1947: The Year in Noir
This post was my submission to the December 2012 special, double-issue of The Dark Pages, the newsletter for film noir lovers, which was dedicated to Edmund Goulding’s 1947 classic, Nightmare Alley. My topic was, “1947: The Year in Noir.” And what a year it was!
Let’s get to them – just the facts. In 1947, the life expectancy in the United States was 66.8 years and the homicide rate, a statistic of high importance to noir aficionados, was 6.1 per every 100,000 people – both of those sure to be much different if you happen to be one of the hard-boiled characters in a noir film. And there are many of those films – from the obscure to the popular – which guarantee a myriad of dark streets, obsessive behavior, murdering thugs and their dames that were released in 1947.
One of the most successful films released that year is a noir centered in the world of sports, released by United Artists, Robert Rossen’s, Body and Soul, which stars John Garfield, who gives an Academy Award-nominated performance as a boxer struggling to deal with success. Rounding out the cast are Lili Palmer, Hazel Brooks and a really fine list of supporting players. Body and Soul has an interesting connection to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which happened to have released the “blacklist” that same year. The film’s screenwriter, Abraham Polonsky, nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for this film, would turn his attentions to directing soon after only to have his career derailed by the blacklist as Robert Rossen, the film’s director would go on to equal fame as a result of naming names.
Warner Bros. Studios had several impressive noir releases in 1947, two of them released in February of that year. The first was the film featured in the last issue of The Dark Pages, Vincent Sherman’s, Nora Prentiss starring Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith and Bruce Bennett. Be sure to visit that super-sized edition for the ins and outs of a great film. February 1947 also saw the Warner release of Curtis Bernhardt’s, Possessed, starring Joan Crawford as a woman slowly descending into madness. Other featured players in the film are Van Heflin, Raymond Massey and Geraldine Brooks. In September of 1947, Warner released Dark Passage, a film by Delmer Daves, a top-notch noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett and Agnes Moorehead. One of the most memorable elements of this film is the use of a “subjective camera” for almost the entire first half of the film, which shows the story told from the point of view of the main character, a wrongly-accused escaped convict (Bogart). A final mention for Warner Bros. is what is perhaps an odd choice but, nonetheless a highly enjoyable, lesser-known film, Ted Tetzlaff’s, Riffraff. With its tagline, “Baby, this is a matter of love and death,” this film is commonly categorized as an adventure/comedy but it is a definitive noir with exceptional cinematography and one of the most memorable openings in film. Riffraff stars Pat O’Brien, Pat Jeffreys and Walter Slezak.
In June 1947, Jules Dassin’s, Brute Force was released by Universal Pictures. To start with, one has to love the tagline, “MEN CAGED ON THE INSIDE…driven by the thought of their women on the loose!” That pretty much says it all. Brute Force features great performances from a fine cast, Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo and Ann Blythe. A really dark film, Brute Force is, in simple terms, about an inmate (Lancaster) seeking to escape prison to be with his critically ill girlfriend. With an October 1947 release Universal went with a dark horse (pun intended), a film directed Robert Montgomery that stars Robert Montgomery but that has a rather unfortunate title for a mystery, Ride the Pink Horse. The film co-stars Thomas Gomez who gives an Academy Award-nominated performance, Rita Conde and Iris Flores. Arriving in a small, New Mexico town looking for a man for either revenge or blackmail (you’ll have to decide), Lucky Gagin (Montgomery) is as mysterious as all and everyone that surrounds him. Ride the Pink Horse is an enjoyable and engaging film, which was remade as a 1964 TV movie more aptly titled, The Hanged Man, which was directed by Don Siegel and stars Robert Culp, Edmund O’Brien, Vera Miles and Norman Fell.
Paramount Pictures gets only one mention on the noir front for 1947 and it’s for a film made two years earlier. That film is Calcutta, directed by John Farrow and starring Alan Ladd, Gail Russell and William Bendix. Calcutta is not a standout film if comparison to most of the others mentioned here but it has some elements that make it worth seeing. Namely, Gail Russell does a fine job in a role that is well out of her element and you get nice exotic Far East locations in fine noir style.
Columbia Pictures, under Harry Cohn’s despotic rule, threw their hat in the noir arena in 1947 first with a January 2nd release of John Cromwell’s, Dead Reckoning starring Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott and Morris Carnovsky. Here you have a fairly standard but enjoyable noir involving a complex blackmailing scheme with a protagonist who’s a Congressional Medal of Honor winner (Bogart) forced into a hectic manhunt when he finds himself the prime suspect in a murder. Reckoning’s standout is its memorable dialogue in a screenplay by Oliver H. P. Garrett and Steve Fisher.
Critic, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune called Columbia’s December 1947 release, The Lady from Shanghai, “the weirdest great movie ever made.” Somewhat of a cult classic today, Lady was not well received when released and was surrounded by controversy. The film was shot in 1946 but, fearing it would ruin his star, Rita Hayworth, Harry Cohn held the release for a year – really beyond that as it was released in France in December 1947 but it didn’t make its U.S. premier until June 1948. Harry Cohn and the film’s director, Orson Welles were constantly at odds, to put it mildly, with Cohn’s concerns centering mostly on the fact Welles ordered Rita Hayworth’s famous locks bleached and cut. Despite the film’s initial disappointment at the box-office, however, today many consider it a masterpiece, ignoring its awkward narrative about a destructive love triangle – Hayworth, Welles and Everett Sloan. The awkwardness of the story is probably ignored because even by today’s standards, The Lady from Shanghai remains technically and visually impressive. It must be said that Cohn’s concerns aside and considering it is a bit of a shock to see her new “look” if Gilda is etched on your mind, Rita still looks stunning in the film. Cinematographer, Charles Lawton, Jr. not only shoots the film’s star masterfully but also gives us many memorable scenes to admire, including the famous mirror scene at the end of the film.
We turn now to RKO Radio Pictures, a studio that released several notables that included two of the best noir pictures ever made. Let’s start with Director Robert Wise’s first foray into the world of noir with Born to Kill, a film released in May 1947. Born to Kill stars Claire Trevor, as the bad-girl mistress of “the coldest killer a woman ever loved,” played appropriately mean by Lawrence Tierney. Rounding out the main players is Walter Slezak. Born to Kill received a luke warm reception (at best) upon its initial theatrical release. It is quite the morass of vices, a nasty film that’s still very enjoyable. That is, apparently, to some lower level individuals as New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther wrote, “Surely, discriminating people are not likely to be attracted to this film. But it is precisely because it is designed to pander to the lower levels of taste that it is reprehensible.” So, if you too are “lower level” then this is the film for you.
Next is RKO’s outstanding, Crossfire, released in July 1947. Edward Dmytryk directed the film, which stars an impressive trio of Roberts – Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Add to that trio the great Gloria Grahame and you have a must see, which only took twenty days to shoot. No doubt they really knew what they were doing in the 1940s. An effective screenplay by John Paxton albeit preachy at times with its strong anti-Semitic message, the story is based on the novel by Richard Brooks. The film features great performances and received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, making it the only 1940s film noir recognized with that honor. However, the film won none, which lead many to speculate that it failed on the awards front due to its Director, Dmytryk and Producer Adrian Scott’s refusal to testify before HUAC.
In November RKO released another gem. In fact, many believe it to be the best film of 1947 period. Or at least it is so for this viewer, the magnificent Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. A film that is “awfully cold around the heart,” Out of the Past was originally released in the UK as “Build My Gallows High,” the title of the novel by Geoffrey Homes after which the film is based. It is an absolutely stunning film thanks to the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. Out of the Past stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas and, aside from its “look,” it is a terrific thriller replete with noir requisites – crooked characters, double-crosses, murder and romance.
Famed noir and Westerns director, Anthony Mann directed Desperate for RKO in 1947. Desperate is not one of the noirs people mention today but it does have elements to admire, such as fine performances from its cast, Steve Brodie, Audrey Long, Raymond Burr and Douglas Fowley and stunning cinematography by George E. Diskant who also photographed the aforementioned Riffraff. Another 1947, Mann-directed noir is the highly regarded T-Men, which was produced by Reliance Pictures, Inc. T-Men, which stars Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford and June Lockhart, is about U.S. Treasure agents who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. The cases depicted in the film are (supposedly) based on actual Treasury cases. T-Men is an evocative, compelling film but this is a case where the story (almost) takes a back seat to gorgeous photography realized by cinematographer, John Alton.
Now on to 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, the studio that brought us our honored film, Nightmare Alley. April of 1947 saw the Fox premier of Elia Kazan’s, Boomerang! starring Dana Andrews in one of his best performances as State’s Attorney, Henry L. Harvey. Co-starring with Andrews in that film are Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt. Henry Hathaway’s violent, Kiss of Death was next on the agenda with an August premier. Kiss stars Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Grey and as sadistic gangster, Tommy Udo is Richard Widmark making his memorable screen debut for which he received an Academy Award nomination. In October, the dark Nightmare Alley made its way into darkened theaters, receiving mixed critical reviews for the film but across-the-board positive notations for the acting, including accolades for the film’s star, Tyrone Power. Power starred in one other 1947 film, the Henry King-directed, Captain from Castile, released in December, in which he plays a more recognizable heroic character, Pedro de Vargas. Today, it is Power’s performance in Nightmare Alley as carnie, Stan Carlisle and the film itself, which are widely considered among the best to be released that year. Also worth noting is that Fox’s Christmas release in 1947 was Otto Preminger’s, romantic drama, Daisy Kenyon, a nourish romance, which stars Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.
There you have it, an overview of an outstanding year in noir through a listing that’s really just the tip of the iceberg as it’s an impossibility to name all the noir films worth watching that were released in 1947 alone. Still, the ones mentioned here should keep any and all fans busy in the shadows for some time.
I’ll end with the words of Pete Krumbein in Nightmare Alley, “Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal, and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself? Or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come. Slowly shifting their form, visions come.”
A 1947 noir honorable mention goes to a film that is attached to an interesting bit of trivia. Produced by United States Pictures, Inc. and distributed by Warner Bros. in March of that year is a crossover western noir, Raoul Walsh’s, Pursued. The film has an outstanding cast – Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Judith Anderson, Dean Jagger, Alan Hale, Harey Carey, Jr. and Clifton Young. A suspenseful, grim picture, Pursued centers on Mitchum’s character, Jeb Rand, who’s determined to find his father’s killers. The interesting trivia is that Pursued was the film the late Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors watched on the night he died.
If you want visions of noir from any year I strongly suggest you take a look at The Dark Pages, edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry of Shadows and Satin. Each eight-page, bi-monthly issue of the newsletter contains movie reviews, biographies and much, much more. It’s always a fun and informative read.