I like to think here at FilmsNoir.Net, readers are made aware of movies that are under the radar and do not fit established categories, genres or movie lists. Many such films were made by major studios on modest budgets and while not likely to make best-of listings or have major genre standing, they are pictures that are good entertainment made with craft and discipline, and sometimes with special elements that reward the discerning viewer.
Two such films were made in 1950 and, while having noir aspects, are largely entertainment features made memorable by facets that have been largely ignored by film reviewers and other writers on film.
Young Man with a Horn from Warner Bros. was directed by Michael Curtiz, and Joseph H.Lewis directed A Lady Without Passport which was produced by MGM.
Each of these films is special in its own way.
Young Man with a Horn is loosely based on the biography of jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderdecke: the story of how a lonely kid in L.A. learns the trumpet from a black musician, who becomes his close friend and mentor. His shift to New York in pursuit of a career is the stuff of melodrama; young guy makes good, marries the wrong woman and abandons his friends, and after tragedy finds a kind of redemption. There is great jazz played by Hoagey Charmichael and Harry James, nice songs from a young Doris Day, solid acting from Kirk Douglas in the lead, Lauren Bacall as the wife, Junco Hernandez as the black trumpeter, and Charmichael as Douglas’ piano-playing buddy. Competent direction by Curtiz and inspired cinematography from DP Ted McCord also add value. Of particular interest is Baccall’s acid performance as the neurotic wife.
But the real strength of the film is in the script by Carl Foreman (who during filming of his script for High Noon in 1951 appeared at HUAC and was later blacklisted by Hollywood studio bosses). Redemption for the young man with the horn comes from a realisation that a great artist’s obsession with his craft is not the only requirement for artistic fulfilment – it cannot come from a sterile wedding of player and instrument but ultimately from a deeper maturity which comes from embracing human relationships and commitment – a responsibility to and for others.
The tragic aspect of the story lends a true pathos to the melodrama, and the prominence given to the black father-figure in a film of this era is a revelation. Here we have a powerful expression of the personal and the social filmed with empathy and commitment.
A Lady Without Passport is ostensibly a police procedural, one of the many that began to emerge in the early 1950’s as the noir cycle began to explore other directions, after the success of on-the-street exposés such as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Director Joseph H. Lewis made his seminal noir, Gun Crazy, in 1950, and as the noir cycle began to decline, he directed perhaps the best 50s noir, The Big Combo, in 1955. These two classic films noir established Lewis’ reputation as an innovative and iconoclastic film maker. In A Lady Without Passport he has a more prosaic script, but together with his DP Paul Vogel and a romantic score from David Raksin, he brings to the project a wonderful transforming elegance to a fairly routine story. Also unusually for Lewis, in this movie, violence is handled with restraint, but not without originality.
A U.S immigration agent played by John Hodiak is sent to Cuba to investigate the murder in New York of an illegal alien, and uncovers a people-smuggling racket run by a suave villain played by George Macready. The agent falls for a Viennese refugee played with understated angst by 35-yo Hedy Lamarr, who was then entering the decline of her career. There is romance, humour, intrigue and sensuality – the stuff of a minor Casablanca, but filmed with a casual elegance that enthralls as well as entertains. The charm of pre-revolutionary Havana is rendered with a calm detachment and the sympathetic portrayal of Latin life is boisterous yet respectful.
Much has been written of the bank robbery scene in Gun Crazy shot from within the getaway car, but equally arresting is a long take for the opening scene of A Lady Without Passport from inside a taxi. While less tense the shot is more fluid when compared with the Gun Crazy take. Indeed, Lewis in A Lady Without Passport displays the élan of Max Ophuls, with his camera often on the move, and zooming, turning and panning, as well as placed at unusual angles. In one scene an exotic cabaret dancer is filmed by placing the camera at a low angle near the floor so that the viewer is in the position of voyeur, looking up at the dancer’s legs and hips as she dances. A particularly stunning scene towards the end shows the crash of a plane and a violent killing as seen from the cockpit of a government plane that was in pursuit, with a running commentary radioed to base by the pilot. This technique gives a strong documentary feel to the whole scene and a sense of stricken helplessness. The dénouement in a foggy swamp is very reminiscent of Gun Crazy, and what it lacks in tension is made up in the artistry of the photography.
The picture’s final scene has the government agent make a radical re-statement that is sufficiently subversive to underline the human element of the story free of any romantic allusions.
Two fine Hollywood movies.