Although the film noir genre is wildly popular and is often brought up in most discussions about cinematic genres, the subgenre of film gris is often largely neglected. The term, which translates to “grey film”, was coined by experimental auteur Thom Andersen who felt that it was imperative to separate this oeuvre of cinematic works from the general legacy of film noir sensibilities in the history of American cinema.
Gaining traction during the late 1940s and the early ’50s during an atmosphere of anti-communist sentiments and McCarthyist politics, works from the film gris subgenre launched scathing criticisms of the inherently flawed capitalist framework that America followed during that time. Through the cinematic medium, these films attempted to explore questions of class consciousness and the mythological nature of the American Dream.
Charles J. Maland wrote, “Stated simply, film gris is a strange brew concocted when the flavour of leftist filmmakers whose politics were formed in the 1930s mixed with the industrial context of Hollywood and the political currents of American culture as the Cold War set in during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Besides Anderson , a number of scholars , including Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, Paul Buhle and David Wagner, and Brian Neve, have begun to explore the terrain of this generation of filmmakers.”
In this new edition to our weekly feature on world cinema, we take a look at the unique artistic force of the film gris subgenre in order to get a better understanding of the political and cinematic undercurrents during that period.
10 essential films from the ‘Film gris’ era:
Body and Soul (Robert Rossen – 1947)
Partially based on the 1939 film Golden Boy, Robert Rossen’s 1947 sports drama stars John Garfield and Lilli Palmer in a memorable story about an amateur boxer Charley Davis (played by Garfield). As Davis climbs the ladder of success, he comes face to face with the pernicious evils of money.
Body and Soul is not a simple boxing film by any means. Instead, it presents a relevant sociopolitical commentary on the morality of the common man and his inevitable corruption in a capitalist structure. It was voted as the Greatest Boxing Movie Ever by the Houston Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014.
Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky – 1948)
Directed by the screenwriter of Body and Soul, Force of Evil also stars John Garfield as a corrupt lawyer who wants to dominate the underworld by consolidating various small time rackets. This trajectory highlights some of the obvious flaws that are embedded in the road to wealth.
Although Force of Evil received mixed reviews when it was released, the film is now recognised as “one of the great films of the modern American cinema.” Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have paid tribute to its influence and the American Film Institute has repeatedly included it on their top 100 lists.
They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray – 1948)
Now remembered as Nicholas Ray’s fantastic directorial debut, They Live by Night is a competent film adaptation of the novel Thieves Like Us. It follows the lives of outlaws who are pushed towards the margins of a rampant criminal lifestyle by a system that perpetrates inequality.
They Live by Night was a box office failure but thanks to multiple critical re-evaluations, it has been recognised as a rightful predecessor to American New Wave films like Bonnie and Clyde. The Criterion Collection also added a Blu-ray restoration to their library in 2017.
Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin – 1949)
Based on Bezzerides’ novel Thieves’ Market, Dassin’s 1949 film stars Richard Conte as a soldier who returns from the war to confront the sad socioeconomic reality of his family’s condition. Thieves’ Highway checks the veracity of ideals like honour and justice when contextualised within a flawed system.
It is clearly evident that Dassin’s political critiques upset the wrong people because he ended up on a blacklist during the McCarthy era. Thankfully, he moved to Europe and proved that he was a remarkable filmmaker by continuing to produce masterpieces like Rififi.
The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston – 1950)
John Huston’s seminal 1950 heist film is a widely celebrated reflection on the casual relations of crime and punishment framed within a setting that encourages such decisions. The Asphalt Jungle earned multiple Academy Award nominations and is also notable for featuring one of Marilyn Monroe‘s first film roles.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Huston commented: “Of course it’s about as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it. It’s always nice when pictures are revived years later, it gives you the satisfaction of seeing them finally accepted, and God knows Beat the Devil and The Asphalt Jungle were no great shakes their first time around. But as far as the, ah, material rewards are concerned, it’s better to have a success from the first.”
The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz – 1950)
While Casablanca is undoubtedly Michael Curtiz‘s magnum opus, The Breaking Point is right up there among his finest works. Starring John Garfield as a boat captain who hires his boat out to criminals on the run after pulling off a heist.
Curtiz emphasised the importance of political consciousness: “Everyone hates a theatrical preacher […] but I felt that if I could make America conscious of the fact that ‘A Slip of the Lip May Sink a Ship,’ or if I could make America realise the importance of a slogan such as ‘He Died Because You Talked,’ I had something.”
Night and the City (Jules Dassin – 1950)
Night and the City is Jules Dassin’s brilliant film adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s eponymous novel. Set in London, it features the hopes and dreams of an American con artist who desperately tries to break into the strata of the economic elite by scheming and plotting.
As the film noir genre received more attention, Night and City’s position in that vast oeuvre was re-examined. With the use of expert visual techniques and sharp political commentary, Dassin manages to construct a perfect example of the film gris subgenre.
Try and Get Me! (Cy Endfield – 1950)
Endfield’s adaptation of a Jo Pagano novel follows the misadventures of a man who has terrible luck finding employment. Instead of obtaining a stable source of income, he ends up conspiring with a criminal in order to kidnap and eventually murder a wealthy man.
In an interview, Endfield recalled his increasing disillusionment with the organisation of the social and economic structures due to his family’s sufferings: “I had this great grievance against society for depriving me, at the beginning of my life, at the entrance to my young manhood. I was looking for something to be wrong with it.”
The Prowler (Joseph Losey – 1951)
Written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, The Prowler features a complex web of crime and deceit instigated by a frustrated policeman who develops an unhealthy obsession with a married woman. Losey not only conducts a vital examination of individual morality but also indulges in relevant commentary about the state of our institutions.
Losey explained: “I’ve had very few problems with critics, because I think it’s usually unworthy and useless to dispute with them. But when a critic goes out of his way three different times, with a half page at a time, to attack something, and disregards letters that I know have been written to him, then that’s another matter. Then he is using his power to impose his own lack of appreciation or difference of opinion, and it’s an abuse of the press.”
He Ran All the Way (John Berry – 1951)
This 1951 crime drama tells the story of a petty thief (John Garfield) who runs away after a failed robbery. He tries to get out of the terrible situation he created for himself by holding a woman’s family hostage but no man can outrun his own fate.
After he was blacklisted by Hollywood for his political views, John Berry exiled himself to France. Later in his life, Berry reflected: “I wouldn’t give up my life for anything. I have been a curiously blessed individual despite all I’ve lived through.”