Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.

Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.

My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.

1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)

What’s it about?

Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.

Why do I love it?

If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.

At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.

Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.

Where can you see it?

It’s on YouTube.

2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)

What’s it about?

Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.

Why do I love it?

The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.

To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.

Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.

Where can you see it?

It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.

3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)

What’s it about?

Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.

Why do I love it?

In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.

Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.

With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.

Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.

Where can you see it?

Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.

4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)

What’s it about?

Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.

Why do I love it?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.

Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.

Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.

Where can you see it?

It’s available from Warner Archive.

5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

What’s it about?

Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…

Why do I love it?

Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.

Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.

The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.

Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.

Shoutout to my Nitrate Picture Show pals Emily West, Harry Eskin, and Jay Patrick who loved this as much as I did!

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD from the Universal Vault Collection.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)

What’s it about?

Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”

Why do I love it?

William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.

From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.

Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.

Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.

Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.

And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.

Where can you see it?

I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…

7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)

What’s it about?

In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?

Why do I love it?

Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.

I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.

McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.

Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.

Where can you see it?

I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!

8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)

What’s it about?

Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.

Why do I love it?

Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”

There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.

Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.

Where can you see it?

It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)

9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

What’s it about?

After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…

Why do I love it?

Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.

He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.

Where can you see it?

An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.

10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

What’s it about?

Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?

Why do I love it?

Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.

My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.

Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.

I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.

Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.

A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.

Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.

Where can you see it?

The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.

11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)

What’s it about?

A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.

Why do I love it?

Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.

And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?

Where can you see it?

It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)

What’s it about?

A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?

Why do I love it?

Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.

I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.

Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.

Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD and available to purchase on YouTube.

4 thoughts on “Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

  1. Quite a fun list, albeit a little more concentrated in (ahem) one area than in the past. Expand on “female sleuths” in film noir when you write essays for NC, there are more complex ones than WOTR to contend with that help dispel David Bordwell’s noted antipathy to “noir”–it’s a term that he would actually prefer to abolish, which is far too extreme a position.

    Glad to hear that you’ve had a change of view on BORN TO KILL–the film noir that has everything: psychosis, class tension (in America? No way!), a morally dubious but well-read PI, the type of sexual roundelay usually reserved for Restoration comedies, and not one but two of noir’s most iconic character actors, both given space to be fully themselves.

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