NIGHTMARE ALLEY, 1947

ImageWho wasn’t a fan of Tyrone Power in 1947? He was all dreamy! He looked great in period costume, with a rapier, and with a lacy cravat. He made movie-love and swashbuckled like a champ. He was Zorro, for chrissakes. But 20th Century Fox’s biggest star wanted to prove his range, (being the heir to the Tyrone Power acting dynasty and all – following his Father, Grandfather, and Great-Grandfather, all named Tyrone Power) and he campaigned for the lead in the film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s gothic sleazoid carnival noir, Nightmare Alley. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wasn’t pleased about it, but eventually relented, giving top production value to a film that would’ve ended up with b-status. What results is a sordid little movie made by some very talented folks.

Not that it benefited from that at the time – Fox didn’t publicize Nightmare Alley’s release and unceremoniously dumped it into a few theatres, just long enough for it to be disliked by critics and then locked away for years due to copyright disputes. Eventually released by Fox’s Noir imprint, Nightmare Alley’s finally been getting the love it deserves.

ImageStanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) weasels his way into carnival work and is fascinated by two acts – the geek, a howling drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens and is paid off with whiskey (a sideshow act which is quite illegal), and mentalist Mademoiselle Zeena (an excellent Joan Blondell, ingenue days firmly behind her, all patient and world-weary with her dark roots showing) who works with her drunkard husband Pete using an ingenious code to predict and answer burning questions from her audience. Stan wants to know the code and work with Zeena, but she remains loyal to Pete (hoping to send him to detox) and to keeping the secret of the code, which she plans to sell someday.

Then, Stan *accidentally* gives Pete a bottle of prop wood alcohol rather than moonshine which leads to his death. With little choice, Zeena teaches Stan the code, they fool around a bit, and it all results in a successful carnival act. Stan ends up as skilled in fake mind-reading as Zeena.

His girl on the side is Molly – Coleen Gray, as steadfast and adorable as ever, with an electric act where she gets to look like this:

ImageZeena finds out, and Stan and Molly end up married and ousted from the carnival. Stan gets a real tux and they start a classy new act, using the code in nightclubs. The beginning of the end (maybe the mid-point of the end) is when Stan meets a calculating female analyst, appropriately named Lilith (Helen Ritter in predatory masculine-cut 40’s suits), and they plot to fleece Lilith’s rich patients with Stan fencing messages from beyond the grave.

nightmarealleyAnd it would’ve worked, too, if Stan didn’t enlist the help of naive young Molly to serve as a ghostly apparition, in a gorgeously shot garden scene where she emerges, back-lit in the woods while Stan and the dupe watch. After Molly’s ill-timed freak-out, Stan flees with the dupe’s money – or so he thinks.

Lilith, of course, is prepared with a double cross, and The Great Stanton ends up a poor old drunkard. What makes a geek, Nightmare Alley asks? Bad decisions. A God Complex. Analysts. Desperation. Alcohol.

Whether it’s the fault of the production code or Daryl F. Zanuck himself, here’s where Nightmare Alley cheats itself. Stan shows up at a carnival, inebriated, looking like this:

nightmare-geek…and tries to get a job. He is told there is only one job opening – the geek. He is asked if he can handle it, to which he responds memorably with “Mister, I was made for it.”

And that should be the end – pride goeth before a fall and all of that, but then we are treated to a sentimental coda where there is hope for Stan to reunite with Molly, as if the idea of Zorro spending the rest of his days out of his mind on moonshine and biting off poultry heads is just too much to bare.

But, it certainly wouldn’t be the first or last tacked-on ending to an otherwise hard-hitting film noir. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a consistently interesting one – without gangsters, detectives, or gun molls, Nightmare Alley manages to be genre defining with its carnival setting and strong performances. There’s something particularly seedy and anti-American about the carnival’s dirty underbelly. Some of Nightmare Alley’s strongest moments are veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ ambling tracking shots behind the carnival tents and away from the lights. There’s some great use of non-diegetic sound – at pivotal points in Stan’s downfall (mostly when he’s drinking and feeling guilty over Pete’s death), he hears the tortured howling of the geek. Brilliant.

Tyrone Power was quoted as saying “Charm is Bullshit”, and never has that sentiment been more apparent than in his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. Power’s ‘The Great Stanton’ is a scheming opportunist – certainly, there’s no shortage of charm in his arsenal, but it has none of the warmth that made teen girls swoon. Handsome as ever (save the end, when Ben Nye transforms him into a hollow-cheeked ghoul), there’s still something markedly off about him, even in the early scenes with his narrowed, kohl rimmed eyes – swarmy through and through.

Alas, following one of his best performances, Tyrone Power never made another film noir. He did, however, go on a possibly romantic vacation with Cesar Romero and do a lot of critically acclaimed theatre.

‘Til we meet again – steer clear of the seers and stay out of the geek tent.

xo.

Kathie Moffatt, Out of the Past

OUT OF THE PAST / BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH

“I never told you I was anything but what I am. You just wanted to imagine I was. That’s why I left you. Now we’re back to stay.”

Kathie Moffatt steals money, wracks up a respectable body count, threatens lackeys, and double crosses with the best of them. She lives with fellas while reminaing quite unmarried, manipulates anyone in her midst, and looks terrific in white. In a shoot-out, she chooses to shoot back – even while out-numbered and out-gunned… without breaking a sweat or losing composure.

Just how good is Kathie? After stealing $40,000 ($427,164.65 today) Ex-lover Whit purportedly doesn’t care about the money – he just wants her back. Unlike some femme fatales, she’s not escaping her dead-end domestic life (in fact, we know very little about her life prior to her relationship with Whit, and, subsequently, Jeff), she’s not a victim of circumstance, and she’s not looking to settle a personal score. She’s simply looking out for number one, and it’s unclear whether she has any use for either man as anything other than a tool for personal gain, self-preservation, or merely a distraction.

Jane Greer has said in interviews that Jacques Tourner gave her minimal direction – asking her if she knew the term “impassive”, and saying “First half of the film…good girl. Second half… bad girl.” Witness:

The interest – dare I say, excitement, that registers in her eyes prior to the shooting is some of the most emotion we see that isn’t for the benefit of someone else.

“I didn’t know you were so small.” “I’m taller than Napoleon.” “You’re prettier, too.”

Taller than Napoleon? Indeed, and save a few hot-headed murderous decisions, possibly a better tactical strategist.

Life Lessons from Kathie Moffatt:

1. Do not understimate the power of a  pure white dress. Practical for summer and meals without red sauce, disarming for when your gambling ex-boyfriend sends a flunky out to report on your every move (if you’re lucky, he’ll be Robert Mitchum)… Girl in white walks out of the sun into a little cafe next to a movie house….What’s she up to?

imagesCA1PHAHOAnswer: No good.

You’re wonderful Kathie. You’re magnificent. You can change sides so smoothly.

2. Buy in, don’t sell out. Kathie effortlessly (and arguably sociopathically) works whatever angle suits her agenda in the situation. It could be concluded that Kathie is the worst of the three – Jeff is more or less honorable to the last and even swarmy Whit has a displaced sense of loyalty. Critics of the femme fatale (calling her wholly an invention of the patriarchy – imagine that!) point to her utter lack of noble attributes. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting that she’s just a much better scoundrel then they are.

Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer Out of the Past (1947)

3. If your surivival comes down to making deals with a morally ambigious good guy, best to see that he won’t ultimately suffer a crises of conscience – or in this case, the gnawing realization he’ll never overcome the magnititude of his past, as he may decide that the only solution is an unceremonious murder-suicide by police checkpoint.

‘Til next time, hold on tight to your 40 grand… and don’t trust honest guys.

OUT OF THE PAST, 1947

If you’re of the opinion that you can overcome the mistakes you’ve made in life, that you can identify the error of your ways, learn from your mistakes, and take off into the sunset, Out of the Past disagrees. Of course, it can’t help any that you buried the body of your ex-partner after he was murdered by your lover.

Out of the Past, 1947

Originally considered by Warner as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, the rights to Out of the Past (originally an unpublished novel titled “Build My Gallows High”) went to RKO. The script was purportedly re-written (apparently pretty poorly) by James M. Cain then scrapped with a final version being attributed to Daniel Mainwaring with excellent, yet uncredited dialogue by Frank Fenton. As a classic Hollywood noir prototype, Out of the Past is among the best; the leads are superb, the photography is stylized but tasteful, the plot is convoluted, and the dialogue is quick. A classic through and through.

Things are going pretty well for Jeff Bailey, alias Markham (Robert Mitchum, in a career highlight role that almost went to John Garfield or Dick Powell) – he’s a small-town gas station owner who has the love of a good woman – Ann (Virgina Huston, likeably milquetoast and little more than an allegory). The weather’s nice, and Jeff’s quick with one-liners, and everything seems to be falling into place.

That is, until he’s tracked down by a former business associate and his presence is requested by another ex-associate, gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, on loan from Paramount and fresh off of double suiciding with Barbara Stanwyck in the incredible Strange Love of Martha Ivers). Jeff levels with Ann on his mysterious past, and so begins the flashback that dominates the first half of the film.

Years ago, Jeff was working as a private investigator in New York when assigned by Whit to find his ex-girlfriend who allegedly stole $40,000 and shot him – a Ms. Kathie Moffat (Gorgeous and impassive Jane Greer, certainly a contender for Ms. Noir). On the contingent that she will not be harmed, Jeff makes quick work of finding her Mexico, where they drink bourbon, smoke at each other. Did Kathie steal the money? Baby, Jeff doesn’t care. You can see for yourself in this wind-swept beach rendezvous which never fails to cause immediate swooning. Here, let’s watch it together.

Swoon.

So anyway, they fall in love with a series of gorgeous photographed beach meetings during a fatalistic voice over and decide to leave Mexico together when Whit meets Jeff at his hotel (Jeff still living on his dime and all). Jeff denies locating Kathie and tries to quit, but Whit insists he continue the search. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and Kathie move to San Francisco to live a blissful and purposely vague unmarried life – censorship fun fact – Kathie living with Jeff (and later, Whit) out of wedlock was originally forbidden by the production code administration, being a portrayal of gross illicit sex, but they relented, so long as we never actually see their living arrangements. Presumably, they just hang out on the run together and go to movies at the shitty theatres.

But the unwedded bliss can’t last, as a chance meeting with Jeff’s ex-partner (who was to receive a portion of Whit’s payout upon the recovery of Kathie) leads to a confrontation in a remote cabin that ends in ex-partner’s death at the hands of Kathie (to be fair, he did call Kathie a cheap piece of baggage), while Jeff attempted to settle their differences with a simple brawl.

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Kathie settles the argument between Jeff and Fisher.

Jeff is left to bury the body, and discovers what we all knew – Kathie did, indeed, take the money.

Aaaaand, now we’re back to the present.

At Whit’s home the next day, Jeff is bemused by the appearance of Kathie, the three share a tense breakfast where Whit and Jeff smoke at each other at Whit enlists Jeff’s help to steal incriminating tax documents from Eels, an attorney with incriminating tax documents on Whit. Smelling a rat, yet feeling a responsibility to Whit, Jeff goes with Eels’ secretary, Meta Carson – a little cold around the heart and Out of the Past’s secondary femme fatale, to steal the briefcase in question.

(Fun fact on this scene – if you’re watching subtitles, you’ll notice that it appears that Eels says “Apple Martini?” as if he was about to fix Robert Mitchum some kind of hideous, radio-active green concoction made from some kind of God-forsaken apple schnapps. It’s a transcription error – he is merely offering Jeff a martini, which he will conveniently end up leaving his fingerprints on).

And then the double-crossing starts to double-cross itself. Jeff doubles back to find Eels dead and hides the body. He manipulates Kathie into disclosing the location of briefcase, while she simultaneously reveals her previous manipulation that she has signed an affidavit attesting that Jeff himself killed his partner.

ImageJeff is now wanted by the police, and arranges a meeting with Whit and Kathie, threatening to turn the briefcase over to the IRS unless he is given the affidavit. (Oh, and by this point, Kathie’s attempt to have Jeff killed has been foiled by a young deaf boy who works with Jeff at this gas station). Shortly after, Kathie kills Whit, and, with only her left to make deals with, Jeff concedes to going with her back to Mexico.

That is, just until he drives her intentionally to a police stake out, she tries to shoot him, he commits slightly ambiguous suicide and she dies in a hail of bullets.

Despite an occasionally meandering story which I have tried to relay as simply as I could – please feel free to print it out as a pocket size Out of the Past double cross guide, Out of the Past is a stone-cold classic noir which encompasses all of the main genre hallmarks. As in Cat People, not only does Director Jacques Tourner know his way around a shadow (not to mention, of course, shadow master Nick Musuraca who also photographed Stranger on the Third Floor – common candidate for the first film noir), he/they also have the eerie ability to portray the familiar – the small town, the beach, even the serenity of Lake Tahoe with a great deal of menace. That, and Out of the Past is probably one of the all-time great smoking movies. Everyone smokes pretty consistently in the film, which isn’t uncommon, as smoking and noir go hand in hand, but there are a number of significant cigarettes in the film – Kathie and Jeff’s first date, Jeff and Whit’s breakfast meeting (“Cigarette?” Whit asks, “Smoking.” Jeff answers dryly) – even when Jeff knocks out one of Whit’s henchmen, steals the briefcase, then stops to steal one of the unconscious man’s cigarettes. The cigarettes are a form of sparring (and the smoke is attractively back-lit).

Famously nonchalant Robert Mitchum lends Jeff an air of quiet awareness of his situation, the more laconic and cold he is, the more sobering the inevitability of his situation becomes. It isn’t so much what’s happening on screen that’s hard to take – it’s Jeff’s ambivalence towards it. When, exactly did Jeff give up on self-preservation, Ann, and his future? Hard to say, but with repeat viewings, I’d saying – much earlier than it originally appears. As Jeff mentions to Kathie near the top of the film, there isn’t a way to win, only to lose more slowly.

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“You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.”

‘Til next time… just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.

the short of it

Let’s start the brand new year – and my brand new blog off on a low note, shall we?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive definition, but in brief, film noir was Hollywood’s nearly organic, post-war answer to itself. Arguably, it is both a style and a genre. Visually, noir’s roots came from German Expressionism (deliberately stark light and shadow, off-balance composition, visual experimentation and anti-realism)… like this:

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

The central message of film noir, for the most part is… you’re fucked. In noir, the criminals narrate. They get away with it. The good men die. The weak are punished in line with the strong. Bad things can happen to anyone, whether as a direct result of their own actions, or perhaps not. Sex is often married with danger and impending destruction. And women, more often than not, are wicked seductresses, fatal sirens, hard boiled girls who lead the (anti-)hero straight on down the line to the gas chamber.

And how, you may wonder, was all of this amazing content dumped into films in the heyday of the motion picture production code? Through a Joe Breen developed concept called ‘compensating moral value’. (Joe Breen was the successor to Will Hays and the head of the Production Code Administration until 1954. Your favorite movie from 1934 to 1954? Breen probably censored it!) Compensating moral value allowed all kinds of unsavory behavior on the screen provided; there was a clear voice of morality, the wrongdoer suffered, was punished, or reformed.

Besides, by the early 40’s, there was a general slackening of the moral code – the post war audience had lost its innocence. Though there are noir films made prior to 1940 (and internationally), the disillusionment and despair hit Hollywood in an awesome wave and gave rise to one of my favorite eras in film. And that’s the short of it.

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“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

And what of hard boiled girls? Everyone loves a good deadly woman fantasy. But the femme fatale had good cause to re-appear as a fixture in noir. War-weary veterans returned to a different world – one where their newly self-sufficient wives had entered the workforce and were managing the household quite well without them. It’s only one more step until they become vicious, self-serving crimelords.

Why, you need only to have a woman act in a traditionally male fashion, but do so in a push-up bra and red lipstick. That, my friends, is all that’s needed to topple the established order.

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‘Til we meet again.