When is a noir film not a noir film? When are we allowed to say “Yes, this is noir” or “This is not noir”? In my opinion, Dear Reader, this question is as pointless as a debate between Jansenists and Calvinists on the theological implications of free will. Yet, the point comes up again and again among film buffs, as though there’s a prize.
In a sense, there is. As long as “film noir” is now a marketable genre, it pays when a studio or company can claim it, as opposed to just calling the thing a thriller or crime film or gloomy drama. What matters is that the film is almost always worth watching under any label.
These thoughts occur to us while watching three new Blu-rays from Kino Lorber, all worth watching and either noir-ish or noir-adjacent, depending on your litmus test. Two of the titles are directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the most respected names in the genre–if these films belong to that genre.
The Man in Search of His Murderer
(Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht, 1931)
Director: Robert Siodmak
One glaring objection to calling this a noir film would be that it’s too early and comes from the wrong country: Germany. All the best noir filmmakers, like Siodmak, first had to flee Germany for Hollywood and bring their shadowy German Expressionist techniques with them before they began making films the French critics would dub “noir”.
However, the most obvious objection is that the film’s a comedy: black comedy, satirical comedy, musical comedy, grotesque comedy, and slapstick comedy. It also feels like one of the most stylistically exuberant and groundbreaking films made in 1930 (released the next year). Despite all this, there’s something proto-noir about The Man in Search of His Murderer.
German films, like Fritz Lang‘s seminal M (1931), sometimes get called proto-noir. Lang’s film, made after Siodmak’s film, contains the idea that all criminals belong to the same union of by-laws and procedures. While this notion somewhat harks back to Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, 1922), here Siodmak and his collaborators treat the idea as a satirical lark on bureaucracy and business.
Siodmak’s film opens with a dapperly dressed Heinz Rühmann, an iconic German star who specialized in playing “Everyman” figures. He’s about to blow his brains out in front of a full-length mirror. We can pause to let that sink in as an Everyman comment on the Depression, the unemployment of the Weimar era, and the roiling political unrest in the streets.
Hans Herfort, our Everyman, hears an offscreen sound. This film’s experimental sound mix will be full of fanciful noises on and off-screen, as well as whimsical editing and uses of offscreen space. This particular sound signals a burglar, Otto Kuttlapp (Raimund Janitschek), who’s at first afraid Hans wants to shoot him.
In a scene and scenario marked by absurd reversals, Hans explains he’d rather have Otto shoot him, as he hasn’t the courage to do it himself. After consulting his organization’s legal department by phone, Otto agrees, and the two sign a contract in which Otto has until the following noon to make good and collect on an insurance policy of M15k.
Then Hans goes to a nightclub where everyone bursts into a song by Friedrich Hollaender, who plays the pianist. Hollaender would land in Hollywood, as would the score’s composer, Franz Waxman, who comes up with many comic musical effects at a moment in film history before such things were well established. Waxman plays the head of the crooks’ club, who leads his men in a song while conducting with a loaded pistol.
There’s little point in describing further plot, except that, of course, Hans changes his mind after falling in love with Kitty (Lien Deyers), and this leads to frantic complications and an innovative slapstick scene in an ambulance. There’s also much business with Hans’ spiffy artists’ apartment and the Expressionist rooftop across the way, as designed by legendary German art directors Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig.
The hardy trope of the man who puts out a contract on himself and changes his mind echoes Jules Verne‘s 1879 novel, Tribulations of a Chinaman in China (Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine), and has been filmed in many incarnations, even sitcom episodes.
Alas, this 2013 restoration isn’t the full 98-minute version, which wasn’t a big hit and has been lost. This is the alternative back-up version at 52-minutes, with onscreen title Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe (Jim, the Man with the Scar), as prepared by producer Erich Pommer when the other version of the film didn’t test well. This cut-down version has jagged jumps in the narrative that make us wonder what we’re missing (more songs?), but the main story is here. We must conclude that either the humor was ahead of its time or all too much on the nose.
In his commentary, historian Josh Nelson points out the perspective that marked Siodmak’s noirs: a cynical, claustrophobic world marked by fate and passion. Equally clear is the humor of Billy Wilder, who worked on the script along with Siodmak’s brother Kurt Siodmak. Like Hollaender and Waxman, they all moved to Hollywood, where Robert Siodmak, Wilder, and Waxman made classic noirs.
We can’t reasonably label The Man in Search of His Murderer a noir film, but we can say it’s like “What if noir-minded people made slapstick comedy?” And we can say that, despite a “happy ending” that achieves full-blown surrealism (can we even trust it? is it Brechtian?), this film offers a dark and biting vision of corrupt and bankrupt society under all its jollity and amusement.
The Suspect (1944) Director: Robert Siodmak
The cover of this Blu-ray reproduces the original poster art: A close-up of Charles Laughton looking frightened or cornered, half in shadow, while leggy Ella Raines in slit scarlet dress slinks in the foreground, as alluring and bad for you as any classic femme fatale. It’s a misleading way to sell the picture, but Universal understood the trends in 1944.
Set in a nice genteel middle-class corner of 1902 London, the beginning of the Edwardian era, the film opens with two nice genteel middle-class neighbors greeting each other on the sidewalk. As the story progresses, we’ll learn that both Philip Marshall (Laughton) and Edith Simmons (Molly Lamont) are spouses who put up with much abuse. Edith endures bruises and contempt from her drunken, effete, parasitic husband Gilbert (Henry Daniell), while Philip suffers constant verbal and emotional harangue from a classic shrew, Cora (Rosalind Ivan).
If you’re thinking Philip and Edith will get together or are secretly in love, think again, for this film favors the subtle and unexpected. Philip’s attention is drawn to the unemployed Mary (Raines), a thoroughly “nice” and attractive woman too young for him, except that younger women commonly married older men. The discreet script employs plausible deniability on the question of whether their relationship goes beyond visits to the theatre.
Without being sticky, Mary’s an ideal: never demanding or calculating or importunate or suspicious, always understanding and accepting. She conforms in no way to a femme fatale. Even when it’s clear that she gets along with Philip’s grown son John (Dean Harens), who would presumably be more appropriate for her, the film pulls back from committing itself to more than a whiff of common friendliness.