“The morally complex interrelationship of hero/villain, which is partially accountable for the remarkable intensity of his films, has at its roots the film noirs of the 1940s. The darker side of human nature, the interiority of these earlier, psychologically troubled characters, is the determining force in Mann’s noirs. We see the director striving for the depth and complexity of characterization he ultimately achieved in the great films of the 1950s.”
The career of Anthony Mann breaks into three relatively distinct periods. From his directorial debut in 1942 with Dr. Broadway until Side Street in 1949, Mann confined himself to a series of inexpensively made films that run the gamut from atmospheric noirs to lightweight musicals. Then, from Devil’s Doorway, The Furies and Winchester 73 (all in 1950) until Man of the West in 1958, he explored the psychological and physical terrain of the West with notable detours to the psychological war genre (Men in War. 1957), the Erskine Caldwell South (God’s Little Acre. 1958), and a return to the B-format of the earlier years (The Tall Target. 1951). Mann’s pointed use of landscape and decor in the 1950s films led naturally into the epics with which he ended his career. The grandiose commercial motivations of Mann’s producer Samuel Bronston, and the nature of the genre, cannot obscure the spectacular tableaux and heroic imagery of El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire. After the commercial failure of the sumptuous The Fall of the Roman Empire, Mann ended his career with The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and A Dandy in Aspic (1968) in both of which he abandoned the virtually mythological settings of the works that immediately preceded them.
Mann’s reputation today is based primarily on the Westerns of the 1950s. This West that Mann created and explored is a land of interiority externalized in the form of the landscape. The psychological dramas of James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Gary Cooper, Victor Mature, and many others are mirrored in the torturous wilderness through which they make their physical and metaphorical passages. Mann’s classical familial antagonisms, father against son, brother against brother, allow for the channeling of protean emotions. Hero and villain are at the mercy of emotions molded by events of the inescapable past. The characteristic love/hate rapport of charming “villain” and near-psychotic “hero” indicates that the greatest danger for the Mann protagonist is the possibility of becoming completely what he so closely resembles, the Mann villain. The morally complex interrelationship of hero/villain, which is partially accountable for the remarkable intensity of his films, has at its roots the film noirs of the 1940s. The darker side of human nature, the interiority of these earlier, psychologically troubled characters, is the determining force in Mann’s noirs. We see the director striving for the depth and complexity of characterization he ultimately achieved in the great films of the 1950s.
The protagonists of the earlier noirs are not the flawed, intensely human hero/villains we see time and again in the Westerns. The conditions of poverty row; hurried production schedules; relative lack of writing and acting talent; cheapness of the physical settings and the conventions inherent in B-genre films all mitigate against the duality of characterization present in the later works. A similar, though less marked, departure from the protagonists of the Westerns occurs in the epics, where the conventions and necessities of the genre point to character achieved, at least partially, through the spectacle. In both instances (poverty row and multimillion-dollar spectacular), Mann attempts to deepen characters through his masterful visual style. Lighting, composition, camera angles, and cutting are extremely well calculated in the early works, marking the director’s exploration of every possibility inherent in the medium. His approach is largely successful, resulting in the transcendence of conventional material and inferior performers. The decisive protagonist of these Mann noirs is the ambience of darkness and pain, the visually suggested pessimism that is as tangible as the frequency of physical and moral confrontation between and within protagonists.
Mann fully utilized the iconography of film noir, iconography that in part developed from his own films. The dark underside of urban life provides the milieu. From the colorful characters of Dr. Broadway to the fully realized protagonists of Raw Deal and Side Street and even to the denizens of that most bizarre of French Revolutions in Reign of Terror (1949), shadowy darkness is the common stylistic determinant. Action generally occurs at night. Typically, isolated sources of light are bare lightbulbs, deserted street lamps, flashlights, candles, and matches. Elaborate shadow patterns fracture this light. Venetian blinds, the characteristic source of shadow in film noir, refract light on faces and objects into many planes of light and dark. This world of black-and-white values (perhaps gray would be a closer approximation of the moral stance of Mann’s “heroes” in this period) is reflected in extreme contrasts in black/white imagery. The thematic determinant is an evil that reaches everywhere. The blackness which envelops, indeed smothers, Mann’s noirs is the tangible reflection of the ever-present despair of lost hopes and entrapment, ensured by the black soul of a psychotic universe.
Mann uses the icons of film noir — guns, dark staircases, neon-lit hotel room’s, bars, deserted streets, and so on. — but their primary distinction lies in the baroque photography that captures and places them in context. John Alton shot five Mann films (T-Men, Raw Deal, Reign of Terror, the 1949 Border Incident, and, a year later, Devil’s Doorway). Alton’s unique lighting style and experimental bent suited Mann well, though the director’s visual style is quite consistent from the Alton films to those shot by less distinctive cinematographers. A favorite Alton technique frequently employed in the Mann films is to dispense with lighting from above altogether, using only lateral illumination. The consequent reduction in light intensity greatly lengthens and accentuates shadows, resulting in a very dramatic lighting scheme of small points of illumination, around which strikingly deep shadows fall. Large portions of the mise en scene are thereupon drenched in darkness, lit just enough to vaguely distinguish whatever objects might be there. Often the only source of illumination will be the studio’s artful and often poetic approximation of natural light, such as the moonlight that shines through the Venetian blinds of Marsha Hunt’s bedroom in Raw Deal, or the light of the street lamp that dimly illuminates the nightclub finale of Railroaded (1947).
Hand in hand with Mann’s dramatic lighting is his tendency to employ bizarre camera angles. The world depicted in these films is off balance, a nightmare approximation of everyday reality much more than a naturalistic one, and the instability of characters in precarious situations is ably suggested through the strikingly kiltered angles Mann employs. The most unnatural camera setups are generally saved for moments of high tension and big action set-pieces. The murder of Dan Duryea in The Great Flammarion (1945) is one such instance. As the pace of the cutting quickens with shots alternating between prospective victim, killer, and instigator, the camera positions become progressively more unstable. The angles and pacing here and in similar situations throughout Mann’s early films, through this instability suggest an uneasy atmosphere of malevolence and the rejection of conventional expectations for virtue triumphant in an ordered world.
The gangsters and psychos of Mann’s poverty-row films look forward to the Robert Ryans and John Mclntires of the Westerns. These earlier noir villains are the central ingredient in the bleak world of Mann’s films. Typically, low wide-angle shots provide the visual correlative for these often psychotic villains. In Raw Deal, Raymond Burr is frequently shot from the waist up, his bulk totally filling the frame, ominously looming over the action. Similarly, John Ireland in Railroaded is frequently, and dramatically, shot from below and in darkness, stressing his dangerously unstable nature as well as his control over the events of the narrative. Darkness, and Mann’s choice of bizarre and unstable camera angles, are responsible for the ominous connotations associated with the Ireland character far more than any of the obvious, though effective, things the actor is given to say or do.
The wide-angle lenses developed through the 1940s were also utilized by Mann. Looming low- angle photography is characteristic from the start of his career. The addition of wide-angle lenses allowed Mann to enlarge the depth of field while often maintaining the ominous camera placement. This leads to some striking crowd effects in Border Incident and alienating urban images in Side Street (1949), both photographed primarily (or most memorably) at dusk. Extreme high-angle shots of city streets emphasize the dehumanizing, dwarfing scale of the urban milieu in Side Street, while the terrifying potentialities of the cultivator in Border Incident are enhanced through the use of a wide-angle lens that distorts the size and consequently the frightfulness of the machine as it almost literally eats its way through the screen and into the audience. Through the use of these various lenses Mann was also able to stress the importance of objects by placing them very close to the camera while at the same time maintaining the action deeper within the frame. An exceptional example involves the black book around which the action of Reign of Terror revolves. It looms enormously large in the extreme foreground of a series of key shots as a peasant family is interrogated about its whereabouts deeper within the frame. Similar experiments with objects and camera placement encompassing an extreme field of vision are notable in the Alton films. Alton’s experimental tendencies and talent make his work with Mann among the most interesting and valuable of the period. Nevertheless, Mann utilized the possibilities of the wide-angle lens in most of his post-1947 noirs.
The noirs, both prior to and after the pivotal T-Men (1947), are notable for their romantically fatalistic atmosphere and imagery. Mann’s collaboration with Alton and the superior scripts he was offered after he joined Eagle-Lion in 1946-47 resulted in films that are more successful than any of his previous work. The villains, particularly in the earliest films, lack the ambivalence of the later heavies. Raymond Burr, a notable Mann psychopath, functions most successfully when the film preserves an imagistic and narrative consistency. In Raw Deal (1948), which never deviates from its nightmarish mise en scene of pain-filled, shadowy darkness reinforced by fatalistic narration, the powers of underworld king Burr approach the omniscient. He sees into everything, reaches everywhere, and leaves no avenue of escape in the film’s stylistically and thematically closed universe. Raw Deal becomes, through its intensity, a manifestation of bleak destiny. Desperate (1947), with a similarly cast Burr, provides considerable contrast. Here the carefully created atmosphere is frequently undermined by the intrusion of home-life scenes, wedding parties, local color, and sympathetic lawmen. Mann has little interest in all of this (at least in Desperate’s noir context of entrapment and pain); consequently, the young protagonists’ scenes together, which establish the milieu, are painfully cloying. It is only when husband and wife are finally and inevitably sucked into this world’s common denominator of chaos and pervasive evil that the films begins to work. With so many avenues of escape open to the protagonists, leading to changes in tone and atmosphere, Burr’s villain loses the all-encompassing power that he possesses in Raw Deal. Perhaps Mann’s intention was to enrich the film through contrast; unfortunately, at this stage of his career, he was unsuccessful.
Mann’s early career reflected the studio-imposed variety of material characteristic of fledgling directors in Hollywood’s B-units during the 1940s (and any other time). Unable to choose his scripts or mold them by working on the screenplays, Mann was forced to transform often unsuitable material into personal expression through his style. These experimental years were ones of much testing of stylistic ideas and the development of what was from the start an intuitive ability to use the camera dramatically. Mann experimented with virtually every technical possibility appropriate to his material and the dictates of his dark personal vision (which meshed fortuitously with the demands of the noir genre). A gradual simplification of technique developed after Mann left the Bs in the early 1950s.. After the tragic, poetically dark Devil’s Doorway and the spectacularly baroque The Furies, Mann began a series of comparatively austere films with James Stewart, which are imagistically striking but far less exuberantly baroque.
Dr. Broadway provided Mann with the opportunity to transform Damon Runyonesque material, revolving around a conventional B-mystery plot, into a study of atmosphere and nuance. Dramatically lit big standing sets and adroit pacing give the film an expensive look not accounted for by the budget. The quaintly colorful characters are less noteworthy than the urban nightmare Mann evokes through his style. Dr. Broadway provides the milieu Mann would build upon in his most successful early films. Gone, however, in later works would be the genial and loyal “Apple Annies,” frog-voiced shoeshine boys, phony blind men, and watchful hobos. The dark mysterious decor and the feel of the omnipotent dangers of the city would remain. A different breed of “colorful” characters would inhabit it, far less genial and far less loyal than the denizens of Mann’s first film.
Strangers in the Night (1944) marks an important step in the development of Mann’s abilities. The striking photography of Republic’s house cinematographer Reggie Lanning is as lush and expressive as that of Alton. What Lanning’s style lacks in experimentation is more than made up for in richness and fullness of the deep-focus mise en scene. Mann utilizes Lanning’s abilities (and the plush production values) to create his first visually lavish production. Curtains rippling in the wind, darkened glistening staircases, shadowy decor shot from daring angles, and the large closeups that dramatically punctuate the film are beautiful to look at and constitute the visual high-water mark in Mann’s career until T-Men. Mann attempts, partly through the expressive use of this highly textured mise en scene, to create characters of real psychological depth, ones who suffer from the same imbalance of mind and spirit that later afflict Barbara Stanwyck (The Furies), James Stewart (The Naked Spur, et al.), and Gary Cooper (Man of the West). The characters and their psychoses often veer into overstatement and parody (especially the totally lifeless relationship of goody-goody hero/heroine), indicating that Mann was simply not proficient enough at this point, particularly in the molding of dialogue and situations, to carry off such an ambitious psychological undertaking.
By The Great Flammarion (1945), Mann had begun learning the process by which unlikely material could be molded into something personal, or, failing that, at least somewhat subversive. The all-bad-girl format, the mirror image of the equally popular innocent-wife-driven-insane-by-diabolical-husband plot, becomes the basis for a sporadically effective and generally entertaining melodrama. The resources of Republic provide for a number of extensive tracking shots into a theater and around the perimeter of an orchestra pit. Characters are framed with precision and incisiveness in the course of these tracks, establishing more complex relationships than the screenplay indicates. The plotting of Mary Beth Hughes vis-a-vis Erich Von Stroheim and other of her victims takes on conventional, as well as unexpectedly subversive and humorous, connotations, again provided almost wholly by Mann’s choice of camera placement and angle. Hughes sizing up her next victim in a portentous low-angle shot or scheming in two-shot is undercuttingly amusing as is the devastating image of pretentious, delusional Erich Von Stroheim dancing around a hotel room on the wings of love. The many shots accentuating the kinkiness of Stroheim, such as the close-up shaving of his head, offer additional amusement at the expense of the screenplay’s more lofty aspirations. The big set-pieces, Dan Duryea’s and Hughes’ deaths and the opening sequence, are far more seriously approached and very well calculated in terms of camera movement, elaborate cutting (generally on one-shots), and angling.
Strange Impersonation (1946) is surely one of the cheapest films ever made by an important artist (always excepting Edgar G. Ulmer, of course), and the most impoverished film of Mann’s career. Somewhat more in keeping with the director’s inclinations than was The Great Flammarion. it lacks the focus and stylistic intensity that would really begin to appear with Railroaded in 1947. The story of a woman research scientist who tries her own experimental anesthetic with horrifying and surreal results, the film points the way to what would be Mann’s forte during this period: a nightmare landscape of pain, trapped characters, and vicious, unscrupulous villains. The overstated and coincidence-prone material and silly screenplay and performances frequently bog down the film, but often Strange Impersonation is reflective of Mann’s noir preoccupations. A down-and-out alcoholic who robs the heroine and leads to the “strange impersonation” and the milieu of neon-lit streets, punk hustlers, and double-dealing “friends” are realized by the director with economy (enforced) and conviction. The clever ending which reveals that it was all a dream is a disappointment, dissipating the nightmare just as it was becoming consistently oppressive. A rather conventional lighting scheme, primarily white with little in the way of textured high-contrast black/white patterning is another flaw of the film, probably due to the very short shooting schedule.
Desperate (1947), which follows the impersonal but graceful The Bamboo Blonde (1946), marks another step in Mann’s progression toward the creation of a consistent noir milieu. A young couple try to escape from both the law and the mob, from which there is no escape. Raymond Burr as the crime kingpin contributes the first of his two memorable Mann performances. Beautifully realized sequences, such as the beating of Steve Brody (administered by Burr’s stooges under a wildly dramatic swinging lightbulb that throws patches of black over the decor and characters) with crosscut shots of Burr photographed from an extreme low angle, cannot fully redeem the inconsistencies of the film. Shots of the couple escaping at dusk over the farm hills are also quite evocative and effective in setting the mood of desperation the film strives for. The hellish world of the criminals is, characteristically, far more strikingly presented than the pallid and colorless young couple. Normalcy is a condition that rarely intrudes, at least successfully, on Mann’s bleak vision.
Moral culpability on the part of the hero (or heroine in this case) and interaction between the opposing sides begins to emerge, if haltingly, in Railroaded (1947). Violent and bizarre, with protagonists caught in a nightmare, Railroaded is more consistent than earlier Manns, though it is hampered by impoverishment and inferior performances. The relationship between unpleasant hood John Ireland and Sheila Ryan (the basic plot has her attempting to clear her brother) assumes more complex dimensions as the film progresses. Unfortunately, Mann was unable to completely develop the emotional and sexual attraction between the two suggested by the film’s frequent two-shot format. Nevertheless, Railroaded is the first more or less consistent example of the baroque stylistics (particularly in the lighting, in this instance) Mann would employ on his subsequent B-films.
Mann’s first film produced at Eagle-Lion Studios, T-Men (1947) was also his first film with John Alton. T-Men goes beyond the consistency of Railroaded, maintaining a mature, unselfconscious stylistic sureness mirroring the director’s first good script. Treasury agents tracking down an unscrupulous counterfeiting ring provides the foundation for characters who are much more real than any which preceded them. The relationship of the agents and their wives is developed with economy through detail and careful and pointed framing within shots. Within the suspense context of the narrative, relationships are developed with a considerable amount of intimacy and tenderness. The result is the first instance of audience concern for Mann protagonists. Also within this context are a number of bravura passages such as a steam bath murder and the exciting finale on board a darkened ship, which are not only highly effective, but far more carefully integrated into the overall formal structure of the film than anything comparable in earlier Manns. From this point on, the director’s films would be characterized by a greater stylistic consistency and a more careful and assured working out of relationships than we find in the previous films. The formal command previously developed is henceforth refined and combined with much more attention to the psychological makeup of the characters. More than stylistic showpieces, these later films are involved with the relationships of real people in difficult situations.
Raw Deal (1948) exemplifies Mann’s mastery of both style and feeling. Photographed by Alton, the film is resplendent with velvety blacks, mists, netting, and other expressive accessories of poetic noir decor and lighting. One of the most visually stylish and striking of his early films, Raw Deal is also one of the most fatalistic. The lighting scheme, preponderantly dark, ably suggests the milieu of lost chances so central to the director’s intentions. Claire Trevor’s narration, spoken with world-weary inflection, sets the tone for the drama of Dennis O’Keefe, Marsha Hunt, and Raymond Burr. O’Keefe, a good-hearted, small-time crook, and his adoring girl Trevor on the run from both police and Burr’s double-crossing mob form the basic plot line. Hunt as representative of the outside world serves to demonstrate to O’Keefe what he has missed and can never have.
There are many emotional crosscurrents as relationships between the three develop and pull at the sympathies of the viewer, all in a fatalistic context reinforced by dark, claustrophobic images. Hunt’s naive illusions are shattered in the course of the trio’s escape and are replaced by a more realistic conception of people and actions. The denouement in Burr’s apartment shows the arch criminal as paranoid maniac. The confrontation of criminal and loser ends the film in the primal manner of the familial Westerns, with the exception that here the hero is not reborn out of the death of his alter-ego. Low-angle shots and close-up two-shots in murky half-darkness provide the stylistic context for this ultimate confrontation that ends in flames and death for both men, confirming the expectations created by the visual tone of the film and Trevor’s narration.
After the attention to character displayed in Raw Deal, Reign of Terror might seem to be somewhat uncharacteristic if not outright disappointing. Reign of Terror is much more of a stylistic tour de force accentuating action and excitement than a film of carefully realized characters and relationships. Everything in the film is sacrificed to speed and thrills. One breathless escape or fight leads immediately to another in seemingly endless profusion. Conspirators, revolutionaries, maniacs, those of pure heart (Robert Cummings) and damsels in distress (lovely Arlene Dahl) populate this most bizarre and baroquely shot of French Revolutions. Mann compensates for the lack of gripping protagonists with a dazzling stylistic command. The most unusual camera angles, extremes of lighting, camera movements, and cutting create a crazily inclusive world divorced from the “real” one in which amazing amounts of well-staged and calculated action can occur almost constantly. From the highly exciting pacing and sureness of action and the stylistic command evident in the visuals, Reign of Terror must surely be judged a success. A film without real characters, unless its unique style be judged a protagonist, Reign of Terror can be seen as a stylistic watershed summing up everything the director had learned about the possibilities of the camera to that time. In this respect it is quite similar to his even more baroque The Furies (1950), where psychological intensity as well is explored.
The unusual union of period setting and film noir that characterizes Reign of Terror is echoed in Mann’s last foray into the genre, The Tall Target (1951). Dark, sinister lighting and tight camera work are used in this mystery dealing with an attempted assassination of President Lincoln. Borrowing from Hitchcock’s suspense techniques, Mann’s film is more of an experiment in compressed time and setting than a completely satisfactory character study, in that respect also similar to Reign of Terror. We see the detailed mechanics of intrigue, entrapment, and the race against time, sometimes at the expense of the people who are enacting the complex movements of the narrative. A lack of commitment strangely permeates the film, which Mann made for the opportunity it gave him to experiment with self-imposed structural and stylistic limitations. The feeling of a backward glance hangs over The Tall Target in a way quite foreign to the dynamic and vital noirs of the pre-Western years.
1949 marks the last year of Mann’s association with the so-called poverty row studios. He had worked his way up through Republic, PRC, Eagle-Lion, and the B-units at Paramount and RKO. With the exception of Dr. Broadway and Strangers in the Night, which benefit from expensive-looking sets, all of these films are quite inexpensive. Often the physical impoverishment is so evident as to become a distinctly depressing hindrance; one can do only so much by cutting down revealing lighting before the entire image fades away. There is no doubt that Strange Impersonation, Railroaded and Desperate would have been better had the director had more time in which to realize his ideas. Mann’s stay at Eagle-Lion, from T-Men on, marks the real turning point in his career. Finally given the necessary physical resources, talented collaborators (Alton, his performers), and good genre scripts, Mann immediately began to realize more personal and successful films. T-Men had been noticed critically, and Reign of Terror was one of the largest financial successes in the short but respectable history of Eagle-Lion. As a result, Mann began to be noticed. MGM signed the director after Reign of Terror and set him on the upward road first to respectable middle- budget A-films and eventually to some of the biggest- budgeted films in history.
Taking John Alton with him, Mann made Border Incident at MGM on an obviously greatly augmented budget. Extensive location shooting, large crowds of extras, and relatively important studio performers mark the more notable departures from previous films. That MGM’s 25th anniversary fell in 1949 is perhaps the reason for the plushness of the film. The illegal smuggling and exploitation of Mexican farm workers into Southern California (and their subsequent murder when returning to Mexico) is the subject of Border Incident. George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban represent their respective governments’ attempts to break up the ring. Border Incident is notable for the same chasm between good and evil that would remain constant, though later enriched by ever-deepening ambiguity, throughout Mann’s career. Quicksand pits, death marches through strikingly shot rockscapes, carefully calculated and timed for suspense searches and escapes culminate in the extraordinary cultivator sequence, which benefits from Alton’s use of wide-angle lenses. The unexpectedly graphic demise of Murphy leads to the exposure of the smugglers and the end of this somber film.
The film with which he ended the decade of the 1940s, Side Street, combines typical Mann stylistics with the most complexly developed male/female relationship in any of his films up to this time. Something of a companion piece to Nicholas Ray’s magnificent first film, They Live By Night, Side Street’s milieu is the honestly felt concept of the urban nightmare. Weakness is the motivation for Farley Granger’s thievery. His attempt to return stolen money comes too late as, once again, both mob and police chase him through the city. For all its expected violence and the presence of Mann’s psychopaths, Side Street has a gentler, more humane atmosphere than the director’s previous work, no doubt due to the development of the Granger/O’Donnell relationship. Weakness, not greed, is the cause of Granger’s action, and from that point on events far beyond any individual’s control push him. The lyrical love scenes, which are unfortunately rare (Cathy O’Donnell’s part is rather small) blunt the bleakness of the milieu and the protagonists’ lack of options. Ultimately, however, the couple is boxed into a corner from which there is no escape. Though the end is optimistic, the general feeling of desperation and tragedy is similar to that of other, lesser Mann noirs. Side Street, in the maturity of its relationships and refinement of technique, marks the apex of this period in Mann’s career. Shot with much less flourish than the earlier films, Side Street is also notable for its beautifully written, well-motivated and acted characters. Mann lets them speak for themselves without the — in this case unnecessary — support of baroque stylistics. Alton’s work is as incisive as ever, his wide, very high-angle car chase through the deserted Wall Street section of New York being a particularly striking example of the masterful wedding of style and meaning that would henceforth mark Mann’s work.
Anthony Mann’s film noirs can be seen as a testing ground out of which the director emerged a fully matured artist. These inexpensive, quickly made films were, in this respect, experiments that allowed him to flex his directorial muscles. The B atmosphere was freer and more conducive to experiment and innovation than the far more costly, and consequently conservative, milieu of big budget filmmaking. Mann not only acquired an intimate knowledge of every facet of filmmaking, he was also able to exercise far more control over the style and construction of his films than were many far better established big-budget studio directors. Certainly one of the most gratifying aspects of the Bs is the personal control a few talented artists were able to exercise over the stylistic totality of their films because of their “unimportance,” cheapness, and speed of their work. Mann, Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis, and later Gerd Oswald and Phil Karlson had more personal control over their films than did the Henry Kings and Clarence Browns of the big studios who were at the mercy of powerful producers and stars.
Though in fact the B noirs did provide this invaluable training, they constitute something far more creative and important than a mere apprenticeship. Mann’s progression leads from uncertainty and stylistic inconsistency to mastery of every nuance of style and feeling. His post-1947 noirs stand independently as fully realized works of popular and personal art. Raw Deal, Border Incident and Side Street, among other, slightly lesser achievements, are works of complex character relationships, reflective of an equally complex stylistic matrix. The moral ambiguity of protagonists and their lack of options in a mise en scene of darkness and desperation-filled instability are Mann’s means, and simultaneously the tangible visual expression of his philosophy. The director’s grim vision lurks in every shadow, kiltered dramatic close-up, and act of psychotic violence. These noirs, which so succinctly combine powerfully stated personal vision, characters of depth, complex moral relationships, and classically constructed narrative structures, constitute a distinctive chapter in the career of a master of modern cinema.
Note: This article appeared originally in issue #5 (1977) of the print edition of Bright Lights.