Film Noir: “All I can see is in the frame”

Out Of The Past (1947)

Tonight I came across a deeply interesting paper by fellow Australian, Rafaelle Caputo, titled Film noir: “You sure you don’t see what you hear?, published in the Australian Journal of Media & Culture (Vol5 No 2 1990). Caputo studied cinema at La Trobe University and has been a writer on film for over 15 years, contributing to various journals and newspapers. The title of the paper includes a line from Out of the Past (1947).

The paper is scholarly, but has something very important to say to all fans of the genre:

There certainly is something one can point to called film noir, which starts and stops at certain points in time, which has been written about and tabled in the history of cinema, and which has been the focus of much critical debate. Equally, however, there tends to exist another film noir whose style seemingly departs from that tradition, locked away in a kind of time capsule, but which forms it own delicate lines of tradition, continuing to creep around. Finally, I feel the best way to proceed in the reading of film noir is along a path suggested by another line from Out of the Past: “All I can see is the frame … I’m going inside to look at the picture”.

Caputo’s thesis is that defining a movie as a film noir derives from it a having a “noir sensibility” rather than fitting a pre-defined template of rules or guidelines. His argument is coherent and established, inter alia, by reference to a set of films made in Hollywood over a period ranging from the 40s though to the 70s. His analysis of Out of the Past is so brilliant it makes you want to tear away and watch that timeless work yet again.

The film [Out of the Past] opens with exterior shots of an expansive landscape of mountains and forest dissolving into each other while the credits fade-in with each dissolve, until finally there is a dissolve into a stretch of highway with a road sign in the foreground pointing directions and distances for various towns. Into the shot drives a black car, casually travelling into the distance of the frame; then a cut to a travelling-shot from the rear of the car, at an angle over the shoulder of the figure dressed in black behind the steering wheel. The shot knits our point of view with his as we pass another road sign indicating the approaching town of Bridgeport. This shot is maintained until the car pulls into a gas station, but as soon as the car comes to a halt there is an almost immediate cut, still from the same camera position but at a slightly lower angle. The gas station building now takes up most of the screen space, horizontally spilling onto the road from left of frame, and in view atop the building is another sign set off against the clouds which reads ‘Jeff Bailey’. This slight change in camera angle gives the impression of the building jutting out into the car’s diagonal path as though it has forced the black-clad figure of Joe Stefanos to stop abruptly rather than stop by his own volition…

Caputo convincingly argues that Klute (1971) is not a noir. It is interesting that the forthcoming NYC Noir noir festival organised by Film Forum includes a screening of Klute.

Other films noir referred to in the article:

The Killers (1946) and The Killers (1964)
Kiss of Death (1947)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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