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.
Scarlet Street (dir. Fritz Lang, 1945) – Watch
Jeremy Elphick: Fritz Lang’s dichotomised career – between Weimar and Hollywood – has always found my familiarity falling almost exclusively in line with the former. Watching Scarlet Street was a solid reintroduction to a director finding himself more than comfortable within film noir – very likely aware of just how much his earlier works paved the way for such a movement. An adaptation of a French novel, Scarlet Street is a stylistic effort from conception. It’s got multi-faceted love stories, with desire projected far more than it’s reciprocated – all of which are acted out between robberies and cheap crimes. From the raw passion of the cast, the dark polish on their unique and alluring traits, to the underworld where Lang sets his story, Scarlet Street is a film that shows Lang’s effortless move from – and linking of – his past work in Weimar expressionism and his move towards the new world of Hollywood noir.
It plays out with Christopher Cross – a part-time painter, a part-time cashier – meets the mysterious Kitty, who mistakes him as a man of great wealth. Both of the characters are in respective relationships, however, Chris is falling out of love with his with, while Kitty is secretly in cahoots with her lover, Johnny – with the two of them seeking to make a fortune from Chris. Kitty eventually steals some of Christopher’s paintings under her name, creating a plot laden with verisimilitudes as she begins to receive commercial and critical accolades for his work. From here, the plot unravels more with ex-lovers returning from the dead, confrontation after confrontation, eventuating in a dramatic demise for everyone involved. Fritz Lang manoeuvres twists into the plot with style, and engages film noir structure without letting it create any rigidity or constrictions on his final work. While it has fantastic highs throughout, when Lang draws it into a clear denouement he does so with little sympathy left for any of the characters. It gives a pretty raw assessment of humanity, but with Lang at the helm, it’s never cliche or affected – instead, Scarlet Street is a well-constructed and gripping snapshot of a director in his prime.
The Great Flamarion (dir. Anthony Mann, 1945) – Watch
Brad Mariano: The names Erich von Stroheim and Anthony Mann will resonate in the minds of film buffs, but chances are The Great Flamarion isn’t one of the first few films that will be conjured up for either figure. Mann is probably best known for his terrific Westerns with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s, and von Stroheim was an accomplished director as well actor (Greed; La Grande Illusion) but this peculiar carnival noir, perhaps the missing link between Double Indemnity and Tod Browning’s The Unknown, is unfortunately overlooked; a reminder of the irony that governs these noir films. Free availability seems to have an only negligible effect on how widely seen and discussed they are – if anything, the lack of financial incentive for the studios to push these out on home video (let alone proper HD restorations) means there’s rarely a topical call for rediscovery. Not to say The Great Flamarion is an egregious omission from the Criterion Collection, but it’s a fun, tight noir featuring a great performance from a legendary actor whose small number of film roles – I can’t think of another English language film in which he has the lead – should make this pretty necessary viewing.
Even in a style of filmmaking as fatalistic and as beholden to tropes and set-ups as noir, The Great Flamarion stands out as particularly obviously Chekhovian in its premise. The titular character (von Stroheim) is a marksman who performs a vaudeville gunshot act with his two assistants, played by serial support players Mary Beth Hughes and the inimitable Dan Duryea (Scarlett Street). The narrative is too simple to spoil, but plays out in a tight 70-odd minutes with the only plot tweak being the fact that the femme fatale seduces and screws over two stoogey men instead of one. Mann handles the film economically, but successfully, achieving a particular tension in the important shooting routines. von Stroheim’s lead performance is perhaps the best part about the film, more misanthropic than most noir heroes, but imbued with a vulnerability that makes his act of finally trusting someone all the more affecting. Don’t let the circus atmosphere fool you – it’s a particularly down-beat and bleak movie, one man’s tragedy all unfolding under the crass guise of cheap entertainment for the masses. In channeling that cruelty, The Great Flamarion is as quintessentially a noir film as any.
711 Ocean Drive (dir. Joseph M. Newman, 1950) – Watch
Conor Bateman: Just as the title seems so far removed from the actual content of the film, the remove from genuine tension might actually be what mars –‘s 711 Ocean Drive. We open on L.A.’s Gangster Squad driving off to arrest Mal Granger for murder, then via some unnecessary voiceover learn that the apparently villainous Granger is played by Edmond O’Brien, of the completely overrpraised noir D.O.A.. He begins his descent into moral turpitude as a worker in a phone company with a gambling addiction. His bookie recommends he put his brain to good use helping a local betting racket do better business using phone lines. From there, he revolutionises the business with some clever antenna work, starts making some money and then becomes the man in charge when his boss is abruptly murdered. This all happens in the first 30 minutes of the film. It’s so packed together, the vague beats of a seemingly flimsy thriller turned into a compelling first act which seems strange in retrospect – the evil deed within is just an illegal gambling service which is essentially just what the TAB does today. When it moves into the actual meat of the film, it stalls, a somewhat glacial pace with punchy moments of violence interspersed throughout. Despite the attempt at a thrilling climax – Granger tries to hide out in the tunnels at Hoover Dam – it’s a mostly tepid result, perhaps because the film simply shifts from the intriguing process of long-distance gambling and clever schemes to a simplistic gangster character arc, in which Granger becomes a big shot who loses sight of everything important.
I know James Ellroy likes this one, and it does make some sense – it’s a film grounded in exposing corruption in business (the wire service are revealed to be the true untouchables) and the police are stalwarts of righteousness. What I didn’t really expect, though, was just how ham-fisted the opening and closing titlecards would be, positioning the film as first being under threat of gangsters itself and then, at film’s end, as a government approved longform anti-gambling ad, which claims that the two-dollar casual bets the average citizen does on the sly leads to the deaths of gangsters and the purchasing of government officials’ allegiances by big corporations. Not everything is as clumsy, though, Franz Planer’s cinematography occasionally finds a striking image to land on – in particular one close up on a hitman’s face on a pier. Planer, strangely enough, would later shoot three Audrey Hepburn films – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday and The Children’s Hour.