My movie-viewing life before Turner Classic Movies can be described in one word: impoverished.
The channel founded by Ted Turner as part of his cable TV empire has been a leader in film restoration and has made movies available that otherwise would be rotting in vaults — largely unseen, perhaps dimly remembered by people who once saw a scratchy print on late-night television or in a college film class.
This month and next Turner devotes every Friday to “Summer of Darkness,” a festival of film noir titles. It celebrates the aesthetic of the scores of mainly low-budget crime films made in the 1940s and ’50s, almost always shot in black-and-white by cinematographers who emphasized deep shadows, ambiguous grays and the scalding glare from naked light bulbs.
I caught up to it a week late, but last Friday, I watched two remarkable movies. One I had seen decades earlier and the other for the first time.
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The latter film, “Nightmare Alley,” was a project driven by Tyrone Power, a major star at 20th Century Fox. He convinced the studio to buy the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s bleak 1946 novel about the rise of a carny from lowly roustabout to famous spiritualist and his ultimate descent to the lowest depths of carnival life — to become a geek whose “act” is to bite the heads off live chickens.
The movie wasn’t a hit, apparently because audiences didn’t want to see Power play Stanton Carlisle, a hustling con-man and user. But Power, one of the stiffest leading men of his era, delivers a terrific performance that depicts a level of degradation that few other stars of the ’40s would have agreed to.
Director Edmund Goulding captures vivid supporting performances from a slightly weathered Joan Blondell as Zeena, a phony mentalist who becomes Stanton’s mentor and lover; the luminous Coleen Gray as Molly, a young performer who marries him and becomes his assistant; an icy Helen Walker as a manipulative psychologist whose ethics are just as low as Stanton’s; and the hulking Mike Mazurki as a carnival strongman.
As dark as it is, the film apparently softened the novel in certain respects. So naturally it’s now on my books-to-eventually-read list.
“Gun Crazy,” released in 1950, is rightly considered the prototype for all subsequent movies about young killers in love. Without “Gun Crazy” there would have been no “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Badlands.”
Irish actress Peggy Cummins plays Annie Laurie Starr, a crack shot who demonstrates her marksmanship as a carnival performer, and John Dall is Barton Tare, also a crack shot, who joins her carnival act after besting her in a shooting contest.
Annie is a blond sociopath, cold-blooded but alluring, and Bart is a reluctant killer with an almost fetishistic need to own guns. Cummins, in her last American film, holds the screen with chilly intensity. As Barton, a character who has been to reform school and spent four years in the Army, Dall seems incongruously tepid — less a nihilist than a friendly terrier.
Still, director Joseph H. Lewis, working from a screenplay by the blacklisted and therefore uncredited Dalton Trumbo, creates a gritty, fast-paced low-budget movie with a distinct visual style. All exteriors were shot on L.A. locations — standing in for Chicago, Albuquerque and other places — and he moves the camera in inventive ways that were unusual in 1950.
Both “Gun Crazy” and “Nightmare Alley” are available as DVD rentals on Netflix.
▪ “Hollow Triumph” (1948). A thriller about a gangster ex-con who assumes the identity of his doppelganger, a psychologist in L.A. Paul Henreid plays both roles.
▪ “Mystery Street” (1950). Ricardo Montalban plays a cop and Bruce Bennett (who appeared in his fair share of noir titles) is a forensics expert investigating a Cape Cod murder. Directed by John Sturges (“Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape.”)
▪ “Border Incident” (1949). Director Anthony Mann (who would later make a series of memorable Jimmy Stewart Westerns) casts Montalban and George Murphy as federal agents investigating a gang smuggling illegal workers from Mexico and murdering them before they can return. Music by Andre Previn.
▪ “The People Against O’Hara” (1950). Another Sturges film, with Spencer Tracy as an alcoholic attorney seeking redemption and a young pre-“Gunsmoke” James Arness.
I’m sorry to say I’ll have to miss these films; I’ll be at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival to see “King Lear,” which, come to think of it, has all the elements of a classic film noir.
“Summer of Darkness” continues through July 31.