TCM Classic Film Festival 2020: Special Home Edition: Part Two, by David Bax
After viewing a decidedly fumbled (though enjoyable) “Good Neighbor” film the previous day with Neptune’s Daughter, it was nice to catch up with Night Flight (1933), a tribute to the South American airmail industry directed by the great Clarence Brown. Loosely woven around a narrative through-line concerning a hospital in Rio de Janeiro waiting for a shipment of serum from a hospital in Santiago, Night Flight features an all-star cast dramatizing 24 hours in the life of pilots (like Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery), their worrying wives (like Helen Hayes and Myrna Loy) and the mail service’s administration (including Barrymores John and Lionel). Each narrative thread is self-propelled amidst the others but Brown finds the most poetic connections in traveling overheard shots of life–boys and girls, dogs and birds–going on beneath the pilots who risk their lives in the sky above.
Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) has a spoiler right there in the title since Alvin York (Gary Cooper) doesn’t even join the army until pretty far into the movie, and even then after much consternation. Then again, back in 1941, York was a better known public figure so one could assume audiences went in knowing how things were going to play out. When we meet York, though, in 1916 backwoods Tennessee, he’s not quite yet a national hero. He’s rather more of a drunken ruffian, in fact, and the bulk of Sergeant York concerns his getting his act together, with the help of his pastor (Walter Brennan) and his best gal, Gracie (Joan Leslie), all of them speaking the whole time in a delightful holler patois. As a real life story of a roustabout turned war hero, Sergeant York has some of the same DNA as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Here, though, the strains of jingoism serve a more overt propagandistic purpose–released in September of 1941, it’s clearly a “get into the war” rallying cry–and the message is delivered in a sweeter concoction. Hawks is also more confident about his protagonist’s ability to survive with the help of loved ones. Though York may struggle to be heard sometimes above machine gun fire or the din of his homecoming parade, he finds peace in the quiet moments when Gracie instructs him not to look until she tells him to.
There are seven years between Nicholas Ray’s directing debut, They Live by Night (1948), and his best known feature, Rebel Without a Cause. But he was already tapped into the unpredictable power of characters who are young, dumb and full of emotions. Bowie (Farley Granger), a kid who becomes a bank robber out of a mixture of chance and an inability to make good choices, and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), the gas station attendant who likes him enough to hop in his car when he goes on the lam, are not criminal masterminds. They don’t even really think of themselves as criminals. They’re happy to spend most of their time canoodling in backroads cabins and hoping the feds don’t knock on the door. Ray’s raw energy, unvarnished eye and propensity for filling supportive roles with actors whose faces can only be described as “mugs” may make They Live by Night feel like a live wire rural noir but it’s a love story first. What they lack in smarts, they make up in passion, which makes them more dangerous than Bowie’s pistol. On more than one occasion, Keechie compares her beau to a dog. It’s a fitting comparison, an animal that can be as loyal as it is vicious.
There are many subgenres of noir but at the heart of all of them is dissatisfaction. Someone always gets in over their head because they just can’t be content with the way things are. In Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling American expat in London, might just be the quintessential embodiment of this discontent, whining early on to Gene Tierney’s Mary, “I just wanna be somebody!” Night and the City feels like peak noir in other ways, too, most notably in that it takes place exclusively in the underworld of unscrupulous criminals (the fake war vet panhandlers are a nice background touch) and night club owners at various levels of legality. And, in yet another classic noir touch, the film’s plot is thick with double and triple crosses. Despite being loaded with hallmarks, though, Night and the City is ultimately its own animal. No matter how convoluted the twist and turns, Dassin foregrounds Harry’s desperation, giving the movie a naked forward momentum, culminating in a mano a mano fight scene in a wrestling rink that’s all the more thrilling for how much depends on its outcome.