Brutal, Nasty, and Short: The Noir of Felix E. Feist

Even though he was born into the movie business, Felix Ellison Feist was always an outlier. His father was MGM’s general sales manager in the 1920s, and Feist began in the business first as a film loader for the studio’s East Coast office, then shooting news service footage and Metro travelogues. Despite the success of his first feature, the special effects extravaganza Deluge (1933), which imagined New York wiped out by a tidal wave, Feist spent the rest of the 1930s and ’40s making shorts for MGM. But in 1947, he suddenly found his niche within the rising tide of noir that swept over Hollywood. Moving to RKO Radio Pictures – for many ‘The House of Noir’ – Feist found that brisk, low-budget crime thrillers provided him with a template to create surprising films spiked with verve and violence. He was particularly adept with desperate characters in confined spaces, as seen in the maniacally unnerving The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and its similarly single-minded follow-up The Threat (1949).
Although he was cultured and sophisticated in his personal life, Feist’s approach to pulp material showed a subversive streak that crossed Anthony Mann-style brutality with the almost farcical momentum of Chuck Jones cartoons. He preferred operating in the B-movie trenches, where he enjoyed greater creative freedom. Producers appreciated his resourcefulness, and problem-solving élan. In many ways, Feist resembled Edgar G. Ulmer: both were filmmakers inspired by the limitations of B budgets and schedules, rather than hindered by them.
When Jack M. Warner (the studio boss’ son) made his first film as a producer, The Man Who Cheated Himself (1951), he handed the entire production over to Feist, who shot it efficiently and evocatively on location in San Francisco. Feist followed that with a Warner Bros. assignment that, for the studio, became an afterthought in the wake of the death of its original star, John Garfield. A bigger budget, a longer shooting schedule, and Art Cohn’s terrific script – Gun Crazy by way of John Steinbeck – inspired Feist to pull everything out of his bag of tricks for Tomorrow Is Another Day. The result is a fresh and deeply felt masterpiece of noir, marred only by a studio-mandated ending. Feist would make other films in the 1950s, such as The Big Trees (1952), Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952), and Donovan’s Brain (1953), but these lacked the attack and artistry he brought to his crime pictures. After more than a decade directing television, Feist died in 1965 at only 55 years of age.

Eddie Muller