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Farther Than You Think: Mapping the Noir Terrain

Rope of Sand, Dark City, and Union Station each extend the shadowy reach of film noir.

Rope of Sand

Director: William Dieterle
Cast: Burt Lancaster
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1949
USDVD release date: 2014-12-23

Dark City

Director: William Dieterle
Cast: Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1950
USDVD release date: 2014-12-23

Union Station

Director: Rudolph Maté
Cast: William Holden, Nancy Olson
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1950
USDVD release date: 2014-12-23

These three noir films, released not far from each other in the 1949-50 season, are now hitting blu-ray in very sharp prints, the better to penetrate ther shadowy photography and illuminate their dark tales of seemingly hopeless fate -- at least until the final minutes.

Rope of Sand demonstrates the flexibility of the noir category as a state of mind crossed with ambience. Far from the mean streets of urban America, it's set in South Africa, depicted as a desert (shot in Yuma, Arizona) with an oasis of sets that look left over from Casablanca. Claude Rains, Paul Henried and Peter Lorre are still stuck there, and it's even from the same producer, Hal B. Wallis. To audiences in 1949, it must have come across as a two-fisted adventure in that tradition, centering on a stubborn, virtually self-destructive hero, an American loner in Bogart's Rick Blaine mold.

That hero is Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), a guide who was beaten and rendered persona non grata two years earlier when one of his clients (Hayden Rorke) discovered a deposit of rough diamonds on private land owned by the diamond company. Now Mike is back, and he still remembers where the diamonds are, if only he can get to them. The company's elegant, amoral boss (Rains) hires a "cheap French tramp" (Corinne Calvet), working as a hotel shakedown artist, to charm the diamonds' location out of Davis, but he's so tall and square-jawed that this femme fatale might just fall for the lug.

Before we get to all that, the film opens with a striking, unpleasant sequence of a black man being chased to exhaustion by two official vehicles for trespassing in the area. It becomes clear that the white authorities, represented by the sadistic police commandant (Henreid, a long way from his heroic Casablanca character), exploit and and brutalize black men with impunity. After establishing this point, the story drops it, but it's had its effect. The film becomes a minor example of the wave of racially-conscious films that emerged from Hollywood in the late '40s.

Peter Lorre shuffles around the edges of the story as a wheedling, rumpled, drunken, minor plot functionary who gets to utter most of the philosophical dialogue. Sam Jaffe plays an alcoholic doctor (the best kind, apparently), while Mike Mazurki, John Bromfield, Kenny Washington and Edmond Breon decorate the edges. The script is by Walter Doniger, later a prolific TV director, with additional dialogue by John Paxton.

Some might argue falsely that the ending, not to give it away, doesn't qualify as noir, but it turns on the smiling cynicism of Rains' character without betraying his role as an amoral manipulator and trickster. Godlike, he's amused by the behavior of these humans, and is equally capable of damning or saving them just for fun.

Some might say the picture has too much sun and sand to be noir, although a violent confrontation in a night-time sandstorm is photographically and emotionally as noir as you can get, and Charles Lang's photography in general is as beautifully chiaroscuro and shadow-laden and criss-crossed and wicker-netted and ceiling-fanned as you please. More to the point, everyone is so flawed, so corrupt, so violent, and so degraded that the film's vision of a noir world is impeccable. In retrospect, it makes one consider the extent to which we might validly consider Casablanca as proto-noir.

Rope of Sand (1949)

Director William Dieterle had helmed two of the great American films of the '40s (and therefore all time) in The Devil and Daniel Webster  and Portrait of Jennie. In 1949, he and Wallis stepped into noir with The Accused, a woman-centered suspense melodrama, and the testosterone-heavy Rope of Sand  was their follow-up. It wasn't so much perceived as a crime film, yet it radiates a foreboding, fateful, claustrophobic noir ambience.

The following year, Dieterle and Wallis worked on Dark City, which has enough dark ambience to choke Charlton Heston. In fact, choking is a major plot element. Heston plays Danny, running an illegal bookie joint and chafing at his life in an unnamed city with a waterfront (maybe Chicago). He's a WWII vet with a dark past that involved his British wife, his best friend, and alleged murder. Now he's skittish about committing himself to a pretty, moon-eyed nightclub singer (Lizabeth Scott) who fauns on him while visibly restraining her pain. She performs several songs, or at least her voice double (Trudy Stevens) does.

After a police raid trashes his business, Danny gets an idea to shake down a visiting chump (Don DeFore) whose life resembles the flipside of his own: a veteran happily married to a foreign wife (Viveca Lindfors), settled down in Los Angeles with a kid and a straight job. The man's naive complacency rubs Danny the wrong way, but Danny still professes to be surprised and annoyed when learning that the poker game he orchestrated to compel this sucker to sign over a check for his company's money wasn't strictly on the level.

One of Danny's associates (Jack Webb in a particularly unlikeable role) played with marked cards to clinch the set-up, and somehow that's more over the line than their complex confidence game. Webb's character is Danny's demonic double in the same way that DeFore's is his straight double, and that's why Danny hates his guts. As with Lancaster's role in Rope of Sand, Danny is a soul in limbo badly in need of redemption, if he can find his way out of the desert or darkness. In case we don't pick up on it, the local homicide detective (Dean Jagger) delivers a few lectures on the topic.

The plot takes a darker turn, and then still a darker one when a psychopathic killer begins stalking the poker players. The film's action is really in three parts, with the second part relocating to Los Angeles and giving Danny a taste of the suburban life he's passed up. A scene at the Griffith Planetarium unknowingly foreshadows a pivotal scene in Rebel Without a Cause. (Another scene includes footage of Union Station, which unknowingly foreshadows the next title we'll discuss.) The third part takes place in Las Vegas, where the gambling that defines Danny's life elsewhere and structures the film is legal (in the desert, ironically), and here's where the story builds to its exciting climax and abrupt obligatory wrap-up.

Ed Begley, Harry Morgan and Mike Mazurki are also in this vividly cast film, which is scripted by John Meredyth Lucas (best known for Star Trek ) and Larry Marcus from a story by Marcus. His stories inspired several minor noirs, including Backfire, Cause for Alarm  and The Bigamist. In between his original story and the final script, Ketti Frings wrote an adaptation; this was the same year she scripted The File on Thelma Jordon, a minor noir classic, and several years before her Pulitzer Prize for drama. Victor Milner shot the effective, unshowy black and white photography, and Franz Waxman wrote the excitable score, as he'd done for Rope of Sand.

Dark City (1950)

Released the same year as Dark City, we have Union Station. It's a palpably different approach to noir that's notable for the sense, strength, and helpfulness of heroine Joyce (Nancy Olson), who discovers a kidnap plot and helps identify the bad guys, at one point even following a kidnapper and taking down a license number. Early on, she cuts off a skeptical and patronizing conductor (Harry Hayden) by telling him she doesn't want any lectures and provoking him to follow procedure.

She dislikes some of the police's decisions, especially to lie to the distraught father and operate without regard to the victim's well-being, and she expresses her opinion to the lieutenant (William Holden) in charge. If she knew of the callous brutality they employ to make one of the criminals talk by threatening to throw him in front of a train, she probably wouldn't let the cop date her up.

Her usefulness and intelligence contrast sharply with the kidnap victim (Allene Roberts), a blind woman so annoyingly helpless that the callous psychopath (Lyle Bettger) expresses astonishment that anyone would be willing to pay ransom "for that". Unfortunately, her uselessness is credible, as is everything about this well-grounded procedural after we swallow the wildly convenient hiccup that Joyce knows the kidnapped girl and had just said goodbye to her at the station. Sydney Boehm (The Big Heat ) wrote the script from a Thomas Walsh novel set in New York's Grand Central Station.

Also around are Barry Fitzgerald as the wily Irish police inspector, in his way almost as callous as the kidnappers but played by a more appealing character actor; Jan Sterling as the ringleader's platinum-blonde girlfriend and victim; Herbert Hayes as the kidnappee's anguished father; Fred Graff as a quivering miscreant; Don Hadder as a kidnapper who has trouble with the bulls in more than one sense; Queenie Smith as a shrill landlady whose rights are no more respected by the cops than anyone else's; and Edith Evanson as Joyce's mom, ready to hook her up with any man who shows up at the door.

Union Station is one of several movies circa 1950 that either dispense with background music or use it in a token way. For example, Anthony Mann's The Tall Target  and William Wellman's Westward the Women  did without, while John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle  has none after the opening credits. Union Station, which doesn't have a composer credit, uses presumably recycled music over the credits and a couple of anxious bursts later, but otherwise the suspenseful scenes unfold in natural sound.

One reason might have been a musicians' union strike in 1948, although it seems unlikely that this should affect 1950-51 releases. A likelier possibility is that Huston's film and the tendency to neorealist semi-documentary crime films proved influential on this tactic, at least in the short run. The semi-doc trend in crime films had been employed initially to reassure viewers, through a radio-like voice of authority, that they were being watched over by the competent men of the police, FBI, and other unsleeping organizations. Huston undermined the strategy not only by focusing on the criminals (always more interesting as characters) but by re-introducing the postwar nihilism and discomfort he'd honed in, for example, Treasure of the Sierra Madre  and Key Largo.

Union Station splits the difference, beginning with Joyce's personal story and leading to the no-nonsense procedural and the self-destructing criminal gang, negotiating these mirror worlds through the three women that are either their weakest or strongest link. Joyce and the gangster's moll are both concerned primarily with protecting the blind girl (as the police and kidnappers aren't), and this "behind the scenes" sisterhood will prove crucial to saving her.

The semi-documentary trend in noir encouraged flatter, brighter lighting as well as real locations, although that didn't prevent expressive chiaroscuro effects when desired. In this film, named after the real location of its shooting (the huge Los Angeles train station, standing in for Chicago's station of the same name), underground passages and the hidden offices behind louvered screens offer the required darkness and claustrophobia for photographer Daniel L. Fapp. It's not so much these visual flares as the masculine performances, the locations, and the non-musical ambience that convey a harsh, hard, unsentimental, even hostile world, directed by Rudolph Maté in the same year he unleashed the even harsher D.O.A..

Olive Films, sublicensing the prints from Paramount, previously released these films on DVD and has reissued them on blu-ray, where they look sharp as a black and white tack. They have no extras.

Splash image from Union Station (1949)

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