July 2019, arsenal cinema

Female Film Noir Pioneers –
 Muriel Box, Edith Carlmar, Bodil Ipsen, Ida Lupino, Wendy Toye

[Translate to english:] AFSPORET, 1942

The 1940s and 1950s experienced a blossoming in female filmmaking worldwide, with numerous female filmmakers starting their directorial careers in the film noir genre. This program brings together 13 features and three shorts by five film noir pioneers: Muriel Box (United Kingdom), Edith Carlmar (Norway), Bodil Ipsen (Denmark), Ida Lupino (USA), and Wendy Toye (United Kingdom). Often subtly subverting the rules of the genre, these filmmakers created enduringly fascinating films that carry an individual signature and often pursue matters of feminism. Alongside the focus on their film noir works, the program also includes selected works from other genres, primarily the comedy, but also the spy film and war movie, which emphasize these filmmakers’ directorial versatility. The series examines a chapter in female filmmaking that has thus far gone largely unwritten and throws up several mysteries: with the exception of Lupino (who made films between 1949 and 1966), the directorial careers of the other four filmmakers lasted almost exactly ten years before abruptly ending. From an archival point of view too, accessing their respective oeuvres is no easy task: several films from the filmographies of Carlmar, Ipsen, Box, and Toyes, including ones very much relevant for this program, are unable to even be shown in digitally restored form. Toyes’ feature debut, for example, the thriller The Teckman Mystery (1954), would have been a central film for this program, but there is no screenable print of it available worldwide; the same applies to Muriel Box’’s only film noir Eyewitness (1956). This series is thus also to be grasped as providing the impetus for a more comprehensive rediscovery of these cinema pioneers.

AFSPORET (Derailed, Bodil Ipsen, Lau Lauritzen Jr., Denmark 1942, 6.7., with an introduction by Gary Vanisian & 31.7.) Bodil Ipsen was one of Denmark’s most well-known actresses before making her debut as a filmmaker. With prolific filmmaker Lau Lauritzen Jr., she co-directed the first film noir in Danish film history during the German occupation. The gloomy story unfolds in misty streets and oppressive interiors and centers upon Esther, a young woman from a good home trapped in an unhappy marriage. After her father, a doctor, discovers that she has life-threatening anemia, Esther loses her memory and wanders through the nocturnal streets of Copenhagen, until the attractive, but uncanny Janus Jensen leads her into his underworld gang. Outstanding leading actress Illona Wieselmann had to flee to Sweden shortly after the completion of the film because of her Jewish heritage.

THE HITCH-HIKER (Ida Lupino, USA 1953, 7. & 11.7.) “Two friends pick up a hitchhiker who is revealed to be a sadist on the run from the police and now tries escape by forcing the two hobby fishermen to help him. THE HITCH-HIKER is likely Ida Lupino’s most well-known directorial work. A film noir as masterful as it is harsh, which finds its uncanny reflection in the gaze of the killer, who keeps one eye open even when sleeping. At the same time, Lupino’s primary interest is not in the salacious aspects of the story, which is based on a real-life case.” (Hannes Brühwiler)

DØDEN ER ET KJÆRTEGN (Death is a Caress, Edith Carlmar, Norway 1949, 8.7. & 1.8.) Theatre actress Edith Carlmar had worked for several years as an assistant director before becoming her country’s first female filmmaker with this first ever Norwegian film noir. The film tells the story of the fatal love between a married woman and a much younger man. Edith Carlmar and her husband and producer Otto Carlmar adapted the Norwegian novel of the same name, which tips its hat unmistakably to James M. Cain’s crime novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Due to its choice of themes and permissiveness, this sensual, touching film caused controversial discussions back then, with Carlmar receiving threatening letters from the incensed moral majority.  

STREET CORNER (Muriel Box, United Kingdom 1953, 10.7. & 2.8.) Muriel Box and her husband Sydney Box were regarded as one of the best script teams of the 40s, before Muriel Box turned her attention to directing. With STREET CORNER, her third feature, she made a central work of British post-war cinema, which tells the story of the everyday work of female police officers in London in semi-documentary form. In three gripping episodes, she sings an ode to modern, self-confident women. British actress Peggy Cummins plays one of the leading roles, who had already sparkled three years previously in Gun Crazy by Joseph H. Lewis, one of the key works of American film noir. Beforehand, we will be showing THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD (United Kingdom 1952), which marked the start of the directorial career of Wendy Toye, a famous dancer and choreographer of the time. Initially coming across as an eccentric fantasy, the short film suddenly blooms into a thriller, demonstrating Toye’s directorial gifts both for the grotesque and the suspenseful.

MORDETS MELODI (The Melody of Murder, Bodil Ipsen, Denmark 1944, 15.7. & 8.8.) A series of murders takes place in Copenhagen’s varieté milieu: one female artist after another is murdered, with the melody of a French song being whistled just before each killing. The police suspect a singer who sings exactly the same song during her performances. Unlike in AFSPORET, Ipsen chose classic criminal material for her second noir film. Like all her work, it’s characterized by its dense, gripping direction and the breathtakingly beautiful black-and-white lighting design. It also proves just how well Ipsen was able to use the bend the genre to her will to comment on contemporary history: a central “instrument” with which the murders are carried out can be read as an allegory for the state of her country under the German occupation.

UNG FRUE FORSVUNNET (Young Woman Missing, Edith Carlmar, Norway 1953, 17.7.) A teacher returns home from an excursion and realizes there’s been no sight of his wife Eva since the day he left. A criminal detective starts to investigate. Shortly afterwards, the body of a woman is found in a river. Suddenly a mysterious stranger calls on Eva’s husband, who calmly and ominously tells him some unknown and undreamt-of pieces of information about his wife. The film proceeds to lay out each element of the story of Eva, the swirl of her fears, yearnings, addictions, and disappointments, which Carlmar depicts both as a crime thriller and social critique in her intense third feature, even if the true focus is on revealing patriarchal norms and arrogance.  

SUBWAY IN THE SKY (Muriel Box, United Kingdom 1959, 19.7., with an introduction by Madeleine Bernstorff & 27.7.) American military doctor Baxter Grant is stationed in West Berlin and accused of dealing drugs. He leaves his unit as a result to prove his innocence. Pursued by his troop as a deserter, he flees to his wife’s apartment. There he unexpectedly meets nightclub singer Lilli Hoffman and asks her for help. Leading actress Hildegard Knef (listed in the opening credits as Hildegarde Neff) is at the heart of Box’s stylist, chamber drama spy thriller, who had finished her acting career in the US shortly beforehand to return to Europe. In keeping with her role, she also performs a song in the film – just before she began a successful career as a singer in real life too.

OUTRAGE (Ida Lupino, USA 1950, 21.7.) “Lupino’s perhaps most daring film is dedicated to a theme still largely taboo even in Hollywood today: protagonist Ann Walton (the impressive Mala Powers in her first major role) is raped early on in the film. The rest of OUTRAGE is not just dedicated to the legal reverberations of this act of violence, but also to its psychological and interpersonal effects, the existential insecurity of young woman damaged to the core and a cautious recoalescence that remains brittle to the last.” (Lukas Foerster)

THE PASSIONATE STRANGER (Muriel Box, United Kingdom 1957, 23.7., with an introduction by Regina Holzkamp) In her successful dime store novels, writer Judith Wynter creates daring adventures, but in real life has a peaceful existence with her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair. After her Italian chauffeur recognizes himself as the fiery lover who wins the heart of a married woman in Judith’s new manuscript, a series of cheerful turbulences begins. This playful comedy, one of the most innovative British films of the era, dresses up the fictional part in color and reality in black and white. Beforehand, we are showing ON THE TWELFTH DAY (United Kingdom 1955), an inventive costume drama by Wendy Toye very much admired in its day.  

EN HERRE I KJOLE OG HVIDT (A Gentleman in Top Hat and Tails, Bodil Ipsen, Denmark 1942, 25.7.) For her first individual directorial work after AFSPORET, Bodil Ipsen shifted genre from film noir to satirical comedy, although serious, socially critical undertones can be made out here too, with her talent for depicting mysterious, ambivalent situations continuing unabated. One day, an unknown man in top hat and tails turns up on the main square of a city wanting to make an urgent call from a public telephone. This sets in motion numerous entertaining complications.

UNG FLUKT (The Wayward Girl, Edith Carlmar, Norway 1959, 27.7. & 6.8.) 17-year-old Gerd, illegitimate daughter of a single working mother, has gone astray. After being released from temporary police custody, her boyfriend Anders, a student, takes a trip with her to the country against his parents’ wishes. In a solitary hut in the woods, the young couple spend a brief carefree period until a vagrant turns up. Alongside Liv Ullmann’s piercing presence (in her first leading role for cinema), Carlmer’s final film directed for the big screen captivates due to the intense erotic tension between the three protagonists and the noiresque way in which Carlmar depicts the mysterious figure of the vagrant.   

LÅN MEG DIN KONE (Lend Me Your Wife, Edith Carlmar, Norway 1958, 29.7.) Carlmar primarily shot comedies in the second half of her career, several of which still enjoy great popularity in Norway to this day. Her penultimate film LÅN MEG DIN KONE assembles one wonderful punchline after another, upturning traditional roles in mischievous fashion and with a feminist impetus. A man lends a friend his wife so that he can receive a promotion in his company. Yet the swap soon develops an unwanted dynamic of its own. THE KING’S BREAKFAST (United Kingdom 1963), Wendy Toye’s final work as a director, will be shown beforehand, an enchanting slapstick ballet adapted from a poem by A. A. Milne. In the year of its premiere, Toye was invited to be president of the jury at the Berlinale, making clear her importance in the filmmaking scene of the time.  

DE RØDE ENGE (Red Meadows, Bodil Ipsen, Lau Lauritzen Jr., Denmark 1945, 30.7.) Danish resistance fighter Michael is waiting to be executed in a Gestapo prison. He remembers the days before his arrest: preparing operations against the German occupiers, his final meeting with his girlfriend Ruth, and the search for a spy from within his own ranks. Ipsen and Lauritzen Jr. tell the story of the partisans with a gloominess pierced by a film noir world view, a veritable spider’s web of mistrust and inhumanity against which a courageous battle is waged. Shot a few months after the liberation of Denmark, DE RØDE ENGE won the Golden Palm in Cannes in 1946 and is one of the most famous works in Danish film history. (gv)

With the friendly support of the Royal Danish Embassy, Berlin.