Saturday, March 9, 2013

God’s Murderous Men: The Film Noir Critique of American Religion



note: The following essay first appeared in the program of NOIRCON 2012. Illustration by Melissa Downing.

The brilliant 1950 noir THE SOUND OF FURY begins with a blind street preacher warning passersby that “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This verse from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians could work as an epigraph for all of film noir. It certainly works to set up THE SOUND OF FURY, a film that tells the story of the downfall of a struggling family man named Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy). One day Howard meets a hood named Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges) who offers him a job as a getaway driver for a string of robberies. At first Howard says no, but when he thinks it over and finally accepts Jerry’s offer, you can smell the sulfur burning. After Jerry upgrades their criminal enterprise to kidnapping and murder, the film becomes a slow boiling nightmare fueled by Howard’s deepening guilt. “I keep thinking God is coming after me,” he tells his wife. THE SOUND OF FURY, inspired by true events, was written by novelist Jo Pagano as an indictment of lynch mobs and journalistic cravenness, but the power of its narrative comes from the way it marries Howard’s downfall to the street preacher’s warning about sin and its terrible consequences.

That theme reverberates throughout the genre called film noir. Noir City might be one godless little town, a place of perpetual night, populated by men and women bleary-eyed with booze and bad judgment, but underneath the tales of lust and larceny, there beats a moralistic heart. After all, most noir boils down to the preacher’s warning: you pay for your sins.

What makes this doubly interesting, however, is that noir rarely affords us a positive view of the clergy. The men of god we find in Noir City are of a piece with the town’s other denizens: they’re weak, wicked, or both. In noir, everybody’s a sinner, and everybody is going to hell. That includes god’s mouthpieces. In fact, they might be the biggest sinners of all.

(Note: Because classic noir unfolded in the culturally narrow milieu of Hollywood in the forties and fifties, virtually all the religion on display in these films is some variation on Christianity. One doesn't find many rabbis or imams in Noir City. On one hand, of course, that's an unfortunate oversight. On the other hand, given the motley crew of sinful saints discussed below, the rabbis and imams got off easy.)

Take Mark Robson’s little seen 1950 EDGE OF DOOM. It concerns a young man named Martin Lynn (Farley Granger) who develops a grudge against the church when his parish priest refuses to bury Lynn’s father after he’s committed suicide. Later, when Lynn’s mother dies, he confronts the elderly priest to demand a fancy funeral for her. The indignant priest refuses, and Lynn kills him in a rage.

The above description should come as a shock to anyone familiar with movies of the time. Mainstream Hollywood movies in 1950 simply did not feature unsympathetic clergymen. They did not show young men who were ever mad at the church for anything. Religion in those days was a protected institution, especially during the time of the Red Scare, and the sinful denizens of Hollywood were all too happy to portray any and all religious authorities as unquestionably good. In most Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, God existed and he was an American.

EDGE OF DOOM is a fascinating film because it shows the first strains in this façade. The movie still has to make several concessions to the production code (Dana Andrews plays a good priest trying to help Granger, and the church is, of course, ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing), but for most of its playing time it is a tough look at religion. The priest murdered by Granger may not be the pedophilic monster of today’s headlines, but he is dogmatic, unforgiving, and entitled. We’re shocked to see him murdered, but we’re more shocked to see him portrayed as a self-righteous old fool hiding behind his collar. While he does not deserve to die, his murder flows out of Granger’s understandable anger at him. In other words, we in the audience are asked to identify with the murderer of a priest. And, damn it all, we do.

Of course, the old Catholic priest can’t hold a church candle to the crazy Protestants. Lewis R. Foster's tough-as-nails 1955 jailbreak flick CRASHOUT gives us a motley group of escaped convicts on the run from the cops. Among their number is the always great William Talman (THE HITCH-HIKER), in one of his best parts, as a knife-throwing Jesus freak named Luther Remsen AKA “Reverend Remington” who is in jail for the “celebrated soul-saving murder” of a church organist.

CRASHOUT is no masterpiece—it starts to drift toward incomprehensibility in the closing scenes—but it is a deeply subversive piece of work. Star Arthur Kennedy is given a speech that pretty much sums up the noir ethos: “There’s no road back. There’re no yesterdays. There’s no tomorrow. There’s only today. Everyday you live is a day before you die.” With this in mind, how much sense could one make of the promise of life everlasting? Especially when the only preacher on hand is crazy Reverend Remington? The film seems to answer this question by giving us what might be the most grotesque religious ritual in all noir when Reverend Remington baptizes a wounded man in a muddy drainage pool and tries to drown the guy in the process. The moment is still shocking. CRASHOUT perverts Protestant Christianity’s most sacred ritual—the immersion baptism which symbolizes the believer’s death and resurrection in Christ—into a wickedly profane murder attempt.

In 1950, the character of Reverend Remington reflected a deep skepticism of new mass-media-mongering evangelists like Will Stidger and J. Frank Norris, Bible-thumpers given to greed, hedonism, or violence (Stidger inspired ELMER GANTRY, and Norris once shot a man dead in his own church). New technologies, and shifts in political fortunes, were pushing religious snakeoil salesmen into the media spotlight. Someone like Billy Graham—of whom Harry S Truman disdainfully said “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the paper”—might have matured into a statesman and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but to a great many people in the fifties the pulpit-pounders still seemed like charismatic phonies.

Of course, this suspicion found its clearest expression in the most notorious clergyman in all noir: the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), the woman-murdering preacher who occupies the center of Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. With HATE tattooed on one hand and LOVE on the other, the slick-talking Powell is like a Flannery O’Connor character wandering a weird landscape of bucolic Expressionism. His tattooed knuckles and his parable of the “story of good and evil” are symbols foreshadowing his ultimate showdown with a shotgun-and-Bible wielding old lady named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).

Though THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a blistering portrayal of religious authority, it is certainly not a condemnation of belief itself. As the film’s producer Paul Gregory later told Preston Neal Jones, author of HEAVEN AND HELL TO PLAY WITH: THE FILMING OF THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Laughton felt that adapting Davis Grubb’s excellent novel “was a marvelous opportunity to show that God’s glory was really in the little old farm woman, and not in the Bible-totin’ son of a bitch.”

It says something about noir’s view of organized religion that Harry Powell is its most notable representative. Powered by Mitchum’s mesmerizing turn, Powell embodies every criticism ever leveled at American Christianity: greed, hypocrisy, misogyny, sexual repression, murderous self-righteousness. Of course, at the time of its release the film was controversial in some corners for its depiction of the killer preacher, but it was mostly shunned, disappearing from public view, kept alive only by cinephiles and crime fans. That it has survived and flourished to the point that it is now widely considered a classic, is a testament not only to Laughton and his cast and crew, but to the enduring power of film noir’s uniquely subversive critique of religion.












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