Wednesday, July 07, 2010

It’s Time to Mann Up

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to The Rap Sheet Brendan M. Leonard, a writer living in New York City, whose work has previously been published in His favorite films noir include Out of the Past, Nightmare Alley, and Bunny Lake Is Missing.)

For fans of film noir, there’s no better place in New York City than Film Forum, the arthouse theater that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Alongside its recent Akira Kurosawa and Victor Fleming retrospectives, the theater has also highlighted lesser-known pictures in the film noir genre. I found myself blown away by the psychosexual and haunting The Prowler (a 1951 movie that is reportedly author James Ellroy’s favorite), and Nightfall, a quick-witted 1957 chase film from Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) that makes for better summer viewing than most of what’s showing in theaters right now. The Prowler is not yet available on DVD, but Nightfall was just released in that format by Columbia Pictures. (Film Forum also ran the restored 50th-anniversary print of Breathless, which is not so much a film noir as it is a movie by and about people who have seen every film noir in history.)

Film Forum continues its streak of greatness with its Anthony Mann retrospective, playing through next Tuesday, July 13. The films by Mann (shown above) can be divided into three periods: his early work, which consisted largely of B-pictures and film noirs; his Westerns, known for adding rich subtext and themes to the genre; and his epics, including films such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Mann is a director who understands obsession, one of the touchstones of classic noir. Whether it’s Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’ 73 (1950) or Dennis O’Keefe in Raw Deal (1948), Mann’s protagonists seem to be driven, brutal men. What impresses me most about Mann’s work, though, is the way he illustrates those characters’ propulsion, as well as the “crushing inevitability of fate” (a very familiar noir theme), through his cinematography. Raw Deal, supported by a chilling performance from Raymond Burr, is filled with such shots. The landscapes of other pictures such as Winchester or The Naked Spur (1953) are gorgeous, sweeping, but they’re also overwhelming and oppressive--especially when they are viewed on the big screen.

Watching these pictures for the first time, as I have, illustrates just how influential a director Mann was. Raw Deal contains a scene that filmmaker Fritz Lang would later borrow for The Big Heat (1953). Winchester ’73 is a proto-Searchers that might be as good as director John Ford’s 1956 classic. T-Men (1947) stands alongside The Naked City (1948) as an early police procedural whose grandchildren are the CSI and Law & Order TV franchises. Mann also directed He Walked by Night (1948), which features a young Jack Webb of Dragnet fame--and the ’50s run of NBC-TV’s Dragnet owes a huge debt to directors like Mann and Naked City’s Jules Dassin.

Film Forum has already screened, during its retrospective, a large chunk of Mann’s Westerns and two of his noirs. But there’s still a chance for you to catch the rest. Many of these films are double features, which is quite the bargain in New York’s $13-a-ticket world. You can find a full listing at, but here are some highlights of what’s coming up:

The Tall Target (July 9 and 10)--A “period noir” about two men who team up to stop Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Tall target, get it?

Desperate (July 11)--Another villainous performance from Raymond Burr of Raw Deal and Rear Window fame.

He Walked by Night (July 11)--Although uncredited, Mann shot the major scenes for this procedural about a cop killer.

The Great Flamarion (July 12)--Flashbacks and backstage drama abound in this tale of murder at a Mexico City vaudeville joint.

Strange Impersonation (July 12)-- Brenda Marshall stars as a girl whose plastic surgery makes her look like a murder victim ... whose death she is then accused of engineering. That bizarre premise makes this film a can’t-miss.

Reign of Terror (July 14)--“Period noir,” part II, this time set in Robespierre’s 18th-century France.

Side Street (July 14)--The screw-ups of a disgruntled postal worker lead to what is, by all accounts, an epic chase through lower Manhattan.


Jared said...

Allow me to add a further recommendation for DESPERATE, where Steve Brodie is forced on the run with his pregnant wife and into a life of crime. It features a great performance by Raymond Burr, a fist coming straight at the camera, and perhaps the first use of the swinging overhead lamp.

Anonymous said...

'The Tall Target' is great fun too, one of the great train thrillers. There's a typically assured performance from Dick Powell as the 'tec trying to save Lincoln's life and a nice role for Adolphe Menjou. Best of all, Will Geer as the train conductor! Geer, of course, did an entertaining turn as Wyatt Earp in 'Winchester 73'...