Four Film Noir Classics: The Dark Mirror, Secret Beyond the Door, Force of Evil, The Big Combo Review
This month sees the release of Arrow Academy’s four-film box-set celebrating Film Noir and what a fantastic collection it is. The slightly offbeat choices are clever, covering the period 1946 to 1955, capturing the broad themes and distinctive styles the genre is known for from some key contributors.
I say “contributors” like everyone knew exactly what they were doing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, in fact, Film Noir was a term coined in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank after the themes in which he’d identified a pattern were already long established; a propensity for cynicism, social decay, human frailty and rocky morals. Visually, the films were often suitably dark and shadowy, the endings downbeat, even when ostensibly “happy” to satisfy the moral convictions of the Hays Code. But genre theory considers delivery and execution as much as the motive so far from being turgid, nihilistic things, Film Noir featured thoroughly entertaining thrillers. The genre stands as possibly the most consistently satisfying result of artistic endeavour in conflict with the fiercely commercial Hollywood studio system.
Quantity over quality was the typical result of the studio system at its peak. Add in a genre being applied after the fact, and identifying Noir gems needs expert curation. I’d argue Arrow pushed their luck tagging recently released The Big Knife as such - it’s far more melodrama than a thriller - but the selection here is superb. Film Noir usually comes down to crime, corruption, sex or insanity and all are represented, with the Femmes Fatales and world-weary lovestruck anti-heroes present and correct. Quality varies - which is fair representation - fun does not.
First up is The Dark Mirror (1946) by director Richard Siodmak. He’s more well known for The Killers from the same year, which is the better film, but this is an amenably daft curiosity, typical of the era’s more routine releases. Frugal storytelling gets right into establishing characters and throwing the hook: a detective is investigating a murder and has the suspect bang to rights, except she has a twin! Buy one Femme Fatale, get one free. The pesky law causes a bit of head-scratching: she can’t be identified so how can she be arrested? Handy that a doctor who specializes in the behaviour of twins happens to know one of them and offers his services to dig out the truth over a course of Silence of the Lambs style interrogations while trying to hide that he is in love with one of them. Well of course he is. The guts of the story almost settle for romantic comedy and there’s no room for any stabby moments like the spoilerific poster would suggest, but there is tension in the idea that one twin is a murderous sociopath.
It’s hokey, it’s daft, has not an ounce of threat and is clichéd frontways and back, but the gimmick is entertaining and I miss this kind of throwaway plot in modern thrillers. The cast is largely going through the motions with Lew Ayres doing the heavy lifting as the doctor and Thomas Mitchell’s detective setting up and closing the story, but Olivia de Havilland is fantastic playing both sisters. Once we know there is a twin, and even which of them is the likely killer (that flag is firmly planted early on; they knew their audience), the production handily uses broaches to signify which is which, not even trying to use it as a bluff. There was no need. Olivia does a great job in not being quite identical with herself, especially the different reactions in Rorschach tests. Impressive bit of double-exposure filming for the time too.
Next is a twisted delight in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Lang was a key contributor to the German Expressionism movement, the visual language of which is most commonly seen in a distilled form within Film Noir. And yet Secret Beyond the Door is no masterpiece to rival Metropolis or M, both beautiful and astonishing films. In fact, it’s somewhat crippled by its uncanny similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Ironically, despite it being the better-realised film, there is little of Hitchcock in Rebecca and Secret Beyond the Door is the more interesting watch. It rewards repeat viewings. On the surface, it’s a throttled studio production, tight-lipped and safe. And yet, Lang’s subtle characterisation is audacious, the themes of psychological torment ahead of their time. Even playing by the studio rules, Lang knows how to twist the knife in what becomes an eccentric chiller that turns out to be more self-aware than you may have assumed.
The melodramatic heart of the story is an update of the Bluebeard fairy tale. On a whim, Joan Bennett marries Michael Redgrave and goes to live in his large, stately home. As Joan Fontaine did in Rebecca, Bennett must deal with mysterious staff and suspects that her new husband may have murdered his first wife. Bennett is much tougher than the Fontaine character. In fact, there is an insinuation that Bennett might be a bit twisted herself and she is excellent in the role that drives the film. For his part, Redgrave is excellent as the strange husband, with his collection of rooms, each a facsimile of a notorious murder scene. He delights in telling his guests the gory details and it’s where the film really comes to life with palpable tension. Especially in what he doesn’t say: just what is in the last room?
Lang’s detail in the sets and smoky photography is a marvel, rendering the final third of the film as genuinely extraordinary, not least the abstract scene where Redgrave imagines his own court case. While the plot is a bit on the nose (she needs the key, to unlock the door, and then she can unlock his mind!), the intensity pays off by the end and you can peel the clever narrative like an onion.
The last two films in the set are of the highest standard. It should be a life goal to find someone that will talk about you the way Martin Scorsese talks about Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). He’s been supporting it for decades and the influence on his work is obvious. Yet somehow it still doesn’t get highlighted enough, such as, say, Double Indemnity (1944) is, or Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), with which it shares a story of corruption. I adore both films, but Force of Evil is their equal. Polonsky was unable to work in Hollywood following the McCarthy witch-hunts and on the basis of this film, the cost to cinema is incalculable.
What is Force of Evil about? Scorsese sums it up succinctly in his enthusiastic introduction for a previous release of the film: it is a story of two brothers (John Garfield and Thomas Gomez), each with moral responsibility for the other. To expand further, Garfield is a lawyer working with Roy Robert’s gangster boss to consolidate and control the numbers racket. Problem is, when the clever trap snaps shut on a betting run, his brother’s small-time illegal bank will fold. Both brothers are on the wrong side of the law, but the older Gomez still has his morals, employees he treats like family and a dodgy ticker. Despite Garfield’s greed, he wants to protect him. Force of Evil is definitive and yet still different to most Noir because - to quote Scorsese again - it isn't just the individual who is corrupt, but the whole system.
The first thing you notice is the beautiful dialogue. It’s written in blank verse (metrical, but unrhymed) and has a lyrical quality matched by the unassuming cinematography reflecting the downward, unrelenting spiral in which Garfield finds himself. Compositions have meaning, but not so much so that they distract from character and the story has phenomenal ambition; many thrillers poison the American Dream, but few are this ruthless. Even The Godfather and On The Waterfront owe Force of Evil a debt, it’s that good. And like those films, it doesn’t pull punches. A restaurant scene recalls Michael Corleone’s initiation and is Coppola’s equal, cinematically speaking. When you think of Noir, you’re thinking of Force of Evil.
On the other hand, what you might consider as modern Noir perhaps started with The Big Combo (1955). Joseph H. Lewis’ film is not as angry as Polonsky’s, but it’s tough as nails (a torture scene is genuinely shocking) and the shadows are a even darker than usual. It treads a well-worn plot: Cornel Wilde is a detective determined to bring down Richard Conte’s Mr Brown. Wilde is helplessly in love with Conte’s young wife, tortured Femme Fatale, Jean Wallace.
Wilde’s Lt. Diamond is an archetypal Noir detective and hasn’t even met Wallace, like Dana Andrews in Laura, falling in love with a painting of a girl who was supposed to be dead. This later entry is no longer duty bound to just accept a romantic sub-plot and is unafraid to consider that our hero is a stalker, his judgement clouded such that it puts him in danger. Conte has a quiet, scary power as the boss, backed up by a pair of henchmen enforcers, one of which is played by a young Lee Van Cleef. There’s an unspoken homoeroticism in their partnership, just another example of a new voice in thriller film-making which has been carried through. The Big Combo was ahead of its time in more ways than one.
You’ll recognise the style in films like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Bullitt and The Untouchables. It’s still powerful stuff, not least because of director Lewis, who ground out a career in B-movies but nevertheless developed a notable style that has been followed through into later movies, as has the air of melancholy sexiness. While the premise of The Big Combo puts it on a similar path to Force of Evil, the execution is quite different. The punches land heavier.
All of the films have excellent transfers, consistent and well balanced with some noticeable and welcome grain. The twins effect in The Dark Mirror is seamless, though there is a shift in quality on some of those scenes, perhaps relating to the source, but it’s hard to be sure and isn’t distracting either way. Force of Evil is the roughest looking film, but this is probably by design and, even if it isn’t, the slight blooming and occasionally coarse contrast rather adds to the atmosphere. The Big Combo is smoky and not as crisp as the others, but again, that suits the movie.
Arrow’s choice of films for this set is a wily bit of curation in itself, and they’ve pulled together a superb set of extras across the four discs. Each has a full-length commentary and Force of Evil also has two short theme specific commentaries. Radio plays are always fun and one that stands out is the fascinating “Hollywood Fights Back!” with stars of the day making a public stand against the accusations that would result in the blacklist. And there’s a sizable chunk of video essays that look at the films and the directors behind them.
Commentary on ‘The Dark Mirror’ by Adrian Martin
Commentary on ‘Secret Beyond the Door’ by Alan K. Rode
Commentary on ‘Force of Evil’ by Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
Commentary on ‘The Big Combo’ by Eddie Muller
Commentary of Selected Themes from ‘Force of Evil’ Frank again?: Down and Down (9m); The Telephone is a Dangerous Object (10m)
Reflections of the Dark Mirror - New video essay with Noah Isenberg (34m)
Barry Keith Grant on Secret Beyond the Door (14m)
Introduction to ‘Force of Evil’ by Martin Scorcese for an earlier release (4m)
House of Lang (20m)
Geoff Andrew on The Big Combo (19m)
Wagon Wheel Joe (19m)
An Autopsy of Capitalism (38m)
The Dark Mirror Radio Play (30m)
Bluebeard Radio Play "Let's Pretend" (20m)
Hollywood Fights Back! Radio Play (58m)
Body and Soul Radio Play (60m)
The Killers trailer
Hangmen Also Die! trailer
Terror in a Texas Town trailer