Noir City DC 2016—Art of Darkness III

Now, we come to the end, to the bad, to the unredeemable. There’s no getting around the fact that these films are flops. Some weren’t then, but definitely are now. Others were unmitigated disasters. But as John Floyd once wrote, reading—watching—the bad teaches you want doesn’t work and inspires you to do better. I may never make a movie, but I’d like to think I create better characters and stories than these pictures.


Foster Hirsch introduced this movie with Joan Crawford and John Garfield. She crews up the scenery as a strong woman who manipulates a weak man. She derails him. It looks a lot like noir, for here’s a splendid shot through a large brandy snifter that suggests an alcoholic haze. It has a noir theme—“One way or another, you pay for who you are”. This movie, however, is really overwrought melodrama. An old school women’s picture, Foster Hirsch called it. It was designed to teach women to like suffering. The more the heroine suffered, the better the female audience felt about itself. 

It has some snappy dialogue, most of it delivered by Oscar Levant as Sid Jeffers. He’s worth watching, but I can’t stand Joan Crawford in this. She’s wince-worthy. John Garfield is wooden and overrated. He’s utterly unbelievable as a virtuoso violinist. He can’t even hold the violin properly. (Now, the music is good; after all, Issac Stern provided all the violin solos.)


Not even Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck can save this piece of psychological melodrama. They are both miscast. They have to rein so much of themselves in to create thin, unbelievable characters. The plot tries to be Gothick and falls on its face, except for the girl, Humphrey Bogart’s daughter, who has some of the most preternaturally adult dialogue for a tween. She’s genuinely creepy, largely because she’s quietly observant and correct about what’s going to happen. Nigel Bruce as the dotty doctor (typecasting anyone?) and the acerbic housekeeper are cliched comic relief at best; at worst, they make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat.

Overwrought is a word I’ve used a lot to describe these things, and it applies here to this adaptation from a stage play. What might’ve worked on stage, because of the audience’s imaginations, fails to take flight here. 


This is an Italian made, British acted (Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Peter Bowles) film with a killer jazz soundtrack provided by Herbie Hancock. It is very sexy, very sensual, and it captures the sense of the sexual revolution and the swinging 60s very well.

It makes no bloody sense.

Is it existential noir? Hard to believe. The French were making existential noir back the late 30s. Most of Jean Gabin’s early films fit that bill and they made sense. BLOW UP appears made up of random, contradictory dialogue and the throwing of selves about the photographer’s studio. It’s strong on the voyeurism—lonely outsiders looking in on things they don’t understand. Reflections, standard in noir, aren’t even in mirrors, just window glass.

The hot, trendy photographer played by David Hemmings, is personally a pig, but professionally he’s a genius trying to put an art book together about working class in Britain. The voyeurism picks up when he starts taking pictures of a couple in a public park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) catches him taking snaps and demands his film. Why? Who is she? Who is the guy she’s with?  These questions aren’t really answered, but they become more important when the photographer blows up the pictures only to discover a gun and a body. The body is the guy the woman was with. Who killed the guy in the park? Is he even dead? There are no answers because these questions aren’t important. The closing shot is of the photographer standing in open green space. Lonely, isolated, alienated, unconnected.


There is no question this is a horrible movie, the absolute worst of the lot. There was no redeeming quality to this film. Another woman and I tried to make sense of this thing from the ladies’ room of the AFI Silver Theater to the street. Not a chance. We couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. Is it a sendup of bad art? Is it mad, bad, and dangerous noir meets the art world? Who knows? More to the point, Who cares?

On one level it’s a ballet story, based on a 1911 one act ballet, complete with dancing visions. (The dancing’s no good). On another level, it’s about artistic struggles. But its shifting tone defeats both ideas. Adding to the general horridness was outrageous, flamboyant dialogue delivered in a wooden style. Only Dame Judith Anderson and Michael Chekov excepted. There’s a enough knowing slyness on their parts to make you wonder if they aren’t sending it up.

This was Ben Hecht’s last picture—small wonder given both the bomb that this was at the box office and his cynical view of the movie, punctured as it as with artistic pretension. 

These pictures are proof that not everything in a genre is good or even middling. Noir had its dogs, too.

Copyright KG Whitehurst