Films Noir: an occasional review

The Enforcer (1951) starts, as others have recognized, well. There’s a Hitchcockian tautness to the narration, the camera work and editing is excellent and everyone performs to order, including Bogart in a curiously muted role that gives no hint of his star-status. Some of the film was directed (uncredited) by Raoul Walsh, but I don’t know which parts; could it be like The Wizard of Oz, with its brilliant bookends from King Vidor encasing comparatively dull filming in between (enlivened by brilliant comedy from Bert Lahr and others of course). Perhaps the first twenty minutes are just too good and what follows is bound to be a let-down. It’s not clear why it’s a let down; there’s good location shooting, the occasions of violence are suitably nasty (especially for the period). But even with its flashbacks, which get quite complicated, it does not have the mood of, say, Dmytryk’s Farewell my Lovely.

Perhaps the problem is that we are putting it in the wrong genre. After all, it’s a police procedural, where mood does not matter, or matters less. But it appears on most noir lists and Crossfire (Dmytryk again), often cited as a central noir, has procedural affinities. For this movie, and for many others, the noir label seems to pull them out of their natural orbit. But how many genuine noirs does that leave? Not many I suspect. Would it help to be much more selective in counting noirs? Is this just a sterile exercise in taxonomy? Here’s a hypothesis: a few central, indisputable noirs are really very good; better by far than any procedural. So the tendency is to claim noir status for item you like and which has any plausibility as a noir. An alternative is that noir is hyper-attractive to critics and theoreticians who similarly seek an inflation. Either way, the result is a shapeless concept. We will see.

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