Sunday, February 28, 2021

Blacks and Film Noir

Richard Widmark and Sidney
Poitier in No Way Out
Among the most influential movements in movie history was film noir. There is a good deal of argument as to when the era of classic noir ended, but I believe it safe to say it unfolded from the mid-Forties into the Fifties. This period, which spanned the end of World War II and the post-war years, was also a time of changes in American society, including the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. In the post war period, American movies began to be more progressive in their portrayal of African Americans. This was particularly true of film noir. It is true that stereotypes, such as the train porter in The Narrow Magin (1952), occasionally appeared in noir, for the most part Black characters in film noir are portrayed as three dimensional characters, well beyond the stereotypes of earlier years. Despite this, there were only a few film noirs made during the classic period that featured Black protagonists.

With regards to notable performances by Blacks in film noir, among the most memorable is Theresa Harris as Eunice Leonard in Out of the Past (1961). Her scene is brief, but it is significant. While Miss Harris is once more playing a maid, she is out on the town with her boyfriend and she is actually allowed to appear glamorous for a change. Eunice is portrayed as a three dimensional character rather than a simple stereotype. Perhaps my only caveat with the scene is that Eunice gives her weight as 131 pounds. Standing only 5' 2", Theresa Harris probably weighed 100 pounds at most.

Body and Soul, also released in 1947, featured another notable performance by an African American, in this case the great Canada Lee. Canada Lee played a welterweight boxer, Ben Chaplin, who becomes the trainer and confidant of John Garfield's character Charley Davis. Throughout the film Charley treats Ben as an equal and the two address each other by their first names. What is more, Ben is not a minor character, playing a major role throughout Body and Soul. In playing Ben Chaplin, Canada Lee gives  one of his best performances in a film that was much more progressive in its portrayal of an African American character than most movies before it.

The Breaking Point (1950) features another progressive portrayal of a Black character. Juano Hernández plays Wesley Park, lead character Harry Morgan's (John Garfield) partner on a fishing boat. Harry treats Wesley as an equal and it is clear that he cares for him deeply. Wesley isn't just Harry's partner; he is his friend. What is more, Wesley is given his own life. He has a son, played by Juano Hernández's real life son Juan.

While Canada Lee and Juano Hernández receive a good deal of screen time in Body and Soul and The Breaking Point, Mauri Leighton (billed as Mauri Lynn) appears only briefly in The Big Night (1951), but her appearance is significant. The Big Night refers to a night during which 17 year old George La Main (John Barrymore, Jr.) takes a major step towards manhood. In one scene George enters a night club where he is fascinated by the singer there, played by Mauri Leighton. When she leaves, George attempts to compliment her, but inadvertently makes a racist comment in doing so. To George's credit, he does regret the comment, as he realizes he has hurt her.  The scene is significant in that it actually portrays a white boy attracted to a black woman, something that would have been forbidden only a few years earlier. Furthermore, the scene demonstrates  the sort of casual racism that exists to this day. While she is not on screen for long, Mauri Leighton gives a great performance of the song "Am I Too Young" and the hurt in her face in reaction to George's comment says more than an entire monologue could.

While there are other performances by Black actors I could discuss, I want to take this time now to move onto film noirs in which the protagonist was Black. Only a very few such films were made during the classic period, but those few films are significant in that they demonstrate the progress Hollywood had made in its portrayal of African Americans since the Thirties and early Forties.

What might have been the first film noir to feature a Black protagonist was No Way Out (1951). The film starred Sidney Poitier in his first major role. He played Dr. Luther Brooks, the first Black doctor at an urban hospital. Unfortunately for Dr. Brooks, attempted robbers, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) and Johnny Biddle (Dick Paxton), are brought to the hospital ward after both were shot in the leg. Ray is extremely racist, and makes his hatred of Dr. Brooks very clear from the beginning.The film features early appearances by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (their first film together).

No Way Out originated as a story by screenwriter Lesser Samuels, based on the experiences of his son-in-law, who was a doctor. As hard as it maybe, in Lesser Samuels's original story, the doctor was white. After Joseph L. Mankiewicz bought the rights to the story, he transformed the story from being about a a white doctor working alongside Black doctors to one about a Black doctor. In doing so he created a script that broke with stereotypes in featuring a powerful, educated Black doctor. Sidney Poitier's performance further made it clear that Dr. Luther Brooks was an intelligent man of great responsibility.

In addition to presenting a very progressive portrayal of African Americans, it also presented an all-too-accurate portrayal of racism, not only in the form of Ray Biddle, but in other white characters as well. Richard Widmark, who was very different in real life from the characters he played, became friends with Sidney Poitier and actually apologized to him every single time he was required to abuse Mr. Poitier mentally or physically. Because of its progressive portrayal of a Black doctor and its portrayal of racism, No Way Out was met with some controversy. It ran into censorship issues around the country (including a temporary ban in Chicago following race riots there) and did not play in much of the South.

As controversial as No Way Out was, Native Son (1951) would be even more so. The film was based on Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son. Both the film and the novel centred on Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who becomes chauffeur to a wealthy family and finding himself plunged into a world of violence. The novel was adapted into a play that opened on Broadway in 1941. That having been said, it would be some time before it was adapted to film. MGM offered Richard Wright $25,000 for the rights on the condition that it had an all white cast. As might be expected, Mr. Wright turned them down. Independent producer Harold Hecht made an offer for the film rights, but his plans would also have made big changes to the novel's plot. Rather than being a young Black man, Bigger would have belonged to an oppressed white minority, such as a Pole or Italian. There would have also been a Jewish character and a Black character in the cast, who at the film's end would realize that what happened to Bigger could have happened to them as well. Richard Wright also rejected this offer.

It was after Richard Wright moved to Paris that he came in contact with Uruguayan producer James Prades and French director Pierre Chenal. Messrs. Prades and Chenal expressed interest in producing a movie based on Native Son that would remain faithful to the novel. They also wanted Richard Wright to write the screenplay. Ultimately, the film was shot in Argentina. Richard Wright had wanted Canada Lee to play the lead role of Bigger Thomas, but he was unable to do so. Having difficulty finding a leading man, Richard Wright wound up playing the role himself.

The major studios in the United States refused to release Native Son, and ultimately it was released by a small outfit called Independent Classic Pictures. The movie's problems did not end there, as it ran afoul of local censorship boards. Several scenes would be cut from the movie, including  scene in which Bigger kills a rat in his family's tenement in Chicago and various lines, including references to lynching in the South. In Ohio the film was rejected outright. Ultimately, in various regions of the country so much of the film was cut that it affected its continuity. Given how much various censorship boards chopped up Native Son, it failed at the box office. Fortunately in the Teens, the Library of Congress would restore the film, which had not been scene in its original state for literally decades.

Seen today it is easy to understand why Native Son evoked such controversy. It was an unflinching look at systemic racism in the United States, with an all too realistic portrayal of race hatred and police violence for many Americans in the early Fifties to stomach. Native Son is not a perfect film. Some of the acting is over the top and Pierre Chenal's direction at times leaves a bit to be desired. That having been said, Richard Wright's script is brutal in its portrayal of racism in America at the time, and George Garate's cinematography is exceptional. Although often criticized, I find Richard Wright's performance as Bigger Thomas to be fairly good. While Mr. Wright was obviously too old at 40 to be convincing as a 25 years old, he often hits just the right emotional notes in the role, sometimes doing better than the more experienced actors in the movie.

It would be several years after Native Son that Edge of the City (1957) would be released. The film centred on the friendship between  longshoreman Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes) and the head of stevedore gang Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier). Unfortunately, their friendship is complicated by the head of another stevedore gang, the vicious racist Charlie Malick (Jack Warden).

Edge of the City originated as the teleplay "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall," which aired on The Philco Television Playhouse on October 2 1955. It was in the teleplay that Sidney Poitier originated the role of Tommy Tyler. While the movie adaptation of the teleplay in the United States would be titled Edge of the City, it retained the teleplay's title A Man is Ten Feet Tall in the United Kingdom. MGM was a bit nervous about the film given it centred on race relations and worried about its profitability in the South. For that reason it was budgeted at only $500,000.

Edge of the City was well received by preview audiences and also received positive notices from critics. Unfortunately, it would do well at the box office. Although Edge of the City was not banned outright, many exhibitors in the South refused to book the film because of its portrayal of an interracial friendship. Of course, its portrayal of a friendship between a Black man and a white man is precisely what made Edge of the City a revolutionary film. It was something that had very rarely been seen before.

It was two years after Edge of the City that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was released. In fact, there are those who believe Odds Against Tomorrow is the final film of the classic period of film noir. Odds Against Tomorrow was based on the novel of the same name by William P. McGivern. Odds Against Tomorrow stars Harry Belafonte as Johnny Ingram, a compulsive gambler who down on his luck. In need of money, Johnny joins in on a plan for a heist engineered by an embittered former police officer (David Burke, played by Ed Begley). Unfortunately, the third member of the heist's crew is Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), an ex-convict who also happens to be a die-hard racist.

Odds Against Tomorrow was financed by HarBel Productions, a company owned by Harry Belafonte. This allowed Mr. Belafonte complete control over the production, something he would not have been permitted had it been produced by a major studio. Among the cast and crew hand-picked by Harry Belafonte was screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who had written the screenplays for such films as Golden Earrings (1947), Body and Soul (1947), and, with Ira Wolfert, Force of Evil (1948), which he also directed. Unfortunately, Mr. Polonsky found himself blacklisted after he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. As he was still blacklisted, Black novelist John O. Killens, was used as a front. Abraham Polonsky's credit would be restored by the Writer's Guild of America in 1996.

At its core Odds Against Tomorrow is essentially a heist film where race relations play a major role. Earle Slater casually drops the word "piccaninny" as well as the N-word itself. For most of the film David Burke finds himself trying to keep Earle Slater and Johnny Ingram from each other's throats even as they are executing the heist. Here it must be pointed that Odds Against Tomorrow broke with earlier films in another way. A henchman for mobster Bacco, Coco (Richard Bright), is portrayed as overtly gay. In the late Fifties even veiled references to homosexuality were considered taboo in film.

In Odds Against Tomorrow Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley were all in top form. Furthermore, Robert Wise's direction is excellent and Abraham Polonsky's screenplay powerful. Despite this, Odds Against Tomorrow did not do particularly well at the box office, although it received positive notices from critics. Fortunately, it has developed a following over the years.

The year 1959 marked the end of the classic period of film noir. And while Black leads were rare during that period, the noirs of the classic period would have influence on the neo-noirs of the coming decades. The casts of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Dead Presidents (1995), and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) all feature predominantly Black casts in non-stereotypical roles. While Black leads were rare in film noirs of the late Forties and the Fifties, it would be films such as No Way Out and Odds Against Tomorrow that would pave the way for African Americans in non-stereotypical roles not only in neo-noir, but in other genres as well.


Caftan Woman said...

Excellent article on a fascinating subject. The crime genre films that comprise film-noir seemed able to get away with their boundary-pushing where the bigger budget mainline studio productions could not, but even they would follow suit when creative minds with something to say found their venue.

Evil Woman Blues said...

What about Dooley Wilson? There might be a debate about whether or not Casablanca was a film noir but assuming it makes the grade, Wilson's rendition of "As Time Goes By" is a classic. Play it Sam . . .