Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hell Bound (1957)

The Times They Are a-Changing.

Noir's thorny Road to Perdition was a long and complicated one. Noir has always been a slippery concept and defining it can be very problematic, after all it was a label retrospectively applied. The nonexistence of Noir as a production category during its heyday obviously problematizes the history of the genre.  When did it begin and what was its swan song? To me the general consensus of it lasting from 1941-1958 is capricious. 

We could argue now that, like Elvis, Noir never really died. Foster Hirsch does exactly that in his book Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (p.15 et al.). In the same vein C. Jerry Kutner maintains in his article Beyond the Golden Age: Film Noir Since the ’50s for Bright Lights Journal that “there is no ‘neo-noir’, there is no ‘proto-noir’, there is only Noir”. If we see Noir as a worldview, a mood, a tone and a general feeling of malaise while disregarding the historical context I’d agree with this assessment. As long as there is life on this planet, there will be existential dread, doom, paranoia, obsessive love and despair. 

It is a different matter when we talk about the Classic Noir cycle. By the late 50s Noir's halcyon days were over and the genre was without a doubt coming to a fork in the road. It’s very hard to nail down exactly when Classic Noir was laid to rest, if it was at all. Some maintain it breathed its last in 1958 in a little Mexican border town helped along by a fat corrupt sheriff, others say it was blown to smithereens in a refinery explosion outside New York in 1959. My brilliant academic research unearthed conclusive evidence for a different scenario (in other words, I had this epiphany after an all-night bender. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it). The last vestiges of Classic Noir hemorrhaged to death one night in the shower of a run-down motel room, its sins washed down the drain forever. We all know the culprit and he can deny the accusations till the cows come home, we know better.

There have been quite a few reported sightings during the 60s and every time people thought they’d buried Noir, every time the coffin stayed empty. But by now Noir’s trajectory had changed. Noir tropes mean nothing when they stray too far from their original message. Noir has always been more than just men in fedoras and dames in fabulous outfits. It was a reflection of its time and as such it is hard to replicate because the historical and societal circumstances that made it possible are not present anymore (WWII and its lingering aftereffects, returning veterans, postwar disillusionment, HUAC, the A bomb and McCarthyism). Nothing happens in a vacuum. Classic Noir loses its soul when it is removed from its time and place in history, and certain historical events are always at the very least subtext in Classic Noir. Paul Schrader wrote in his seminal article Notes on Film Noir
“You can't pull a style out from its roots and the roots of Film Noir are World War II, German Expressionism, Existentialism and Freud as they were filtered into pop culture."
Noir needed to be slyly subversive to get its point across. It needed the Code and got its distinctive look and sound when it was skirting censorship rules. By the late 50s the Production Code was eroding, the once-powerful studio system was coming apart at the seams. Independent Producers gained hold and they could - just like Poverty Row Studios - much more easily challenge taboo subjects, because they were less under the microscope of scrutiny by the guardians of morality. Their under-the-radar B-ness and an anything-goes approach often eluded the censors. At the end of the cycle, Noir’s DNA was mutating.

On her fabulous website The Last Drive In Jo Gabriel writes in her article Film Noir: Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter
“Film Noir had an inevitable trajectory…the eccentric and often gutsy style of Film Noir had nowhere else to go…but to reach for even more off-beat, deviant, endlessly risky and taboo oriented set of narratives found in the subversive and exploitative cult films of the mid to late 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s.”
Spot on. My friend Joe over at Noirsville phrased it like this: 
“With nothing really giving some of these directors and producers some parameters, or putting the brakes on, there was no speed limit, they just shot past the limits of contemporary common sense, cultural acceptability and good taste.” 
Films that went too far showing violence would then be classified as horror or thriller, those that went too far depicting sex, drugs and torture were being lumped together as Exploitation.
What had happened? The 60s happened, but that is a discussion I will bore you with another time, kids.

As of now it is 1957 and Hell Bound is full of pulpy seedy goodness. Made on a quarter, if not a dime, it has everything a proper B Noir should have. Sexy dames, suggestive situations, good dialogue, harsh violence and a soundtrack by Les Baxter. 

Clocking in at under 70 minutes, this low-renter doesn’t overstay its welcome. Director William J. Hole, whose career was largely an undistinguished one, worked almost exclusively in television and Hell Bound was his only Noir. It’s a lurid wallow in the lower depths of American life. So often these little cheapos are better than they have any right to be. Low budget is not a crime until it meets low scriptwriting, bad acting and awful dialogue. And thankfully we don’t get that here.

John Russell plays ruthless Jordan, the mastermind of a surplus narcotics heist worth $2 million from a cargo ship. His plan is as follows: the cargo ship picks up a bogus seaman found adrift as the sole “survivor” of a bogus fishing boat accident. The ship has to be put under quarantine, the seaman steals the drugs and puts them in the coat pocket of an on-the-take diabetic health inspector called in to check up on the “seaman”. A phony nurse, Russell’s girlfriend Jan (Margo Woode), takes the inspector’s coat off the ship and everyone’s happy.

Russell just needs a money man to bankroll the operation and finds him in crime boss Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton). He pitches the idea to him, via “infomercial”. It is a strange way to open a movie, but stay with it. Quantro isn’t averse, he is willing to stake the heist under the condition that his girlfriend Paula (June Blair) - who he doesn’t keep around for her brilliant conversation - plays the nurse who will get the drugs off the ship. Quantro needs to keep the tabs on Jordan. The plan goes sideways when Paula genuinely falls in love with unwitting ambulance driver Eddie Mason (a very young Stuart Whitman).

The 40s had been a world of perpetual night where evil lurked in every shadow and around every corner. Maybe it was that by the mid-50s Noir had become aware of itself as an art form, and self-consciously so, that the decade gave way to naturalistic lighting and gritty realism. The cinematography by Carl Guthrie is very good, but it is lacking the characteristic Expressionist play of light and shadows. Often shot in a rather flat style, on the whole late 50s Noir is stripped of much of the visual poetry and elegant stylization that qualified earlier Noirs of the classic period. Now Noir hid in broad daylight. 

As camera equipment became lighter, filming was going away from backlots and closed sound stages too. On-location shooting became more and more the norm. Hell Bound showcases many evocative exterior scenes of bleak industrial sites. The film is worth watching alone for the last scene of a chase through the desolate Los Angeles trolley graveyard, one of the most creative shooting locations I have seen. 

Hell Bound indisputably has an exploitative angle in the gleeful depiction of brutal and unrestrained violence which isn’t in the least bit cartoonish. The administered beatings look like they really hurt, much more so than in any other films of that era. 

We also get a wonderful Grindhouse moment. One of the best scenes in the movie must be the one in the seedy strip joint where a burlesque artiste gives her best for the appreciative audience. This being 1957 we don’t see too much, she teases a lot more than she strips, but nevertheless it is unexpected to see in a mainstream film. It gets better. Her most ardent admirer is a blind (!) dope dealer named Daddy with a penchant for milk who’s doing his business right there at his front-row table! It’s marvelously weird.

Into the bargain, a decided shift in tone could be noticed compared to the 40s. The narrative was less about powerlessness in the face of pre-ordained fate, more about moral corruption of the individual and institutions, with emphasis on personal culpability.

40s Noir was asking existential questions that its protagonists had no answer to. Hell Bound doesn’t bother with that. There’s no loneliness, despair, existential torment, moral ambiguity and obsession. Hell Bound completely dispenses with the romanticism and sentimentality that was part of 40s Noir and goes straight for violence and cynicism. Though the picture is still recognizable as Noir in the classic style it has a barren, devoid of humanity feeling about it. Like chunks of ice drifting on a river.

Compared to other heist movies like Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Kubrick’s The Killing, Hell Bound’s entire philosophy is different. The narrative is not manipulated so that the moviegoer sympathizes and identifies with the criminals. No desperate down-and-out characters who are only looking for a way out populate this picture. No existential dreamers whose longing for a better life spurs them on and who have the audiences’ sympathies all the way. Hell Bound is way too mean-spirited for that.

Playboy Playmate January 1957
It’s a heist-gone-wrong movie with a difference. Jordan’s robbery is ingeniously planned but when things go sideways it’s not one of Doc Riedenschneider blind accidents that louses up the perfect crime. Frankly it’s sheer stupidity. Thing is, if you want a heist to go off smoothly, don’t surround yourself with a bunch of flunkies from the shallow end of the gene pool who are a liability from the start and sell out for easy money on the drop of a hat.
Jordan's recruits include an deadbeat junkie in constant need of the next fix, an unbalanced health inspector on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a dame who goes soft. What could possibly go wrong with that setup? 

Very hunky John Russell is a favorite actor who unfortunately so often was relegated to playing second or third fiddle to other actors, before he became the upright lawman of the West. Amoral, vicious and sadistic, he could be straight out of a Tarantino movie and mixes an overdose of lethal charm with an equal dose of ice-cold menace. He has no redeeming qualities. He isn't driven by any kind of mad desire, especially not for a dame, a dream or a paradise lost. The robbery is a matter of simple economics. That uncut dope is worth about $2 million.

Paula tries her very very best to get cozy with him. She doesn’t get anywhere though it’s not for lack of trying. Disappointed she pouts: “You better see a doctor, Jordan. You’ve got a low blood count.” His chilling answer: “You're wrong, Paula. I’ve got no blood”. 
He controls everybody around him through sheer terror. He snuffs the snitch who gave him the plan of the ship’s cargo hold. He beats one of his cronies to a bloody pulp and he has a way with dames too. Paula gets a nasty beating before he knives her. Russell is riveting and simply makes this movie.

June Blair makes for a great Paula who looks every luscious inch just exactly what she was: Playboy Playmate of January 1957. She’s as pure as the driven and refreshingly never makes a floozy’s feint at virtue. Literally anybody who wears pants is fair game. The girl can’t help it.

She gets a great introduction. Laying in a chair she asks Jordan to help her put her shoes on, incidentally giving him a view up her skirt. As a phony nurse, she doesn’t really know the ins and outs of her supposed profession, but that shouldn't pose any difficulties for her. She knows she has her own qualifications for the job. “There isn’t any part of the anatomy I don’t know, even with my eyes closed”, the lady coos. We believe her. 

We get a little bit of shoe fetishism here. Kicking off her shoes means it’s action time for some lucky guy. And Paula seems to be willing to kick her shoes off with alarming frequency. There’s another dame in the movie who does the same with her glasses. 
Paula is Noir’s good-bad girl. Once she falls in love, things change. The only jarring note in an otherwise nifty little caper is that Paula survives the knife attack and gets her happy ending. A remnant of those dreaded Code-enforced endings maybe, but it's a minor flaw in an otherwise very entertaining film.

Apart from that, Hell Bound stays true to the spirit of Noir. In the end it all adds up to nothing. Jordan dies the way he lived, violently. As decommissioned trolleys are waiting for their disposal in the junk yard, so is Jordan. He’s climbed into one of the empty rail cars trying to evade capture, unfortunately a bunch of scrap metal is coming towards his way.

Noir’s appeal is eternal, it lives on in other genres and pictures and many filmmakers owe it a debt that cannot be repaid. Jean-Luc Godard acknowledged this debt and famously dedicated his 1960 movie À bout de souffle/Breathless to Monogram Pictures. As long as there are rotten dames, suckers, desperate men on the run, shyster lawyers, losers without a friend, but with a plan and dames that can’t help loving the wrong man, Noir doesn’t need an epitaph. It doesn’t even have a tombstone yet.

18 comments:

  1. Great review, J, as always.

    I'm heading to Seattle and then on to Honolulu. One side trip is to visit whats left of "Hell's Half Acre" on Oahu otherwise know as Chinatown, location of Hell's Half Acre (1954).

    BTW I'm still following Jo Gabriel's guiding quote and actually found two of what I guess you can only call Porn Noirs.

    The first is a Neo Noir Drama from 1973. Back then it was labeled Sexploitation. The version I first saw was 78 minutes long and you can watch it on Amazon Prime for two or three dollars. It's an "R" rated version cropped to 1.85:1

    The original 1.33:1 ratio (now out on Bluray) is restored to 87 minutes so its in your "classic noir" length range. The 87 minute length shows a bit of, oh my god real "sex."

    It would make a good double bill with Midnight Cowboy. Or in a triple bill with Taxi Driver as the other book end. It's about a young woman who is a hustler, con artist, user/shack-up artist, petty thief, hooker, who is scratching for survival around Times Square. A lot is shot on location. It's Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973). The actress Laura Cannon is incredibly good. Its low budget but very well made.

    The second is called Forced Entry (1973) it's real Hard Core but even more stylistic than the first, but warning its a very misogynistic film about a Vietnam Vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his being captured and tortured by a troop of Vietcong women. He stalks rapes an kills women during his flashbacks to Vietnam and its all right in your face.

    These two films go against the popular belief that Porn was just cheap throwaway junk. They also show that Hollywood had some viable competition with films made in New York City Anyway I have these and a couple of other reviews already in the can that I'll post while on Oahu.

    I'll post Fleshpot on 42nd Street tomorrow.

    Cheers,
    CJ

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    1. Hi Joe, Hawaii sounds pretty sweet. I still haven't got there though it's not too far from Oregon. Hell's Half Acre is a neat little Noir. Not much left of the neighborhood I guess, but you could post some location photos.

      Porn Noir, ha ha. I'll probably skip those two movies you mention. :) But there's no doubt about the fact that some 60s and 70s (S)exploitation movies actually tried to convey a message.

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    2. Fleshpot actually is centered around a very strong quite noir female character which is highly unusual, like I mentioned the "R" version is on Amazon Prime streaming and women may find it quite interesting. Give it a spin you may be surprised. lol.

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  2. I've never heard of this one, but after reading your fab review I think I need to change that pronto. Sounds cracking. I had to giggle at Blind dope dealer in a strip joint LOL. I also agree with you that Psycho can be classed as Noir. Back in the old IMDb board days, I did a post discussing whether or not this film would have worked solely as a Noir if Marion didn't drop by the Bates Motel and meet the fate she does, many agreed with me that it would have.

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    1. Hi Maddy, the blind dope dealer is hilarious.

      Sometimes I miss the old imdb days, well at least before it all got out of hand. I'd say too that Psycho would have worked well as a straightforward Noir, without Norman Bates of course.

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  3. John Russell intrigues me. No blood, eh? This I must see.

    I'm a classicist when it comes to noir. However, I am not averse to the idea of a constantly changing flow throughout eras for the style. Not quite on board, but not going to jump ship.

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    1. I agree we have to differ between Classic Noir and everything else. I don't agree with Kutner in his Bright Lights Journal article that there is only Noir. However, he makes a very good case for his opinion and the article is really worth reading.

      But I do find the classification of the Noir cycle being from 1941-58 very arbitrary.

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  4. Oh that's a superb piece of writing and your eulogy of noir's ending 'in the shower of a run-down motel room' is pure poetry. And the truth is in your final comments that there will always be suckers, conmen, desperate men and women and all manner of fatal relationships - as long as there are humans walking these streets. (I'm probably one of the suckers and in true noir form, cynically admit it!) Noir's appeal IS eternal!

    I am so disappointed that I keep missing your work on my feed - there's something wrong with my browser or subscription I think. I LOVE your writing - it has a beautiful quality and should be published.

    I also just found Hell Bound and I'm going to enjoy watching it tonight!

    Thanks again for the link and an outstanding piece of work.

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    1. Thank you so much for the compliment, Paul. :)
      I'm afraid most of us are suckers, ha. I have the feeling that's one reason Noir is still so popular. We're all a bit like Charlie Brown.

      About subscribing to other people's blogs, I have problems with that too. I also don't have a Wordpress blog which seems to make it difficult to comment on other blogs sometimes, and I can't give thumbs up. Don't know what's going on.

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  5. I find all the attempts to define film noir and its time period to be very interesting, although I'm sure the arguments have all been beaten to death in noir circles. The point you make about its specific wartime/post-war origins is an important one, I think. That's why "neo-noir" and stuff of that ilk always feels artificial to me, because people are trying to recreate a style that was closely related to a particular era and particular concerns, some of them under the surface. When the western occasionally gets revived, there's similarly a self-conscious feeling of "we're doing a western", but there isn't a fixed western style, which helps. Noir is both a style and a genre, which makes attempts to revive or resuscitate it very self-conscious. You also allude to some other issues, like the decline of the code. There's also the decline of programmer type films. That content mostly moved to TV, although a lot of later "neo noir" was probably intended for the video rental market, the 80s/90s equivalent of the B movie. There's also the move to spectacle, blockbusters, widescreen and, most fatally I think, colour. Film noir in colour is just not the same thing.

    I did like the blind man in the strip joint! Striptease scenes in films of this era are always funny. Kind of difficult to do with the censorship of the time. I also liked the trolley graveyard, that reminds me of the plane scrapyard in The Best Years of Our Lives.

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    1. The arguments of what constitutes Noir have certainly been beaten to death, no doubt. I usually don't go into that, my view of Noir is a fairly broad one.
      The neo-Noirs that don't work for me are in general the contemporary ones that are set in the 40s/50s. Like many period pieces - any period really - they're cringe-inducingly revisionist.

      I really like the location photography in Hell Bound.

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  6. A stunning piece of writing,as always.
    Great to see this unheralded little gem from the Bel-Air fun factory finally get the attention
    it so richly deserves.
    Couldn't agree more regarding John Russell. I seem to recall a nice looking MOD/DVD was released
    several years back and should not be too hard to track down.

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    1. Thanks, John. I have the MOD DVD, print is good. Of course no extras.

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  7. Margo,I have now had more time to consider not only your inspired choice this time but also
    the points that you raise in your rather splendid intro.
    Am I right in thinking by the late 50's Noir was more or less confined to B, Programmer or Exploitation Movie fare.

    Apart from the three prime examples that you note most films remotely considered as Noir were
    generally B Movie fare,considering of course, the late 50's early 60's Gangster Movie cycle/revival.
    HELL BOUND was a Bel Air production who at that time were more or less an Exploitation Movie outfit.
    Their earlier BIG HOUSE USA was as cruel and mean spirited as it's possible for a movie to be.
    As you noted Bel Air were not afraid of letting a little subversiveness enter their films.
    Their Western THE BROKEN STAR was a re-working of their earlier Noir SHIELD FOR MURDER.
    THE BROKEN STAR is not even a Noir Western but it does star Howard Duff an actor who has a frailty
    that makes him an ideal Noir performer.There's a nice off kilter moment in THE BROKEN STAR where
    strident Lita Baron suddenly breaks intro song in a cantina. Lita's song is titled "I Hate You"
    which she performs while cracking a mean looking whip. The terrified looking male patrons gaze on in
    stoned silence.
    I will attempt to compile a list of B/Programmer/Exploitation movies that could fit into the Noir
    generic. I have tried to avoid,generally, Gangster Bio Pics and Sam Katzman Edward L Cahn type
    pictures because there are just so many of them....so here goes.
    First the incomparable Mamie Van Doren: GUNS GIRLS AND GANGSTERS,VICE RAID,THE GIRL IN BLACK
    STOCKINGS,THE BEAT GENERATION,THE BIG OPERATOR,some William Berke pictures STREET OF SINNERS,
    COP HATER,THE MUGGER,plus other at random titles:MY GUN IS QUICK,PLUNDER ROAD,THE MOBSTER,RETURN OF
    DRACULA,THE GUN RUNNERS...I could go on and on but I won't.

    RETURN OF DRACULA is there mainly as a lark on my part,I love the Vampire Movie/Cold War Paranoia
    vibe. Paul Landres' film has The Count loose in 50's middle America and the film punches way above
    it's trim $100.000 budget.
    Harry Cohn considered William Berke the best B Movie director in the business. STREET OF SINNERS
    is probably more of a Noir than most of the other titles I mentioned;very grim and down beat.
    George Montgomery is a street cop doing the right thing. STREET OF SINNERS had a solo booking in
    London's West End at the London Pavilion Cinema the home of Exploitation movies. This is the sort
    of oddball title Kino Lorber love to dig up....let's hope so.
    Finally THE GIRL IN BLACK STOCKINGS was a Bel Air picture that sadly did not live up (or down
    according to ones point of view) to expectations.

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  8. Firstly,Margot sorry about the flaky line breaks!
    The movie I forgot to mention was Harold Daniels A DATE WITH DEATH although I believe we have
    discussed this film before. Daniels,of course is best known for ROADBLOCK.
    I only mention this because A DATE WITH DEATH was also shot by Carl Guthrie.
    The solitary review on imdb (10/10) makes it sound like a minor masterpiece,another DETOUR perhaps?

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    1. Hi John, I think Noir was always confined to Bs and Programmers for the most part, not just in the 50s. I once talked to a guy who said he'd seen a few Noirs but only A pictures (Laura, Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon, Gilda, Third Man and the likes). While I love them all, I thought that guy hasn't seen much Noir.

      The Big House is indeed quite a mean picture with a few cruel twists I didn't see coming. I've never even heard of The Broken Star but if Lesley Selander directed it can't be bad. Yes Mamie, she was something. Vice Raid is good and Mamie plays it straight as opposed to the crazy, but not crazy enough, Girl in the Black Stockings.
      My problem with My Gun is Quick is that it waters down the character of Mike Hammer, which is always a shame. I'd like to track down Street of Sinners.

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  9. Hi again Margot,
    I think you would enjoy THE BROKEN STAR a nice looking MOD/DVD was released several years back.
    As I mentioned before it's not really a "Noir Western" but there are sly touches of humour throughout.Howard Duff and Henry Calvin are excellent.
    I forgot to mention three films from possibly my favourite B actress Mala Powers.
    MAN ON THE PROWL is more of an exploitation flick in the "Woman In Peril" genre but not without
    some merit. A plus factor is that it was shot by Nick Musuraca.
    FEAR NO MORE is Hitchcock on a micro budget but still pretty good.
    Hopefully both these films will surface,restored at some point.
    DEATH IN SMALL DOSES is available was a Warner MOD and is a hoot...Mala is the Femme Fatale
    this time 'round.
    Apart from FEAR NO MORE I would not class the other two as Noir but they do have elements of
    the genre-and they certainly fit well into the B/Programmer type of picture.
    Speaking of Spillane have you seen THE LONG WAIT another "lost" Noir well overdue for a Blu Ray
    release.

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    1. I'll try to track those titles down. I've seen The Long Wait and have an old review of it that I should dig up and revamp. Anthony Quinn is good as quasi Mike Hammer.

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