…and say she steps out of the shadows, and there’s her holster, empty, as it seems. When she comes in for a kiss, you step back, or she steps forward again. This could be a dance, and now you’re kissing, too, but only because you’re buying time, because you’re afraid. Because where’s the pistol?
This is Noir Week, an artistic conspiracy between Ill Stills, Arison Cain, and Magnum Opus, and if you follow the trail long enough, you just might catch a killer, or a spy, or a bullet. This week, we’ll be seeped in the tenebrous pulp of film noir, giving Ill Stills readers a crash course in femme fatales, the denigration of the American justice system, and feverous, Word War II paranoia. As always, be wary of spoilers, though no amount of information could ever ruin these classics. Before we begin, do yourself a favor and check out early Ill Stills noir (The Third Man, Rebecca) and neo-noir (Memento, Fallen Angels) posts.
DAY ONE: Fritz Lang’s Fury and the Immolation of the Old Guard
In, 1934, following a meeting with then propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, Fritz Lang fled a Germany teeming with Nazi corruption and careening toward a war the horrors of which the United States public, and government, was fervently attempting to ignore. Lang had been labeled a Jew. Another year in Germany, he could have been head of UFA, as Goebbels promised, or he could have been killed, shot dead for a word, one with which he did not even identify. Escape was a Hobson’s choice.
So, it’s no surprise that Lang’s first film in the United States would be Fury, in which the justice system collapses on itself, and men are (hard) boiled down to one of two words - innocent, or guilty. Spencer Tracy plays Joe Wilson, aw shucking his way through an honest life, when a police officer pulls a gun on, and incarcerates him. The evidence? Five dollars of counterfeit cash and a pocket full of peanuts. This is happening, America, Lang said with his lens. These are dark time, America, he screamed with his mise-en-scène. That aw-shucks shit ain’t gonna cut it, he threatened as, on screen, even the public has turned against Wilson, defenseless in his jail cell, while the swell of something monstrous mutated overseas.
In a small town, in the heart of the United States, a lynch mob forms and burns Joe Wilson alive, because, to them, he’s guilty, and after all, they must protect their town from these internal threats, threats who may even seem familiar, like a forgotten face from the grocery store, or the man who pumps the gasoline, but they are not familiar. They are others. Now, two new words are worth killing over, “us” and “them.”
Wilson isn’t dead, however, and in a quintessentially noir moment, brilliantly captured by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, he arrives in the doorway of his old apartment, obscured by shadows and a tilted brim, face twisted in a heart-stopping grimace, and yeah, probably packing heat. He’s not the same man he once was. In fact, he’s not a man at all. Now, he’s just a word, “guilty”. He’s one of “them”.
It only took a moment in American cinema for the hero to become the villain, a new era was ushered into the theaters, and the old guard was done for. Just a few years earlier, films like Public Enemy and Scarface reassured the audience, often with advisories or disclaimers, that the men they were seeing on the screen was one of “them”, a crook, an infestation in the heart of American values, in American justice. Fritz Lang exposed the lie, and said “Joe Wilson is you,” and he said “Joe Wilson is me, too,” and he said “the line between a good man and a public enemy is very, very thin.”
Welcome to Noir Week, the forecast is black.