World Weary

Noir City XXII offers a global tour of postwar film noir
by Imogen Sara Smith  posted January 22, 2014
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

This article is published in conjunction with Noir City, the 12th edition of the annual San Francisco film noir festival founded by Eddie Muller. The festival runs from January 24 through February 2, 2014. 

It's a small world when you try to escape, a big world when you want to get home. This is a lesson learned by exiles and fugitives; and a lesson of film noir is that everyone, in some sense, is an exile and a fugitive. As the Algerian-born French colonial Albert Camus wrote, “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”

Such is the fate of the title character in Pépé le Moko (1937), a French gangster on the lam who lives like a king in the native quarter of Algiers. He has everything except freedom, and in the end he succumbs not to the law but to his own suicidal blend of yearning, fatalism, and defiance. Pining for Paris, he tells a glamorous woman veiled in perfume and diamonds that she reminds him of riding the Metro. He would understand why another Frenchman (Yves Montand), stranded in a squalid South American backwater in Wages of Fear (1953), cherishes a single Paris metro ticket. Wages of Fear is about men so desperate to escape the place they’re stuck in that they will risk their lives for the chance of a pay-off big enough to set them free. All the bullet-sweating suspense of their explosives-laden trucks grinding over bad mountain roads is driven by that metro ticket and the dream it flimsily embodies.


Wages of Fear

Eventually, some exiles realize that it doesn’t matter where they are. “I’ve been lonely in Times Square on New Year’s Eve,” an American fugitive adrift in the Far East confesses in Macao (1952). This line sounds like the work of Nicholas “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” Ray and star Robert Mitchum, who patched the film together after Josef von Sternberg was fired—not before he applied his patented smoky luster to this deliciously insubstantial movie.

“It’s a bitter little world,” is the tag line of this year’s Noir City festival, which will run at San Francisco’s magnificent Castro Theater January 24-February 2. This twelfth iteration of the annual festival, presented by the Film Noir Foundation and hosted by FNF founder Eddie Muller, will for the first time offer a global tour of noir, from the louche Paris underworld of Rififi to the jostling, sun-struck Buenos Aires of Hardly a Criminal; from the lurid oriental decadence of Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture to the bleak southwest deserts of Border Incident. The lineup ranges from the familiar and beloved (The Third Man) to the rare and little-known (the Norwegian Death is a Caress), from Hollywood’s glossy studio-bound visions of the exotic to authentic foreign locations and raw exposures of war’s unhealed wounds.

Film noir owes much to expatriates; it flourished in a war-ravaged era that displaced many people and left even more estranged and disoriented as their cities and nations changed around them. As Hollywood took in refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe, it also absorbed and adapted elements of German expressionism, French poetic realism, and Italian neorealism. After the war, foreign cinema re-absorbed the influence by imitating popular American crime thrillers. The spread of noir could be viewed as an expression of the postwar Americanization of the world (as it was, darkly, by British critics). But every country inflected noir with its own accent and climate, its particular anxieties and fears.

In American noir films, people undo themselves by overreaching: grabbing at that big chance they are sure will bring them success and happiness, they fall into a nightmare of punishment. (Such is the premise of Too Late for Tears [1949], a long-thought-to-be-lost gem that has been painstakingly restored by the Film Noir Foundation and will premiere at Noir City on January 25.) Other cultures lack this fatal optimism. The petty criminals of British noir scrabble after much smaller stakes (in It Always Rains on Sunday, three hapless crooks try to peddle a load of stolen roller skates) and console themselves with acerbic flippancy. In Japanese noir, money often matters less than honor and social duty: guilt and obligation are the sharpest goads. And in French films, people often succumb to a kind of terminal melancholy, a nihilistic exhaustion with life.


Pepe Le Moko

I. Exile without Remedy: Varieties of Alienation

Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko is the earliest film in the series and only pre-War entry. It represents the French style of poetic realism, which combined lyrically bleak stories, seedy settings, and moody atmosphere to produce a string of cinematic masterpieces in the late 1930s, filled with fatalistic premonitions of France’s wartime defeat. The definitive poetic realist anti-hero was Jean Gabin, arguably the first global icon of noir, who dominated pre-War French cinema with his proletarian skepticism, unadorned simplicity, and magnetically forceful attention. Both everyman and outsider, both tender and violent, he was above all honest, with an unsurpassed ability to confront us with the reality of his existence. At the heart of Gabin’s poetic realist films was what André Bazin called his “enraged outcry against the universe, ” an inevitable moment when he lashes out in anger and disgust at the corruption of his fellow men and the general rottenness of life. No one else could face death and defeat so consistently yet leave such an overwhelming impression of strength.

Pépé le Moko was Gabin’s Casablanca, the breakthrough film that made him an international star, and the most shamelessly romantic version of his persona. The film is richly entertaining, set in a flamboyantly stylized, pungently atmospheric recreation of the Casbah filled with heat and noise, twisting alleys and crowded market stalls; gypsies, beggars, Arab spies, and slumming tourists. Pépé is a dapper, cocky charmer—Gabin even brushes off his song-and-dance chops for a musical number—but a reckless despair lurks under his easy confidence. It’s triggered when he meets an alluring Parisian courtesan (Mireille Balin), with whom he sparks in a luminous exchange of close-ups and bonds through a rhapsodic recitation of Paris streets and landmarks. Increasingly thwarted and hemmed in, he descends into drunken rage at his imprisonment. “I’m a free man!” he cries, taking off on a blind dash through the maze of winding alleys. But in the end, he can only assert his freedom by destroying himself.

“It’s like a weariness you can’t fight against. Living is hard.” This sums up the essence of Une si Jolie Petite Plage (Riptide, 1949), perhaps the purest demonstration of the Gallic ability to make despair attractive. The film consists of little besides a young man in a trench coat wandering mournfully around a bleak seaside town in ceaseless winter rain. The spell this casts depends largely on the fragile, angelic beauty of Gérard Philipe, who plays this lost boy, Pierre; it breaks your heart just to look at him. There is a muted back-story that gradually reveals Pierre’s miserable youth as an orphan, the devil’s bargain he made with an older woman, and how he ultimately broke it. He seems to care less about escaping the forces closing in on him than he does about saving another young orphan—whom he clearly sees as his younger self—from making the same mistakes he did. All of this is submerged beneath an overpowering mood and atmosphere, constructed with repetitive sounds (the squeak of a water pump, a hinge on a broken shutter, a dog barking, a record of a chanson); relentless images of shadows, rain, the cold ocean.

This obsessive focus on weather—a weather of the soul, as much as of a place—seems to have been director Yves Allegret’s specialty. Riptide is about the horror of things repeating and not changing. Pierre is offered a chance to get away and start a new life, but realizes that no matter where he goes, he will be in the same place, because it’s inside of him. It almost goes without saying that in noir exterior settings represent interior states, and what is starkly apparent in Riptide is also true of many of the films in this series, which are essentially about a man or woman and a place that surrounds, entraps, infects, engulfs.


Brighton Rock

With its formulaic insistence on love interest, classic Hollywood rarely produced a movie built around such a lonely, isolated hero as Pierre, or as the pious, misogynistic Pinkie (Richard Attenborough) in Brighton Rock (1947), the Boulting Brothers’ adaptation of Grahame Greene’s novel. The movie does not quite plumb the caustic depths of Greene’s sin-obsessed Catholic vision, but with help from the spooky, baby-faced Attenborough it tells a daringly unpleasant story, centering on Pinkie’s cruel deception of the pitifully naïve Rose, a waitress whom he marries to give himself an alibi for a murder. The surging crowds of seaside holiday-makers serve to highlight Pinkie’s clammy, joyless solitude, and the cheaply festive atmosphere of Brighton provides a fitting backdrop for the shabby, pointless vindictiveness of his gang.

The alienated, violent loner is a staple of modern nightmares all over the world, from the razor-wielding Pinkie to the “stray dog” thief Toshiro Mifune pursues through the seething Tokyo underbelly, to the title character of The Hitch-Hiker (1953), who haunts desolate roads in the Mexican desert and preys on travelers who give him rides. This raw, pitiless masterpiece directed by Ida Lupino was based on the real case of a serial killer named William Cook, a misanthropic loner who accounted for his 1950 crime spree by stating, “I hate everybody’s guts and everybody hates mine.” Lupino’s film focuses on the triangle of the killer (terrifyingly played by William Talman) and two middle-aged fishing buddies (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) whom he takes captive, it seems primarily for the sadistic pleasure of exerting power over them. Isolated in a harsh, prehistoric landscape, the civilized men are confronted by brute power in its most primitive form. They are stripped of their independence and their pride, mocked for their weakness by a man who views crime as the ultimate form of self-reliance. This tale of a road-trip vacation turning into a savage ordeal in the wilderness makes a perfect American entry into a noir world tour.

In American noir, the Mexican border is imagined as an escape hatch. People with the law on their heels dream of making it to South America where they can live in peace, where no one will bother them, where the endless chase after money and flight from enemies will be over and they can sit under a palm tree and watch the ocean. It’s nothing but a mirage, of course; if they do make it across the border, they find themselves in a deadly fun-house, a delirious world where no rules apply. But what do things look like from the other side of the looking-glass? Noir City 12 will offer a sampling of rare Mexican and Argentine noir from the 1950s, films little known and never screened in this country, but bearing all the hallmarks of classic noir. My own anticipation has been heightened by the little I’ve been able to see online (in un-subtitled prints) of Never Open That Door (Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1952), an Argentine adaptation of two Cornell Woolrich stories, with Woolrichian dread saturating every inky-shadowed interior and fear-stricken close-up; In the Palm of Your Hand (Roberto Gavaldón, 1951), an elegant Mexican thriller that belongs to the fascinating sub-genre of noir about fortune-tellers and mind-readers (The Amazing Mr. X, Night Has a Thousand Eyes), suave charlatans with smoke-filled crystal balls who prey on weak minds; Victims of Sin (Emilio Fernandez, 1951), an electrifying low-life saga of flashy pachuco gangsters and sexy dancers, set in nightclubs that throb with Afro-Cuban rhythms; and The Black Vampire (Roman Vinoly Barreto, 1953), an adaptation of M with the child-killer—the ultimate deadly loner and exile from human society—stalking little girls down dark, empty streets, salving his tortured impulses by crushing a glass in his hand and stroking his bloody fingers.

II. Living in Ruins: Postwar Cities

World War II runs under the surface of American noir, in damaged psyches and dark secrets, but Hollywood generally shied away from the war’s true horrors. It was left to other countries to show what it was like to live in the wreckage of bombed cities, what it was like to be on the losing side. In the aftermath of firebombing and nuclear devastation, humiliating defeat and occupation, Japanese cinema flourished with a new vitality and maturity, skeptically examining the nation’s history, culture, and current predicament. (Joan Mellen has called cinema “Japan’s great dissident art form.”) In the postwar years traditional cultural values and obligations retained their hold, but many questioned feudal ideals of loyalty, duty and self-sacrifice. American influence promised new freedoms, but was blamed for encouraging selfish, crass behavior.


Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa tackled these conflicts head-on in his early films with contemporary settings. In Drunken Angel (1948), postwar nihilism is personified by a flashy, feral gangster played by Toshiro Mifune, the actor whose searing energy and visceral, kinetic style embodied Kurosawa’s cinematic style. The film focuses on a scruffy but humane doctor (Takashi Shimura) who tries to save the young yakuza from dying of tuberculosis. The sickness, which seems to waft from a scummy, pestilent pond at the heart of a poor neighborhood, plainly symbolizes the ills of Japanese society. In the stronger and more gripping Stray Dog (1949), it is a heat wave that makes palpable the chaos and confusion of postwar Japan. Here the startlingly handsome young Mifune plays Murakami, a zealously conscientious rookie cop desperate to recover his gun after it is stolen on a crowded bus. Yusa, the thief, is overtly depicted as his doppelganger; they are both veterans of the defeated army, members of what an older cop (Shimura) calls—with some pronunciation difficulties—the “après-guerre” generation. Murakami becomes frantic with guilt as his stolen gun is used in robberies and killings, as though he were responsible not merely through his carelessness, but in some more personal way.

The pairing of Murakami and Yusa may be schematic—the thief “blames the war for all his problems,” while the cop has overcome his bitterness and dedicated himself to society—but the film’s real strength lies in its evocation of the world they both inhabit. To find his gun, Murakami haunts the back alleys posing as a vagrant in search of a weapon. In a long, mesmerizing, wordless sequence, he moves through a kaleidoscope of flickering sun and dusty haze, pushing through sweaty crowds around shabby food stalls and bars, passing tableaux of lounging derelicts. The camera is restless and jumpy, images dart and blur into each other like wary glances. The war’s effects are not visible—we don’t see any ruins—but they are felt everywhere, in the confused mixture of western and Japanese styles, in the mood of exhausted tension, of lurking shame and anger building, finally, to a wail of anguish.

The ruins of great world capitals like London, Vienna, and Berlin provided backdrops for films that picked through the moral landscapes of countries devastated by war. (Marc Svetov has used the term “rubble noir” for this sub-genre.) The archetypal rubble noir is The Murderers are Among Us (1946), the first feature film produced in Germany after the war. The terrible beauty and morbid fascination of Berlin’s ruins fill every frame: people walk down the middle of streets that look like glacial moraines, lined with delicate spires and chimneys of bricks, shrouds and slivers of buildings forming a skeleton city. People live in shells of apartments with shattered windows, and drink in basement cabarets where girls dance for empty tables. Director Wolfgang Staudte’s use of shadows, with whole scenes playing out in silhouette (harking directly back to Warning Shadows and other expressionist classics) is fitting: the style that the Nazis swept away as degenerate comes back to portray the world the Nazis left. Perhaps not surprisingly given its status, the film is didactic, more a statement than a story. It follows a young woman (Hildegarde Knef) whose innocence and hope have survived a concentration camp, and a doctor (Ernst Wilhelm Bochert) haunted by wartime crimes in which he was complicit. But while the script may seem a bit pat, it expresses an urgent desire for redemption that is as much a raw fact of postwar German experience as rats and rubble.

The British by contrast could take pride in their “finest hour,” but the decade following the war was not a time of triumphant prosperity in Britain; it was an age of austerity, beset by rationing and shortages, by a sense of loss and uncertainty in the face of radical social and political changes. The threadbare texture of postwar English life is palpable in Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a day-in-the-life portrait of working-class Bethnal Green. Backyard bomb-shelters are now storage sheds; cold drafts are patched with leftover blackout fabric. Families bicker over breakfasts of haddock; wooden-faced bobbies patrol noisy street markets; slovenly landladies tipple from gin bottles; middle-aged shopkeepers dally sheepishly with teenage girls; whiny small-time hoods drink mugs of tea at outdoor stalls in the pre-dawn rain. This too is a world confusedly torn between selfish desires and ambitions and the traditional values of duty and sacrifice, repression and politeness epitomized by Brief Encounter (1947).

The imperious Googie Withers plays Rose, a former barmaid who married a dim older man for security. She personifies a distinctively British mode of being: sharp and irritable, yet resigned to making the best of things, her mute yearning for a lost past stifled behind a stiff-lipped mask. Then her former lover (Withers’ real-life husband John McCallum) breaks out of prison and turns up on her doorstep, and her efforts to hide him ratchet up the tension of her unsatisfying life to nerve-shredding levels. Suspense heightens but never displaces an attentiveness to the mundane reality of working-class lives that was extremely rare in Hollywood films of the time.


Death of a Cyclist

Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955) is another film in which an adulterous love shines an unforgiving light on the lovers’ world. A man and woman run over a cyclist and leave him to die because they don’t want their affair exposed; the fear and suspicions spawned by this crime reveal the selfishness and corruption of the wealthy elite in Franco’s Spain. There is a pointed scene in which the man, Juan, goes to visit the squalid, bustling tenement where the dead cyclist, a factory worker, lived. An assistant professor who seems to sleepwalk through his life, Juan was once a man of political convictions. He has both been hollowed out by wartime experience and weakened by his love for a beautiful but utterly self-absorbed woman; his moral sense is re-awoken, ironically, by student riots directed against him. Like many American films of the time, Death of a Cyclist folds its criticisms of society into a classic plot of guilt and suspense. The film’s wide-open, vacant spaces, starting with the stark, windswept road where the accident occurs, give a feeling that there’s nowhere to hide. The abrupt shock cuts that continually jerk the viewer from one scene to the next add the sense that the characters are not in control, and have no idea what’s coming next. But attributing the characters’ behavior to the society they live in or the history they’ve lived through is too easy; as Juan tells his lover:  “The war is very convenient. You can blame everything on it.”

Unlike London or Berlin, Paris was never bombed; it suffered not physical damage but invisible corruption of social bonds during the Occupation, which bred betrayals and reprisals, resentments and compromises and lies. Quai des Orfèvres (Jenny Lamour, 1947) uses the tools of the police procedural to excavate a grubby corner of the city, where the cheerful vulgarity of the music hall shades into a creepy realm of lecherous old men and pornographic photo shops. This is not the city of light, but a dark and grimy metropolis filled with people nursing perverse and unrequited passions. Nonetheless, Quai des Orfèvres has glints of human warmth lacking from many of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s brilliant but nasty and misanthropic films. Louis Jouvet smuggles it in with his performance as the shabby yet astute and secretly tender-hearted detective.

France is represented by more films in the Noir City lineup than any other country outside the United States, a tribute deserved by the nation that named film noir. One of them was made by an American (Jules Dassin’s Rififi [1955]), and two are about Frenchmen abroad, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan (1959) and Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1953). The midcentury world was one of fraying borders, growing migration, and spreading monoculture that left people feeling, in Edward Dimendberg’s phrase, “in exile at home.”

The festival will open with the crown jewel of multi-national noir, The Third Man (1949), a joint production of the American David O. Selznick and the British Alexander Korda, set in occupied Vienna, with a cast of American, British, Italian, and Austrian actors. Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, one of cinema’s greatest urban poets, The Third Man possesses intoxicating style and at the same time dissects the ease with which style can trump substance in the movies—the way, in film noir especially, glamour and aesthetic bliss can set one’s moral compass spinning. In the film’s tilting, labyrinthine world, beauty and corruption, cruelty and charm blend as smoothly as coffee and cream. It’s a world of splendor and rubble, leprous baroque apartments in half-gutted buildings, bleak fairgrounds and tired gypsy cafes. Anton Karas’s famous zither score, jaunty and wistful, imbues a mood of wry detachment and haunting nostalgia.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a naïve writer of western novels, arrives in bombed-out Vienna to meet an old friend, and winds up stripped of his illusions and hopes, equally wounded by the seductive cynicism of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and the impatient moral rigor of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Under the charismatic mystery of Welles’s antihero lies an abyss of nihilism: he believes “the dead are happier dead.” Lime is an opportunistic scavenger in Europe’s urban ruins, defending his amorality by comparing himself with governments that view their own citizens the way he views the children whose lives he translates into cash. Looking down from the top of a Ferris wheel at these impersonal “dots,” he might be a bombardier calmly surveying his targets.

Holly earns no respect, even from himself, by siding with Major Calloway, whose cynicism is the flip side of Lime’s: “death’s at the bottom of everything,” he shrugs, and “the world doesn’t make any heroes.” But it is Anna (Alida Valli), Lime’s former lover and one of Europe’s “displaced persons,” who drives the final stake through Holly’s American optimism. In a shot that seems to last forever, the woman without a country or a future walks up a long, straight avenue of pollarded trees. Finally she passes out of sight, leaving Holly stranded in the wintry sun and graveyard quiet, “deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.”



Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Photo courtesy Noir City
Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista)
Photo Gallery: World Weary


January 24–February 2, 2014 Noir City


Imogen Sara Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy

More articles by Imogen Sara Smith