Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film Noir Forever

We at the Bijou consider ourselves pretty tough customers. Oh sure, maybe not as hard-boiled as the egg salad in that dive of a deli off 2nd Avenue—where you gotta make them toast the bread twice and they never give you your pickle—but flinty nevertheless. Doing a post on film noir seemed like a cinch.

Only we got in too far, too fast, and too late we realized that defining film noir is like trying to pin down cigarette smoke as it spirals up and dissolves into the black satin night. There was just one thing we could be sure of—ambiguity and atmosphere are key to understanding what film noir is all about.

And then we knew in our gut that there was only one place to go to make sense of this crazy, tangled mess: Film Noir of the Week.

Featuring in-depth critiques of films, historical context and cinema history, this blog is truly a labor of love. With the help of fellow experts and fans, editor Steve-O (Steve Eifert) has updated this blog every week since the summer of 2005.

In addition to Film Noir of the Week, Steve-O is also administrator (and self-styled District Attorney) of Back Alley Noir, the official forum for the Film Noir Foundation.

His thread, Film Noir— So What Is It?” pulls together references from the American Film Institute, Roger Ebert, and his own expertise to define “whether ‘noir’ is a film genre, circumscribed by its content, or a style of storytelling, identified by its visual attributes.” While there are no “right answers,” it’s a snappy overview that will give you a place to hang your hat.

During our original 1980s Matinee at the Bijou series on PBS, we chose to include only one film noir feature, Money Madness (1948).

This is because the original Matinee series was limited to 90 minutes of air time, and we had to fit in the cartoon, short subject and serial chapter along with the edited feature. With the stylized storytelling of the genre, it would have been impossible to edit a classic film noir and still have it retain its artistic, gritty atmosphere. Money Madness is a fairly good little exercise in film noir, but not a true classic; with apologies to film purists we were able to make it work.
The sequel series in HD, hosted by the wonderful Debbie Reynolds, for which we continue to seek a network home, will change all that -- because there will be no limitations on the running times and no editing of the film content whatsoever.
And while the original Matinee series, due to our miniscule PBS budget, was limited to films in the public domain, the sequel series film content will be expanded to include copyrighted works licensed from the content owners.

To generate further buzz and stimulate renewed interest in Matinee at the Bijou, we are currently in the process of restoring the original PBS episodes with unedited content and upgraded prints. We’ll have the first 12 episodes of the re-release ready to go and available soon. Stay tuned!

Like Matinee at the Bijou, the Film Noir Foundation is dedicated to the preservation of classic and lesser-known films of the American Cinema. While Bijou’s forte is cartoons, shorts, serials and B-movies, The Film Noir Foundation focuses exclusively on finding film prints, restoring where necessary, and forever perpetuating the availability and appreciation of films that meet the definition of “film noir.”
Detour (1945) is a terrific example of a film noir gem that we look forward to presenting in glorious HD as part of the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series. While it is in the public domain and runs only a slight 67 minutes, we avoided including this genuine noir classic in the original Matinee series for obvious reasons.
But don’t just take our word for it—here, reprinted with permission, is a review and critique of Detour from Film Noir of the Week. Written by David Felter, Outfit Boss at Back Alley Noir, we hope it will give you a diversionary look at a B-film that’s off the beaten track—as well as a foreshadowing of Bijou Noir to come.


DETOUR (1945)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; Tom Neal (Al), Ann Savage (Vera)
In a phenomenon akin to the one wherein refrigerated leftovers seem to taste better when devoured well after midnight, many a 'B' noir programmer will seem infinitely more enjoyable when viewed in the wee-small-hours - when the time is just right for dashed dreams, and nightmarish scenarios. Edgar Ulmer's dime store-doom classic casts it's spell irrespective of showtime, but a good 3am screening will convert almost any detractor, and fortify it's reputation as one of the sub-genre's purest distillations - and most perversely entertaining triumphs.
Written by Martin Goldsmith, who adapted the screenplay from his own 1939 novella in which the male and female protagonists share narrating duties within alternating his and hers chapters, Ulmer's streamlined 67 minute cinematic version focuses almost solely on the travails of Al Roberts (Roth, in the book) - a N.Y. nightclub pianist who finds himself at a figurative and literal crossroads when his singer-fiancée leaves for the coast to make it big. The moody and self-defeating lug follows suit shortly thereafter, thumbing his way west (in laughably reversed shots) to resume their romance - but "fate, or some mysterious force" sticks out a foot to trip him - or so he would have us believe.

On a lonely stretch of southwestern highway, not terribly far from his destination, Al is picked up by one Charles Haskell - a gregarious big shot who pops unnamed pills between spinning yarns of estranged relatives and hot-tempered hitch-hikers. At one point during their ride when Al takes the wheel to let Haskell sleep, the sky opens - and Al pulls over to put the top up - but waking Haskell proves difficult, especially when Al opens the passenger door and the man spills out, smacking his head on a roadside rock.

Convinced that Haskell's blood is on his hands and that the police will surely put him away, Al ignores the possibility that the pill-popper was gravely ill before hitting the ground - and swaps clothes, wallets, and identities with the corpse - leaving the body, and his former life, in the middle of nowhere.
With a big chunk of change, some snazzy new duds, and a secured ride to L.A., Al then makes another ill-advised move. Picking up a prickly tumbleweed named Vera - who recognizes the car and the clothes and the name, but not the face - he is coerced down to an even lower circle of hell when his new companion informs him that she has ridden with the real Haskell(!), and will drop dime if he doesn't agree to pose with her as husband and wife so that they may cash in on an imminent Haskell family inheritance. While spending interminable hours together in a motel room, an astonishingly unlikely twist of fate simultaneously liberates Al - and makes his situation unfathomably bleak....
Bookended by sequences in the present - and the likely future, Ulmer's pulpy tale of woe is nothing less than a staggeringly impressive feat of ingenuity over limitations. A cracked, blemished jewel - 'Detour' immerses the viewer in a celluloid comic-nightmare for just over an hour, but leaves one questioning the power of fate, of one's own choices, and the murky depths of unexamined motivations. Cheap sets and cheesy tricks aside, it is an artful piece - and one that lingers long in the memory.

The Al Roberts character should not be lumped in with other noir protagonists, as his reliability as storyteller is in question throughout. He laments his financial status, yet scoffs at a customer's generous tip. He speaks of his 'wonderful' romance with Sue, yet clearly they are of different temperaments. When debating whether to inform the authorities of Haskell's passing - doubting they'll believe the truth - he neglects to even investigate the man's medication and/or health. Al Roberts doesn't narrate the story we see - but the one he'd prefer we believe.

It's somewhat easier to swallow Al's choice to trade places with Haskell and cover up the ostensibly shady circumstances when one knows that he has already done a short stretch for theft. This plot point from the book, along with the passage detailing his reluctance to pick up any hitch-hikers while posing as Haskell (he feels sorry for Vera, and figures it will be a short, local lift) may make his actions in those filmed sequences appear more reasonable. One can only wonder if their omission was an artistic choice, or one of budgetary constraints.

Never a strong presence or memorable performer, Neal's turn as our integrity-challenged anti-hero is little more than passable. It hardly matters though - with a co-star one can't take their eyes off of anyway. With her windswept coif, (unwashed for ten days prior to filming) lacerating glare, and sped-up line delivery (a direction of Ulmer's), Savage commandeers the viewer's attention in much the same way she does Al's life. When they lock horns - it's clear who'll really man the wheel for the rest of their journey. A mere 24 at the time, Savage's uniquely sexy/repulsive powder-keg doesn't qualify as a textbook femme fatale, but remains one of the most memorable pick-ups along noir's highway - shifting from scolding shrew to seductive vixen and back again with breathtaking conviction and force. Before Al daydreams of his likely apprehension, he must first survive her - his waking nightmare.
We salute Steve-O and his colleagues and all associated with the Film Noir Foundation in their continuing film preservation efforts!
And we tip our fedora to the sultry Victoria Balloon for tipping us off to the pros who know noir like a cat knows cream.
Some dark night when you can’t sleep and you’ve smoked the last cigarette and your mind runs on like rain down a windowpane, do what the tough guys do – grab some popcorn and open up the soda pop. Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can watch a sneak preview of the unedited version of Detour right here on our Bijou Blog screen. Just imagine what it will look like in HD! You can also purchase your own DVD copy by visiting our friends over at Movies Unlimited. There you will also find a variety of Film Noir Collections on DVD at affordable prices.

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