This year’s edition of “Noir City: Chicago”—the Music Box Theatre’s annual weeklong festival of classic and obscure film noir titles—started with a bang this past Friday night with a 35-millimeter revival of In a Lonely Place (1950), one of director Nicholas Ray’s greatest achievements. (If you missed the show, the film is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.) Eddie Muller of Turner Classic Movies introduced the screening, shining light on how the film was a personal project not only for Ray, but for star Humphrey Bogart. According to Muller, the actor purchased the rights to Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel because he saw a lot of himself in its antihero, a temperamental, cynical screenwriter with a history of violent behavior. The host went on to assert that, in its critique of Dixon Steele’s tough-guy persona, In a Lonely Place constitutes one of the most significant analyses of male psychopathology in cinema. One might add that several of Ray’s films merit this distinction, as On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Lusty Men (1952), and Bigger Than Life (1956) all look at neurotic male protagonists to consider problematic male behavior in general.
Film noir lends itself to case studies of tortured male psychopathology, likely because the genre abounds with macho archetypes and expressionist stylistics, the latter emphasizing certain elements of the former and bringing them into focus. Robert Aldrich (whose Kiss Me Deadly played in Noir City on Sunday) was another major noir director who understood this well; indeed he continued his interrogation of machismo well after the noir era ended, with such features as Too Late the Hero (1970), Hustle (1975), and The Choirboys (1977). Of course, filmmakers in other genres have critiqued traditional male behavior as well. None has issued a more savage critique than Kenji Mizoguchi, arguably the greatest Japanese filmmaker, who often told stories of suffering women as a means of illuminating the brutality of male-dominated society. In examining his own (frequently bad) behavior, French director Maurice Pialat (We Won’t Grow Old Together; Van Gogh) turned a spotlight on the limitations of male bravado, specifically in the artistic community. The same can be said of contemporary South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose critiques of male psychopathology take a decidedly lighter tone.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies that examine, interrogate, or critique traditional male behavior.
Foolish Wives Little more than half of Erich von Stroheim’s 1921 film survives as he designed it, yet its epic view of postwar European decadence is still staggering. Stroheim stars as a bogus count plying the wealthy widow trade in Monte Carlo (actually a mammoth set built on the Universal lot and equipped down to the last detail); when he seduces an American millionairess, her husband challenges him to a duel, and the count takes advantage of his last night on earth to rape the mentally retarded girl who’s been placed in his charge. All of this is carried out in the name of high “realism,” yet Stroheim’s compulsions far outstrip the merely naturalistic. With Maud George, Mae Busch, and an actress billed as “Miss Dupont.” —Dave Kehr
I Live in Fear A 1955 feature by Akira Kurosawa and one of his most underrated, starring Toshiro Mifune as an aging patriarch who, frightened by the prospect of a nuclear war, decides to sell his family business and move to a farm in Brazil. Along with Kurosawa’s sublime Rhapsody in August, which also deals with the atomic bomb, this was probably the most poorly received work of his entire career, but I persist in finding it among the most memorable: eerie, troubling, and haunting. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Mikey and Nicky Elaine May’s 1976 film, dumped by Paramount on first release, is one of the most innovative, engaging, and insightful films of that turbulent era of American moviemaking. John Cassavetes is a small-time hood on the run from a powerful syndicate boss; he calls on boyhood friend Peter Falk to help him in his hour of need, but he can’t be sure of his loyalties—Falk works for the same outfit. May allows the improvisational rhythms of her actors to establish the surface realism of the film, but beneath the surface lies a tight, poetically stylized screenplay that leads the two characters, as they pass a fearful, frenzied night together, back over the range of their lives, from infancy to adulthood. At every step May tests the two men’s affection against the conflicting demands of making a living and finding a measure of security in a brutal, unstable world; what emerges is a profound, unsentimental portrait of male friendship—and of its ultimate impossibility. With Ned Beatty, Rose Arrick, Carol Grace, and Joyce Van Patten. —Dave Kehr
White Hunter, Black Heart Clint Eastwood assuredly directs this adaptation of Peter Viertel’s roman a clef about the events preceding the filming of The African Queen, with Eastwood himself playing the John Huston character—who decides to shoot a movie in Africa as an excuse to hunt elephants. In a daring departure from his usual roles, Eastwood doesn’t so much impersonate Huston as offer a commentary on him and on macho bluster in general, and thanks to the beautifully structured script by Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy—which also has a lot of interesting things to say about colonialism and Hollywood (both separately and in conjunction with one another)—it’s a devastating portrait of self-deceiving obsession, and a notable improvement on Viertel’s book in terms of economy and focus. With Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Alun Armstrong, Marisa Berenson, Timothy Spall, and Mel Martin (1990). —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Night and Day Korean director Hong Sang-soo (Woman on the Beach) makes movies about sex, but it’s always the elephant in the room, diligently ignored by his characters even as they carry on the elaborate bargaining of seduction. In this 2008 feature a successful painter (Kim Yeong-ho) flees Seoul after a minor drug incident and hides out in Paris; though he’s got a wife back home, he immediately falls for a young art student (Park Eun-hye) who wants his validation almost as much as he wants her body. Two other women orbit the painter too, and as in Hong’s other movies, male vanity becomes an endless source of muted, tongue-in-cheek comedy. Hong works in long, improvised scenes that seem to go nowhere, but they’re so rife with sexual subtext that, even at 144 minutes, the movie never feels long. Of course, when you’re hoping to get laid, it’s easy to lose track of time. —J.R. Jones v