Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer. He’scontributed to Slate, guested on TCM, NPR and Sirius XM, and served as co-host and producer of “Hollywood Time Machine with Alicia Mayer.” He blogs at willmckinley.com and tweets about media from all eras and how we watch it @willmckinley.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Even if you’re new to noir, you’ve probably heard of DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Poverty Row masterpieceproduced on the budget of a kindergarten pageant. Made by the Austrian-born director a decade later, MURDER IS MY BEAT doesn’t carry the same relentless existential dread,but it’s still worth your time.
Our story begins with a bust, as Capt. Bert Rawley (Robert Shayne) tracks down straight-shooting cop Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) who’s on the lam with nightclub chanteuseEden Lane (Barbara Payton). Eden’s a suspect in the murder of her moneybags boyfriend, and Ray begs Bert for 24 hours to prove her innocence. But first, Ray has toexplain what made a good cop go bad.
MURDER IS MY BEAT is standard issue noir, from thehyperbolic narration to the flashback structure. But Ulmermakes the film unforgettable by infusing it with a level of pathos unexpected in discount noir. Particularly striking isthe deeply damaged performance of 27-year-old Barbara Payton, already at the end of a six-year career filled withdrinking, drug abuse and headline-grabbing romanticcontretemps. A dozen years later she’d be dead from heart and liver failure at age 39 – a truly noir-ish unhappy ending.
Watch it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ki6c7HD53rc
Director: Phil Karlson
When gangsters kidnap a little girl and dump her bloodied corpse out of a moving car, you realize the THE PHENIX CITY STORY is unlike any mainstream studio film of the era.
Based on the true story of the assassination of Alabama attorney general Albert “Pat” Patterson, this Allied Artists release is a brutal retelling of a small Southern town’s battle against organized crime. John McIntire plays the reluctantcrusader and Richard Kiley is the war hero son who vows to finish his father’s work.
Phil Karlson (who also directed KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and 99 RIVER STREET among other noirs) shot THE PHENIX CITY STORY in the locations where the real-life events took place using locals and non-professionals in many roles. The result is a truly uniquedocu-noir and a refreshing antidote to the often-bloodlesscrime films of the 1950s.
Kiley is excellent as the angry young man and McIntire is touchingly nuanced as the emotionally conflicted hero (his protracted death scene is way ahead of its time). Also excellent is Edward Andrews as a genially murderous mob boss, John Larch as his sweaty enforcer, and Jean Carson as a chain-smoking pit boss.
THE PHENIX CITY STORY was released with a 13-minute prologue featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing townspeople and explaining the real life events that inspired the film. That delightfully unscriptedsequence was not included with a 35mm print I saw last month at Film Forum in New York City, but it’s in the version streaming at Warner Archive Instant. This is truly a must-see for any noir fan.
Watch it at Warner Archive Instant:http://instant.warnerarchive.com/product.html?productId=77653
Director: Edward Dein
I often have trouble keeping noir films straight in my head, in part because of their maddeningly unspecific titles. I WALK BY NIGHT? Great. Where do you go? What do you do? As my movie-filled brain ages, I need titles to remind me what happened.
Such confusion will never arise from SHACK OUT ON 101, an Allied Artists oddity set almost entirely in a dive diner on the California coast. George (Keenan Wynn) is the proprietor, Kotty (Terry Moore) is the waitress and “Slob” (Lee Marvin) is the short-order cook with a dangeroussecret. For reasons never fully explained, Kotty’s much-older boyfriend Sam (Frank Lovejoy) and Slob are in cahoots to acquire and sell military secrets (or something classified – your guess is as good as mine) to an unnamedentity. And then it all goes awry, of course.
SHACK OUT ON 101 has an amazing cast, which includesthe always reliable Whit Bissell and Len Lesser (better known to TV viewers as Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo). There aresome truly weird set pieces, like Wynn and Marvinweightlifting shirtless and a fight between Marvin and Lesser wherein both are joined at the mouth by a dish towel. Moore plays it surprisingly tough here, just a few years after roles as animal sidekicks in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) and THE GREAT RUPERT (1950). And Marvin is his typical charismatic macho asshole.
But my favorite thing about the film is the self-consciously chatty dialogue that goes on forever while never reallyexplaining anything. It’s both confounding and refreshing, particularly since B crime pictures often slam the audience over the head with exposition. If, like me, you enjoy your noir cheap, fast and unusual, SHACK OUT ON 101 is worth a visit.
Watch it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p13ozSx1e0
Director: Guy Green
It’s LAURA meets VERTIGO as thought-to-be-dead model Alison Ford (Terry Moore again) shows up at the home of the artist (Robert Beatty) painting her posthumous portrait. Mistaken identity, smuggling, murder, blackmail and suicide ensue in this classy Brit noir directed by Edward Dein, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
You have to love a movie that opens with a car plunging off a cliff, and POSTMARK FOR DANGER lives up to its explosive opening sequence with a refreshingly fast pace. Sadly, Portrait of Allison, the BBC TV serial upon which the film was based, is lost. I imagine it would have played like a British version of The Edge of Night, the American mystery soap that began its three-decade daytime run around the same time POSTMARK was released in the states by RKO.
Watch it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFraPffCJIs
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
“A woman doesn’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love,” nightclub dancer Rita (Helene Stanton) purrs to occasional boyfriend Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornell Wilde) in THE BIG COMBO.
Rita ends up dead before any love can be made, taking a bullet (a few of them, actually) meant for Diamond. And it brings the tough cop to tears, which is just one of the surprises in this tale of obsession and revenge from the director of GUN CRAZY. Sadly for Rita, Diamond was not obsessed with her, but with the moll of a preening gangster known only as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). The cop’s vendetta against Brown earns him a rebuke from his boss and some vicious torture by the mobster’s henchmen (BrianDonlevy, Earl Holliman, and Lee Van Cleef). But still, he persists and most of the cast ends up dead in the process.
The titular “Combo” refers to the crime syndicate controlled by Mr. Brown, but it’s also reflected in the jazzy score by David Raskin, which serves as a perfect accompaniment to Lewis’ inventive visual stylings. The director has an amazing ability to cover entire scenes in postcard-style wide shots, and to use lighting in place of complicated sets. Entire sequences are staged nearly in limbo, and they totally work.
In addition to two tough guys crying, THE BIG COMBO will always stick in my head for a single image: the murder of a hard-of-hearing thug, in which the guns fire in eerie silence.
Watch it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIkCXF9Y4ow