Among the Living, a Paramount production directed by Stuart Heisler, is a crucial title in Hollywood’s evolution of what came to be called film noir. In 1941, it was regarded as a type of horror tale without supernatural monsters and it links 1930s horror with how that genre would develop in more psychological directions. Subversively, the film uses its genres to handle taboo topics that Hollywood normally avoided, such as the specter of lynching. In short, this important film still shocks today’s viewers, yet it’s never been on home video before this Kino Lorber Blu-ray.
The opening shot is taken through a gate, giving a prison-like impression of the ramshackle, overgrown estate behind the bars. As the credits end the camera pulls closer and we notice the black man who’s been standing like a statue the whole time as some kind of spotlight plays over the house behind him, again like a prison yard effect.
The man, dressed in poor clothing, begins walking through the undergrowth toward the side of the estate, where we now see a funeral in progress. The man will be introduced as Pompey (Ernest Whitman), and it’s immediately intriguing that the film introduces its main characters from his marginalized point of view.
Outside the barred fence, a crowd of surly townsfolk is gathered to gawk. They’re not invited or welcome, and they offer a chorus of rude editorial comments on the preacher’s remarks. They too are marginalized by class, as it becomes clear they have little respect for the town’s founding family, which owns the currently closed mill that used to employ them. Now that a sickly Southern Gothic atmosphere of decay and festering resentment based on race and class has been established so quickly and smoothly, the story gets underway.
Beloved cowboy star Harry Carey plays the surprisingly sour and negative role of Dr. Ben Saunders, who introduces Pompey to John Raden (Albert Dekker) and his demure wife Elaine (Frances Farmer). They’ve come for the funeral of John’s father, John has been away since he was a little boy.
There’s something awkward about the encounter beyond the normal awkwardness in the situation. “The spitting image,” whispers Pompey to Saunders, who tries to hush him. Saunders has noticed a fresh scar on the side of Pompey’s face and promises that this can’t go on. “No, sir,” Pompey agrees.
They discuss the fact that John’s twin brother Paul died at age ten, and his funeral was John’s last visit to town. The Raden estate has been abandoned since their father decided to live in town after the mother’s death. Now John is the only one left of the family, and he will have to make decisions.
In a very gothically designed shot, Pompey makes a long trek amid the cobwebbed junk in the basement of the Raden’s abandoned mansion, unlocks a door, and reveals the same actor, Albert Dekker, reclining in a toy-filled room in a straitjacket and chatting cheerfully about the storm that is about to break. Here’s the story’s first shock: Paul is clearly alive, not as a more traditional “madwoman in the attic” but as the mad brother in the basement, and apparently he’s prone to dangerous fits.
As we’ll soon gather, the backstory is heartbreaking and horrific. The father and town patriarch was simply a monster who violently abused his wife and children. He deported one son to boarding school as a stratagem away from the mother’s influence, and perhaps to “make a man of him”. Paul once attacked his father to stop him from beating his mother and got thrown against the wall so forcefully that he suffered brain damage that arrested his development. It gets even more unpleasant.
At that point, the father wanted Paul to be officially dead rather than face the public shame of such an offspring. He worked out a deal with Saunders to falsify a death certificate over some other unknown boy’s corpse (!), in return for which Saunders got Raden to fund a spiffy hospital run by Saunders, and which he explains to John has done lots of good. Pompey has been saddled with being Paul’s caretaker, and it’s just about okay except for the spells when Paul is convinced he can hear his mother’s screams. They set him off.
Now that the old man is dead, Saunders’ plan is to convince John that Paul must be sent away quietly without scandal for any of them. Alas, this is the night that Paul, alarmed that his father has been buried next to his mother, whose screams he can hear, finally strangles Pompey and flees into town for freedom.
Most of the story concerns Paul’s ability to establish a residence in a working-class boarding house, thanks to the wads of bills he had the sense to take with him. He forges a fast friendship with the mercenary Millie (Susan Hayward), who’s full of ideas about how the simpleton can spend his cash. Events are just about to kick into high gear and go so badly that, almost quicker than it takes to tell, the town works itself into a frenzy of lynch-mob activity. We see a frantic montage of terror among the marginal as the crowd looks for anyone suspicious: a screaming black man, a seemingly Italian immigrant, an old bearded man.
The tense climax, which involves a kangaroo court, throws in one character’s unlikely change of heart to put the brakes on the proceedings, but even that promises to have no effect until the sudden “happy ending” that ain’t all that happy. We really never know everything that goes on that night. Although the worst has been avoided, the viewer is left disturbed by the dark randomness of it all. This is no affirmative vision of a small southern town.
At just under 70 minutes, this brisk B production takes advantage of Paramount’s resources, including dozens of extras fully populating this story. The surprising number of African-American characters, both as extras and in dialogue roles, reflects the social and political intentions of Heisler and his writers.
The other major black character is the juke-joint headwaiter played by Clarence Muse as a seemingly friendly person who is in fact in cahoots with the venal dance hostesses to fleece the sucker. We also see a dancing “shoeshine boy” who momentarily captivates Paul’s attention, as he’ll later be captivated by a legless man, perhaps an army veteran or former factory worker. Paul is consistently aligned with society’s outcasts and underclass, a point solidified during the vigilante montage.
This careful, detailed script is by Garrett Fort and Lester Cole. Fort had written several horror classics including the seminal 1931 productions of Tod Browning‘s Dracula and James Whale‘s Frankenstein. As noir historian Jason A. Ney points out in his commentary, there’s an obvious connection between their pitchfork-wielding villagers and this film’s vigilante mob crazed by the promise of a fat reward. Cole might have gotten this assignment on the strength of having written The House of the Seven Gables (Joe May, 1940); a serious communist, he would become one of the Hollywood Ten.
Heisler worked as an editor for many years, and that facility is plain. As a director, he’d just done a horror film, The Monster and the Girl (1941), with more serious themes than that title implies. He’d also done The Biscuit Eater (1940), based on James Street’s dog novel, an acclaimed example of exactly the kind of cozy Southern Americana that Among the Living isn’t; that one really needs to be on Blu-ray too. In a scene where Paul passes film posters for The Biscuit Eater and another Paramount film, Those Were the Days (J. Theodore Reed, 1940), it feels less like an in-joke than an ironic contrast.
Heisler’s next project would be another early noir, The Glass Key (1942), whose Dashiell Hammett story is more in line with how the genre would develop. His War Department documentary-cum-propaganda film, The Negro Soldier (1944), made in collaboration with Carlton Moss and produced by Frank Capra, has been inducted into the National Film Registry. Heisler’s Warner Brothers production Storm Warning (1951) was the only major studio film in the postwar era to attack the KKK directly. Sadly, it could only do so by having all the Klan’s victims be white (including Doris Day!), but it was something.
Theodor Sparkuhl’s photography, from smooth split-screen shots to the moody chiaroscuro expressiveness we associate with noir, shows his extensive background in German silent cinema, which he’d already applied in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), an important proto-noir about a femme fatale. Sparkuhl’s association with Heisler would include The Glass Key and The Remarkable Andrew (1941), in which William Holden’s hero is helped by the ghosts of Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin.
Scripted by Dalton Trumbo from his own novel, that’s another film that really needs to be on Blu-ray. So does another thoughtful pro-America fantasy about Washington and other figures, Where Do We Go from Here? (Gregory Ratoff, 1945), a Technicolor musical starring Fred MacMurray, with songs by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill.
Perhaps I digress, but there’s a huge backlog of Hollywood pictures crying out for Blu-ray, and many of them never even made it to VHS or DVD. They’re pretty much all connected by the web of personnel and topical trends they display. In a sense, all of classic Hollywood is one giant Gesamtkunstwerk, or perhaps a multiverse of alternate realities using the same raw materials. We count ourselves lucky that Among the Living has finally been unearthed and that it was worth the wait.