Conventional wisdom tells us that the first “true” film noirs were made in the early 1940s, with 1941’s The Maltese Falcon generally considered “the unofficial beginning of the noir cycle” (Alain Silver). Conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong.
Take a look at these frames from John Brahm’s Let Us Live (1939), and ask yourself if there is any way this film could be mistaken for anything other than a classic film noir?
Many of the best noir directors – Lang, Siodmak, Wilder, Ulmer – were German/Austrian expatriates. John Brahm, born in Hamburg, was one of them. Brahm came from a family of performers, and was a performer himself. He got his directing start as an assistant to D.W. Griffith on a British remake of Broken Blossoms (1936) starring Dolly Haas, Brahm’s wife. When Griffith left the production, Brahm took over. The result was good enough to attract the attention of Hollywood, specifically Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn, who signed Brahm to a directing contract.
Did the noirness of Let Us Live come out of nowhere? Of course not. If anything, it seems like a deliberate attempt by Columbia to emulate Fritz Lang’s seminal Bonnie-and-Clyde proto-noir, You Only Live Once, which came out in 1937. Let Us Live has the same star, Henry Fonda, in a similar role and, in Brahm, a director whose visual style is as Germanic as Lang’s. Clearly, as demonstrated again and again in his filmography, Brahm had an eye, and a sense of atmosphere. In this particular instance, he was immensely aided by his cameraman, Lucien Ballard, who had just worked with Josef von Sternberg on Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman.
Let Us Live’s story is as noir as its visuals. (Its screenplay was co-authored by Anthony Veiller, who would later help script two of the definitive noirs of the 1940s, Orson Welles’ The Stranger and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers.) Fonda plays “Brick,” a cabdriver engaged to “Mary,” played by Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia Farrow’s mom), both of them trying to weather the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression. Through a series of fatalistic coincidences (see Ulmer’s Detour, and numerous other noirs), Fonda is mistaken for someone who robbed an automobile showroom, killing a security guard in the process. He is tried and convicted for the crime. It’s an archetypal “wrong man” scenario, one that Fonda would reenact throughout his career, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 noir, The Wrong Man. While Fonda languishes in jail awaiting the electric chair, O’Sullivan searches desperately for the evidence that will exonerate him. At the last minute she succeeds, but Fonda’s character emerges from the penal system broken and embittered. No happily-ever-after here.
After directing a couple more films at Columbia, Brahm moved on to Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox, where his first assignment was a horror film, The Undying Monster (1942), followed by two erotically-tinged “period noirs,” The Lodger (1944), a Jack the Ripper story, and Hangover Square (1945). (All three are included in the Fox Horror Classics box, reviewed by Peter Nellhaus here.) Hangover Square, about a composer (Laird Cregar) subject to fits of homicidal insanity, is such a successful blend of music – by Bernard Herrmann – and Victorian grand guignol horror that it inspired a fan letter to composer Herrmann from a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim – who would later compose his own exercise in Victorian horror, Sweeney Todd.
Hangover Square is remembered for two of Brahm’s most magnificent set-pieces. In the first, the homicidal composer carries the body of the femme fatale he has just murdered (Linda Darnell) to the top of a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, and leaves it there along with the straw-stuffed effigies carried there by other revelers – while torch-carrying celebrants circle the bonfire, singing and chanting. In the second, the film’s climax, the composer continues to play his piano “Concerto Macabre” in a burning concert hall while everyone else is fleeing for their lives, the cutting, the swooping and soaring camera movements, the images of past crimes that flash through the composer’s mind, all carefully synchronized to Herrmann’s brilliant score.
If there were any doubt concerning Brahm’s status as a genuine auteur, it can be resolved by a viewing of The Locket, a 1946 film noir released by RKO. Fans of The Locket cherish it for its neurotic heroine (Laraine Day) and its flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback plot structure. The Locket’s climax echos the climactic montage of Hangover Square, with the heroine, now a bride, moving toward her wedding altar, while all the previously seen traumatic moments of her life flash surreally through her mind.
The protagonist of The Locket is victimized by internal forces beyond her consciousness or understanding. Just like the mad composer in Hangover Square. Just like the serial killer in The Lodger. Just like the wolf man in The Undying Monster. In Let Us Live, Henry Fonda’s character is also victimized by forces beyond his control, only in his case the forces are external.
John Brahm made few notable films after the 1940s, but his career was far from over. Moving from film to television, Brahm became the greatest director of TV horror ever, contributing episodes to The Twilight Zone (“Time Enough at Last,” “Shadow Play, “Mirror Image“), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Final Performance”), The Outer Limits (“ZZZZZ” and “The Bellero Shield“), and, especially, the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller. One of Brahm’s Thriller episodes, “The Cheaters,” from a story by Robert Bloch, is possibly the most frightening show ever broadcast. (It certainly scared the hell out of me.) While Andrew Sarris and others have suggested that Brahm suffered a decline following his ’40s film work, I would argue to the contrary that with Brahm’s fantasy work for television in the early 1960s, this master of atmosphere hit some kind of peak.