Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

Phantom Lady is the story of a good girl who pretends to be a femme fatale. She does it all for a noble cause, to save the life of an innocent man, but she scares herself by just how well she pretends.

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The underrated Ella Raines stars as Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman, a dogged secretary who launches her own investigation when the boss she secretly loves is convicted of murder. Although the film’s title, Phantom Lady, ostensibly refers to the condemned man’s elusive alibi—a strange, sad woman who vanished without a trace—it could equally apply to Kansas, a lucid and luminous avenging angel.

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Cameraman Elwood Bredell (of The Killers and The Unsuspected) frequently bathes Kanas in an eerie, ethereal glow, a beam that seems to have chosen her and left those around her in darkness. For instance, as she waits for hours at the end of a bar (in order to spook a lying witness into telling the truth), we see her as a tiny Edward Hopper-esque figure wrapped in an aura that separates her from the somber, almost black interior. She is the ghost at the banquet.

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However, not to be locked into a single mode, Bredell’s lighting explores and caresses the curves of Raines’s face and neck the way a philosopher lovingly appreciates a moral dilemma from all sides. During the film’s visual climax, a delirious, disorienting sequence in a seedy jazz club, Bredell dazzles us with a fever pitch of chiaroscuro, sometimes blackening Kansas into a silhouette, sometimes illuminating only part of her, sometimes turning her face into a grotesque, grinning mask. As Kansas goes undercover, her fragmented identity shows in the arresting quicksilver shifts in lighting that play over her face (both shot to shot and within single shots).

Consider this particularly exquisite shot, in which the stark toplighting transforms Kansas’s appearance in a matter of seconds, as she comes out of the “eclipse” created by the brim of her hat, then partially back into it.

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In this underworld setting, the shadows add to her camouflage, sculpting her into a different person, the daring ‘hep kitten’ who hangs out in this hole in the wall to seduce a manic drummer. As Kansas looks at herself in a mirror, overlaid by the lattice of shadow from her veil, you get the feeling that, for a moment, she forgot who she was.

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This dreamlike thriller suggest that the good girl and the bad girl, those cherished noir tropes, are not binaries, but parallel universes. Hellbent on saving her man, Kansas causes at least two men’s deaths, narrowly escapes death under the wheels of en elevated train, almost spends the night with a scuzzy drummer, and grows rather fond of a charming killer.

Alas, Phantom Lady brushes the darkness of its heroine under the rug before the last act. The movie wraps up prettily and conveniently, as if afraid to ponder the implications of Carol’s journey into night. Yet, thanks to Bredell’s haunting low-key lighting, maybe we feel the precariousness of any good girl’s goodness all the same.

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John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23

From Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies (1995):

“In the old two-strip Technicolor… the color blue couldn’t be reproduced, but now the three-strip process covered the entire spectrum. Extra-wide cameras could expose three negatives simultaneously, each recording one of the primary colors. This is Gene Tierney, an angel face with the darkest of hearts. Leave Her to Heaven was a fascinating hybrid: a film noir in color….

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“Now, you have to remember that color was rarely used for contemporary drama then. It was more associated with period pieces and musicals. John Stahl’s direction and Leon Shamroy’s cinematography conjured up an unsettling super-realist vision. This was a lost paradise, its beauty ravished by the heroine’s perversity. Rather than encourage realism, the Technicolor palette went even further and added flamboyance to the melodrama.”

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John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 22

The Asphalt Jungle throbs with adrenaline, yes, but with something else, too: regret. I’m thinking specifically of the bouncy yet melancholy scene in which Doc takes a fatal break from his getaway and sits among teenagers, watching a sweater-clad nymphet shimmy and shake to jukebox tunes played on his nickel.

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The jubilant jazz and the ignorant bliss of the youngsters accentuate Doc’s old age and his sense of loss—from the years spent in prison, yes, but mostly just from the implacable passage of time.

Doc insists to his driver, “We have time,” although the sad gleam in his eyes tells us he knows that’s a lie. He’s referring to a specific schedule, but the comment could apply more broadly to the inevitability of death and decline that hangs over the film—never more wistfully than in the jukebox scene. Indeed, Huston visually makes the connection between the girl and Doc’s doom: after she gyrates away from a window, the audience can see the police peering through the Venetian blinds, waiting for their quarry.

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In another poignant (if creepy) shot, the bobby-soxer dream girl dances right past the camera, revealing Doc’s spellbound, pathetic face as her swinging hips move out of the frame. Next, waving her dance partner away, she wiggles from across the room right into the camera; her undulating torso nearly fills the frame. The dynamism of that girl’s body—the optimism it implies and the hopelessness of Doc ever engaging with it as only a young man could—slaps the audience with agonizing obviousness.

But just as age craves youth, youth craves wealth. We get to listen to the jukebox nymphet precociously nag her boyfriends about their lack of means: “Nickels he’s complaining about. What a spender! Sure he wants a date. He always wants a date. And where do we go? A third-run movie!” As she chides the boys, Doc listens in close-up, wearing the hint of a knowing smile. Then we see the girl among her companions, continuing her complaint.

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Here Huston frames her from an awkward, slightly high angle, not really Doc’s point-of-view. The angle—working in conjunction with the low-key lighting, oddly moody for the portrayal of bright-eyed teenager—is just off-kilter enough to give us a sense of comic distance. The downward gaze enhances the bitter irony of the girl’s cajoling: the same desire for things, for little pleasures, drove Doc and his compadres to crime.

Who knows? Maybe this nice girl’s nice longings will tempt her and her nice boyfriends to not-so-nice deeds in order to obtain the money for the nice things they want. Or maybe they’ll just settle down and spend the rest of their lives consumed by the honest wants and needs that become the substance of most people’s pallid lives.

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The mildly kinky voyeuristic vibe of the scene also illustrates how adroitly noir connected sex and crime—even in a seemingly innocuous exchange. Raymond Borde and Edmond Chaumeton’s Panorama of American Film Noir:

“In its way of playing with official censorship, this eroticism [in noir] recalls the elaboration of the dream, according to Freud: instead of showing forbidden realities, one introduces seemingly neutral elements that will evoke them through association or symbolism. Thus dance is immemorial transposition of the sex act itself. But then the thriller has occasionally succeeded in employing such trite analogy with finesse. There are the ‘poses’ struck by Gilda or the frenzied whirling of the bobby-soxer in The Asphalt Jungle.”

Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 21

When Ann Savage’s Vera shoots you a look, it leaves exit wounds. Her fourth-wall-shattering stare into the camera—which seems to represents Al Roberts’s point-of-view—flies at the audience like an accusation, a castrating return of the male gaze. Or like a handful of rusty nails. Take your pick. After she’s sat there so still against the blur of the landscape through Roberts’s voice-over monologue, that slow turn of her head is almost uncanny.

I wouldn’t dare print what I think Vera’s saying with that look. Suffice to say, Vera can cuss with a glance. With a full-on glare, she hurls a fine and fragrant assortment of expletives.

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From the moment Vera gets into Roberts’s (stolen) car, we know that she means trouble—yet there’s something engaging and, dare I say, appealing in her attitude, her gritty, run-down antagonism. Roberts opens the dialogue in neutral mode: “How far you goin’?”

Vera spits the question back at him—the exact same words, now a dare. “How far you goin’?” Ulmer presents this key exchange simply: the camera on the hood of the car shows the faces of both actors. However, whereas Roberts glances over at Vera when he delivers his line, she stares fixedly forward, a greasy strand of hair flapping over her face. Only after she’s spoken does she give Roberts a blast of her blowtorch-like side eye.

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Vera’s rage hijacks the movie, twisting it from a tale of destiny and lost love into a weirdly cathartic hostage situation. After we’ve spent half the movie with mopey loser Roberts, Vera’s rabid eyes and hardboiled ultimatums deliver giddy and surprising delights. Her sulfuric personality hits the audience like an injection of something they don’t carry at your local drugstore. She energizes the viewer, stinging him into caring more than he thought he could about a little PRC cheapie. Or maybe I should say the female viewer? Because I’d argue that Vera is a derailed vengeance fantasy for the put-upon broads of the world.

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Now, I realize that Edgar Ulmer personally loved the weak, self-defeating, Chopin-playing, Fate-blaming Roberts character and wanted us to sympathize with him. But who says spectators have to cooperate? And, furthermore, who says that a movie can’t be more complex and unstable in meaning than its auteur intended? Not me, that’s for sure.

We never find out what Vera’s running away from or why she’s so damn angry. However, the smarmy shyster who picks up Rogers gives us a strong hint, implying that giving Vera a lift entitled him to certain… rights. Rights which Vera challenged by taking a claw-ful of flesh out of the slimy driver’s hand.

This episode has an interesting parallel in Ann Savage’s life. Once, when frequent co-star Tom Neal was trying to impress some friends of his who visited him on the set of an earlier film, Neal leaned in towards Savage, as if to say something, and stuck his tongue in her ear. Being the tough gal she was, Savage hauled off and slapped him. Quite hard, bless her. One can imagine that the incident added to the glee with which Savage persecutes Neal onscreen in Detour.

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It’s as though all the anger and outrage that women have allowed to fester for millennia had condensed into a tiny nuclear core inside Vera, ready to explode Big Bang-like and bring the curtain down on the universe as we know it.

You get the feeling that Vera’s bottled up so much rage in her life that she could probably sell it as perfume—Eau So Pissed.

Ann Savage plays Vera as a grunge fury, a filthy, greedy, feral, voracious, violent dame. She’s every man’s nightmare—a bad girl who behaves like a bad guy, who seems to have appropriated all the vices of the men she’s encountered.

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Consider her tipsy, freshly-bathed come-ons to Roberts, echoing the kind of sleazy talk she’s probably been on the receiving end of plenty of times. Vera wants power in every sense. Heck, even her hair hogs the screen space, blocking Roberts as they quarrel in the diner parking lot. As Savage explained, “She is mean. She wants to be boss. She’s a real B-I-T-C-H.”

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During an era that fetishized both domesticity and unattainable glamour, Vera doesn’t cleanly fit into either of the molds set out for her (then again, one could debate whether she does anything cleanly). She’s certainly not wife/mother material, nor is she a desirable bombshell. Through Vera, Detour satirizes both roles for women and the social norms that go with them. It’s not hard to recognize Vera’s suffocating, guilty bond with Roberts as a parody of marriage.

And, even when Vera’s all dolled up, nearly everything about her, from her blatant barking of orders to the way she daubs powder all over her face, clashes with the cool passive aggression of noir sirens like Kathie Moffats and Kitty Collins. Angry though they may be, some improbable code of ladylike behavior constrains them from expressing it directly.

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Because she fails to conform to either of society’s options for her, Vera lives on the margins of society. Our first glimpses of Vera reinforce her position as an outsider—a speck through a windshield, a hooker-like figure on the side of the frame as Roberts pumps gas. Her status as a hitchhiker, not particularly odd these days, would have shocked audiences in the 1940s. As Ann Savage remembered, “Women never hitchhiked rides. It was unheard of. Only the hobos did that, the men.” In other words, lowly though her existence is, Vera dwells in an undeniably male-dominated, largely untamed space.

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I consider Vera to be noir’s most subversive femme fatale, a repellent yet magnetic calamity of a woman whose unfettered ferocity makes us realize just how conventional so many other bad girls really were.

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Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 20

I like to think of The Night of the Hunter as what would have happened if D.W. Griffith’s soul had been called back across the Stygian waters of the underworld to direct a film noir. It’s that unreal, that beautiful.

If you’ve seen it, I hope you love it as much as I do. And if you haven’t seen it, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go watch the movie already.

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Here’s what François Truffaut had to say about the film in 1956 (three years before he made his own very different masterpiece about a kid on the run):

“Such a screenplay is not of the sort that launches the career of a Hollywood director, and it’s a safe bet that this film, which scorns the most basic commercial norms, will be Charles Laughton’s only experiment as a director, which is a shame. A shame, yes, because in spite of its conflicts of style, The Night of the Hunter is a film of rich inventiveness that seems like a lurid news story as told by children…. Charles Laughton doesn’t hesitate to run some red lights and knock over a few policemen in this unique film that makes us love experimental cinema when it experiments and cinema of discovery when it discovers.”

(Quote from Les Films de ma vie.)

Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 19

Orson Welles on Rita Hayworth’s performance in The Lady from Shanghai:

“Rita’s awfully good in it…. At the time, people didn’t even notice—she was too famous as a cover girl. Oh, the French loved her. But then the French do not automatically assume that if a girl is beautiful it follows that she’s a lousy actress.”

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(Quote from This Is Orson Welles, 193)

Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 18

In a letter to publisher Hamish Hamilton, Raymond Chandler praised Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Philip Marlowe:

“When and if you see The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor that he makes bums of the Ladds and the Powells. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt. Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

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