Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Dial N for Noir 

"Darkness Visible: The Films of Anthony Mann and John Alton."

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
Much of film noir's enduring appeal can be traced to its anonymity. There's something seductive about the idea of little-known postwar pulp writers in seedy hotel rooms banging out these squalid sendups of everything wholesome and good, which Hollywood's B studios eagerly transformed into angstfests about working-class losers hounded by femmes fatales and implacable fate. But even a downbeat genre like noir has its superstars and, yes, its happy collaborations. The six films made by director Anthony Mann (1906-1967) and cinematographer John Alton (1901-1996) comprise, if not quite a holy grail, at least a magna carta of noir. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts honors these classics with "Darkness Visible: The Films of Anthony Mann and John Alton."

Alton's apprenticeship in German expressionist styles informs the seminal T-Men (1947). This nail-hard policier about a Treasury Department investigation started a run of pseudo-documentary noirs, but it's most memorable for Alton's forced perspectives and suffocating shadow play. Mann's sadistic impulses are worked out at the expense of a pathetic stool pigeon slowly murdered in a steam bath.

The next year was their most productive. Raw Deal's B cast -- Dennis O'Keefe, Marsha Hunt, and Claire Trevor -- lends a gritty authenticity to this tale of an escaped con and his two molls. Theremin music, a monotone voice-over, and increasingly dim sources of light make this a key work in the noir canon. He Walked by Night features Richard Basehart as a coldblooded killer who predicts all those murderous cyborgs of the '70s and '80s; in one literally agonizing scene he meticulously removes a bullet from his flesh. And Reign of Terror was a novelty even for these experimentally minded guys -- it's the first film noir costume drama! This campy tale of French Revolution intrigue is the ultimate in noir excess, with whole rooms lit by a single candle, preposterously low angles, and fruity dialogue. (Robespierre: "Don't call me Max!")

A year later, in Border Incident, Mann and Alton turned to the great outdoors -- the Southwest -- for a grim story about exploited braceros. This film features one of noir's more grisly death scenes when a screaming George Murphy is hacked to death by the blades of a giant cultivator. (Murphy survived the film to become a U.S. senator from California.) Devil's Doorway (also 1950) moves the pair into western territory, but not to worry -- this still-timely tale of a Native American whose patriotism is rewarded by a seizure of his land is as dark as any of the "official" noirs.

"Darkness Visible" runs Friday nights, Dec. 3, 10, and 17, at 8 p.m. at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. All but He Walked by Night are 35mm archive prints. Admission

About The Author

Gary Morris


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"