Free Noir is a new short-run series here at 4:3, releasing weekly, wherein our contributors look at film noirs (films noir?) which have fallen into the public domain.
He Walked By Night (dir. Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann [uncredited], 1948) – Watch
Conor Bateman: Scrolling through the swathes of public domain noirs, so many of which have loglines that are mere echoes of each other, you often just have to take a chance based on a select phrase or credit. What caught mine in the paragraph synopsis for this film was one word, which is also first uttered around seven minutes into He Walked By Night – “dragnet”. Arguably the most influential police procedural of the 20th century, Jack Webb’s radio then television program Dragnet was a crime drama that served as a barometer for social conservatism and also a love letter to the LAPD, starring Webb himself as Joe Friday, a hardened detective with no time for beatniks. The link to Werker and Mann’s sleek crime caper is one of inspiration; Jack Webb plays a supporting role here, working in the police station’s lab to find fingerprints and look at bullet casings, and he got the idea for the Dragnet radio program from the documentary-esque stylings of the film he was in. The opening narration, a West Coast equivalent to that in Dassin’s The Naked City (also 1948), tells us that what we’re about to see is based on a real case the LAPD faced, and in that vein it’s told with the hallmarks of procedural police drama we’re now intimately familiar with thanks to the legion of programs influenced by Webb’s. A thief (Richard Basehart), is sprung as he is about to rob an electronic store by an off-duty cop, who is promptly shot dead. The LAPD’s response is an impassioned one, with an investigation led by the vengeance-seeking Sgt. Brennan (Scott Brady) moving from a rapid response to a crawl, outsmarted by the criminal at every turn. Character is pared back to only what’s necessary in storytelling, which suits He Walked perfectly – it’s a procedural led by facts and which doesn’t shy away from describing the tedium of routine policework. It’s wonderfully shot by noir favourite John Alton (The Big Combo) and climaxes in a chase through the LA storm tunnel system which both predates and is in the spirit of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. It also happens to be one of James Ellroy’s favourite noirs (though that should be no surprise considering its pro-LAPD ethos) and won the only ever special prize for ‘Best Police Film’ at the Locarno Film Festival in 1949.
Kansas City Confidential (dir. Phil Karlson, 1952) – Watch
Jake Moody: Phil Karlson’s 1952 noir Kansas City Confidential barely spends five minutes in Kansas City, and doesn’t feature anything particularly confidential. It also features some of the hammiest acting on record in a typically downbeat genre, and stacks of awful clunky lines. Against all odds, though, it’s wholly enjoyable, primarily for its willingness to toy with the noir conventions underpinning its narrative, as well as some stylistic choices giving a more raw sense of brutality than the usual wry procedurals. While the film may be best remembered now for its narrative influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, it is worth seeking out (an easy task, in this column) on its own terms, as a noir whose lack of interest in many of the genre’s trademarks signifies an historical transition out of the noir golden era into more complex territory. The film sees John Payne, looking unnervingly like a young Russell Crowe, and with an equal propensity to bash someone’s head in, play John Rolfe, an ex-con and florist unwittingly framed for a bank hold-up. Freed by police but left jobless and ruined, he decides to follow the three culprits to their Mexican rendezvous with the ‘Mr. Big’ who organised the whole thing and attempt to claim a cut he feels is rightfully his. The cookie-cutter template here is undermined, though, by the surreal Agatha Christie whodunit atmosphere generated by Karlson and DP George E. Diskant’s camera once Rolfe arrives in Tijuana under the guise of the third man, who by this time has been killed by police. Beyond its first half-hour, the film never again leaves the resort where the criminals meet. The fact that none of them know each other by face or name is played up to maximum effect, with the typical chiaroscuro shadow effects replaced with giant, screen-filling close-ups – these have particular effect on the aquiline features of a young Lee van Cleef, playing slimy gangster Tony Romano here fifteen years before becoming ‘the Bad’ in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The other man in the trio, Neville Brand’s gloriously noir-named Boyd Kane, and the disgraced-cop-turned-paymaster played by Preston Foster, both turn in effective sweaty, neurotic performances despite the often woeful dialogue (“So long, sucker!”, says van Cleef, resolving to shoot the exposed Rolfe). A terrible romantic subplot, some weird father-daughter dynamics, and casual Mexican stereotyping aside, the film eventually stumbles to a genuinely exciting climax.
Beat The Devil (dir. John Huston, 1953) – Watch
Dominic Barlow: Beat the Devil isn’t a straight-edged noir but a broad satire of one, where director John Huston places his own The Maltese Falcon up to a fun-house mirror. This is already a huge novelty, to see a director make jollies over the plotting and archetypes that he launched his career from, but it’s also refreshingly confident and skillful in an age where even the most staid blockbusters have cottoned on to that cheap trick of self-deprecation. Hindsight is crucial in this case given how critically and commercially tepid its 1953 release was, with even its lead, Humphrey Bogart, being quoted as saying that “only phonies like it” as though it didn’t set out to be phony itself. He and Peter Lorre are back in functionally the same roles as in Falcon, with their new identities mattering as much as the chaotic plot that takes them on a barge from Italy to central Africa in pursuit of a hugely profitable uranium deal. Robert Morley is the paunchy British crime-lord Peterson, Ivor Barnard and Marco Tulli play his lackeys and then Jennifer Jones and Edward Underdown enter as the rich Chelm couple that the lot of them are looking to make bank on. Mrs. Chelm is a comically gabby sort that leaks family secrets like a faucet, winning the wily Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) over despite being married to an Italian maiden (Gina Lollobrigida) that wishes she was English, and sending Peterson and company scrambling to turn the dollar signs in their eyes into hard currency. Mr. Chelm goes mad with posh disquiet, Major Ross (Barnard) threatens to fight anyone who speaks ill of Hitler and Stalin, the women howl and fret in campy manners that Huston dares you to second-guess as crocodile tears, and no-one turns out to be better than those bemusing and slimy first impressions convey. It’s a bitter taste that has to be adjusted to, for better and worse. However silly the events of Huston and Truman Capote’s written-on-set script get, Huston never fails to shoot in a way that’s formally impressive, and he combines that with whip-smart dialogue that acts as a blase deconstruction that’s reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson. To run on that analogy, the film does lag by going from The Life Aquatic comic skullduggery to white vicissitudes out of The Darjeeling Limited, stranding them in an Arab nation with only a despotic, lusty border official (played by an American, Manuel Serano) between them and the firing squad. Disappointingly tasteless as that gets, the sheer fun of the preceding hour means that streaming the thing is a fine choice, at least to walk away with a lighter shade thrown on a genre hardly vaunted for levity.