Rep Diary: Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich & Cain
The Blue Dahlia
Noir Central through Christmas Eve is New York’s Film Forum, transformed into a cornucopia of delicious nastiness and psychological and sociological disturbance by movies based on the novels and stories of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and James Cain. The authors celebrated in the series are the immovable cornerstones of American pulp fiction, though Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, and the scabrous Jim Thompson run them close. The social fallout of the years between the Wall Street Crash and the Red Scare—spanning Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, the postwar malaise, and the emptying of America’s urban centers—provided the lowering, savage backdrop of their generally bitter tales of homicide, avarice, perfidy, and lethal seduction, transmogrified into film noir primarily by the Expressionist influence of Hollywood’s German émigrés.
In addition to director Billy Wilder, these included the cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl and the production designer Hans Dreier, who were probably more responsible for the look of Street of Chance (1942, Dec. 18), from a Woolrich amnesia story, than director Jack Hively. Sparkuhl and Dreier were also teamed, as were stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, on Stuart Heisler’s The Glass Key (1942, Dec. 19), from Hammett’s novel about the the mob and political corruption; Dreier had previously worked uncredited on the 1935 Glass Key (Dec. 22), directed by Frank Tuttle. One of the eight noirs directed by the German Robert Siodmak was Phantom Lady (1944), adapted from a novel Woolrich wrote as William Irish. A startling example of claustrophobic studio artifice, it was photographed by Elwood (Woody) Bredell, whom Siodmak schooled in the menacing chiaroscuro effects of Eugen Schüfftan, Fritz Lang’s cameraman on Die Nibelungen and Metropolis and Abel Gance’s on Napoléon.
Film Forum’s lineup includes one film originated by Hammett and two films written for the screen by Chandler. Rouben Mamoulian brought his theatrical stylization and staccato imagery to City Streets (1931, Dec. 18), a crime drama, too early to be a noir, from a screenplay based on a four-page Hammett outline. It features a gauche Gary Cooper as a sharpshooting carnie who hires on with the mob to transport bootlegged beer and a charged Sylvia Sidney as his fretting girlfriend, who’s imprisoned after being implicated in a murder by her racketeering stepfather. For Ladd, Lake, and director George Marshall, Chandler scripted The Blue Dahlia (1946) during a legendary binge; a story of three demobbed Navy flyers trying to readjust in L.A, it inscribed Chandler’s drunken blackouts in the amnesiac episodes of William Bendix’s brain-damaged vet. Philip Marlowe’s creator had arrived at that movie, which he adapted from a novel he hadn’t finished, after having an “agonizing” learning experience turning Cain’s Double Indemnity (1944) into a masterpiece with Wilder, who described Chandler as a “dilettante.” He endured another unhappy collaboration adapting Patricia Highsmith’s murder-swap thriller Strangers on a Train (1951, Dec. 20) for Alfred Hitchcock.
Murder, My Sweet
The idealized detectives dreamed up by Hammett (including Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles) and Chandler (Philip Marlowe) generally kept their heads above the moral squalor they exposed. They are well (if not comprehensively) represented in Film Forum’s season: Spade (a womanizer supposedly redeemed by turning in the murderess he loves) in Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 The Maltese Falcon (Dec. 22) and John Huston’s 1941 classic (Dec. 19); Marlowe in Howard Hawks’s screwball-tinged The Big Sleep (1946), Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dec. 21), and Robert Altman’s revisionist The Long Goodbye (1973, Dec. 23); Nick and Nora in W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934, Dec. 24) and After the Thin Man (1936, Dec. 24), which took only their bantering, tippling marrieds and the clue-sniffing Asta from Hammett.
Bogart’s harshness made him the best Spade and his insolence, in The Big Sleep, the most iconic Marlowe, though Lauren Bacall as Vivienne, the oldest and haughtiest of the idle-rich Sternwood sisters, and his accomplice in double-entendre wisecracking, was wiped off the screen by Martha Vickers as the thumb-chewing nympho Carmen (no matter that her lethalness was downplayed). However, Elliott Gould’s Marlowe for Altman is the most persuasive. He retains vestiges of the chivalry so important to Chandler’s conception of the private detective “who is neither tarnished nor afraid” and is all the more honorable as a man maintaining his principles because he’s a shabby, mumbling existential loser out of time. Even his new screen analogue, Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello, has more of a future—and a girl.
More steeped in sordor, Cain’s and Woolrich’s narratives—respectively matter-of-fact and delirious—are primarily driven by middle-class and working-class losers made desperate by the Depression or the dread of its recurrence during and after the war. Economic independence drives Cain’s pie-making waitress turned restaurateur (Oscar-winner Joan Crawford) in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Piece (1945, Dec. 21), a movie underpinned by anti-patriarchal sentiments, as well as his murderous rutting adulterers in Double Indemnity and the two adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice already shown at Film Forum—Tay Garnett’s lurid 1946 version and Luchino Visconti’s formative 1943 neo-realist allegory Ossessione. These are films as thick in kitchen grease as they are in the musk of sweat and semen. Lensed by Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti, Ossessione contrasts its rural sunlit exteriors with interiors of unsurpassed inkiness redolent of the depths of depravity its lovers have plumbed in seeking liberation.
The Bride Wore Black
Leaving aside The Big Sleep, the Thin Man pair, and The Bride Wore Black (1968, Dec. 23), François Truffaut’s then-modish Hitchcockian updating of a Woolrich (as William Irish) novel about a female Bluebeard (Jeanne Moreau), too many of these movies indulged in quick succession can be dangerous: we risk seeing ourselves in them. In his 1990 book City of Quartz, the urban theorist Mike Davis suggests that defining noir as an amalgam of hardboiled fiction and German Expressionism is simplistic since it doesn’t factor in the influence of psychoanalysis (or of Orson Welles). Yet Woolrich adaptations like Phantom Lady, Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946) and Harold Clurman’s Deadline at Dawn (1946)—each a race-against-time thriller—harrowingly refract the damaged psyches of emasculated men and their women persecutors.
Since a “good” pro-active woman devoted to her weaker or dumber man sets out to rescue him from the gallows or a murder rap, however, these three films conflict with the phallocentrism of the Marlowe and Spade movies. In the 1988 CineAction! essay “Phantom Lady, Cornell Woolrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic” (republished in Film Noir Reader), Tony Williams extends Gaylyn Studlar’s research to Siodmak’s film and challenges the dominance of Laura Mulvey “sadistic male gaze” theory. An identification figure for Woolrich, who was a mother-fixated gay man, the secretary-turned-sleuth of Phantom Lady, Carol Richmond (Ella Raines), epitomizes the powerful pre-Oedipal or oral mother, Williams contends. She’s also a figure of identification for the male or female spectator seeking temporary escape from restrictive and oppressive gender roles, which the masochistic aesthetic (traditionally a female province) permits, according to the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in a 1988 Journal of Sex Research paper.
Attempting to free her passive boss, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who has been wrongly convicted for murdering his vicious wife, Carol waylays two other weak men who can verify his alibi that he was with another woman at the time of the killing. She first stares at a barman to get him to talk, but her gaze is so Medusa-like it has disastrous consequences. She then adopts the guise of a prostitute to seduce a trap drummer, Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), into proving Henderson was at a theater at the time of the murder. Carol becomes a lewd phantom herself, head wantonly thrown back, as she drives Cliff into a masturbatory frenzy on his drum kit in a jazz cellar scene shot with maximal Expressionistic fervor.
Woolrich’s other dynamic amateur female sleuths—Susan Hayward’s Hawksian taxi dancer in Deadline at Dawn, June Vincent’s more feminine chanteuse in Black Widow—undermine the feminist theory that femme fatales are the fount of women’s agency in film noir, but Carol’s brief gig as a spider-woman clinches it. It echoes, in vulgarized form, the mocking stage routines Marlene Dietrich performed in her Josef von Sternberg films, of which Studlar wrote “the femme fatale does not steal her ‘controlling gaze’ from the male, but exercises the authority of the pre-Oedipal mother whose gaze forms the child’s first experience of love and power.” The conservative final act of Phantom Lady forces Carol into a victim role—first physically, then socially—but the ambiguous ending hints that she may yet reclaim the night. Her boss’s wife, Marcella (unseen except in a full-length portrait that dwarfs Henderson when the police visit him), and the doomed blackmailing tramps played by Lola Lane in Deadline at Dawn and Constance Dowling in Black Widow (and to a lesser extent the doomed unfaithful wife played by Constance’s sister Doris in The Blue Dahlia) are all closer to the spirits of the castrating Oedipal father than to the pre-Oedipal mother.
A new 35mm print was struck for the Film Forum screening of Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949), adapted from the Woolrich novelette The Boy Cried Murder and one of few noirs with a child protagonist. Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is a fibber who tells a tale that nearly causes his stressed mum (Barbara Hale) and dad (Arthur Kennedy) to lose their cramped apartment at the time of the postwar housing shortage. When he claims to have seen the couple upstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Kellerton (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman), stabbing a man to death—from his nocturnal vantage point outside their window when sleeping on the fire escape during a heat wave—his parents don’t believe him, nor do the cops, and he is forced to go on the run from the killers.
Although William Steiner’s stunning location photography of Lower East Side tenements creates a neorealist atmosphere, Tommy’s experience has the feverish quality of a prepubescent boy’s nightmare embodying the return of the Oedipally repressed. Having angered his stern mother and his kindly but exasperated father, Tommy effectively recasts them in his unconscious as the dangerous neighbors—significantly sexualizing his mother as Mrs. Kellerton, a busty prostitute who brings johns home so she and her husband can rob them, and Mr. Kellerton as the Oedipal father who will kill (castrate) him. Only by outwitting them in the psychic terrain of a precarious abandoned house can he expunge his paranoid dream and restore his parents to their rightful place as his protectors.
The Window anticipated Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954, Dec. 20), a more famous adaptation of a Woolrich story about a New York murder witness. Whereas Tommy fears castration, consciously or unconsciously, James Stewart’s photographer L.B. Jeffries is half-emasculated at the start of Rear Window since he is prevented by his leg cast from dealing appropriately with two tormenting women, his teasing socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his bossy, maternal nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). A tragic suspense comedy, the film recalls Phantom Lady in that it eventually sends its plucky heroine into the killer’s lair while the man she loves is immobilized. Though Jeffries uses his exaggeratedly phallic camera to extricate himself from one trap, at the film’s end he has fallen into another—a matriarchal maw (this was the reactionary 1950s) that will in the long term curb his virility and swallow his identity.
This puts one in mind of the Marlowe newly married to an Los Angeles tycoon’s daughter and fighting for his independence in the four chapters Chandler wrote shortly before his 1959 death for The Poodle Springs Story, which was completed by Robert M. Parker and adapted by Tom Stoppard for Bob Rafelson’s solid 1998 HBO movie starring James Caan as an older, wearier gumshoe. This year’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, written by Benjamin Black (a pseudonym for John Banville), is a Marlowe novel closer in tone to Chandler’s than either Poodle Springs or Parker’s Perchance to Dream, but it may never be filmed because Black’s conclusion was pre-empted by Altman’s 40 years ago. Though an updated TV Marlowe was mooted in 2013, the most iconic of Hollywood’s knights in dark armor is seemingly sleeping the big sleep.