The Criminal Mind

Nick Pinkerton on “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures” at MoMA

Ben Stoloff, By Whose Hand?, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 63 minutes.

IN THE YEARS of its rise to prominence, Columbia Pictures was famous for a couple of things, neither of them having anything to do with crime thrillers. The first was its possession of the most horrible studio chief in Hollywood, Harry Cohn, an ardent admirer of Mussolini and a serviceable noir heavy. The second was the one employee who Cohn needed and hated for needing him, the studio’s superstar director, Frank Capra.

Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single film by Capra among the twenty-five titles that make up the Museum of Modern Art’s “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures” series, which runs for three and a half weeks beginning this Friday. The lady in question is Columbia herself, the torch-bearing female personification of these United States who appears on the studio logo. (That, in this case, most of the films that follow her appearance contain some pretty scurrilous material and an unflattering picture of our national life can be mined for some cheap irony.)

MoMA is screening two samples of Columbia’s output from the early- to mid-1930s, when the studio had successfully clawed its way tooth-and-nail out of Poverty Row. Both are heavily indebted to the classical detective group-of-strangers-gathered-at-an-isolated-location model of storytelling. By Whose Hand? (1932) takes place on a night train to San Francisco, while The Ninth Guest (1934) is confined almost entirely to a queer party in a Deco dream apartment where the gathered company are knocked off one by one. The film is generally credited as the progenitor of the boy-count thriller, predating Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). Proposed alternate title: It Happened One Night.

The ’30s were the decade when Capra put Columbia on the map, but “Lady in the Dark” is squarely centered on the ’40s, the decade that belonged to Margarita Carmen Cansino, reinvented (and anglicized) by the studio as Rita Hayworth. MoMA has Gilda (1946), Hayworth’s most popular teaming with fellow contract player Glenn Ford, and Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by Hayworth’s estranged husband, Orson Welles, who took brattish glee in undoing the studio’s star-making efforts by chopping and dyeing his wife’s famous locks. (She is ravishingly photographed in both films by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who must receive some credit for Lady’s surreal visual effects, including the famous aquarium rendezvous and funhouse climax.)

Charles Vidor, Gilda, 1946, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Gilda (Rita Hayworth).

Alongside Welles we find fellow canonical directors Max Ophuls (1949’s The Reckless Moment) and Nicholas Ray (1950’s In a Lonely Place) in MoMA’s series, but their films, which I trust will live to be projected another day, aren’t necessarily the chief inducement to head for Fifty-Third Street. The program was organized by Joshua Siegel and Dave Kehr, the former New York Times critic who joined MoMA’s curatorial staff in fall of last year, and it’s the first series that shows the fingerprints of carry-me-out-in-a-box auteurist Kehr, who specializes in distinguishing the individual idiosyncrasies of gigging directors who never had high distinction conferred upon them in their lifetimes. When the notes for the series refer to the “crisp impersonality” of Seymour Friedman’s direction of Chinatown at Midnight (1949), for example, this is not meant as a slander. While Capra famously billed himself as The Name Above the Title, here we have names that were happy enough to appear on the paycheck, though in some cases talent exceeds reputation.

“Lady in the Dark” offers a couple of opportunities to sample the somewhat-less-crisp impersonality of Lew Landers—including Man in the Dark (1953), his eleven-day-wonder 3-D noir—as well the early works of William Castle, known more for later experiments in ballyhoo than his workmanlike direction. (Both Landers and Castle contributed to the film franchise created from CBS radio hit “The Whistler,” a whopping four entries of which are playing MoMA, each starring Richard Dix in a different role.)

Let Us Live (1939) is a good introduction to the work of one undeservedly forgotten director, John Brahm, a German émigré who made several ingenious, somewhat baroque films over the decade to come before shrinking into television. Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan’s engagement is rudely broken when he goes up for murder charges surrounding a stick-up at a movie house, its flashlight-lit staging one of several conspicuous set pieces. Subsequent events contrive to smother the “Aw, Shucks, Gee Whiz” Fonda character’s faith in the American system, and Let Us Live may have an even more dejected ending than the film it most recalls, Fritz Lang’s 1937 Depression-era downer You Only Live Once. (It should be noted that Lang’s particularly vicious 1953 Glenn Ford vehicle, The Big Heat, is also playing MoMA.) Brahm’s visual invention is only equaled here by Joseph H. Lewis, whose Gun Crazy (1950) would later make him a cult property, and who is represented in “Lady in the Dark” by two early, watershed works: My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a gothic melodrama that offers kidnapping and brainwashing as a metaphor for marriage, while So Dark the Night, from the following year, is a corker of a mystery set in the French countryside.

Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.

Lewis’s mature talent is evident in both films, while Oscar Boetticher, Jr. shows little enough promise in 1945’s B-thriller Escape in the Fog. Rechristened as “Budd,” however, Boetticher would later direct a renowned cycle of Westerns for Columbia—if there was, per Thomas Schatz, a genius to the studio system, it was in keeping its workers busy enough to develop their talents. Escape in the Fog, which has Nina Foch and William Wright busting up a ring of Axis spies with the help of clairvoyant visions, was released a few months before V-J Day. The designation film noir is inextricable from the end of the war and, more specifically, its immediate aftermath. This is the setting of John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), a curio sodden with tropical showers and unnecessary voice-over which stars Humphrey Bogart as Capt. “Rip” Murdoch, an ex-paratrooper who returns from the European front only to find more insidious enemies in “Gulf City,” a Floridian pastiche. Dead Reckoning seems like an attempt to return to the Gilda well with its mildly exotic setting, gambling tables, and even a musical number for the female lead, here Lizabeth Scott’s femme fatale, which wholly fails to eclipse the memory of Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame.” (The film is an interesting showcase for Scott, she of the extraterrestrially planar features and subterranean-deep line readings.)

One foreign menace vanquished, another rose to take its place, and Columbia, like the rest of Hollywood, got a case of the Red Scare jitters. The results were films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), a patently silly piece of Cold War skullduggery done with a bit of dash by Gordon Douglas, who would go on to do a brisk business in anti-Communist fare in the next few years. This stretch was not so kind to Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk, who dutifully named his names and returned from blacklist purgatory to the director’s chair with The Sniper (1952), thanks to the intervention of producer Stanley Kramer, who’d recently entered into an ultimately star-crossed agreement to set up his own production unit at Columbia, which meant much butting heads with Cohn.

Dmytryk had helped to invent the hate-crime noir with Crossfire, his 1947 film about an anti-Semitic killing, and The Sniper seems intended to reproduce the success. The issue examined here, however, is woman-hate—not standard-issue film noir “Can’t trust them dames” woman-hate, as found in Dead Reckoning, but the homicidal rage of Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a blue-collar San Francisco man who does target practice on local ladies using his Army issue M1 carbine. The Sniper is held up by the presence of a much-too-old Adolphe Menjou—Dmytryk had to use the blowhard red-baiter as proof of his rehabilitation—and psychiatrist speechifying, but Dmytryk quite effectively plays out his sensationalistic story against an uncommented-on background of everyday misogyny, and the film’s last shot is positively chilling. (’Frisco becomes a gridwork of slashing, perilous diagonals thanks to the great DP Burnett Guffey, who also shot In a Lonely Place and both of the Lewis films, and who may be the secret star of “Lady in the Dark.”) Franz’s all-American psycho proves a vital point as regards the crime thriller: While Nazis and Commies have their place, nothing’s so disturbing as the evil we find at home and within.

“Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–57” plays July 11–August 4, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.