By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Farley Granger in “They Live By Night,” RKO Radio Pictures, 1948]
To sing the song of noir it’s not as easy as it once was, when critics like Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader were busy cataloging and specimen-boxing the genre as if it were a breed of black butterfly that had long lived on our streets and yet escaped our notice. In terms of utilizing the genre ourselves, nowadays we’re somewhere near post-retro-neo-meta-noir; the original tropes are no longer recyclable even as TV commercials, and the Jim Thompson-rediscovery school is garnering yawns on the straight-to-video indie shelf. “Sin City” please. But the original noirs remain, despite formidable culture-rehash odds, the coolest and most resonant school of movie to have ever emerged in America a half-century or more after the fact, the then-disregarded classics of the genre sit high on our trophy shelf while the huge hits of the ’45-’60 period think “Forever Amber” (1947), “Jolson Sings Again” (1949), “The Robe” (1953), “White Christmas” (1954), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), etc. are forgotten like the blundering, uninsightful trash they were. Further proof arrives almost monthly in the form of high-profile, reverent DVDs noirs represent a huge, profitable percentage of today’s archive releases, while the expensive films listed above and dozens like them lay dormant in the vault.
The new Warner megabox including no less than ten films on five discs, from RKO, MGM and Monogram in addition to Warner is a bustin’ example, a veritable Belgian block of postwar alienation and all-American hardcore doom. The predominant world-beater in the mix is undoubtedly auteur-god Nicholas Ray’s disquieting debut “They Live by Night” (1948); it’s DVDization is an event. Not so well remembered today, Ray was once the “Cahiers du cinéma” crowd’s most sanctifiable discovery, Godard’s personal Star of Bethlehem (“Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”), and the auteur theory’s prototype: the irascible Hollywood pro who turned studio formula into quizzical masterpieces of pain, rue and struggle. “They Live by Night,” adapted from Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us,” is prototypical noir: a decent-hearted but despairing portrait of the American ideal gone sour, with central characters (luckless crook-on-the-lam Farley Granger, his hapless girl Cathy O’Donnell) driven toward one dead end after another by impulse and fate.
Moody, subtle and emotional vulnerable, it’s one of the greatest debuts in film history, and you’d think the film would overshadow the rest of the set. But there are key works of powerful mistrust here, especially Anthony Mann’s Manhattan-tale thumper “Side Street” (1950), also with Granger and O’Donnell; Don Siegel’s flirtatious hoot “The Big Steal” (1949); John Farrow’s remarkable, long-take-beautiful “Where Danger Lives” (1950), in which a concussion-plagued Robert Mitchum finds himself woozily on the run for the border with bipolar slut Faith Domergue; and Fred Zinnemann’s thorny “Act of Violence” (1948), in which a vengeful Robert Ryan is, astonishingly, upstaged by Van Heflin’s meltdown suburban dad (discovered to be a POW camp informant), and Mary Astor, just seven years after “The Maltese Falcon,” appears as noir’s most convincing barroom whore. Each and every movie comes with audio commentaries (noir scholars, James Ellroy, aging stars) and exegetical featurettes.
If noir has a future and not merely a vivid, unforgettable past, it might lie with frustrating, cold-eyed, inconclusive docudrama epics like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a rangy historical tapestry, shot in the thoughtful-yet-overwrought way that Fincher has made his own, about an unsolved serial killer case that remains, guess what, unsolved. So the film isn’t about the crime or the criminal so much as society as it is ill-equipped to confront, not a genius mastermind, but simply a homicidal nobody who refuses to play by social rules and also refuses to leave himself obviously vulnerable the way psychopaths ordinarily do in films and in reality. In other words, it’s a careful, astute portrait of postwar America attempting to control the uncontrollable, a mere single individual who will not behave according to established norms. An anxious sense of reverse vulnerability is palpable giving me plenty of good cause to think of 9/11 as well, another not terribly brilliant criminal scenario that succeeded merely because we never guessed anyone would ever do such a thing. Fincher’s film focuses on four investigators (cops Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, journalist Robert Downey Jr., obsessed cartoonist Jake Gyllenhaal), all of whom get waylaid along the way by other social demands. And the killer skates. Tragic conclusion? Not really the film makes no final statement, save perhaps this: we may smugly, nervously construct our civilization around control, safety and security. But there’ll always be ghosts in the machine.
“Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4” (Warner Home Video) and “Zodiac” (Paramount) are now available on DVD.