October: The Month of Noir, The Month of Yost
October 30, 2015 Leave a comment
October was quite a month: For film noir and for me.
MARK YOST: I imagine there have been many times in your life when you wish you could have asked him for his advice.
STEPHEN BOGART: Not really. What I wonder most is what it would have been like to have a father around. Because father’s are different than mothers.
It’s not so much what I would have asked, what we would have talked about, but what it would have been like.
MARK YOST: Sadly, you lost your mother earlier this year. She was a heavyweight actor and persona in her own right. Talk about her.
STEPHEN BOGART: She did not suffer fools gladly. She was my mother and she brought us up to be certain types of people and live a certain life. She never told me what to do. I got married when I was 20, had a kid when I was 21. I wanted to get away from that [Hollywood] as quickly as possible. I wanted to find out who I was, over and above being the son of Humphrey Bogart.
I ended up in a small town in Northwestern Connecticut, made my own friends, and found out who I really was. They didn’t really care who I was.
Next up, was my Wall Street Journal review of the outstanding new exhibit, “Light & Noir,” which tells the story of the European emigres who fled the Nazis and made some of Hollywood’s most memorable film noirs.
“Every ship that left Europe in those months of the year 1942 was an ark,” wrote German novelist Erich Maria Remarque. “Mount Ararat was America, and the flood waters were rising higher by the day.” Remarque also noted that Portugal was the great embarkation point. And if you didn’t make it there, “you were lost, condemned to bleed away in a jungle of consulates, police stations and government offices, where visas were refused and work and residence permits unobtainable.” This, of course, is a nice plot summary of “Casablanca,” the best refugee film of the war years and a noir yarn in its own right.
The film is given its own gallery, complete with set pieces, costumes and the letters of transit that would guarantee anyone who had them passage to Lisbon, and a clipper to America. But the broader point of the gallery and the exhibit is that the creative geniuses behind “Casablanca”—director Michael Curtiz (born Manó Kertész Kaminer in Budapest), actor Conrad Veidt and composer Max Steiner—were the lucky immigrants, telling the stories of the less fortunate.
The second half of the exhibit explains how, after the war, these artists made the transition to the golden age of film noir. It wasn’t difficult, as many came from the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s that pioneered the shadows and uneven camera angles that gave American noir its signature feel. Among the films featured here are such noir classics as “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Killers,” all helmed in some way by prominent Jewish émigrés like Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak.
All of this, of course, comes on the heels of my summer interview in Stay Thirsty magazine with Film Noir Czar Eddie Muller:
MARK YOST: Who do you think are the greatest male and female film noir stars and why?
EDDIE MULLER: Bogart is the essential male star. Whatever your personal preference may be, you have to accept Bogart as the pre-eminent icon of noir. His rise as an actor, moving from a second-string heavy to the leading man antihero, directly parallels the prevalence and popularity of film noir. Directors and cinematographers gave noir its look, but Bogart provided the attitude. His performance as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is seminal. It’s the cultural touchstone for the wisecracking, cynical, and steadfastly existential philosophy that would become the underlying attraction of noir for so many people. There are other contenders—Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, John Garfield, Richard Widmark—but it was Bogart who lit the fuse.
It’s tougher to cite a single actress. I’m tempted to say Barbara Stanwyck, but that might somehow diminish the fact that she’s the greatest actress in the history of movies. Her range exceeded the boundaries of noir; she was great in everything. I also have great respect for Joan Crawford, who resurrected her career via film noir, starting with Mildred Pierce and going right through a series of exceptional dark melodramas of which she was the actual auteur. But there were so many wonderful actresses who did their most vivid work in this genre—Claire Trevor, Gloria Grahame, Ella Raines, Marie Windsor, Audrey Totter—it’s impossible to single out one.
In short, I’m lucky I get to do what I do and write about what I love.