From Whodunits to Why Bother? Noir at MoMA

By Bruce BennettAugust 12, 2014

From Whodunits to Why Bother? Noir at MoMA

TODAY’S FILM HISTORY is largely yesterday’s Hollywood gossip. With that in mind, Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn’s reputation as Golden Age Tinseltown’s most hated studio head seems assured. If the legion of stories of Cohn’s alleged despotism are to be believed, Jack Woltz, the foul-mouthed lot boss played by John Marley in The Godfather and widely considered a fictionalized stand-in for Cohn, is an accurate portrayal up to and possibly including the horse’s head the Don employs as a bargaining chip when negotiations between the Corleone family and Woltzs studio break down. Nevertheless, as Harry Lime observed in The Third Man about creativity under the Borgia’s, a reign of terror can offer an artistic upside. The hundreds of pictures made under Cohn’s tyranny contain gems aplenty, perhaps none more than in the studio’s prolific output of crime pictures. Through August 4, The Museum of Modern Art in New York will be unpacking that legacy in a program of screenings entitled “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–57.”

Dave Kehr, who co-organized the series (with MoMA films Joshua Siegel), comes to MoMAs film department after nearly 40 years as a film critic for the Chicago Reader, the New York Daily News, and The New York Times. Putting this program together has tasked Kehr, described recently in Artforum as a “carry-me-out-in-a-box auteurist” whose critical stock-in-trade was “distinguishing the individual idiosyncrasies of gigging directors who never had high distinction conferred upon them in their lifetimes,” with assembling a program of highlights from the collected works of Harry Cohn. Kehr and Ispoke recently about Cohn, Columbia, and the studio’s unprecedented mastery of crime pictures, a legacy of a time when movies were made by grown-ups for grown-ups.


BRUCE BENNETT: I always think of Columbia in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s as being basically next door to Poverty Row. Film buffs seem inclined to remember just the studios A picture offerings or just their enormous outpouring of B films and shorts and not the coexistence of both.

DAVE KEHR: Yeah, well they were in Gower Gulch, so they were definitely literally a part of Poverty Row. What made them different than other Poverty Row studios is that they had a policy of making a handful of A pictures every year. Early on that was [Frank] Capra; later they would build films around Rita Hayworth or around Bogart. They also had Rosalind Russell for a while. But mostly they made B pictures, and they made them in huge numbers. I mean, Columbia was just amazingly prolific considering what a small operation it was. They made just dozens and dozens of films a year, most of them around 65 minutes, rented [to exhibitors] for a flat fee with no stars above the title, which is the classic definition of a B movie. That was their bread and butter.

It’s pretty remarkable that the more esoteric, obscure, and forgotten B pictures in the series are playing in new or recent 35mm prints.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do it is Grover Crisp, who’s the chief archivist at Sony-Columbia, has just done an outstanding job of preserving the studio’s library in depth. He has prints, it seems, of virtually everything, and they are gorgeous. It’s a beautifully maintained library. It seemed like a great opportunity to present some really first-class, mostly 35mm prints. Ironically the more famous films are the ones that have been digitally restored and will be presented as DCP’s [“Digital Cinema Package” digital projections]. So if you’ve ever wanted to see a Whistler film in 35mm, this is your one and only opportunity, I think.

The Whistler pictures are new to me. They were adapted from a radio series?

Yeah, completely. There’s a number of the radio episodes on Internet Archive if you want to check them out. It’s really one of the strangest radio programs of all time, and it becomes one of the strangest B movie series of all time. The only consistent character is The Whistler, who is some mysterious voice of doom, I guess, who, as he says, “knows the heart of man because by night he walks the streets” or some florid phrase like that.

I wrote it down: “I am The Whistler. I know many things for I walk by night. I know many strange tales; many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”

Right. And when you see him in the beginning of each film it’s sort of this abstract figure in a trench coat with this voice, which is the narrator on the radio, setting up the story and then coming back every once in a while to offer ironic comments on how the main characters are being blindly led into some idiot doom that awaits them.

Hard to resist that synopsis.

What’s really cool is that Richard Dix, who was a major star in the 1920s and early 1930s and had kind of faded by the late 1940s, is the star of each film and plays a different character in each one. And the better directors in the series, like Lew Landers and George Sherman, toy with the ambiguity of whether he’s gonna be the hero or the villain or the victim or what. You just don’t know until you’re halfway through the film. It’s structurally unlike any other B movie series I’ve ever heard of, and it gave a showcase to a lot of talented directors.

The Secret of the Whistler
The Secret of the Whistler (1946)

For somebody who grew up watching The Three Stooges on television, it’s neat seeing these interior-bound, narratively thrifty movies that look like they were shot on the same sets as the Stooges were.

They would have been. Though I would say the Whistlers were much better made than the average Jules White movie. That’s Columbia — probably as close to a factory as any studio ever came — but you still see the great lie of that “assembly line” model, which I don’t think was ever accurate — in just how much freedom and flexibility individual directors had if they wanted to take advantage of it.

It’s interesting to see how many familiar directors’ names there are in this retrospective that are arguably better known for making westerns — George Sherman (Big Jake), Gordon Douglas (The Charge at Feather River), Budd Boetticher (Ride Lonesome).

Oh yeah, there’s lots of crossover. When you worked in B’s you had to move back and forth quite a bit. In the case of George Sherman, I think I prefer his crime films. He made wonderful westerns, but the crime films have a little something extra.

I interviewed Boetticher a year or two before he died and asked him about his movie influences. He laughed and said “his own” and explained that he used to screen the early pictures he did at Columbia and remind himself never to do that again.

Ha! Well yeah, I knew Budd pretty well, and he loved making up stories. He’s somebody that doesn’t really discover his identity as a filmmaker until later. It’s funny, the ones that are signed Oscar Boetticher Jr., as Escape in the Fog is, are good and competent and not particularly personal; he hasn’t really found his voice yet. And then when he goes to Republic to do Bullfighter and the Lady, suddenly he’s Budd Boetticher, it’s so close to his own life story. Once he’s calling himself Budd, the films are completely his.

It’s quite a transition.

At Columbia, you could make 10 films a year. What a great training ground for people! You really learn how to shoot film. You really learn how to strategize your shooting schedule. You learned a lot of really important skills. I don’t know how people pick them up now or even if they do.

Don’t get me started.

Yeah. I mean one film every five years, you’re not gonna learn that kind of fluidity that you could acquire after making 20 films in three years at Columbia Pictures.

Then what’s in it for a guy like Fritz Lang? By the time he made The Big Heat at Columbia he’d been making pictures for more than 30 years.

Yeah, Fritz was on his uppers [down and out] at that point in his career. I doubt if he ever dreamed of going to Columbia Pictures, but once he got there he made one masterpiece, The Big Heat, and one pretty decent movie, Human Desire.

Safe bet that it wasn’t the allure of working with Harry Cohn that brought him there?

You hear these stories about Harry Cohn and how autocratic he was. If it’s true, he sounds like a pretty awful person. But Boetticher always spoke very highly of him, and he gave him a chance to learn his trade. And Sam Fuller always spoke very highly of him. I’ve heard two sides, you know? I think Cohn respected people who knew what they were doing and let them do it.

I watched The Sniper (1952) over the weekend, and it really knocked me out. Can you walk me through the political irony of blacklistee-turned-HUAC-name-namer Edward Dmytryk directing Red-baiting friendly witness Adolphe Menjou in the film?

Sure, I mean to the degree that I know it. [Producer/director] Stanley Kramer produced it for his own company, and it’s released through Columbia as opposed to being a straight Harry Cohn production. Kramer had his own unit within Columbia. He had almost run into the blacklist with High Noon, which was written by Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted and basically driven out of the country. There is a lot of controversy still as to what happened between Foreman and Kramer on High Noon. The families despise each other, and every time this gets into the press they start firing off letters back and forth. Dmytryk, who had been blacklisted and named names, had to get back into the good graces of the studios by taking projects like this one. And Adolphe Menjou of course was one of Hollywood’s most outspoken anti-Communists and a friendly witness at the HUAC hearings. His presence in this film cannot be coincidental. At the same time, he gives a great performance. It’s one of the few times that Menjou doesn’t do the vaguely European aristocrat thing. He’s kind of a down-and-out Italian detective who wears smelly clothes and is close to being a Columbo type. It’s an interesting stretch for him.

It’s a fascinating film. It’s genuinely disturbing and feels very modern.

One of the things that intrigues me the most about it is that clearly Hitchcock saw it and took a lot of ideas from it, which he did fairly often. He was a great magpie director. It’s like a jazz musician — he picks up on the stuff and then develops it in a different way, but the themes are started in The Sniper. You can see a lot of elements in The Sniper that directly inspire scenes in Psycho, that directly inspire scenes in Vertigo. It’s just a film that seemed to have struck him pretty strongly.

In terms of Vertigo, do you mean the title character’s (Arthur Franz) fetishistic attachment to the specific hairstyle?

Definitely. And the use of the geography of San Francisco. And the striking similarity between Arthur Franz’s character in The Sniper and Anthony Perkins’s in Psycho. I think those characters are extremely close. There’s a lot of parallelism. Hitchcock’s film is infinitely more profound than this one is, but the basic rhetorical figures are kind of established in The Sniper for what Hitchcock would do later.

The Sniper is also an incredibly downbeat snapshot of American life.

Yeah, one of my theories about this series is that it goes through three phases. You have the early 1930s films, which are whodunits — the puzzles that have to be solved and point directly to a single guilty person, which is an interesting kind of escapism during the Depression. In a whodunit you can actually identify someone who is responsible for the evil in the world and cast them out. Then in the late 1940s when soldiers are coming back from the war, a lot of them with posttraumatic stress and exposed to horrors that they could never possibly imagine, film noir begins to emerge. And so you get what I’m thinking of as the “whydunit,” represented by films like Chinatown at Midnight and The Sniper. You also get the birth of the serial killer, which gets developed in a lot of other films later on. Who is killing people isn’t the mystery — it’s why are they doing it, and that mystery lies in the depth of personality and trauma and inner turmoil that these films are starting to dramatize. And then in the late 1950s you get into what I’m calling the “why bothers?” — films with this kind of sense of existential despair.

There’s certainly some of that in The Sniper.

Yeah and in The Burglar, too. The sense of futility is overwhelming. Why should you do anything? It’s just gonna end in disaster, and indeed it does. All this in the midst of Eisenhower America, which is supposed to be so sunny and cheerful and happy. I’ve never understood that characterization. Anybody who’s watched any films from that decade, it’s very hard to support that cliché.

The Reckless Moment
The Reckless Moment (1949)

Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment (1949) is a particular favorite of mine. It’s a pretty strong critique of modern suburban motherhood.

Yeah, I think so. Genre films can carry that kind of radical social critique a lot easier than I would say the average Stanley Kramer film. And that’s a film that shows you how the crime film and the melodrama are often overlapping. A lot of the crime films tend to be male-centered, and the melodramas tend to be female-centered, but they are still dealing with these basic issues of transgression and rebellion against the cultural norms, often through violence or sheer frustration.

Which in this case Ophüls presents in an explosion of these emotionally eloquent camera moves.

Ophüls had a lot of trouble in Hollywood because he couldn’t shoot in the studio- approved way. He did not do continuity cutting, he did not do coverage. He had to set up everything in terms of his one camera move, and that’s eventually, I think, what drove him out of Hollywood more than anything else. He just could not adapt to this other production method. It’s a movie that in one sense couldn’t be more American, and it couldn’t be more European. It’s about [James Mason’s character] as representative of the old Europe who’s intruding on a very modern, very sterile, and lonely new America. He’s representative of a European romanticism, angsty-ness, and yearning soulfulness, which [Joan Bennett’s character] can’t find in her own life anymore. That is a profound film, I think. It’s really something.

Ophüls’s process was also particularly hard on actors, I think. Those elaborate camera moves require a lot of your cast in terms of hitting marks and keeping it going and memorizing reams of dialogue.

Yeah [laughs]. But you’ve got a lot of first-class professionals there. Joan Bennett said if she could survive five films with Fritz Lang she could survive anybody.

I love the contrast in the film selection between the B pictures and Columbia A pictures, like Gilda and Lady from Shanghai. It makes for an interesting idea of what three decades of audiences were expecting from crime films. But the postwar films carry so much pain and, as you say, existential despair. Was that a Columbia hallmark?

Pretty much every studio gets into that mood. There was a point when atomic destruction seemed almost inevitable. It’s very easy to underestimate the degree of fear that the atomic bomb raised. I think a lot of the blacklist [hysteria] can be explained by that. People are confronted for the first time in human history by the specter of total destruction and the idea of going back into another war immediately with Russia.

At the same time, Hollywood was collapsing in the face of television. The studios were falling apart left and right. So on a micro level they had a sense of crisis and impending doom. It’s not hard to see why movies started to freak out at that point. And yet you still had those big urban movie theaters, which would be full of single guys in trench coats, staring and just watching these incredibly bleak, despairing films.

Sounds like repertory film going in New York in the 1980s.

You know, movies used to be a nice place to get warm between looking for work. It was not a family business. It was not like now.


Bruce Bennett is co-author of the nonfiction police memoir, Alphaville – 1988, Welcome to Heroin City.

LARB Contributor

Bruce Bennett is a guitar player, a recovering film critic, and the co-author of the nonfiction police memoir, Alphaville – 1988, Welcome to Heroin City. He lives and makes true crime television in New York City.


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