Tuesday 21 November 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on the arrival of two, and soon three, of Anthony Mann's great film noirs HE WALKED BY NIGHT, T-MEN and RAW DEAL

Coming fast on the heels of Melville's great hymn to solitude, with Jef in Le Samourai, here is the grandfather of existential and moral solitude in American cinema, Anthony Mann. Amongst the solitary men and relatively few women who populate Anthony Mann's universe, the first three screens are the very beautiful face of Richard Basehart as a sociopathic impulse killer in Mann's second Eagle Lion Noir with colleague and co-auteur, the titanic DP John Alton,  He Walked by NIght (1948.)

The fourth screen (below) from the same movie posits a contrapuntal, equally beautiful, face in solitary repose, of Scott Brady as the cop. Basehart's nemesis. Viewers with sharp eyes might spot in Brady's face the genetic DNA for the great psychotic badman, Lawrence Tierney, in fact Brady's brother, who played some of the heaviest, most perverse bad boys in Dark cinema, and apparently in life.

Screen five comes in two planes lit with a typically single light source by Alton, showing newcomer geekboy and future Dragnet Maestro, Jack Webb (right) fooling around with some nitroglycerine while a drily composed Roy Roberts looks on with Zen blankness. Final two screens are again lit with a single light source from the 1947 quasi procedural T-Men. This was Mann's and Alton's first picture together and the first title released by newly formed and short lived Eagle Lion Pictures.

The last two screens are among the always analytically fascinating two shots of men in Mann's films, with their innate simmering violence, competition, threat and attraction. The only single element in the frame, in addition to the actors, is the light from the floor, and the low angle which amplifies and enhances it, and the relationship between the characters is inevitably perilous, ultimately lethal, an effect purely expressed with such elemental means.

The steam room scene in T-Men relates to a similar steam room killing but one with much more explicit homo text in Don Siegel's great The Lineup ten years later in 1958 in which Eli Wallach allows himself to be picked up for sex by William Leslie before shooting him after extracting the information he needs about a missing drug cache.

Mann's films and especially these first two Noirs are very centrally related to 40s maleness and a male "ethos" engaging with violence, identity submission and power, and they are underlined by their director's thematic obsession, solitude. Just as Melville's great work will resonate two decades later with Delon, Belmondo and Yves Montand in similar leads. Only in Mann's third great Noir with Alton, and my favorite, Raw Deal (1949), the great solitary character is a woman, played by the sublime Claire Trevor, one of two women sexually enthralled by Dennis O'Keefe's Joe, a convict who plays homme fatale to her and his case worker Marsha Hunt. Mann gives Claire Trevor, one of my favorite actors, the last great Mizoguchian high angle crane shot, filmed by Alton from way above the set with just enough light to identify the now static action as Claire is returned to her solitude, slumped over the body of her dead Joe. Raw Deal is one of the greatest Noirs for me, and Claire's is one of the greatest female performances in American movies. 
T-Men and He Walked by Night have just been released on Blu-ray in superb new restorations from prime 35mm elements by spiffing new kid on the block label from the US, ClassicFlix. This outfit has brains behind it like Alan K Rode, Julie Kirgo, Todd McCarthy and other film culture heavyweights and has put out this year's lion's share of Noir reissues in unbeatable transfers. Along with ongoing Noir released from the Fox catalogue through Kino Lorber label this and last year, the Dark Film legacy has had a massive boost in exposure through 2017 much of it on HV for the first time, and pretty well all of it in prime audiovisual quality. These two Manns with be joined by their third and last Eagle Lion title, Raw Deal from 1949 which is out on Classic Flix December 5.. 
The Alton Mann movies seem more and more invaluable to me every time I watch them. For one thing there is surely no more symbiotic partnership in American movies than these two. The only other director who appreciated Alton's genius nearly as much was MInnelli, and he engaged him to shoot, in full 3 strip studio lit Technicolor the 1952 An American in Paris ballet. The découpage of that 12 minute sequence exists in a sphere of its own in the American Musical as one of the greatest chromatic experiences in synesthesia between music and color in the movies. Kelly and Caron partner and swoon between sheer kinetic and fluid volumes of red, blue, purple, yellow and white, coming into and out of pitch black into a MInnellian mix of crane, track and dolly which take the extremes of color expression with articulated light to their peak possible expression in cinema.

Editor’s Note: David Hare posted the above on his Facebook page from whence I have pillaged it and reset the photos. After the post it was the subject of some interesting comment which you’ll need to head to his Facebook page to access. David himself added this comment below:

The Biggest surprise is the print source He Walked by Night in quality terms. I read a couple of reviews of it that were faintly praising but I have no such reservations.  Maybe three or four shots are "softer" than the surrounding excellence but it has clearly been sourced from a fine grain 35mm vault print. Some of Classic Flix restorations have come from British 35mm prints sourced from the BFI. T-Men's best previous video incarnation was the 35mm collector's print from Cary Roan released on Roan/Image Laserdisc back in the 90s. But it had a badly processed transfer and the encode has viewing defects like horizontal banding, and murky blacks It's barely watchable. Raw Deal was the best of the three Noirs and the clips from it in the Nina Mann doco on the T-Men disc looks spectacular. This label is clearly well connected.

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