Watching I Wake Up Screaming got me in the mood to look for other noir films I missed during the time I was researching The Vengeance Season. It didn’t take long to come up with two that I’d never seen: Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley.
What is it with the titles of these movies? No one woke up screaming in I Wake Up Screaming. No one was kissed to death in Kiss of Death. And nothing happened in an alley in Nightmare Alley. It’s a carnie movie, for God’s sake. There are no alleys, just sawdust and animal crap.
I’m beginning to think – and stay with me here as I go out on a limb — that they just picked titles at random to get people to come see the movie. This was back before Hollywood turned super honest and straight up noble, so it’s entirely possible.
What can I say about Kiss of Death? Well, the first thing I can say is that I didn’t finish watching it even though I was keen to compare it to the 1995 remake with Nicolas Cage and that ginger guy from that cop show who can’t speak until he dramatically removes his sunglasses. Oddly enough, that version was also unwatchable, but mostly because it sucked.
The reason I haven’t finished watching the 1947 version isn’t because it was bad but because Richard Widmark is in it and he portrays a character so vile it was simply too disturbing to listen to him talk. And he talks all the time. Remember Larry Drake playing the title character in Dr. Giggles? Widmark’s character is equally creepy-cum-annoying. I’ll get back to it eventually. Not because I want to, but because I’m a completist.
And it’s really disconcerting to remember that Widmark went on to become a leading man later on in his career. You’ll never watch Judgment at Nuremberg the same way again after seeing him in this movie.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nightmare Alley is excellent and bizarre. This must be the only time other than Todd Browning’s Freaks that the sideshow geek was dealt with in any direct way. The script even makes note of the fact that this bizarre act had been made illegal long before this movie was made.
But that’s not what is so mind-alteringly weird about this movie. It’s Tyrone Power’s character arc. This matinee idol goes from carnie roustabout to high society headliner to geek over the course of 110 minutes. It’s a truly distressing thing to behold — he even looks like a man strung out on “booze” (I’m pretty sure booze is standing in for heroine here. No alcoholic talks about limiting themselves to a one shot a day.) — and even more so because, unlike the heels in most noirs, he’s not actively evil.
Like most of us, the Great Stan is just to easily able to convince himself that his selfish actions are for the benefit of others. If it weren’t for Coleen Gray, he would have no conscience at all.
Oh, and Coleen Gray, one of the most beautiful — in the modern sense of that word, she doesn’t even look like an actress from that era — actresses from that day is in both of these movies. Damn, I just looked her up on IMDB and discovered she’s in The Killing, Red River, and Kansas City Confidential as well. She had quite the noir run going there for awhile.
I hear people — okay, older people — complain that they don’t make movies like this anymore but I think they really do. Kiss of Death was remade, as I mentioned above. Out of the Past, a classic, was remade as Against All Odds. Not a bad movie but nowhere near as strong as the original. The Killers was remade in 1964. It was good but nowhere as good as the… oh, here I am talking about “the original” again like it’s something untouchable that belongs in a reliquary.
So if you want a movie that was made like they used to make them, I would say Body Heat is your winner. It’s not a remake but it satisfies on every note of the Noir scale and it has a truly mind altering twist.
BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!
We aren’t supposed to make them like we used to. Movies aren’t cars. Wait, that’s not even a good analogy. Movies aren’t bridges. Here’s a paraphrase from Patton Oswalt: For any creative endeavor to survive, it must change and grow.
That’s the answer, by the way, to the argument that Michael Bay is a great director because his movies make a lot of money. Making money is only a valid argument if you’re debating a banker. And the heck with those guys.
We shouldn’t make movies like we used to because film is an artform and it must change in order to thrive. White Heat becomes Bonnie & Clyde becomes The Godfather becomes Scarface becomes The Way of the Gun becomes Snatch and so on.
If you went back to 1949 and showed Snatch to Jimmy Cagney’s audience, well… no one would have stayed past the first act. Movies reflect the times in which they are created. That’s why there’s no point in remaking a movie like Nightmare Alley (which wasn’t even a box office success in its own time). Our time is better spent looking for new reflections in our own golden eye rather trying to reach back to past successes.
Okay, I’ll be honest. This whole post was about how pissed I am that Michael Bay tried to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. That property is very near and dear to me and I hope he gets an unusually aggressive form of testicular cancer.