Noir Alley February 27, 2021: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

This is an exercise to write a review each week of the films of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30-40 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a use of the heist-gone-wrong trope with some intriguing twists: it pairs an unrepentant racist (played by Robert Ryan, who excelled at furious, self-loathing men who wrecked their own lives) with a black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte) and a dirty ex-cop (Ed Begley Sr) in a heist plot that would, in theory, solve all their problems. Slater has no job and is being supported by his devoted wife (Shelley Winters) but hates it. Ingram (Belafonte) is deep in hock to a local crime boss because of his gambling addiction, and has put his ex-wife and beloved daughter at risk. And Burke (Begley) has run out of options due to his own corruption; somehow, stealing money from a bank in a small town in upstate New York seems like the best option to him, and he cajoles Slater and Ingram into helping him.

This isn’t a new or innovative story; what makes it work is the dynamics. Slater’s fury at having to work with a Black man who is in almost every way superior to him drives the story forward. His racism gets in the way at nearly every turn, causing him to make choices that jeopardize the heist plan, and make Ingram distrust him. Ingram himself feels trapped into needing to take this job because of threats to his family, and he resents needing to rely on a racist and another white man who doesn’t grasp the threat of the racism. It’s all explosive (kind of literally) and leads to a powerfully tense and upsetting final act.

Belafonte produced this film and was adamant that he wanted a story that dealt realistically with the racism and the heist. There’s a complex and fascinating back story that I don’t have the capacity to detail; you can find it from a variety of film history sites. But the film doesn’t go easy on the complexity of the racist dynamics. Ryan’s character is introduced using a deeply upsetting slur to refer to a little Black girl, and it’s not the last slur he uses. There’s a series of scenes that start with Belafonte discovering his ex-wife working with a multiracial PTA council, and when his ex criticizes him for his gambling and drinking, he goes off on her about “collaborating” with white people in an attempt to be more palatable—he’s not wrong, but his own personal choices complicate the criticism he’s making. It’s powerful language and provocative concepts for a film made in 1959, and could easily be used in a contemporary story with few changes.

But the film is about more than the racist dynamics, and all of it is beautifully woven together by director Robert Wise. If the general public knows Wise’s name, it’s most likely for his work in musicals or maybe The Haunting or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he worked on an enormous range of genres, including film noir, and he understood the tropes and conventions of every genre in a way not many directors manage even today. This film is a feast of shadows and light, moments of tenderness and tension, contrasts between the harsh reality of Slater’s rage and loathing and Ingram’s life as a jazz musician and divorced father. The film is full of sharp lines and harsh contrasts; sometimes it can feel overly obvious, but it never feels pedantic the way some race-focused films can be.

Ryan, Belafonte, and Begley are all excellent, but they’re not the only greatness in this. This may be my favorite of Shelley Winters’ films. She is warm, fiercely devoted to her husband, working two jobs to make sure they get by, but keenly aware that her successes feel like humiliating failures to him. Too many directors took advantage of Winters’ emotional openness and overt sensuality to have her play characters who feel desperate and cheap. Lorry never feels like this; there’s a dignity to her, and deep authenticity in her affection for Slater and her understanding that her professional success feels like a slap in the face to him.

And Gloria Grahame, in a role developed specifically for her by Wise at a time when she was nearly unemployable (thanks to Eddie Muller for explaining this), has a small but powerful presence as Slater’s odd, kinda kinky neighbor who is desperate for a man to look at her as a worthwhile sexual being. The role isn’t vital to the plot, but it adds dimension to Ryan’s character, and provides Grahame the opportunity to demonstrate that her femme fatale style and presence still mattered. In a different time and with a different director, Winters and Grahame might have swapped roles; but they’re both perfect in these parts and add enormously to the texture of the film.

Kim Hamilton as Ruth, Ingram’s ex, is also a strong presence. She clearly still cares for him, but her priority has to be their daughter. In some ways her role is somewhat thankless; she offers the perspective that dealing with racism is a price she has to pay to protect their child, and that her responsibility compared to Ingram’s recklessness is what matters most. But in a film that’s largely focused around the men, she and the other two women demonstrate that the choices of the men are reckless and harmful.

There are also some really excellent scenes set in the jazz club where Ingram performs. The film has a truly spectacular jazz soundtrack by the Modern Jazz Quintet and two sterling songs by Belafonte and Mae Barnes. These scenes give us a real sense of Ingram’s context and life, and contrast with the strangled miserable racism that Slater engages in; Ingram has his problems and poor decisions, but he’s living a life full of music and passion, which is one of the things Slater hates him for.

I had seen this movie once before, when it aired on Noir Alley a couple of years ago, and I found that I remembered beats of it (fitting due to its jazz grounding) but not as much specific scenes. It’s considered one of the last films of the “classic” film noir era, and a major influence on nouvelle vague filmmakers in France. The film’s tone is definitely influenced by the aesthetics of the Beats and the jazz and Black culture it draws from. It’s both a classic noir story, and a glimpse at the post-noir future. It definitely deserves a higher profile among noir fans, in large measure because of its willingness to include race in the story it tells.

Noir Alley February 20, 2021: Native Son (1951)

This is an exercise to write a review for each edition of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

This is an attempt to put Richard Wright’s renowned novel of the same name into film. The novel’s plot and themes were so incendiary in its era that a film of it couldn’t have been made in the U.S. This production was filmed in Argentina, by a French director, starring Wright himself as the lead character of Bigger Thomas, despite being both too old for the role and not an actor. The production story is remarkable in itself. And it’s an intriguing choice for Noir Alley, especially in the context of Black History Month; very little traditional noir features or focuses on Black stories or characters.

There’s no question this film fits the canon and themes of film noir. Bigger gets into a bad situation and makes decisions that compound the awfulness of his circumstances; it features shadows and neon, double-crosses and police misconduct, and even a blonde femme fatale. But the context of the story, of a Black man who is brought into the world of wealthy white people and immediately falls into danger, is genuinely extraordinary in this genre. If this story featured all white characters, it would have gone differently. But Bigger, as a black man reliant on the favor of his white employers, doesn’t have the privilege of refusing their requests, and the choices he makes are all to some degree driven by the knowledge that if (when) he gets caught, there will be no mercy for him. The setup of the story is fairly standard noir; the structural racism that suffuses it means it feels far more serious, and far more upsetting, than a standard noir plot.

This is not, technically, a good film. It’s stagy, deeply self-conscious, overly earnest, and substitutes awkward speechifying for what ought to be nuanced dialogue. (The courtroom scenes are particularly uncomfortable in this regard.) The plotting doesn’t convey much of the seriousness and complexity of the story. Many of the actors didn’t speak English and had to be dubbed, and the lack of language context affects the performances. Wright himself is aware that he’s wrong for this role and his discomfort with acting is often evident in how he stands and the way he speaks a lot of his lines.

And yet, none of this is as important as the context. Wright understands and portrays Bigger’s fear and desperation in a profound and intuitive way, not just because he created the character but because he’s also a Black man in America. In the early part of the film, after he first gets the job as chauffeur to a wealthy white family and takes his girlfriend for a trip in the expensive care he’s been hired to drive; these scenes carry a sense of giddiness at how the car enables them to move in white spaces they might otherwise not have access to, but also an underlying anxiety, glances over the shoulder, at the possibility they’ll be called out.

The instrument of Bigger’s downfall is his employer’s party-girl daughter (and her Communist-playacting boyfriend), and the scenes in which they demand he goes with them to the good clubs around town, including the one he hangs out at, are uncomfortable from the start and get increasingly anxiety-making. These wealthy white folks fancy themselves as allies, saying they understand what it’s like for Bigger and urging him to rebel against Jim Crow, in language that can still be heard from these types of white people 70 years later. But they do nothing to actually help with this struggle they supposedly support, and they’re oblivious to the dangers their behavior presents to him. There’s a scene in the nightclub where the party girl demands to be introduced to Bigger’s girlfriend, who refuses, but the party girl just pushes her way into the dressing room and starts fawning all over her, touching her and offering her things. This behavior is so predatory it’s painful to watch, and it’s depressing that this kind of behavior still happens.

From there everything goes rapidly downhill, and the scene that seals Bigger’s fate is both agonizing in how tense and upsetting it is, and infuriating in how pathetic and stupid the decisions are. It’s obvious early on that the blonde party girl will wreck him, and that’s the most depressing thing: It would happen one way or another, because she’s a young, rich white woman, and he’s a Black man.

I think a better film could be made from this material (and I’ve seen some discussion that the 1986 TV movie does that). But I’m not entirely sure one could be made that feels as urgent and harrowing as this one. There’s a scene where police are sweeping the floors of a Black tenement, driving the terrified residents through the hallways for no reason but intimidation; the camera work pans across the exterior windows and zigzags up the floors of the building, showing how brutal this action is. In another scene, a fire hose is turned on Bigger, and it’s impossible to watch this without thinking of footage of protests during the civil rights movement and how this was a tool for controlling and harming Black people. Despite the flaws of this film, it’s immensely powerful as a visual representation of structural racism.

For additional context I recommend film writer Odie Henderson’s article about his reaction to the film when he first saw it in 2013. I can give you my impressions, but I’m a white woman and there are things I can’t fully grasp, regardless of my commitment to anti-racism.

Noir Alley February 6, 2021: The Killer That Stalked New York

This is the first installment of a new project to write a review each week of the films of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

The Killer That Stalked New York, 1950

This movie folds a noirish plot about a jewel thief and her cheating husband into a documentary-style narrative inspired by the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York City. The two are tied together by having the jewel thief be the smallpox carrier who infects the city. It’s a…novel way to frame a story, to be sure.

Evelyn Keyes is Sheila Bennet, who returns from Cuba with a packet of smuggled diamonds and a nasty headache. She’s being tailed by a fed who suspects her, so she puts the diamonds in the mail, calls her husband, and then heads to a flophouse hotel to lose the cop. But she starts to feel really sick, so a smarmy bellboy sends her off to a nearby clinic. The clinic staff, with no reason to suspect something as dire as smallpox, gives her some medicine to prop her up. And Sheila heads out into the streets for a nightmare of infectious contacts before going home, where her husband has spent her time away canoodling with her sister. Meanwhile a little girl Sheila interacted with at the clinic comes down with a horrible headache, high fever, and rash, sending the clinic staff on a hunt for the cause.

This is a really odd film. The noir plot is serviceable enough, with the husband (played by Charles Korvin) becoming progressively more despicable and leaving double-crosses, suicide, and possible murder in his wake. And the scenes of Sheila wandering around the city unknowingly infecting people are extremely tense, with excellent framing and pacing. The film was shot on location and the real-life New York settings bring a sense of realness and place that anchor the story.

The other part of the film is about issues that are painfully valid right now: diagnosing the mystery illness, contact tracing, mass vaccination campaigns (complete with anti-vaxxers), vaccine shortages and supply-chain issues. It’s framed in documentary style with montages that include footage from 1947 and public-health campaign signs, exposition via long imperious voiceover, and ponderous speeches from actors playing various public health officials. The noir plot disappears for long stretches of time and feels odd and out of place when it comes back. Nothing about the film ever entirely comes together.

Of course it was rough to watch this after nearly a year of being stranded in the middle of a raging pandemic. Many people on the Saturday #NoirAlley hashtag on Twitter tapped out early, saying it was causing them too much anxiety. I did all right with the scenes of infection spread and contact tracing, but started to falter when the vaccine campaigns began, because it’s so painful to know that we had the capacity for this once upon a time and people in power made decisions to prevent us doing this for COVID-19. It also felt like a precursor to Contagion, with similarity in the ordinariness of how the infection spreads, and how the people in public health wrestle with the realization of what they’re dealing with and how to stop it. I have to wonder whether Steven Soderbergh is familiar with this film.

Evelyn Keyes is great in a hard role that requires her to be both a noir femme fatale and a public health menace, balancing the two aspects well enough to remain sympathetic, though the makeup decisions do her no favors. Other standouts are Whit Bissell as her estranged brother, with an amazing scene that has them spitting bile at each other and yet still maintaining a sibling bond, which feels more real than much of the film; and Dorothy Malone, in a small role as a nurse, somehow managing to be sex on heels even in a nurse’s uniform, though she has very little to do after her first scene in the clinic with Sheila. But all the men playing various public officials and health professionals are largely stiff bores, stuck with long speeches and self-righteous anger. Every moment of believable emotion in this movie comes from the female characters, and that, too, feels very relevant right now.

I appreciated the opportunity to see this unusual hybrid and to get a look at how this country handled a dangerous outbreak of a virus 70-plus years ago. But it was a bit of a slog and I’m not sure I’d watch it again.

Fashion recap

I’ve been running a project this past week to dress up and describe my outfits; and while the project is set only for weekdays, I decided that Noir Alley is a good opportunity to go for a kinda-fancy, vintage-inspired outfit each week, since it’s been my only regular Saturday date for the past 11 months and will continue to be for at least the next several months. (I am in the next to last tier for vaccination and don’t expect I’ll get the jab until summer.) And if I’m going to do that, I might as well include it with the weekly recap.

Dress: Unique Vintage
Camisole: Victorian Trading Company
Stockings: GNW tights for Fred Meyer
Shoes: Fluevog Mini Gorgeous
Jewelry: Fred Meyer
Hair flower: bought at Joann, don’t recall the brand
Makeup: Face and eyes Aromaleigh, CoverGirl mascara, LA Splash Golden Gatsby lipstick in Audrey

I decided on this dress not just because of the roughly 1940s silhouette, but because the houndstooth pattern is in line with a theme of checks, plaids, and menswear patterns I did for the weekly project. The cami is because the dress is cut for someone with a much longer shoulder-to-bust ratio than I have and it’s so low-cut that it doesn’t fit correctly on me. (I’m not ashamed of my cleavage, I just think showing off my underpinnings isn’t period correct.) I didn’t do full period-style hair because, honestly, I can’t be bothered to spend that kind of time. When I got to noir city, I take an entire afternoon to do my hair. Saturday night at home in front of the TV, not quite as compelling.