A MAN STANDS BESIDE A DESERT HIGHWAY WITH his thumb out. He's an ambitious dreamer, a musician hitchhiking west to join his fiancée. He accepts a ride and, in a moment of astonishing bad luck, becomes answerable for the death of a stranger who picks him up. He's innocent but can never hope to convince the police; there are no witnesses to back up his improbable story. So in one of those bold, even less probable brainstorms that elevates his predicament to the level of nightmare, he hastily assumes the dead man's identity — and just as quickly runs afoul of the one woman in the world who can expose him, a sadistic stranger played at an unforgettable tilt by Ann Savage.
The film I'm describing is Edgar Ulmer's 1945 Detour — a B movie in the purest sense, 68 minutes long without an ounce of fat on it, a film born for the bottom half of some phantom double bill. That it dates from 1945 is significant. A world war was ending, and an era of unprecedented optimism and prosperity about to commence. At the same time, a disobedient breed of motion picture — doting on thugs, killers and thieves of both sexes — was busily depicting the shadow side of this optimism. A jittery sense prevailed in these films, born not just of the war but of the Depression that preceded it, that our biggest dreams are the most doomed, that blind chance, bad coincidence and wicked company will forever beset what is best in us, from every conceivable angle.
Such detours were viewed in America as cheap throwaways, often shot by foreign-born directors eager to make their mark (Ulmer, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger). In Europe, the ancestral mark left on these films by German Expressionism validated their dark beauty, and in the '40s the French coined a haunting name for them, films noirs. Literally “black films,” a reference not only to their gorgeous, shadowy visuals but to their energetic, blackhearted philosophies. “Noir” entered the American movie idiom in the '60s, and attained more general use in the '80s with the rise of the video store and pay TV, usually to describe such A-list classics as Laura, Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Killing and Touch of Evil. (When young, I mixed up “nuit” and “soir” and assumed films noirs meant “night films,” a mistake that makes me happy — I still think of them that way, and wish we had an American term as lucid and evocative as the French.)
The gritty festival of lesser-known noirs screening this week at the American Cinematheque admirably avoids the canon of widely known classics. Robert Wise weighs in with Born To Kill (1947), director Jules Dassin collaborated with writer Richard Brooks on Brute Force (also '47), Budd Boetticher departs from his beloved Western landscape with The Killer Is Loose (1956), Richard Fleischer shows up with Armored Car Robbery and Violent Saturday, but that's about as high up the food chain of esteemed names we're permitted to climb. The rest are a pack of unpretentious mavericks and renegades — Russell Rouse, Edmund Goulding, Felix Feist, Phil Karlson — whose honor is that they refuse to be boring and fight to grab your attention from the very titles: Nightmare Alley, Wicked Woman, The Narrow Margin, Brute Force, Thieves' Highway, The Devil Thumbs a Ride.
The aim to hold a mass audience in thrall was so primal in these films that they mapped a whole other America than the happy musicals and family fare that got the box-office glory in those days. They hold up better, too. Pace, structure and dialogue all crackle with feverish life, a delirium necessary to forgive the often staggering gaps in basic logic. Melodrama and overacting are the most familiar pitfalls in these movies, though seen across the gulf of 50 years such abysmal aspects take on the fascination of grand canyons seen from the air. Then again, the incidental writing is often light and sharp, a delight to the ear. “You ought to put on some meat,” croons a drunken landlady to a boarder in Born To Kill. “You're so skinny. Can't grab a hold of you anywhere.” The boarder smoothes her palms against her hips with a sultry grin. “I haven't noticed anybody having any trouble.”
This was the deeper appeal of noir pictures, then and now: They were for grown-ups. The characters moved and talked like people who actually had sex when they were behind closed doors. As censorship relaxed in the '60s, the unconscious needs of the mass audience changed shape, even at the margins. Film noir gave way to the exploitation operas of Roger Corman and Samuel Z Arkoff, and inspired the A-list renaissance of the '70s that gave us McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Chinatown and Taxi Driver. More recently, it has been born again as tech noir (Blade Runner, Terminator), neo-noir (Red Rock West, Hard Eight, Out of Sight), and it informs the sensibilities of movies as unlike as Blue Velvet and Bulworth. But there is only one real “film noir,” a set of movies that belong to a specific moment in history. Stanley Kubrick once remarked that crime, like war, is great “shadow activity,” in the Jungian sense of an action that lays bare the unconscious. Noir not only suspends but short-circuits our disbelief, as dreams do. The American dream, as lived from 1945 to 1960, could ask for no more dazzling set of shadows than these provide.