“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” (Raymond Chandler)
When you think of Film Noir do you think of its Merriam-Webster’s definition as being, “a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music.” Chandler’s above quote also conveys the impression that it is in the big dark city at night with danger at every turn. Ah, but would you consider it in a Western? How about a social drama or in a certain profession? Would you even consider it in color or just black and white only? In this month’s post I’ll discuss a sub-section of Film Noir that many may not realize actually exists. That sub-section is something called Rural or Southern or best of all, “Country Noir”.
This term was originally coined by the writer Daniel Woodrell who writes crime novels based in the Missouri Ozarks. My interpretation of it is that there are movies (or TV/cable/mixed media/etc.) that do not take place in the “big” city but are in the country and that noir can easily fit in there too. Sometimes country noir films can take place in both such as “The Killers” (1946) and “A History of Violence” (2005) for example. However, two others that I would like to mention in further detail are the movies “Out of the Past” (1947) and “On Dangerous Ground” (1951).
“Out of the Past” starts out in the small country town of Bridgeport, CA where Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), a gas station owner, is contentedly living his life. Unfortunately, he is drawn back into his previous life as a big city private investigator by Whit (Kurt Douglas), a ruthless and crooked businessman who he once worked for. Back then, Whit wanted him to find his girlfriend Kathie (Jane Greer) who shot him and stole his money. Now he wants Jeff again for another job. The only problem is that Kathie is back with Whit now and that Jeff (who originally fell for Kathie) was double crossed by her previously. In playing Kathie, Greer (an underrated actress) gave the performance of her life as one of the wickedest femme fatales in film history. The ensuing twisty tale goes from big city intrigue all the way back to Jeff’s false safe haven of Bridgeport where he ultimately has to face his past misdeeds. In “Out of the Past”, neither country nor city offer any escape from one’s past!
For “On Dangerous Ground”, the contrast from city to country is even more pronounced. Most of the first half of the film takes place in an unnamed big city where police detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan in one of the finest performances of his career) is one step away from being kicked off the force due to his brutality and rage from years of being on the job. As a last chance he is sent up-state to join in a manhunt for the killer of a young girl along with the murdered girl’s rage filled father (Ward Bond). The second half of the film has the two of them involved in a wild car chase through the snow covered mountains after the killer. The ensuing pursuit in car and later, on foot, ultimately leads them to an isolated house where a gentle blind girl (Ida Lupino) lives alone with maybe something to hide about the fugitive. Wilson slowly finds himself starting to change due to Lupino’s quiet vulnerability and the slow attraction between them vs. the harshness of the winter outdoors and the angry Bond. “On Dangerous Ground” beautifully captures the contrasts between city and country thanks to brilliant black and white cinematography by George E. Diskant accompanied by a powerful and moving film score by the great Bernard Herrmann.
I mentioned earlier that Noir could also apply to a Western and that a Western could certainly qualify as being a Country Noir. In the 1940s film noir was everywhere and by the late forties a number of Western novels by famed Western writer Luke Short were adapted into country noir films such as “Ramrod” (1947), “Blood on the Moon” (1948), and “Station West” (1948). However, maybe the best of the late forties Western noir films, although it was not a story by Short, was the Western “Pursued” (1947).
“Pursued” featured Robert Mitchum (Yep, him again) as Jeb (not Jeff) Rand who, as a young child, is the lone survivor from the slaughter of his whole family. Traumatised, he remembers nothing of the massacre except for nightmares with bright flashes and vague images. He is raised as her own son by a widow (Judith Anderson) along with her two young children. However, he grows up feeling alienated with the reason for his family’s demise made clear once he becomes an adult and his life is threatened again. The shadowy black and white cinematography by the great James Wong Howe along with expert direction by Raoul Walsh made the psychological suspense in this movie compelling despite an early reveal of why Jeb’s family was killed and a half-hearted dud of an ending.
Country noir could also apply to not necessarily a crime film but rather to a straight drama. Famed director Billy Wilder did a number of Noir-themed films like the straight crime film “Double Indemnity” (1944) and hard dramas with Noir overtones like “Lost Weekend” (1945) and “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). However, he did one Noir-themed film that definitely could be considered Country Noir. That movie (and maybe the darkest movie he ever made) was “Ace in the Hole” (1951).
“Ace in the Hole” starred Kurt Douglas (Yep, him again too) as Chuck Tatum, a disgraced former big time reporter reduced to working for a small New Mexico newspaper after his car breaks down. However, his luck changes when, by accident, he discovers that a local man is trapped in a cave collapse while hunting for Indian artifacts. Sensing a chance to use this as his return ticket to the big time Tatum manipulates everything and everyone and even deliberately delays the trapped man’s rescue so as to milk the publicity for all of the recognition and money options that he can. Of course, in the end, things do not work out as planned! “Ace in the Hole” captured a sleazy and sensationalistic aspect of the press in the character of Tatum and how he could distort and manipulate facts to suit his own goals. It was ahead of its time. The Noir aspects of the film (the dark shadowy scenes in the cave with the trapped man), the morally and ethically dubious individuals, the overall cynicism throughout the entire film along with select distorted camera angles which ultimately result in a shocking last scene climax make this film a cold blooded classic. Unfortunately, it was also a critical and a commercial failure (The Dummies!)
Country noir, was every bit as effective in color as in black and white. An early fine example, was the movie “Inferno” (1953) which starred Robert Ryan (I know! I know! Him again too!) as Donald Carson, a rich industrialist who, after breaking his leg, is left to die in the Mojave Desert by his cheating wife (Rhonda Fleming, beautiful even if she couldn’t act) and her lover. The Noir standards of the double dealing femme fatale (Fleming) along with her malevolent lover is not hindered by most of the film taking place in the bright desert, nor by the added early 1950s stunt of shooting the film in wide screen technicolor 3-D with stereophonic sound. Once again, Ryan gives a compelling performance as a not so nice rich man who, in voiceover, changes into a sympathetic character as he fights to survive in the desert.
A number of excellent modern and more recent country noir films in color have been done since then. Some of them are “One False Move” (1992) which takes place in Star City, Arkansas; “Hell or High Water” (2016) which takes place in West Texas; “Wind River” (2017) which takes place at the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming; and lastly, and the one I want to especially mention, “Winter Bone” (2010) which takes place in the Missouri Ozarks. “Winter Bone” was based on the novel by the aforementioned Daniel Woodrell and starred Jennifer Lawrence (in a star making performance) as Ree Dolly, the 17 year old daughter of her missing father, Jessup, who was out on bail after being busted for manufacturing meth. The family is destitute due to her mom being mentally ill and borderline catatonic while she also has to take care of her two younger 12 year old and 6 year old siblings. The final indignity is that her family will lose their home if her missing dad doesn’t appear for his court date since their home was put up as part of his bail bond.
Director Debra Granik aided by top notch cinematography from Michael McDonough captures true hardcore backwoods poverty and the desperation of individuals trying to just survive as a breathing ground for criminality and despair. Although uneducated, Lawrence’s desperate Ree, is tough, stubborn, and resilient. Her performance is equally matched by John Hawkes as her scary meth-addicted uncle Teardrop who is, at first, brutally cruel to her but later becomes her ally while showing surprising compassion and deadly earnestness in finding out the whereabouts of his missing brother. Although the movie is in color, the dark woods, shadowy bars, homes, barns, and ponds with dark figures lurking raises the suspense and unease found in the very best of black and white Noir.
Well that sums up my post on Country Noir! I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that the next time you are staying at a local country roadside motel you…
(1) Lock your door and…
(2) Don’t watch “Psycho!”