7. M (1931) Directed by Fritz Lang
M is a film both ahead of and outside its time. After Metropolis (1927), Lang seemed a bit lost. At that time, sound had arrived and he and von Harbou realized that it was time to reinvent themselves. They decided to eschew the fanciful, often gargantuan, plots of their silent work and go for a realistic subject.
Looking for a promising project, the couple were struck by how many serial killers were stalking Germany during that troubled time. The most infamous of these was a man named Peter Kurten, dubbed the “vampire of Dusseldorf.” Using him as an inspiration, the couple decided to make their main character a compulsive murderer of small children.
Surely this is one of the most audacious movie ideas ever. Instead of doing a film exploring the killer’s sick mind, they set the story in the form of a thriller with both the authorities and the organized criminal underworld pursuing the criminal in order, for greatly differing reasons, to quell an increasingly panicked and reactionary.
To say that Lang created a world of nightmarish darkness would be a great understatement. At the center, though used with knowing reticence , is the killer himself. All the viewer is eventually told is that the man, named Hans Beckert, had been recently released from a long stay in a mental hospital.
As perfectly embodied by Peter Lorre, no more needs to be told. It is quite plan that this little freak of a man carries his hell with him wherever he goes and almost surely always has. Though Lang and von Harbou, no sentimentalists, ask for no sympathy for Beckert, the film at least affords glimpses into what created the monster he ended up becoming, ideas which would not be wasted on film noir.
8. City Streets (1931) Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Though few of his own works would be adapted into films noir, author Dashiell Hammett would be a major influence on American crime literature and, in turn, the films adapted from those novels. The author’s only original story for the screen is this too-little-known title concerning a star-crossed romance set against a backdrop of racketeers and bootleggers.
Sylvia Sidney portrays the daughter of a small time bootlegger who’s in love with The Kid (Cary Cooper), a sharpshooter who makes an honest living in a shooting gallery. However, in order to save her father from hanging for a crime he committed at the request of the Big Fella (Paul Lukas), she ends up in stir herself and The Kid joins in with the gang, much to her horror, in order to get her out and start a new life with her.
The plot is serviceable enough but the real artistry belongs to the director. Mamoulian had come from the stage at the dawn of sound and was at his best in the innovative early talkie era. This film, so fluent at a time when many were still so static, gives life to the heroine’s dark life, attached as it is to the underbelly of crime, something she has fought hard against staining her. The use of voiceover here to express the woman’s inner feelings was a new concept and would match up nicely with the introspection of many films noir.
9. La Chienne (1931)/La Bete Humaine (1939) Directed by Jean Renoir
The cinema’s great humanist, Renoir understood and wanted to understand people more than almost any other film. Son of the great French painter Auguste Renoir, the director was born into privilege but frequently chose to observe characters lower in the social order. His hallmark was a wisely resigned, benign viewpoint which took in all of the characters’ flaws and foibles and the damage the characters could inflict on themselves and others and still find compassion for the characters.
In The Rules of The Game Renoir has one character remark that one of the tragedies of life is that everyone has his reasons. No director could seem further from the violent, often pessimistic world of film noir yet both La Chienne and La Bete Humaine would be remade in Hollywood as films noir and, by coincidence, both would be directed by Fritz Lang, the least humanist of directors.
La Chienne was turned into Scarlet Street, a tale of a doltish older man duped by a vixenish woman of questionable moral background and her boyfriend/pimp, until the older man strikes back with nightmarishly ironic consequences. Scarlet Street, among the best known of films noir, finds no pity for its characters while La Chienne sees the situation more as the unfortunate intersection of a group of conflicted personalities.
La Bete Humaine, taken from an acclaimed naturalistic novel by the great author Emile Zola, examines another triangular situation as an innocent railroad engineer is drawn into a web of murder and deception by a desperate but alluring young woman who has cause to want her husband dead. In Hollywood it became Human Desire (1954), made as a follow-up to Lang’s The Big Heat, a superior film noir of a year earlier which had been a big hit.
Sad to say, lightning did not strike twice. La Bete Humaine made use of Zola’s concept of the burden of heredity to help explain its character (Zola created a large fictional family tree for the bulk of his novels that posited that the sins of the degenerate elders would be visited on the children, thus the engineer was fighting against a predisposed tendency towards degeneracy).
Human Desire was the tale of another respectable man lured onto a bad path by a wicked woman. Tellingly, both of the Hollywood films cast actresses far more mature than their counterparts in the original versions. The women in the French versions come across as inexperienced and/or frantic due to not having the resources to cope with their circumstances in any better way than the courses they pursue.
The women in the Hollywood versions are just bad broads (film noir icons Joan Bennett and Gloria Grahame doing their usual expert noir tart numbers replaced the instinctual, ill fated Janie Marese and kittenish, surprisingly intense Simone Simon, who offered what now look to be fresher takes on the roles).
Although Lang had capable leading men with Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street and Glenn Ford in Human Desire, Renior had the remarkable Michel Simon (a wonderful bear of a man with great innate warmth) for La Chienne and Jean Gabin for La Bete Humaine. As will be discussed later, Gabin would be the poster boy for French fatalism.
10. The Threepenny Opera (1931) Directed by G.W. Pabst
This oft-told tale relates the sardonic misadventures of dashing scoundrel MacHeath, aka “Mack the Knife,” who dares to romance Polly Peachum, daughter of “the king of the beggars” and all hell ensues in the most Germanic London underworld ever.
Though the songs are great, and Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya preserves her legendary stage performance as “Pirate Jenny,” the real lure here is the vivid, atmospheric shadow-world Pabst conjured for the film. Honestly, it’s like M set to music (and, needless to say, the songs are far from light or sweet).
11. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)/They Won’t Forget (1937) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Like some plants that will only thrive in the right climate and soil, some Hollywood talents would only do well when working at certain studios. Director/producer Mervyn LeRoy isn’t well remembered today due mostly to the fact that he made many, many bland, glossy films in the house style when he went to MGM in the late 1930s and many more when he returned to a now similarly glossy Warner Brothers in the 1950s and 60s.
However, there was a time in the early to mid-1930s when he worked at Warner Brothers, then the most socially conscious of studios, with excellent results. 1930’s Little Caesar has already been cited but he created two other skillful films that must be film noir forerunners.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and They Won’t Forget fall into the category of “social problem “pictures and Warners was one of the few studios that would admit the U.S had lots of social problems. In the first film, a distinguished World War I vet returns home to a country that has no place for him. He sets out wandering the country, finding one harsh response after another, until, due largely to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he gets sentenced to a hellish southern penal institution.
This is not the end, though. He then escapes, returns to custody after being promised a pardon, which is then reneged upon, and escapes again, to end up in a another hellish, eternal limbo with stealing his only means of survival. In the latter film, a lovely young woman is raped and murdered in a small southern town.
On the flimsiest of pretexts, the beleaguered authorities arrest a man whose only crime is being a newcomer to the area. Local politicians inflame the situation for their own ends and vigilante justice ensues. Both films are remarkable for pulling no punches (the end of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is still a shocker and worthy of any real film noir).
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ( succeeded at the box office but They Won’t Forget, the better of the films, flopped and it received no attention and is hard to find to this day. Though later film noir wouldn’t address social problems in so direct a manner, it would use the social ills of the day as props to address the anguish which many a film noir character would experience. These gutsy films are only a hair removed from that.
12. The Informer (1935) Directed by John Ford
John Ford may well have been Hollywood’s greatest directorial talent. His forms of expression, though, were his unforgettable westerns and the often sentimental, but adroit, dramas concerning the Irish homeland of his forbearers. Though he would never direct a true film noir his much acclaimed, but now somewhat forgotten, drama of Ireland during the “troubles” would be a big influence on the look and, to a degree, feeling of film noir.
No one wanted to let the director create a film version of Irish author Liam O’Flaherty’s novel. The story is of a hulking, dense Dublin dweller who, for reasons he doesn’t even fully understand himself, sells out a desperate fugitive comrade in the IRA to the hated black and tans. He then becomes a hunted man himself, only hunted now by his own people.
Ford doesn’t alter the tough incidents of the novel but he does add an admittedly sentimental layer to the proceedings (for example, the ending of the film comes directly from the novel but the feeling Ford infuses into the scene causes it to come across quite differently).
Though the plot could easily be noir, that is not the most influential aspect of this film. RKO-Radio reluctantly agreed to let Ford make the film at that studio but RKO, never more than a few bucks ahead in the best of times, gave him a paltry budget and shabby, bare sets.
Ford was always mindful of the look of his films and found a perfect solution. The lighting in the parts of Dublin in which the plot is set would naturally be low and what if one of thick fogs associated with the British Isles rolled into town on the night in which the plot takes place? The result is an almost expressionistically stylized film from the studio which would contribute more to the noir look than any other in Hollywood. Doubtless few craftsmen at the studio had forgotten this once famous film.
13. Pepe Le Moko (1937) Directed by Julien Duvivier/Algiers (1938) Directed by John Cromwell
France surely knew that it was somewhere near the top of the German wish list concerning annexation as the 1930s entered its second half. A feeling of resigned sadness sprang up in many quarters which birthed a school of film called “French fatalism.”
In its films, the main character or characters are basically decent sorts who took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and are now in desolate circumstances. The characters almost always find what looks to be one last chance for redemption, mostly to have it all fall apart or float away , with usually disastrous consequences.
No one embodied these themes better than actor Jean Gabin. Handsome and magnetic, Gabin also possessed a bittersweet poetic streak that served him well when playing characters who dream of a better life but accept their sad fates like men (he was to French Fatalism what Humphrey Bogart would be to film noir).
One of his best performances and one of the best examples of this school is Pepe Le Moko. Supposedly based upon a true story, Pepe was once a big wheel gangster in Paris. Now on the run, he has found refuge in the complex underworld of the Casbah section of exotic Algiers , then a French colony. The police easily find him but they can’t hope to arrest him and get him out of the rough section of the city with their lives intact.
However, a certain woman from France arrives and her beauty stirs Pepe’s feelings for all he has left behind and is missing from life. He will try to regain it all with the woman but tragedy ensues. The original is a deep, heartfelt meditation on loss and the hope of redemption. It is clear that the woman is as much a symbol to Pepe and the viewer as she is a real character.
This is not so much true of Pepe Le Moko’s Hollywood remake of only one year later, Algiers (foreign films were rarely imported to the U.S in the 1930s) This slavish redo is so close that it literally borrows footage from the original in many places. Like most imitations, it is a hollow version of the real thing. Still, it was the bridge that started to bring the French Fatalist school into Hollywood.
14. Fury (1936)/You Only Live Once (1937) Directed by Fritz Lang
After fleeing Germany, Lang came to Hollywood. The reception was…just OK. The kind of films he wanted to make the studios didn’t want to make. This he found out the hard way when MGM, which acquired his services more out of a desire to annex a little continental prestige than anything else, banned him for the length of studio kingpin Louis B Mayer’s tenure when he presented them with one of his best films, Fury.
Inspired by the same infamous early Twentieth Century incident which would provide the impetus for They Won’t Forget a year later, Fury is a no-holds-barred look at mob justice (a big problem in the U.S. in the early half of the century) but with a different take on it than the later film. In Lang’s film, Spencer Tracy, standard bearer for normalcy, is traveling back to his home when he chances to stop off in a small, rural town just as a heinous crime has been committed.
On no more evidence than that he is arrested. The volatile townspeople decide they can’t wait for justice and set the jail on fire in order to burn the man to death. He escapes both the fire and the crowd’s notice but now the man is bitter and twisted and wants to mete out justice of his own. Except for a clumsily tack-on “happy” last shot, Fury doesn’t let up and shows an ugly side of the American character, one familiar to fans of film noir.
Equally familiar is Fury’s superb follow-up, You Only Live Once. Here, ex-con Henry Fonda wants to go straight for the love of nice girl Sylvia Sidney (also the female lead in Fury). Alas, the fates aren’t with him, and after a few bad turns he’s re-arrested for a crime he may or may not have committed.
When his faithful wife tries to help him break out of prison, things go horribly wrong and the two must flee into a shadowy half-world while the papers falsely report the pair living in luxury on the proceeds of crimes they supposedly committed. The two have a deep down feeling that it can all end only one way…
Not compromised by independent producer Walter Wanger, You Only Live Once must surely be the first cinematic rendition of the Bonnie and Clyde story, which film noir would embrace with such memorable entries as 1947’s They Live by Night and 1949’s Gun Crazy. However, Lang got there first with another of his best films.