These Two Classics Successfully Skirt The Edges Of Film Noir

Dec 11, 2016

In addition to its distribution of modern foreign films, Kino Lorber has in recent years been acquiring and distributing classic titles for home video, and one of their specialties has been the world of Film Noir. They recently released two early classics that if they don’t fit into the traditional noir stylings of hard-nosed private eyes and shady alleyways, do follow the noir pattern of a corrupt system stacked against the individual. TPR’s Nathan Cone reviews Elia Kazan’s “Boomerang,” and guest blogger Ryan Steans (The Signal Watch) takes on “Cry of the City” below.

BOOMERANG

Credit Kino Lorber

In early 1947, just before he embarked on an astonishing run of feature films that would include Oscar winners “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “On the Waterfront,” director Elia Kazan set the stage with “Boomerang,” a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama about an overzealous police department after a murder conviction and the prosecutor who gradually becomes convinced of the suspect’s innocence. It’s sometimes characterized as a film noir, and there are a few elements of that genre such as corruption in high places and a distrust of the cops, but otherwise it’s more of an investigative piece that leads into a tidy courtroom drama.

Dana Andrews plays the prosecutor, Henry Harvey, a character based on Homer Cummings, a Connecticut attorney who would go on to serve as U.S. Attorney General. He’s a steady leading man, but where the picture really shines is in the supporting cast, featuring Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Arthur Kennedy as the beleaguered suspect, and Lee J. Cobb (at 36 years old already playing men 10-15 years old than him) as the police chief who may have some sympathy for the case himself, but nevertheless has a job to do and a family to feed.

“Boomerang” is based on the real-life case of Harold Israel, who was indicted for the murder of a popular priest in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As prosecutor, Cummings (Henry Harvey/Dana Andrews in the film) found inconsistencies and other problems with the state’s evidence, and dropped the charges against Israel, much to the consternation of the local authorities.

For the film, Kazan made the decision to film on location in Connecticut, using Stamford for the majority of the outside shots, as well as non-actors and locals as extras. As film noir historian Sara Smith points out on her commentary track on the new Blu-ray of “Boomerang,” Hollywood extras were simply too pretty (generally speaking) to play regular folk, and the emphasis on location shooting brought added realism to the drama—something Kazan would use to even greater effect in “On the Waterfront.”

Arthur Kennedy (center) feels the walls closing in.
Credit Kino Lorber

The script, by Richard Murphy, would be nominated for an Oscar, but Kazan’s direction and staging deserves praise in this early work as well. Already there’s a gift evident for coaxing more naturalistic performances from some of his actors, especially Cobb, and on more than one occasion, Kazan crowds the frame with people placing his subject at the center to give a sense of the doors closing in on the prime suspect, John Waldon (Kennedy), especially during a tense scene in a back alley, as townspeople thirsty for justice seem ready to hang Waldon before he even makes it to trial.

“Boomerang” hits a clam every now and then with some ill-placed attempts at comic relief, as well as a secondary suspect who’s scarcely addressed but placed in the film simply to satisfy the Hays Code and allow the audience to assign guilt to another party. But it’s otherwise a genuinely entertaining docudrama that offers a fascinating insight into Kazan’s early technique and later greatness.

Likewise, Kino Lorber’s transfer of the film to Blu-ray looks good, a few instances of damage to the original print notwithstanding. The aforementioned commentary track by Sara Smith is accompanied by a third track featuring film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini.

CRY OF THE CITY

Once you get past a few trappings or broad generalizations of any genre, the stereotypes fall away and you’re left dealing with the film at hand. As much as the concept of the Western starts to get a bit shaky when you place movies like “McClintock!” and “The Searchers” side-by-side, reviewing any two movies considered film noir will leave you with more to contrast than to compare. 

Still, 1948’s “Cry of the City” falls well within the loose confines of what we might call film noir. Despite the lack of private eyes, femme fatales or even horizontal blinds, it’s a story of obsession, getting in over your head, and the dark shadows where that can take you.

Starring Richard Conte and Victor Mature, the story finds a lifelong crook, Martin Rome (Conte), in the hospital, wept over by his family. After a shoot-out with the police, Rome now waits for life-saving surgery in order to stand trial. His minders from the police department include Lieutenant Candella (Mature), who knows not just the sort of person he’s got on his hands with Rome, he knows Rome from their youth in Little Italy.

Rome has a girl he’s trying to keep on the down low (a very young Debra Paget), and when an attorney looking to leverage Rome’s hopeless case in order to help out his own clients threatens Rome’s girl, Rome plots and then frees himself,  All this despite the fact he’s still recovering from getting riddled with police bullets. Candella is on the case, driven to bring Rome back to justice or die trying. 

Directed by Robert Siodmak (“The Killers,” “Criss-Cross”), the film is a product of both a skilled eye and someone with a tremendous sense for story. Shot in part on location in New York, the street-level views of a city teeming with humanity, just by count of windows, provides a different environ than the empty world of mid-20th Century Los Angeles-based noir. Siodmak’s sense for framing a sequence, blocking and lighting are all put to good effect here, building tension and suspense down long corridors, and finding danger whenever two characters stand too close.   

The dark pleasure of noir is so often in the subversion of the supposed theme of justice prevailing.

The movie makes a much more particular point of the shared ethnic heritage of both characters than one sees in most noir, which usually only includes ethnicity as a nod to realism in supporting and bit parts, but rarely as a feature of story. Siodmak uses the mere presence of the family, and the look of their small but proud home, to tell us it didn’t have to be this way for Martin Rome, but you can see what he might have been fleeing just the same. But the shared paths of Candella and Rome diverging so radically carries a lot of weight as two kids from a poor neighborhood deal with their fates in post-war America, opting for the fast buck or the upholder of justice.

The parts of the story seem to fit like the gears of a watch, each character playing a particular part that helps drive home the themes of the story, explicated in the finale.  As each follows his obsessions (Candella to catch Rome and vindicate justice, Rome to protect what he’s got and get away), each pays a toll for taking things so far. 

It’s in those last scenes, where Conte and Mature face off, that much of what we take for granted in cops and robbers movies, or especially in noir, takes a turn. The dark pleasure of noir is so often in the subversion of the supposed theme of justice prevailing (to meet the needs of the Hays code) as fans secretly cheer on the bad guys. In many ways, until that final scene, “Cry of the City” feels no different.  But the reflection upon the impact of that darker path makes for an unusual turn for a film of the genre.

Both Conte and Mature effortlessly fill their roles, with Conte finding an easy groove as the self-confident, charismatic crook and Mature the detective trying to remain good-natured when he knows every day is pushing that boulder right back up the hill. Mature has to carry a heavier load as the more straight-laced character, but he’s carrying some existential weight whereas Conte’s goals are of survival.  It’s an interesting contrast as the movie plays out and each reaches the end of the line.

A still up-and-coming Shelley Winters appears for a few quick scenes as a loyal ex-girlfriend to Rome, and Fred Clark (“The Unsuspected,” “Sunset Boulevard”) plays Mature’s partner - and there’s more “I know that person” fodder for your IMDB searching. The movie offers two character parts as stand-out roles for Hope Emerson as a physically imposing masseuse/crook and Betty Garde as a nurse willing to bend the rules a bit. The toughest characters in this film - making it a good noir - are, of course, the women.

“Cry of the City” delivers a tough, taut thriller with gorgeous camera-work (some on-location, some in studio), a solid narrative line and a fascinating cast of characters. Later films like Michael Mann’s “Heat” would carry “Cry of the City” in their DNA. In the code era, it’s great to see a noir that earns its concluding thoughts regarding the valor of the police and law rather than an added-on bit of anti-glamour to get the film past the Production Code Administration.

This Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber includes trailers for several additional Noir films and a commentary by Eddie Muller, “The Czar of Noir,” who hosts Noir City film festivals around the country (including in Austin), and sometimes host of Noir movies on Turner Classic Movies. Any commentary track by Muller is a must-listen thanks to his encyclopedic and pointed knowledge of Hollywood, he delivers in conversational tones.

It’s a package well worth checking out, and a film that’s a solid entry in Siodmak’s well-respected filmography. Noir fans, in particular, will want to catch up on this release even if they’ve previously seen this movie, presented here from a beautiful print, especially to enjoy Muller’s contributions.

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