Noir Nook: Noirish Beginnings (Part 2)
First impressions, Mama always said, are important.
Our introductions to film noir features aren’t necessarily indisputable predictors of the quality of the picture ahead, but there are certainly those that grab you within the first few minutes and never – to our benefit – let go.
This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at more noirs whose distinctive beginnings accurately telegraph the film’s shadowy sins and devilish delights.
The Big Combo (1955)
This film, which is one of my all-time favorites, centers on the efforts of a tenacious police lieutenant (Cornel Wilde) to bring to justice a local mob boss known only as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) – all the while falling for Brown’s mistress (played by Wilde’s then real-life wife, Jean Wallace). The first thing you’ll notice is the film’s unique jazzy score; it puts you on notice that you’re in for a hot time. As the film begins, we focus on a boxing arena, but we’re not there for the fight. Instead, we’re taken into the bowels of the building, where we see a young woman dressed in a strapless cocktail dress and heels, running from two men (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman). Before long, the men catch up to her, but she promises to return to her seat if they’ll unhand her and allow her to return on her own. They agree, and she expresses her gratitude by smacking one of the men square in the face with her sequined evening bag.
They Live By Night (1946)
Yet another of my favorites, They Live By Night has one of the most unusual openings that I’ve ever seen. It shows stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, filmed in close-up, kissing and cuddling before what appears to be a flickering fireplace, accompanied by a sweet and innocent score. The captions inform us: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in. To tell their story …” The couple then abruptly stops kissing and looks with surprise-slash-concern-slash fear toward the camera, and the film’s title fills the screen, along with a radical shift in the music. Beneath the credits, we see a car populated by four men, recklessly moving along highways and through unpaved fields, until it blows a tire, pulls off the road, and the action begins.
Shield for Murder (1954)
Picture this: Edmond O’Brien is purposefully walking down a dark, secluded street, when he pauses in a doorway, observing a man nearby who is completing some sort of financial exchange with two gents in a parked car. O’Brien withdraws a gun from his pocket, fits it with a silencer, then throws a casual arm around the other man’s shoulders after the car pulls away. As O’Brien leads him toward an alley, the man’s eyes widen with fear, and with good reason – seconds later, O’Brien shoots the man in the back, removes a thick envelope from his coat, and then shouts, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” before firing his gun into the air. What O’Brien doesn’t know – but we do – is that this entire chain of events has been witnessed by a man living in an apartment above the alley. And it’s not until this point that the opening credits begin to roll.
Private Hell 36 (1954)
It’s nighttime in the big city. The camera focuses on a high-rise office building, then goes inside to show the lobby elevator. When the doors open, we see a man dressed as an elevator operator carrying a leather satchel. When he exits, we see something else – a dead man on the elevator floor. The man runs to a nearby getaway car, which disappears into the night as a voiceover intones: “The crime: murder. The motive: money. Three hundred thousand dollars, which never reached the bank’s night depository. The place: New York City. The killer and the money vanished, a slick, cold-blooded job.” We’re further informed by the narrator that the case came alive again a year later, in Los Angeles, where off-duty Det. Sgt. Calvin Bruner (Steve Cochran) spied some suspicious activity in a downtown pharmacy. As Bruner begins to investigate, the opening credits roll, and once he’s inside the building, he commences to participate in one of the best fight scenes I’ve seen since the climax of Red River (1948).
The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950)
Once again, we start at night. This time, we’re shown a car driving down a deserted highway. When it comes to a halt beside a sand dune, we see that there are three men in the front seat, but only two of them are breathing. These two remove the third man from the car and dump him unceremoniously over the edge of the dune. The next morning, the body is discovered by a couple of surveyors, who contact the local police. “Well,” says one of the cops when he recognizes the dead man, “they finally got him.”
Incidentally, each of these first-rate noirs can be found on YouTube. Tune in and see what happens after these attention-grabbing openers.
You won’t be sorry.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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