A Kid’s View of Film Noir

A Movie Memoir

1. The Hand is Quicker than the Eye
Growing up in the 1940s had distinct advantages for a child whose curiosity about the secrets and sins of the adult world would lead to a lifelong interest in reading detective stories and, ultimately, in writing them.  Set in and out of the California Delta and featuring a wisecracking private eye known only as the Delta Detective, or the DD, those stories have been appearing in Soundings Magazine since 2017.
The genesis of my interest in crime and punishment began at a tender age in my San Francisco home where Florence, my stay-at-home mom, ran a tight ship, completing whatever tasks were reserved for a given day—baking, cooking, housecleaning, laundry, ironing and tidying up her little boy.
Once or twice a week, when her household duties were done, mom treated herself to a movie. She took me with her on such occasions because I was a well-behaved little one and because money otherwise spent on a sitter could be invested instead in theater tickets, popcorn, candy and refreshments. 
We had no television, cell phones, Tik Tok or digital distractions in those days. Going to an ornate movie palace or cozy neighborhood theater was our idea of adventure. The palaces, such as the Fox and the Alexandria, were spacious, carpeted, chandeliered, artfully designed and equipped with a corps of uniformed ushers whose flashlights saw you safely to your seat or took you out of your seat if your behavior crossed the line of acceptable behavior.  
For Florence, moviegoing was a chance to reconnect with such favorites as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who were not only screen icons, but role models for her of female identity, self-determination and self-fulfillment. There were also glamour boys like Gregory Peck, tough cookies like Bogart and Mitchum, crafty newcomers like Kirk Douglas or hunks like Burt Lancaster. It was the golden age of Hollywood and mom reveled in its treasures.
The romances and comedies of the day held little or no interest for me, often putting me to sleep in my movie seat. The ones that kept me awake and alert were those that portrayed the wayward side of human nature, typically involving a game of life and death played between a ruthless criminal and a determined cop or wily private eye. According to the rules of the day, evil was never allowed to triumph.
As mom’s little movie pal, I was permitted to watch films today ranked as film noir classics. They included “The Big Sleep,” “Out of the Past,” “Leave Her to Heaven,” “The Lady in the Lake,” “Key Largo,” “The Treasure of Sierra Made,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice”(about which I’ll have far more to say in part two of this memoir).
Film noir (as the French designated the best crime films of the era) was beyond my comprehension, but they gave me a clue that all was not right in the adult world. This feeling was reinforced when Florence would act as film censor, vigorously waving her hand in front of my eyes to block my seeing anything she considered improper. Movies of the day had their own rules of censorship, given the strictures of the Hays Office. Even so, an occasional act of violence and something more than mere flirtation brought mom’s fluttering hand to the rescue of her unworldly innocent.  
Film industry censorship ensured we would not hear a word of profanity, see more than a bloodless killing, or be teased by more than a hint of sensuality. Sex was out of the question. Married couples were required to sleep in separate beds. Even so, something on the screen that escaped mom’s frisky response was enough to get my curiosity cooking. I began to wonder. Was the adult world a battlefield of unimaginable evil or were Hollywood screenwriters exaggerating to spice up the script? 

Mom’s hand never worked more vigorously than at the beginning of “Sunset Boulevard”, a movie about Hollywood for which she had great expectations because it brought back Gloria Swanson, a celebrity she had idolized in the 1920s when she was living in Los Angeles and keeping track of its stars. “Sunset Boulevard” seemed to promise to return her to that era. In its opening, however, the peace of a placid evening was suddenly shattered by former film star Norma Desmond (Swanson), emerging from her Sunset Boulevard mansion with a pistol aimed at her departing lover (William Holden), a talentless screenwriter trying to escape his shackles as Norma’s kept man. 
What ensued  was a shocker. The luckless escapee took bullets in the back, staggered and plunged face-down in madam’s swimming pool. Mom was beside herself, seeing her former idol commit murder and fearing her son might witness it. Fortunately for me, Holden’s deceased character could be heard speaking, informing us that he was about to give us the full story of why his Hollywood career had ended face down in a Hollywood pool. 
Swanson portrayed the delusional murderess with such impact that more than a few critics wondered why the Best Actress Oscar went to someone else. At the climax of the film, Norma Desmond was lost in fantasyland. She came slowly down the long staircase of her mansion, imagining herself acting in the ultimate movie of her career. An army of reporters, photographers and police awaited her. All of us in the audience waited nervously for her arrest, only to hear her proclaim the film’s unexpected closing line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup!”
She got that and more. Her demented face filled the screen as the film came to an end. Mom used two hands to block my perception of the face, as if doing so might erase the entire film from my memory. To her, “Sunset Boulevard” was a travesty. She had come to the movie hoping to see the Jazz Age celebrity renew her glamour—-and something of mom’s own youth. Mom had no more idea of what was awaiting her than did the luckless screenwriter afloat in Norma’s pool.  
“Why would she want to make a movie like that?” mom asked in a tone of bewilderment, disappointment  and disenchantment when we reached the theater lobby. “Why would she want to play a crazy lady?” 
She saw “Sunset Boulevard” as a waste of Gloria’s talent and Florence’s time. I had no clue what had happened, but I made a silent promise to see the film again when I was old enough to understand it and provide mom some sort of answer to the mystery.  And when that happened, many years later when I was reviewing movies for a newspaper, I gave mom my theory of why Swanson had chosen to undertake the role.
“The way I see it, she wanted the one thing she needed to make her career complete.”
“What was it?” mom asked.
“An Oscar for a role so bizarre no one imagined she could do it.” 
Needless to say, mom was not amused.
2.  What’s in Your Bag, Postman?
The difference between Hollywood then and later can be viewed in the two versions (1946 and 1981) of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”.
Despite mom’s hand-waving, the 1946 film made such an impression on me that I kept asking questions about it. Mom merely shrugged or shook her head, leaving me stuck in a mystery that she hoped I would forget. I never did.
The 1946 version offers modern movie fans a chance to see what novelist James M. Cain’s hardboiled classic looked like 35 years before Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange gave it the steamy treatment in a R-rated remake. The original continues to interest film buffs who wonder why the tame version should be superior to the uncensored one. To solve that mystery, watch how well tough John Garfield and sultry Lana Turner play their cards within the limitations and restraints of the era’s censorship. The two leave little doubt about the underlying tension and passion at the core of Cain’s plot. They give their roles a human dimension and make us dread the punishment that we suspect is waiting to reward their sins.. 
The movie opens with the arrival of Frank Chambers (Garfield) at Twin Oaks, a roadside cafe and gas station. The hungry, rootless drifter is going nowhere, yet optimistic that something will turn up to change his luck. Something does. Nick, the kindly old owner of Twin Oaks, takes pity on Frank, giving him  a free meal and a job at the service station. Frank can’t resist that or the attractiveness of Nick’s young wife, Cora (Turner). A love affair ensues that ultimately will make Frank regret he didn’t keep going when he saw the Twin Oaks sign.
One of the most interesting elements of the 1946 film is the way it makes Frank and Cora likable despite their illicit passion and criminal intent.   Garfield is perfectly in character as the tough, scrappy Dead End Kid. He claims our sympathy because we sense that he is one of life’s underdogs, a guy whose cleverest plans will never be smart enough.
Turner, who is dressed throughout the film in impeccable white, plays Cora as a woman who is alternately ambitious and helpless, confident yet fearful of what her ambition may cost. She and Frank have vague ideas about enjoying the American Dream, but their pursuit of it soon turns the dream into the kind of nightmare beloved by noir filmmakers of the Forties (another classic example of that is “Double Indemnity,” the script of which was authored by Los Angeles mystery master Raymond Chandler).
When Frank and Cora plot the perfect crime, we sense that perfection is the last thing the couple will ever be able to achieve. And yet, we find ourselves on their side as they try to find a way to outsmart a suspicious D.A., an eager prosecutor and a crafty blackmailer. Even if they manage to escape that trio, will fate have an unexpected surprise for them?  
Echoing the Cain novel, the film’s climax is supremely ironic. When we see where Frank is telling his tale, we suddenly understand why he feels compelled to tell it (this crucial scene is omitted in the Nicholson remake).
By contrast, the 1981 version doesn’t work because it revels in its R rating and reduces Frank and Cora to unsavory outcasts. The earlier film is also of interest because Turner, a Forties glamour gal, grows in her role and becomes a plausible character, pairing more and more effectively with Garfield. Is her Cora a wronged woman or a woman choosing the wrong way to a better life? This far less explicit version far outclasses its seamy remake which begins with the sizzle of sensationalism, but loses its charge and intensity along the way. The sizzle turns to fizzle as the film winds down without the suspenseful pace kept intact in the Turner-Garfield version. 
Despite feverish couplings that range from kitchen tables to car wrecks, Nicholson and Lange manage to make their doomed lovers dull. Acting in a far more controlled vehicle, Turner and Garfield give Cora and Frank a life of their own, helping us connect with the characters, understand their inner impulses and fear for their souls.     
It is sometimes said that Turner and Garfield are “too nice” to be as nasty as they are supposed to be. The funny thing is that this contradiction is exactly what makes the movie work. The 1946 “Postman” still delivers the mail. The 1981 remake is a dead letter.    
One can only imagine what would be depicted  if a new, 21st-century version of “Postman” was made in today’s anything-goes Hollywood. 
Let’s take a wild guess. Cora murders Frank and seduces the postman. And then? 
Well, as my relatives in Buenos Aires might say, “El cartero los recogera todo!” 
The letter carrier will do the rest.

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  • Great anecdotes about your childhood and explaining how your mom tried to block you from the silver screen. Maybe doing that increased your interest in film noir films! It made you want to get to the bottom of the movies and figure out what makes them scandalous. I also enjoyed your analysis of both Postman Always Rings Twice and how the films compare. I belive the 1946 version is the best.

  • Aw the glamorous movie days! How the internet and 2020 pandemic have changed everything media wise. I guess it has been 80 years of technology too. Great reading about your young life and movie days growing up with Florence❣️📷

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