Vague Visages Writers’ Room: Favorite Film Noir Moments

In the Vague Visages Writers’ Room on Facebook, freelancers were asked to comment about their favorite film noir moments in celebration of #Noirvember.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems), The Set-Up (1959)

Though it is not the most famous noir film, nor even the most famous noir boxing film, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, a 71-minute potboiler that takes place in real time, is a profoundly affecting experience. Its plot is simple: a past-his-prime boxer, “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) are waiting for the night’s fight in a fictional dead end town called Paradise City. Julie wants Stoker to quit, but he sees his former glory just around the corner. He heads to the arena, leaving her ticket behind, but she insists she won’t watch him beaten up by his stronger, younger opponent. Unbeknownst to Stoker, his crooked manager has bet against him, expecting he’ll go down without being told he has to take a dive. When Stoker, possessed by the fighting spirit he used to have, wins the fight, the gangsters who’ve counted on him to go down come looking for him. The most powerful moment in the film, which captures the quintessence of the noir world of the ironically named Paradise City, is when the gangsters corner Stoker in the empty, darkened arena. Stoker is cornered, trying to escape through locked doors, his footsteps echoing in the vacant hall. The gangsters finally catch up to him in the alley outside, where they beat him up and, in one of the most brutal moments in all of noir, smash his right hand with a brick, ending his boxing career forever. Wise follows this scene with Stoker’s pathetic, wounded staggering into the street, as he calls out for Julie. She sees him from the window of their hotel room, dashes downstairs and cradles him in the middle of Paradise City. Her mixed emotions, equal parts vicarious pain at her husband’s shattered hand and flooding relief that he’ll never step into the ring again, are profoundly noir. She’s gotten what she wanted, but Stoker’s future is uncertain. Boxing is all he’s known. Now that it’s over, Stoker may be destined to become another noir character: the man with nothing left to lose.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25), Murder, My Sweet (1944)

At first glance, Murder,My Sweet does not seem to hold up that well in film archives, at least when compared to other Raymond Chandler film adaptions, such as The Big Sleep (1946) and The Long Goodbye (1973). The film lacks the star power of the former, directed by Howard Hawks, and the subversive elements that are present throughout the latter, directed by Robert Altman. However, I contend Murder,My Sweet constitutes a #Noirvember essential because of two elements that it masters better than all other Chandler adaptions: its tone and style. RKO Director Edward Dmytryk and RKO Cinematographer Harry Wild achieve the look and feel that will forever be associated with the film noir genre. The scene that best evidences this is when Dr. Sonderborg drugs Philp Marlowe and he passes out. Wild and Dmytryk skillfully create the visual sensation of being doped out of one’s mind and being sent down a dreamy black hole. First and foremost, they utilize sharp, high contrast black and white lighting, a trick that is now synonymous with the genre. Secondly, Wild and Dmytryk employ claustrophobic, wavy close up camera angles, German expressionism and dream-like elements comparable to a Salvador Dalí painting. Lastly, their most compelling touch is the portrayal of spider webs and spiders when the hypodermic needle is shoved into Marlowe and as the drug takes effect. The spider webs symbolize the feeling of confinement and paranoia that races through Marlowe’s head. This scene typifies the existential fears that run throughout the noir genre. I highly recommend Murder My Sweet (1945) to any film fans that are ready to dip their toes into the rich and vivid world of film noir.

Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton), Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank easily clocks in as one of my favorite films of all time. The story follows Lee Marvin as a laconic criminal named Walker, who carves a path of destruction across the San Francisco Bay Area. His goal: revenge upon the partner who left him for dead following a successful robbery. Director John Boorman’s vision for the story plays like a legit surrealistic, art brut masterpiece. It’s a stark vision of refined excess, a portrait of a person whose moral compass points toward destruction. The moment I remember best is from the chilling finale. I think it might be the very last frames of the movie. Walker has forced the remnants of The Organization he used to work for to gather on Alcatraz to settle scores. Nemeses defeated, he’s offered a way back in. He has become death, and the new guard of The Organization wishes to leverage his capacity to destroy whole worlds. Walker replies by way of silence. The movie ends with his slinking into an atramentous darkness. No society can contain him now. He cannot even return to the dank underbelly of civilization. In true noir fashion, the journey has left him incapable of going back to the normal world. He’s spiritually adrift. There’s no going back. It’s a great moment, but not one that eclipses the greater whole of the film. I only recall it with so much admiration because it’s the cadenza of a monstrous masterpiece. If you’re still waffling about the quality, it’s got a Criterion release and has been mentioned by Edgar Wright as being in the same ballpark as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Out of the Past (1947)

In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Markham aka Jeff Bailey has it all figured out… until he meets Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat in Mexico. As a private investigator, he picks up on small nuances; clues that make him an efficient professional. Through voice-over, he casually details his tracking moves from Mexico City to Acapulco, where he waits for his subject at Cafe La Mar Azul. There’s a classic low-angle noir shot as Jeff walks in, followed by more revealing voice-over: “I used to sit there half asleep with a beer in the darkness — only that music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake.” Booze. Lazy days. Cinema. Jeff gets by the best he can.

“And then I saw her… coming out of the sun.”

This noir moment has everything, only it’s subtle. Kathie, the femme fatale, makes her entrance and puffs away on a cigarette. Jeff, the man with nothing to lose, can see the sunlight, literally and figuratively. But, he’s now trapped and blinded by desire. Mitchum stands up, and the overhead light shines on his face. A strong noir visual. He waits a moment and drops some coins on the table. Noir pacing. Next, Jeff approaches Kathie, and he’s briefly staged above her, still in control, or so it would seem. But Jeff sits down and the power dynamics shift for good. In Out of the Past, it’s the little things that are laced with film noir subtext.