THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (Dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1954)

Released in 1954, Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young, a neglected British-American hybrid noir, relates a post office robbery through a series of flashbacks in which we are introduced to the four central protagonists who collectively come to signify a masculinity in crisis; a new post war malaise. It is worth noting that Gilbert’s noir preceded Kubrick’s The Killing, a film which is considered to be far superior and more revered. And in some respects, Gilbert’s film likely influenced The Killing expressly in the ending where the last of the four protagonists meets his death on the airport tarmac while clutching banknotes in a heavy handed symbolic gesture. Kubrick repeats this doomed ending but with greater clarity and imagination.

While the flashback structure in The Killing is resolutely mechanical and the fatalism resonates with a tangible brutality, Gilbert’s approach bears an equivalent pessimism about post war Western society, much of it amplified through the slimy figure of a posh playboy and sociopath essayed by Laurence Harvey with a venal, rascally delight. With a strong cast populated by the likes of Stanley Baker and Richard Basehart, Gilbert’s noir holds its own against classic noir films such as The Killing and could arguably be shoe horned into a cycle of films that preceded the British New Wave film movement that was to emerge in the late 1950s.

NARROW MARGIN (Dir. Peter Hyams, 1990)

This uncomplicated hot garbage from solid genre filmmaker Peter Hyams who often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of competent Hollywood mainstream cinema plays more like an updating than a remake of Fleischer’s original 1950s noir. Hyams is careful not to stretch this out, steering clear of letting it become a two hour overcooked melodrama, which it clearly could have morphed into. The premise is paper thin and overly conventional; an incorruptible, hard ass DA has to protect a witness from getting murdered by the mob on a train. However, what ensues for roughly ninety minutes is a hypnotically enjoyable cat and mouse thriller in which Gene Hackman foils the efforts of two sinister hitmen who roam the train carriages in cowboy boots with semi-automatics.

The weak link is the presence of Anne Archer who was pretty rubbish in most of the things she starred in and the zero on screen chemistry with Hackman. None of that really matters though considering Hyams, also on camera duty, succeeds in creating a sense of real time action, along with the idea of a narrative deadline taken to its natural extremes while dispensing with dialogue in large parts of the film. In some respects, where the film falters is when the script is allowed to speak, reiterating a litany of clichés. Moreover, the final sequence in the courtroom seems unnecessary, tacked on simply to let Hackman’s earlier gag regarding the ‘tightening of shirt collars’ come to fruition with a ridiculous visual confirmation. A diligent, underrated exercise in the economy of genre.

MOH MAYA MONEY / In Greed We Trust (Dir. Munish Bhardwaj, India, 2016) – Delhi Noir

in greed we trust

In the traditional film noir universe the destruction of the male protagonist is manifested in a downward spiral of paranoia, guilt and death. And it becomes a virtual impossibility to attain redemption. No matter what one does to rectify an earlier regret usually leads to certain calamity from which there is no return. Thematically, a noir continually invests in the psychology of power and desire, returning to a morality, which is often framed, in capitalistic terms. Marriage, betrayal, adultery, masculinity, and all of the above steadily rise to the surface in director Munish Bhardwaj’s gripping slice of Delhi noir, in which Aman (Ranvir Shorey), a contemptibly low life real estate broker, is sucked wholly into a whirlpool of greed. What makes this slice of urban noir somewhat idiosyncratic is the locale of an affluent Delhi middle class desperate to get ahead in a morally dubious neoliberal capitalist India. Everyone is flawed and so they should be, after all this is a noir. Aman’s world, a corruptible milieu of back end real estate dealings, is made altogether worse by a repugnant exhibition of ethics.

Even Divya (Neha Dhupia), Aman’s wife, concealing her own terrible secret while castigating Aman for harbouring his lies, expounds a sordid marital and familial hypocrisy. And it is Divya’s marital betrayal that neuters the wounded masculinity of Aman, another trait of the doomed noir male protagonist, threatened earlier by the violence of Raghveer and his goons. Not many films have been made on the topic of white-collar crime in contemporary Indian cinema, surprising since the world of economics especially business is often romanticised in popular Hindi cinema as a stylish, apolitical accessory. Bhardwaj and Mansi Jain’s script acutely taps into disquieting anxieties notably social mobility, problematized as a kind of middle class syndrome representative of a new generation of Delhi socialites. If Aman is coded as a Yuppie, he is also like a modern-day vampire, sucking the life out of those around him so he can get ahead. And while Aman foolishly pretends he can remain immortal in a world from which there is no escape, he realises a little too late that his desperation to get ahead is contradicted by a guilt that consumes both him and Divya.

Munish Bhardwaj adopts an understated directorial approach which often best suits the melodrama form. But he also keeps in check the risk of tipping into sentimentality, a major problem with the domestic melodrama, instead confidently weaving together a narrative that switches back and forth as a means of exploring the moral choices and personal dilemmas that define this consuming, corrupted world of Delhi noir.

DEEP VALLEY (Dir. Jean Negulesco, 1947, US) – Melo-Noir

deep valley

The first time I heard about Ida Lupino was in Scorsese’s journey through American cinema series, which first aired, in the mid 1990s on C4. Scorsese framed Lupino as an auteur director who dealt with social issues that went unmapped in much of mainstream American cinema, such as rape. It was only later I realised how great of an actress she was: British born, eloquent and unassailable. Lupino was a film star first and had unbelievable range; she could play trashy and classy with relative ease and cropped up in many film noirs during the 1940s. She was most striking when she played characters that were inflicted in some way, physically or psychologically, conveying a vulnerability and timidness that mark performances such as Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. There was also a capricious side to her acting. Below the vulnerabilities lurked a volatile social rage incessantly pushing outwards. In many ways, Lupino’s career was a germinal one since she not only acted but also directed, offering a counter hegemonic view of a patriarchal Hollywood system.

Deep Valley was a star vehicle for Lupino, featuring one of her most accomplished performances as Libby Saul, an impecunious and shy girl, secluded from the outside world by unreasonable demands placed on her by an ailing mother and churlish father. Libby lives literally a life of quiet desperation with her parents in a dilapidated farm in the woods of the California coast. Her life is complicated by a convict, Barry (Dane Clarke), working nearby as part of a group making a new road that will lead from the coast to the valley. Libby is attracted to Barry but represses her feelings. During a landslide, Barry escapes and meets Libby who has run away from the farm. They hide out in the woods and slowly Libby falls for Barry.

The director of Deep Valley, the Romanian Jean Negulesco, made over 80 films during a career that saw him work on many studio genre films in the 1940s and 1950s. Negulesco spent much of the early 1940s learning the craft by on short films and also assisting on other studio projects. This is a point made by Scorsese in his documentary; that directors got to work all the time, on four or five pictures a year, and this naturally meant they got to be good at what they did. Moreover, having to work under austere utilitarian and economic constraints also imposed a discipline on many studio directors, leading to the mastery of narrative economy, an important classical notion all but absent from contemporary mainstream Hollywood. It is an approach still evident in the work of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of narrative economy is Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg like Hitchcock before him storyboard meticulously, reiterating that such a process is intrinsic to the traditions of classical Hollywood storytelling. Negulesco’s break came in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitriois, a low budget film noir with Peter Lorre. Deep Valley, made at Warners in 1947, arguably saw Negulesco at his peak, bringing together noir aesthetics with the melodrama form. What makes Deep Valleyi a particularly striking work from the 1940s studio era is the involvement of Ida Lupino who is given a more unconventional role as a female film star than was expected at the time.

Categorising Deep Valley as a mood piece is a position that I am compelled to agree with as Negulesco creates a disquieting ambiance, presenting a dysfunctional family reminiscent of a Gothic horror trope in which instability radiates from an arduous past that remains closed to us. There is a sickly tone that materialises. Libby’s desire for escape is realised through Barry, symbolising the forbidden, whereas the father dubiously pimps his daughter to Jeff, the mildly arrogant engineer overseeing the construction of the road. The film is uncharacteristic in such respects but when contextualised in the melodrama form, female subjectivity is key to our understanding of the way the genre functions and communicates with audiences.

Although Libby’s longing for Barry could also be viewed as a form of late teenage rebellion, it is Barry’s status as an outsider that forges a relation since this is how Libby has been positioned by her family and those around her; a strange, odd girl (not a woman) and an outsider. This raises questions about gender that the film deals with subtly. Since Libby has been raised in seclusion, her social skills are infantile while her understanding of sexuality is also erroneous. In many ways, her identity constructed by her parents explains why Libby feels most at ease when she is in the woods with her dog. The interactions with Barry and Jeff complicate her independence as they place demands on her related to negotiating new ideas concerning gender and sexuality. The father in particular wants Libby to conform to traditional ideas of gender and the choice of Jeff as her suitor smacks of dogmatism that Libby contests.

Like many films made under the studio system it was the endings, habitually striving for closure, that were characteristically compromised ideologically and thematically, and in some cases struck a tone which clashed with the rest of the film’s narrative. Deep Valley ends incongruently. Barry and Libby cannot be allowed to escape and their affections for each other are undercut by an ending, promulgating a moralistic tone, that sees Barry/Libby neutered for their attempt at transgression. However, it is not clear from the closing moments if Libby is now with Jeff. Though they are seen together in the final shot, the inclusion of the dog suggests primitiveness still exists and that Libby retains her unconventionality and that she is still free from the tyranny of men.

A noir reading of Deep Valley compared to other noir films released around the same time offers some notable vagaries. For example, traditional noir conventions argued the femme fatale typically seduced the central male protagonist, leading to his entrapment and subsequent downfall. Deep Valley reverses such a narrative idea, arguably positioning the femme fatale as Barry, the male protagonist, whereas Libby is the prey and to a certain extent becomes Barry’s attempts to escape a fatalistic trajectory already mapped out for him by society. Unlike the dangerous woman who is usually punished for transgression, this time the male anti-hero gets his comeuppance. However, there is no satisfaction for Libby in this conclusion but rather a loss that is romantically inclined which returns to the cathartic audience pleasures of the women’s melodrama.