The Adventures Continue

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If you Like Seasons One and Two of the Adventures of Superman:
Crime and Justice: Notable Film Noir and Crime Dramas

By Serena Enger

Season One of the Adventures of Superman, filmed in 1951, is a beloved television classic, known for its stylish black and white crime drama, atmospheric sets, violent criminals, the unrelentingly tough Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Metropolis's finest reporters, devoted to truth, justice, and the American Way, as played by George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, backed by the equally determined Inspector Henderson, played by Robert Shayne. With a cast of character actors who had formerly inhabited the underworld and law and order world of Warner Brothers and Enterprise Studio's best crime dramas, the season remains a watershed for television history critics, comic book connoisseurs and historians, and Superman fans.

The former Yahoo George Reeves Discussion Group, now associated with Google, had a spirited and philosophical discussion of Season One's most famous episode, The Stolen Costume, with the focus on whether Superman knowingly killed the two criminals who had stolen his costume. It generated the most intelligent and long debated item for 2007. After careful analysis, including discussion of a different emphasis in the radio version, members felt that Superman had given them his promise that he would support them on top of the mountain where he had flown them. The couple had made the wrong decision in going on their own down the mountain, only to face their deaths.

In a world where comics are often dismissed as vacuous and violent, despite the current popularity of the graphic novel and book, the discussion and the group's devotion to Superman and the cast of the show, shows, at heart, the power of media to help shape our ethical decision-making, our need for justice, and for dealing with the prevalence of violence in our lives. I decided to honor the group and Dave Schultz's Board, as well as the countless Superman fans in creating a film list of notable crime drama and noir that help to influence the radio and television series, and I would guess, Superman's influence on film and television, as well.

This film list stays close to the classic definition of film noir: crime drama with fatalistic theme of criminals or former criminals who can't escape their past and are usually betrayed by a femme fatale or their own grand illusions. The list also highlights films with a theme of a fatalistic, determined life, a sense of intrinsic evil in the world or in the characters portrayed. A few films offer some redemption for some characters, but at the cost of losing other valued people or a lifestyle. It is visually characterized by darkly-lit cinematography set in urban settings with naturalistic photography.

The crime drama owes its literary roots to the naturalistic strand of American literature as characterized by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and others, as well as Victorian literature's interest in how the class system and industrialization created a new urban underclass. Film critics and historians can get heated about making the distinction between a true film noir versus a crime drama. This is valid argument; however, there are many cross-over or hybrid genres, even in the 1940s, that it can be difficult to draw a distinction. Out of the Past, Criss-Cross, Double Indemnity, The File of Thelma Jordan, Chinatown, and perhaps, L.A. Confidential, qualify as true noir. Many of the actors and directors in these films from 1940-1958, were involved with Group Theatre, various innovative theatre groups, and progressive social reform causes. The parts gave them something more authentic, or seemingly authentic then the typical Hollywood confections. Some films also explored the causes of crime and tried to express sympathy for the social conditions that encouraged immorality, although they sought to condemn the acts.

Other major influences include the exile of European filmmakers during the 1930s who synthesized their roots in German Expressionism with an interest in crime and pulp literature. Fritz Lang's Mabuse films and his film, M, would serve as a major prototype, exploring how psychologically or morally corrupt individuals have difficulty regaining moral wholeness and a place in society. Film historians generally believe the look of these films are due to German Expressionist influences, World War II rationing, the restrictions on the use of light in Los Angeles during practice and real air raids, and the early influence of European filmmakers like Val Lewton, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, and others, who left their influence on the B movie, the psychological horror films of the early 1940s, and the crime drama.

1951's Season One of the Adventures of Superman and less so, Season Two (1953), owe some of the production style, violence, plots, and the characterization of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as tough, investigative reporters, as well as numerous character actors, to various elements of the noir and the crime drama of the 1940s. Stand out episodes include The Night of Terror, as suspenseful as any top B road house film, Czar of the Underworld, which involves Kent and Henderson flying to Los Angeles to investigate a syndicate's attempt to stop the filming of a documentary exposing organized crime's influence in Hollywood; and the prized, Crime Wave, an homage to 1930s Warner Brother films, as Superman attempts to clean up Metropolis and discover the crime boss in charge. Psychological horror genres include The Evil Three, Mystery in Wax, and The Haunted Lighthouse, and The Secret of Superman. No Holds Barred shares crime drama's fascination with the underworld of sports. The Evil Three is also noted for its scene, borrowed from Kiss of Death, in which an unstable proprietor of a run-down Louisiana bayou motel pushes an equally insane old woman in a wheelchair down a ramp. This episode also sports a fairly newfangled mobile phone in Perry White's car. White Heat (1949) with Jimmy Cagney also features police use of a mobile phone.

Fans of television's Superman typically prefer the black and white episodes, but the color years have a strong fan base with its preference for a closer connection to the spirit of comic books, and colorful criminals and inventive special effects. The film noir, like television's Superman, gradually morphed into a hybrid, one mostly focused on how justice ultimately prevails with a focus on law enforcement. This was partly due to pressure on the studios to lighten up, and attract more non-urban audiences who did not support the crime drama as much as urban filmgoers did in the late 1940s, and law enforcement's own attempt to crack down on organized crime in the 1950s.

Hoodlum Empire (1952) is a good example of the change of emphasis in the crime drama. Republic Pictures made a slew of what could be called pro-law enforcement films in the early 1950s. Hoodlum Empire is a minor film, well acted, with Brian Donlevy as a district attorney investigating a Frank Costello-like underworld crime boss, with six well-known faces from the Superman series, as well as Reeves's former wife, Ellanora Needles (soon to marry a former prominent NYC district attorney), as Donlevy's wife, and Gil Herman, a partner in Reeves's summer stock venture in 1948 in Newport Beach. The power of law enforcement and the courage of individuals to speak out against racketeering and bribes replaces the bleak, deterministic view of the poor being trampled upon by organized crime or crimes of the past.

Season Two of the Adventures of Superman values this new American sympathy for rehabilitating former criminals or reaching out to the problem of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. In The Big Squeeze, the actor, Hugh Beaumont appears as a workman for a furrier who is visited from his past by a crook who wants hush money. Beaumont, who we later discover had under peer pressure as a teenager, stolen a car with friends, and served time. He is now a hard-working man with a wife and a young son, as well as a man who is active in community youth groups and about to receive the Daily Planet's Man of the Year award. Superman helps him expose the crooks and save his reputation. In what appears to be influence from law enforcement in the script, at the conclusion, Clark Kent appears with Beaumont's character on television and makes an impassioned plea for accepting rehabilitated criminals back into the community.

Season Two (1953) also features The Boy Who Hated Superman, a plot with a teenaged boy, abandoned by his family, and raised by his Uncle, the Duke, a big-time crime boss, whom he emulates. Clark Kent, the mild-mannered humanitarian, invites him to stay with him and Jimmy, whose family is out of town, at his apartment. The Daily Planet helps him get a job with the hope that he won't follow in the Duke's footsteps. Despite the influence of Jimmy's goodness and Kent's fatherly assistance and concern, the lure of fast money, power, and stylish clothes makes him steal Kent's research which would put away the Duke for good in prison. However, Superman and other crooks, make him see that the Duke would have double-crossed him, too. Kent, Superman, and Jimmy help him reform and go back to school. Shortly, thereafter, a host of B movies and James Dean's signature film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) would address similar issues involving juvenile delinquency: emotional abandonment and lack of self-esteem. Ann Doran, a face familiar to Reeves fans (So Proudly We Hail! and Night of Terror from season one of Superman), and William Hopper, who made many Warner Brother films with Reeves, and later would be Perry Mason's right-hand man, would also star in this film.

As fans of the Adventures of Superman know, Robert Shayne's pivotal performance as Inspector Henderson, introduced a new character into the Superman franchise. Shayne's powerful, no-nonsense tough guy and distinctive baritone, made him a beloved law enforcement icon to four generations and counting of comic book and television writers, publishers, and Superman connoisseurs.

The Big Heat (1954), directed by Fritz Lang, remains closer in spirit to noir, but the femme fatale, Gloria Grahamme, is enlisted by the police detective, bitter at the loss of his wife through a violent attack by criminals, to pull him through his despair and capture the criminals. It shows sympathy towards the physical and psychological sacrifices law enforcement makes in tackling violent or organized crime. It is another opportunity for Lang to explore his favorite themes of revenge and redemption. The Blue Gardenia (1953), while not quite a noir, morphs into a tale of romantic despair (with the Wagernian theme of Tristan und Isolde playing a crucial role) and an exploration of America's obsession with pulp, tabloids, and personal violence. It also gave George Reeves one of his last satisfying roles as Sam Haynes, a police detective, as well as bit parts for Robert Shayne, Larry Blake and Frank Ferguson.

Of course, several films about the F.B.I., most notably, Jimmy Stewart's The FBI Story (1959) were very popular, as was the radio series, This is Your F.B.I. (with two episodes with Sarah Spencer, a.k.a. Ellanora Needles) and a host of television programs in the mid to late 1950s, Dragnet, Perry Mason, and The Untouchables, being the most famous, showed the crime does not pay, only meticulous police work with the assistance of courageous informers does. FBI entries include I was a Communist for the FBI (1951) with Frank Lovejoy and Dorothy Hart doing their duty for their country. Oddly, or not so oddly, given what we now know about J. Edgar Hoover, three of the main actors in the minor film, FBI Girl (1951), George Brent, Cesar Romero, and Raymond Burr, are widely cited in film histories as having been gay. Depictions of the FBI in film, radio, and television, needed the approval of the FBI.

Warning: be sure to temper your viewing with an occasional comedy.

Notable Film Noir of the 1940s and 1950s

Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin) Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford. Brutal study of authoritarianism set in a high security prison.

Criss-Cross (1949, Robert Siodmak) Ex-husband, Lancaster, meets up with former wife, Yvonne de Carlo, who's now dating a gangster, Dan Duryea. Considered to be one of the top five noir films.

Cry of the City (1948, Robert Siodmak) Victor Mature and Richard Conte as two former childhood friends, one a police officer, the other a criminal in a crime melodrama. Also starring Shelley Winters.

D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Maté) Edmund O'Brien, Luther Adler, Pamela Britton. Atmospheric, suspenseful noir about a man who has 24 hours to discover who has poisoned him. Memorable photography by Ernest Laszlo of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) Based on book by James M. Cain. Fred MacMurray plays an insurance agent who gets sold on Barbara Stanwyck's plan to murder her husband. Edward G. Robinson plays the head of the insurance division. Sizzling dialogue.

Farewell My Lovely (1975, Dick Richards) Robert Mitchum as a world-weary Philip Marlowe based on the Raymond Chandler novel. With Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Harry Dean Stanton.

Force of Evil (1948, Abraham Polonsky, Enterprise Studio) John Garfield, Beatrice Pearson, Thomas Gomez, Howland Chamberlain. A Cain and Abel morality play involving two brothers, both involved in crime, but each wanting something better for the other with tragic results. Noted for its Edward Hopper-like sets of Manhattan; great cinematography and a powerful set of performances. Look for Sid Tomack and Bill Challee in bit parts.

Kiss of Death (1947, Henry Hathaway) Victor Mature as a criminal who assists with investigation. Richard Widmark as psychopathic Tommy Udo, who famously pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down the stairs. Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer script. One of the landmark crime dramas with strong NYC locations and intense violence.

Laura (1944, Otto Preminger) Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Gene Tierney Classic mystery and haunting love story with strong performances, famous song by David Raskin, and Oscar winning cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.

Murder My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk). Dick Powell, brilliant, as wise-cracking, tough detective, Philip Marlowe, in search of Velma, with the dubious assistance of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki. The drug scene was later an inspiration for Melville's direction of Yves Montand in Le Cercle Rouge.

Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin) Richard Widmark plays a dreamer-loser intent on making it big by promoting an aging wrestler. With Gene Tierney as his moral girlfriend, Mike Mazurki as the wrestling adversary backed by organized crime, and Francis O'Sullivan as Widmark's unethical backer and failed lover of Googie Withers.

Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, Paul Valentine. Classic noir of a man who can't escape his past. Two years later Valentine would star with George Reeves in Special Agent (1949) with William Eythe as a railroad detective seeking to recover payroll and capture the two brothers who murdered the train crew. An early film in the pro-law enforcement genre.

Phantom Lady (1944, Robert Siodmak) Early psychological crime drama with Alan Curtis seeking the assistance of Ella Raines in clearing his name of his wife's murder. Franchot Tone plays his friend. Elisha Cook, Jr. stands out as a possessed drummer.

Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller) Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter in electrifying performances. Widmark plays a pickpocket who realizes that the microfilm he's heisted is connected to an espionage plot. Jean Peters plays his girlfriend.

Possessed (1947, Raoul Walsh) Cowboy noir meets Greek tragedy with Robert Mitchum and Theresa Wright. James Wong Howe photography.

Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Tay Garnett) James M. Cain novel with John Garfield and Lana Turner as lovers who kill Turner's husband.

Road House (1948, Jean Negulesco) A cult classic later to inspire 1980s and 90s American filmmakers. Richard Widmark, yet again, a psychopathic owner of a roadhouse with an abusive relationship with singer, Ida Lupino. With Cornel Wilde.

Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) Edward G. Robinson plays a shy accountant who dabbles as a Sunday painter. Meets the bewitching Joan Bennett, whose slimy boyfriend, Dan Duryea, has plans for making money. Nothing goes right, and Robinson is drawn into a world of murder and self-deception. Look for Sid Saylor as a reporter with the heart of this nightmarish morality play.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Anatole Litvak) Barbara Stanwyck fearing that the overheard wrong number involving a murder plan may involve her. With Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards and Leif Erickson.

Sudden Fear (1952, David Miller) Jack Palance, Joan Crawford, Gloria Grahamme.
Suspenseful and interesting plot of Crawford suspecting new husband plans to kill her. She's a playwright who exercises her own powers of craft to outwit her assassin. Also, noteworthy for the last 15 minutes of camera work which pre-figures French new wave cinematography; very exciting conclusion set on a city street in San Francisco.

Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder) Some may argue that this is not a noir. Others say it has a femme fatale in the shape of the aging, delusional silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) luring Joe, a down on his luck scriptwriter (William Holden) to his doom. Also with memorable on location photography of Los Angeles. Catch Larry Blake as Joe's repo man and Jack Webb as the life of the party.

The Big Clock (1948, John Farrow) Crime magazine publisher Charles Laughton murders. Ray Milland, his editor, investigates. With Farrow's then wife, Maureen O'Sullivan. Noel Neill also appears in the film.

The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) Bogart as Philip Marlowe investigating the disappearance of the boyfriend of the thumb-sucking sister of Lauren Bacall, who has some underworld connections of her own.. The Raymond Chandler novel with a script by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. It is like a hallucinatory dream, with tough, witty dialogue, a steamy pas a deus between Bogart and Bacall, a hilarious comic scene in a bookstore between Bogart and Dorothy Malone, a tender, vulnerable small-time crook played masterfully by Elisha Cook, Jr., and some tough gun-slinging from two henchman, Ben Welden and Tom Fadden (Eben Kent).

The Blue Dahlia (1946, George Marshall) Following their success in This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake play husband and wife, with one murdered and one suspected. Raymond Chandler script. With Howard da Silva and the young Hugh Beaumont. Also look for Noel Neill and Anthony Caruso.

The File of Thelma Jordan (1949, Robert Siodmak) Classic noir with femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck and married district attorney, Wendell Corey (brother of Jeff).

The Glass Key (1942, Stuart Heisler) In their first pairing, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake sizzle in film based on Dashiell Hammett's novel. Also with William Bendix and Bonita Granville. Brian Donlevey plays his typically tough city politico who's accused of murder. Ladd comes to his defense.

The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak) Another tough Siodmak film based on the Hemingway story, featuring the screen debut of Burt Lancaster as the Swede. Prototype for violent, tough films examining the underworld of boxing. With a dazzling Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Sam Levene, Virginia Christine. Miklos Rozsa score which would later inspire Dragnet's theme.

The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston) Bogart, Elisha Cook, Jr., Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Jerome Cowan, (and John Hamilton as the district attorney) all having to deal with a very determined Mary Astor as they seek the elusive falcon. Dashiell Hammett's character Sam Spade and the film had been made before with Bette Davis (one DVD comes with both versions), but not with this kind of panache. The prototype for the detective film. Some TAOS fans have wondered whether the bird sculpture in Perry White's office might be a recognition of Hamilton's role in this famous film. Jack Larson, in his favorite episode, gently spoofs Bogart's style with Elisha Cook in attendance as Homer Garrity, as a private detective, in the episode, "Semi-Private Eye."

The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin) Barry Fitzgerald, in his first film following Sainted Sisters, enjoys one of his stand-out roles of his career as a meticulous, straight arrow New York detective investigating a murder. Dassin takes Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Ted de Corsia to the streets of New York with much style and documentary realism. William Daniels, the renowned cinematographer of Garbo's films does poetic justice to Manhattan. Screenplay by Albert Maltz, who along with Dassin would get shortly blacklisted.

The Narrow Margin (1952, Richard Fleischer) Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor in a taut, well-made thriller involving a cop who must escort Windsor, a gangster's widow, on a train to a trial.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone) Barbara Stanwyck is doomed for a crime committed in her past. Husband, Kirk Douglas, in his film debut, copes. With a young Lizabeth Scott, Judith Anderson, and Van Heflin.

Thieves' Highway (1949, Jules Dassin) Returning WWII veteran, Richard Conte, tracks down killer of his father, a trucker, in the fruit markets of San Francisco. A.I. Bezzerides, the master of bleak, revenge-driven, violent screenplays, such as Kiss Me Deadly, wrote the screenplay.

This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) Interesting combination of a psychological espionage thriller, based on Graham Greene's novel, A Gun for Sale. Alan Ladd plays a psychologically abused paid hitman who is assisting in undermining U.S. Government espionage efforts. Robert Preston is the policeman boyfriend of Veronica Lake, who is unwittingly involved in assisting law enforcement. She has a very charming musical number as a magician with a pet monkey. Laird Cregar, formerly of the Pasadena Playhouse (as was Preston), is memorable as a weak hack trading government secrets.


Notable Film Noir, 1960s-1990s

Atlantic City (1980, Louis Malle) A happy noir of sorts beautifully acted by Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon with a script by John Guare. Sarandon plays a dreamer who gets a job at a casino and meets Lancaster, an aging small-time hood, wishing to make one big catch before he retires. Great performances, ambience, and a study of an underworld.

Bob, Le Flambeur (1955, Jean-Pierre Melville) One of the great French classics. Roger Duchesne as Bob, a stylish hood and gambler, stages his last big crime in a casino with the help of fellow underworld buddies. Major influence on American filmmakers and done with great style and feeling for the romantic dreamer.

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) Jack Nicholson as the 1930s detective and Faye Dunaway as the femme fatale in a violent, sordid translation of the noir.

Dance with a Stranger (1985, Mike Newell) British noir with Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett, Ian Holm in a claustrophobic study of romantic obsession, based on the true story of Ruth Ellis. Powerful performances with memorable locale.

L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson) Invoking new and old noir elements, this is a powerfully violent and cynical study of police corruption and pulp tabloids set in the 1950s. With fine performances by Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, and Kevin Spacey. Based on a James Ellroy novel.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970, Jean-Pierre Melville) With inspiration from Raymond Chandler's drug-addled Murder My Sweet, Yves Montand gives one of his best performances as an aging master criminal who joins forces with young hoods to pull a major jewelry heist. They are up against the masterful police inspector, Andre Bourvil.

Red Rock West (1993, John Dahl) Nicholas Cage, a down-on-his luck oil worker, is confused with a contract killer. J.T. Walsh and Lara Flynn Boyle play the bad guys. Dennis Hopper gives one of his finest psycho performances. Gripping, witty, and playfully illogical plot.

Shanghai Triad (1995, Zhang Yimou) Chinese gangster homage from a women's (character's) point-of-view. Delicate cinematography. A new classic. With Gong Li. Set in 1930's Shanghai underworld.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960) Francois Truffaut's homage to the American film noir; with the singer Charlie Aznavour as a Parisian café pianist caught up among the petty world of small time crime and finding no escape.

The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears) Sincerity and loyalty are not virtues among the likes of Annette Bening, John Cusack, and Angelica Huston, three expert con artists.

January 1, 2008 - Serena

Thanks for Watching.

Lou (January 18, 2008)   


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