An Interview with MoMA's Dave Kehr


The Museum of Modern Art’s film series Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–1957 begins today and continues through August 4. Columbia’s contribution to the genre was incredibly vast, and the series culls from 25 years of cinematic transgression and antisocial behavior produced throughout the turbulent years of the Depression, the Second World War, the blacklist and the onset of the Cold War.

Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator at MoMA, who put the series together along with MoMA Curator Joshua Siegel, is a well-known champion of film preservation and a strong advocate for making rare films available to the public. Previously a film critic for the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and the Daily News, and the DVD reviewer for the New York Times, he is the author of When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade. He spoke with Screen Slate’s Vanessa McDonnell about the MoMA series and its incredible range.

Vanessa McDonnell: You’ve written extensively about crime and noir collections released by the Warner Archive Collection, Sony (Columbia), TCM and others. What was it like to be able to put together your own crime series for MoMA?

Dave Kehr: I think the trick is always balancing familiar films with unfamiliar films. So you get people in to see the Gilda's (August 1) and The Lady from Shanghai’s (August 2-3), the famous titles, and hopefully they’ll stick around to see some of the lesser known pieces as well. In this case, Columbia was such a prolific creator of films in this genre—there are literally hundreds. A lot of them have simply not been looked at since they were first released, and now they’re being featured at the Museum of Modern Art. So it’s a real thrill.

VM: Blind Spot (July 12, 21) and Chinatown at Midnight (July 12, 22) are described in the program notes as “rediscoveries”. What can you tell us about them?

DK: They were both very cheap productions even by Columbia’s standards. Chinatown at Midnight looks almost like a television show, with just a few very shaky-looking sets, and it runs just slightly over an hour. This film reflects the postwar fascination with psychic damage. An interest in serial killers starts to develop, probably as people got familiar with what we now call post-traumatic stress, but it was called “shell shock” back then. These kinds of psychological problems became part of popular culture and you can see that in a film like this, where he’s almost a serial killer of the kind that we start to see in the 60s, but not quite. He’s not Hannibal Lecter yet. But he’s a disturbed person who has to go and kill for reasons that are personal, not for revenge or for money which is the motive in earlier films.

VM: The series includes thrillers, whodunits and serialized films, as well as many classic, definitive noir films. Did you set out to represent a range of visual styles and filmmaking approaches?

DK: Yes, as much as possible. We’re carefully not calling it “film noir from Columbia” because it’s a larger umbrella than just noir, though many of the films definitely fall into that category. The Big Heat (July 14, 19) is almost the definition of it. Then you have a film like Let Us Live (July 15, 18) which is a social drama almost in the tradition of Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda is another working-class victim who has to stand up for his rights and almost doesn’t succeed, except that he’s rescued at the last minute by his loyal girlfriend played by Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s noirish in the sense that it’s an “innocent man” story, “a wrong man” story—it’s a Hollywood convention and you see Henry Fonda in almost the same role in The Wrong Man by Hitchcock in ‘57. But in Let Us Live, the conflict is framed in New Deal terms: the little guy is pitted against the big corporate world, trying to get his even break and he can’t quite get it. He needs some help from a benevolent government officer played by Ralph Bellamy. So this was another approach in the crime genre: the social problem.

VM: Why did Columbia, as a studio, really excel at producing crime films specifically? Of course Harry Cohn was famous for running the studio with very tight reins. Do you see unifying elements among the films?

DK: I think what people don’t realize about Columbia is that it was a poverty row studio. They had very little money and mostly made B-pictures. Once or twice a year, maybe three or four times a year, they would release a big picture with one of their stars, like Rita Hayworth, and Bogart when he showed up there finally in the late 40s and early 50s. But at the same time they would be releasing these B-pictures, two or three films a week sometimes. They were flooding the market with them. Not many of these have been seen, whereas a film like Gilda was a super-production with gigantic sets and lots of supporting characters, a very lush film. Those were the two poles of what Columbia did.

The great thing about Columbia in particular is that they have a fabulous archivist at the studio by the name of Grover Crisp, who has made it his mission to preserve everything that Columbia made. We could never have done this series without his dedication to the Columbia films, and in particular he’s made 35mm prints of these B-movies which have not been seen on 35mm since they first played in theaters. It’s a rare privilege to present that.

VM: I was curious if some of these films were part of MoMA’s archive or if you were working together with Columbia.

DK: Almost all of the films come from Columbia with the exception of opening night’s I Love Trouble (July 11, 16). It’s a restoration from The Film Noir Foundation which is based in San Francisco and is run by a fellow named Eddie Muller. They raise money and preserve films on their own which is a wonderful initiative. Eddie will be here to introduce the movie on Friday and tell us about the process they went through to revive this one. It’s a good movie, I do recommend it.

VM: Can you talk a little bit more about the social backdrop for some of these films? The series spans 25 years so it’s quite a long and obviously hugely eventful time: the depression, the war, the blacklist, the cold war and the beginning of the atomic age…

DK: The series goes pretty much straight through and the films touch on all of those issues. Crime films are like westerns—they’re very flexible, and they can reflect very immediate concerns in a culture metaphorically. So you can handle things that you couldn’t talk about, like post-traumatic stress for example. The wonderful thing about genre filmmaking is that it offers you a framework that you can bend in so many different ways and yet you have an immediate communication with the audience, with shared expectations.

VM: What do you see as the evolution of the genre over the timespan of the series?

DK: I’ve tried to show some of the transitions. The whodunits from the early 1930s are kind of a pure escapism, I think, from the big social mess outside. They’re like elaborate puzzles: there are bunch of characters and you have to figure out who did what to who and why. It takes the audience out of their immediate problems and it points a finger toward one person who is guilty. You have the satisfaction of identifying one guilty person. By Whose Hand? (July 13, 23) and The Ninth Guest (July 13, 23) are examples from the series.

And then by the late 40s you get more into what I would call the “whydunits”, with a Freudian interest in why criminals behave like they do—what happened to an individual to make him into a killer. They often have kind of a facile Freudian motive planted in the script which gets developed pretty well in a film like The Sniper (July 22, 30) which involves a full-blown serial killer who shoots people with his rifle – shoots women with his rifle – so there are the Freudian overtones, and it’s a film that Alfred Hitchcock saw and absorbed as he was forming Norman Bates and Psycho. It’s a pretty direct influence.

VM: Did you learn anything interesting about the production circumstances of any of these films?

DK: Most of these movies were probably made in under two weeks, sometimes even less than that. So a director really had to be a master of planning, of strategy on top of everything else, just to get it in the can in that short space of time. One thing you can see in this series is the beginning of William Castle’s career. We have some of the films he directed in The Whistler series (July 14-20). It’s interesting for me to see Castle early in his career because he had a lot of ambition that he lost later when he started making the immersive horror movies that he’s famous for now. But he was a serious filmmaker and did some pretty intense work, particularly in The Whistler series. A connection within the series is that he prepared the screenplay and was ready to go into production with a movie called The Lady from Shanghai in 1947. Orson Welles stepped in and decided that he wanted to do it with Rita Hayworth. So Castle stepped aside – he still has an associate producer credit on the movie. Castle has a funny, and kind of sweet, account of it in his autobiography, saying, “Well obviously Orson Welles was a much greater director than I was, so I got out of his way.” And you see how that kind of crushed him. His films are never quite as ambitious again after the meeting with Welles. But his films of the 40s are pretty darn good.

VM: Were series like The Whistler, either adapted from radio or otherwise, common for Columbia at that time?

DK: Yes, Columbia had five or six big crime series going. We decided just to concentrate on The Whistler films because they’re the weirdest. The only consistent character is “The Whistler,” this mysterious, shadowy figure who, as he says, “knows many secrets” because he “walks by night.” He talks in this hushed, ironic tone and he always knows what horrible thing is about to happen to various characters. Richard Dix, who appears in all of them, was a big star in silent films but not so much by 1940 when he was making these. He plays a different character in every movie, and you don’t really know until you’re well into the story whether he’s the hero, the villain or the victim. It’s really an unusual structure for that sort of series.

VM: You mentioned Rita Hayworth and of course she’s the star of two of the best-known films in the series. What do you think of her as a femme fatale? She had so recently been dancing with Gene Kelly in musicals. Did she bring her mass appeal to this darker side of filmmaking?

DK: It certainly brought out something different in her. She was never a siren before. She always had a kind of sweet innocence—a sensual presence, but more benign. She’d been playing a delightful and girlish figure. In Gilda she’s anything but, and this reflects back on the general darkening of American culture after the war. All these guys came back and had had these horrible experiences, which are then sublimated into the art form.

VM: Maybe we can end on a lighter note by talking about the 3-D film that you’re showing, Man in the Dark (August 1-2).

DK: Oh yes, that’s just fun. It’s a Lew Landers film, who is a director I like, but this is not one of his more serious efforts. Power of the Whistler (July 15, 19), which we’re showing by Landers is really great, but Man in the Dark was made in just 10 days by Columbia so they could beat Warner Brothers into the theaters with the first 3-D studio film. So it was a very fast remake of an old Columbia picture (The Man Who Lived Twice, 1936) and almost completely improvised and just crazy. It’s one of the most entertaining 3-D movies because it uses every trick in the book. As Elliot Stein said in his Village Voice review, he’s just throwing stuff at the camera constantly, hypodermic needles are coming toward your face and it’s just insane. One really interesting aspect of the film: because it was such a cheap film, they ended up staging the final chase scene on the roof of the Columbia studio. So you get wonderful views of the entire Columbia studio lot as Edmond O’Brien is being chased across the roof. The studio doesn’t exist at all anymore, that whole area is developed. So it’s great to get this image of Columbia because you see that it really was a little tiny factory. To see this factory at work, shot from above, is pretty astonishing.