Armchair Cinephile

Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD


"I've never stopped loving you," she says.
"I was afraid and no good but I never stopped. Even if you hated me - did you?"
"Yes," he replies.
"But you don't now." She doesn't wait for a confirmation. She knows.

That dialogue from Out of the Past - between Robert Mitchum and a woman who has framed him for murder - contains much of the wisdom to be gleaned from the nine choice film noir titles released recently on DVD.

Although film noir is full of lust, lies, and larceny, it is obsessed with a lesson taught by many major religions, and summed up nicely by Buddhism: Desire leads to suffering.

It's not that women are treacherous, although the femmes fatales do tend to make an impression. The men at the center of the noir universe are also attended by loving, steadfast women: Robert Ryan's washed-up boxer in The Set-Up and magazine editor Ray Milland in The Big Clock have wives who stick around when things get ugly, and even Mitchum has a shot at an Ivory Soap-clean small-town girl. June Vincent, in Black Angel, is willing to go undercover - and possibly sleep with Peter Lorre! - all to prove her cheating husband didn't commit a murder.

No, forbidden lust isn't the sole troublemaker for these fellas. There's also the longing for money, status, even modest treasures like self-respect. Poor John Dahl, in Gun Crazy, has an irrational love of firearms that leads to a doomed relationship with the world's sultriest sharpshooter. If only a man could be content with what he has.

But contentment's a challenge for anyone living in the universe depicted in these films. The '40s and '50s movies dubbed "film noir" by French critics are full of pessimism and disillusionment. The world is hard and dangerous, the kind of place you might imagine if you were, say, Criss Cross director Robert Siodmak - who fled Germany during Hitler's rise, carrying the harsh shadows and skewed geometry of German Expressionism with him.

Inky shadows and claustrophobic sets spread like a fungus across the crime films of the era, Venetian blinds making sad little rooms look like prison cells. Mining a wealth of dime-store novels, studios focused on hoods, shabby detectives, and regular guys who just got caught up in something too big to manage.

The attitude and environments of these stories is easy to satirize, and has been milked by lazy comedy writers for decades, but many of the original movies retain a surprising freshness.

The Asphalt Jungle and Out of the Past are already well known, and for good reason. But some of the more obscure of these releases deserve wider fame. Take The Big Clock, an outrageously fun thriller in which Milland, a reporter whose specialty is finding fugitives the cops can't track, is assigned a case in which all clues suggest that he is a murderer. Charles Laughton is at his arrogant best as a publishing tycoon with a passion for punctuality, and the cat-and-mouse game is nail-bitingly paced. Even leaner is The Set-Up, which unfolds in real time; foreshadowing the Bruce Willis episode in Pulp Fiction, it gives us a boxer who refuses to play along with a fixed fight.

Gun Crazy is a strange meeting of the square and the hard-boiled. John Dahl is a good guy at heart, and the wholesomeness of his family and friends is hammered home with "Leave it to Beaver" clarity. That, combined with the weirdly broad innocence of the actor's face, makes his slide into crime genuinely affecting. Dahl's face is nothing, though, compared to that of Dan Duryea, whose pinched puss graces both Criss Cross and Black Angel.

This Gun for Hire began a profitable stretch of films for co-stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, but casting is the downfall of the last movie on the list: Despite the virtues of Murder, My Sweet - it's one of the most visually interesting films here - star Dick Powell is a dud as iconic detective Philip Marlowe. This was reportedly Raymond Chandler's favorite film based on his character - but Stephen King didn't like Kubrick's Shining, so why trust a novelist's opinion?

Watching this little stack of movies all in a row won't make you a more trusting person, but it will provide hours of compare-and-contrast fun. You'll note right away the importance of flashbacks; noir masters loved to start with the hero in a tight spot and then show how he got there. You'll become a connoisseur of rear-projection and staged fistfights (although Out of the Past features one that feels quite real). And you'll be treated to more than one of those going-on-a-bender sequences where one neon sign melts into another and the stink of booze wafts off the screen. It's not the same as hitting the skids yourself, but it's as close as most of us want to come. •


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