Film Noir Friday: Out of the Fog (1941)

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Directed by Anatole Litvak with a screenplay by Robert Macaulay, Robert Rossen and Jerry Wald, Out of the Fog can be a little on the nose. It’s based on the Irwin Shaw play Gentle People and features the perceptive cinematography of James Wong Howe.

Litvak’s motion picture drips with cynicism. Sheepshead Bay is awash in constant darkness and fog. There’s not a single scene that has the audacity to take place in broad daylight. The universe is a preordained place, where the strong take from the weak and there’s no hope for kind souls.

Olaf (John Qualen) and Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) are two buddies who enjoy a little fishing after work. They live simple lives and seeks solace out on the water. That changes when Goff (John Garfield) creeps into town. He sets up an extortion racket and seeks protection money from Olaf and Jonah to the tune of five bucks a week.

As if that wasn’t enough, Goff sets his sights on Jonah’s daughter Stella (Ida Lupino). She’s tired of her ordinary life and is particularly tired of her tedious beau George (Eddie Albert), so she takes to Goff’s antagonistic advances. When Goff starts applying more pressure, Olaf and Jonah agree that something must be done.

There are a lot of moving parts in Litvak’s melodrama and it’s tempting (and easy) to politicize the film as some sort of leftist fable. There are elements that ring with the shadows of Shaw’s capitalistic critique, but the film noir weaves a more personal yarn.

Goff, played with crunching aggression by Garfield, is the catalyst. He is emotionless and takes what he wants. He doesn’t give a damn about trivialities like civility and claims, twice, that he’s got nothing but rocks inside.

Goff’s encounters with the simple Olaf and the resigned Jonah rely on the truism that Goff is strong and the fishermen are weak. They are unable to stand up to the man and can’t even find assistance in the justice system, which is due to the forced signing of a phony document. Goff is ahead of Olaf and Jonah every step of the way.

Lupino, always excellent, is the stimulated witness. Her relationship with Goff is grounded in frustration. She knows he’s evil. She even knows he’s taking her father to the cleaners. But paternal love isn’t enough to overcome raw lust and Stella is wedged into unsustainable territory.

Stella’s ennui is preserved by Goff’s sociopathic tendencies. He takes her out and she gets off on the way he talks, the way he is. While Stella’s father and boyfriend tell her she’s ordinary, Goff treats her like a prize. She wants to be coveted. It’s not enough to be loved.

Litvak does a nice job combining Stella’s ennui with Goff’s belligerence and Olaf and Jonah’s virtue, with the fog powerless to obscure the blackness of certain hearts. Olaf and Jonah are pressed into the ways of the world, with violence presenting itself as the only solution – especially after the failure of the justice system.

While some have complained that the ending of Out of the Fog is a cop-out, there’s a certain sense to the fate that befalls Goff. It allows Olaf and Jonah to maintain their studied morality, for one, and it asserts that some men may still hold fast to their ethics.

Out of the Fog is well-acted and well-shot and it does contain the desolation and honest corners to qualify as a simmering film noir, even if the ending is too extensive and too tidy. Its tendency to the personal may rob the picture of grander potency, but Litvak’s movie still functions as a compelling morality tale.

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