07 December 2010


Desperate (1947) is one of the earlier films noir from Anthony Mann, back during his B movie days. If you don't know who Mann is, just know that he's a popular name with regards to the film noir genre. If you do know who Mann is, well... you probably watch a lot of films noir, so good for you!

I saw this film at Cinematheque, a group on UW–Madison's campus that shows classic films on the weekends. It was my first time there, but certainly won't be my last.

The group often specializes in film series, with this one appearing in a series devoted to Mann's films noir. I missed the first two films in the series—The Great Flamarion (1945) and Strange Impersonation (1946)—but that's okay. Mann has been quoted saying that he considers Desperate his first real film, as it was the first where he was actually afforded considerable control by the studio, rather than more or less working under another's vision.

The desperate seldom make good decisions
The film follows an ex-soldier named Steve Randall who now works in the trucking business. He takes a well-paying job without realize that he is, in fact, being hired as the getaway driver for a criminal heist. When things go wrong, Steve ends up on the wrong side of the law and the criminals who hired him. His wife's well-being threatened, he determines to get her to safety before confronting the police and the mobsters, which ultimately digs him in deeper.

The film ends up a rather enticing thriller, even if you are a little frustrated at Steve's incredible knack for finding newer and more effective ways to make matters worse for him and his darling wife, Anne. However, the film really excels in its visual presentation.

Beautifully orchestrated
The film looks amazing, and not just because we watched it on film reels instead of digital formats. In fact, Cinematheque only managed to get a 16 mm copy instead of the preferred 35 mm, much to their dismay. And while 35 mm would've surely afforded a better range of contrast, there was something about the grainy feel of 16 mm that felt right for film noir. After all, it was a B movie, and a dark, gritty one at that.

Anyway, there are numerous iconic scenes throughout the film. Perhaps my favourite occurs early on, when the mobsters set about roughing up Steve a little. Although we see the beginning of the scuffle, most if it takes place off screen. In fact, the beginning primarily aids in allowing us to see Steve thrown against a hanging light, causing it to swing wildly back and forth. The rest of the fight centers around the boss's stoic face, cast rhythmically into light and darkness by the movement of the lamp, creating a truly sinister atmosphere.

Likewise, a much later scene seems to provide a template for spaghetti Westerns decades later, as we sit in suspense, waiting for a gunshot. The scene oscillates between progressively closer shots of the character's eyes and a ticking clock. It stretches, building tension as we wait for something to happen. Will the man with the gun finally pull the trigger? Or will the would-be victim finally break the tension in an act that, instead, gives him the upper hand? Or, perhaps, something else? I won't give it away, but it's a great scene.

Where's the femme fatale?
After the film, I heard another audience member remarking that, though it was a good film, it didn't feel that "noir-y" to them. Namely, it didn't have that all important femme fatale. Well, it's true. There is no sultry seductress there to make Steve's life hell.

However, it's important to note that Desperate came out at a time when film noir was still a fairly new genre. Earlier films noir were still in the process of establishing archetypes that would be so often used in the '50s and then deconstructed, analyzed, and recontextualized in later decades. One of this big archetypes is, no doubt, the femme fatale, and while it appears as early as The Maltese Falcon (1941), it did not become as frequent in the genre until the genre began to take on darker and grittier aspects.

Desperate is definitely a film noir, but an early one. The primary focus of early films noir was the male character, who was, as is the case here, an ex-soldier. See, after WWII, a lot of American soldiers returned home feeling alienated and disillusioned. The war was one of the worst ever, and the world they returned to no longer felt like the perfect ideal they had left behind. Yes, on the surface, it seemed idyllic, but underneath there was something unsettling. Something sinister. Film noir tapped into this psychological feeling of disillusionment and unease with films about good men lead astray. Ex-soldiers, fresh from the war and tossed back into harms way once again.

Really, this fits Desperate to a t. This is where noir started, and to discredit it for not fitting the exact mold is silly, especially considering that the phrase film noir was not even known during the classic era (1941-1959) and that the directors at the time had no concept that these were genre films in the same way that a director would intentionally make a western. Genres, like art movements, are usually defined after their prime, when we have the sufficient perspective of time that we can sit back and consider what has happened.

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