This month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film series “The Naked City: New York Noir and Neorealism” is highlighting the infusion of street photography and documentary edge into (mostly) crime films and melodramas.
On the one hand, it's a chance to see Hollywood's take on the postwar New York milieu that the young photojournalist Stanley Kubrick (whose exhibit continues at LACMA) documented along with key artists such as Weegee; on the other, it's a chance for Angelenos to revisit outstanding films noir and discover rarely screened masterworks.
First among the latter is The Thief (1952), showing Friday, Feb. 15 after Otto Preminger's mid-career Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). The thief is a Washington D.C. physicist (Ray Milland) smuggling nuclear research through a foreign spy ring; when he learns the FBI is on his trail, he makes quick efforts to flee the country by way of The Big Apple.
While the premise (written by D.O.A.'s Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, who also directed) isn't anything special, The Thief is gripping for an unusual reason: there isn't a scrap of dialogue in the entire film, a unique modus operandi for a sound feature.
It opens with a ringing phone, unanswered — a code the conspirators use to communicate. The physicist's world of isolation and paranoia is both reflected and intensified by his mute surroundings. Notes are passed, photographs are taken, microfilm is traded and tensions mount through the film's careful mixture of visual and aural cues.
Rather than attempting to “justify” its lack of dialogue, the movie increasingly stretches its conceit, rendering personal interactions and even chases without a single blurted word. Less a typical noir than something resembling a European art film (Robert Bresson, I'm looking at you), it's a film that demands its own rules of engagement.
On Saturday, Feb. 16, two uncommonly sensitive movies tap into the perspectives of their child protagonists. First up is Little Fugitive (1953), a landmark indie production about a seven-year-old Brooklynite who, tricked into thinking that he harmed his older brother, runs away to wander the crowded beaches and amusements of Coney Island.
Photojournalist Morris Engel (who learned filmmaking by assisting Paul Strand on his classic docudrama Native Land) used a custom-built, handheld 35mm camera to shoot the movie, which was edited by his wife, Ruth Orkin; the sporadic dialogue was post-synched, Italian neorealist-style.
It became a European sensation, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and it made a strong impression on the budding French New Wave, and it's easy to see why. With the slimmest scenario as framework, the film candidly captures the everyday beauty of a boy exploring his world, learning its rules as he fearlessly attempts to discover his place in it.
The Window (1949) follows with an intense, Oscar-winning performance by child star Bobby Driscoll as an imaginative boy prone to telling fibs. When he sleeps on the fire escape to beat the heat, he witnesses a murder that his well-meaning parents later dismiss as a fabrication. Director Ted Tetzlaff (a cinematographer of distinction) not only builds exquisite suspense as the story evolves, but also strikes just the right tone between a child's earnestness and the dangers lurking behind the facades of the adult world.
Though it's not a standard in the noir repertory, it deserves to be, especially as a companion piece to titles such as The Fallen Idol or The Night of the Hunter that also pivot around the messy intersection of juvenile and adult perspectives. It shirks the theatricality of the former and the phantasm of the latter to offer a surprisingly concrete portrait of mid-century New York tenements, working class communities strewn with laundry and dilapidated architecture; its climactic chase through a crumbling building qualifies it as a “rubble film” and suggests an affinity with classic European films shot in the detritus of World War II.