Sixty years after its birth, film noir continues to engage us — in the sharp intake of breath in a darkened theater, in the shock of familiarity as characters spiral into oblivion, twisted into action by lust, boredom, sloth or fury. Meanwhile, anxious programmers at rep houses and film archives attempt to feed our appetite for the genre, unearthing obscure films to play alongside the masterworks of Lang, Ray and Losey, and sometimes stretching the definition of noir until all sense of period and style seems lost. This week and next, the American Cinematheque's Fifth Annual Festival of Film Noir offers a chance to revisit some classics of the style, and to discover any number of fine films that, while skirting the edges of noir, also help to define it.
The spirit of Orson Welles hangs over film noir — in his recent book You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, Andrew Sarris cites Citizen Kane as one of the fonts of the style — and he is represented in the festival by two alumni: Norman Foster, co-director of Welles' Journey Into Fear, and Mark Robson, who edited Journey Into Fear and worked uncredited alongside Robert Wise on Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Foster's fine Woman on the Run (1950) — in which Ann Sheridan comes to appreciate her estranged husband, both eyewitness and suspect in a murder investigation, while trying to stay one step ahead of both the police's and the mob's attempts to track him down — shows a strong Welles influence, especially in the San Francisco locales and in the taut finale, shot at the oceanside amusement park used in The Lady From Shanghai. Robson's early film for producer Val Lewton, The Seventh Victim (1943), while existing outside the noir universe of gunplay and grime, is a dark, supernaturally tinged thriller that holds to the genre's penchant for secretive and flawed characters.
Indeed, what separates noir from the social realism of the 1930s (and from films like Robson's 1950 exercise in moralism, The Edge of Doom, starring Dana Andrews as a priest attempting to steer a young priest killer, played by Farley Granger, toward redemption) is its refusal to give social motivations to its characters. Noir heroes may be tormented by loss or corrupted by urban life, but they are not chiefly determined by their surroundings. Instead, the style stresses the irrational in its characters and asks us to empathize with them in spite — or perhaps because — of it. This change in emphasis shows up in the two Nicholas Ray films in the series, They Live by Night (1949) and On Dangerous Ground (1952). The former, Ray's directorial debut, finds him still under the sway of his New York socialist-theater roots; Bowie (Granger) and Keechie's (Cathy O'Donnell) doomed romance is clearly shaped by their rural poverty (as it still is in Thieves Like Us, Robert Altman and Calder Willingham's adaptation of the same novel). By the early 1950s, amid postwar prosperity and rampant McCarthyism, writers and directors looked within their characters for motivation, and often found nothing. In On Dangerous Ground, for example, Robert Ryan, the most vivid of all noir antiheroes, portrays his embittered cop as simply lost, without hope of redemption even by Ida Lupino's sainted exile.
The most revolutionary aspect of film noir, then, was its insistence, at the height of the 1950s, that we empathize with the emotionally blunted, the psychotic, the morally bankrupt — the very class of disenfranchised people about which that conformist decade was in denial. Robert Walker's charming oedipal monster in Strangers on a Train (1951) is infinitely more sympathetic than Farley Granger's opportunist jock, and the spectacle of John Garfield swallowed by corruption in Force of Evil (1948) leaves us stung by recognition. Meanwhile, as the eras cycle around again, and dissent is once more characterized in the media as betrayal, film noir speaks to us all the more urgently.