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The Criterion Collection: Film Noir

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Producers' Releasing Corporation/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5874992e)

Eddie Muller, the author and noir historian, said that the film noir credo could be that “you can’t control the way the world works, only how you choose to live within it”[1]. And while film noir has a certain physical look associated with it, that of foggy streets, rainy nights, cigarette smoke swirling amongst nightclub lights, its essence is more internal and human. The characters and their substance make noir what it is, not necessarily the style.

Though the style certainly does help drive the point home, Noir was essentially an allergic reaction to the United States’ attempt to put World War II behind them and promote “true” American values, like having 1.5 kids per household and a white picket fence. But the soldiers who fought in those wars, not to mention the wives, brothers, parents, and lovers of those who left America and never came back, had stories to tell…horror stories.

A foggy night on the Hudson defines Noir's physical qualities

While post-war America is often romanticized through its colorful ads and wholesome propaganda clearly written by the victors of the world’s largest conflict (that propaganda largely being cinema), there were people suffering loss, physical injury, a lack of opportunity, and no sense of purpose. Many had fought for the freedom of the world but still lived in poverty; many who went in as baby-faced little boys came home grizzled vets but expected to be as innocent and squeaky clean as if they never took on Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.

So while the survivors at home tried to deal with images of peace and tranquility being fed to them, they lived almost double lives of quiet desperation, knowing it was all artifice. Film noir was able to bring a bit of normalcy to the cacophony of positive vibes: it showed men and women who couldn’t control the way the world worked but could choose how to live in it, as Muller’s quote shows.

In the case of Detour (1945), some choices are made trying to fit that ideal forced down the public’s throat, while in Stray Dog (1949), the same depressing event can happen to two different people, and both people can go down different paths: one good and the other bad. In the end, Film Noir is about that ethical choice…but knowing there is a grey area, as nothing is quite as black and white as the advertisements and sugary Hollywood hits of the late ’40s and ’50s would tell you.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in A Lonely Place

We hear the term noir thrown out a lot these days, especially in the modern cinema landscape. Words like “neo-noir”, “pseudo-noir”, “future noir” (or “tech noir”) invade every current review or recent retrospective. But, as Muller states, the “prime years of film noir” were 1948-1952 [2] and while more modern day films can look the part or throw out a homage, there really only is one film noir period and, for the most part, it is fully American.

While the world took notice of the film noir genre and was able to put its unique spin on it (something we will examine a bit later), it was the confluence of economic, political, emotional, and psychological matters post-WWII that defined the American experience and allowed film noir to be spawned.

Below are a number of noir films available through Criterion. Befitting the idea that film noir has a feeling and not just a look, they are a varied collection of films. Some match the stereotypical or basic film noir “look”, but others defy those expectations, offering the film noir feel dressed up in unexpected places. Criterion is obviously a brilliant curator of all cinema, but their small noir collection is truly wide-ranging and affecting. Here is a look at nine of them.

Detour (1945)

Tom Neal as the downtrodden and massively unlucky Roberts in Detour

“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Story: Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a sad-sack piano player, stuck playing the night away in a drab nightclub for measly tips and no social forward momentum. He wants to marry his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) but she’d rather go to Hollywood, something Al finds pointless. When Sue does go to California, Al finds himself emotionally lost, even finding a good tip at the club nothing special:

“So when this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted.”

Al eventually decides to come out of his stupor and hitchhike to California (he can’t afford the bus) to marry Sue. As he progresses from one state to the other, due West, he meets a motley crew of characters, including a fishy gambler with fresh scars on his hand named Charles Haskell, Jr (Edmund MacDonald) and a feisty drifter named Vera (Ann Savage), who will scream, scheme, and seduce her way into Al’s life, making it as miserable…and deadly…as possible.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) can't catch a break (or a ride) in Detour

Thoughts and Analysis: Detour was put out by Producers Releasing Corporation, one of many frowned-upon studios part of what they dubbed “Poverty Row”, for their minuscule budgets and cheap production values. As a result of PRC’s small sets and poor picture, director Edgar G. Ulmer, a Hollywood cast-off, was successful in amplifying the physical noir attributes.

Set too small to show a vibrant New York City street? Bathe it in endless fog. Need to make a nightclub look bigger? Shoot it from below and play with shadows. It also didn’t hurt that a large part of the film takes place outdoors. No set is cheaper than the one forged by nature and Ulmer used endless landscapes with gorgeous mountains as a backdrop for Al’s lonely journey from NYC to LA.

Since noir films are often personal journeys of a down-on-his-luck sort, lost in love, or finding little meaning in life, the way Al and his traveling companions feel so small compared to the grand vistas around them amplifies the nihilistic outlook of the picture. Al is, in a sense, a good person. However, when he finally gets motivated enough to change his life, bad luck befalls him in almost cosmically cruel ways.

That is why Detour is such a noir masterpiece. The losers of the world can only aspire to greatness, or, at the least, great action, when their backs are against the wall. When Haskell dies sitting up in his car in the middle of the night, presumably from a medical condition, while Al was driving, Al attempts to revive him and only makes the situation worse. When he opens the door to see if he can help Haskell further, the body falls out of the car and his head strikes a rock. Now it looks like a murder scene.

When Al’s limited view of success and happiness, long denied him, is threatened, he decides to ignore logic and dump the body. Worse, he decides to take Haskell’s identity until he can ditch the car. He’s reasoned it out in his head: he’s an innocent guy, he did nothing wrong, but no one in this rotten world would believe him. So he goes to protect himself.

In pure film noir fashion, it shows one bad decision detours your entire destiny. Naturally, Al gets mixed up with Vera, who knew Haskell and knows Al’s plight. For the remainder of the film, Vera uses her power of knowledge against Al with no clear end in sight for her sinister means. As the body count rises, the evidence builds up, and the walls close in around Al, he continues his downward spiral.

Detour is not the most visually striking film due to PRCs budget, but that lends it a raw quality that other noir films with more money could only attempt to mimic. The desperation of the loser comes down to a well-placed camera and good actors and Detour has that in spades, cheapness be-damned.

If You Want More Ulmer: On Criterion: People on Sunday (1930), a non-noir collaborative silent film involving multiple European directors; Outside of Criterion: Ulmer directed the Universal horror film The Black Cat (1934) with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the crime picture Ruthless (1948), and The Strange Woman (1946) with Hedy Lamarr.

Bonus Features on Criterion for Detour: A documentary on the restoration process for Detour, a career retrospective on Ulmer, and a review of the film itself by critic Noah Isenberg.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Detour is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, spine #966.

Brute Force (1947)

Burt Lancaster is Joe Collins in the film noir prison drama Brute Force

“That’s cemetery talk!”
“We buried ain’t we?…only we’re not dead.”

Director: Jules Dassin

Story: Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a troublesome prisoner at Westgate Penitentiary, seeing the claustrophobic conditions around him, as well as the jackboot-like treatment of his friends and cellmates by the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), as slowly worsening. Joe is well respected at Westgate and he holds the place together through alliances with other “bosses” on the inside and connections with Westgate’s kind, alcoholic doctor (Art Smith).

When a corporate entity doesn’t like how the warden is doing things and threatens his ouster, Munsey is ordered to restrict even more liberties and go tougher on the inmates. Pressed by the deteriorating living conditions, as well as the news that his wife is dying of cancer, Joe begins plans to escape the prison with his fellow cellmates and, if killing is necessary, so be it.

Joe Collins' cellmates plan their big break in Brute Force

Thoughts and Analysis: While a lot of noir stories show the fall of man through some sort of fatal choice, they are often perceived as “good” people. Take Detour above, as an example. Brute Force, however, offers no respite in terms of our “heroes”. They are prisoners and, as flashbacks indicate, have committed crimes, some worse than others.

But what makes this film particularly noir is how even the darkest of souls can feel the pressure of cruelty. And nothing is more apparent than the fact that the typically good person in main prisoner guard Captain Munsey, is a foul creature happily inflicting pain on the prisoners and, in some cases, sending them to their death in hostile, unsafe work environments. On the spectrum of depicting who is “bad”, not even the criminals can hold a candle to the smirking Captain.

“Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes.”

But that is often how the world functions anyway, in shades of grey. No one is inherently good and inherently bad. Decisions lead to the roads people travel down and those roads lead to particular fates. But the film shows that there are prisons within prisons and just because someone becomes incarcerated for one or multiple bad decisions, there still is an internal moral code and a right to be human. Some can embrace the darkness and proceed on a blacker road or some can try to maintain the dignity they have left, even in a hell like Westgate.

A man has a lot of time to think when in prison and Brute Force does a solid job of showing the introspective side of the prisoners: what they would do if they got out, what they should have done to not get inside in the first place, and how they conduct themselves when faced with an impossible situation. Just like in real life, sometimes no one wins and Brute Force, for all it does, shows that in ultra-violent fashion right down the literally explosive end.

If You Want More Dassin: On Criterion: the brilliant The Naked City (1948), which we’ll be covering a bit later, and the controversial Uptight (1968), centering around a group of black activists shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; Outside Criterion: Dassin received two Academy Award nominations for directing and writing Never on Sunday (1960), a film about an American man falling for a Grecian prostitute. He’s also known for the French crime film Rififi (1955), the wrestling noir Night and the City (1950), and the dark drama Phaedra (1962).

Extras on Criterion for Brute Force: audio commentary plus a retrospective with Paul Mason, a criminologist and barrister.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Brute Force is available on DVD, spine #383.

Moonrise (1948)

Danny and Gilly drive the dark roads of consequence

“Sometimes, murder is like love. It takes two to commit it: The man who hates and the man who’s hated. The killer and the killed.”

Director: Frank Borzage

Story: Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is forever in his dead father’s shadow, a man hung for murder when Danny was just a baby. Danny’s schoolmates, led by Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), endlessly torture the boy about his past, all the way into adulthood. One night, at a town dance in the swamps, Jerry finally pushes Danny to the edge. After a brutal fight, Danny kills Jerry and hides the body, seemingly getting away with the act.

As the mystery of Jerry’s death captivates the town, including Danny’s girlfriend Gilly (Gail Russell), the town sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn), and the town invalid Billy (Harry Morgan), Danny deals with his own personal guilt, his justification of his deed, and the idea that through a cruel twist of fate, he is beset with literal bad blood. Even if his crime is never discovered, can Danny live with his actions?

Danny (Dane Clark) is consumed by darkness, inside and out, in Moonrise

Thoughts and Analysis: In Detour, our heroes struggle was with finding out when the consequences would come? In Brute Force, they’ve already come and the characters must adapt to a new world and renew their dedication to ethics and survival. In Moonrise, however, the consequences may never come and the film examines honor, ethics, and personal responsibility.

“A coward blames what he does on other folks.”

Moonrise does an excellent job of showing the personal consequences of decision making as opposed to the lawful ones. In Detour, it is only a matter of time before the law will catch up with Al. But in Moonrise, it doesn’t catch up to Danny. If he didn’t have guilt or his own ethical code, not to mention a shadow of murder to live under, he might smile and get away scot-free. In fact, many protagonists in film noir desire such luck. Despite Al’s generally good nature in Detour, he has no issues “getting away with it” if he can. Danny does not have that option.

Though the ending of Moonrise can’t exactly be described as a happy one, it is a rare occurrence in noir for there to be absolution of the positive kind. Danny does eventually give himself up for the crime and, as a result, has sympathy towards him by the sheriff and the town. He wins the moral battle though he will likely hang, just like his father did.

Bleak? Yes, but morally sound and as happy of an ending as you can get when dealing with the specter of death. Though the film lays on the psychology a bit thick (anyone in real life who saw Danny would know he is guilty as hell about something since he is basically a maniac throughout) the internal struggle makes this a perfect match for film noir enthusiasts.

If You Want More Borzage: On Criterion: The romance/drama History Is Made At Night (1937); Outside Criterion: Borzage was literally one of the first Oscar winners ever, winning Best Director (for a drama) for the film 7th Heaven (1927). He also won another Directing Oscar for Bad Girl (1931), a pre-Code romance nominated for Best Picture that year. Moonrise was one of the last films Borzage directed. He has 107 directing credits from 1913 to 1961. He also has 113 acting credits.

Extras on Criterion for Moonrise: a conversation with film scholars Herve Dumont and Peter Cowie on director Frank Borzage.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Moonrise is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, spine #921.

The Naked City (1948)

The Naked City consumes you when you try to escape

“A lamb led to slaughter. An idiot, robbed of self respect…from then on I was drunk with her, lost.”

Director: Jules Dassin

Story: Jean Dexter has been murdered. The New York Police Department’s Homicide Unit, led by feisty Lt. Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), greenhorn, family man detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), and the unit’s crack squad of forensic scientists and pavement pounders must find the killer. Searching the streets, hotels, apartments, offices, shops, and bars of New York City, Homicide will encounter hucksters, entertainers, immigrants, doctors, lawyers, and everyone in-between in what is only one of eight million stories in the Naked City.

Lt. Muldoon looks on at The Naked City, one case solved, millions more to go

Thoughts and Analysis:

“There’s your city, Halloran. Take a good look. Jean Dexter is dead, and the answer must be somewhere down there…”

The Naked City exists in two realms. It works as both a Law and Order like police procedural (the film would go on to exist as its own television property in the late ’50s and early ’60s) as well as a typical film noir. The physical noir elements don’t really kick in until the end, when the killer’s motivations and associates are revealed, but the structure of consequences and decision making that makes up the essence of film noir is ever-present.

The battle lines between good and evil are made a bit clearer here: we have cops and we have, well, robbers. We know where each major side stands so it is in the witnesses, suspects, and victims that we see the effect of a postwar America on the populace. The Naked City‘s great pride is that it was filmed entirely on location in New York City, everywhere from the interviews in apartments to the police station itself.

But much like how Detour used the desert landscapes to exacerbate the smallness of Al Roberts, Jules Dassin, who expertly directed the claustrophobic Brute Force, gives us the breadth and scope of the city and how small it makes the characters feel, especially those chasing the criminals. But while we know the cops are on the side of good and we know the murderers and thieves are on the side of evil, the people that get mixed up in this business come from varying backgrounds and have multiple motivations.

This is made clear through two ancillary characters. The first is smooth grifter Frank Niles (Howard Duff) who has to play the role of a successful businessman to get his girls and survive the streets but, is in reality, a shyster conning his way to his next meal and planning large robberies of the wealthy he so desires to be. But, until his partner-in-crime Jean Dexter was murdered, it has worked: he’s got a high-class girlfriend and nice suits aplenty. But we also learn that Niles isn’t necessarily an evil man, but someone trying to place catch up in an economy and city that is eating many alive.

The other is Doctor Lawrence Stoneman (House Jameson), an affluent elder physician who fell easily in love with Jean Dexter who, as we discover, was just using the doctor to help herself and Frank get access to high society marks for their robbery scheme. In classic femme fatale fashion, another noir hallmark, Jean used the power of sex to lure a man out of their comfort zone and into hazardous territory. Once again, Stoneman isn’t evil, just easily seduced and tricked and his decision, by proxy, led to burglary and death.

The actual killer himself was not involved with Jean and Frank’s robbery scheme, committing his own robberies on what he thought was a high society dame with lots of her own jewelry (which was, of course, all stolen) and killing Jean during his intended robbery. It is another example of the realm of decisions and consequences: you become a criminal, you end up mixing in other criminal’s company. While some may rob, like you, others will kill and the victim may be those you love or yourself.

This film was an inspiration on Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, which we will be discussing later.

Extras on Criterion for The Naked City: audio commentary, an interview with film historian Dana Polan, an interview with writer James Sanders, and a live conversation with Dassin in 2004.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, The Naked City is available on DVD, spine #380.

White Heat (1949)

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) trusts no one in White Heat

“It ain’t just like waitin’ for some human being who wants to kill ya. Cody ain’t human. Fill him full of lead and he’ll still come at ya.”

Director: Raoul Walsh

Story: Wanted criminal Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) has just pulled off a deadly train heist in California, but as the police draw nearer, Cody takes a gamble and confesses to a separate crime in another state, willing to take a limited jail sentence there to avoid being pinned for the heist in Cali.

The problem? Many on the inside want Cody dead and the California police aren’t giving up so easily, seeing through Cody’s ruse and installing an undercover cop, Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) as Cody’s cellmate. With a deteriorating mental condition, an unhealthy fixation on his mother, and Fallon whispering conspiracies and falsehoods to coax him into admitting his crimes, Cody is due to explode…and take everyone down with him.

Top of the world ma! James Cagney's explosive end in White Heat

Thoughts and Analysis: This film is a borderline noir. It has more in common with the gangster pictures that made Cagney such a huge star in the ’30s. And that is fine. It is, of course, shot well but isn’t particularly atmospheric or noir-like. What puts it over the noir border though is Cagney’s acting choices and the writer’s decision to make Cody a psychopath whose decisions and personal hang-ups define his actions.

We’ve gone over the fact that noir is dictated by decision making and the consequences of those decisions and Cody Jarrett is a peculiar case in the noir canon because he is decidedly evil and fully in control of his fate. It is only when personal tragedy strikes him that he becomes personally destructive and the only way a character of that magnitude and menace can go out is in ever explosive glory.

“I told you to keep away from that radio. If that battery is dead it’ll have company.”

Gangster films, at least until The Godfather, slowly devolved into pure pulp. You could expect the “now, seeeee” kind of dialogue and the two-dimensional cops/robbers dynamic. In White Heat, Cody Jarrett offers a minor respite from that. Yes, he is a cruel and savage man but he has debilitating headaches and devotion so strong for his mother that I’m sure psychologists had field days breaking it down upon the film’s release.

It is this choice to show a tragic flaw in Cody’s decision making that makes this rise above the gangster tropes. We aren’t exactly rooting for Cody but we know that his meticulous journey is at peril if there is even one misstep. In this case, it is the death of his mother, a circumstance he had to know was possible but, unlike him, he never planned for. Once that happens, and at the film’s beginning you know it is inevitable, it is Cody’s maniacal loss of planning and thoughtfulness that leads to his downfall. In the end, his fatal choice was adding up over time, as opposed to happening in one moment, like in other noir films we’ve examined. As expected, his tragic flaw leads to a literally explosive end. Top of the world ma!

If You Want More Walsh: There are no other Walsh films on the Criterion Channel at this time. However, the eye-patch wearing director has an eclectic history, acting in the infamous The Birth of a Nation (1915), before directing a number of crime films (including The Roaring Twenties in 1939, also with James Cagney, and High Sierra in 1941, with Humphrey Bogart), some westerns (including The Big Trail in 1930, known for John Wayne’s first starring role), war films, comedies, light fantasy, and other genre films, with the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks.

Extras on Criterion for White Heat: none, though the film is part of an eight-film collection on the channel entitled Mommy Issues.

Availability: The film is only streaming on the Criterion Channel and is not available as part of the actual Criterion Collection itself (no spine number). It is easily bought as a standard non-Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray however.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) looks for vindication from something or someone In A Lonely Place

“I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, I lived a few weeks while he loved me.”

Director: Nicholas Ray

Story: Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a fading screenwriter, more interested in drinks than work. When his agent asks him to consider adapting a popular book for the screen, the uninterested Dix asks the hat-check girl at his favorite club, Mildred (Martha Stewart), to come home with him to summarize and explain the book. Though a romantic liaison might have been planned, Dix grows bored of the dorky Mildred, especially after seeing his new neighbor across the courtyard, a mysterious beauty named Laurel (Gloria Grahame), and sends Mildred home late into the night.

The next day, it is discovered Mildred was murdered and Dix is the prime suspect. Even though Laurel is not sure if Dix committed the crime or not, she supports Dix’s alibi and the two become an item. Despite sizzling chemistry, Laurel begins to notice Dix’s violent habits and troubled history leading her to wonder, is Dix a legitimate suspect of Mildred’s murder or just misunderstood?

Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) faces questions of his innocence from the sultry Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place

Thoughts and Analysis: In A Lonely Place would not be made today, plain and simple, else it be titled Toxic Masculinity: The Movie. But that is what makes it such a noir staple: a man’s need for acceptance, to reach the heights of what is expected of him, in a society that demands it. Bogart’s Dix Steele is one of the most tortured individuals in the film noir canon, fighting innumerable demons and myriad ghosts of disrespect he sees at every corner, challenging his legitimacy. If a friend gets hurt along the way, so be it.

A lot of the older actors, like Bogart, don’t get a lot of credit for how deep they go into their character work. It was certainly a different style of acting, restricted by censors as well as the technical limitations of the time. The idea of “method” acting was, if at all, in its early stages and the type of roles involving weight gain or loss, a la Christian Bale, was pretty unheard of. A star was a star and you got what you got. And Bogart was a true star.

But years of mimicry and caricature can limit the understanding of how truly great actors like Bogart were. Dix Steele is a sociopath who only comes alive at the possibility of violence or ill-will. He wants love, but only on his terms. Luckily, the sexy Gloria Grahame plays a femme fatale of equally dubious morals though as the murder of Mildred goes ever unsolved, and Dix becomes more unstable, she begins to question if her intrigue in the mysterious man may cost her her life.

In A Lonely Place does a splendid job of making the audience, as well Grahame’s character of Laurel, question themselves. We know from the events literally shown on-screen that Dix did not commit Mildred’s murder but Dix becomes so willfully destructive and so detached from the concept of even being tied to the murder that you have to wonder, before the big reveal: “did he actually do it”? Postwar men were facing a lot of expectation and the thought of not meeting those expectations buried many. Dix is a character who will sacrifice a lot, maybe even his dignity, to live up to those expectations.

“It was his story against mine, but of course, I told my story better.”

If You Want More Ray: There are no other Nicholas Ray films on the Criterion Channel, though his films They Live By Night (1948, Spine #880) and Bigger Than Life (1956, Spine #507) are available on Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray. Outside Criterion: one of Ray’s biggest contributions to cinema was the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause (1955), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for writing the screenplay, as well as the biblical epic King of Kings (1961), with Jeffrey Hunter, and the Joan Crawford western Johnny Guitar (1954).

Extras on Criterion for In A Lonely Place: an introduction to the film’s new Criterion edition, a short conversation with brilliant crime novelist Megan Abbott, an audio commentary by film historian Dana Polan, a short documentary about Ray, a conversation with biographer Vincent Curcio on Grahame, and the Curtis Hanson hosted short film called In A Lonely Place Revisited.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, In A Lonely Place is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, spine #810.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) will resort to anything to get the best story in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

“It’s a good story today. Tomorrow, they’ll wrap a fish in it.”

Director: Billy Wilder

Story: Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) will do anything for a story, and he’s been fired from a dozen newspapers to show for it. Finally out of luck with every major newspaper in the United States, Tatum gets stuck at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, peddling local stories of desert life. But then, the story of a lifetime drops in his lap…er, rather, falls down a hole.

While traveling out of town for a lame story about a rattlesnake hunt, Tatum, with young photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur), stumble onto Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a treasure hunter who went too far into an old Indian cave and got stuck after a cave-in. Though Leo’s rescue might only take a day to complete, Tatum sees headlines for weeks, maybe even months, and concocts a plan to increase the drama and delay Leo’s rescue.

Aided by Leo’s impatient wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who is looking for any excuse to leave him but can’t say no to the allure of money, aids Tatum in his quest for the endless, perfect story. As crowds convene and the literal circus comes to town to experience Leo’s ever-dramatic plight, his life hangs in the balance. But does anyone truly care though?

"Tell the Truth", a motto Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has trouble following in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

Thoughts and Analysis:

“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”

Film noir is reflective of the American experience and what could be more relevant in the United States today than a movie about the news cycle and how it is manipulated and perceived. On the surface, Ace in the Hole looks like a Trump supporter’s wet dream about all the “fake news” being spilled about their orange Julius Caesar. But Billy Wilder’s film is, of course, more an indictment of opportunism at the expense of humanity. It just happens to use the highly vulnerable news media as the carrier for its message.

If anything, the film was anti-Trump 65 years before Trump was even a thing: beware the conman, beware of gaslighting, beware of a good story with an empty promise. Ace in the Hole shows that with the right words, not the right actions, a group of people can be compelled to follow anything.

The film is aided by the ferocious presence of Kirk Douglas. Just like his son, Michael would be decades later, Kirk’s infectious attitude and chameleon ability to be both slimy and likable at the same time keeps the audience of Ace in the Hole continually in a state of flux. You can admire Tatum’s smooth talk, his clear talent at developing and telling a story, and his tenacious nature at pursuing that story. However, you also know his interests are always about himself and any development is simply for personal gain and increased fame. Yet, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Wait, who were we talking about again?

In typical film noir fashion, Tatum’s choices create an ever-growing snowball that, even when he realizes the error of his ways, it is far too late to do anything to stop them. As we’ve often discussed throughout this analysis of noir: actions have consequences. And Tatum knows that a manipulated lie or a mutated story can make people do anything, even when it’s against their own interests. Sixty-eight-and-a-half years later, the world is full of Tatums…but can they stop themselves from making that fatal choice before he did. Signs point to no.

If You Want More Wilder: Though no other Wilder solo films appear on the streaming channel, one of Wilder’s most well-known classics, Some Like It Hot (1959), is available on DVD/Blu-Ray (spine #950). Wilder’s other classics include Double Indemnity (1944), The Apartment (1960), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and Irma la Douce (1963).

Extras on Criterion for Ace in the Hole: audio commentary, a short documentary on Wilder, a conversation with Wilder from 1986, an original interview with Kirk Douglas from 1984, Ace co-screenwriter Walter Newman’s personal reflections on the film, and an afterword with Spike Lee.

Availability: Ace in the Hole is only streaming on the Criterion Channel until June 30th but it is available on DVD/Blu-Ray, spine #396.

Though film noir is a very American product, it is easily adaptable. If America’s changes post-WWII were more psychological, Europe and Japan experienced it on a more physical level. As in the examples below, Austria was split between four victor-nations and many were trying to escape what they saw as a brutal future. Add to that the literal bombed out architecture and you had society playing dress up in a political and physical hellscape.

If America didn’t invent the noir, then Japan surely would have eventually. In a culture whose diety was deconstructed, military abolished, and cities leveled to the ground with the full power of the atom, Japan was literally a nation reborn and millions lay in the streets destitute, surrounded by the rubble of not only their physical homes but what they thought their country inherently was.

Japan had deep wounds post WWII and through both noir, as brilliantly executed by legend Akira Kurosawa, and with Ishiro Honda’s kaiju films, namely Godzilla, Japan was able to show its inner struggle on screen for the world to see. Of all the noir films presented in this piece, Japan’s Stray Dog might actually be the most relevant and affecting.

The Third Man (1949)

The bombed out streets of Vienna add a level of menace when shadows come in Carol Reed's The Third Man

“A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.”

Director: Carol Reed

Story: American pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) visits post-war Austria at the request of his life-long friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, once he arrives in Vienna, he discovers Lime was hit by a car. Smelling something fishy, Martins decides to conduct his own investigation despite the combined efforts of the American, French, English, and Soviet police forces ruling it an accident.

After meeting Lime’s Czechoslavakian lover Anna (Alida Valli) and discovering Lime’s true profession in the struggling city, Martin, a stranger in a strange land, must confront his own demons, Lime’s dangerous associates, the ever-present police, and his own sense of attraction to Anna.

Underground Vienna provides danger and intrigue in Carol Reed's The Third Man

Thoughts and Analysis: Sometimes the hype is just too much. The Third Man is perhaps the most popular and praised film on this list. It was literally one of the first Criterion films to be put in the collection and is consistently ranked on IMDB’s Top Rated movies list (as of this writing, it stands at #136). Perhaps because of its standing as a pinnacle of filmmaking, I didn’t particularly fall in love with it because I expected so much.

That’s not to say the film is not great. Robert Krasker’s Oscar-winning cinematography, for one, is a towering success. In fact, when the term “film noir” comes up, Krasker’s shot selections are some of the first images I, and many others, think of instantly. Scenes of Holly, in the foreground, hiding behind bombed out pillars, while his pursuers, not even visible in the far background except for the immense shadows they cast on a nearby wall, is foreboding, otherworldly, and tense.

But that is how the film is supposed to feel overall as the noir environment of seedy nightclubs, foggy streets, and men and women of dubious professions is transported from postwar America, where the buildings are at least intact, to quadruply divided, and literally bombed out, Vienna, where the ghosts of war still haunt the streets. Our eyes and ears, the American Holly, is thrown into this landscape with little to prepare him.

“You were born to be murdered.”

Unlike a lot of the other protagonists we’ve examined so far, the consequences of Holly’s choices do not necessarily decide the fate of his physical life nor does it lead him to a life of crime. The only damage that can be done is to himself mentally as he discovers the world is not as tidy nor are his friends as clean as he suspected. Holly’s decisions lead to the consequence of truth, and sometimes the truth is not worth finding. Holly’s journey is more metaphorical as it leads him, as film noir does in general, to the realization that the world is not as advertised: there are damaged people, damaged neighborhoods, and damaged morals. Sometimes it takes someone stepping out of their comfort zone, in this case, an American in war-torn Europe, to see what may be really happening on the homefront.

If You Want More Reed: On Criterion: one of his most popular film noirs Odd Man Out (1947), with James Mason, the drama The Fallen Idol (1948), the light fantasy A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), and the Alec Guinness spy-comedy Our Man in Havana (1959); Outside Criterion: amongst Reed’s thirty-three directing credits, some of his most acclaimed came at the end of his career with The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), nominated for five Academy Awards and starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison, and the Best Picture winner Oliver! (1968), which also won an additional four Oscars, including Best Director for Reed, an honorary choreography award, and an additional six nominations.

Extras on Criterion for The Third Man: audio commentary with Tony Gilroy and Steven Soderbergh, an audio commentary with Dana Polan, a full reading of the original screenplay, written by Graham Greene, an introduction to the film by Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary Shadowing The Third Man (2005), directed by Frederick Baker and narrated by John Hurt, an original Austrian TV special celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary, and eight other short featurettes.

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, The Third Man is likely only available from third-party sellers on DVD/Blu-Ray as the Criterion edition, spine #64, is out of print.

Stray Dog (1949)

Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) looks on as leads to his stolen Colt go up in smoke in Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you gonna let it destroy you?”

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Story: Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), a rookie cop in the Homicide Division of the Tokyo Police, is returning home from work on a crowded bus when his gun, a Colt pistol, is stolen from his pocket. Despite chasing the thief through a neighborhood, he gets away and Murakami is left demoralized that he lost his gun and fears for his job.

While he is not fired, the Colt ends up being used in a series of escalating crimes. With the guilt of robbery and murder falling on his shoulders for losing the gun in the first place, Murakami, aided by wise, old Burglary detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), penetrates the Tokyo underworld and black market, in the midst of a debilitating heat wave, to find the killer before he strikes again.

The weight of guilt on Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is represented by the pounding rain in Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog

Thoughts and Analysis:

“They say there’s no such thing as a bad man. Only bad situations…”

When I sat down to plot this piece out, I wasn’t expecting to dip into the foreign noir films because I wanted to focus on the true American nature of the genre. Like comic books, film noir has its origins in the US and is a rare export of creativity the US can claim as its own. However, leave it to the master of Japanese cinema (hell, all cinema), Akira Kurosawa, to adapt the genre to fit into his society’s context.

So when I picked Stray Dog to be one of the two foreign representatives available on Criterion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it might just be my favorite noir film, not only of this collection but perhaps of all time.

Take the quote at the very top of this section. You can let bad luck make you or destroy you. In Stray Dog, we have our hero, the passionate and moral (to a fault) Murakami (an astounding Toshiro Mifune, who just bleeds his raw emotions onto the screen), and our damaged killer, Yusa (Isao Kimura). Both men are veterans of WWII, thus, losers of the world’s greatest conflict. Both, upon returning home, were personally robbed of their only possessions and returned to a bombed husk of a city with no money and nothing to claim as their own.

Yet Murakami chose a life of justice and became a cop. He was put in the exact same circumstances as Yusa who, when bad luck befell him, decided to become a pick-pocket and someone involved in the black market gun trade. I’ve consistently mentioned choices and consequences in my analysis of noir and Stray Dog has the personification of those noir elements in Murakami and Yusa.

Add Kurosawa’s brilliant decision to have the film take place in a crushing heat wave, where it isn’t enough that the weight of the world rests on our heroes shoulders but he has to sweat through his suit while he does it, and the foreboding approach of storm clouds and ceaseless rain, and you have yourself a noir masterpiece of idealism and ethical conundrums coming face to face.

If you haven’t seen any of the films on this list and need something to start with, Stray Dog is my ultimate recommendation. It is everything the noir genre sets out to be and the fact that it comes from another country, yet is so adaptable to the American understanding and its history, makes it all the more powerful.

If You Want More Kurosawa: I previously covered his all-time classic Rashomon (1950) here, but his list of seminal cinema is never-ending. There are 27 total Kurosawa films streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Extras on Criterion for Stray Dog: audio commentary

Availability: Besides streaming on the Criterion Channel, Stray Dog is available on DVD, spine #233.

I’ll be returning in August with another look at Japanese cinema available on the Criterion Channel (for Part 1, go here). Also keep your eyes open for my Criterion Channel guide to War films, coming in September.

[1] Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (California: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pg 27.

[2] Eddie Muller, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (California: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pg 36.

Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little-read books Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film and Obsessive Compulsive: Poetry Formed From Chaos. Will is a film critic at 25YL but also specializes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the occasional horror review. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers and lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA with his two daughters.

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