In Dark Places 

New DVD set highlights five film noir classics and the ways they define the American character

New DVD set highlights five film noir classics and the ways they define the American character

Film noir borrowed liberally from German expressionism, and most of the genre's best directors were foreign-born, but noir is still fundamentally American—like jazz and comic strips. The genre defines America by tracing its shadow; as critic Robert Warshow wrote, it gives audiences permission to say "no" to the culture's pervasive "yes." Its heroes are bastards, its villains have understandably human motives, and the stories wind continuously from slums to mansions and back again. Even noir's frequent flashbacks establish a world of mirrors: the past nips at the present, sometimes haunting characters by hovering within the same motion picture frame.

The five films in Warner Home Video's inexpensive (and thoroughly essential) DVD set Shadows, Lies & Private Eyes: The Film Noir Collection all deal indirectly with the guilt that runs beneath the American character—our sense that maybe we don't deserve our prosperity, and that someday someone will catch us and take away what we have. Freeze almost any shot of Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, The Set-Up or The Asphalt Jungle, and the composition alone tells a story. The characters are pinned and writhing, dominated by extreme shadows and forced perspectives that have the quality of a nightmare.

In the 1944 proto-noir Murder My Sweet, Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe (played with sublime cool by Dick Powell) keeps getting conked in the head and dropping into a pool of inky black, and director Edward Dmytryk evokes his hero's fog by giving the film the cloudy, disjointed feel of a dream. In director Robert Wise's 1949 boxing thriller The Set-Up, Robert Ryan's washed-up palooka wins a bout he was supposed to throw, and he flees the racketeers on his tail by dashing through an empty, bull's-eye-like arena to a dark alley lit only by a neon sign that reads "Dreamland." And there's clearly a subconscious pull to the courtship between John Dall's Bart and Peggy Cummins' Annie in Joseph Lewis' 1949 "lovers on the run" picture Gun Crazy: picked out of the audience at a carnival tent show, Bart engages in a shooting contest with the star attraction and ends up firing a pistol at her head, extinguishing a crown of candles one by one.

This surreal heightening of human conflict plays against the genre's naturalist streak. In director John Huston's 1950 caper The Asphalt Jungle, the caper itself takes a backseat to scenes of the jewel thieves sweating out crying babies and demanding spouses. In the movie's most sublime scene, Sam Jaffe's refined Doc Riedenschneider stops at a diner and gets caught by the cops when he lingers too long to watch a teenybopper dance. The expressiveness of The Set-Up is tied to the movie's real-time structure—over the course of 70 minutes, it takes us through the preparation, the fight and the aftermath—but the gimmick also feeds some wonderfully understated moments. As the boxer's wife (played by Audrey Totter) roams the streets to avoid seeing the match, she follows the shadows of dancing couples and the action of people playing arcade games; and in the locker room, Wise lingers on the details of pre-fight jitters and the way the boxers avoid the eyes of a defeated colleague.

People often complain that noir plots are too complicated to follow—indeed, good luck to you if you can untangle the double-crosses of Jacques Tourneur's 1947 crime saga Out of the Past. But as film scholar James Ursini points out on the Out of the Past DVD commentary track, the movies' complicated scenarios aren't as important as what they reveal about human corruption. In Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum's Jeff Markham is introduced as a fundamentally decent guy, working at a small-town gas station and courting the local beauty; but when one of his old associates drives into town, Markham gets drawn back into his former life of gumshoeing for hoods. If there's a surface message to the film, it's that a man should be careful who he partners with, but the more resonant message is that even a "good" man is one door-knock away from being dragged into the muck.

All of the above may make the Shadows, Lies & Private Eyes set sound like some hard, dry cheese, but that couldn't be further from the truth. This particular group of noirs is hugely entertaining: brisk and stylish, with some of the sharpest dialogue in the history of American cinema. Check out Mitchum grumbling to a femme fatale that she's "like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another"; or Audrey Totter, who, upon hearing that her dinner will cost "a dollar thirteen, with three cents to the governor," responds, "A buck sixteen? You ought to throw in a floorshow." Or take the desperate criminal couple of Gun Crazy, knocking off a gas station with a sign in the window that reads, "Use Our Easy Pay Plan." Heck, grab just about any random line from Murder My Sweet, from the opening—"We don't like you, but it ain't personal"—to Powell's groggy declaration, "I felt pretty good. Like an amputated leg."

Shadows, Lies & Private Eyes has been well put together, with expert commentary tracks for each film—the exception being The Set-Up, which offers too-sparse comments by director Wise and fan Martin Scorsese (who says he screened the film for the cast and crew of his upcoming film The Aviator, to set the mood). The top track is Gun Crazy's, with Glenn Erickson giving clear historical and thematic perspective and paying due (but not overdue) attention to the phallic meaning of the title weapon. But however scant his commentary may be, Scorsese's passionate breakdown of The Set-Up goes furthest in grasping the appeal of film noir. Scorsese dwells on the existential meaning of a man losing his money at an arcade crane game, and talks about how Wise's urban set is "an allegorical city." He explains how these pitch-black pulps have penetrated our national consciousness, because they know what lurks in the places we dare not look.


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