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Walk a Different Path

Greg Ventre
My first isolation essay ran the topical gamut from social conventions and sports to the Renaissance and sci-fi, ending with some reading and viewing suggestions. If you had a chance to glance at it, you would quickly see that my preferences for reading and watching run to the realm of what I like to call imaginative fiction, and I may not be an avid aficionado of most modern films. I hope you give some of the books and movies I mentioned a try and let me know what you think of them.

In this piece, I am hoping you are ready for some more challenging entertainment after a few weeks of a homestay.

I think that the only television network worth watching is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), though most of the other networks offer similarly vapid fare. Happily, some of the streaming services have done excellent work on their own productions, particularly those produced abroad.

TCM, however, is serving a valuable cultural service by preserving and presenting the significant history of film. This medium has had an indelible influence on social mores, on our perception (rightly or wrongly) of history and our understanding of the world. The visual medium has evolved. Television brought it into our homes; technology has brought it into our hands. But watching a movie remains an important activity that can take us out of ourselves, keep us company, entertain us, or enable us to share an experience with others.

Think about the films you watch repeatedly—reruns you never miss or movies you own so you can watch whenever you want to. “The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps? Or maybe, “It’s A Wonderful Life?” OK, I am sure many modern films are in this category. I’d love to know what they are. Why do we watch them again and again? Did the characters or the story move you? Do you find something new and wondrous every time you see a favorite movie?

One of the beautiful things about TCM is they introduce us to different film genres, ones that we might otherwise never know. It helps one to keep an open mind. For me, the most important discovery has been film noir. Previously disregarded as an offshoot of the gangster films of the 20s and 30s prohibition and pre-war depression era, noir is now widely appreciated as an essential reflection of the darker side of post-war realism. In noir, the American Dream does not work out for everyone.

It is easy to believe that noir’s focus is on the tough guys so prevalent in these films—scarred and damaged war vets looking to get back on their feet and willing to take a chance, to roll the dice in a hard-scrabble new world where they are no longer admired as heroes. They are world-weary and have seen a lot. Think Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Victor Mature, Dana Andrews, Sterling Hayden, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield, to name a few. Wonderful actors, but hardly the screen idol type. They are gruff, unsophisticated, flawed, and often violent. But they are always seemingly ready and willing to be led by the nose down a shaky path on a dark journey with a mysterious woman.

These characters are essential, but they are all vulnerable and malleable, merely foils for the real forces in film noir: women. This is the most exciting aspect of the genre.

After gaining the right to vote in 1919, experiencing liberation from social conventions in the 20s and 30s, and serving as the core of the wartime workforce, womanpower dominated these films in every way. Not just as femme fatales or sidekicks, but as intelligent, strong, full-voiced, hard-boiled, and, in many cases, notoriously dangerous, manipulative, and controlling protagonists. More often than not, women energize the action and direct the plots in noir. Think Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake, Lana Turner, Jane Greer, and Lauren Bacall. These women are so different from the staunch, faithful, waiting-at-home wartime brides that populated films in the early 1940’s patriotic offerings, perhaps epitomized by the fantastic Greer Garson in “Mrs. Miniver” or Myrna Loy in “The Best Years of Our Lives." Noir women are out to get what they want.

Many of the stories and screenplays for noir were developed from works by writers. That list includes Cornell Woolrich (“Phantom Lady," Hitchcock’s “Rear Window"); Raymond Chandler (“Farewell, My Lovely”); Gerald Kersh (“Night and the City”); and James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”). Indeed, many lesser-known authors and even some "pulp" writers developed noir scripts. Prominent directors such as Fitz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, Edward Dmytryk, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, and even some superstar directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Otto Preminger, thrived in this genre. Lang, in particular, brought the dark, shadowy visuals of early German cinema to the fore in noir.

What do noir films look like? Think night in the city. The shadow on a staircase; the glare of headlights on a damp ally street; foghorns in the background; and trains and bridges shrouded in mist. Skyscrapers, ticking clocks, shattered mirrors, bizarre environments abound in noir. Yellow journalism, bent cops, the highway. A scam, easy money, the double-cross, a chase, a shakedown, a showdown, smoky boxing rings, outbursts of violence.

Everyone—men and women—smoking. How the cigarette is held, who lights it, and how (like the unforgettable way Fred MacMurray keeps striking matches on his thumbnail in Double Indemnity.) The wristwatch and the necktie are important props for men. Wide ties worn short with those crazy 1940s patterns—my dad had these!—constantly looked at, fidgeted with, or pulled at. All the men wore hats. The women, incredibly stylish. Hair, jewelry, hats, often outré fashions worn with confidence and flair while the men are usually in rumpled suits. Think Lana Turner’s headbands in “Postman.”

Only the villains seem snappily dressed, including early dastardly turns by Richard Widmark, Lee Marvin, and Kirk Douglas. The bad guys are more likely than not smoking cigars, and alcohol is ubiquitous. Police are usually baffled. There are outbursts of violence, but no blood or gore. There is no nudity, no profanity, and no special effects worth mentioning. Yet, these films are exciting, teeming with built-up tension, often induced by dynamic musical scores by composers like Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, or Dimitri Tiomkin, all to be later famous in big Hollywood productions. Setting the visual mood was a crucial element in noir and helped propel the art of cinematography to the forefront. Of course, all filmed in beautiful black and white. Many noir writers, actors, directors, and producers were involved in the House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklist in the early 1950s, but that’s another story.

A great way to begin seeing noir films is to tune in to TMC’s great weekly feature, Noir Alley, Friday nights at midnight (of course) but also Sunday mornings at 10 am. Eddie Muller is a great host who is a real expert on these films and will fire up your interest. TMC's website also has a section on noir. For reading about noir films, see "The Dark Side of the Screen" by Foster Hirsch.

Try something new. Some recommendations:

  • “The Big Heat”
  • “The Breaking Point”
  • “Call Northside 777”
  • “Criss Cross”
  • “The Dark Corner”
  • “Double Indemnity”
  • “Kiss of Death”
  • “The Postman Always Rings Twice”
  • “On Dangerous Ground”
  • “Out of the Past”
  • “The Set-Up”
Check out some of these films, but beware. Noir will take you down the dark side of the street. When you come back into the light, let me know what you think.
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