One odd thing about being a child of the 80s is that you learn movie history backwards. In watching anything from Animaniacs to Pulp Fiction, I became acquainted with references and homages to classical Hollywood cinema long before I ever watched the movies referenced or the moments paid homage to. Thus, my knowledge of cinema’s past was framed through cinema’s present: I learned about old movies because of what new movies did with them.
One of the most formidable moments of this backwards cinematic education occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s when major event kids’ movies became especially preoccupied with 40s film noir in movies like Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) or Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). These movies embodied a world of double crosses, femme fatales, and cynical detectives without requiring their viewers, young or old, to have seen any of the films these genre tropes are indebted to. Thus, because of my exposure to new tweaks on an old form, conventions became familiar to me long before I could name the films from which such conventions originated.
But one movie was exceptionally influential in formulating a distinct impression of film noir in my childhood imagination, and that movie was – oddly enough – Home Alone (1990).
Of course, there’s nothing noirish about this film at large. The story of a delusional kid setting traps for criminals which would in real life result in the death of either the kid or the criminals is too irresponsibly playful and nowhere near dry enough to fit the comic noir tweaks of Zemeckis’s and Beatty’s films. But there was one a brief moment (repeated variably in the film) – a now-iconic moment quoted nearly every Christmas by people my age who hold the movie in the holiday canon – that cemented for me the idea of what Hollywood film noir must be. It’s the scene where recently abandoned, aggressively independent 3rd grader Kevin McCallister pours himself an ungoldly bowl of all-inclusive ice cream, pops in a tape titled “Angels with Filthy Souls,” and sees (interspersed with several reverse shots) the following:
Angels with Filthy Souls is not a real movie. But quite far into my life I believed it was, and this clip, made by the filmmakers of Home Alone, to me possessed all the defining characteristics of 40s film noir: expressionistic shadows, smoky offices, fedora hats, tommyguns, and characters with cartoonish names. The film’s fidelity to the actual film styles and practices of 1940s Hollywood mattered little: what was most important in my imagination up to this point was that fact that the film seemed like a 40s movie, no matter whether or not I had actually seen a film of that era. Like Marv’s panicked and confused reaction upon hearing the fight between Snakes and Johnny in Kevin’s house, well into early adulthood I myself found the movie a vaguely familiar experience that I never actually had (“Snakes? I could have sworn I’ve heard that name before!”).
The title Angels with Filthy Souls is likely a take on Michael Curtiz’s 1938 gangster film Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Gagney, Pat O’Brien, and Humphrey Bogart about an ex-con (Cagney) who helps young boys avoid a life of crime. But besides the familiar title, relative time period, and gangster subplot, Dirty Faces (which is not a film noir) has little in common with what we see of Filthy Souls. Dirty Faces tried to avoid the previous content problems gangster films had with the Hays Code by tweaking its plot as a “social problem” film, using its story as a cautionary tale rather engaging in the so-called “glorification” of gangster lifestyles allegedly (that is, according to the censors) perpetuated in previous gangster entries like Scarface (1932) and Cagney’s star-making role in The Public Enemy (1931).
Filthy Souls, in its admittedly brief and – by today’s standards – tame minutes of violence, would undoubtedly have been too intense for ‘30s-40s Code-era Hollywood fare, and would never have made it onto the screen with Snakes’s body receiving the bullets in such detail. Like the inappropriately fast cutting and visible bloodletting in Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006), contemporary emulations of classical Hollywood can’t help but sneak in anachronistic choices in style and content. Despite the fact that both Macauly-era Home Alones are stamped with family-friendly PG ratings, the violence depicted in Filty Souls (and especially in its sequel in Home Alone 2, Angels with Even Filthier Souls, which features the murder of a woman via-tommygun) would not have flown well under the mandates of the Production Code.
Look What You Did, You Little Jerk!
But, supposing that the existence of the film has any logic within the Home Alone universe, what’s even more puzzling about Angels with Filthy Souls is what its presence in their household says about the McCallister family. Early on in the film, Kevin complains to his parents that Uncle Frank won’t let him watch a movie with the other big kids that “isn’t even rated R.” Such a scene suggests that, like the experience of so many kids the ages of Macauly and myself, growing up in the home video era means living amongst a private cinematic library that is partly restricted from one’s purview: there are always those movies one can’t touch as a kid. When Kevin pops in the VHS after realizing he’s home alone, he sardonically yells to his absent parents, “I’m eating junk and watching rubbish,” suggesting that, by his parents’ rule, there are good movies and bad movies established in the household and Angels with Filthy Souls is one of the latter. This is implicitly the type of film Uncle Frank won’t let Kevin watch and possibly even the film he wouldn’t let Kevin share with his relatives only a night or two prior.
Which member of the McCallister family owns Filthy Souls, and what does this say about them? If the VHS is owned by Kevin’s parents, then why do they have an affinity for film noir? And why is this title designated as “filth” within the McCallister household rather than more contemporary, more obvious choices that would be likely be on their shelves and consistent with our personal experiences of forbidden VHS tapes in our own homes, like a violent 80s Schwarzenegger movie or something along the lines of Fatal Attraction? If the VHS is owned by Uncle Frank, then why on earth does he think the “older kids” would be interested in or care about an old black-and-white movie to the point of excluding other family members? Maybe this is a family that has an affinity for classical Hollywood – after all, they are later seen watching It’s a Wonderful Life in France.
But unless the Hays Code never existed in the Home Alone universe (if so, the clip from Wonderful Life we see would have had much more nudity), its existence still doesn’t make sense considering its violent content. The only conclusion I can come to then, is that Angels with Filthy Souls was never a 40s film noir at all, but (like its kids’ movie late 80s/early 90s contemporaries) was instead a modern homage to the genre for adults (after all, Prince’s adults-only, noirish, black-and white Under the Cherry Moon had been released only four years earlier). Filthy Souls must be a recently released, PG-13 rated (“…it’s not even rated R!”), sexy, violent, irreverent, B-grade rendition of the genre; this would explain the familiar parody title and more extreme content, and makes sense as a film beloved by Uncle Frank because of his sophomoric sense of humor. However, Angels with Even Filthier Souls was evidently a cable-rotation-friendly, drastically inferior carbon copy of the original, much like the film it is featured in.
Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals. And a Happy New Year.