Film Forum's Essential Noir series continues this week with a great lineup. If you didn't get down there this last weekend for Double Indemnity, well, shame on you, but there's plenty more over the next three-and-a-half weeks that is definitely worth seeing.
Tonight is a great double-bill featuring Force of Evil and The Naked City. That famous line, "There are 8 million stories in the naked city …" – here's where it's from. While I'm a bigger fan of Jules Dassin's classic French heist film Rififi, The Naked City is one of the best of the police procedural noirs. The entire film was shot on location in the streets of New York, including a fantastic showdown on the Williamsburg Bridge, and if you're a Law & Order fan, you really should check out The Naked City.
Force of Evil is almost as notable for its history as for the actual quality of the film. Writer/director Abraham Polonsky was soon to be blacklisted after admitting his own former membership in the Communist party but refusing to name any other names. The film's star John Garfield was one of the relatively few big stars who spoke out against the Communist witch hunts that started in the late '40s. Garfield had never himself been a member of the Communist party, but since he wouldn't name any of his friends who were, his star never quite shone as brightly as it should have. A member of the famous Group Theater, Garfield was a brilliant actor, and he was never better than in this magnificently scripted film playing a corrupt lawyer involved with the numbers rackets. Polonsky didn't do himself a favor by writing a film with a fair amount of anti-capitalist subtext, creating a story in which a man chooses money and power over his own family. Unfortunately, in mid-20th Century America, that kind of discussion, no matter how despicable many of us may still view the main character's actions, was only going to cause him trouble. But in 1948, nobody could have guessed or would have believed what was to come. Like The Naked City, much of Force of Evil was also shot on location, especially in the Wall Street area.
Wednesday night brings two more examples of more low-budget noirs, and since I've never seen either, I'll be rushing down to Film Forum myself that afternoon. Gun Crazy, also known as Deadly Is the Female, is a 1949 crime drama featuring nobody you've ever heard of. The script was written by blacklisted screenwriter and future Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo (but originally credited to Millard Kaufman who was used as a front). In case you're getting the sense of a trend, much of noir was a reaction to both communism and the American red scare developing in the late-'40s and early-'50s. While stories rarely dealt directly with the subject of communist domination, the fearful mood of an unidentifiable and unseen danger hiding in the darkness ready to strike is a common theme to much of this film style.
Paired with Gun Crazy is They Live By Night. Again, since I haven't seen it, I can't say too much about the film itself, but the one thing I do know is reason enough to pay the price of admission: the film marked the directorial debut of maverick filmmaker Nicholas Ray, best known for Rebel Without a Cause. The film also has a notoriously exciting opening credits sequence and utilized the first ever helicopter shot in Hollywood history.
While each of these films are worth seeing, if you can only take one day to visit Houston street, do yourself a favor and go to the double-bill on Thursday 12/2. Both films feature the great Ray Milland. The Big Clock is the most familiar form of noir at its near best. Milland plays a magazine editor ordered to track down a murdered by Charles Laughton only to discover all clues point to him as the bad guy because he's being framed.
The Big Clock may fit the model of noir the best, but the highlight of the week is Milland's collaboration with Billy Wilder in a film that brought them both Oscars – the absolutely brilliant The Lost Weekend. While The Lost Weekend may not strike many people as typical noir – it's not really a crime drama or thriller – it does deal with a level of human despair unusual to the movies of the time. Most importantly, however, The Lost Weekend still manages to be one of the most harrowing and upsetting displays of one person's desperate descent into hell through alcoholism. Along with Milland's Best Actor and Wilder's Best Director Oscars, the film also took home Best Screenplay and Best Picture.
Friday and Saturday feature some good choices with one of Stanley Kubrick's first films The Killing and John Huston's classic The Asphalt Jungle featuring, among other things, one of the very first appearances by Marilyn Monroe. But I'll come back to those on Friday. For now, do yourself a favor and don't miss finding The Lost Weekend.