Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier, Pierre Larquey, Noël Roquevert
Original title:L’assassin habite au 21
The Murderer Lives at Number 21, the feature debut from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is best known for films like the masterful Le corbeau and Les diaboliques, is an entertaining, comedic film noir – a blend of two different genres that works thanks to some brilliantly witty dialogue, excellent performances and a superb visual aesthetic that makes the most of the atmospheric hallmarks of noir cinema.
A murderer stalks the streets of an arrondissement in Paris, a calling card from a Monsieur Durand found on the bodies of each of his victims. While the local residents seem more intrigued than frightened by the killer, who’s become a steady fixture in all the newspapers, the police officials are beginning to feel the heat. The elegant Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) is brought in to work on the case and soon after receives his first break: a reformed thief, now rag-and-bone man, has found a stash of the calling cards while clearing out an attic at Les Mimosas, a boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot. With the information at his disposal, Wens decides to take a room at the boarding house in a rather humorous disguise.
But matters are complicated by the actions of his incongruous girlfriend, Mila Malou (Suzy Delair). A thwarted singer, she is first introduced to us at an audition, where, flattering the impresario to no avail, she learns that her only chance of success is if she’s already famous – and what better way to become a star than to get her name in the newspapers, like Monsieur Durand? Although fashioned as something of a ditz, Delair’s character is fabulous – at the audition, she compares herself to America before Columbus, waiting to be discovered. Later, she tells someone that she stays home and knits booties for a baby – if Wens is capable of producing one. And of course, she finds the solution to her celebrity problem by taking part in Wens’s murder investigation, following him to the boarding house.
Wens’s fellow lodgers are a motley bunch: a manservant trying to train a caged bird to sing; the ageing Miss Cuq, described as ‘une vraie jeunne fille’, a ‘maiden’ lady and failed author who perseveres after each rejection; Linz, a doctor dressed for safari, who boasts about surviving 25 years in the bush; Colin, a down-at-heel man who makes faceless dolls meant to resemble the killer; the pick-pocketing Professor Lalah-Poor, a turban-wearing magician and ‘artiste’; and Kid Robert, a blind former boxer, joined by his attractive nurse.
The lodgers, including Wens and Mila, spy on each other, sneak into each other’s rooms, steal… there’s no shortage of distrust and malevolence beneath the artificially friendly veneer in the house. Meanwhile, more bodies pile up, including one of their own, after Mila, sticking her nose into the affair, suggests to Miss Cuq that she base a story on Monsieur Durand’s murderous crime wave. But in the end, after some unorthodox detective work, Mila and Wens solve the mystery with plenty of flair, drawing out ‘Monsieur Durand’ in inimitable fashion. And while The Murderer Lives at Number 21 might not be as subversive or fiercely brilliant as some of his later films, Clouzot’s impressive debut as a director is a remarkably stylish and entertaining detective story.
Watch a clip from The Murderer Lives at Number 21:
Michael R. Roskam’s unique and harrowing crime melodrama Bullhead is a dark, classic tale of friendship and betrayal against one of the most original backdrops ever utilized in a gangster picture. Hallmarks of the genre – double crosses, filthy brute force, intimidation of the worst kind – are transplanted to Belgium, with Goodfellas-styled hoods in the roles of two-fisted laconic farmers, veterinarians and feed suppliers.
It’s film noir crossed with a sprawling, operatic, Visconti-like virtuosity, yet tinged with the earthy stench of cow shit mixed with the sour metallic odour of blood.
A super-buff stud works out maniacally in the dark after plunging steroids into his firm, sleek buttocks.
A cow’s belly is sliced open without painkiller. A calf is ripped from the gaping cavity of viscous fluids. The dazed newborn, covered with glistening viscera, is tossed violently into a filthy metal tub.
An ecstasy-and-booze-filled ladies’ man is dragged out of the glare of a lone street lamp and hauled into the shadows of night, so viciously beaten he’ll live the rest of his life as a vegetable.
Covert dinner meetings between thugs – fuelled by booze and sumptuously prepared steaks – occur surreptitiously on farms, in barns and within feed warehouses. Deals, deliveries and alliances are discussed as forks and knives dig savagely into slabs of meat on platters garnished with little more than boiled potatoes – soaking up pools of blood and fat that ooze from the steroid-enhanced comestibles.
Bucolic Belgian farmlands at dusk and twilight mask an evil criminal world of organized steroid users and purveyors – peddling livestock pumped to the max with growth-and-fat-enhancing drugs.
A brick lifted high in the air, touching the heavens before slamming down repeatedly, smashing a pair of testicles to a pulp – forcing the owner of the mashed potato nuts to begin a life that’s an uphill Sisyphean climb.
Bullhead is one great and original gangster picture.
From the innocence of childhood to the corruption-tarnished cusp between youth and middle age, writer-director Michael R. Roskam charts the friendship between Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). As kids they are groomed for a life in illicit meat manufacturing and their lives are as inextricably linked as they are estranged after an early tragedy results in a dizzying criminal ascension and a downward-spiralling fate.
Roskam’s screenplay brilliantly lays out a myriad of crooked relationships, complex and virtually impenetrable ‘business deals’ and friendships that are as intense as they are fraught with guilt mixed with immoral layers. The ins and outs of the ‘mysteries’ become as obtuse as those in The Big Sleep. At times, we think we have a grasp on what’s happening, but the layers of plot are ultimately too thick to follow. It almost doesn’t matter. What we know for certain is that bad shit is coming down. That’s all we really need to know.
Through it all is the staggering performance of Matthias Schoenaerts – brooding, physical and steeped in humanity. His eyes are extraordinary – shifting in one moment from soulful to dead like a shark.
Roskam’s mise en scène is first rate. His compositions are painterly and the cinematography manages to capture a sense of dreariness so that it’s positively exciting – etching night exteriors like masterly impressionist paintings and dramatic picture compositions that are as thrilling as they’re simplistically evocative in terms of both spatial geography and the ever-shifting dynamics of the characters. The pace weirdly evokes country life – it’s slow, but never lugubrious. Roskam hooks us like a master and leads us where he needs to and wants to – on HIS terms and those that the story demands.
Early in the film, we hear a life manifesto that boils down to one thing:
‘Everything is fucked!’
And so it is in Bullhead. It’s gloriously, deliriously and viciously fucked – an amoral, cynical, nihilistic and narcissistic 70s style of nastiness brought miraculously to life in a contemporary world of cow shit and gangsters.
We even get some redemption, but a steep price is paid for it.
From being one of Germany’s most successful silent film directors Fritz Lang moved to Hollywood in the mid-30s, leaving his wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou behind. Although he was raised as a Catholic, the Viennese-born director had a Jewish mother. Despite this, he was apparently invited by Josef Goebbels to head film production under the Nazi government - a job offer he refused.
However, in America he would never again be given the huge budget, year-long shooting schedule, elaborate sets and cast of thousands that he had in making the sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927), nor would he make anything as long as the five-hour epic Die Nibelungen (1924) or even as dark as M (1931) - the shadowy story of a child murderer. Yet somehow, with his staple of small-scale unpretentious genre pictures Lang flourished. For the next 20 years he turned out a collection of noirs - The Big Heat (1953) - Westerns - Rancho Notorious (1952) - spy thrillers - Man Hunt (1940) - and even a musical - You and Me (1938) - that make up an oeuvre as great as any in the studio system.
You Only Live Once was Lang’s second American film. It stars Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor, a former criminal paroled from jail who marries the girl who has waited three years for him, only to find that life as an ex-con is not easy. The honeymoon lasts less than one night as the hotel owner recognises him from a crime magazine and asks the couple to leave in the morning. He is fired from his job as a truck driver - his boss refusing to listen, chatting to his wife on the phone, as Eddie makes his desperate pleas.
Fonda is perfectly cast as the hard-pressed, good-hearted reformed criminal but has the ability to transform into a desperate killer with a gun in his hand. Sylvia Sidney is Jo, the smitten nice girl who not only is able to see the good beneath the criminal but is perhaps, like Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1974), secretly attracted to his darker side.
The moral waters are certainly murkier than we would expect from 30s Hollywood, and good and bad are much more ambiguous than in the fairy tale world of Metropolis. Lang never really makes it clear that Eddie is really not guilty of the robbery and murder - the monogrammed hat that convicts him is ‘stolen’ off camera and the bank robber or robbers are wearing gas masks. Yet, despite this, Eddie and Jo stand in contrast to the petty meanness of the ‘law-abiding’ citizens. Whether exaggerating a robbery so they can clear out the till themselves or cheating at draughts, the supporting cast are almost universally self-serving and dishonest. Even the police are seen stealing apples from a greengrocer. But unlike the world-weary heroes of the films noirs Lang would make in the following decade, Eddie and Jo never give up on love and hope. They always believe they can escape this uncaring, dishonest world where innocent frogs are mutilated by children.
Lang shows how well he adapted to the pacing of American cinema. You Only Live Once is a rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment followed by more hope and yet more disappointment. There is little of the expressionist style of his German films. There is an eerie fog-bound prison break but the cinematography, like the sparse sets, is largely functional, either driving the plot or setting a mood - the romantic croaking frogs in the pond at the honeymoon hotel being particularly memorable.
There are scenes of great visual imagination that remind us that we are watching one of silent cinema’s great directors at work. Hope is raised by a newspaper headline reading ‘Taylor freed’, only to be dashed seconds later as we are shown two alternative front pages - no decision or the death penalty - as the printers wait for a phone call to decide which to go with. The set piece robbery - witnessed by a blind man in a haze of tear gas - is a purely visual tour de force.
As with the poetic realist films made in France at the same time it is the hand of fate that rules the plot. Any attempt the characters make to build a life for themselves is scuppered by unforgiving bosses, paranoid hoteliers or just bad luck - the ticker tape news arrives just in time and too late. The heavy air of pessimism is hardly diluted by the pseudo-religious ending and stands in stark contrast to the more upbeat or escapist feelings we associate with 30s Hollywood cinema.
Although You Only Live Once looks like a precursor of film noir it could also be seen as part of the series of Depression-era social dramas such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The final reel, as the lovers go on the lam together, contributed to create a sub-genre that oddly seems to be made of almost entirely great films from They Live by Night (1948) and Gun Crazy (1950) to Pierrot le Fou (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands and many other great films as well as Natural Born Killers (1994).
As much as Lang adapted to Hollywood it seems American cinema adapted to him. Along with other expats such as Billy Wilder, John Alton and Robert Siodmak, Lang was to lead the way to that great crossroads of European and American sensibilities: film noir,the style/genre in which he was to make his greatest work - Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat and The Woman in the Window (1944) stand alongside the afore mentioned M as Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements.
Writers: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Elizabeth Reinhardt
Based on the novel by: Vera Caspary
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
The opening credits in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir roll over an oil painting of a beautiful woman; this is Laura, but as the story begins, she has already been found murdered. ‘I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,’ says Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in a voice-over, as the camera pans around his museum-like apartment, lingering on luxurious objects collected by the wealthy society figure, who delights in excoriating Manhattanites in his newspaper column and radio show. We soon learn that Laura has been shot in the face at close range, right in the doorway to her apartment, and Waldo is one of Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) chief suspects.
So is Shelby (Vincent Price in an early role), something of a once wealthy playboy, now fallen on hard times. We discover through flashbacks, as their stories are recounted to McPherson, that the two men were engaged in a tussle for Laura’s affections. Lydecker ‘discovered’ Laura (played by the beautiful Gene Tierney), helping to further both her career and her climb up New York’s social ladder. So enamoured of his own status, Lydecker struggles to understand how Laura could fall prey to Shelby’s charms, failing to see the appeal in being with a younger, more attractive man (who also appears to have a lot to hide, including a love affair with Laura’s wealthy aunt).
This is film noir set in the rarefied milieu of the elite, rather than in the mean streets below the glittering penthouses. They eat out at the legendary Algonquin, not at seedy diners. Their world is beyond McPherson’s reach; his only chance at coming close to a woman as refined and elegant as Laura is through the - possibly distorted - imaginings of Lydecker and Shelby. Lydecker (who is given many of the film’s best lines, his caustic wit one of its highlights) in fact reprimands the detective when he crassly refers to Laura as a ‘dame’. For all of her success - she rises to the top of the advertising world, even hiring Shelby when he’s down on his luck - Laura is neither vamp nor moll, leaving McPherson and the audience to puzzle over her true character. What is clear is that McPherson finds himself seduced by the idea of Laura; and, in a terrific plot twist, it’s left to the audience to decide whether his desire for her, and with it his need to solve the case, is merely a fantasy, or something more real.
Always lingering beneath the genteel surface is the shocking brutality of the violent murder; Preminger makes the blistering case that the rich elite are capable of any crime if it means getting what they want. All of this makes Laura a thrilling, absorbing and original example of the genre; it’s also beautifully shot, pure escapist entertainment. It dates from a cinematic era when two characters could still fall in and out of love seemingly overnight, and when plots could be full of holes (common in the genre) without critics deriding the film as unrealistic. Despite some of the all-too-human mistakes that she makes, Laura is also a strong, independent and desirable woman, and an unusual, almost accidental femme fatale.
Writers: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Darryl F. Zanuck
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Bent, Donald Cook, John Wayne
Barbara Stanwyck’s role as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933) was a great opportunity for the actress to show her range. The story begins with Lily living with her father in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father hires her out as a prostitute to the steel workers who use the bar, and the politician who keeps his bar open. Lily’s fate changes after her father is killed when his distillery catches fire and blows up. She moves to New York, keen to get what she wants out of life by using men as they have used her. Her vibrant face, fantastic figure and shrewd capacity to seduce men assist her as she exchanges sex for breaks at the Gotham Trust bank. She moves swiftly from barroom sass to jewel-dripping prowess as she rises up the social ladder of 1930s Manhattan. She finally falls in love for real and marries the director of the bank, Courtland Trenholm. In the final scenes, she realises just how much her husband means to her and her own capacity for love.
The film Baby Face itself has had more than one incarnation. In 2004, the original pre-release version was discovered by archivist Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress in the US, complete with five extra minutes of material. It was notorious at the time of release, presumably for its languorous shots of Stanwyck’s body and the supposedly loose morals of Lily Powers. The New York Board of Censors were disgusted and demanded that parts of the film were cut, not only the naughty bits, but some complex moments that give depth to Lily’s character and offer a social critique of the times.
The film existed in a climate of righteous reform for Hollywood cinema. Since 1930, Will Hays, the current head of Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), had been under pressure from a group of Catholic clergy and their supporters to ‘save’ the American people from the celluloid ‘muck merchants’, as Gregory D. Black writes in his article ‘Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Industry, 1930-1940’ (Film History Vol 3, No.3, 1989, p. 167-189). Hays had been attempting to enforce a moralistic Production Code but his actions were not seen as firm enough by this religious faction. In league with lay Catholic Joseph I. Breen, Hays set up the Production Code Administration, so that by 1934 no script was sanctioned and no film could be released unless it had PCA approval. Heavy fines of up to $25,000 swayed many writers and directors to fall in with the Code’s criteria. To briefly summarise, the Production Code included the banning of any nudity, explicit sexuality, any social mixing or marriage of people of different races. If any criminal or ‘immoral’ behaviour such as infidelity was seen, then it had to punished within the narrative. Another part of the stricture was that the industry permanently withdrew any films already distributed that were deemed immoral according to the code. Baby Face was one of many films to be extracted from circulation.
Thus came to an end what is known as the Pre-Code era in Hollywood. Since 1927, the industry had enjoyed relative freedom and had played up to the audience’s love for sauce and tempestuous violence. They also relished the space to present a commentary on American society, especially with regard to injustice because of class and race. Women were portrayed as having a will of their own and often sizzling sexuality, without necessarily being punished for it. Arguably, the religious fervour irrupted due to the new use of sound, which literally meant that the movies could capture the essence of the people’s voice. Black writes that the producers of the early 1930s rejected the idea that the American people needed to be sheltered and guided by film: ‘the American people were the real censors and the box office was their ballot box’ (p. 172). This was contrary to the desires of the church advocates, who wanted films to present the image of a model society that was pious, moderate and based on family values.
This self-governing enforcement of regulation is a key moment, not only in Hollywood’s history, but in the way that regulation has been used to create a standard of acceptance for the sexual mores and behaviour of women. This is illuminated by moving comparisons of the cut and uncut versions of Baby Face. In the uncut version, there is a sense of Lily’s strength and sexual power. Part of this is heralded by the music in the film, especially a key theme rendition of ‘St Louis Blues’, written by W.C. Handy in 1914. Here it is brassy, swinging and triumphant, played by the Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by Leo F. Forbstein. Every time Lily ‘engages the attentions’ of a manager higher up in the bank she gets a new job in their department. To signify this, with hilarious innuendo we hear the ‘St Louis Blues’ theme over a pan up the exterior of the art deco high rise. The department name is written in the windows: up, up we go, from filing to mortgages and mortgages to accounting. The music taps into Lily’s nonchalance and ambition as she gets one over the men she ensnares. She is also beautifully dressed and there is a pleasure to be derived from her Cinderella-like costume changes as she rises up, each move to a new department seeing her in newer and more lavish finery. Lily is upwardly mobile, not as a result of her commitment to the labour market, but to her own sexuality, and the shortcuts it allows. These I see as spectral clues to the light comic tone the filmmakers wanted to convey, and the titillation they did not want to hold back on.
As I watched the pre-release version, having just watched the censored version, I saw Lily Powers shift into a three-dimensional woman. I saw more of her reactions, wide shots of the places she is situated in and evidence of her being successful at her job. The paring down of Lily’s complexity and her social context in the cut version seemed lamentable, a kind of celluloid lobotomy. A comparison of the two endings is one way into these remarkable differences. In the censored theatrical release, right from the start Lily is warned that there is a ‘right way and a wrong way’ to make her way in the world, by her friend Adolf Cragg, an intellectual cobbler from home. [SPOILER] The ending, which was stitched on to please the censors, is depressing. It reminds us of the start of the film when we see Lily leaning out of the window of the speakeasy; dusting off factory smoke from her window box, she wants air, to escape the steel works and its men. A shot of the smoking factory chimneys lingers. Later, Lily’s biggest decision is whether to give up all her assets and money to Courtland when the bank starts to fail. Courtland attempts suicide and Lily saves him. The final scene of the theatrical release shows a company meeting of elderly men explaining that Lily and her husband have bailed out the bank and have returned to Erie and are ‘working out their happiness’. Courtland is now a labourer. We don’t see Lily; instead the film closes on the image of the chimneys. While it is allowed that Lily has finally found happiness and true love, she is back on the same treadmill, her father replaced by her husband, in a place she hates. The worthy message is clear: Lily has her punishment for cheating the system and doing so in sinful ways. [END OF SPOILER]
The uncut version offers an entirely different moral slant and an open ending. Restored is the extended exchange between Lily and Cragg early on in the film. The bit that was missing is Cragg’s elaboration of an extract from Nietzsche’s Will to Power (it should be noted that this is not a book actually written by Nietzsche, but a series of fragments from his notebooks edited together and published by his sister after his mental breakdown). Cragg suggests that ‘All life is exploitation’, and that Lily could ‘exploit herself’ and ‘use men to get the things [she] want[s]’. Presumably, this nihilistic philosophy and the exposure of the labour market system were too much for the censors, especially as they were used to rouse a woman to action. This exchange entirely shifts the emphasis, from ‘free yourself from systems of exploitation’ in the uncut version to ‘freedom can only exist in reference to pre-written moral codes’ in the cut.
The ending of the pre-release version is also much more interesting. [SPOILER] Lily and Courtland gaze into each other’s eyes as he comes round in the ambulance (this was cut: in the theatrical version, Lily just looks miserably at him), when the paramedic tells her to take care of her suitcase as half a million’s worth of stash is seen spilling out. She says, ‘it doesn’t matter now’, then the smouldering ‘St Louis Blues’ kicks in and the credits roll. To me, this open ending says that Lily now believes that real love overrides material wealth, but it also insinuates that the money might not matter right now, but it might in an hour or two when she wants to pay the medical bill and run away with her gorgeous husband.
‘I want things,’ says Laurie Starr, anti-heroine of cult film noir Gun Crazy (1950). ‘A lot of things. Big things. I don’t want to be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.’
She delivers these lines matter-of-factly, between putting on her stockings and part-challenging, part-seducing her new husband into joining her on a series of robberies [SPOILER] that will end in death for them both [END OF SPOILER]. The quote is frequently cited to demonstrate her near-psychotic acquisitiveness, her ruthless nature, her lust for power and skill for manipulating luckless partner Bart Tare, played by John Dall. But not only is her desire destined to be unfulfilled, it is also oddly unconvincing, spoken as if it’s what is expected of her, like much of the character’s minimal dialogue. Laurie never really gets any of her ‘things’; material gain from the couple’s crime spree is fleeting, and the guy isn’t up to much either. One senses that she knows this from the start, but cannot articulate the power of desire for desire’s sake; cannot admit to how much the violent process of satisfying that desire excites her.
Instead, Laurie Starr’s most memorable moments are non-verbal: flashes of action and intent from the mobile, expressive face and body of British actress Peggy Cummins, then in her early 20s - more tomboy than vamp, and exuberantly transported by action, violence and transgression, however hard her words might strive for conventionality. As the couple drive away from the scene of the film’s most celebrated heist, Cummins turns and faces the camera; as she sees the clear road behind them, her face blooms with pleasure, breaking into an impish and breathless grin. She wears the same cowgirl outfit in which we first glimpsed her performing a sexually charged shooting routine. Whether on a carnival stage or fleeing a bank job, she is rarely at ease. While Laurie shares some traits of classic noir women - not least a certain pragmatism and survival instinct - she is not presented as a femme fatale. She has none of the 40s temptress’s constructed mystique, nor her corresponding, closely styled appearance; her changeable moods and impulsive actions suggest that she is most of all a mystery to herself.
Frances Morgan will be discussing Gun Crazy‘s Laurie Starr and other femmes fatales with Nicola Woodham and host Virginie Sélavy on Resonance 104.4 FM on Friday 17 February, 5-5:30pm.
If Laurie Starr is an atypical noir heroine, Gun Crazy is no ordinary noir. Although it is directed by Joseph H. Lewis, best known for the classic The Big Combo (1955), and employs some of the severe angles, expressionist close-ups and shadowy pursuit scenes associated with the genre, it sometimes feels not like a noir at all. Gun Crazy is a film about modern sex, violence and poverty, but much of it has the slightly dreamlike, archetypal quality of a fable; its tone is at once ambiguous and highly moral. It offers some tantalising commentary on a lost, young underclass in post-war America, but never really dips beneath the surface. It chooses for its hero a man who seems reluctant to exist at all. Gun Crazy‘s most urgent and well-realised theme is one that, by necessity, remains heavily coded: that of transgressive, violent sexuality and fetishism.
The film begins as a teenage Bart is caught stealing a gun. In the court scene that follows, his sister and friends explain that while the kid loves guns, he is not violent - a fact demonstrated in a flashback in which Bart refuses to shoot at a mountain lion. Guns are objects of power for this disenfranchised, parentless young boy, but he is not a killer. When we meet Bart again in adulthood, he is a colourless, law-abiding character, whose slight melancholy and air of displacement are well realised in John Dall’s lanky frame and awkward smile. That smile becomes a charged, canine grin the night he and his friends enter a carnival tent to watch Miss Annie Laurie Starr’s performance, the climax of which is a shooting competition with an audience member. Of course, Bart volunteers, and narrowly wins, but this rather predictable sequence bursts into life thanks to the couple’s extraordinary chemistry. The play of heavily coded signals between the two - Bart’s triumphant smile; Laurie’s swaggering walk towards the target; the hits and the misses of both characters’ guns - sets up the power relationships they will play out as a couple. As an establishment of the erotic vocabulary of two fetishists, it is hard to beat, and is all the more effective for its air of secrecy: everyone in the room sees their attraction, but only Bart and Laurie seem to understand exactly its true nature. Like many deviant sexualities, it is both highly theatrical and very personal, and it is not surprising that Bart’s next step is to join the carnival himself.
Gun Crazy‘s slightly soporific atmosphere is only stirred up when it focuses on the two lead characters’ gun fetish. In an echo of both sexual role play and the characters’ carnival days, Bart and Laurie carry out a series of robberies in disguise. But there are no safety words for these scenarios, and the logical progression of their fantasy into the real-life trauma of murder and a fugitive lifestyle takes its toll on Bart’s already shaky sense of reality: ‘Sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. I wake up sometimes and it’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.’ All Laurie can offer back is that she is real - which only serves to reinforce the lack of escape routes for them both. Later, after agreeing to separate after their last big heist (to avoid suspicion), they are unable to do so, turning their respective getaway cars around in a scene that is both highly camp and deeply sad. While the added back story ostensibly casts Bart as the lead, there seems no doubt in Lewis’s direction that they are in it together, whether that’s as star-crossed lovers or as victims of a shared delusion.
And yet the film’s alternate title was Deadly Is the Female, and many reviews of the film still cast Laurie as a deliciously wicked character, the driving force of evil, a violent woman whose already dangerous sexuality is exacerbated by the weaponry that she carries. But even if we accept such readings as dated, indicative of paranoid male fantasies of powerful women, and recognise the transgressive fun to be had in such stereotypes, it is a shame that sympathetic takes on Laurie are still rare. More understanding is reserved for her husband, a man who feels emasculated in a post-war society. Bart’s passion for shooting ‘things, not people’, while clearly in sexual thrall to a violent woman through whom he kills vicariously, is cited as evidence - in the film, at least - that he is inherently harmless, and blameless, when in fact it is close to sinister.
If Bart is emasculated, Laurie is even more so, yet she takes action, again and again. The film’s timing is crucial. Following the Second World War, women who had enjoyed a measure of power during the 1940s - and seen themselves reflected in strong film portrayals by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell - began to fade once more from public life, which was echoed in the cinema in what Susan Faludi calls ‘the image of womanhood surrendered… Strong women displaced by good girls’ (in Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women). There is something both exciting and poignant in the way Cummins’s character inhabits her femininity and pushes against its constrictions at a time when the idea of femininity was undergoing a re-evaluation from active back to passive. In the film’s most action-packed and erotic sequences, Laurie moves and dresses in a masculine way: she is most capable in a cowboy outfit; at her best when running, driving, fucking and doing. When she dons a black dress and opulent fur for a last, romantic night out, it is moments before she’s on the run again, the fur dropped in a puddle, the high heels skidding on the pavement. It’s a direct contrast to the film’s last successful heist, in which she poses as a secretary. Dressed for practicality in trousers and flats, she is reprimanded by the head of the typing pool for her inappropriate office wear. ‘I hope to see you in a skirt tomorrow,’ says the manager, only to be gunned down by her typist minutes later. While Laurie demands ‘action’ from Bart, putting the onus on her male partner to take her where she wants to go, it is clear she has the will and resources to do it herself. As feminist critics of film noir have often stated, it is the agency of heroines such as Laurie Starr that makes such pleasurable viewing for women: just the very sight of a woman who acts, viewed separately from what those actions might be, is undeniably thrilling. [SPOILER] Laurie is eventually shot, not by the police, but by Bart himself, to prevent her killing his childhood friend. This jolting reminder that the male world is paramount is a response to the fact that, at her best (worst?) Laurie really does appear to pose a threat to that world. [END OF SPOILER]
Of course, Bart ends up dead beside her, the two slumped in the misty rushes like shot ducks. Both of them have been powerless from the start, as they move through the empty, tawdry settings of small towns, cheap rooms, fairgrounds and Vegas weddings. What’s striking, though, is Laurie’s commitment to turning this life around, however doomed the outcome. It’s tempting to imagine a parallel with the pragmatic, Poverty Row origins of the low-budget film itself, and in the odd, never fully realised career of Peggy Cummins herself, whose brief stint in Hollywood would end just a year later. She plays Laurie with an instinctive fierceness that a more A-list, experienced actress might have toned down; her accent, which swings from received pronunciation to an American drawl, marks her out as an outsider. Whatever big things Peggy Cummins was chasing, the unbridled, angry glee she brings to Laurie Starr suggests that, for the 30 days it took to make Gun Crazy, she managed to tap into the darkest essence of her character’s desires, in the process delivering one of the best power femme performances of the B-movie era.
Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Mí¶hner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Magali Noí«l, Marcel Lupovici
Since Rififi is excellent and its excellence has been well recognised, critical assessment is probably otiose. Instead let me wonder what kind of film it is. It can be seen as an archetype of the genre now known as the heist movie (in this case, not so much ‘heist gone wrong’ as ‘heist gone right but…’). By many the film will be best remembered for the bravura 28-minute robbery sequence in which not a word is spoken. Stylistically the film seems influenced by a different genre, the American detective noir of the 30s and 40s. Rififi is no policier, however: the man who goes down these mean streets alone is not a detective but a criminal, and the police play only an incidental role. The genre which Rififi ultimately exemplifies is that of the showdown between rival criminals: trouble in the underworld. A close inspiration may have been Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, of the previous year.
The question of what the film is about leads to the question of its title. The British and American distributors gave up on translation and simply abbreviated it to Rififi. Slang of a past era is notoriously difficult to translate. Use slang from the same period for your translation and you risk making what was once vigorous and fresh seem quaint. Use more recent slang and the anachronism will jar. A bland English translation of Rififi would be ‘trouble’. Perhaps ‘rumble’ would make clearer the suggestion of conflict. But an extra layer of sexual innuendo is added by Magali Noí«l’s nightclub song about her relish for rififi with her man. So what would have been a good English equivalent? ‘Rough and tumble’? ‘Naughtiness’? Too jokey. If only I could think of some suggestive and cool-sounding phrase meaning ‘Trouble among the Men’ - but I can’t.
If the film has a theme it is something like ‘honour among thieves’. Overworked and scarcely plausible now is the idea that there is something to admire in the honour-based value system that supposedly governs (or more often fails to govern) the criminal world. But it is memorably embodied in the central character Tony ‘le Stephanois’, played by Jean Servais, his features impassive but still somehow expressive of pain and determination, his recurrent cough a sign that his cards are marked. The film is his, with associates and enemies falling to one side or the other as he drives the drama through each new development to its grim but fitting conclusion.
I think the key to Rififi is its vividness: the swiftness of exposition, the tellingness of the dialogue, the immediacy of the character portrayals. Perhaps these are all lessons learned from the economical ways of Hollywood noir, but add to this a more European visual imagination, meticulous care with choreography of the action and framing of shots, and a delight in the Parisian locations and atmosphere (distinctly pre-teenager, pre-Elvis, pre-Gainsbourg). Amazing that Jules Dassin, creator of this masterwork of French cinema, was in fact McCarthy refugee Julius Dassin of Middletown, Connecticut.
Available now in a miraculously sharp print to bring out its deep chiaroscuro aesthetic, Rififi‘s status as a seminal crime film is secure.
Writers: Henri-Georges CLouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, René Masson, Frédéric Grendel
Based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel
One of cinema’s great misanthropes, Henri-Georges Clouzot combined a sombre view of humanity with a supreme mastery of clockwork suspense that made him Alfred Hitchcock’s rival and equal. These two characteristics found their peak in Les diaboliques (1955), a noir thriller set in a private school on the outskirts of Paris. Headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is a particularly nasty bully who mistreats not only his wife Christina (played by the director’s wife, Véra Clouzot), but also his mistress Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and the boys in his charge. The fragile Christina, who has a heart condition, and Nicole, sporting a black eye as the film opens, are led to comfort each other and conspire to murder their common tormentor.
The oppressive atmosphere of the school, the high contrast black and white, the evocative shadows and the basic premise characterise Les diaboliques as a film noir, but as noir triangles go, this is a very strange set-up. In the classic formation, two men compete for the attention of the same beautiful temptress (Gilda, The Killers, Out of the Past) and a number of films revolve around a femme fatale seducing her lover into murdering her husband (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Les diaboliques presents a fascinating inversion of the usual pattern, with two women becoming allies to murder the man for whose affection they are meant to compete. The result is a powerful reversal of traditional male and female roles: whereas in classic noirs the (criminal) action is performed by a man on the instigation of a woman, here it is performed by two women; and while the noir perpetrators are usually a couple ostensibly wanting to get rid of the person standing between them, here they are rivals for their victim’s love, or at least they should be.
The lesbian undertones of the situation are clear, especially as the film predominantly focuses on their relationship as they plot the murder, showing their complicity, their concern for each other as well as their disagreements. As they plan a secret weekend getaway to Nicole’s pad to accomplish their dark deed, the sexual connotations of the plot become even more evident, and the crime they are about to commit suggests a ‘criminal’ sexuality, a transgression of sexual and social roles as they overthrow the authority of the man who brutally rules their lives.
The casting further enhances the ambiguities of the plot. Simone Signoret, a blonde and curvaceous 50s sex symbol whose best-known role was as a gangster moll and femme fatale in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952), is here masculine, decisive and physically strong. Beautiful and immoral, she recalls the blonde temptress of classic film noir, but in her relationship to Christina, she occupies the traditional position of the man, leading the action and making decisions. The delicate, slender, raven-haired Véra Clouzot is the ultra-feminine half of the couple, and yet, in spite of her physical weakness and moral doubts, her Christina may be capable of murder. As the male/female contrast is paralleled by a good girl/bad girl opposition, traditional images of the sexes are blurred further.
Although the relationship between the two women is central to the film, the sexual ambiguity in itself is not the main theme of the film, but rather an essential part of it. Here, as in many of his films, Clouzot is concerned with the dissolution of certainties: sexual, moral and otherwise. He makes us identify with a would-be murderess confronted with increasingly incomprehensible events before a final twist changes our perception of everything we’ve seen up to that point. Correspondingly, on a formal level, horror and supernatural elements disrupt the noir world established in the rest of the film. In Clouzot’s vision, truth is mutable, love is a lie, human relationships are constantly shifting and the human heart is complex, contradictory and compromised. Formally, morally and sexually, it is a world in which nothing is ever simple or as it seems. The only certainty that remains is that, in Les diaboliques, Clouzot has created not only a perfectly crafted noir gem, but also an enduringly fascinating female double act.
Cast: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening
At the start of The Grifters, small-time scam artist Roy Dillon (John Cusack) walks into a bar, intending to make some easy money by switching a $20 bill for a $10 spot when ordering a bottle of beer; however, the bartender has seen this trick before, and punishes Roy by punching him in the gut with a baseball bat, causing a near-fatal injury that results in hospitalisation. In most American movies, a swift trip to the emergency room, and the recuperation that follows, would prompt the central protagonist to reconsider his personal and professional values, but The Grifters is an adaptation of a 1963 novel by Jim Thompson, arguably the most nihilistic of the second generation of noir writers, and Roy is a typical Thompson anti-hero, hurriedly checking out of the hospital to get back to his routine. However, the presence in his life of two strong-willed women causes complications; his mother Lilly (Anjelica Houston) works for a powerful bookmaker, placing last-minute bets at the track to lower the odds on long shots while skimming off the top for her retirement plan; his girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) is a former long-con operator, reduced to paying her rent with sexual favours. Both women fiercely compete for Roy’s loyalty; Lilly offers him the most motherly advice she can muster after a life on the grift, warning her son that ‘you don’t stand still, you go up or down’, while Myra becomes infuriated with his lack of interest in her ideas for relieving big-time tycoons of their immense wealth via stock market fraud. Roy tries to sever ties with both women, a sensible decision that makes him a strangely sympathetic individual amid the author’s rogues’ gallery of morally bankrupt bottom feeders.
As befits someone who is keen to conceal his past but has no specific plans for the future, Roy’s life is a carefully constructed facade; he resides in a low-rent hotel room with ‘cornball clown pictures’ on the wall, engaging in friendly banter with the manager of the establishment and meaningless sex with Myra, while maintaining a legitimate job as a matchbox salesman. His scams are ‘small-time stuff’ and he insists that he can walk away from the life whenever he wants; within the context of the criminal underworld, Roy is something of a working stiff, a competent ‘mechanic’ with a stable life and some superficial human relationships. The character of Roy Dillon is perhaps Thompson’s most semi-autobiographical creation; the summer before he wrote The Grifters, the author was hospitalised with a severe stomach condition and nearly died from bleeding ulcers, and Thompson even used the name ‘Dillon’ as a pseudonym when he joined the communist party. The resentful relationship between Roy and Lilly suggests that their inability to trust others stems from an unpleasant childhood, and was possibly inspired by Thompson’s upbringing; his father was a sheriff, but was forced to leave amid rumours of embezzlement; the Thompson family relocated and he worked as a bellhop in Texas hotels, where he witnessed the petty crime, alcohol abuse and confidence games that would feature in his ‘fiction’, often supplementing his meagre wages by procuring heroin and marijuana for the unsavoury guests.
While Roy is smart enough to take advantage of easy marks such as a group of soldiers on a train, he is not sufficiently ruthless to entirely evade the predatory advances of Lilly or Myra, and Cusack engages in a series of hard-boiled exchanges with his co-stars that are appropriately at odds with the puppy dog features of an actor who had just graduated from such teen movies as The Sure Thing (1985) and Say Anything (1989). Lilly is only 14 years older than her son, and the Oedipal tension between them is palpable, while Myra is also older and more experienced, but her perky ‘good-time girl’ persona belies an extensive working knowledge of the ‘long con’ and a contacts book that includes Lilly’s employer Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), a suave mobster who dishes out personal concern and professional cruelty in equal measure. For all his insistence on independence, Roy is trapped by the duelling personalities of Lilly and Myra, and this is emphasised in an early sequence that segues into split screen to introduce the three characters, thereby setting up a twisted love triangle that will inevitably end in tragedy.
Screenwriter Donald E Westlake found the source novel ‘too gloomy’ and initially declined the assignment, only for director Stephen Frears to convince him to reconsider by suggesting that they emphasise the survival instincts of Lilly, and pare down Thompson’s already sparse prose by excising a sub-plot concerning Roy’s affair with Carol, the nurse who aids his recovery. Frears also took liberties with the period trappings of the source material, acknowledging both the noir era of Thompson’s fiction and the author’s very modern approach to character and genre; the 1940s dresses, 1950s architecture, 1970s automobiles, 1980s suits serve to create an ambiguous time frame, although one that remains grounded in reality, unlike Michael Oblowitz’s later adaptation of This World, Then the Fireworks (1997), which aimed for pastiche but regrettably lurched into parody. Thompson admitted to being as influenced by the movies as he was by the previous generation of crime writers, and Frears includes numerous nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), from the ‘mother complex’ of the male protagonist to the Arizona motel sequence, while the closing elevator descent into ‘hell’ recalls the more overtly satanic noir of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987).
The Grifters was released around the same time as two other Thompson adaptations, Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill Off (1989) and James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet (1990). However, the marketing muscle of Miramax and the much publicised presence of Martin Scorsese as executive producer and narrator ensured that The Grifters received greater critical attention and achieved modest box office success, also earning four Oscar nominations. Oliver Stapleton’s sun-drenched cinematography, the star casting, and the suggestion that Roy may be redeemable, probably lent this particular Thompson adaptation a degree of mainstream accessibility, but Frears utilises his attractive actors to envision the author’s characters at their most unpleasant and untrustworthy; ‘I was hoping we could play it straight with one another,’ Lilly says to Roy in their penultimate encounter. ‘I guess not,’ replies Roy, although his wavering loyalty from Myra to Lilly suggests that he is looking for an honest relationship. In this respect, he lacks the ruthlessness that Thompson’s world view demands of even those who are ‘strictly short-con’, and Roy’s fate is sealed by such sentimental indecision. In terms of its treatment of Thompson’s man-in-the-middle, The Grifters is a splendidly cynical adaptation of a stone-cold literary classic.
A sun-drenched film noir set in the Palm Springs desert, After Dark, My Sweet drips with tension and a brooding sensuality as two desperate people, a disgraced ex-cop and a struggling widow, ensnare a vulnerable and disturbed drifter in their scheme to kidnap a wealthy family’s son for ransom. Based on the 1955 novel by Jim Thompson and directed by James Foley, the film captures the sinister, yet morally ambiguous tone of the author’s pulp fiction.
Jason Patric, then a teen heartthrob who had last appeared in The Lost Boys, stars alongside 80s pin-up Rachel Ward, who spends much of the film dressed in a pair of cut-off jean shorts, showing off her impossibly long legs. Patric plays ex-boxer ‘Kid’ Collins, who is on the run from a mental institution when he meets Ward’s Fay in an empty bar. Black and white flashbacks to his vicious final bout hint at the reason for his confinement, and it’s easy to assume that too many beatings have made the boxer dim-witted. He even shuffles along as if he’s still in the ring, itching for a fight.
Given a menial job by Fay, and a home in a trailer parked on her land, Kid is soon introduced to Uncle Bud, played by Bruce Dern at his sleaziest, with long white hair and a procession of Hawaii shirts. Blinded by his attraction to Fay, and despite her half-hearted warning to stay away, Kid finds himself entangled in their plot to kidnap the town’s wealthiest son. Kid is soon set up as the kidnapper, and the fall guy.
But Kid Collins has something in common with Thompson’s other leading men: seemingly slow and underestimated by everyone, he’s darkly clever, and deeply disturbed. Kid’s smouldering blue eyes are the only hint that he’s not as slow as he seems, although he does warn Fay and Uncle Bud (to little avail) not to treat him like he’s stupid. It’s only as the film builds to its taut, near-perfect conclusion that he reveals himself for what he truly is - a frighteningly intelligent man who has one last shot at making something of his meaningless life.
It’s an impressive performance by Patric, and the sexual tension between Kid and Fay is certainly palpable (although the sex scenes show little of the violence that marks Thompson’s work - an issue that’s already causing controversy around the release of The Killer inside Me). There’s no denying Rachel Ward’s sex appeal, but it’s a shame that she isn’t a better actress - good at playing drunk, she over-acts in the melodramatic moments when the kidnapping of the young, lonely and neglected boy starts to go horribly wrong.
Despite its minor flaws, Foley’s film is a lean, compelling thriller whose fluid tracking shots and rusty brown and gold hues have aged surprisingly well in the 20 years since its release, while Patric, whose career never quite took off, is still a heartthrob.