The hero is thick-necked, gravel-voiced, steely-eyed, a strapping young veteran who looks imposing yet is passive by nature. He’s lonely, in hiding, and complains of weariness, yet the most mundane gesture of kindness turns him into as bashful a boy as Tobey Maguire. There’s a scene where he’s camping somewhere near Moose, Wyoming, with an older friend, a doctor, graying, fatherly and kind, and that much more arresting in his gentleness for being recognizable as the ten-gallon hat-wearing grotesque who flirts with and is robbed by Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960). The men settle down to lunch over a fire and the doc gets to explaining how much it means to him that the hero never put the moves on his lovely young wife. This is before they spot the car skidding off the nearby road and go to help and wind up the captives of two bank robbers, one a sadist and the other Brian Keith. The sequence is strange, haunting for its specificity and simplicity that slips so quickly into something like nightmare. It’s from a too-little known picture called Nightfall (57), directed by Jacques Tourneur, based on a novel by David Goodis, and is emblematic of what makes film noir such genuinely rich terrain. It’s not the clichés, which are false anyway—there were never half as many detectives in trench coats or femme fatales in noir as people seem to think—but the way these films cloud the frontiers of the everyday and the chimerical.
Nightfall is one of titles available on the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Two, which closely follows the format of its predecessor in that its selections are all from the ’50s, its weakest stars Kim Novak, its most established classic stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame and is directed by Fritz Lang, and its most curious entry is directed by Irving Lerner and stars Vince Edwards as a compelling yet entirely unfeeling antihero. Fortunately, for all the similarities in the line-ups of these box sets, they nonetheless each feature utterly distinctive and almost uniformly sublime works, most of them long unavailable.
Tourneur, probably most remembered for the canonical Out of the Past (47), and for Cat People (42), I Walked with a Zombie (43) and The Leopard Man (43), the first three horror pictures produced by Val Lewton at RKO, was a very special filmmaker, one who seemed intuitively drawn to noir material. His approach was subtle and engrossing in a way that causes you to wonder what you did and did not actually see during his films once they’re done and you’re left to piece them back together in your memory. Throughout Nightfall, trusting the high drama of Goodis’ narrative to provide forward movement, Tourneur seems attuned to the small, to the behavioral, such as in a second conversational scene between two men that slyly juxtaposes the first, the one where, in an almost comically inappropriate moment, the sadistic bank robber suddenly really needs to know why Brian Keith doesn’t seem to like him much.
Such passages of seemingly non-essential exchanges also permeate Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (57), based on a story by Georges Simenon. It begins and ends scenes of domesticity and emphasizes paternal and familial concerns—rather aptly, given that it’s basically a gangster picture, and a very, very good one. Richard Conte plays a former mob accountant now running a lucrative laundry business in Florida. He receives a call from his old benefactor, a two-faced mobster eloquently embodied by the kindly doctor who turns out to be a cold-blooded alien in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (56), and is sent on an arduous cross-country errand to find his errant brother, a journey which becomes only more devastating and violent as it goes along—though all the while, Conte, convincingly tormented, keeps calling home to speak with his wife, with whom he’s trying to adopt an orphan.
The contrast between such wonderfully detailed works as Nightfall and The Brothers Rico and something like Pushover (54), the aforementioned Kim Novak vehicle, is striking. The story is virtually a series of semaphores, a shopping list of all the noir clichés alluded to above. It even has otherwise straight-laced bachelor Fred MacMurray falling for a blonde in tight sweaters who draws him into plotting murder and theft in a limp resuscitation of Double Indemnity (44) dynamics. There’s not a single moment in which MacMurray and Novak’s chemistry feels anything more than pure artifice.
Yet it would be misleading to say that mining the essential ingredients of noir is in any way negates the possibility of invention or sheer genre mastery. Human Desire (54), directed by Lang, based on a novel by Émile Zola, which had been adapted previously by Jean Renior as Le bête humaine (38), features a number of identifiably noir elements yet in no way depends on them to automatically supply gravity or style in and of themselves, partly because Zola wrote decades before Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, and partly because Lang and his collaborators have crafted a work so deeply immersed in the complexities of desperation, complacency, and, well, desire.
Glenn Ford returns from Korea with no greater ambition than to return to his earlier life as a small town locomotive engineer, but chance deposits him in a lonesome passenger car at night with Gloria Grahame, only moments after Grahame’s husband kills a man in a fit of jealous rage. Bathed in industrial gloom—the cinematographer is Burnett Guffey, who also shot Nightfall and Brothers Rico—Human Desire explores a lot of territory in a short amount of screen time, touching on postwar transience and the threat of the newly independent woman, on different kinds of marriage and urges most of us never even know we have, manifesting in Ford’s gripping Grahame’s curls with violent passion as they secretly kiss in the shacks of the train yards. Grahame is especially fascinating, sexy, and sad here, an object of erotic currency, wanted but never accepted. She seems always to have been cast as the lover of violent men, but in this case we learn things about her past that might explain her choices—only thing is, we never really know the truth about her, not even in that final, ostensibly explanatory dismal little sequence where she’s confronted by her hulking husband while Ford rides up front, willfully oblivious to all of it, dreaming of something safe and banal.
Lastly, City of Fear (58) finds Vince Edwards escaping from prison with what he believes is a canister of high-grade heroin. It’s actually a radioactive substance called “Cobat-60” that could spell doom for the entire city of Los Angeles if not disposed of quickly. Reuniting Edwards with Lerner immediately after the terrific Murder by Contract (58), City of Fear is slightly less a character study, preoccupied as it is with a larger civic canvas and authorities in heated debate about whether or not to go public with the threat of contamination and the panic it will surely incite. Lerner makes inspired use of limited resources with montages of mobilizing city officials and focuses on the handful of interesting and entertaining lowlifes with whom Edwards meets, not to mention the fragments of billboard advertising that provide subliminal commentary on the action. Excitingly scored and beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard, it’s the most neo-noir of the noirs here, a little self-conscious, but playfully so, and just one of four very good reasons to invest in this tour of the obscure peripheries of America’s sunlit ’50s.