DOUBLE BILL #20 (final): Crossfire (1947) and Border Incident (1949)

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It is with sadness that I announce that this shall be my last ever Double Bill. I have had the most fun talking about and comparing all of these movies, and I feel this is the right time to end it. There are only so many movies that are similar! Don’t worry though, I’ve got something in mind for the next series of posts! But today, Double Bill #20 will focus on two movies that I feel have transcended the noir genre, and have become something else. Crossfire (1947) and Border Incident (1949) are films noir with a conscience. They are ‘message movies’. And their message still resonates today.

Based on the novel The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk) is probably the closest film noir ever came to a classic murder mystery: late one night, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) is brutally murdered in his apartment. Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is called to investigate the case, and through a series of flashbacks, he comes across a long list of suspects among a group of soldiers. When Captain Mitchell (George Cooper) becomes the prime suspect, his friend Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) tries to clear his name by getting involved in the investigation. As it turns out, he couldn’t have done it, since he was with Ginny (Gloria Grahame in an Oscar-nominated performance). As Finlay eliminates the suspects one by one, Montgomery (Robert Ryan in his only Oscar nomination) becomes the main suspect himself. As we soon find out, Montgomery is a bullying, psychopathic brute, who enjoys making fun of people who are ‘different’. Slowly, as he reveals himself to us through his opinions and attitudes, we realize where the movie will take us and as the truth comes to light, Crossfire goes from being a murder mystery to a ‘social message’ movie. Its condemnation of anti-Semitism and bigotry is beautifully expressed through Captain Finlay’s heart-breaking and poignant monologue about his Irish grandfather and how his tragic end affected his own life. The message is clear and the movie pulls no punches in how it chooses to address it. ‘Ignorant men always laugh at things that are different, things they don’t understand’, Finlay says at one point. I often refer to Crossfire as ‘the noir with a conscience’ and it is all down to Finlay. He is the film’s moral compass. His deadpan delivery and pipe-smoking coolness in the movie’s opening sequence are soon overshadowed by his huge heart and morality and his dignified yet assertive matter with which he tackles the issue. I would go as far as to call him the film’s ‘hero’. An unusal type of noir detective and one whose humanity we could all do with. Then and now.

Border Incident (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949) also has a message, and one that is still a hot topic. In it, agents Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) go undercover to try and stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border into the United States. Unlike Crossfire, the film’s opening voice-over narration lets us know straight-away what we’re getting into (‘It is this problem of human suffering and injustice about which you should know’), and its sheer, stark realism is almost unprecedented. Border Incident treats its subject matter seriously. The migrants are the focus. They’re the story. They’re the main characters. And their extremely sympathetic and humanizing representation is vital. The film treats them as they should be treated: as humans. It highlights their struggle and validates their actions. And it condemns those of the ones who try and make things even more difficult for them – one of whom is Charles McGraw, who has the distinction of being the perpetrator in the film’s most horrifying scene. The film’s extremely tense tone, courtesy of cinematographer John Alton, beautifully contrasts the claustrophobic, urgent feel of its subject matter with the wide-open landscape that holds so many hopes and dreams. The grittiness of Border Incident cannot be underestimated and, while it can be said that it isn’t a noir in the classical sense, it certainly feels and looks like a noir. But the most important aspect of it, is its progressiveness and how it deals with an extremely delicate subject in such a respectful and understanding way.

Were Crossfire and Border Incident ahead of their time? I think so. They probably wouldn’t feel out of place these days, but back then, it was a different story – originally, The Brick Foxhole actually dealt with homophobia, but they Hays Code wouldn’t have it so they changed it to anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the boldness with which Crossfire and Border Incident address their subjects is admirable and the way they bring them to life is exquisite, not to mention that the humanity, acceptance, tolerance and compassion found in both of these films is something we should all strive to achieve.

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Jean Gillie in Decoy (1946): Noir’s ultimate anti-heroine

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Detour (1945) might be the greatest of all B-noirs, but Decoy (1946) is certainly the most bizarre and when it comes to film noir, that’s just as valid. I’ve often said that I think the famous resuscitation scene is probably the weirdest moment in all of film noir history, because… well, they literally bring a guy back to life, so obviously believability is not an option when it comes to Decoy. And I love it. I absolutely love how utterly ‘out there’ this movie is. But what I really, truly admire about it is that its bizarre nature does not take away from its central character, the extraordinary Margot Shelby, played by Jean Gillie. Margot Shelby is a masterpiece of a character. Margot Shelby IS Decoy. But wait. Let’s try and get through this truly noir-ish plot first: Dr Craig (Herbert Rudley) travels to San Francisco to get kill Margot, a gangster who screwed him out of half of $400,000. As she lay dying, she tells Sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) how it all happened. In this flashback, we start off in prison, where Margot’s boyfriend Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong) is to die in the gas chamber. She wants to know the location of the money, so she orchestrates a plan to get his body out of the morgue, bring him back to life with a rare  (!) and get him to tell her where the money is. She gets fellow gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and Dr. Craig to help her carry out her plan and in true noir fashion, things go awry…

At only one hour and fifteen minutes, Decoy (dir. Jack Bernhard) manages to take us down the strangest noir path, and from the very beginning, it’s all about Margot Shelby, starting with the fact that she herself is the narrator, which doesn’t happen very often (Claire Trevor in Raw Deal (1948) is another one). That’s what I love about this movie. Margot is the one in charge. She’s the one who knows about the medicine. She’s the one who comes up the plan. She’s the one who gathers her men in order to carry it out. And she’s the one who sees things through. She’s not the femme fatale, contrary to popular belief. Oh no. She’s the main character. The anti-hero (anti-heroine?). A smart, confident, self-assured, deeply troubled and absolutely greedy anti-hero. Some might even say, she’s the villain. Because she really is absolutely diabolical. But like with any anti-hero, there’s a reason for it, as she explains to Jim: she had a rough childhood on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks and she won’t go back. Who would? She wants money. She wants security. She wants to make a life for herself. Sue her! This scene, in which she lets her guard down for just a few minutes, is the one that convinces me she was always meant to the hero of the picture. Could she have made better decisions? Probably. Is she going about it the right way? Clearly not. But reason doesn’t walk the streets of film noir. And Margot Shelby is only doing what she can to survive. She’s as greedy as they come, but we get it. We may even warm to her. And why not? She’s all we’ve got. I mean, you could probably argue that Sergeant Portugal is an equally sympathizing character, but he’s a cop. This is noir! If you don’t root for the bad guys, why are you even watching? The point is, she is the bad guy. And yet, we love her. For all the wrong reasons. She’s unspeakably wicked, impossibly cruel and chillingly bad to the bone. Don’t worry, I’m not glorifying her. Which is something that Decoy also doesn’t do. Crime doesn’t pay. And they all fall down. Right down to the mastermind. That alone puts her right up there with her film noir contemporaries.

Jean Gillie’s untimely demise at 33 years old is a darn shame, but her Margot Shelby lives on. Even if it takes a while to discover her. Because once you do, you won’t look back. I adore Margot Shelby. I absolutely love her. And I always seem to go back to her in my own writing (I write a lot of dark stuff!). And I seem to have subconsciouly based a lot of my characters – both in screenplays and stage plays – on her. Because there’s so much to take from her. So many possibilities. For all of Decoy‘s B-movie, low-budget, fabulous bizarreness, Margot Shelby still comes out on top. She’s the greatest thing in a long list of great things about it and she must never be overlooked in the grand pantheon of film noir characters.

Richard Basehart in He Walked By Night (1948) – Noir’s most impenetrable psychopath

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Despite its sensational title, He Walked by Night (1948, dir. Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann) is not one of the most flamboyant films noir. Sure, there are some stunning shots in it (thank you, John Alton) and some great chase scenes, but its police procedural docu-noir style gives it a certain seriousness and, dare I say, down-to-earth quality that 1948 noirs were apparently obsessed with – The Naked City being the other one. But while The Naked City shows us New York City at its most vulnerable, He Walked by Night takes us to the streets of Los Angeles and, on this particular night, Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) roams one of these streets, looking for a place to rob. Officer Rawlins (John McGuire) spots him, pulls up and asks him what he’s up to. He asks for his identification and, in a move that should have been obvious but nonetheless shocks you, Morgan pulls out a gun and shoots Rawlins. The brutal nature of the crime is as gritty as the rest of the film, as we follow the LAPD in their hunt for the cop-killer. Of course, ‘cop-killer’ doesn’t do Roy Morgan justice. He’s a psychopath with no apparent redeeming qualities, other than his intelligence and resourcefulness – and, one could argue, his love for his dog. But what’s so unusual about him, as a film noir character, is that there is little to no backstory to help us figure him out. This is potentially good, as we’re left with no choice but to come up with our own story for him and decide for ourselves if his actions are justifiable or not. But ultimately, Roy Morgan is noir’s most mysterious character, which would be good in any other circumstances, but in this case, there is nothing to help us along, other than a mere mention that he was in the Army. One could assume that this has significantly changed him and that that’s why he ended up like this, but this is only speculation. One could also look up Erwin Walker, the real-life criminal the movie was loosely based on, but that would sort of make the point of storytelling moot. Instead we’re left with an extremelly intelligent and quietly confident individual, who always seems to be one step ahead of the police by listening to their reports, and who is so savvy, he even extracts a bullet from his body all by himself at one point – a moment that puts Basehart’s fantastic performance up there with the other noir greats. Yes, the lack of background is frustrating, but what we see of him is, at the very least, impressive. Not to mention that Roy Morgan is clearly a prototype for the anti-hero that we’ve seen countless times, more recently on television, which makes him kind of accidentally ahead of his time – speaking of which, Jack Webb, who plays forensics specialist Lee, was inspired by his appearance in the film to create a police procedural drama. Thus, Dragnet was born.

But back to our guy. Roy Morgan is an unusual character in film noir. He’s not a lust-stricken dope like Walter Neff; he’s not a bad-tempered cinic hounded by the rotten memory of his father like Mark Dixon; and he’s not a mogul who had to make a name for himself after overcoming a horrible childhood like Martha Ivers. At least not that we know of. Roy Morgan is psychopathic loner with an unknown past, and unknown motivations. Does that make him more appealing? It certainly makes him more fascinating. Should he be glorified? I don’t think so. Thankfully the serious, documentary-style of the movie doesn’t do that. Film noir often rewards characters if their reasons are clear and justifiable, and more often that not, we end up sympathizing with them. We might even excuse some of them. But He Walked By Night doesn’t give Roy Morgan that. As it shouldn’t.

Detour (1945): Noir’s unlikely masterpiece

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About eight years ago, I watched Detour (1945) for the very first time. I was in the early stages of my film buff-ness, and I wanted to consume as many movies as possible. Film noir had become my favorite genre and I couldn’t wait to get through them all. I’d heard about Detour and its B-movie reputation may have preceeded it in my estimation. I knew this wasn’t going to be the greatest noir and I, foolishly, dismissed it even after watching it. My film buff mind, at that time, craved Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame; it craved impeccable shots and even better reputations in the classic movie pantheon. Detour had none of that. And I simply brushed it aside. Last year, after watching it for second time, far too long after the first time, I realized how wrong I’d been all these years. After watching it again, it came 27th in last year’s top 30 favorite noirs here at the Garden, but it has now moved up a couple places, at least. Why, you ask? Because Detour is a masterpiece and I quite simply adore it. Funny how things change.

Edgar Ulmer’s greatest movie starts with Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sitting in a roadside café in Reno, Nevada. A customer buys some music from a jukebox and the song transports Al and the viewers to a happier, albeit bittersweet place. In this flashback, we witness his former life in New York City, with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), the love of his life. He is a pianist, she a singer; they perform in a nightclub and they have big plans for the future. But because noir won’t let anybody be happy, she changes her mind and goes to Hollywood by herself. He promises to meet her there so they can make it big and be together. Problem is, he has no money. So he hitch-hikes… Somewhere along the way, Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) gives him a ride. That night, they switch seats, and after a while, it starts raining and Al stops the car to put the top up while Haskell is asleep. Only he isn’t, as Al discovers when he opens the passenger’s side door and Haskell falls out, dead… Fearing he might get framed for Haskell’s death, Al takes the man’s clothes and everything he has, dumps his body in the woods and drives to California, with the intention of getting rid of the car. Once in California, he picks up a hitch-hiker himself: Vera (Ann Savage), who, twenty minutes into the journey, reveals to Al that she knows Haskell is dead and that this is his car. Turns out, she hitched a ride from him back in Lousiana…

Detour quite simply won’t let you breathe. At just one hour and seven minutes, it feels a lot longer. Its characters, dialogue and twists hit you where it hurts and you can only wish you could get more of it. You don’t need it though. Everything you need is there. We have a down-on-his-luck protagonist, who wants to run away from his past, because the future, whatever it looks like, is a lot more appealing than nearly everything he experienced up until this point. And right here, in this café in the middle of nowhere, he has no choice but to daydream about his once-happier life. In this flashback, we realize Al Roberts used to be someone. A talented musician with an equally talented girlfriend, and a life to look forward to. As he decides to hitch-hike his way to Sue, fate ‘sticks out a foot to trip you’, in his own words. Even more awful is the fact that he did nothing to deserve what happened to him. In a genre that is full of unlucky guys, Al Roberts might just be the unluckiest of them all. One could argue that he is an unreliable narrator, since his is the only account we have on what happened, but this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to suspend disbelief while watching a noir (looking at you, Decoy (1946)…). For all we know, and this is indeed all we know, Al Roberts did nothing wrong. To begin with, that is. After Haskell’s death, what can he do but try and get out of this situation? And that’s when things start to go downhill. Because in film noir, there is no happy ending. In film noir, your choices dictate your fate. In this case, Haskell’s death is but a catch-22. Either tell the police what happened and risk them not believing you, or get out of it your own way. And if Haskell’s death provides a choice, then picking up Vera seals Al’s fate. Vera and everything that comes with her, is the punishment for a poor decision. She’s evil and malicious and she doesn’t care that he knows it. With a rough exterior and a rough personality to match, Vera is living her own nightmare. She wants a break. And she’s ready to do anything, because as we soon find out through their interactions, her past (‘back there…’) isn’t perfect either. And so she has to be rough. And tough. She’s all no-nonsense, because how else would you deal with all that life’s thrown your way? There is no seduction in her eyes, no sultry tone in her voice, no hiding of her true intentions. What you see is what you get with Vera. And she will ruin Al, without mercy. She’s the film’s femme fatale, and in the truest definition of the name. In fact, I’d say she’s one of the greatest femme fatales of all time. Because she’s the most raw. Which is only appropriate as Detour is quite possibly the most raw noir of all. And this is where its B-movie status comes in handy. Sure, it’s a B-movie, but is that a bad thing? Of course not. The low budget reflects itself in the film’s tone, mood and cinematography and that, to me, is a bonus. The sharp change of lighting during the flashback, for example, is a stroke of genius. The camera closes in on Al’s face, and his eyes light up as begins his flashback in a way that seems amateur-ish, but actually it works oh so wonderfully. Detour‘s nature doesn’t need any more than that. It’s stark, raw and rugged and that’s what you get. The film’s attempts at re-creating a look that is as close to the genre as possible are futile because ultimately Detour can do without it. That’s not to say it doesn’t look good. It does. It just doesn’t need to look like anything else. It does, however, sound like its contemporaries. The dialogue is to die for and nearly every line is textbook noir. In particular, the last one, which, to me, encapsulates film noir perfectly: ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me. For no good reason at all’. And there it is. This sense of despair, of helplessness, of inescapable doom that comes with film noir, summed up in one sentence. And it’s perfect. I don’t think there has ever been a noir that is so completely void of hope as Detour. There is absolutely nothing in it to comfort you, nothing to take the edge off. Nothing to make you believe things might actually get better. The image of Sue comes up every once in a while and we, like Al, try to cling to it as much as we can, but we know it’s hopeless. Ironically for a road thriller called Detour, there is no way out.

Detour never gets the praise it deserves as quintessential film noir, but damn it, isn’t it? As much as Out of The Past (1947), even. Sure, it doesn’t look as good and it doesn’t enjoy the same budget and means, but everything else is there. Maybe that’s a good thing. Detour is special. And that’s something nobody can take away from it.