Noir City: Day 4

Day 4 was kind of a grab bag, with films from multiple countries. We chose two films that featured very famous stars in early roles.

A Woman’s Face: From 1938, this film features Ingrid Bergman before she went to Hollywood. Already a star in Sweden, she wanted the opportunity to play a less-glamorous role and stretch her skills. This mesh of noir ideas with a romantic drama was the result, and it seems to have achieved what she was after—well enough that Hollywood remade the film a few years later with Joan Crawford.

Bergman plays a woman left disfigured by a childhood tragedy. With her options limited by her disfigured face, she has become hard and bitter, driven to taking part in blackmail schemes to get by, with the hope that wealth might ease the emptiness she feels. On a mission to squeeze as much money as possible out of one target, she ends up getting caught; but the person who catches her makes a choice to offer her kindness, and a path towards changing her life. This one choice provides her a new identity, new opportunities, and the discovery of what warmth and love can mean. But the ties to her old life are still there and threaten what she’s built.

Eddie Muller argued that this film isn’t really a noir—“too much redemption for my taste,” he said, citing the happy-life and romance elements it contains. But the setup for this story isn’t all that different from noir classic Kiss of Death: a criminal is given a second chance and finds the happiness they crave, but it’s threatened by their criminal past. The only thing we’re really debating is the framing, and I feel like saying this isn’t really noir because the framing is more about a realm of stereotypically female-focused elements is, well, not the most thoughtful position in this context.

American noir tends to be hard-boiled, sure. But that’s not a requirement, particularly when working with conventions of another culture. The redemptive elements in this film (particularly Anna’s final choices) are very Scandinavian, reflecting a utilitarian viewpoint that looks at a broader view of a person’s life and the impact one has on others. A Swedish noir isn’t going to look like the American version no matter what. And I appreciated seeing a noir story that came from this cultural viewpoint, and that centered a woman’s choices.

As to the draw of Ingrid Bergman, she’s fine in this movie, but she was only 22 and it’s clear she wasn’t yet fully in control of her craft. Too much of her characterization as the bitter disfigured version of Anna revolves around spitting her lines and smoking furiously, using markers rather than a sense of personality. In other parts of the film she’s over the top in strong emotion, not yet fully confident in commanding her voice and her abilities. It’s astonishing that Casablanca was only four years after this one; her abilities grew enormously in such a short time.

Never Let Go: This 1960 British film builds a noir story on the conventions of the kitchen-sink drama. The owner (played by Peter Sellers in an early and very rare dramatic role) of a garage runs a chop shop on the side, hiring young bikers to steal cars that are given new tags and papers to be resold. They steal a car belonging to a cosmetics salesman (Richard Todd), who is distraught at the loss; living on the edge of solvency, he made an expensive investment in the car as a bid to improve life for himself and his family. He becomes obsessed with recovering his stolen car, which puts him up against the garage owner, who is equally invested in hiding his side hustle and maintaining his own appearance of respectability. These conflicting goals cascade into increasingly violent circumstances that ripple beyond just the two men.

This is a really well-structured noir thriller. Todd’s character’s obsession with the car and his recklessness in pursuing it have drastic consequences for his life, but he’s so focused on the car as an icon of improving his situation that he can’t see beyond that…which means that he doesn’t grasp how dangerous Sellers’ character is. He also can’t understand that the interest of the police investigating the case is to break the car-theft ring, not merely get his individual car back; this leads him to undercut their efforts for his own specific goal. He won’t listen to his wife and he makes unbelievably foolish choices at work while trying to manage the stress of the search for the car. (One of the most shocking moments isn’t an act of violence, but when he insults a salon manager who refuses to grant him an appointment because he was an hour late.) And he also endangers others in his overwhelming obsession.

The cast is all good, but Sellers is extraordinary. His public face is sharp clothes and careful details, unction with a toothy tight smile, surface-level accommodating to the police and insisting that he runs a “legitimate business,” a phrase he returns to with increasing urgency as the plot unfolds. Behind the public face is a dangerous predator, ferociously controlling every tiny detail around him (including things like scolding his young mistress for not using a coaster on the expensive console table) and just enough violence (as much emotional as physical) to keep people cowering and in thrall. As Todd’s character continues to press on the stolen car, Sellers’ control of his world starts to come apart: his exquisitely detailed apartment becomes messy, he doesn’t shave, he stops paying attention to his careful wardrobe. And as his control comes apart, his violence increases. It’s a fantastic, terrifying performance, and while certainly unexpected for the time (when he was entirely known as a comedian), it captures the sense of emotional violence that often lurked under his comedy (and was, by all accounts, present in his private life).

But the thing that made me truly love this film, the reason I’m going into so much detail, is that it is a feast of class issues in the rapidly-changing culture of late 1950s/early 1960s Britain, which is what cements the noir feel of it. This isn’t merely a clash of law-abiding vs. criminal; it’s a clash of regional cultures and stereotypes that inform everyone’s behavior.

Todd’s character and his wife are ostensibly middle-class Londoners and should be living comfortably; but they’re hanging on by a thread and his choices are compounding the problem. His issues at work are embodied by a younger colleague who is dressed more sharply, has a more posh accent, and is adopting new sales methods that rely on data rather than personal connection. The social upheaval of this era stranded many people who thought they had a comfortable place in the world.

Sellers’ character is a Northerner (the accent dances weirdly between Merseyside and Yorkshire, but is definitely from the northwestern part of England), a demographic that is typically derided by middle and upper class London as thick, uncultured, and suitable only for rough labor; this means he has to work extra hard to overcome the stereotype. Thus the public image of expensive clothes and trappings and the carefully controlled details, along with the insistence that he runs a “legitimate business,” even as he’s leveraging the benefits of criminal activity to support his lifestyle and image. His resentment at being treated as a criminal (even though he is one) arises in part because of the way he is boxed in by where he came from.

His employees are mostly East Enders, locked out of the good life by their upbringing and accents, yet ubiquitous in manual trade in London, their value to the day to day operation of life made invisible by their class. The mistress of Sellers’ character is also from this demographic and dialogue indicates that she was an orphan who ran away from care; she’s the definition of someone discarded by society, unwanted because of her class, her family status, and her gender. She’s attached herself to Sellers’ character because she has little to offer aside from her beauty and her willingness to give up her body; he accepts her despite her drawbacks because her youth and beauty support the image he seeks, and he offers her a measure of physical comfort, which she pays for by surrendering much of her autonomy. She naturally gravitates towards one of the young thieves, because they have more in common due to both age and background, and because he offers her respite from the garage owner’s violence; and when the salesman and his wife show her kindness and treat her with dignity, it changes her approach to the world.

Finally, the kids in the bike gang, clearly intended to evoke the Teddy Boys and Mods, are presented as rowdy, undisciplined, and threatening to “good” people (like the protagonist), even though part of their behavior arises from the limited options available to them as lower-class kids. They are trying to find their space in a world that has made decisions about their vale solely because of where they came from; their rejection of who they are supposed to be based on their class is part of what makes them threatening.

A good noir story will work even without a rich context like this. But this foundation of class conflicts and challenges provides an additional level of story that makes everyone’s choices more understandable and more sympathetic—even Sellers’ monstrous criminal. I spent this film feeling like I was chewing on the most satisfying meal, reveling in the sociology used to underpin this tense story. This was a real discovery for me and I’m thrilled to have seen it.

With a 1938 film and a 1960 film, dressing to specific period style was extremely challenging, so I didn’t. Instead I met in the middle with a New Look-inspired outfit.

Dress: J. Peterman
Stockings: Hanes
Shoes: Fluevog, Kitschy Kitschy Boom Boom family, style Liz
Hat: Vintage, purchased at Lucky Vintage in Seattle
Gloves: Vintage, source forgotten
Necklace: Vintage, source forgotten
Earrings: Gift from spouse (originally intended for a cosplay of Pam from Archer)

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