In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierceand The Damned Don’t Cry. While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey. I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs. The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal. By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles. Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way. It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.
A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress. Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband. Well, that and the murders. Her main crime is probably the murders. The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her. The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself. It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear. Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously. She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever. I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.” The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it. Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy. In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.
There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment. Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness. Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions. Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging. Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn. She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy. As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here. I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Trouble in Mind (1985).
Britnee: Director Alan Rudolph’s 1985 film Trouble in Mind is truly a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s a neo-noir that blends in 80s new wave kitsch, creating its own genre that I like to call New Wave Noir. I’m not sure there are any other movies that would fall into that genre. Maybe Cool World or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? could qualify, but they’re way more on the fantasy side. I didn’t get around to watching Trouble in Mind until a few years ago when I was obsessing over Marianne Faithfull. After reading Faithfull: An Autobiography, I was constantly listening to her music, and that’s when I came across her rendition of the blues classic “Trouble in Mind”. I discovered that it was used in a film with the same title starring Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, and an out-of-drag Divine. That was more than enough to draw me to the movie, and it turned out to be such a hidden gem.
In the fictional Rain City (it’s basically Seattle), an ex-cop/ex-con with the most neo-noir name ever, Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), becomes entangled in the lives of a young couple from out in the country. Coop (Keith Carradine) and Georgia (Lori Singer) drive into Rain City in their beat-up camper to build a better life for themselves and their baby named Spike. Hawk, Coop, and Georgia are all brought together by a diner owned by Hawk’s ex-lover Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). Coop gets involved in selling knockoff watches and quickly gets pulled into Rain City’s criminal underworld, run by Hilly Blue (Divine). Coop’s fashion choices become progressively more cartoonish as he sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime. His hair becomes a growing new wave pompadour, his face becomes paler, his outfits get wilder, and his makeup becomes increasingly intense. It’s my favorite thing about this movie. He literally becomes a new wave monster. While Coop is out and about being a criminal, Hawk sets his eyes on Georgia. He gets the hots for her and becomes her “protector”, even though I find him to be pretty creepy when it comes to how he forces himself into her life.
One major aspect of Trouble in Mind that really didn’t make much sense and was completely unnecessary is that Rain City is under militia patrol and some of the characters randomly go from speaking Korean to English. The state of the city is never really explained and doesn’t add much to the story. Brandon, what did you think about Rain City’s militia and random Korean lingo? Would the film be any different if that component just didn’t exist?
Brandon: If I had to guess what they were going for with the militia patrols and American/Korean cross-culture, I’d say they were borrowing a little New Wave Noir finesse from Ridley Scott’s 1982 game-changer Blade Runner. Trouble in Mind may take production notes from Seoul instead of Hong Kong, but its retro-futurization of Seattle feels like a direct echo of Blade Runner‘s retro-future Los Angeles. The difference is that Blade Runner is explicitly set in the future (2019, to be exact), updating the familiar tropes & fashions of noir with a sci-fi bent. Trouble in Mind, by contrast, doesn’t really subvert the noir genre template in any overt ways. It’s not a parody or an homage. It’s the real deal: a noir that just happens to be made in the 1980s (which makes the influence of Blade Runner near-impossible to avoid).
Personally, I was really into the characterization of Rain City as a setting. It’s an intricately detailed, lived-in alternate reality that makes the movie feel as if it were adapted from a long-running comic book series. I loved the “fictional” city’s clash of 1940s nostalgia with intensely 1980s fashion trends, and I was tickled by the scene set in the Space Needle restaurant, acknowledging that we’re basically just running around present-day Seattle. I was much less in love with the characterization of Kris Kristofferson’s gruffly macho ex-cop. Hawk is not so much of an enigmatic anti-hero as he is a boring loser, which is maybe the film’s one miscalculation in its low-key version of 1980s noir revival. When Divine’s degenerate mobster villain looks Kristofferson dead in the eyes to snarl, “You have nothing but bad qualities,” I couldn’t help but agree. What a pathetic asshole.
Hanna, did Hawk’s anti-hero status lean a little too hard into “anti” territory for you as well? If so, were the other citizens of Rain City charismatic enough to save the movie from that misstep?
Hanna: I love a good anti-hero, and I’m a cursed sucker for a gruff neo-noir cop/PI character, even when their behavior is problematic or despicable. Unfortunately, Hawk embodies all of the worst aspects of macho authority—including possessiveness and that special type of sexual aggression that somehow eludes the label of assault—and none of the appealing qualities (e.g., smoldering charisma). On top of everything, his relationship with Georgia was totally baffling and uncomfortable. I kept holding out for Hawk to develop some humility and self-reflection, but I was foiled at every turn. Will Hawk stop stalking Georgia outside of her trailer (a moment that reminded me of that scene in Smooth Talk where Arnold Friend tries to coax teenage Connie out of her house)? No? Okay, well maybe he’ll realize that he can care about a beautiful woman without having a sexual relationship with them? No again! Well, maybe he’ll care for her in a loving, non-controlling – oh, he’s demanding total ownership of her in exchange for saving her New-Wave pompadour’ed ex-thing. I guess he’s a changed man because he asks her out for dinner?
Fortunately, the world of Trouble in Mind has more than enough splendors to enjoy apart from Hawk and Georgia, especially in the vibrant criminal underground. Coop was actually one of my favorite characters; he’s a huge creep for the majority of the film, but he shows at least a semblance of self-reflection towards the end, and his transformation into an 80s glamour criminal is indeed a glorious surprise. Just when I thought his pompadour couldn’t get more delicious, a little curl would spring up at the top, or the tips would be touched with a kiss of red. Divine was totally captivating as Hilly Blue, and I even liked Nate (John Considine), the crazed criminal that Coop accidentally robs. I found myself wishing I could spend just more time amongst the various fiends of Rain City; I sighed every time the film cut from Coop slinking around in oversaturated suits to Hawk eating his dumb eggs. If nothing else, I would have loved to see a version of Trouble in Mind without Hawk where Wanda helps Georgia leave Coop while he goes off to crime it up with Solo and Hilly.
Boomer, what did you think of the balance between the two worlds of Rain City (the Diner and Hilly’s criminal cabal)? Do you think there were more interesting depths to plumb in the criminal underworld? Are there aspects of Rain City do you wish had been more developed, or developed differently?
Boomer: I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, this movie felt very loooong to me, to the point where I had to research whether a runtime of this magnitude was normal for film noir. I was convinced that they must normally be shorter than Trouble in Mind‘s 111 minutes, but reviewing the classics, it looks like this is pretty standard, with The Maltese Falcon clocking in at 101 minutes, Double Indemnity at 107, and Touch ofEvil matching Trouble exactly at 111. Those movies don’t feel their length to me the way that this one does, and although Geneviève Bujold is giving the performance here that I like the most and she only occupies the diner and its adjacent rooms, I would have liked to see more of the criminal underworld. By having the audience experience the seedy underbelly of not-Seattle mostly through the eyes of Coop, who is the least interesting character, it hinders our ability to fully realize both this city and its criminal element. On the other hand, part of the appeal is that Hilly Blue is a figure that exists outside of the characters’ day-to-day lives for a long time, building him up as a figure of great influence and prominence among the denizens of Rain City’s underclass, before we finally meet him. So while I want to see that world fully, I also think that seeing more would mean cherishing less, and any increase to the film’s runtime would be to its detriment as a piece of media overall.
What I think we could have benefitted from seeing more of without the risk of diminishing returns was exactly what was going on with all of the fascist goose-steppers constantly breaking up rallies. Every time Georgia gets more than two blocks from the diner, she doesn’t actually seem to be all that imperiled, but she’s certainly overstimulated to the point of losing her mind (and her baby!) histrionically. What I liked about the film’s aspirations to be more noirpunk than it succeeds in achieving is the unspoken acceptance of all of the odd little futurisms that pop up throughout and how they go uncommented upon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not curious and wouldn’t have liked to understand more. Their iconography is clearly aping that of the fascism of the day—red and black, harsh angles—and they appear throughout and people are tolerant of (if not necessarily deferential to) them, and I think that drawing a comparison between a fascist force and Hawk’s need to be the ultimate authority in the lives of the women he seeks to dominate and control was an opportunity that was missed. I don’t need to know the whole genealogy of their rise to prominence (if not power), but a few hints would have been nice.
Boomer: I want to make sure that it isn’t overlooked that this is our second Movie of the Month featuring Geneviève Bujold, after Last Night. Also, as always, it’s worth mentioning that although Hawk is awful, Kris Kristofferson is a real goddamn hero.
Brandon: Of course, for degenerates like us the main draw of this film is going to be the novelty of seeing Divine play a male villain outside the context of one-off gags in John Waters classics like Hairspray & Female Trouble. To that end, I’ll just share a quick piece of trivia I picked up from a recent rewatch of the documentary I Am Divine . . . The gigantic diamond earring Hilly Blue rocks in this film was not provided by wardrobe but by Divine himself. He was super proud of saving up for that piece of jewelry (after a fabulously delinquent life funded mostly by shoplifting) and paraded it around in public as much as possible in his later years as a status symbol. It totally fits the mafioso character he’s playing, to the point where you might not even notice it, but I still love that Divine got to immortalize that obnoxious gem he was so proud of onscreen.
Britnee: The big shootout scene at Hilly Blue’s mansion is amazing. The Seattle Asian Art Museum was transformed into the unforgettable residence of Rain City’s big mob boss, and I find so much comfort in knowing that this wasn’t just a set build. The fact that I can someday visit Hilly Blue’s mansion (minus Divine and all the guns and stuff) lifts my spirits. I guess I have to pay a visit to the real-life Rain City soon!
Hanna: Whoever scouted locations for Trouble in Mind did a fantastic job. Every setting—Wanda’s lonely-heart diner, the Chinatown restaurant, the villainous mansion, etc. etc.—was the perfect version of itself in the cyber-noir/dystopian film landscape. Also, I was shocked to find out that this movie somehow only made $19,632 at the box office on a budget of $3 million! Thank you to Britnee for unearthing this gem of a financial flop.
Upcoming Movies of the Month June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982) August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
There are many shades to The Joan Crawford Noir. Mildred Pierce is, of course, the crown jewel of the genre – a transcendent work that’s equal parts moody crime picture & proto-Sirkian melodrama. For its part, Possessed splits the difference between the typical Crawford noir and her future subgenre of psychobiddy thrillers, leaning into the powerhouse actor’s unmatched skills in portraying woman-on-the-verge mental unraveling. By contrast, The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, novelty, or excellence in its own version of The Joan Crawford Noir. It’s a great crime thriller on its own terms, but as an entry in the genre it’s the one that relies on the Joaniest Joan, noiriest noir payoffs & tropes.
In the Damned Don’t Cry, Crawford plays a ruthless social climber whose ambition gets the best of her when she finds herself caught between two rival mobster boyfriends. It’s basically the noir version of Baby Face, except she’s sleeping her way up a nation-wide mafia network instead of a single office building (and without the pre-Code vulgarity, of course). Like all of the Crawford noirs, these events are recounted in lengthy flashbacks, with our distressed femme fatale at her lowest point looking back on the road that got her there. She’s worked her way up from abject poverty to low-level grifts & sex work to an all-powerful mafiosa – only for it all to come crumbling down with a single gunshot. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t go as far as to condemn her for her violent, sexually charged ambition either. When looking back to her poverty-stricken beginnings after following her tawdry ascent to wealth & power, the movie basically shrugs and asks “Who could blame her? Wouldn’t you do the same if you could?”
While this does share some delicious melodrama with the much more refined, accomplished Mildred Pierce, it can only best that film in terms of its adherence to noir payoffs & tropes. The Damned Don’t Cry is soaked in the window-blinds lighting, amoral criminals, and sultry sexuality typical to noir. Most importantly, it affords Crawford plenty opportunities to indulge in the over-stylized, rapidfire dialogue of the genre, delivering one-liners like “I was about to say it was a pleasure meeting with a gentlemen, but I was wrong on both counts” and “Self-respect is something you tell yourself you’ve got when you’ve got nothing else.” Mildred Pierce is undeniably the best Crawford noir, but The Damned Don’t Cry is the noiriest Crawford noir, which is a fabulous distinction in itself.
As far as Joan Crawford noirs go, it’s unlikely there are any hidden gems left to discover that are going to top the glorious heights of Mildred Pierce. Likewise, Crawford’s turn as an axe-wielding maniac in William Castle’sStrait-Jacket is untoppable as her genre-defining work in the psychobiddy canon, Baby Jane included. What the 1947 mental breakdown melodrama Possessed offers, however, is the unique experience of enjoying both of those distinctly delicious Joan Crawford flavors at once. Possessed is pretty much a trial run for Crawford’s over-the-top psychobiddy era, except that it’s dressed up in handsome, finely crafted noir clothing. By which I mean it’s great (even if it’s not the best example of either genre).
In Possessed, Crawford is a live-in nurse whose obsession with a nearby, unexceptional fuckboy drives her to a frayed, near-catatonic state. She starts the movie wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, mumbling the fuckboy’s name over & over to herself, unsure of how she got there and what crimes of passion she may have committed along the way (a stuporous intro later echoed in Ida Lupino’s teen pregnancy melodrama Not Wanted). While undergoing several layers of Freudian analysis that diagnoses her as A Frustrated Woman, she tells her story of unrequited love & violent revenge to men in lab coats who nod in feigned concern. While caring for a wealthy but suicidally depressed patient as a live-in caretaker, Crawford had fallen hopelessly, obsessively in love with her patient’s womanizing neighbor, who rejects her after an intense but brief sexual fling. Her schemes to hold onto his time & affection after their abrupt break-up escalate in increasingly mad, unhinged stabs of jealousy, ultimately resulting in her hospitalization and possible arrest for violent criminal acts.
The stark shadows, howling winds & rain, and overwritten dialogue like “I seldom hit a woman, but if you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies” all firmly land Possessed within the realm of noir. Even Crawford’s maddening obsession with her playboy neighbor is like a gender-flipped variation on the femme fatale trope, where attraction to an aloof, mysterious figure leads our anti-hero to great personal peril. It’s a perverse pleasure, then, to see Crawford act out a prototype of her late-career psychobiddy roles here as a woman on the verge. She’s an unreliable narrator to her own story, one whose hallucinations combine with the noir lighting to create a kind of J-horror ghost story effect, wherein she’s haunted by her own paranoid delusions & urges to kill as relief for her pent-up sexual frustrations. Possessed can’t offer the pitch-perfect melodrama of Mildred Pierce nor the deliciously over-the-top axe murders of Strait-Jacket, but Crawford’s crazed performance bridges the gap between those disparate ends of her career, and it’s a convergence well worth seeking out.
It’s that time of year again: every time you turn on the television, A Christmas Story is playing. I don’t have cable and haven’t in something like six years, and I don’t even think I’ve been in a place that did have cable in over a year (although given that I’ve barely left the house in nine months, that figure is bound to be skewed), but even without access to TNT or TBS, I know that right now, as I write this (although perhaps not as you read it), Alfie is deciphering an advertisement for Ovaltine hidden in his Little Orphan Annie program, or he’s turning in his thesis about what a responsible gun owner he would be, or saying something that’s similar to “fudge” as lug nuts scatter in the road. But this Christmas season, I’m asking you to think about my favorite Darren McGavin role, which is much greater than “father obsessed with a sexy lamp.” I want to tell you about Carl Kolchak, the unlikeliest vampire slayer.
The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC in 1972. It was a ratings smash, prompting a sequel telefilm, The Night Strangler, which in turn led to the creation of one-season wonder TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (confusing, I know, as the titular night stalker of the first film is the villain), which I’ve sung the praises of in a few different episodes of the lagniappe podcast with Brandon. Kolchak was an early influence on the genre of mysterious urban fantasy/sci-fi on television, although I don’t think it would fall very easily into that category (think X-Files, not Dresden Files*). What it is, above all things really, is a noir, with all of the tropes of the 1940s adapted for a trashier 1970s world: it’s ambiguous as to whether Kolchak’s girlfriend is a prostitute or a showgirl (or both), the traditional noir voiceover is here embodied by Kolchak’s omnipresent journalistic dictaphone narration, etc. And did I mention that the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Carl Kolchak is employed as a reporter by the Daily News, operating out of Las Vegas, albeit reluctantly according to his long-suffering editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who claims that Kolchak’s continued unlikely employment is owed solely to a soft spot on the part of the paper’s owner. As we later learn when Kolchak is talking to his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley), he’s been fired twice in Chicago, once in New York, twice on the West Coast, and, somehow, he was fired from three different papers in Boston. Whatever the journalistic equivalent of an ambulance chaser is, that’s Carl Kolchak, and although “sleaze” isn’t the right word for what he’s got, he cuts a particularly slovenly figure in his powder blue seersucker jacket and straw porkpie hat. He spends his evenings driving from crime scene to crime scene as directed by the police scanner, often arriving at the same time as backup, and he’s forever throwing himself right into the middle of the action with his camera with no regard for his own safety. He’s a complete disaster, and I love him.
Our featureopens with the murder of a swing-shift casino cashier as she walks home alone at night, which turns out to be only the first in a string of slayings—and exsanguinations—of young women, all at the hands of someone oddly strong. Things get even weirder when a hospital is robbed of its entire blood supply, and the local law enforcement briefs the press with the news that the latest victim of the serial killer was bitten on her neck, that the body was completely emptied of blood, and that there was human saliva in and around the wound. Kolchak tries to file a piece with “vampire killer” in the headline, and although he makes it clear in the body of the article that there’s simply a killer on the loose who’s suffering from the delusion that he’s a vampire, Vincenzo refuses to print it. It’s only when Gail starts to express concern that Carl might end up running afoul of a real life vampire that he starts to consider this as a possibility, which is further cemented when Carl arrives at the scene of a second blood bank burglary in process and watches a man fight off nearly a dozen cops and shrug off multiple gunshots.
The Night Stalker clocks in at 72 short minutes, which I must assume is an average length for TV movies of that era, and it’s a perfect little time capsule of mishmashed genres and tones that come together in an unlikely, brassy symphony. What I love about Kolchak, the show, is that our title character occupies a world in which every single person that he encounters is shockingly hostile, from fellow reporters to every LEO that crosses his path to random citizens who happen to be on the same sidewalk. Carl Kolchak is a walking magnet for two things: supernatural weirdness and people on the verge of boiling over, and it really gives the impression that every person in an urban environment in the early seventies was a ticking time bomb. The broad strokes of the show that is to come exists here in this early feature form: Vincenzo will carry over into the show (albeit as the editor of the International New Service based out of Chicago, were the series was set), and Kolchak’s stable of informants are here in a primordial version as well: the coroner with the big mouth, the switchboard operator with the weakness for a Whitman’s sampler, Bernie the FBI buddy with who’s willing to give the benefit of the doubt—you know, the usual suspects.
It’s not hard to see why this was so successful as a telefilm, or why it had potential as a franchise. I mean, a TV movie of the week where two sweaty, middle-aged men, one with a potbelly, defeating a vampire isn’t necessarily such stuff that dreams are made on, but despite what one must assume was a fairly minimal budget, there are several great action sequences. Although the climactic defeat of the undead is fun, I was very impressed by the hospital scene in which vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) fights off a several hospital employees, including one orderly being thrown out of an upper floor window in some nice stunt work for the time, followed by a shockingly well-executed bit of automotive choreography as several police cars and even a motorcycle cop glide around in an alley.
Other than the increased budget (you’re not gonna see Kolchak going Baja across lanes of traffic in the show, or an intense six-car ballet like you do here, and the occasional defenestration, such as in the opening of “The Trevi Collection,” creates the action through editing, not practical effects), there’s one other thing that the film has over the show, which is that its presumption of finality allows the film to fully commit to having a bleak, noir ending. We see, multiple times, that modern (or at least contemporary, as this was produced fifty years ago) police forces are just as incapable of defending the neon-filled oasis of Vegas from an old world vampire as a Transylvanian village, and they’re hopelessly outmatched despite their manpower and firearms. This makes for an interesting backdrop, as each skeptic is forced to accept the reality of the situation, and Kolchak shares his knowledge with law enforcement. In the end, however, despite the authorities’ full understanding of the situation, they use the threat of an arrest for homicide of Skorzeny to run Kolchak out of town permanently. His bags are delivered directly to the D.A.’s office where his lawkeeping nemeses wave a warrant in his face, present him with the supernatural-free article that they’ll be running instead of his correct piece, and tell him not to bother trying to reach Gail, as they’ve already ejected her from Vegas as an “undesirable element.” It’s a grim conclusion for our newspaperman, who has seen the truth and had it denied by the powers that be, and we close on his recollection of the events with the narration telling us that Carl and Gail never found each other again.
Of course, as an audience, we know that Kolchak will have many** more adventures, but it’s a fittingly depressing final note for our hero, all things considered. Ironically, had this not done so well, this would have been Kolchak’s end, and while I’m glad it wasn’t, had this been all the Kolchak that the world was given, it would still be solid.
*I’m just kidding. No one thinks about The Dresden Files.
One of the things we often overlook when we get nostalgic about classic film noir is how shockingly cheap the genre was, at least the bulk of it. Slicker, major studio noir films like The Maltese Falcon packed the screen with gruffly handsome leading men & gorgeous femme fatales, but most noir pictures were from low-budget studios desperate to turn crime world sensationalism into tidy profits. Most classic noir is low-grade genre schlock that elevates its meager production values with an overbearing sense of style, especially in its adoption of German Expressionist lighting & cinematography. Edward G. Ulmer (who had once directed the German Expressionist-inspired horror classic The Black Catfor Universal) may have made the most quintessential example of this genre schlock alchemy. Ulmer’s Detour is the sweatiest, most explosively nervous noir I can ever remember seeing. Its limitations as a Poverty Row cheapie are apparent in every frame, and yet its overbearing sense of style & desperation achieve an overwhelming, nerve-racking effect throughout. It carries none of the suave, macho cool that major-studio noir is fondly remembered for; it’s cheap, sweaty, unglamorous, and incredibly exciting from start to end.
If you believe his dodgy, exponentially suspicious narration track, Detour‘s antihero protagonist isn’t even the hard-drinking criminal type we’re used to following as a noir lead. He’s merely a nightclub pianist hitch-hiking across the country to visit his out-of-town girlfriend. The way he tells it, he stumbles into his on-the-run outlaw status through no fault of his own, explaining, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Through a truly unhinged internal monologue he recounts how his hitch-hiking travels were derailed when he befriended a wealthy gangster and “accidentally” killed him, having to assume the dangerous, sought-after man’s identity in order to keep up the appearance he was still alive. The narration is frantically, deliriously overwritten. He never simply says “diner waitress” when descriptive slang like “hash-slinger” will do. “Hitch-hiking” is too glamorous of a term, so he opts for “thumbing rides.” Money is “little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for […] pieces of paper crawling with germs.” Given its limited budget for staging legitimate set pieces or action-thriller payoffs, the movie is essentially an hour-long rant about a shitty vacation delivered at a machine-gun pace. It’s like listening to someone recite the screenplay for Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hikerfrom memory at the crescendo of a gnarly coke binge.
As with a lot of low-budget genre fare, every character in Detour is explosively, inexplicably angry with little to no provocation. This is especially true of our lead’s main foil, Vera (Ann Savage), the only stranger who instantly sees through his false identity to expose the fraud underneath. Just when you start to feel like Detour is missing the tough, dangerous women that make noir classics so enjoyable despite their overwhelming, hard-drinking machismo, Savage crashes into the frame full force like an 18-wheeler plowing through the walls of an all-night diner. If the nervous tension of the picture is already unbearable before she arrives, it’s outright lethal once she takes over the sketchy hitch-hiker’s life and pushes him further down his aimless path of petty crime. She’s chaotic & unglamorous in a way that would never be allowed in a mainstream picture – more feral animal than femme fatale. The movie builds its tension entirely off the narrator’s deliriously overwritten dialogue and the anarchic propulsion of Savage’s performance. The expressionistic touches of Ulmer’s eye are only set-dressing, contextualizing those core sources of nervous-energy as the hallmarks of a bad dream that only gets worse the longer it spirals out.
Detour is one of those select films that’s so cheap it was allowed to slip into the public domain but was still afforded the Criterion Collection restoration treatment. That better-late-than-never acclaim is totally understandable even without the cineaste prestige of Ulmer’s name in the credits. This is the exact kind of low-budget, high-tension noir filmmaking that inspired the chaotic, handheld immediacy of the French New Wave (among other devotees who loved noir as the nasty, forsaken schlock it truly was). It’s wildly, discomfortingly cheap, to the point where it feels as if it’s barely under Ulmer’s control even though nothing especially intricate or extravagant happens onscreen. It’s pure noir in that way, even though we nostalgically remember the genre being a little more polished & better-funded than it was in its Poverty Row majority.
One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.
Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.
In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.
Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.
Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.
I stumbled into the late-90s sci-fi curio Dark City with the best contextual background info possible: none. I picked up a used DVD copy of its Director’s Cut from a cat-rescue thrift store in Metairie, knowing only that it’s a divisive work from a director I don’t typically care for: Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt, The Crow). I didn’t even know what decade the film was initially released in, assuming that it must have arrived at least five years later than it had – if not twice that. In retrospect, it was incredibly rude of this shameless decade-late Matrix rip-off to arrive a year before The Matrix, further confusing my understanding of what I had watched. Dark City is an infinitely faceted mystery. It initially establishes the mystery of what’s even happening in its futurist-noir plot, something that doesn’t become fully apparent until a third of the way into its runtime. Once its worldbuilding cards are all on the table, the questions only snowball: How is this much parallel thinking with other sci-fi works of its era even possible? Is it a masterful work of speculative fiction or just a fascinating mess? How did Proyas, of all people, stumble into creating something so worthy of continued personal interpretation & debatr? These mysteries are best experienced in a contextual vacuum, a self-discovery blind-watch. In other words, you should not be reading this review if you haven’t already seen the film for yourself.
Oddly, the audiences least equipped to see Dark City with the necessary blank slate were the people who caught it during its initial theatrical run back in 1998. At producers’ insistence, the initial theatrical cut of the film opened with a narration track that spoiled the central mystery of its sci-fi premise – dumping key information that’s carefully trickled out in the Director’s Cut with one intense flood. I’m genuinely glad I waited the twenty years necessary for the film to find me in the wild, rather than jumping on it in a time when it was less special and, apparently, self-spoiled. Whereas Dark City feels like a bizarro anomaly in retrospect, it was a victim of a crowded field of parallel-thinkers in the late-90s. Remarkably similar titles like eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix (a movie that, like Dark City, was curiously an American-Australian co-production) were all released within a year of Proyas’s curio. It’s tempting to blame Dark City‘s financial failures on New Line Cinema’s decision to open it on the same weekend as James Cameron’s cultural behemoth The Titanic, but the truth is that only one of these films succeeded in their time, regardless of their opening-weekend competition. Contemporary audiences seemingly only had the capacity to love one simulated-reality sci-fi spectacle in that era, allowing the test of time to sort out the rest to varying results – eXistenZ rules as a video game era update to Videodrome; The Thirteenth Floor is a “You Had to Be There” snoozer; and Dark City is a confounding headscratcher that’s equal parts glaringly Flawed and mesmerizingly Ambitious.
If you haven’t guessed by all this repetitive Matrix referencing, this is a science-fiction film about simulated reality. Whereas the Wachowskis approached that topic through a cyberpunk lens, however, Proyas dialed the genre clock back to 1940s noir. The titular Dark City looks like a physical recreation of Gotham City as it appears in Batman: The Animated Series. Only, the towering metropolis shifts & reconfigures like a malfunctioning Rubik’s Cube, controlled by an unseen force that only reveals itself to the audience once they lose control of the game. The characters shift around just as easily as the buildings. That’s because an alien race known only as The Strangers have abducted an entire city-sized population of human beings and quarantined them in a human-scale rat maze, a closed-off city with no exits. Their experiments on human behavior are hinged on nightly resets where The Strangers transplant memories from one human test subject to another, reassigning different personalities & roles to arbitrarily selected specimens as if they were a rotating theatre company cast instead of “real” people. The goal of the experiment appears to be settling the Nature vs. Nurture debate, determining whether a person’s life path is defined by their lived experiences or their set-in-stone soul. The undoing of the rat maze simulation is very similar to the one in The Matrix: one of the rats gains the seemingly magic ability to alter the physical environment that contains him, becoming just as powerful as his captors, if not more so. We watch a confused protagonist start off as a Hitchcockian archetype who’s wrongly accused of murder discover an even greater mystery in the effort to clear his name: Nothing is real.
Since it understandably takes a while for this high-concept premise to fully reveal itself (at least in its narration-free Director’s Cut), Dark City‘s strongest asset is its creepy mood. Not only does it borrow the late-hour, back-alley atmosphere from the noir genre, it pushes that stylistic influence to the point where the only sunlight depicted onscreen is in billboard advertisements. Characters half-remember sunlight being A Thing, just like they remember trains that actually leave the city and childhoods that were entirely fabricated by The Strangers. Watching them grapple with the slow realization that everything they see & know is Fake is genuinely disturbing, no matter how many times that theme was echoed in similar contemporary works. It helps that The Strangers themselves make for deeply creepy foes, chattering their teeth when agitated and dressing up like Nosferatu G-Men. Those alien super-creeps are maybe the only truly idiosyncratic element at play visually, as the film blatantly borrows a lot of influence from the production design of preceding works like Brazil & City of Lost Children. Dark City mostly distinguishes itself in how its familiar noir archetype characters and retro-futurist cityscapes shift around—both physically and spiritually—into chaotic, unstable configurations. It’s a continuous sensation of having the rug pulled from under you as you attempt to get a sturdy footing in established, solid reality. That sensation has its thematic justifications rooted in an Early Internet era when online personae & communication were starting to supplant The Real Thing, which might explain why so many of these simulated-reality sci-fi pictures all arrived in the same year. More importantly, it’s effectively creepy, at least enough so to carry you through the mystery of its plot.
Unfortunately, I can’t quite match the enthusiasm of Dark City‘s most emphatic defenders (most significantly Roger Ebert, who repeatedly declared the flop his favorite film of 1998). Besides suffering the same Macho misinterpretation of noir that most of the genre’s throwbacks perpetrate (sidelining Jennifer Connelly of all people and mostly casting women as half-naked prostitute corpses), the movie also makes a major mistake in how it unravels the rat-maze experiment of its premise. I don’t know that I needed a fatalistic worldview where there’s no escape from The Strangers’ wicked manipulations of their victims’ memories, but that option certainly would have fit the mood of the piece better than transforming its running-from-the-law protagonist into a Chosen One superhero archetype. The more our amnesiac anti-hero uses his newfound superpowers to bend his rat-maze surroundings to his will (materializing doorways in brick walls, shaping the geography of the buildings to his convenience, fighting off The Strangers with his Professor X mind powers, etc.), the more they deflate the film’s creepy mood. It doesn’t at all help that Dark City accurately predicted the very worst impulses of the 2000s-2010s superhero blockbuster in its abrupt climactic battle, where our hero squares off against the top Stranger in mind-powers combat while the city crumbles around them in shoddy CGI. This genre shift from atmospheric noir to superhero spectacle isn’t a total mood-killer, but it does fall just short of “It was all a dream” in the least interesting paths the movie could have chosen. At least, that’s how it feels watching this after a solid decade of MCU dominance over mainstream culture.
The benefit of watching Dark City for the first time all these years later is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be interesting or worthwhile. Its need to compete with contemporary triumphs like The Matrix or eXistenZ continues to fade with time, even if its year-early arrival before those sci-fi classics remains a mysterious curiosity. I found the movie glaringly flawed & confounding from start to end, and yet I’m increasingly fond of it the more I puzzle at it. It’s a deeply strange, beautifully hideous film that’s totally dislodged from its place in time.
Last Spring, Shotgun Cinema projected the 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House, as part of that season’s Science on Screen series. As a shot-on-location noir set in New Orleans and an Elia Kazan-directed procedural drama, Panic in the Streets proved to be a solid genre entry, but not much more. As a historical act of local people-watching, however, it carried a lot of clout as something exceptional, and I was glad to have shared that experience with a live, local community. There was a warm, electric feeling in that room as the movie offered a time-machine vision of our city’s past in an entertaining genre film package.
Once the movie concluded, however, the crowd gradually disbanded before the screening was officially over. The Science on Screen series included a post-film lecture and Q&A with specialists on each particular movie’s topic, and as that night’s guest scientist began their spiel the once-enraptured crowd gradually trailed off into the night one at a time, out of apparent collective disinterest. In retrospect, we all should have stayed & listened to that lecture. Hell, we all should have been taking notes. Panic in the Streets is specifically about a plague spreading through the streets of New Orleans, where current new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high, and the lecture was about how epidemics of that nature tend to spread through communities like ours. We had all gathered that night to marvel at a vision of our city’s distant past, but we were also unknowingly looking into our not-too-distant future.
Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s & 90s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target were especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The prospect of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the New Orleans locale in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors (that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years) and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique.
The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film down here for the tax credits. It may not do much to document what the city itself looked like in the 1950s, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people. The local cast & crew sported neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here and it was nice to hear a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect). Even without that local connotation, though, there’s just a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing at the movies.
Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero lawmen vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre, but the film ultimately still adheres to those tropes. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat.
There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but those confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about Jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.
At the time of last year’s screening, I thought of Panic in the Streets as a curio that would only be of interest to locals, but I’ve seen a huge increase in outside audience’s interest surrounding it in recent weeks. Of course, most of the film’s draw all these months later has nothing to do with its ability to satisfy noir genre beats nor its value as vintage New Orleans tourism. In the time of COVID-19, many audiences are scrambling to uncover older film titles that explore the horrors & social mechanics of large-scale health epidemics. If the goal of these coronavirus-inspired excursions into plague cinema past is to cathartically indulge in the scariest possible fallout scenarios of our current global health crisis, you’re probably better off watching a modern thriller like Contagion or Outbreak instead. If anything, Panic in the Streets’s depiction of a citywide viral contamination is almost reassuringly quaint compared to our current circumstances. Containing the epidemic is just as simple as catching a few low-level criminals who’ve been passing it around among themselves, which is antithetical to how we understand the seemingly uncontainable, exponential spread of contamination that’s playing out in charts & graphs on the news this very minute.
Speaking even as someone in New Orleans (where new case rates for COVID-19 are exceptionally high thanks to massive Mardi Gras gatherings’ ominous presence in the not-too-distant rearview) who recently watched it in a crowded room, this movie is a comforting vision of an easily conquerable epidemic. I very much wish our current real-world crisis could be boiled down to just a few no-good scoundrels who need to be cornered at the Mississippi River docks. There’s a comfort to that simplicity. Instead, we’re in a much more complex mess of irresponsible disinformation campaigns, economic exploitation, and the deaths of our communities’ most vulnerable comrades – one where there cannot be a clear, decisive victory over the enemy when this is all “over.” A few dozen movie nerds remaining in their seats for the full lecture after that Shotgun Cinema screening wouldn’t have been enough to prevent these current helltimes, but it couldn’t have hurt for us to enter them better informed.
It sometimes feels as if the canon of Cinematic Classics has already been set in stone, as if there’s no major discoveries left to be found that haven’t already been exulted by cultural institutions like The Criterion Collection or The Sight & Sound Top 100 list. That’s why restorations of forgotten, discarded gems like Mr. Klein are so vital to modern cinephilia, keeping the hope alive for decades-delayed discoveries. Directed by HUAC-backlisted American ex-pat Joseph Losey in the grim, grimy days of the 1970s, Mr. Klein has been shoddily distributed in the decades since, to the point where it’s been effectively backlisted itself. Maybe some of its initial critical reluctance in France was due to its American filmmaker going exceptionally hard on targeting French authorities for cooperating with Nazis while under German occupation (still a fresh wound at the time of its initial release). Maybe the film was simply just considered not particularly great, just another vanity project for its tabloid-friendly leading man Alain Delon in the titular role; maybe its exceptional qualities only became apparent with time & distance away from Delon’s peak star wattage. Whatever the case, it’s a great work that deserves great respect, the exact kind of discarded gem that self-serious film nerds cream their jeans over when it’s rescued for the digital restoration treatment. Rialto Films isn’t only keeping Mr. Klein alive with this restoration; they’re also keeping alive the thrill of the hunt.
Delon stars as an unscrupulous art dealer who makes a fortune off the Holocaust’s slow intrusion into German-occupied France. As doomed Jewish citizens seek the road money necessary to escape Nazi rule, Mr. Klein lowballs them on the worth of their precious art collections, profiting off their terror. This unseemly business is disrupted when Klein is mistaken by French authorities to be Jewish himself, as he shares a name with a much less wealthy French citizen who’s on the path to be exported to a German concentration camp. Arrogantly convinced that his wealth & public stature will protect him, Klein decides to address this mix-up through official, administrative channels instead of fleeing France himself. His delusions that he can remain uninvolved in the plight of French Jews makes him more involved than ever. As he falls down a Kafkaesque bureaucracy rabbit hole in an attempt to clear his name, he effectively become both a Nazi and a Jew himself: hunting down the “real” Robert Klein to bring them to “justice” and being treated like a lousy criminal by the Nazi-complying French authorities because of an arbitrary criterion beyond his control. It’s clear from the start where the story is headed, as the movie largely functions as a Twilight Zone-style morality tale, but the point is less in the surprise of the plot than it is in the ugly depths of Klein’s authoritarian, self-serving character. This is a damn angry film about the evils of Political Apathy, and a damn great one.
Where Mr. Klein might frustrate some plot-obsessed viewers is in its predictability, it more than makes up for it in eerie mood. Its Kafkaesque bureaucracy nightmare and fits of uncanny horror almost suggest that Klein’s plight will tip into supernatural fantasy at any moment, as if he has a genuine doppelgänger roaming the streets of Paris in wait of a violent showdown. Mostly, though, the film operates like a grimy 1970s throwback to the heyday of noir. Klein’s late-night investigations of shadowy figures, dangerous dames, and widespread political corruption recall a wide range of classic noir tropes, right down the trench coat & fedora of his costuming. By the very first scene, he already tips the archetype of the noir anti-hero into full-fledged villainy, as he’s introduced fleecing a devastated Jewish man while dressed in an obnoxious silk bathrobe in his luxurious apartment. His villainy only worsens as he pursues the “real” Robert Klein instead of fleeing France himself, something he’s easily equipped to do. What’s his ideal success story here? That he clears his own name by condemning a Jewish man to death in a concentration camp? Klein is convinced the French authorities will clear his name through proper channels in time, yet he only becomes guiltier in the eyes of the audience and in the eyes of the Nazis the more he fights his designation as a Jewish citizen. Like all great Twilight Zone plots, it’s the story of a morally defunct man getting his cosmically just deserts, with plenty of uncanny chills along the way. It just happens to be dressed up more like a spooky noir film than an outright horror.
I hope that this restoration of Mr. Klein rescues it from its relative obscurity to present it as one of the era’s great works. If nothing else, there are isolated images from the film that continue to haunt me the way all Great Cinema does: a Nazi phrenology exam, a mansion left empty by pilfered artwork, the world’s most horrific drag brunch, etc. Whether that critical reappraisal is imminent or not, just the chance to see it projected on the big screen with a totally unprepared audience at this year’s New Orleans French Film Festival was enough of a wonder to justify Rialto Films’s restoration of this forgotten gem. Our modern-day audience was thrilled, chilled, and traumatized by the experience, which is just as validating as a proper entry in the Great Cinema canon.