|Marshall Stein at NoirCon 2014. Photo by Helene Stein.|
NoirCon is a five day celebration of all things noir, books, films, authors, etc. It is held every two years in Philadelphia under the inspired guidance of Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan. From October 29th through November 2nd there were panels on the Politics of Noir, Jewish Noir and Existential Noir, presentations by the leading biographers of Patricia Highsmith and Flannery O’Connor, a panel of four of the contributors to a collection of short stories based on songs of Bruce Springsteen, readings including a marathon of three minute readings, Three Minutes of Terror, given on Halloween, and then an Awards Dinner.
The three awards were given in the category of novels [Thief by Fuminori Nakamura], publishers [Bronwen Hruska of SOHO Press], and film [Eddie Muller of The Film Noir Foundation]. This is a partial listing.
Participants and attendees came from around the world. Fuminori Nakamura flew in from Tokyo, and his interview was conducted through a translator. At one point he was shown a full page story from the L.A. Times with his photo. While he could not read the piece, the photograph produced an ear to ear grin. On Three Minutes of Terror the readers were from England, Ireland and ten states in the U.S.
I was on the Jewish Noir panel. Because I dream of having my noir crime thriller RAGE BEGETS MURDER turned into a movie, I chose a related topic. I spoke on the impact of European Jewish Émigré Directors on American film noir. It was well received. I have been asked by several folks, including Frances di Plino, to share it.
Fritz Lang has been called the father of film noir. While working in Germany he produced two masterpieces, M and Metropolis. M starred a young Peter Lorre as a child murderer. It is brilliant. When the killings bring out a massive police presence, shutting down crime, the underworld begins a parallel hunt, captures Lorre, and tries him. The concept of the criminal world providing due process is one of the many fascinations in M. If anyone reading this has not seen it, go out and rent it NOW. Lang, and the other directors named below, were trained in the world of German moviemaking where they learned to dramatically use light and dark.
They brought this to the U.S., one of their gifts to American film noir. They were a jump ahead of the murderous Nazi pursuit of Jews, and that produced the template of the protagonist pitted against a vast and often insane world out to destroy him. In Hollywood Lang directed such noir films as Fury, You Only Live Once, The Woman in the Window, and many others. Other Jewish European directors who brought their training and talent to Hollywood were Robert Siodmark (Phantom Lady, Cry of the City, The Spiral Staircase), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity – co-authored with Raymond Chandler, directed by Wilder), Otto Preminger (Laura, Whirlpool), Edgar Ulmer (The Strange Woman, Ruthless), and Anatole Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number). All of these directors were strongly affected by the Holocaust, but all of them escaped and found safety in America.
This was not the case for Roman Polanski. As a young child he was trapped in the Krakow Ghetto. He watched his father being marched off to Mauthausen; his mother to Auschwitz; both died in these camps of slaughter. Polanski’s Chinatown is one of the masterpieces of noir cinema. Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Mulwray, had been sexually abused by her father, played by John Huston, and bore a daughter that she describes as both “my sister and my daughter.” Evelyn Mulwray tries to hide and protect her now grown daughter from her father. The film ends with a police bullet killing Evelyn Mulwray, her father clutching the daughter and leading her away, as dark an ending as in any film I’ve seen. According to Polanski’s biographer, Christopher Sandford, “Polanski . . . use[d] the memory of his mother, her dress and makeup style, as a physical model for Faye Dunaway’s character in . . . Chinatown.”
In his masterpiece, The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke wrote that for Faulkner the past is always with us, but the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, said there is only the past. For the Jewish émigré directors that escaped the Holocaust it was always with them, but for Roman Polanski there is nothing but the past.
SOURCES: DRIVEN TO DARKNESS, Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir, Vincent Brook, Rutgers University Press, 2009; Roman Polanski, Wikipedia citing to, among others, Christopher Sandford
RAGE BEGETS MURDER is set in Bandstand era Philadelphia in the early 1950s. It has been called an “author’s tour de force”. RBM can be purchased at Amazon UK and Amazon in the United States.