Sunday, April 10, 2011


Film blogger Maurizio Roca is currently doing a countdown of his top 50 films noirs at the Wonders in the Dark blog Any such project begs the questions: what is film noir? what is it about? when does it begin? when does it end? Any attempt to periodize a genre that was defined by critics after the fact is bound to start a debate. Roca has elected to confine his countdown to English-language films shot in black-and-white between 1941 and 1958, though he concedes that the "classical" period could be extended in time in either direction. Other critics would want to admit foreign-language films like the work of Jean-Pierre Melville or the Nikkatsu Noirs that have recently won recognition here. Others might object to the exclusion of noirs in color on the premise that noir is a matter of theme rather than cinematography. The arguments will go on because noir is a slippery concept encompassing a wide range of influences and going in several directions at once. Thinking about when noir can be said to have ended, it occurred to me that you could define a subcategory of late noirs that have a common apocalyptic mood, by either tapping in to Fifties fears of nuclear war and radiation or by self-consciously declaring a violent end to a style of crime movie. The most obvious examples of what I mean in each respect are Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, with its "Pandora's box" conflagration at the end, and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, which turns a botched bank robbery into a miniature race war with an mutually-destructive climax. Add to those Irving Lerner's terse thriller from 1959, the same year as Odds, which substitutes the fear of radiation for fear of the Bomb while telling a tough, traditional crime story.

A common element of these late noirs is the idea that the oldschool criminal is in over his head when he messes, knowingly or not, with forces far beyond his control or ken. Kiss Me Deadly is the model here, as Mike Hammer mulishly carries on his pursuit of a "great whatzit" that could destroy him, but you could also extend the idea back to Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, in which a pickpocket gets reluctantly mixed-up in a commie spy case. City of Fear may be the most blatant statement of this theme. It opens with Vince Ryker (the conveniently named Vince Edwards) on the lam after a prison break, accompanied by a dying accomplice. Along with his freedom, Vince claims a prize. As we learn later, he'd heard from prison gossip that the infirmary kept a supply of heroin for experimental purposes. On his way out, Vince grabs a cylinder containing what he estimates as a pound of the pure stuff. If he can arrange to have the smack cut and put out on the street, he figures it'll be worth a million dollars to him.

What Vince doesn't know, since he can't open the canister, is that it isn't heroin but Cobalt-60 inside. Having removed the metal cylinder from its lead casing, he's exposing himself and everyone he encounters to dangerous levels of radiation. Allowed to run loose, he could contaminate the entire city of Los Angeles. A police investigation team equipped with Geiger counters sweeps the streets in search of the fugitive, but keeps its work under wraps in order to prevent a panic. The problem with that approach is that they can't make clear to Vince's uncooperative criminal cronies the danger they're in if they deal with him. His moll is already contaminated but won't rat him out. A suspicious shoe salesman assumes that Vince is carrying heroin and looks for ways to get the drugs while getting rid of Vince. Another sleazeball interrogated by the cops assumes that Vince has something important and decides to horn in on his deal with the shoe dealer. Vince himself is paranoid enough as a fugitive, and the radiation poisoning isn't helping matters. On top of that, he has to worry about his cronies double crossing him and taking his precious cylinder. They all behave exactly as you would expect, and because they all want a part of the score no one who knows Vince is going to tell the cops, who face a countdown before the mayor goes public with the threat. A handful of pathetic people are playing their usual petty game for higher stakes than any can imagine....

Vince isn't entirely paranoid. Lots of people are out to get him (above). Below, his moll (Patricia Blair) faces the music from a Geiger counter.

We're in a sleazier place than prime film noir, which rarely deals with drugs in my experience, and the youthful Edwards gives a juvenile-delinquent quality to his delirious protagonist. He is as doomed a protagonist as noir can offer (except maybe for Edmond O'Brien's poisoned hero in D.O.A.), and Edwards gives him just the right blend of stupid bravado and paranoia.

Vince and his precious (foreground)

Director Lerner helps him along with nicely edited sequences illustrating Vince's suspicions as he scans the streets for enemies or flees from imagined watchers. Lerner even jump cuts within shots in an almost avant-garde way to highlight Vince's fragmented, brittle perceptions. The director also makes excellent use of urban locations and hand-held cameras while also getting maximum noir value from cinematographer Lucien Ballard whenever night or shadows fall. Icing on the cake is a young Jerry Goldsmith's bombastic modernist score -- one of his first for a feature film. It sounds like exactly the sort of soundtrack one of my late noirs should have.

Lucien Ballard's cinematography gives City of Fear instant noir cred. Below, production design underlines Vince's paranoia (check out the eye on that sign).

It's possible that filmmakers were making self-conscious noirs (or would that make them "neo-noirs?") by 1959, but a late noir like City of Fear is more likely a self-conscious synthesis, an updating of noir tropes and themes for a modern world that must have made the original noir milieu of the 1940s seem long ago and far away. Just as we began to see "late westerns" around the same time that dealt with the end of the outlaw world of the Old West, late noirs seem to portray the last days of a dying breed -- in that respect, you could also throw in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, which starts with an explosion. It may be no accident that crime films soon took a nostalgic turn, with many Sixties films dealing with the legendary gangsters and robbers of the Twenties and Thirties. Whether they declared an end to a genre or not, films like City of Fear do seem forcefully to declare an end to an era, and Lerner's film in particular does so in uncompromising fashion.


dfordoom said...

Sounds like it's worth seeing. I tend to think of most noirs from Kiss Me Deadly onwards as more neo-noir than noir, because of the self-consciousness you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Jon Tuska explains film noir:
Good read.