Garage Noir

Trunk item: started writing this ages ago, set it aside. Hope it can withstand daylight.

It’s a film noir axiom that if you’re hiding out from killers, you should go undercover working at a gas station or garage. They’ll find you, but it’ll take a while.

HEAT LIGHTNING may be the first proto-garage noir, with Aline McMahon as a former moll now running a “gas farm.” Then of course we have Burt Lancaster as the boxer-turned-mechanic in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum as former private eye now running an auto shop in OUT OF THE PAST, and Brian Donlevy as amnesiac-businessman reinventing himself as a car repairman in IMPACT. And the neo-noir reprise comes in LOST HIGHWAY, where jazzman Bill Pullman gets reincarnated on death row into Balthazar Getty, who promptly resumes his apparently continuing life at Richard Pryor’s garage.

Boxing, saxophony and mollwork, or course, are all readily transferable skills that come in useful when you make career change to greasemonkeying.

I thought it would be fun to have a garage noir double feature, with IMPACT, which I’d never seen, and THE KILLERS, which we needed to rewatch for work-related reasons… Hmm, do the various other versions of this story — the Tarkovsky short and the Siegel TV remake — use the garage setting? And has anybody got more examples? Let’s make this a thing!

THE KILLERS holds up brilliantly — uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks. along with Anthony Veiller who has his name on it, adapt Hemingway’s story by turning it into a crimey CITIZEN KANE, with the Thompson character fleshed out into Edmond O’Brien at his most charming. Newcomer Burt Lancaster gets the CF Kane part, dying at the start only to pop up in the flashbacks. Director Robert Siodmak’s rematch with Lancaster, CRISS CROSS, may be even better.

IMPACT is stodgy, despite a lot of actors we like: the plot has some interesting elements but unfolds in a plodding, A-B-C-D fashion. Flashbacks might have helped — jumble the scenes, amp up the intrigue, skip some of the steps. It’s an indie production and I have to think that had it been a studio film, somebody like Harry Cohn would have got an itchy ass and slashed it from 111 minutes to something more nimble.

The dullest part is the romantic idyll. Ella Raines had experience projecting adoration at, you would think, ill-suited mates (Laughton, Sanders, Bracken, that Alan Curtis guy), but Brian Donlevy is required to reveal some tenderness of his own, and that cupboard is bare, baby.

IMPACT stars Quatermass McGinty; Carol “Kansas” Richman; The Honorable Betty Cream; Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman; A Flower of the Orient; Mr. LeBrand; Quigley Quackenbush; President Harry S. Truman; Philo Vance; The Dear One; Saburo Goto; The Gilded Boy; and Roger Bronson.

THE KILLERS stars JJ Hunsecker; Pandora Reynolds; Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock; Dr. Thorkel; Frank D’ Angelo; “Goldie” Locke; Princess Ananka; Philadelphia Tom Zaca; Big Mac; Sebastian Sholes; Herr Kastner; Frank Cannon; Uncle Owen; Wild Bill Hickok; Ming the Merciless; The Blind One; and Mr. Waterbury.

7 Responses to “Garage Noir”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In “Out of the Past” Robert Mitchum runs a small town garage with Dickie Moore — but Kirk Douglas finds him anyway.

  2. Siegel’s KILLERS has John Cassavettes working at a school for the blind while hiding out, but he teaches auto mechanic classes. His past life was race car driver, so it actually makes sense.

  3. Dan Sallitt Says:

    And the Siegel KILLERS then proceeds to borrow liberally from the plot of Quine’s great DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, with Cassavetes driving a getaway car for bank robbers.

  4. I mention Mitchum above but sleepily forgot to name the film — rectifying now.

    I remember the race car stuff in the Siegel being my least favourite part, with those crappy Star Trek cyclorama backgrounds. Still, the movie was made cheaply for TV, and got a cinema release because it was too aggressive and scary — too Siegel.

    I must watch the Quine! A fascinating filmmaker I keep circling back to.

  5. Dan Sallitt Says:

    Quine is one of the most troubling cases in Hollywood! Hard to think of anyone who could be so good and who had such an impaired career.

  6. WRITTEN ON THE WIND may qualify. The focus is a bit higher on the economic scale, but it does have Dorothy Malone going to service station to get serviced. (Ancient joke: “I was at the garage, pumping Ethel.”)

    THE BIG KICK is a Hal Roach talkie short that has service station employee Harry Langdon encountering rumrunners.

    In the George Arliss comedy THE MILLIONAIRE, an unhappily retired auto magnate takes charge of a service station whose owner got conned. No real crime, but Cagney appears briefly as a fast-talking salesman if that helps.

  7. Impact seems to be reprising The Millionaire a bit, with magnate Donlevy escaping his faithless wife to pump ethel with Ella. He has amnesia too, like Bathazar Getty.

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