Is a Film Noir Cinematic Universe possible?

A few nights ago, while scrolling through “Recommended” videos on YouTube, I found Austin McConnell’s attempt to create his own cinematic universe using comic book characters in the public domain. Curious, I began to watch it. I was quickly charmed by his idea and impressed by the research he conducted into the Golden Age of Comics.

I was also struck by his, possibly unconscious, rejoinder to Martin Scorsese, who famously declared the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”) not cinema, at least as he defines it. According to Scorsese, setting aside his own personal tastes, he finds that these films – like all modern franchise films, which dominate the industry – lack “revelation,” that there is no emotional risk for these characters.

McConnell, by contrast calls the MCU…

“…the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all time and a staple of American culture. They tell finely-crafted and intricately-woven stories across multiple installments featuring state-of-the-art visual effects and breathtaking action sequences.”

When I ranked the then-23 films in the MCU two years ago, I only used aggregate, publicly-available data, allowing me to remain agnostic on the question of them as “cinema.” Reading Scorsese’s essay again, meanwhile, I realize he is making a larger point about the death of cinema, and he is not wrong. That said, I think the MCU films – maybe not all of them, but the best few – will stand the test of time for one reason: it is the only “cinematic universe” – a group of films which take place in the same place and time featuring characters that interact across those films – to succeed. The DC extended universe and Universal’s dark universe, by comparison, were flops.

But before the video had even ended, I found myself thinking about another series of films, highly regarded by cineastes like Scorsese and me today, which were often dismissed in their day as “cheap melodramas” or worse. Many of those films were forgotten, in fact, until 2000, when Arthur Lyons wrote Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir!.

It was inevitable I then followed-up with this question:

Is it possible to create a Film Noir Cinematic Universe (“FNCU”)?

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

As soon as I framed the question, however, I began a Socratic dialogue with myself.

Idea: Sure, we could bring together Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Jeff Bailey and Barton Keyes – and what’s Edmond O’Brien’s character’s name in The Killers? Right, Jim Reardon.

Counter: You mean like Neil Simon did in Murder By Death and Alan Moore did in the graphic novels about the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

Idea: Ohh, right. Well, OK, what was thing the MCU did so well? It gave interesting backstories to characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers? What if we did that for Phyllis Dietrichson and Stoker and Ingram and…?

Counter: You mean like David Thomson did in Suspects, back in 1986?

Idea: He really did, didn’t he? OK, OK, well…what if we spliced together bits and pieces of films noir to make it appear as though these characters are interacting with each other in the same time and place?

Counter: You mean like Carl Reiner and Steve Martin did 40 years ago in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid?

At this point, having blocked myself at every turn, I called it a night and went to sleep.

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Well, I tried to sleep, but the idea remained so intriguing I tried to find a way to make it work. By the time I awoke, I realized there were basically two options:

1) Select 23 existing films noir that can be arranged in sequence across four phases, like the MCU through 2019 (I have yet to see MCU film after Avengers: Endgame).

2) Select between six (The Avengers) and two dozen “heroes,” and an equal number of “villains,” from existing films noir – basically what Marvel Studios did from their own properties – and create new movies for them. Of them, 4-10 heroes get their own “origin” movie, while either a different character gets to play the Nick Fury role of bringing together these characters or one needs to be invented. A director strongly associated with film noir like the great Robert Siodmak comes to mind. And, of course, a version of RKO Studios produces these films.

Upon further reflection, I concluded the characters needed to be selected before you can do either step. So, I once again turned to my film noir database. Specifically, I chose the 150 films with at least 25 (out of a maximum 67.5) POINTS; I will not list all of them here because they are included in Appendix III of my Interrogating Memory book.

I began by arranging them in chronological order, from Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) to Chinatown (1974). Looking over the list, I decided to simplify the process by eliminating films that do not have any criminous elements, ones I would define more as “character study melodrama” than film noir: The Lost Weekend, Body and Soul, Champion and Clash By Night. Finally, I added one film with a respectable 21.0 POINTS made in 1997 but set in the 1950s: L.A. Confidential; with 14 LISTS it ranks #229 out of 4,825 films in the database.

Using this set of 147 widely-agreed-upon films noir, I developed a taxonomy of character archetypes – broad categories of “heroes” and “villains” – as well as of settings (e.g., urban, small town, rural) and plots (e.g., murder mystery, heist). And I quickly remembered why film noir is so notoriously difficult to define: even just on these basic characteristics, these films are all over the lot, pun intended.

To begin with, while there are very few purely rural films noir – great examples being Leave Her to Heaven, The Spiral Staircase and They Live By Night – these films are otherwise split nearly evenly between “big city” and “small town.” Next, while most of the 41 films noir on this list released between 1941 and 1946 fall into the broad categories of “murder mystery” or “murder conspiracy,” with a smattering of “fighting Nazis” films (e.g., Ministry of Fear, The House on 92nd Street, Cornered), between 1947 and 1950, there are 25 films (out of 64) that fall into the broad category of “gang of professional crooks,” including T-Men, The Street With No Name, White Heat and The Asphalt Jungle)

More to the point, however, while there often multiple “villains” in these films – organized or otherwise – there are very few genuine “heroes,” as commonly undertstood. In fact, by a very rough count, 48 (33%) of these films have no discernible “hero,” unless you count relatively minor characters. This figure excludes a handful of cases where the nominal hero is a crook recruited to do a job for the legal authorities (e.g., Kiss of Death, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street) or a person connected with law enforcement – public or private – who is more brutal than the villains they pursue: think Glenn Ford’s Dave Bannion in The Big Heat or Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. Heck, Hammer botches his job every bit as much as Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes does in Chinatown.

Now, there are certainly protagonists, the character(s) we primarily follow throughout the film – but they are not always especially “heroic.” I think of these characters as the “good person gone wrong,” the essentially good person who continually makes the wrong choice at pivotal moments, usually in pursuit of some combination of love, money or power. These include Burt Lancaster’s Steve Thompson in Criss Cross, John Dall’s Bart Tare in Gun Crazy, Charles McGraw’s Joe Peters in Roadblock and Jimmy Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo.

But genuine heroes – characters who continue to pursue the “right path,” even at the expense of their own well-being or the lives of those closest to then – are few and far between. Which is kind of the point of film noir: unlike the gangster films which preceded them – clearly-defined “good” and “bad” characters filmed in flat, low-contrast light – these films photographed morally ambiguous characters with high-contrast light.

Still, a few morally righteous main characters exist in these films, falling into five broad categories. The first, and probably most iconic, is the private investigator, either licensed detective or employed by a private organization like an insurance company. Even counting the thuggish Hammer and the hapless Gittes, however, there are only 11 of them – with eight appearing between 1941 (The Maltese Falcon) and 1947 (The Stranger). Humphrey Bogart plays two private detectives – Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep – while Edward G. Robinson also plays two investigators – Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity and Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission in The Stranger. Given the importance of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity to the history of film noir – and to cinema generally – our first film noir “hero” must be either Spade or Keyes. While Spade resists all financial temptations and turns over the woman he loves to the police at the end of the film, he also had an affair with his partner’s wife then slept with an active client. Keyes, meanwhile, is literally the moral authority to whom Walter Neff confesses in Double Indemnity – and even though Keyes and Neff genuinely love each other, the former still turns in the latter. Thus, by a hair, the first FNCU “hero” is Barton Keyes of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company.

The second FNCU “hero” category is closely related to the first: professional law enforcement, be it police officer, federal agent, district attorney (“DA”) or crusading lawyer. At 24, this is also the second most common category. Standouts among active-duty police officers include Dana Andrews’ Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson in Laura, Sheldon Leonard’s dogged Sergeant Portugal in Decoy, Barry Fitzgerald’s wise Lieutenant Dan Muldoon in The Naked City, Victor Mature’s patient Lieutenant Vittorio Candella in Cry of the City and Charlton Heston’s Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil. Heston portraying a Mexican man raises issues, as does McPherson’s love for Laura Hunt. Portugal is a good and honest cop, but also a relatively minor character in an oddball film. This leaves the genuinely likeable Muldoon and Candella – and Candella gets the edge based on his youth. The standout lawyers in this group are Bogart’s Martin Ferguson from the woefully-overlooked The Enforcer and Richard Kiley’s John Patterson in The Phenix City Story. And then there are the bravest persons in this group: those recruited to go undercover – at risk to their own lives – to break up various forms of Nazi spy or organized crime rings. The best among this select group are William Eythe’s Bill Dietrich in The House on 92nd Street, Dennis O’Keefe’s Dennis O’Brien in T-Men, Mark Stevens’ Gene Cordell in The Street With No Name and Ricardo Montalban’s Pablo Rodriguez in Border Incident. Spy rings are more James Bond than film noir, leaving us with O’Brien, Cordell and Rodriguez. In the interest of diversity, and having pointedly rejected Heston’s Vargas, I choose the courageous and resourceful Rodriguez – charismatically portrayed by Mexican-born Montalban from this group. In fact, he is a rather easy choice from all 24 of these solid officers: the second FNCU hero is Mexican federal agent Pablo Rodriguez.

The third FNCU “hero” category is the professional who operates outside of the law – though often in cooperation with that law – because circumstances force them to do so. I count 20 such characters, beginning with Michael Ward, John McGuire’s reporter with a guilty conscience in Stranger on the Third Floor. It is also the first category to include a significant number of women, including Carol “Kansas” Richman – Ella Raines’ devoted secretary in Phantom Lady, Joan Crawford’s restaurant owner and mother Mildred Pierce, and, possibly, Betty Schaefer – Nancy Olson’s restorative screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard. Other heroic men in this category are P.J. McNeal, Jimmy Stewart’s reporter wise enough to Call Northside 777; Holly Martins, Joseph Cotten’s crime fiction writer in The Third Man; and Lieutenant Commander Clinton Reed, Richard Widmark’s infectious disease expert in Panic in the Streets. Pierce continually abets her daughter Veda’s extreme selfishness and Schaefer does not actually save Joe Gilles, so they are out. So is Martins, because he is no better off at the end of his story than when he started. This leaves a VERY tough choice between McNeal, Reed and Richman. Of course, I do not have to choose only one, so in the spirit of Black Widow and Hawkeye, who did not have their origin story films until recently, the third and fourth FNCU heroes are Henderson Engineering Executive Secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman and U.S. Public Health Service Dr. Clinton Reed.

Category four is similar to category three, instead this time it is artists, performers and athletes. Of the 11 so categorized, only one is male: Robert Ryan’s boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson in The Set-Up. Of the 10 women in this category, the standouts are Catherine Bennett, June Vincent’s singer in Black Angel; Irene Jansen, Lauren Bacall’s artist in Dark Passage; June Goffe, Susan Hayward’s dime-a-dancer in Deadline at Dawn; and Linda James, Evelyn Keyes’ actress in 99 River Street. Stoker is fascinating because of his integrity, muscular frame and fighting skills, though his hands get brutalized at the film’s end. Of the four women, meanwhile, the only one who truly faces physical danger is James. Still, she is more nuisance than heroic for much of her story, so the fifth FNCU hero is professional boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson.

Category five is, well, everybody else – the uncategorizable – and it contains 27 names, everything from teenaged Charlie Newton, played by 24-year-old Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt; to mute Helen, played by Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase; to spy’s daughter Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman in Notorious; to Frank McCloud, Bogart’s veteran in Key Largo; to Nick Garcos, Richard Conte’s veteran-turned-truck-driver in Thieves’ Highway; to blind Mary Malden, played by Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground; to Rachel Cooper, Lillian Gish’s rifle-toting protector in The Night of the Hunter; to young Susan Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success. As exceptional as these characters are, though, we eliminate Newton, Hunsecker and Cooper because of their age, and Helen because her story takes place in 1916. We also eliminate Huberman because her role was essentially one-and-done. That leaves only McCloud and Garcos – and with all due respect to the versatile Conte, you cannot have a FNCU without a character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. Thus, the sixth and final FNCU hero is veteran-turned-gangster-fighter Frank McCloud.

These six men and women are legitimate heroes, and as a group their combination of brains, courage, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice and life experience – plus the sheer physicality of Rodriguez and Thompson – make them a great team, every bit the equal of the original six MCU Avengers; if they have a leader, it is Keyes. Moreover, they each have an outstanding “origin story” already filmed and which take place in the same narrow time frame (1944-50), albeit in Los Angeles (Double Indemnity), the California-Mexico border (Border Incident), New York City (Phantom Lady), New Orleans (Panic in the Streets), the mythical Midwestern small town of Paradise City (The Set-Up) and the Florida Keys (Key Largo). After showing these first six films, a good screenwriter could find a way to bring these characters together in, say, 1951.

But what six villains will they try to defeat?

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I have already written extensively about film noir villains – well, neo-noir villains – so I will select these characters more quickly. Deviating slightly from the hero selection process, I posit six categories of villainy: rogue law enforcement officer, “professional” criminal, psychopathic loner, murderous relative, “good person gone bad” and uncategorized.

And here I cut right to the chase to say that the obvious choice for first FNCU villain is policeman-turned-organized-crime-boss Lieutenant Dudley Smith – as played by James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential. Not only is Smith my personal choice for worst character in neo-noir – if only because of how amorally and cynically he uses his position as public protector to shield his criminality – but the timing is perfect for an early 1950s face-off with the FNCU heroes. Indeed, if the FNCU villains have a leader, it is Smith.

The equally-obvious choice for second FNCU villain is criminal genius Kasper Gutman, played by Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon; just as you must have a character portrayed by Bogart, a FNCU must incorporate what is often (though not by me) considered the first true film noir.

Moving on to the psychotic loner, the most unhinged are the unnamed strangler played by Peter Lorre in Stranger on the Third Floor – my personal choice for first film noir as we understand it today; Ellen Berent Harlan, Gene Tierney’s obsessively-jealous wife in Leave Her to Heaven; Sam Wild, Lawrence Tierney’s conscience-less killer in Born to Kill; Cody Jarrett, James Cagney’s mother-fixated gang leader in White Heat; Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson’s delusional former movie star in Sunset Boulevard; Bruno Antony, Robert Walker’s father-hating killer in Strangers on a Train; Arthur Franz, Edward Miller’s lone gunman in The Sniper; Emmett Myers, William Talman’s psychopathic killer in The Hitch-Hiker; and Harry Powell, Robert Mitchum’s love-and-hate preacher in The Night of the Hunter. Of these eight characters, only three have the stability – however fleeting – to play the long game (a supervillain requirement): Harlan, Antony and Powell. And only Powell has a motivation beyond the immediate – a dark religious fervor that justifies his murderous greed. Plus, you cannot construct a FNCU without Mitchum, narrowly making the third FNCU villain murderous preacher Harry Powell.

Murderous relative, meanwhile, is a catch-all term that includes a plethora of murderous wives and one especially nasty niece: Barbara Stanwyck’s titular businesswoman in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. In fact, with all due respect to the scheming Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in The Killers, nobody plays the long game like her – and, as with Bogart and Mitchum, you cannot have a FNCU without Stanwyck. Thus, the fourth FNCU villain is Iverstown-dominating Martha Ivers.

Film noir is littered with decent characters who make a series of bad decisions that lead them to become criminals. John Garfield’s Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice comes to mind, as does Kent Smith’s Dr. Richard Talbot in Nora Prentiss. From the war-is-hell perspective, we have Van Heflin’s Frank Enley in Act of Violence. Acting out of desperation is Farley Granger’s Joe Norson in Side Street, Frank Lovejoy’s Howard Tyler in The Sound of Fury and – to some extent – Lizbeth Scott’s Jane Palmer in Too Late For Tears. The more I ponder this category, in fact, the less certain I am any of these characters are genuine villains…so, I am going to do a bait-and-switch, following the lead of director Edmund Goulding in Nightmare Alley. Throughout the film, we are led to believe Tyrone Power’s Stanton Carlisle is the primary villain – only to have the tables turned on him and us by Helen Walker’s devious and cunning Lilith Ritter. Thus, the fifth FNCU villain is double-crossing psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter.

I may have designated this last category “miscellaneous,” but there is really only one character who can round out this rogue’s gallery of FNCU villains. Not only was John Huston’s Noah Cross of Chinatown named worst character in neo-noir, he then topped Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson to be named worst character in all of film noir, period. Thus, the sixth and final FNCU villain is depression-era robber baron and incestuous father Noah Cross.

These six men and women are a genuinely terrifying collection of villains – in fact, they are far more terrifying than any Marvel villain because they could easily exist in the real world, unlike Loki or Thanos. As a group, they combine brains, patience, organization, ruthlessness and an absolute will to power that will make them tough for our heroes to stop. And perhaps, because this is film noir, they do not. As with the FNCU heroes, moreover, they also each have an outstanding “origin story” already filmed: L.A. Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, Night of the Hunter, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Nightmare Alley and Chinatown. However, the Depression-era timing of Cross and Powell, and the age and obesity of Gutman in 1941 (or 1928, when the source novel is set), may make putting all 12 characters in 1951 extremely tricky. Swapping out Powell for Antony, Cross for Harry Lyme (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man) and Dr. G. E. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly is a possibility, though it clearly diminishes the group of villains.

Nonetheless, this exercise – choosing an initial group of six heroes and villains – suggests that a FNCU is possible, if there are any ambitious screenwriters, actors/actresses, directors and producers willing to take on the challenge.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

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