VORUNTERSUCHUNG aka INQUEST (1931, Germany)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Robert Liebmann, Hans Müller, Robert Siodmak from the play of the same name by
Max Alsberg & Ernst Hesse
Cinematography: Otto Baecker, Konstantin Irmin-Tschet (u/c)
Lead actors: Albert Bassermann, Gustav Frohlich, Hans Brausewetter, Charlotte Ander, Anni Markat, Edith Meinhard
Where does "noir" begin? It's a long, endless slog for "the answer" to that question, what with claims for "silent noir" and crime films on the cusp of expressionism...but it's increasingly clear that certain directors, whose creative careers began in that milieu, were the ones to tip over the combination of plot, character, and visual elements and fashion a blend that closely tracks with what evolved into noir as we know it.
As noted elsewhere, one of those directors was Jean Renoir, who grafted together the oneiric and a French variant of the hard-boiled in LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR, reminding us that one large strain of noir (one that, yes, has been over-represented in the competing creation myths) does stem from the detective novel.
Another of these directors would become much more synonymous with film noir. That would be Robert Siodmak, whose later career arc is so well known that something of a backlash has formed with respect to his reputation. His early career--the one in Germany and France prior to his emigration--remains gauzy and unfamiliar even to those who champion him.
VORUNTERSUCHUNG (aka INQUEST) is his ticket to the dance that sashays around noir's "creation myth." There were no policiers in 1931 when the film was made (unless one wants to call Lang's M a policier, which in some small way it is...) and so Siodmak is, like Renoir, inventing a form that will become one of the significant narrative templates for noir.
But it is a policier with a twist (as befits many of the literary antecedents of noir). The magistrate investigating the murder of a prostitute finds his objectivity compromised when he discovers that his son is involved in the case.
Siodmak directs with a studied eye firmly in grasp of a dramatic principle that would push noir films into an oscillating intensity--the intersection of revealed event and the characters' often overwrought reaction to those revelations. And the response to the film when it premiered in the USA in 1931 (excerpt taken from the review in the New York Times...) indicated that he was on to something new:
"The plot itself is simple but effective. It savors of the murder mystery, but it is plausible and there is no attempt to elaborate it artificially. Fritz is in love with the daughter of an examining magistrate, but cannot ask for her hand because he is still mixed up with a girl from whom he cannot get free and who threatens to make a scandal if he leaves her. The magistrate's son, Walter, a fellow-student of Fritz's at the university, offers to go to the girl's apartment and break off the relationship for Fritz. So Fritz leaves his keys under the doormat for him.
But Walter never gets to the apartment, as he spends the night with a married woman. Next day the girl is found murdered and Fritz is immediately suspected. The examining magistrate, the father of Fritz's sweetheart, has the case under him, but cannot get Fritz to tell what he did with his keys.
As the examination proceeds he begins to suspect that his son may be mixed up in the matter, but fights down the idea and tries to force Fritz to confess. Then Walter is captured taking the keys from under the mat. As he will not tell where he spent the night, the magistrate is faced with the probability that his son has committed the murder. Now the magistrate's attitude toward the case changes. Instead of finding everything suspicious, as in the case of Fritz, he finds excuses for Walter's most suspicious actions. He realizes, however, that it will no longer be possible for him to conduct the inquest. But before he can resign..." [PLOT SPOILERS HERE]
The anonymous reviewer goes on to praise Albert Bassermann (the magistrate) and Gustav Frohlich (the accused, Fritz) for their dynamic performances. And both actors inhabit a region of agitated doubt, despair and denial that provides the sharply defined conflict that transports us into a realm where each character must confront the hysteria of their own sense of weakness.
Siodmak ratchets up this hysteria after having revealed a world of semi-decadent dalliances--the story seems to thrive on undercutting any sense of certainty held by anyone about the rules and structure of society. By showing how a criminal investigation can become hopelessly compromised, he lets loose upon the world what W.B. Yeats termed "mere anarchy"--a sense that anything and anyone can go out of control at any time.
And that really is the nexus of noir, now, isn't it? Highly recommended.