Terry Teachout on Noir
What comes of men
Here’s a fine essay by Terry Teachout on film noir, a good introduction to the genre with many recommendations. I was pleased reading it to notice that Terry & I have done podcasts on about half the movies he mentions—think about the essay as a course description & the podcasts below as a Terry Teachout course on the noir &, accordingly, the trouble men faced in post-War America. This is more timely than you might be inclined to think, since there’s a much worse crisis facing men in America today.
But before the podcasts, here’s Terry on the moral core of the genre:
The films noir that remain watchable, by contrast, are the ones that concentrate on the dark crosscurrents of middle-class American life & revolve, as do the great Westerns of the ’40s & ’50s, around the problem of individual responsibility. To be sure, the tacit assumption is that the anonymous cities in which films noir are set are so corrupt that upright individual conduct is all but impossible. Nevertheless, every classic film noir hinges on a crucial moral choice made by the protagonist, as Walter Neff, Fred MacMurray’s character, admits to the audience in his voice-over narration for Double Indemnity: “I’m not trying to whitewash myself,” he says about the crime he commits out of love, lust, & greed. “I fought it…only maybe I didn’t fight it hard enough.”
So if you want to hear Terry talk to me at length about some of the noirs we both love, to say nothing of watching them again, here’s the list:
1. Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, who wrote it with Raymond Chandler. The stars are Fred MacMurray as an unpleasantly convincing bad guy, Barbara Stanwyck as a woman equally shocking & wicked, & Edward G. Robinson playing a national treasure, a rationalist, a moralist, a good guy, a father…
2. Out Of The Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur. The stars are Robert Mitchum, than whom no one played better the doomed American man, a kind of Romantic who really cannot deal with the corruption of the city, Kirk Douglas, who played criminals with even more nerve & provocation than he played good guys, & Jane Greer, an unnerving combination of innocence & corruption.
3. Pitfall (1948), directed by Andre de Toth. The stars are Dick Powell, who had turned to hardboiled crime movies from his 30s career as a leading boy in musicals—one of the sensational career changes in Hollywood!—Lizabeth Scott, who plays a woman losing her innocence & facing threats & suffering that make impossible an American way of life, & Raymond Burr, their tormentor, a menace who later turned into Perry Mason on TV, as sensational a career change!
4. In A Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray. The stars are Humphrey Bogart, who played madmen with some frequency, but only this time really nailed the noble hero turned tragic, & Gloria Grahame, who plays a very clever woman, worldly-wise, yet vulnerable to this noble loser & his wit. As every noble man, Bogie has a retinue, in this case Art Smith as the long-suffering, somewhat servile, but loving agent, & Charlie Waterman as the drunkard Shakespearian.
5. As for neo-noir, Terry & I talked about Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson as a typically sleazy & arrogant man, but atypically destined to act out America’s desire for justice, Faye Dunaway, as usually suggesting something corrupt in her beauty, & the wonderful John Huston, as a man too wicked to care about the way his wickedness mutilates anyone around him.
Beyond the ones he mentions, in his essay, Terry & I talked about a few more favorites:
6. Another Nicholas Ray noir, On Dangerous Ground (1951), starring Robert Ryan, the leading man who looked crueler than any other in his time, here showing a remarkable vulnerability to innocence & love, & Ida Lupino, whose appearance suddenly makes you think the movie is not so much a noir as a fairy tale. Also, one of John Ford’s actors, Ward Bond, shows up as a country man, a father whose grief maddens him.
7. Laura (1944), directed by Otto Preminger, the most beautiful noir: Starring Gene Tierney as a girl who makes it in advertising in New York only to be caught between men whose viciousness & weakness she cannot allow herself to suspect because she is unable to deal with anything that isn’t beautiful. Clifton Webb is one of these men, a witty, cruel columnist who dispenses his erudition in contempt of his audience. Vincent Price is another, a young cad whose self-effacing charm depends on an eagerness for corruption. Then there is Dana Andrews, the detective involved in Laura’s murder, who plays a game of baseball on a little gizmo, he says it’s tricky to get the balance right &, besides, it calms him down.
8. Finally, L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson from the Ellroy novel. The movie stars Russell Crowe & Guy Pearce just before they became famous, as a bruiser & a company man in a very corrupt post-War LAPD, who are forced to deal with a corruption they did not understand, but had helped further. Like any American man would want, they decide to clean themselves of the mess or die trying. The supporting cast is full of good picks that either had made or were about to make big careers: Kevin Spacey as a cop selling out to showbiz who eventually wants his dignity back; Danny DeVito as a corrupt journalist selling scandal who gets too close to a real scandal; Kim Basinger as a fallen woman who has acquired some wisdom by having her dreams of glamour debased & who falls in love with Crowe; David Strathairn as the sophisticated man who corrupts her, but finds other people more wicked than himself; & James Cromwell as the man running the police.
Enjoy the noir!