#9 Clash by Night (directed by Fritz Lang)
So, this was supposed to be an entry into the noir quest. It was in one of my noir box sets, and "directed by Fritz Lang" got me excited (since he directed the all-time classics Metropolis and M), seeing that it was based on a play by Clifford Odets piqued my interest, and after seeing the cast of Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas, and Marilyn Monroe, I was sold. But what the hell?!? This isn't a noir, it's just a bullsh-t relationship melodrama (and not a very good one in my eyes) with some occasionally noir-ish lighting. Lame.
#10 Act of Violence (directed by Fred Zinnemann)
So, I'll go ahead and count this as #10 in the series. And we're back on track with some serious noir. Actually, some interestingly serious noir. Act of Violence concerns itself with the guilt and anger felt by two soldiers who survived the horror of a Nazi P.O.W. camp. One of the soldiers, Van Heflin's Frank, was the leader of the group that'd been shot down by the Germans. Robert Ryan plays Joe, the only other man to make it out of the camp alive. Joe blames Frank for the deaths of the other men, and has tracked him down relentlessly in a bid to right the thing he feels has been wronged. Frank moved his family from Syracuse, New York all the way to southern California just to get away from Joe's vengeful quest, assuring himself that Joe won't continue following.
Frank's survivor's guilt must've been mirrored by that of legendary director Fred Zinnemann, who'd escaped the dangers of WWII with his brother just 10 years previous to Act of Violence, but lost both of his parents in concentration camps. Van Heflin's wonderfully layered performance carries the movie, especially in the scene where he explains to his wife Edith (Janet Leigh, in her first role of significance) exactly why Joe blames him for the soldiers' deaths, and what he's been carrying around with him since then. Robert Ryan is creepily effective as Joe, single minded in his pursuit, to the point that he tells his girlfriend he just doesn't love her enough to care what she thinks about his intent of violence retribution.
We're blessed again with some terrific cinematography (probably the biggest reason I love noir), this time courtesy of 16 time Oscar nominee Robert Surtees. Heflin is often bathed in shadow, with only a single ray of light across his eyes or face. The scene of he and Janet Leigh in the hotel, where he painfully explains his actions, is a masterfully shot bit of noir, with shadows and light playing off one another in many different ways. Another beautifully done sequence in when Frank contemplates suicide by standing in front of a train, Helfin's pain playing out on his face, Zinnemann ratcheting up the tension, and Surtees shining the light from the front of the train in contrast to the oppressive darkness all around. It's not the brilliant grittier photography of He Walked by Night, but it's very noir, and terrifically done.
#11 On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray)
After a nice round 10 movies, I returned to the first director on the list, Nicholas Ray, and his movie On Dangerous Ground. It stars Robert Ryan (of course it has Robert Ryan in it, it's a noir!) as Jim Wilson, a cop on the edge of losing his job after he continually gets too rough with suspects. He gets results, as he's quick to point out, but is also anti-social with his fellow policemen, insubordinate to his Chief, and decaying on the inside as a person. "Garbage, that's all we handle, garbage!" he shouts to another cop. He's sent away from the city into the wintry countryside to help investigate a murder and meets Mary, a blind woman played by Ida Lupino. Mary becomes a kind of beacon of salvation for Jim, but the situation may not play out in a way that allows him to have his redemption.
Ryan gives one of his better performances, giving Jim the nasty underbelly, but also believably paying out the quest for rebirth for his disillusioned cop. Ida Lupino is terrific as the blind woman, tenderly offering much needed hope, and not just for Jim. Ward Bond as the father of the country victim is a little too over-the-top and obnoxious, but I think that's kind of the point for his character.
The photography, by noir veteran George E. Diskant, isn't as iconic as some of the other noirs I've been watching. But I got a nice Fargo-esque vibe from the snowy countryside setting, and some decent city work as well. The hand-held work, however, is far inferior to the tremendous job Diskant did on The Narrow Margin, released the same year (also filmed the same year, although that was 2 years prior to its release). Ray's handling of the angsty storyline of looking for redemption through possible romance is handled with typical aplomb, even if it doesn't have the more noirish ending he originally intended. The change in setting, which some have apparently felt jarring, I felt Ray managed perfectly. We have to have our protagonist set up before we can care what happens to him. Ray is much more interested in his characters than in having a more narrow or traditional plot structure, and the movie is better off for it.