Life and Death in L.A.: Pop! Goes the Flashbulb: In Noir, Photographers Did It the Old Fashioned Way, and their Pictures Usually Turned the Town, and Crime Investigations, Upside Down

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Pop! Goes the Flashbulb: In Noir, Photographers Did It the Old Fashioned Way, and their Pictures Usually Turned the Town, and Crime Investigations, Upside Down

Howard Duff snaps a candid shot in "Shakedown" (1950).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Lighting and photographic style play an outsized role in crime dramas of all kinds, including film noir. But then there are the noirs and thrillers that put a camera in front of the camera — or to be more precise, they’re films in which a photographer and his or her pictures play a key role in the story. 

It turns out that the camera can perform a number of roles, as recorder of truth, an instrument of deception and blackmail, a shield against assault or a device that uncovers crime that the naked eye wouldn’t notice. 

Holding a camera and press credentials — real or fake — can help get you into places that normally restrict access, be it a crime scene, lavish party or a war zone — and some are a combination of all three.

Here are some films featuring paparazzo whose pictures shake up the status quo for better or worse:

Martha Vickers, Humphrey Bogart, "The Big Sleep."

The Big Sleep” (1946) 

A camera is a blackmailer's best friends. It can catch a dupe in the act of regrettable deeds and preserve that transgression for ill-gained profit. Private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired to get elderly Gen. Sternwood’s young daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) out of just such a pickle. 

A blackmailer catches her on film, drugged up and in a compromising position. 

It’s highly embarrassing for Gen. Sternwood. For Carmen? Meh.

The incriminating pictures are taken with a camera hidden inside an Asian sculpture in the home of shady bookseller Arthur Geiger. In addition to handling volumes of Shakespeare and Spinoza, Geiger also maintains a backroom lending library of smut.  

But his blackmail scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, and the deeper Marlowe dives into this black pool of treachery the greater the number of players he discovers. So sprawling and complex is this mystery that even after hearing the solution you may be a bit confused. I certainly was.

Duff, "Shakedown" — the last shot.

Shakedown” (1950)

News photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) blows his boss’s mind with his candid shots of crimes in progress. Turns out his uncanny luck of being at the right place when the action unfolds has little to do with good fortune and a lot to do with inside info. Through manipulations and backroom arrangements he snaps pictures that other photographers miss, making him the newsroom star.

His editor sends him on a near impossible mission to photograph a crime boss who won’t allow his picture to be taken, and the camera clicker makes a deal with the kingpin — then double crosses him. 

The film’s wrap-up sees the slimy photographer set up his camera for a spectacular shot, and it turns out to be his last.

Keep an eye out for Hollywood wild man Lawrence Tierney and an uncredited Rock Hudson. 

Cyd Charisse, "Tension."

Tension”  (1949)

It doesn’t take a pro photographer, an FBI agent or a blackmailer to shoot a picture that blows a mystery wide open. Sometimes an ordinary “Jane Q. Public” can handle the job.

Shutter bug Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) is romantically attracted to dashing salesman Paul Sothern (Richard Basehart). The problem is that Sothern isn’t who he says he is. He’s milquetoast pharmacy employee Warren Quimby, who’s planning to kill his cheating wife Claire’s (Audrey Totter) boyfriend, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Quimby assumes the fictional identity of Sothern, hoping to get close enough to Deager to do him in. 

He doesn’t go through with it, and his plan backfires after he drops the “Sothern” guise and goes back to being Quimby. Mary thinks he’s gone missing and gives the police a photo of him she snapped as a lark. Before long, the authorities figure out that Quimby and Sothern are the same person, and things begin to look worse for Quimby when Deager turns up dead.

If nothing else, it’s probably a good idea to remember that, in noir, there is no such thing as a harmless photograph. 

James Stewart, "Rear Window." 

Rear Window” (1954)

Photographs can record information that the untrained eye would not normally see. And strangely enough, the camera can be used as a defensive weapon to obscure an intruder’s vision and stop him in his tracks.

Confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, photo journalist L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) wiles away his time watching the goings on visible through his neighbors’ windows. None of it is X-rated, but there’s an undercurrent of voyeuristic impulse on display in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

One resident in the unit across the courtyard catches his interest. It’s the apartment that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) shares with his wife, and Jefferies begins to suspect that the burly Thorwald has done away with her.

Pondering this, Jefferies pores over photos of the garden and realizes that the camera has picked up something suspicious. A buried object, perhaps? 

Piece by piece, Jefferies and his lady friend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) collect evidence and turn up the heat on Thorwald. His brooding neighbor finally breaks and comes to Jefferies’ apartment intending to silence him for good. 

But Jefferies’s trusty camera comes in handy when he repeatedly fires the flash attachment to temporarily blind the intruder. Flash bulb after flash bulb, Jefferies clicks away to ward off the attack. But like a soldier running out of ammo, his ploy can only stave off trouble for so long and the outcome could be very bad.

David Hemmings, "Blow-Up."

Blow-Up” (1966)

Here’s another example of a camera capturing the truth and revealing odd details that the eye tends to miss. Sometimes that obscure information can reveal a criminal conspiracy. But no matter how air-tight the photographic evidence may seem, the pursuit of justice can be a futile endeavor. 

Fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) plies his trade in 1960s Swinging London. Occasionally he delves into art photography, a pursuit that unexpectedly plunges him into a sinkhole of doubt and paranoia.  

While shooting landscape photos in a park one day, he photographs a couple lingering there. Upon enlarging and examining the resulting photos he sees a man with a gun and a body hidden among the greenery. He realizes that he’s stumbled onto a crime scene and the lingering couple are likely the victim and a co-conspirator.

Try as he might, he can’t seem to elicit any concern from his peers, all of whom seem to wallow in a haze of pot smoke, aloof and coolly detached from reality. 

When the alleged crime scene photos are stolen, Thomas is left with nothing tangible to persuade authorities to investigate and his efforts hit a brick wall. 

In the park he meets a mime troupe playing a mock game of  tennis with invisible rackets and balls, and he soon becomes wrapped up in watching the faux game. Reality, it seems, is what the majority believe it to be, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Joe Pesci, "The Public Eye."

The Public Eye” (1992)

Freelance news photographer Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein (Joe Pesci) roams the streets of 1940s New York in search of gruesome crime scenes and other tabloid  fodder.  He’s a thinly veiled stand-in for shutter-snapper Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. “Weegee,” whose work is still shown in museums and published in fine art catalogues as well as coffee table books. 

Weegee, so called because of his ability to anticipate when and where juicy photo opportunities would crop up, was not above ginning up a crime scene to make more spectacular pictures. Likewise, Bernzy might move a fedora closer to a corpse for dramatic effect at the expense of fidelity to the truth. But that’s because Bernzy, like Weegee, sees a higher truth in his art — and he does see his photographs as art, not mere junk journalism. 

His aesthetic sense, his nose for news as well as his marketing savvy tell him to go for the dramatic gut-punch and leave the detective work to the coppers. He may have smudged a latent fingerprint here or there, but his pictures deliver the sort of blood and guts shots that leap off the page in tabloid bulldog editions.  

Jake Gyllenhaal, "Nightcrawler."

Nightcrawler” (2014)

So far we’ve only talked about still photographers, but an exception can be made for “Nightcrawler,” which shines a harsh light on the TV news biz, more specifically, the sleazy, deceptive practices of freelance videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who covers nighttime Los Angeles and distorts the truth to fit what the viewing public wants to see and hear. 

As his career advances, Bloom reveals his utter lack of ethics as he makes a grotesque lunge toward success while trampling the journalistic ideals of even handedness, fair play and above all else, the truth. 

Charles Bronson, "Man with a Camera."

Man with a Camera” (1958-1960)

This TV crime drama features war veteran turned freelance photographer Mike Kovac (Charles Bronson). Kovac usually snaps pictures for insurance companies, the police and average citizens. He’s known for taking dangerous assignments that others turn down and he often acts as a private eye, to boot. 

His police liaison is Lt. Donovan (James Flavin) and he seeks counsel from his dad, Anton Kovac (Ludwig Stössel). 

When working undercover, Kovac uses slick devices such as cameras hidden in a radio, cigarette lighter and his necktie — shades of James Bond. Better yet, he’s got car phone and a portable darkroom in the trunk for developing film on the spot, as did Weegee. Some ideas are just too good not to copy.

1 comment:

  1. Another movie featuring a camera is The Lady Gambles (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck. It is her first visit to Las Vegas and she has a camera the size of a pack of cigarettes. She intends to disguise the camera and take photos of the gamblers for the magazine she works for. She gets caught by the manager and ends up gambling herself. As her gambling habit becomes worse and worse, she ends up hocking her camera. A grim movie about the hazards of gambling.