The Criterion Shelf: Fox Noir

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The genre of film noir got underway at the beginning of the forties, inspired as it was by the dark perspectives brought on by World War II. Twentieth Century-Fox joined every other studio in capitalizing on their popularity almost immediately with the release of their first entry, I Wake Up Screaming in 1941. Talking about film noir tends to bring our minds to popular Warner Bros. classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, tales of Los Angeles detectives and double-crossing blondes, but Fox had its own spin on noir that Criterion rightfully highlights in a collection meant to help us come down from spooky Halloween treats and enjoy a grim Noirvember.

Film critic Imogen Sara Smith hosts an introduction to this collection that is required viewing for anyone looking to explore it. She points out that, unlike the primarily west-coast films best associated with noir that take place in grimy underworlds, Fox’s films presented the social binary of upper class milieus brimming over with people obsessed with fame and image. Most of them are set in New York City with titles that evoke thoughts of grimy urbanity (Panic in the Streets, Night and the City).  Hangover Square is a rare treat, a noir combined with a prestige period piece, but when the streets are lit by gaslamps, there are even more shadows to be enjoyed. Moreover, a great deal of the studio’s output frequently folded the concerns of the Social Problem movie into noir plots:  Where the Sidewalk Ends questions the wisdom of police authority, No Way Out and Elia Kazan’s Panic are both woefully relevant today and tell us how much class warfare is at the heart of issues of racism and public health, while Somewhere in the Night uses a soldier’s battlefield amnesia in the service of a juicy mystery plot.

For Smith, a great deal of this more pensive style of noir storytelling has to do with the filmmakers themselves, who either came from a theatrical background (Otto Preminger, John Brahm, Kazan) or began as screenwriters before turning to directing their own scripts (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Samuel Fuller, Nunnally Johnson). Jules Dassin made some marvellously dark films in the post-war period. His view of America was inspired by his own wrangling with the powers that be, finishing Night and the City in England before being exiled to Europe during the Blacklist. Samuel Fuller’s response in Pickup On South Street is to fill a plot about American patriots fighting communism with Americans who don’t actually know what communism is.

Given that the Fox Noir collection is devoted to one genre, there might be concern that it’s the same movie over and over again, but there is actually rich variety in these selections, containing as it does some undeniable textbook entries (Preminger’s Laura, a film that still gleams) as well as Technicolor efforts (Niagara, Black Widow) that find darkness in the plush hues of Marilyn Monroe’s blond hair and a series of gorgeous New York apartments. At the heart of all these movies, though, is the noir obsession with hubris: Widmark does unto others what he eventually does to himself in a number of these films (except when he’s the good doctor saving the world from an epidemic, and is as commanding a good guy as ever he was a villain), Marilyn, Dana Andrews, and the femme fatale of Black Widow create webs in which they only catch themselves. Nightmare Alley, one of the juiciest indulgences in this collection, has Tyrone Power fly too close to the sun before coming back down to Earth. Despite the trappings of the genre seeming to promise an indulgence in immorality, it turns out to be the most morally astute genre of them all.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou, Emma Badame, Marko Djurdjic, Barbara Goslowski and Rachel Ho where noted.

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