Skip to Content

Kingdom Of Darkness: RKO AND FILM NOIR

Kingdom Of Darkness:  RKO AND FILM NOIR

Coming out of World War II, the major Hollywood studios had hoped to get back to business as usual.  The distraction of the war was gone, rationing repealed, and the boys – 15 million of them — were coming home.  But the expected upsurge in business didn’t come.  In fact, almost immediately box office began steadily dropping (and would continue to do so for the next two decades), and the majors found that the kind of frothy and escapist fare which had dominated the 1930s no longer worked for a new generation of moviegoers.  The people the studio chiefs had made movies for in the 1930s had stopped coming, and a different audience – younger, better-educated, and possessed of a wholly different worldview – was taking its place.

There were several genres – some new — which came to be emblematic in one way or another of the new dynamics of postwar Hollywood.  The sudden, surging popularity of science fiction movies testified to the demographic shift of the box office toward young ticket buyers, while the massive sword-and-sandal epics showed a desperate motion picture industry trying to compete with television by overwhelming it.  But no genre is so closely associated with the period, and considered so reflective of the postwar change in the American psyche, as film noir.

Manhattan Melodrama

Prior to World War II, most thrillers tended to be one form or another of crime story, and with some exceptions – Warner Bros.’  string of socially-conscious gangster films, most notably – they tended to be routine (like the myriad formulaic mystery series i.e. Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Crime Doctor, etc.), escapist (the bubbly The Thin Man films), and/or simple, melodramatic morality tales (such as the aptly titled Manhattan Melodrama [1934]).  But the global tragedy that was World War II inalterably changed the worldview of thrillers…and of their audience.  French film critics, treated to a postwar backlog of American films, looked at what appeared to them to be a surge in thrillers visually and thematically darker than their pre-war counterparts and dubbed the new thrillers film noir – literally translated, “black film.”

Film noir represented the first, major maturing of the Hollywood thriller, a psychological evolution which went beyond the dramatically simplistic, morally pedantic fare of the pre-war years.  Noir was about the flaws in the character of even the most well-meaning of people (Scarlet Street, 1945), about how tragedy could be visited on the undeserving through a single misstep (Angel Face, 1952) or even chance (D.O.A., 1950).  Noir – understandably in light of the destruction and brutality of the war – showed how thin the line could be between The Good Guys and The Bad Guys (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946), sometimes to the point where they were interchangeable (Pickup on South Street, 1953), and never guaranteed a happy ending (The Killers, 1946).

Although noir would be most closely identified with urban crime dramas, it was a sensibility and a style which spread throughout the thriller form.  One could find it in hard-edged Westerns like Blood on the Moon (1948) and Winchester ’73 (1950), dark-hearted war films like Attack! (1956), and even gothic horrors like The Body Snatcher (1945) and sci fiers like Donovan’s Brain (1953).

Though significant entries in the genre would come from throughout the industry, no studio would become more identified with American postwar noir as RKO.  The company’s prodigious thriller output from the war years through the 1950s, coupled with a remarkably consistent look and quality, largely defined the genre for American cinema.

RKO had experienced several successes with small-scale thrillers during the war years, particularly with the company’s screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Murder, My Sweet (1944).  After the

Murder, My Sweet

war, the studio applied itself even more industriously to producing a steady stream of similarly economically produced thrillers.  These thrillers would, in fact, be critical to sustaining RKO through its remaining decade as a major studio.

The company’s dedication to the thriller arose from necessity.  Always the most financially strapped of the majors, the studio was one of the first big movie companies to suffer – and suffer egregiously – during the postwar downturn in the industry’s fortunes.  Saddled with heavy debt, constrained by limited resources, its talent roster the thinnest of the majors, the elements which had made noir thrillers choice vehicles under wartime rationing rules – moderate budgets, limited locations, emphasis on mood and plot over action – made them even more attractive during RKO’s postwar struggle to remain afloat.  Crossfire (1947), for example, was shot for a tight $250,000 budget on a brisk three-week schedule.  Production notes list only nine locations, nearly all of which incorporated standing sets.

Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, RKO was a virtual noir factory:  The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Suspicion (1941), Journey into Fear (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), Murder, My Sweet, The Woman in the Window (1944), Cornered (1945), Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946), Notorious (1946), The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Stranger (1946), The Locket (1946), Crossfire, Out of the Past (1947), They Live by Night (1949), The Big Steal (1949), The Set-Up (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), The Woman on Pier 13

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

(1950), His Kind of Woman (1951), The Racket (1951), The Narrow Margin (1951), The Prowler (1951), Clash by Night (1952), On Dangerous Ground (1952), Macao (1952), Beware, My Lovely (1952), The Las Vegas Story (1952), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Angel Face (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).  The studio’s interest in thrillers may have been primarily practical, but RKO could not have maintained such an extended commercially successful line of noirs without regularly turning out a popular, quality product.  Despite occasional creative missteps (i.e. The Woman on Pier 13 aka I Married a Communist), the RKO thriller canon is impressively consistent in the high caliber of its execution; a remarkable achievement considering the studio’s limitations.  RKO was singularly fortunate in that among its thin talent ranks it had access to just the right creative personnel for the job at hand.

House cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was a major contributor to the look of RKO’s thrillers and horror films, and is often considered the “inventor”  of noir’s expressionistic, sparsely-lit visual style, a look frequent RKO noir leading man Robert Mitchum dryly described as “lit by matches.”  In this, Musuraca was abetted by cameramen who periodically worked at the studio and shared his touch with light and shadow:  Gregg Toland (famously responsible for noir-like look of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane), Russell Metty, and James Wong Howe.  RKO also had an outstanding art department, as well as an editing department served by the likes of Robert Wise and Mark Robson, both of whom would later go on to distinguished directing careers.

RKO also benefited from a liberal attitude toward new directors.  Though a number of the company’s more high-profile thrillers were directed by established talents like Orson Welles (The Stranger), Alfred Hitchcock (Suspicion, Notorious), and, as he entered the closing stage of his career, Fritz Lang (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, While the City Sleeps), the overall high caliber of RKO’s thrillers was established and sustained by relative directorial novices.  The directorial credits of the studio’s thrillers indeed form an impressive list:  Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night), Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire), Mark Robson (The Seventh Victim), Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin), Joseph Losey (The Prowler), Don Siegel (The Big Steal), Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past), Robert Wise (The Set-Up), and – one of the few women ever to direct features up to that time — Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker).  Given their creative head, and working with skilled craftsmen like Musuraca, these young, ambitious, and artistically daring directors were responsible for a string of compelling thrillers so consonant in their sensibility and look that they provided RKO with a distinct screen persona – something it had rarely had in the past – and did so at a time when bigger companies were sacrificing their own trademark identities in the pursuit of big budget audience draws.

The last necessary element for the success of RKO’s thrillers was on-screen talent.  RKO had historically suffered a shortage of top-flight box office draws, and that weakness became even more

Robert Mitchum

pronounced in the postwar period.  Many of RKO’s thrillers were carried on the backs of stars whose career peaks were behind them, though they usually rose to the occasion as did one-time musical star Dick Powell as Raymond Chandler’s tough-as-nails private eye Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, ex-Warner Bros. tough guy George Raft in Johnny Angel, and ex-20th Century Fox leading man Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. However, the studio’s noir mainstays through the late 1940s and much of the 1950s were two often underrated actors:  Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum.

Though Ryan never quite broke through to become a major box office draw, he was a fine actor who always gave an interesting performance.  His emotions were never buried very deeply and he was a more fiery presence on-screen than Mitchum, his eyes quick to flash anger, despair, or glum resignation, his body, when not slumped in defeat, looking coiled and ready to explode.  His range ran from heroes to villains, and sometimes characters which were a bit of both, displaying, so wrote David Thomson in a 1994 Film Comment profile of the actor, a “…grasp of evil (and an) affinity for men who might be heroes if they had less anger, violence, and self-loathing, and more faith in the world.”  His RKO gallery included the venom-spitting bigot of Crossfire, the ranting, self-important gangster of The Racket, the dogged, brutal, life-scarred cop in On Dangerous Ground, the desperate, noble boxer of The Set-Up, and, one of his most interesting RKO portrayals, the handyman of Beware, My Lovely, mild and deferential until something trips in his fractured psyche sending him into an escalating, potentially lethal rage.

The Set-Up

Robert Mitchum, in contrast, was RKO’s one bonafide star with marquee value during the postwar years, and became the studio workhorse, carrying the lead in an impressive number of pictures ranging from urban noirs to Westerns to dramas to African adventures to war stories.  He was a different kind of movie actor for a new age:  still, laconic, physically intimidating.  Few actors have mastered the art of simply being on screen as well as Mitchum, and he seemed to understand that, on the big screen, a slight cock of the head, a raised eyebrow, the smallest change of inflection in his voice was all that was needed to convey curiosity, suspicion, bemusement, or threat, and that only the slightest adjustments were required to transform him from hero to heavy.  He exuded a jaded weariness, a sense of having seen and heard more than he wanted to.  That fatalistic, been-there/done-that air served him well across a wide range of RKO thrillers.  In the tongue-in-cheek The Big Steal, he’s a dim GI on the run, falsely accused of a payroll theft, never as clever or self-possessed as he thinks he is; while in Crossfire, as another soldier, he’s a cynical ex-newsman reluctantly drawn into helping solve a hate killing.  He offers a jaded take on a world of random, pointless tragedy, where the invisible motive of the murder at hand – as investigating detective Robert Young speculates – “…is something the killer brought with him”:

Soldier: What’s happened?  Has everything suddenly gone crazy?  I don’t just mean this; I mean everything.  Or is it just me?

Mitchum: No, it’s not just you.  The snakes are loose.  Anybody can get them.  I get them myself.  But they’re friends of mine.

Out of the Past

It was his performance in one of the era’s definitive noirs – Out of the Past – that made him a star and turned him into one of the indelible icons of the genre.  Forever after, Mitchum fans and thriller aficionados would remember him thusly:  a broad-shouldered figure half in shadow, clad in trench coat and snap-brim fedora, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips and smoke curling up past sleepy-looking eyes.  As for the movie – which, at the time, was considered little more than “just another private eye movie” — Out of the Past would, in re-evaluation, emerge as a masterwork.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, and adapted by mystery novelist Daniel Mainwaring from his book Build My Gallows High (with uncredited assists from James M. Cain and Frank Fenton), Out of the Past has Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a private eye hired by gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find his mistress Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) who has shot and robbed Sterling.  Bailey finds her in Mexico, but the two become romantically involved.  The increasingly convoluted plot involves murders, set-ups, betrayals, with a fatalistic Bailey coming to realize that his first missteps have inextricably attached him to Kathie, one of noir’s prototypical toxic femmes fatale. In the downbeat climax, with Sterling dead and after letting Kathie think he’s allowed her to persuade him to run off with her for a second time, Bailey surreptitiously alerts the police.  Before they leave, she frets about the possibility of them both being killed:  “I don’t want to die.” With trademark noir nihilism, Bailey replies, “Neither do I, baby, but if I do…I want to die last.” As they drive into a police roadblock, Kathie, realizing this is Bailey’s doing, shoots him before the car crashes killing her.  Like so many noir heroes, even Jeff Bailey’s pitiable last wish goes unfulfilled.

Both RKO’s noir visual style and thematic sensibility were not confined to its urban thrillers.  Both elements were evident in the studio’s few Westerns (Blood on the Moon) and sci fi releases (The Thing from Another World), but nowhere beyond its classic trench coat noirs was it as obvious as in a string of nine horror titles put out by a “B” unit under producer Val Lewton in the early to mid-1940s.

Lewton’s initial mandate from RKO was to clone the success Universal had had with its long-running string of gothic horrors (beginning with Dracula and Frankenstein, both released in 1931, and running in a long line of sequels and cross-pollinations up through the 1940s).  Lewton, however — a one-time protégé of David O. Selznick — took advantage of RKO’s laissez-faire attitude when it came to creative execution to produce films which were a far cry from the Universal model.  As long as Lewton turned in his films on time, within the small budgets allotted to him, held to tight studio-mandated running times, and produced them under the often misleadingly lurid titles the studio issued, he was given free creative rein and the resulting works were some of the most stylish and intelligent horror films of the period.

Lewton gathered around him an impressive collection of talents who shared his enthusiasm for taking the horror genre beyond its pedestrian norm.  His directors included Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur (who, shortly after turning out three films for Lewton, would graduate to RKO’s “A” unit and direct the classic noir, Out of the Past), and one-time editor Mark Robson (who, by the mid-1950s, was directing such major releases as The Bridges at Toko-Ri [1954]).  Nichola Musuraca, so instrumental in creating RKO’s trademark noir visual style, was one of Lewton’s regular cinematographers, and the producer craftily enhanced the look of his skimpily-budgeted films by shooting on leftover sets from RKO’s more upscale productions.

As a body, Lewton’s films are literate, intelligent, relying on atmosphere more than shocks for their chills, and character more than monsters.  In fact, though ostensibly horror films, Lewton’s movies rarely called on the supernatural to supply their scares, preferring, instead, to exploit the demons haunting the human psyche.

The Body Snatcher (1945) is often cited as the acme of Lewton’s RKO horror films, and offers the best display of his unit’s strengths.  Directed by Wise, and adapted by Philip MacDonald and Lewton himself from a Robert Louis Stevenson story inspired by the true “Burke and Hare” murders of Victorian-era England, the story concerns the grotesque symbiosis between a brilliant young surgeon (Henry Daniell) frustrated in his work by a lack of legitimately obtained cadavers, and the shady cabman (Boris Karloff) providing him with a steady supply of corpses by increasingly degenerate means.  At heart, neither are evil men, but both are corrupted – and ultimately trapped – by circumstance.  In the noir tradition, theirs is a relationship built on such a corrupt foundation it can only end tragically for all concerned…and it does.

By the late 1940s, there was little appetite for the quiet, psychologically textured and moody gothics of Val Lewton.  The young audience dominating the box office preferred more visceral thrills, and, with the exploding popularity of sci fi in the 1950s, wanted them more fantastic as well.

Eventually, the audience tired of the period’s particular brand of noir. After so many fatales, double-crosses, trench coated figures walking down rain-slicked streets at night, the genre had become too familiar, had grown stale and predictable, and the classic brand of postwar noir died out.

But noir had always been about more than certain visual tropes and plot devices.  A particular visual brand of noir might have died with the 1950s, but its world-weary, soul-sick heart continued to find a home in such neo-noirs as Point Blank (1967), Harper (1966), The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975), L.A. Confidential (1997), Memento (2000), Syriana (2005), The Departed (2006).

Beyond its shadowy look, noir had, at its core, always been about the capacity for tragic error and outright malevolence in the human heart, and how, despite the best efforts of the best of men, sometimes heartbreak and loss were inevitable, maybe even necessary.  These, sadly, are stories that never go out of date.

– Bill Mesce