Rogue’s Gallery: The definitive Noir Director?

January 26, 2012
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ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

ERIC: I’m very curious to see if this will even get any argument from either of you. I propose that Anthony Mann is the definitive Noir director. He made the most hardboiled films in a short, concentrated period of time using great John Alton cinematography, classic Noir actors like Charles McGraw and Dennis O’Keefe and in his stretch of Noir he didn’t have a single misstep. Some are better than others, but if I had to take one director’s work and toss out all others, it would be Mann.
Thoughts?

JAKE: Love me some Anthony Mann. Raw Deal is simply as perfect a film noir as anyone ever made – tough, gorgeous, heartbreaking. By my lights, it’s one of the true masterpieces in all cinema. And Mann made several flicks that rank as good-to-great: Side Street, Desperate, T-Men.

Having said that, while I certainly value Mann, I don’t know if I can single him out as the one I’d keep if I had to choose just one. First, I should say I really couldn’t choose just one. I don’t think I can say that the work of any one director (or writer, or performer) is absolutely essential. Would noir be noir without Anthony Mann? Well, it would loose something valuable, no doubt, but it would still be noir. You’d still have a shelf of masterpieces directed by other people, work that would define the noir style.

Still, I find your choice of Anthony Mann as the definitive director interesting because it says a lot about how you define noir. If I may propose a theory based on a) my reading of your essays and articles over the years, and b) my reading of your fiction, then my theory is this: you like your noir boiled super hard. You’re drawn to Mann because he’s one of the toughest noir directors (in the same class of hardass as guys like Karlson and Fleischer), and you like the rough stuff.

In contrast, if I had to choose the director I think defines noir for me I’d have to go with Siodmak. His best credits are unimpeachable: The Killers, Criss Cross, Cry Of The City, Phantom Lady. Brilliant acting, impeccable camera work, perfect cinematography. But, interestingly, while these films all involve violence I wouldn’t really think of them as being tough in the sense that something like T-Men or Strange Impersonation are tough. His work is longer on atmosphere than ass-kicking. Despite using different cinematographers on these movies, Siodmak achieved a unified look and feel, a precise style that is the first thing I think of when I think of noir.

ERIC:
Jake, you are right about my hard boiled tendencies. And you’ll get no argument that Siodmak would probably be my number two. The list of directors with as many Noirs on their resume as those two is short. Preminger, Lang, Jules Dassin, Robert Wise, maybe John Farrow and, like you said, Karlson and Fleischer.

And of course it’s hard to pick just one, but that’s what these little exercises are for.

I think the films someone is drawn to don’t depend on their definition of noir as much as simple preference. I’m not a fan of Gilda because, as you say, it’s just not hard boiled enough. I barely see it as a crime drama, more a melodrama, which I guess disproves my point about definitions. Oops. But, the angst of a man who can’t express his feelings isn’t as interesting to me as a man who is running for his life as in Raw Deal or Desperate.

It’s always tough to know in the studio system days how much choice directors had in the scripts they were handed, but it certainly does seem like Mann picked a type of film, Karlson picked a type. Fritz Lang seemed to do whatever he was given and maybe that’s why his later output was so uneven (The Big Heat stands as his top Noir for me) Siodmak, I will say, seemed to lay his style over a story. I could see Mann directing a story like Criss Cross for example and it being a much different film. It would surely be tougher, filled with more testosterone.

I should note that as proof of my love for both these filmmakers: as I type, behind me on the wall is a poster for Desperate by Mann and Criss Cross by Siodmak.

CULLEN:
Y’all seemed to have hit the nail on the head, in terms of directors whose entire careers can be defined by their noir output. Plenty of great directors have made great noir films (heck, even some crappy directors managed to turn out a great noir or two), but few have had as consistent as career in the noir mode as those two. They also represent different tendencies: Siodmak is slicker than Mann, Mann grittier than Siodmak. The more you compare them, the more different their sensibilities become.

I considered suggesting Lang, but as much as he is a great director who made great noir films, his sensibility seems to stretch beyond the noir spectrum. Jake, you asked, “Would noir be noir without Anthony Mann?” If you sub in Lang, the answer is definitely “No, it would not be noir without Lang.” Pigeonholing him as “noir” also seems so limiting for his unique vision.

ERIC:
Funny, I haven’t seen much of Siodmak’s non-noir films, but have seen all of Mann’s westerns and many of Lang’s other films. Siodmak is one of those guys who only exists as a noir director for me. And as long as we’re on the subject, Mann’s western output is also a concentrated hot streak consisting of some of the genres finest moments.

Any readers out there got anyone they’d put up alongside our picks for Noir’s definitive directors?

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com/
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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