Somewhere in the Night

Somewhere in the Night



As a boy, I was never afraid of the dark. Shadows and light intrigued me. As far as I was permitted in those days of relatively safer streets, I liked to go for walks at night.

My bicycle was fitted with both a strong headlamp and a red rear light, powered by a generator on the back tire, as well as assorted reflectors. I passed hours star-gazing on the roof. I even preferred attending night games at Yankee Stadium. A night owl then, as now, at one point I built my own shadow play theater — a crude, but functional design — for which I concocted a series of one-act plays that were later performed with friends. My extracurricular reading before age twelve — often accomplished well after hours, with the help of a flashlight — consisted mostly of pulp mysteries and comic books, foremost among the latter, the nocturnal, Gothic, subterranean Batman of the late 1950s and early 1960s. When it came to movies, my tastes ran to the B-variety: police thrillers, detective stories, and crime melodramas. Ditto the television fare that captured my attention; and in retrospect, early television shows like Lineup, Dragnet, and even Perry Mason, black and white in the starkly lit fashion of the day, intensely urban and nocturnal, look very dark, indeed.

I was born in February 1951, in New York City, in the dead of winter, at the height of the Korean War, the Cold War, and the McCarthy era. It was also the dawn of the Atomic era, and of the faceless, white-collar variety of organized crime, with its corporate structure — buying up banks and sometimes entire municipalities — but still relying on subcontractors of a gaudier sort, like Murder Incorporated, for raw street muscle. It was the heyday of labor unions and bebop jazz, and it was also the apex of the "classic" film noir era. In the month of my birth alone, my parents and their fellow moviegoers across America had the opportunity, at neighborhood moviehouses, to see the first runs of such seminal noir films as Cause for Alarm, The Second Woman and The Killer That Stalked New York, as well as The Enforcer and Cry Danger, which premiered in New York just days before my birthday. Twenty more films noirs would be released by the major Hollywood studios before the end of 1951. Between January 1950 and December 1952, seventy-four such films appeared on American movie screens — a staggering number by today's standards.

My own connection, through relatives, to some of the 1951 phenomena to which I have just alluded seems tenuous, blurred by the passage of time: for example, aside from the Strontium 90 in my bone marrow from the milk of 1950s cows exposed to atmospheric testing of atomic bombs, my most visceral link with the "dawn of the Atomic Age," for example, would seem to be the fact that my father, fulfilling his wartime obligations, as a young engineer toiled in Chicago on the Manhattan Project; and my grandfather, it happens, stumbled onto the scene of one of Murder Incorporated's most infamous hits, seconds after it occurred, in the barbershop of a midtown hotel — an event he spoke of, with uncharacteristic amazement and fear, to the end of his life. How and to what extent the hysteria of the Cold War and the paranoia of the McCarthy witch-hunts invaded my budding psyche I'll never know. What is available for me to see today, depicted with harsh clarity in the films noirs of those times, are the intricate surface textures and the submerged turmoil, the highly magnified inner and outer manifestations, of the urban life that surrounded me as a child. Unsafe, unsanitized, unaccomodating, film noir, now more than ever, appears to me to be the fugitive footage of postwar America. It is the negative from which all true prints would later be rendered, in which the conflation of the twin shocks (or ever-ramifying nightmares) of a near-apocalyptic world war and rapidfire American urbanization would be captured, and delineated, painfully and unswervingly, for all time.

I was twenty-two years old the first time I saw a film noir and knew it to be such. The film was Out of the Past, and I watched it in a moviehouse in Paris, France in the summer of 1973. This was a tumultuous time, not just in the United States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had erupted that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. Footloose, zigzagging southward, fresh out of college, I was doing all of the former except working. The cinema was low on my list of activities, and it was quite by chance — as seems altogether appropriate now — that I found myself watching Out of the Past on a hot July night.

The moviehouse was located on a narrow sidestreet off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small, crooked marquee. Made in Hollywood and released in the United States in 1947, Out of the Past had been playing at The New Yorker for three weeks to standing-room-only houses as part of an ongoing "Festival du Film Noir Americain." It was directed by Jacques Tourneur (an American) and it starred Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer. A French friend who happened to be a medical student, and who had seen the film three times, advised me solemnly to smoke some opium before I attended a screening. Not a drug with which I had experience, I was nonetheless game, and he provided me with a sample (and his girlfriend's Pyrex pipe) that I shared with two other friends who immediately lost interest in going to the cinema and, after providing me with explicit, and bewildering, directions, instead drifted off to a party.

So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed, smoky moviehouse (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby), where one could hear a pin drop, so reverential, so congregation-like, was this chain-smoking French audience, and watched Out of the Past in its original English, with French subtitles, and experienced the incredible and ghostly sensation of having entered someone else's dream for ninety-five minutes. An intensely vivid, seductive dream. Opium being renowned (De Quincey quotes Shelley in order to convey the drug's visual effects: " when some great painter dips/His pencil in the gloom of earthquake and eclipse") for inducing fantastic, symbolic, and terrifyingly "real" dreams, I sensed I had seen an unusual film, but ascribed my extraordinary exhilaration to the drug.

It was only a year later, when I was back in New York City, not so footloose, and saw Out of the Past again, sans stimuli of any kind, at a downtown revival house where it was playing for one night only. And, again, as I found myself entering that same vivid, darkly beautiful dream I remembered from Paris, I realized with astonishment that it had not been the opium which had engendered it, but the film.

I had seen films noirs before, with only the vaguest notion of what that term really signified (something dark and sinister?) and was attracted by their unique visual style, gritty, textured renderings of urban life, sharply drawn characters, and psychological intricacy. In my early twenties, having become a committed city-dweller and devourer of literature and art that explored city life, I was attracted to the hard-edged but aesthetically arousing ethos these films projected. They seemed to me to be very tough and unblinking takes on the raw underside of the so-called American Dream. They seemed true. But perhaps because in my teens I had seen them through different eyes, none of them had ever hit me with the impact of Out of the Past. (To this day, maybe unfairly, I discount that pipeful of opium as a catalyst.)

Since that time, in mainstream movie theaters, art houses, and makeshift screening rooms, in Boston, Chicago, and New York, in a converted barn on Martha's Vineyard and a bakery storeroom on the Aegean island of Spetses, on clickety-clack home projectors and high-tech VCRs with freeze-frame and slowdown buttons and enhancement devices, I have viewed all of the 317 titles in the Film Noir Encyclopedia published in 1988, as well as about fifty other films I would classify as films noirs which are not included in that compendium.

But what was it about that film in Paris that not only overrode (or rode upon) the effects of the opium, but also managed to deposit me for a charged, magical stretch of time in the maze of downtown San Francisco on an ink-dark night, surrounded by menacing, jagged shadows, crystalline shafts of light, and men and women who were partly phantoms and partly larger-than-life (like people in a dream) shortly after the Second World War? And after that, started me off on a twenty-year odyssey and sometime obsession with an entire movement of film to which it belonged?

This book is offered as a response to those and other questions — one which, it is hoped, will carry the reader deep into the world of the films, as I was carried.

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Excerpted from Somewhere in the Night by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 1997 by Nicholas Christopher. All rights reserved.