Sunday, March 6, 2022

Variations on a Genre: “Vehicular Noir” and “Noir on the Sea and in the Forest” ...

In this post, veteran noir programmer Don Malcolm considers the sub-genre implications of rare films noir - from the US, Croatia and Germany - set to screen when Midcentury Madness '22 returns to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on March 12 and 13.


Looking over the long list of films noir screened by one-time colleagues Eddie Muller and Elliot Lavine, I was shocked to discover that the 1957 heist noir PLUNDER ROAD has never been shown by either of those estimable individuals. (Eddie even had a entire festival devoted to heist noirs back in 2017, with 24 films, but enigmatic director Hubert Cornfield—as was so often the case for him—was on the outside looking in. And he still is…)

Man used to live by his wits; PLUNDER ROAD tells us that we’re now utterly dependent on our machines for whatever crazy scheme that comes to mind…

That unfathomable situation will be remedied on Saturday, March 12 when we’ll screen it as we simultaneously christen a new noir sub-genre: “vehicular noir.” Some of you might quibble with me that most noir is vehicular, given the ubiquity of automobiles—and you wouldn’t be wrong.

But what I’m after is a more rarefied subgroup of films where the vehicles are large and lumbering—a kind of metaphor for the existential state of the noir hero, often caught up in grandiose schemes that are overly ambitious and recklessly expansive. Trying to pull a caper in a big rig is like trying to beat the system while wearing a blindfold AND having one hand tied behind your back.

PLUNDER ROAD has all that, and more. It features an elaborate, overly complex plan devised by mastermind Gene Raymond, who at this stage of things (both in Hollywood and in real life) should really be old enough to know better. Not one, not two, but THREE big rigs are part of a robbery netting $10 million in gold. And you know already—from having seen the classic mug of Elisha Cook, Jr. (above)—that his accomplices are probably not up to it. 

We won’t spoil the fun by delving further into the plot, which is as lightweight and linear as the heist vehicles are awkward and massive. Cornfield captures a specific tonality of mid-century America that conjures up the romance and danger found in the many miles of nowhere that men in big rigs still traverse to this day, with too much time on their hands—time that allows them to dream up outlandish get-rich-quick schemes as an addled antidote to white-line fever.

Cornfield’s ace in the hole, so to speak, was his cinematographer Ernest Haller, a venerated (six-time Oscar nominee) veteran who had been cut loose by Warner Brothers earlier in the 50s due to the post-war studio system crisis. Haller, once accused by a Warners director of being a “cosmetician’s cameraman” (but, then, what would you do if confronted with an aging Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?), does an admirable volte-face with PLUNDER ROAD, giving the bulk of his visual love to the creatures of metal that dominate the film.

BUT “vehicular noir” is not simply a variant of the heist film: it can also capture a special sense of how vulnerable human beings are with respect to the machines they create and rely upon to sustain modernity. The second feature on March 12th, H-8… (1958, Croatia), directed by Nikola Tanhofer, takes us more deeply and intensely into that realm of peril.

Here again you might anticipate a bit and suggest that there’s already another genre that covers this narrative territory: the “disaster” film. But those films tend to have a superhuman scale attached to them: ocean liners, airplanes, even trains are machines that essentially turn human beings into cattle. The disasters that befall the people on these contraptions are spectacles, not tragedies.

H-8… is the story of a night bus that, early on in the film, is involved in a horrific collision with a truck (it’s clear from the film’s perspective that the truck driver is totally at fault for what happens). What director Tanhofer then does is turn back time to begin the story again, focusing on the people who board the bus and their shifting positions in its seating configuration. (As it turns out, a specific subset of the seats in the bus wind up as fatal locations for those seated in them.) 

Thus the film focuses on the lives and personalities of the passengers, the situations they are experiencing (and sometimes running away from), providing us with a kaleidoscope of nocturnal neo-realism—and a building intensity of suspense as the film’s narrator (who is, of course, omniscient…) teases us with what he already knows.




 “Rubble films,” made immediately after WWII, are known to many for their dark themes and stark visuals featuring bombed-out ruins; but the historical consensus is that once the 1950s arrived, German filmmaking steered itself into complacency, with the heimat films attempting to sidestep (if not outright bury) lingering issues from the Nazi era. 


post-war "rubble" onscreen

Such began to change when expatriate directors such as Robert Siodmak returned to Germany after the war; Eddie Muller referenced this in his 2020 festival with a screening of THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (1957), one of the first German films to directly address the Nazi era. 

BUT what we’ve discovered—thanks in part to our colleague Marc Svetov—is that the “noir impulse” still had a pulse in German filmmaking prior to Siodmak’s return. Directors such as Helmut Käutner and Peter Pewas, who had sidestepped/ wrangled with the Nazi censors during the war, found their voices afterwards and moved from “rubble films” in the late 40s to film noir in the fifties.


And, as you’ll see on March 13, both of them did so with a vengeance.


Käutner’s EPILOG (1950), screening Sunday March 13, is a fever-dream wrapped inside a series of  mysteries centered around the sinking of the Orplid, a luxury yacht rented by an arms dealer under strange circumstances—the wedding of his mistress! As we soon discover, it turns out that there are much darker forces afoot…


Intrigued by the coverup of this event, reporter Peter Zabel (Horst Caspar) begins an obsessive quest to reconstruct what happened—aided by the mysterious, Sphinx-like—indeed, mute—lone survivor of the catastrophe, Leata (Bettina Moissi), whose drawings provide clues to the sordid goings-on.


Naturally there are clandestine forces that want to prevent Zabel from bringing the full story to light, and EPILOG careens between these narrative shards in a way that is both thrilling and baffling, using all of the favored devices of film noir.


Film scholars and bloggers have known about EPILOG for quite a while, yet the film has never been screened theatrically in the USA in the seventy-two years since its release. Its long-overdue premiere on March 13 will introduce you to one of the most fascinating female characters in all of noir in Moissi’s Leata, who is even more enigmatic than the mystery of the Orplid itself. Käutner provides us with a sly preview of an emerging “female gaze” in the sloe-eyed, traumatized Leata, who embodies an inchoate “Other” attempting to penetrate and disrupt a world that barely bothers to conceal its ugly and unspeakable truths.


MANY PASSED BY, the second film to screen on March 13, transfers the action from the sea to the nocturnal forests adjacent to Germany's autobahn - where a serial killer lurks, preying on young girls.


As Marc Svetov relates, director Peter Pewas—possibly the most talented filmmaker in Germany during the 40s and 50s—was a thorn in his own side; he antagonized Nazi censors with his first film THE ENCHANTED DAY (1943), brazenly returning to themes and characters from the “decadent” Weimar school. He also had difficulties in East Germany when he was “one and out” with DEFA in the aftermath of creating the “rubble” drama STREET ACQUAINTANCES (1948). Marc sums up Pewas’ problem succinctly (and diplomatically):


He was far too unconventional as a director and artist to conform very well with the East German Communist regime.


And that unconventionality led him to conceive of MANY PASSED BY as a version of RASHOMON, with competing (and, in some cases, overlapping) narrative sections reflecting three points of view: the serial killer, his intended victim, and the harried investigator attempting to prevent another murder.


Even in our post-MEMENTO age, this was a risky narrative proposition, but Pewas carries it off with only a few hiccups along the way, with suspense maintained to the end. He is also aided considerably by the exceptionally atmospheric photography of Klaus von Rautenfeld, who not only handles the customary noir lighting that one would expect in a mostly nocturnal tale, but also creates uniquely evocative twilight moments in the natural settings. I suspect that his work will evoke similar responses to what Marc Svetov was moved to describe in his examination of the film:


…his means for poetically realizing what he wished in the film are minimalist, yet so effective: the night scenes along the highway, the slick highway surface, the fog in the early morning; the starkly outlined silhouette of the woods, the place of the murders against the night sky; the interior scenes in the café along the highway, the dimly lit police station; the scenes at the home of the detective who is desperate to capture the killer…one must deem MANY PASSED BY as one-of-a-kind for its era.


While von Rautenfeld worked constantly over the next fifteen years, Pewas never made another feature film after MANY PASSED BY: he was relegated to documentaries and short subjects until his death in 1984. It was a daunting fate for a man who made such a haunting film. But he left behind a highly accomplished noir that handles what is now a familiar subject in an intriguing and unusual way. 


Midcentury Madness '22 continues at San Francisco’s Little Roxie Theater when these rare noirs screen this weekend, March 12 and 13. Click here for detailed information and tickets.


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