The final night of this year’s LA Film Noir Festival was a marathon quadruple feature of “proto-noir,” so I’ve decided to break my write up into two parts to make it last a little longer. I always hate to see it end.
Before I get started understand that, although some come closer than others, none of these films are what the average person might expect when they think of Film Noir. But I’ve always been more about the stories than the visual style and so much of the fiction that would later become our favorite films was written during the 20s and 30s. It’s interesting to see how these earlier crime films were testing boundaries and evolving toward the genre that we all know and love.
First in the line up, THE NINTH GUEST.
A group of eight people receive mysterious invitations to a party. Once trapped in a swanky penthouse, they learn that they are part of a diabolical game of wits designed to turn them against each other and pick them off one by one.
Spoiler: The Ninth Guest is DEATH!
This 30s version of SAW is probably the least noirish of the bunch but it’s still a fun little movie. Released in 1934, it predates the Agatha Christie locked room classic AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and you can’t help but wonder if this flick may have inspired the author.
It’s stagey, preposterous, and completely over the top in both premise and execution, but I like stories about the ways in which people fall apart under pressure. I also liked all the vintage high tech equipment and ultra modern wall clock ticking down the minutes till the next execution. Though I still have no idea what the deal was with the drunk, goofy butler.
This is another one that I can’t exactly recommend but enjoyed. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you want to check this one out or not.
Next up, LET US LIVE.
An idealistic cabbie and his hard luck buddy get railroaded for murder and end up in the death house while his plucky fiancé and a disgraced detective search for the real killers and fight to clear their names.
This is one that you’ll definitely want to see. Again, not because it’s brilliant or perfect, but because you can really see the roots of Noir growing all the way through this one. And if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to read about what happens at the end, go watch it now and come back. I’ll wait.
Ok, right, now on with the spoilers.
This is an amazingly anti-cop, anti-establishment movie. The cabbie, Brick (Henry Fonda) is just an average hardworking Joe who has bought into the American dream hook line and sinker. He’s saving up for a house in the burbs and is poised to marry his sweetheart and start his own business when it all goes to hell for him.
In prison, Brick transforms from this sappy, patriotic kid who believes the truth is all he needs to beat this rap to an angry and disillusioned cynic.
Sure, he gets saved from execution at the 11th hour, but it’s still too late. Even though his body is freed from prison, his spirit is broken and his faith in truth, justice and the American way has been permanently shattered. This character arc almost reminds me of CAGED. You can’t help but imagine Brick went on to become a career criminal and wound up in a later Film Noir ten years down the road.
As I said, this film is far from perfect. Maureen O’Sullivan’s crazy-eyed scenery chewing is pretty painful to watch and I’m not sure why the mopey, hard-luck friend was included in the frame-up, but hey, Mistress Christa says check this one out anyway.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two, featuring the superb HEAT LIGHTNING and SAFE IN HELL.