusion, self-doubt—and not just for the characters. The film manages to be thought-provoking and unsettling for viewers.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence The inhabitants of the town in the film are under threat of murder since the appearance of Dr. Caligari with Cesare the somnambulist.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Nighttime is Cesare’s preferred time for prowling around. It’s also the time when the inhabitants are most afraid and are most vulnerable. And there’s a town bureaucracy that’s large enough to wield a great deal of power over anyone trying to do business with it.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Alienation and loneliness don’t come across as prominent themes until the closing sequence of the frame story. But that doesn’t take away from the impact. And, of course, Francis loses his friend Alan.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Dr. Caligari wields a great deal of power over Cesare the somnambulist, although the film doesn’t explain how he exerts this power over Cesare. Dr. Caligari manipulates Cesare into doing his bidding.

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes The only way to understand the writers’ motivation is to read material extraneous to the film, so I would have to call this one N/A. However, reading about this film is fascinating. I was also able to obtain a DVD with commentary about the film, and I can’t recommend enough listening to the audio commentary by Mike Budd.

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 Color tinting is used to emphasize different moods and plot points. For example, pink tinting is used for the scenes between Francis (some sources list his name as Franzis) and Jane. But I don’t think this was uncommon for silent films.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A See number 2. For example, iris shots introduce the flashbacks and bring viewers back to the “present” flashback, but I don’t think the camera shots were unique at the time.

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often cited as the example of German expressionism in film. So this film does the influencing, not the other way around.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) I thought about this one. It seems like the good and evil characters are easy to spot, but how does one classify Cesare? Or Francis?

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” This is open to interpretation. The film doesn’t state a definitive conclusion for me, so I would count this as a characteristic for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Dir. Robert Wiene

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

I have never been fond of categories, and for me, there’s no reason why The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, most often classified as a horror film, can’t also be called a proto-noir. No matter how one prefers to classify it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is well worth seeing. I saw it years ago and then again in the last few weeks. It’s a great film that stands the test of time: almost 100 years!

 

I give The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 12 out of 18 on our list of characteristics for classifying proto-noir.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development The film includes a frame story, and the main plot is told in flashback, and the main plot (flashback) includes flashbacks. The unusual plot twist near the end of the film is quite unsettling, which is perfect for noir. But there’s another subplot involving the first Dr. Caligari, from Italy, who also toured local fairs with a somnambulist.

2.  Flashbacks See number 1. Use of flashbacks within a flashback. Iris shots introduce the flashbacks and bring viewers back to the present flashback, and show movement back and forth between plot threads.

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Murder definitely. Involuntary institutionalization may be another.

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale N/A (not applicable)

5.  The instrument of fate Cesare can predict the future; he predicts that Alan will die before daybreak. There is the sense that Dr. Caligari and Francis are serving fate because of the back story of the Dr. Caligari from an earlier century, the one who toured Italy with his somnambulist.

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Plenty of grief, fear, confusion, self-doubt—and not just for the characters. The film manages to be thought-provoking and unsettling for viewers.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence The inhabitants of the town in the film are under threat of murder since the appearance of Dr. Caligari with Cesare the somnambulist.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Nighttime is Cesare’s preferred time for prowling around. It’s also the time when the inhabitants are most afraid and are most vulnerable. And there’s a town bureaucracy that’s large enough to wield a great deal of power over anyone trying to do business with it.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal N/A

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Alienation and loneliness don’t come across as prominent themes until the closing sequence of the frame story. But that doesn’t take away from the impact. And, of course, Francis loses his friend Alan.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Dr. Caligari wields a great deal of power over Cesare the somnambulist, although the film doesn’t explain how he exerts this power over Cesare. Dr. Caligari manipulates Cesare into doing his bidding.

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes The only way to understand the writers’ motivation is to read material extraneous to the film, so I would have to call this one N/A. However, reading about this film is fascinating. I was also able to obtain a DVD with commentary about the film, and I can’t recommend enough listening to the audio commentary by Mike Budd.

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 Color tinting is used to emphasize different moods and plot points. For example, pink tinting is used for the scenes between Francis (some sources list his name as Franzis) and Jane. But I don’t think this was uncommon for silent films.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques N/A See number 2. For example, iris shots introduce the flashbacks and bring viewers back to the “present” flashback, but I don’t think the camera shots were unique at the time.

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often cited as the example of German expressionism in film. So this film does the influencing, not the other way around.

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) I thought about this one. It seems like the good and evil characters are easy to spot, but how does one classify Cesare? Or Francis?

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” This is open to interpretation. The film doesn’t state a definitive conclusion for me, so I would count this as a characteristic for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

 

 

This may wind up being the most important film discussed in this thread, in terms of film noir development in the proto-noir years. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an experience, for sure.

 

Your assessment on No. 16 is so true. This film should be in the forefront of films having influence on noir. It is filled with so many vivid details in its set designs, that it requires multiple viewing to grasp it all. The fonts are ingenious, the make-up amazing, and the mise-en-scene mind boggling.

 

I agree; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is both a horror story with shocking moments and a proto-noir. I had no idea that this film was going to be this film!

 

By chance and not choice, I have seen two versions of the film; one with an English text and soundtrack; the other with the original German text, English subtitles and no soundtrack. The latter with no soundtrack is better preserved (film quality); the former presented with music is more terrifying but looks less preserved. I wonder which one is the director’s cut because that’s the one I’m most interested in. My guess would be the one with German text and no soundtrack.

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G men (1935)
Dir. William Keighley

 

G Men is a gangster film presented in the familiar format of Good vs. Evil. A struggling idealist, lawyer decides to change career after the tragic death of a friend, killed  by a cold-hearted mobster. Caught between these men is a nightclub singer who tries hard to remain loyal to an old friend and a husband.

Brick Davis (James Cagney) was a gutter child many years ago, when mob boss Mac McKay (William Harrigan) found him, gave him a chance to do the right thing and then paid for his education. Neither has ever asked anything of the other.

 

 

Brick is a lawyer now with a Law Office but he is not doing very well. Federal agent Eddie Buchanan, a former college roommate of Brick, asks him why not come to Washington and join the Justice Department. He leaves an application with Brick to fill. Later that night, while making an arrest, Buchanan is “ruthlessly murdered” by mobster, Brad Collins (Barton McLane). When Brick learns of the murder in next morning’s newspapers, he immediately fills out the application in hopes of joining the bureau and get the guy that killed Buchanan. 
Before leaving for Washington, Brick goes and says good-bye to McKay. He tells his close friend that he’s joined the Department of Justice and is moving to Washington:
Brick: I’m leaving tomorrow morning. That puts me on the other side of the fence from you, Mac.
McKay: That’s where you ought to be.
Brick: Yes, but they’re out to get you. You and everybody else in your racket. And if they assign me to go after you, I have got to use everything I know about you.
McKay: You have got to play ball with them. Go to it. You won’t get to me Brick. 

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development No.

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

3. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Yes.
Bank robbery
Mob led crime waves
Kidnapping

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale No. (But let’s discuss possible influence)
Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak) is a nightclub singer who learns that her boyfriend Brick is closing his law office to join the F.B.I. in Washington. Some time later she marries cop-killer-mobster, Brad Collins, which makes us wonder how can she not differentiate between getting involved with a career criminal and a career lawman.
Brick and Collins suffer injury or worse because of Jean: Brick is shot when he goes to warn her, and Collins is killed when she reveals his whereabouts to agents.   
However, Jean never displays ulterior motives or selfish inclinations and therefore falls short as a femme fatale. But her character’s framework might hint to a slight influence perhaps to a model future femme fatale in a very subtle way.
Femme fatale may not have yet been an archetype at the time G Men was made, but already we could see similarities between two women who get involved with unparalleled rival men like Jean here with Brick and Brad, and Kathie years later in Out of the Past with Jeff and Whit.

 

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.
Brick feels guilty when he shoots and kills his friend, Mackay (William Harrigan) who was used as a human shield. So much so that he has to be talked out of resigning.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.
Murder
Furious shoot-outs

Violent police car chases resulting in crash

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes.
The setting is Chicago. Several nighttime sets.

 

9. Greed Yes.
As in most Mobster films, greed is a given. There are numerous bank robberies.

 

10. Betrayal N/A (Here's why)
Jean: It was swell of you to try to help me, Brick.
Brick: It was a little bit late.
Jean: Yes, but it makes things different. I use to think that at least I owed loyalty to Brad, but I realize now, I don’t owe him anything. He’s done enough harm without doing anymore.

 

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.) Yes.
Beautiful looking b&w film. Standard cinematography. Great contrasts in all the nighttime scenes.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.
At about the 43 minute mark, Brick pays a florist a visit. At the end of the scene, the camera zooms in on a bouquet of gardenias, then zooms out again to reveal a different location.

 

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.
Jean Morgan walks a thin line between good and bad. She has a friend in Brick, an F.B.I. agent and is married to mobster Brad Collins.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Yes.
Forensics helps confirm the identity of Danny Leggett as a murderer and participant in a crime wave.

 

G Men earns 9 of 18 on our List of Characteristics and is a solid proto-noir.

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I Wake up Screaming

(1941, dir. H. Bruce Humberstone)

 

Many consider I Wake up Screaming a film noir; some call it a proto-noir. I’m including it here on the proto-noir discussion thread because it seems to straddle both categories. I’m more comfortable calling it a film noir, even though I give it only 10 out of 18 on our list of characteristics for defining proto-noir. But 10 out of 18 is still enough for me to call it noir.

 

I would give the film 11 out of 18 just for the title. Love the title (which is the same as the novel on which the film is based). So simple, so descriptive, so bleakly noir.

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2.  Flashbacks Vicky Lynn is dead at the beginning of the film, and some of her story is told in flashback during the interrogations of her sister Jill and of Frankie Christopher.

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

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) Frankie Christopher and Jill Lynn suffer with self-doubt, confusion, and fear.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence It’s not physical violence but the psychological violence that Ed Cornell inflicts that is the most notable.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Most of the film is shot at night; all of it is filmed in New York City.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal Ed Cornell betrays the ethics of his profession.

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Ed Cornell is alone in his unrequited love for Vicky Lynn. He is alone when it is discovered that he has been manipulating evidence all along.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Detective Cornell manipulates evidence to convince other detectives that he has the right suspect. He manipulates the real murderer into believing that he won’t be prosecuted for the crime. He hounds both Jill Lynn and Frankie Christopher about how he will prove his case against Frankie.

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.) The interrogations of both Frankie Christopher and Jill Lynn are filmed using shadow and light to highlight each suspect’s respective precarious situation and feelings of entrapment. The shot of Frankie Christopher later in the film, on the staircase in the Lynns’ apartment building, with his face in partial shadow, is beautiful and very noir. It’s one of my favorite examples of this category.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques The lighting and the deep shadows and the angled camera shots were fairly new for 1941, I believe.

16. Influence 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

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I Wake up Screaming

(1941, dir. H. Bruce Humberstone)

 

Many consider I Wake up Screaming a film noir; some call it a proto-noir. I’m including it here on the proto-noir discussion thread because it seems to straddle both categories. I’m more comfortable calling it a film noir, even though I give it only 10 out of 18 on our list of characteristics for defining proto-noir. But 10 out of 18 is still enough for me to call it noir.

 

I would give the film 11 out of 18 just for the title. Love the title (which is the same as the novel on which the film is based). So simple, so descriptive, so bleakly noir.

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2.  Flashbacks Vicky Lynn is dead at the beginning of the film, and some of her story is told in flashback during the interrogations of her sister Jill and of Frankie Christopher.

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

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) Frankie Christopher and Jill Lynn suffer with self-doubt, confusion, and fear.

7.  Violence or the threat of violence It’s not physical violence but the psychological violence that Ed Cornell inflicts that is the most notable.

8.  Urban and nighttime settings Most of the film is shot at night; all of it is filmed in New York City.

9.  Greed N/A

10. Betrayal Ed Cornell betrays the ethics of his profession.

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Ed Cornell is alone in his unrequited love for Vicky Lynn. He is alone when it is discovered that he has been manipulating evidence all along.

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) Detective Cornell manipulates evidence to convince other detectives that he has the right suspect. He manipulates the real murderer into believing that he won’t be prosecuted for the crime. He hounds both Jill Lynn and Frankie Christopher about how he will prove his case against Frankie.

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.) The interrogations of both Frankie Christopher and Jill Lynn are filmed using shadow and light to highlight each suspect’s respective precarious situation and feelings of entrapment. The shot of Frankie Christopher later in the film, on the staircase in the Lynns’ apartment building, with his face in partial shadow, is beautiful and very noir. It’s one of my favorite examples of this category.

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques The lighting and the deep shadows and the angled camera shots were fairly new for 1941, I believe.

16. Influence 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

 

 

I remember when I first saw, I Wake Up Screaming thinking what a gem of a film I had just seen. It truly is an underrated film noir. The Chiaroscuro, flashbacks, and contrast between “good” and “evil” are all in top form. In fact, I would give No. 17 a Yes.

 

Frankie Christopher is a nice and classy guy and when contrasted along side the corrupt Ed Cornell, I believe each of their persona is heighten, making Frankie seem more admirable and refine, while Cornell darker and more sinister. They make good foils to each other.

Two Yesses

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I remember when I first saw, I Wake Up Screaming thinking what a gem of a film I had just seen. It truly is an underrated film noir. The Chiaroscuro, flashbacks, and contrast between “good” and “evil” are all in top form. In fact, I would give No. 17 a Yes.

 

Frankie Christopher is a nice and classy guy and when contrasted along side the corrupt Ed Cornell, I believe each of their persona is heighten, making Frankie seem more admirable and refine, while Cornell darker and more sinister. They make good foils to each other.

Two Yesses

 

I didn't count number 17 because there seemed to be a clear contrast between good and evil in I Wake up Screaming.

 

Are you counting number 17 because of the way that Frankie Christopher and Ed Cornell play against one another and because the viewer doesn't really know what to think of both characters until the end?

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I didn't count number 17 because there seemed to be a clear contrast between good and evil in I Wake up Screaming.

 

Are you counting number 17 because of the way that Frankie Christopher and Ed Cornell play against one another and because the viewer doesn't really know what to think of both characters until the end?

Marianne, thank you for the opportunity to clarify here.

 

My thinking was that the contrast between each men is so defined and clear, that it leaves no uncertainty as to that contrast and there lies my error. 

No. 17 looks for no stark contrast between good and evil (of one character) and I’m raving about the strong contrast between the two men. My mind overran my reasoning I guess.

 

So, No. 17 remains unchanged but the two Yesses still stands! I’m glad we got that cleared. Good Catch! Great film.

HEYMOE

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Marianne, thank you for the opportunity to clarify here.

 

My thinking was that the contrast between each men is so defined and clear, that it leaves no uncertainty as to that contrast and there lies my error. 

No. 17 looks for no stark contrast between good and evil (of one character) and I’m raving about the strong contrast between the two men. My mind overran my reasoning I guess.

 

So, No. 17 remains unchanged but the two Yesses still stands! I’m glad we got that cleared. Good Catch! Great film.

HEYMOE

 

Thanks for the clarification. I agree: I Wake up Screaming is a great film. One of my favorites.

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They Drive by Night (1940)

Dir. Raoul Walsh

 

This is the story of two brothers, Paul and Joe Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart and George Raft) and their wish of someday becoming their own bosses, in the very competitive trucking industry. We get a peek at that world and learn much about their private lives, including how their jobs affect their friends and loved ones.

Pearl to her husband Paul: I’m alone so much, its got me talking to myself. Why can’t I have a baby? Maybe then I wouldn’t be so lonely.”

And later:

Paul to his brother Joe: “It’s like I’ve been saying, this business is really tearing us down.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development N/A

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

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

Assault

Perjury

 

4. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Yes.

Lana Carlsen (Ida Lupino) has her eyes on Joe Fabrini and would do anything to have him; Control where he works; object to he marrying; remove those in the way. She is selfish and obsessive.

Joe: I’m getting married Friday.

Lana: Married. . . to that redhead?

Joe: To that redhead.

Lana: What made you think you had to marry her?

Joe: I just thought it was a good idea. Any objections?

Lana: Yeah. I got objections. What makes you think you can make a sucker out of me?

Joe: You’ve got to relax.

Lana: Don’t tell me to relax, you road slop. If it weren’t for me, you would still be kicking trucks up and down the coast. I get Ed to take you off the road. I put that clean collar around your dirty neck. I put those creases in your pants. I’m the one that put that money in your pocket. What makes you think you can walk out on me? . . . I walked you right into a company that was set and established. I gave you . . . money to buy new trucks. I could have picked any one off the streets who could add two and two and they’d have done just as well. . . Well you’re not getting out. You belong with me and you’re going to stay with me. And if you don’t like it now, you will learn to like. Only you’re not going off and marrying that cheap redhead.

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

First, a busted wheel leads Joe to Barney’s Restaurant, where he meets Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan) who later becomes the subject of a heated dispute between Joe and Lana. Secondly, Joe crosses paths with Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) which will have career implications.  

 

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

Joe blames himself for the accident that disables Paul. Feeling guilty, Joe promise his sister-in-law, Pearl (Gale Page) he will take care of everything while his brother recuperates.

Also, Lana Carlsen’s fears and confusion later in the film, has her making unwise decisions, culminating in a nervous breakdown.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Murder

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings N/A

 

9. Greed. Yes.

The underlying mechanics of the hauling business in this film, is such that hard negotiations become a desperate necessity for these men. Many risk their lives and livelihood in order to make every cent possible.

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

Lana is after Joe from the moment we first meet her. Her callousness shows when she rejects her husband’s affections just moments after discussing her expectations with Joe. A real turnoff.

Lana: Don’t you ever keep a date?

Joe: I didn’t make a date. I told you I wouldn’t be there and I’m telling you now- I’ll never be there.

Lana: What is the matter with me?

Joe: Nothing, except you have a husband, Mrs. Carlsen, and it happens that he’s a good friend of mine.

Lana: I wonder what I see in you, anyway; you’re crude, you’re uneducated, you never had a pair a pants with a crease in them. And yet I couldn’t say no to you.

Joe: Don’t worry about it. I’m not asking you.

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

Mrs. Carlsen’s loneliness is a result of being trapped in a loveless marriage and being rebuffed by Joe. She married for money and now yearns for love elsewhere.

 

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

Lana manipulates her husband Ed into hiring Joe as traffic manager, then spins it as if she’s only looking out for her husband:

Ed: Always thinking of the old man.

Lana: Sure I am Ed, but you never gives me any credit for it.

Actually, she wants Joe to remain close at home in order to commence a romantic liaison with him.

 

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 cinematographer, Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) is at his best when filming truck drivers and passengers inside their vehicles. The shadows and contrasts have that familiar Warner Bros. look, which will soon become their standard.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.

At about the 44 minute mark, Joe makes a long distance call to Cassie. We see him dial, Cassie answering the phone and then the screen splits into three: Joe on the left, Cassie on the right and a telephone pole in the center as a sort of visual aid.

 

 

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

They Drive by Night adjoins plus overlaps proto-noir and classic noir due to the year of release. It may have been influenced by French Poetic Realism because of the degree of realism it depicts in showing the life of truck drivers in the 1930s. I say ‘may’ because I have yet to see a French film in this category. I did find this description: The major theme of Poetic Realism are bitterness, disappointment, disillusionment and nostalgia. This film portrays most of these anguishes.

 

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

Pearl and Paul Fabrini are happily married. When she learns that he is severely injured in an accident, she tells Joe Fabrini:

Pearl: I’m almost glad it happened.

Joe: You’re what?

Pearl: You heard me. I’m almost glad. Now he can’t drive a truck anymore. Now he’ll be home nights. Now I won’t always be alone worried. Maybe it’s worth [it] Joe. Maybe it’s worth it.

 

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

 

Having 13 of 18 of the characteristics, They Drive by Night is a Proto-noir with excellent performances particularly in the supporting roles. Alan Hale as Ed Carlsen is memorable and Ida Lupino as Lana Carlsen is convincing as his disloyal wife. Both are the strength of the film.

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They Drive by Night (1940)

Dir. Raoul Walsh

 

This is the story of two brothers, Paul and Joe Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart and George Raft) and their wish of someday becoming their own bosses, in the very competitive trucking industry. We get a peek at that world and learn much about their private lives, including how their jobs affect their friends and loved ones. . . .

 

Joe: I’m getting married Friday.

Lana: Married. . . to that redhead?

Joe: To that redhead.

Lana: What made you think you had to marry her?

Joe: I just thought it was a good idea. Any objections?

Lana: Yeah. I got objections. What makes you think you can make a sucker out of me?

Joe: You’ve got to relax.

Lana: Don’t tell me to relax, you road slop. If it weren’t for me, you would still be kicking trucks up and down the coast. I get Ed to take you off the road. I put that clean collar around your dirty neck. I put those creases in your pants. I’m the one that put that money in your pocket. What makes you think you can walk out on me? . . . I walked you right into a company that was set and established. I gave you . . . money to buy new trucks. I could have picked any one off the streets who could add two and two and they’d have done just as well. . . Well you’re not getting out. You belong with me and you’re going to stay with me. And if you don’t like it now, you will learn to like. Only you’re not going off and marrying that cheap redhead.

 

. . . .

 

Lana: Don’t you ever keep a date?

Joe: I didn’t make a date. I told you I wouldn’t be there and I’m telling you now- I’ll never be there.

Lana: What is the matter with me?

Joe: Nothing, except you have a husband, Mrs. Carlsen, and it happens that he’s a good friend of mine.

Lana: I wonder what I see in you, anyway; you’re crude, you’re uneducated, you never had a pair a pants with a crease in them. And yet I couldn’t say no to you.

Joe: Don’t worry about it. I’m not asking you.

Ouch, that last line . . . .

 

They Drive by Night sounds like a good one. Apart from the fact that it's a proto-noir, the dialogue sounds great. I'm looking forward to seeing it myself.

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The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

dir. Michael Curtiz

 

A man is found dead in a locked room; door bolted shut; windows closed from the inside. Detective Philo Vance (William Powell) D.A. Markham (Robert McWade) and Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette) are summoned to investigate. After breaking into the room and looking around, they have this exchange:

Sergeant Heath: It’s as plain as the nose in your face. This guy locked himself in here and blew out his brains.

Detective Philo Vance: I wish I could agree.

D.A. Markham: How the devil can it be anything but suicide? There are no signs of a struggle and the door bolted from the inside.

Vance: Doesn’t it strike you as rather odd that a man should suddenly decide to commit suicide while changing from his street clothes to pajamas?

D.A. Markham: Well, why not? A man debating suicide might get partially undressed and walk up and down for hours trying to make up his mind.

Vance: Yes, he might walk up and down for hours, but not with one shoe half off. No, Markham. Something stopped him as he was removing that shoe. This was supposed to suggest suicide, but someone miscalculated.

Sergeant Heath: But you can’t get away from that bolted door.

Vance: I wish I could.

Sergeant Heath: Well, the way you figured it out, the man was murdered. A soon as the killer is gone, he gets up, goes and bolts the door, plants himself in a comfortable chair with a loaded gun in his hand to suggest suicide. That’s a swell theory.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes.

In many instances, the solutions in Murder-Mystery films are presented with a gathering of suspects and an investigator presenting a detailed analysis of all clues, followed with a step-by-step run through of how the murder occurred. Instead, here, both the presentation and run-through, as presented to the D.A. and Sergeant solely, goes against the then existing format of also naming the murderer, therefore requiring a second phase to identify him or her. Vance solves the mystery concerning the what, where, when, and how but can not figure out who or why until later.

Vance: I doubt if [the murderer] even discovered the mistake until the next day.

D.A. Markham: That’s great. But who did all that?… Haven’t you got any ideas at all, Vance?

Vance: Markham, it’s a maze of conflicting clues. Anyone of seven people might have done it.

Sergeant Heath: But we couldn’t convict seven people, Mr. Vance.

D.A. Markham: You couldn’t convict one with the evidence you’ve got.

Vance: I’m afraid we’re completely stopped.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes.

The highlight of the film is the six minutes during which Vance explains how the murder occurred. The writing at this instant is to the point; the images very detailed; the flashback extremely effective.

 

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

A murder is well planned and calculated, as expected in a mystery.

 

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

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

Vance describing events at the murder scene:

Vance: He put on his pajama top and went to the window and raised the shade. Can you imagine the killer’s emotions when, from someplace in the apartment house, across the vacant lot, he looked over and saw the man…

Raising the shade proved fateful, but to elaborate further would give away elements of the mystery.

 

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

I suppose there are as many angst as there are murder suspects ensuing from jealousy, humiliation, revenge, stress from broken contract, double-crossing and contentious rivalry. Here the authorities speak with a suspect:

Vance: We arrived only a few moments ago. We found your uncle as you see him.

Markham: It has every appearance of suicide.

Hilda Lake (Mary Astor): I doubt it.

Vance: Do you know of anyone who would have reason to kill your uncle?

Hilda Lake: Yes, I had, for one.

Markham: Why, Miss Lake?

Hilda Lake: Because he stood in the way of everything I wanted. He made my life miserable, because he held the purse strings, and because he was jealous of every man who came near me. I was afraid of him.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Murder

Canicide

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Half

Setting is in Manhattan but we see little of its aura or dynamics. I counted two nighttime scenes.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

Unfortunately this can not be described further without spoiling the Mystery.

 

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.) No.

Considering this film was made at Warner Bros. and presented in b&w, nothing suggests chiaroscuro in the film. The absence of low key lighting may explain the lack of shadows on the sets and on the faces of the actors. The question then is, was this a conscientious decision or was this technique not widely practiced in 1933.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.

The director’s camera is pretty much active throughout. Michael Curtiz uses many split screens, screen swipes, even once panned the camera around what seemed like 270° . He shows his creativity when capturing a close-up of a traveling bag in Grand Central, following as it is moved about and whisked away until it dissolves and reappears effortlessly at the crime scene.

 

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)

As in any well constructed whodunit mystery film, suspects are expected to blend in and never be seen as “the” one. These characters usually show their good side mostly, and only when they are exposed, do we actually see the evil they have done. That’s the case here, so Yes.

 

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

Philo Vance is an effective P.I. and triumphs over a very complicated murder mystery.

 

10.5 of 18 supports the film’s proto-noir status.

The Kennel Murder Case employs the closed-door murder ploy. It stars William Powell who is very believable as a private detective asking the right questions, Eugene Pallette as sergeant Heath delivering some funny lines and Mary Astor playing Hilda Lake, the victim’s niece. A decade later, Ms. Astor would play Brigid O’shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

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The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

dir. Michael Curtiz

 

. . .

 

10.5 of 18 supports the film’s proto-noir status.

The Kennel Murder Case employs the closed-door murder ploy. It stars William Powell who is very believable as a private detective asking the right questions, Eugene Pallette as sergeant Heath delivering some funny lines and Mary Astor playing Hilda Lake, the victim’s niece. A decade later, Ms. Astor would play Brigid O’shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

 

 

I've decided, based on your review here, to see The Kennel Murder Case. I saw The Thin Man, and I know it's on our list, but I just didn't like it all that much. I was bored with the way the story was told, and I was bored by all the jokes about drinking. I want to see William Powell in a different context!

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Fury (1936)

dir. Fritz Lang

 

This is a story about justice run amok on both sides of the law. First we have happy-go-lucky Joe Wilson, soon to be married, living with his brothers and a model citizen. One day he is arrested on suspicion of kidnapping on the basis of flimsy evidence. Convinced of his guilt, and too impatient to wait for a trial, a mob gathers at the jail house and proceeds to lynch him. On the other side, we see karma at work. Joe, having survived the lynching, now wants desperately to see those responsible, to be found guilty and put to death.

 

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes.

As Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney) reads a three-page letter to herself, we can read along with her as their framed images are projected on screen. As important events are read, the screen cuts to images reflecting those events. It’s a nonlinear narrative used to shorten the film but not the story.

 

2. Flashbacks N/A

 

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

Arson

Corruption

Kidnapping

Sabotage

 

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

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes.

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is in the wrong place at the wrong time when he is stopped by deputy Bugs Meyers (Walter Brennan). Learning that Joe carries with him salted peanuts, the deputy arrests him.

Joe: Hey, I haven’t got any gun, if that’s what you’re thinking. Peanuts won’t kill you, would they?

Deputy: Salted peanuts?

Joe: Yeah, why?

Deputy: I’m not answering the questions buddy, you are. Come on, get out.

Moments later at the sheriff’s office:

Joe: What am I suspected of- I’ve got a right to know.

Sheriff: Sure. (Shows Joe a flyer)

$10,000 REWARD: Wanted for kidnapping.

AGE: 32- HEIGHT 5’11- HAIR: Light Brown- EYES: Blue-

WEIGHT APPROX. 175

Joe: Me? Why that would fit a million men.

The Sheriff (Edward Ellis) this time shows Joe a confidential telegram notifying that forensic evidence indicates that salted peanuts were found in the envelope carrying the ransom letter.

Joe: Am I the only guy in the world that eats peanuts?

In his pockets are a bag of peanuts and a $5 bill matching the ransom money.

Sheriff: I have to hold you for the District Attorney, but you’ll get a square deal.

 

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

Not only does Joe suffer in the form of fury, confusion, and fear when he is falsely accused of kidnapping, but his angst continue, well after an unruly and angry mob goes after him, in their haste for justice, on their terms.

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes.

Lynching

Unlawful assembly

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Yes.

Although most of the action takes place in the town of Strand, California, the fact that Joe Wilson originates from Chicago makes his plight with the people of Strand that more compelling. They do not identify with the urban types who can afford expensive lawyers.

Two Patrons at a tavern talking.

“I heard the first thing he did was phone Chicago for his lawyer.”

“That’s always the first thing a guy like that will do.”

There are several nighttime scenes in both locations.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes.

In a way, the town of Strand betrays Joe Wilson. Their haste for judgment with no concern to rule of law, tend to doom people like Joe Wilson. It starts with rumors and innuendos then amateurish conclusions based on unverified facts and before you know it, a rabble-rouser like Kirby Dawson (Bruce Cabot) stirs the pot and fuels outrage.

At a tavern filled with patrons:

Bugs Meyers: Say, what’s biting you fellas? What do you want to know?

Patron: There’s a little argument about the amount the sheriff found in that kidnapper’s car.

Bugs: Well I hate to disappoint you guy… We didn’t find nothing in the car. We ripped it up but there was-

Kirby: Go on, Go on. We know you found that ransom money in the car.

Patron: Yeah, ten grand- hidden under the seat.

Bugs: Ten grand, me eye. Why all this fellow Wilson had on him of the ransom money was one five dollar bill.

Kirby: There you are, now who does that make a liar out of? Wait until I shove this down that sheriff’s throat. Come on boys, lets give him a little serenade.

They ignore the disproportion of money found on Joe and the ransom: 0.05%

 

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness Yes.

Joe begins to demonstrate anti-social behavior soon after surviving a lynching, when he secludes himself from public view in hopes that the perpetrators stand trial and be found guilty of murder. To succeed, no one can know he is alive.

Joe catches up with his brothers:

Joe: I tried (living right)…but (people) don’t let you. But I know now and I’ll get them.

Charlie: Sure, we’ll get a lawyer and have them-

Joe: What? Arrested? For disturbing the peace? Or for setting fire to a jail, maybe? No, no that’s not enough for me. I’m burned to death by a mob of animals. I’m legally dead and they’re legally murderers. That I’m alive is not their fault. But I know them. I know a lot of them. And they will hang for it… But I’ll give them the chance they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They’ll have a legal judge and a legal defense. They’ll get a legal sentence and a legal death.

Katherine catches up with Joe:

Katherine: If those people die, Joe Wilson dies, you know that, don’t you. Wherever you go, whatever you do…

Joe: From now on I’m going to do everything alone. I don’t need any of you.

 

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

Katherine, having witnessed a homicidal fire, now sits in a trance like state. When Charlie lights a cigarette, the flame from the lighter causes her to hallucinate that Charlie is Joe and is trapped inside a burning prison cell. Those memories are haunting her.

 

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.

When Joe Wilson returns to Chicago, he is filmed standing in a doorway wearing a trench coat and hat in classic chiaroscuro lighting. Behind him and to his right, we see a hanging lamp. In front of him, he faces the camera in a dimly lit room causing a silhouette-like image. The contrast between the light behind him and faintness ahead of him is very allegoric: he leaves everything that was once bright and right behind him, and now faces darkness and uncertainty ahead of him.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes.

There is a moment in the film with one uninterrupted line (dialogue) supporting (playing out over) two scenes.

D.A.: John Doe is not going to trial, Will. But Twenty-two citizens of Strand who I can prove are guilty-

[ Here there is a CUT TO: Courtroom. A sliding camera moving left to right capturing on the screen the twenty-two defendants sitting on trial ]

- of murder in the first degree because the law declares that in a lynching all who consent to the design are responsible for what took place.

 

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

Fritz Lang was among the big five German émigré directors” with “actual hands-on experience in German Expressionism.* He use this art form to illustrate grandness, shock, and grief.

First we hear a pounding, rhythm March play as the mob makes its way to the sheriff.

It grows in size and marchers include women. Tear gas can not stop the mob and they go on to overrun the sheriff and his deputies, taking control of the building. Joe hears them and is desperate- we see it in his eyes. Unable to reach Joe’s cell, they build a bonfire just feet’s away.

“Hey Wilson! They can’t parole you out of this!”

Katherine fights through the spectators and reaches the burning building, now engulfed in flames. Some are shocked, other amused. A man eats a hotdog as if a spectator at a sporting event, while a mother holding a child in her arms, looks up as if enjoying what is happening. Joe appears at the window. Katherine’s eyes, wide open, stares into the camera; her face frozen, registering shock and disbelief. All done to embellish the emotions.

 

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

Joe and his girlfriend, Katherine exchange small mementos as expressions of their love.

He finds a stray dog and takes it home. Goodheartedly, Joe looks out for his brothers, steering them away from local hoodlums. Then he becomes a coldhearted plotter, seeking the execution of innocents for a crime they did not commit.

 

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

 

The film scores favorably to 13 of 18 characteristics found on the proto-noir template.

Fury, besides being the first American film directed by Fritz Lang, also earned an Academy Awards nomination for best original screenplay.

 

* Summer of Darkness: Investigating Film Noir- Video Lecture.

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The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

dir. Michael Curtiz

 

. . .

 

 

10.5 of 18 supports the film’s proto-noir status.

The Kennel Murder Case employs the closed-door murder ploy. It stars William Powell who is very believable as a private detective asking the right questions, Eugene Pallette as sergeant Heath delivering some funny lines and Mary Astor playing Hilda Lake, the victim’s niece. A decade later, Ms. Astor would play Brigid O’shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

 

 

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

 

(My comments are in bold purple type.) I really couldn’t make a strong case for this one being a proto-noir. I count only 6.5 out of 18 on our list of characteristics to define proto-noir. The tongue-in-cheek humor turned The Kennel Murder Case into a whodunit comedy for me. But maybe that’s being proto-noir! After all, the category is harder to define than film noir, and film in general is a rather new industry at this time.

 

I saw the film twice and enjoyed it more the second time around. Once the seven suspects were sorted out, I could enjoy the humorous lines throughout. I thought it was funny that we get to see the dead humans, but the dead dog was given an off-screen scene when he was discovered!

 

A man is found dead in a locked room, door bolted shut, windows closed from the inside. Detective Philo Vance (William Powell), D.A. Markham (Robert McWade), and Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette) are summoned to investigate. Sergeant Heath believes the death can be ruled a suicide; Detective Vance has his doubts.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes. Yes.

In many instances, the solutions in Murder-Mystery films are presented with a gathering of suspects and an investigator presenting a detailed analysis of all clues, followed with a step-by-step run through of how the murder occurred. Instead, here, both the presentation and run-through, as presented to the D.A. and Sergeant solely, goes against the then-existing format of also naming the murderer, therefore requiring a second phase to identify him or her. Vance solves the mystery concerning the what, where, when, and how but cannot figure out who or why until later.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes. Yes.

The highlight of the film is the six minutes during which Vance explains how the murder occurred. The writing at this instant is to the point; the images very detailed; the flashback extremely effective.

 

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

 

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

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes. No. The circumstances of the murder don’t give me the feeling that fate played a large role for any of the main characters. The detail described below is one plot twist, not an instrument of fate particularly.

Vance describing events at the murder scene:

Vance: He put on his pajama top and went to the window and raised the shade. Can you imagine the killer’s emotions when, from someplace in the apartment house, across the vacant lot, he looked over and saw the man…

Raising the shade proved fateful, but to elaborate further would give away elements of the mystery.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes. No. I don’t feel like any of the main characters suffered from any angst particularly. In fact, all seven suspects seemed pretty happy that Archer Coe was dead. The film also uses quite a bit of humor throughout. Sometimes I think this feature (angst) is one of the most important in the making of a noir film. Without that feeling that something is going wrong or is amiss, either in the characters, the audience, the film overall, or in all three, it’s really hard think of a film as noir, at least for me.

I suppose there are as many angst as there are murder suspects ensuing from jealousy, humiliation, revenge, stress from broken contract, double-crossing and contentious rivalry. Here the authorities speak with a suspect . . . .

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes. No. I wouldn’t count this one. Once the murders are discovered, the other characters divided into two groups: They are either investigating the crimes or they are worried about being accused.

Murder

Canicide

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Half Half

Setting is in Manhattan but we see little of its aura or dynamics. I counted two nighttime scenes.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes. Yes.

Unfortunately this cannot be described further without spoiling the mystery.

 

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.) No.

Considering this film was made at Warner Bros. and presented in b&w, nothing suggests chiaroscuro in the film. The absence of low key lighting may explain the lack of shadows on the sets and on the faces of the actors. The question then is, was this a conscientious decision or was this technique not widely practiced in 1933.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes. Yes.

The director’s camera is pretty much active throughout. Michael Curtiz uses many split screens, screen swipes, even once panned the camera around what seemed like 270°. He shows his creativity when capturing a close-up of a traveling bag in Grand Central, following as it is moved about and whisked away until it dissolves and reappears effortlessly at the crime scene.

 

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)

As in any well constructed whodunit mystery film, suspects are expected to blend in and never be seen as “the” one. These characters usually show their good side mostly, and only when they are exposed, do we actually see the evil they have done. That’s the case here, so Yes. Yes. All seven suspects are portrayed as having a motive for murder, but none of them are portrayed as one-dimensional.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Yes. No. Philo Vance is not a particularly complicated character with conflicting motives. He has the general good of society in mind.

Philo Vance is an effective P.I. and triumphs over a very complicated murder mystery.

 

10.5 of 18 supports the film’s proto-noir status. I count only 6.5 out of 18 on our list of characteristics to define proto-noir.

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

 

(My comments are in bold purple type.) I really couldn’t make a strong case for this one being a proto-noir. I count only 6.5 out of 18 on our list of characteristics to define proto-noir. The tongue-in-cheek humor turned The Kennel Murder Case into a whodunit comedy for me. But maybe that’s being proto-noir! After all, the category is harder to define than film noir, and film in general is a rather new industry at this time.

 

I saw the film twice and enjoyed it more the second time around. Once the seven suspects were sorted out, I could enjoy the humorous lines throughout. I thought it was funny that we get to see the dead humans, but the dead dog was given an off-screen scene when he was discovered!

 

A man is found dead in a locked room, door bolted shut, windows closed from the inside. Detective Philo Vance (William Powell), D.A. Markham (Robert McWade), and Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette) are summoned to investigate. Sergeant Heath believes the death can be ruled a suicide; Detective Vance has his doubts.

 

Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1. Unusual narration or plot development Yes. Yes.

In many instances, the solutions in Murder-Mystery films are presented with a gathering of suspects and an investigator presenting a detailed analysis of all clues, followed with a step-by-step run through of how the murder occurred. Instead, here, both the presentation and run-through, as presented to the D.A. and Sergeant solely, goes against the then-existing format of also naming the murderer, therefore requiring a second phase to identify him or her. Vance solves the mystery concerning the what, where, when, and how but cannot figure out who or why until later.

 

2. Flashbacks Yes. Yes.

The highlight of the film is the six minutes during which Vance explains how the murder occurred. The writing at this instant is to the point; the images very detailed; the flashback extremely effective.

 

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

 

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

 

5. The instrument of fate Yes. No. The circumstances of the murder don’t give me the feeling that fate played a large role for any of the main characters. The detail described below is one plot twist, not an instrument of fate particularly.

Vance describing events at the murder scene:

Vance: He put on his pajama top and went to the window and raised the shade. Can you imagine the killer’s emotions when, from someplace in the apartment house, across the vacant lot, he looked over and saw the man…

Raising the shade proved fateful, but to elaborate further would give away elements of the mystery.

 

6. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Yes. No. I don’t feel like any of the main characters suffered from any angst particularly. In fact, all seven suspects seemed pretty happy that Archer Coe was dead. The film also uses quite a bit of humor throughout. Sometimes I think this feature (angst) is one of the most important in the making of a noir film. Without that feeling that something is going wrong or is amiss, either in the characters, the audience, the film overall, or in all three, it’s really hard think of a film as noir, at least for me.

I suppose there are as many angst as there are murder suspects ensuing from jealousy, humiliation, revenge, stress from broken contract, double-crossing and contentious rivalry. Here the authorities speak with a suspect . . . .

 

7. Violence or the threat of violence Yes. No. I wouldn’t count this one. Once the murders are discovered, the other characters divided into two groups: They are either investigating the crimes or they are worried about being accused.

Murder

Canicide

 

8. Urban and nighttime settings Half Half

Setting is in Manhattan but we see little of its aura or dynamics. I counted two nighttime scenes.

 

9. Greed N/A

 

10. Betrayal Yes. Yes.

Unfortunately this cannot be described further without spoiling the mystery.

 

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.) No.

Considering this film was made at Warner Bros. and presented in b&w, nothing suggests chiaroscuro in the film. The absence of low key lighting may explain the lack of shadows on the sets and on the faces of the actors. The question then is, was this a conscientious decision or was this technique not widely practiced in 1933.

 

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques Yes. Yes.

The director’s camera is pretty much active throughout. Michael Curtiz uses many split screens, screen swipes, even once panned the camera around what seemed like 270°. He shows his creativity when capturing a close-up of a traveling bag in Grand Central, following as it is moved about and whisked away until it dissolves and reappears effortlessly at the crime scene.

 

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)

As in any well constructed whodunit mystery film, suspects are expected to blend in and never be seen as “the” one. These characters usually show their good side mostly, and only when they are exposed, do we actually see the evil they have done. That’s the case here, so Yes. Yes. All seven suspects are portrayed as having a motive for murder, but none of them are portrayed as one-dimensional.

 

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” Yes. No. Philo Vance is not a particularly complicated character with conflicting motives. He has the general good of society in mind.

Philo Vance is an effective P.I. and triumphs over a very complicated murder mystery.

 

10.5 of 18 supports the film’s proto-noir status. I count only 6.5 out of 18 on our list of characteristics to define proto-noir.

 

Marianne, as is always the case, I appreciate your contribution and thoughts. I would not change anything we each wrote. It comes down to our views on one film. You expressed your thoughts well. It makes the write-up less one-sided and more balanced. I enjoyed the film and perhaps in my excitement in having found a mystery proto-noir, I got carried away, looking to find for it more often than not.

Your observations help give it an accurate picture.

Thank you.

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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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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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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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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/rails4/collection/works/80000?locale=en 

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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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