Episode #4 – Film Noir with Special Guest David J. Hogan

Episode #4

That’s a Wrap! proudly welcomes author and historian David J. Hogan to discuss his new book Film Noir FAQ.

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In this episode we talk about film noir as a genre, as well as our favorite film and femmes fatales.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We had a small recording problem that will become evident towards the end of the episode. It sounds like Nick and Erik are talking over David, but this is an error in the recording software. Most of it is fixed, and it is still easily listenable; it simply sounds like we are being rude at times, when we are not.

From the Film Noir FAQ description:

Film Noir FAQ celebrates and reappraises some 200 noir thrillers representing 20 years of Hollywoods Golden Age. Noir pulls us close to brutal cops and scheming dames, desperate heist men and hardboiled private eyes, and the unlucky innocent citizens that get in their way. These are exciting movies with tough guys in trench coats and hot tomatoes in form-fitting gowns. The moon is a streetlamp and the narrow streets are prowled by squad cars and long black limousines. Lives are often small but peoples plans are big — sometimes too big. Robbery, murder, gambling; the gun and the fist; the grift and the con game; the hard kiss and the brutal brush-off. Film Noir FAQ brings lively attention to story, mood, themes, and technical detail, plus behind-the-scenes stories of the production of individual films. Featuring numerous stills and postersmany never before published in book formhighlighting key moments of great noir movies. Film Noir FAQ serves up insights into many of the most popular and revered names in Hollywood history, including noirs greatest stars, supporting players, directors, writers, and cinematographers. Pour a Scotch, light up a smoke, and lean back with your private guide to film noir.

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Nick’s Favorite Femme Fatale: Jane Greer

8 thoughts on “Episode #4 – Film Noir with Special Guest David J. Hogan”

  1. Terrific discussion! I started out thinking I was only going to listen to five or ten minutes, but I stayed with it right to the end. I don’t know how knowledgeable about the film noir when compared to your panel, but I have seen (or read about) many of the films that were mentioned. I know I own the shooting scripts for several (Warner Brother or RKO screenplay series). I loved what you said about Gun Crazy and that you mentioned both The Narrow Margin (classic-noir) and LA Confidential (retro-noir, I think).

    Where would you place the work of Welles in the history of the genre (Nick knows what an Orson fan I am) or that of John Huston or Michael Curtiz? Or the performances of Marlene Dietrich (especially in her pairings with Josef von Sternberg or in her role in Welles’ Touch of Evil)? Or the work of someone like Ida Lupino (both as an actress as and a director)? Does a film done in “noir style” qualify as full film noir? Can you have a noir comedy or a noir biography or a noir musical? Just curious. . .

  2. Thanks Michael – it’s great to hear that we hooked you even after you had only planned on listening for a little while. I personally find Welles’ work crosses over into noir in different ways. Kane, to me, has noir elements, but lacks a noir “center” – however, for example, Touch of Evil is broadly considered one of the last noirs of the era. It would be good to get Dave’s response to this.

    I highly, HIGHLY recommend the book Michael – it’s fantastic!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Michael.

    Welles looms very large in noir, of course; CITIZEN KANE set down a whole catalog of visual flourishes and stylistics that quickly became critical to noir: shadowplay, deep focus, unusual angles and POV, as well as some themes, particularly reality vs. illusion, the limits of personal will, and ruined dreams. Of course, Welles’s gifted DP,, Gregg Toland, was a key figure in most of this.

    As I discuss in the book, LADY FROM SHANGHAI has numerous flaws (some technical, others in casting, still others in logic), but is fun, and climaxes memorably. But TOUCH OF EVIL–in its recently restored, as-Welles-wanted-it form–is a masterpiece, and almost certainly Orson’s greatest achievement other than KANE. It succeeds on every level: as drama, melodrama, morality tale, ethical conundrum, black comedy, and genius of casting (even Heston’s stiffness works because it’;s the stiffness of self-righteous certitude.The picture has moments of wonky hilarity, as well as some of the most tragically existential sequences in all of noir. What a sin that U-I executives were scared by the film’s complexity, and recut it, and even brought in a work-for-hire journeyman to direct new bridging scenes. They fiddled with how the score was used, and dumped the film into the market as a B.

    John Huston is a giant, of course. As to his noir work, THE MALTESE FALCON and the later THE ASPHALT JUNGLE defined two distinct strains of noir, and are unsurpassed. Both of these films may be “perfect”; that is, neither strains nor fails in any aspect. Huston wrote the scripts of both of these, and also wrote THREE STRANGERS, and co-wrote (without credit) Siodmak’s THE KILLERS. What best characterizes Huston’s noir work? Moral ambivalence, I suppose.

    Michael Curtiz is one of the greatest of all studio-era directors, despite not falling at all into line with later auteur takes on the directing process. One the one hand, Curtiz was a brilliant craftsman; even when you’d think he’d be way out of his element, as with KING CREOLE, he worked with beautiful assurance. But “craftsman” almost does Curtiz a disservice. He was an aggressive visual stylist in the WB mold, and effectively adapted that style to suit whichever genre he happened to be working in. He TOLD THE STORY. Everything else seems to have been subservient to that. Curtiz’s MILDRED PIERCE is a high point of noir. Curtiz is almost never thought of an as “actor’s director,” but look at the deliciously wicked performance he pulled from Ann Blyth, who almost steals the picture from Joan Crawford.

    Because Curtiz apparently wasn’t “invested” in his projects, he was at the mercy of the scripts he was given. His other noir, THE UNSUSPECTED, suffers because of overlength and enough plot for three movies. But it’s a gorgeously visual film, shot with a mobile camera that makes discrete sequences successful. The film just doesn’t really hang together as a whole.

    Marlene Dietrich isn’t thought of as a “noir actress,” but the sex appeal and worldliness that she demonstrated beginning with the earliest part of her career give her an emotional texture that’s very much in keeping with the genre. Cynicism, maturity of attitude–whatever you want to call it, Dietrich’s persona is frequently noirish without usually being “of noir.” She’s hardly necessary to TOUCH OF EVIL, but without her (and her fabulous last line of dialogue), the film wouldn’t have nearly the emotional weight and, yes, texture, that it has. The problem with Dietrich, perhaps, is that her personality was so “big” that it could barely be contained within the limits of the screen. It’s no surprise that she did much of her finest work for Sternberg, another larger-than-life figure.

    The book devotes considerable discussion to Ida Lupino, a polymath who excelled as an actress, screenwriter, director,producer, and business executive. All of that, plus her generations-old acting pedigree and unorthodox, compelling beauty, helps make her not just a bit of an anomaly, but a woman whose contributions to mid-century filmmaking can hardly be overstated. THE HITCH-HIKER, which Ida directed, isn’t just a significant, nerve-jangling noir, but one of the better American thrillers of the 1950s. Lupino was involved in five other films noir, as (variously) star, director, co-writer, and producer. And take a look at the non-noir films she directed, including OUTRAGE; HARD, FAST AND BEAUTIFUL; and THE BIGAMIST.

    As to your final question: No, not every film done in the “noir style” is a noir. There’s plenty of disquieting shadowplay in, for instance, many straight-ahead cop thrillers and suspense movies, And movies of all types address moral and ethical dilemmas. I’m a purist in my definition of noir, seeing about 250 films in the noir canon. FILM NOIR FAQ discusses about 200. In the book’s introduction, I lay out as precisely as I could what noir is–and isn’t.

  4. Thank you, both for your responses. After your podcast I went online to see how many of the titles you mentioned could be downloaded for viewing and found several quite easily. After reading David’s book I will try to watch as many of his 200 films that I can lay my hands on. Fascinating subject! Thanks again for the input, guys.

  5. Just listened to the podcast, and I have to say, these are the types of discussions I dream of having. I will definitely buy the book.
    I, too, saw a decent amount of classic noir films, My favorites being Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place, Laura, Kiss Me Deadly, The Killers, Night and the City, The Narrow Margin and The Big Heat. I could mention so many more. Thanks for recommending 99 River Street and Cry Danger. They both seem like a treat.
    I’m also interested in that delicate line of what is and what isn’t Noir. Not having read the book, I look forward to finding out about your list of about 250 films of genuine classic Noir. But still I think it would be interesting to discuss a few things. Sorry if I’m asking questions that are already answered in the book.
    For instance, do you think Max Ophuls’ films Caught and The Reckless Moment count as Noir? What makes these films “different” is that the protagonist in both films are female, which is a strong deviation in this male-oriented genre. Also, these females are hardly Femme Fatales, as Ophuls has too much of a profound, subtle and gracious sensibility in his portrayal of women. You might even find melodramatic elements in these films – not surprisingly, since they are made by a master of that genre. And yet, these movies do feel Noirish to me. Maybe due to the impending doom the characters find themselves in? And on a side note, I think melodramatic elements don’t necessarily disqualify a film as being Noir. In fact, I think many great Film Noirs feature some melodrama. Am I wrong?

    Another film I greatly admire is Brute Force. This doesn’t take place in the city, but in a prison. But since there is this nefarious system (on a smaller scale) at work that the characters are trapped in (and try to find their way out), it leans toward Noir I think. But maybe that’s not enough?

    Then there is also the question of gangster films made in this period. Is White Heat film Noir? It seems to belong more in the category of ’30s gangster films, which in turn was the precursor of Noir… How do you think that fits into it? And what about High Sierra?

    Two last questions..
    I think it’s interesting that you consider Psycho as the last Noir. Is this generally acknowledged? I thought the classic period ended with Touch of Evil. Although personally I might regard Odds Against Tommorrow as the last one. Do you think that makes sense?
    Psycho as the last Noir… This would mean that Noir played a big role in the foundations of modern Horror cinema, right?

    Where do you think Neo-Noir started? I think it gradually emerged with films like The Naked Kiss and The Killers (1964), until it really found firm footing with Point Blank, which I would consider the first true Neo-Noir.

    Again, if I’m bringing up topics that are explained in the book, I apologize. I’ll find the answer to my questions then anyway. Thank you.

    David Gruwez

    1. David,

      Thanks for the great questions! I know I can’t answer them definitively, but if David Hogan sees your comment here, I’m sure he will have a lot to say about that. I must say the book is fabulous and well worth a read, regardless of whether it answers all those questions. The responses we’ve gotten to this episode in particular tell me that we might have to another noir episode at some point. Maybe focus on neo-noir? Who knows?

      Erik Marshall

  6. David, thanks for your comments and intriguing questions.

    * Ophuls’s work is lovely and endlessly interesting. Partly because of my fondness for R. Ryan, B. Bel Geddes, and J. Mason, I respect and enjoy CAUGHT. I don’t see it as noir, though; it strikes me as an edgy domestic melodrama. The pregnancy angle was daring for the day, and events unfold in a “real-world” manner, without the exaggerated irony that characterizes many noir films. The emotional pitch of CAUGHT is high, but because of the real-world aspect, I see it as akin to another very taut domestic melodrama, Nick Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE (starring, coincidentally, James Mason).

    THE RECKLESS MOMENT is a gem that seems solidly in the suspense camp, rather than noir (though Burnett Guffey’s cinematography in the family home, the boat house, and elsewhere is classically noirish). Joan Bennett is wonderful as the story’s center of normalcy, and I wish more people talked about her work here. And it’s that normalcy that makes me think of Hitchcock, another director who was skilled at placing “regular” people in odd, untenable circumstances. James Mason, as the blackmailer, is a complete imp of the perverse. His performance is calculatedly amusing, but off-putting and spooky, as well. Shepperd Strudwick brings greasy malice to his role as the gigolo–which tickles me because in the same year, 1949, he played a noble, tragically upright soul in ALL THE KING’S MEN.

    * Melodramatic elements never cast a film from the noir camp. To the contrary, the genre is built on the melodrama of betrayal, lost dreams, calamitous decisions, fury, etc.

    * I’m a fan of BRUTE FORCE, too, and I thought about including it. In the end, it’s a balls-out revenge thriller rather than noir. That said, there have not been many screen villains as loathsome as Hume Cronyn’s captain of the guard.

    * WHITE HEAT is discussed in the book, in the chapter I call “The Unsprung Mind.” My first inclination was to exclude it on the grounds of it being a straightforward crime thriller–but there’s really nothing at all straightforward about this picture. It constantly jolts and surprises you, finally becoming an allegory for the potentially devastating nuttiness of the atomic age. In that regard, it’s ambitious in its themes, and far more elevated an experience than a cursory viewing might suggest. And it just never lets up, from the opening train-robbery sequence to the explosive climax. Noir is very concerned with the consequences of risky and downright dumb decisions. There’s a lot of that in WHITE HEAT. It’s one of my favorite movies. I recommend Marilyn Ann Moss’s Raoul Walsh, a new biography of WHITE HEAT’s tough, incisive director.

    * HIGH SIERRA is another personal favorite that’s a crime drama (and love story), not noir.

    * As for PSYCHO being the end point of noir–no, the idea isn’t generally acknowledged. As far as I know, I’m the first historian to propose such a thing. But on the more traditional side, yes, TOUCH OF EVIL and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW lie at the virtual finish line of the classic noir era.

    * When did neo-noir begin? In my afterword, I suggest that the movement began in Europe when American noir was still active. THE WAGES OF FEAR, BREATHLESS, and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER consciously took themes and attitudes from noir. That’s Clouzot, Godard, and Truffaut, respectively–quite a trifecta!

    I posit that neo-noir took hold in Hollywood around 1964, with Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS. This movie conferred a new kind of status on Lee Marvin, who went on to do Boorman’s POINT BLANK, which is (as you say) a seminal neo-noir.

    I hope you enjoy the book, David.

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