DVR Theater: Noir Cops In Love Edition

By random chance or by synchronicity, I watched two old noirs where cops fell in love with the wrong woman (or “dame” as the dialogue would usually put it.) And both of them were directed by the same guy, the prolific Joseph H. Lewis.

First up, a nicely restored print of The Man Who Cheated Himself, a 1950 entry with Lee J. Cobb as the cop secretly in love with socialite Jane Wyatt. He witnesses her panic-shoot her was-gonna-divorce-him husband and helps her cover up the crime. But his newly minted cop detective younger brother, played by John Dall, follows the case and (of course) begins to figure things out.

Some nice photography around San Francisco from the era. You can tell it’s decades ago by the affordable rents, lack of needles and human waste in the streets, etc. But I digress.

Dall makes a good plucky somewhat-innocent cop slowly learning of his big bro’s corruption. I always thought he was an underused actor on film. He’s great as the alpha-closet case killer in Hitchcock’s Rope, and in his earlier work with Joseph Lewis in the excellent cult noir Gun Crazy.

Weird to see Cobb in a dark romantic lead after all the years of seeing him play loudmouth yelling bullies, bigots and thugs, but he’s used well here – basically a scowly old cop impossibly in love with Wyatt as she coldly uses him to get away with her crime. And you thought Spock got his lack of emotion from his dad.

This one is in the public domain and runs on youtube, if you want a quick fix of it.

The Big Combo from 1955 stars Cornel Wilde as the cop, his real-life wife Jean Wallace as the gangster’s good-girl girlfriend looking for escape, and a wonderful Richard Conte as the smooth-talking ass-covering mob boss. Along for the ride are Brian Donlevy as Conte’s former boss now grumbling underling, Lee Van Cleef & Earl Holliman as their pair of muscle, and assorted wonderful character actors like Jay Adler, John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia sprinkled throughout.

Storywise, this one drags a bit – some elements get overly complicated, but it’s got some great moments. A lot of Conte’s scenes with his smug and smooth confidence are wonderful. The use of sound with Donlevy’s character (I’ll avoid spoilers) is clever.

It’s an okay movie story and pace wise… but Good GOD, the cinematography from longtime noir vet and all around black-and-white GENIUS John Alton is amazing. The uses of light and shadow, of fog effects, of night scenes… you name it. Alton’s at the top of his game here, which is saying something. His textbook on cinematography, a staple of 1960s-1970s film schools, is available online as well. It’s worth a read, not only for the tips on shooting film which can still be applied today in the age of CGI and video, but also as a nice tour through a lot of Alton’s work.

Onwards through the stack…. next up, a pair of 1960s items…


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