Film Noir aficionado and prolific blogger Ray “Cigar Joe” Ottulich from
Noirsville has pointed me to a series of on-line essays bearing the title
Death of Film Noir by a certain William Ahearn, where he expounds
a fairly pugnacious thesis on the true origins of film noir scholarship.
Ahearn explores the origins of film noir in French poetic realism, the early
critical writings of Nino Frank and other French film critics, and the influential
post-war trauma thesis of Paul Schrader and American scholarly studies from the
likes of noir scholar Alain Silver.
Ahearn has done his homework and the essays are provocative and informative.
Not all will agree with his radical take on the established film noir canon, but
his arguments are shrewdly and clearly presented.
Champion, the story of a boxer’s ruthless ambition and his demise
is widely recognised as a noir, but has a lesser profile than the great boxing noirs Body
and Soul (1947) and The
Set-Up (1949). Still Champion packs a punch, with a bravado performance from
Douglas and a compelling scenario. The demise of the protagonist, who ruthlessly
betrays kith and kin, has an element of tragedy. As in Kurosawa’s seminal Stray
Dog, a chance event and a decision, which is neither right nor wrong, sets off
an unwavering trajectory that no force can stop or deflect – like that shooting
High Sierra. The death of an all-round bastard can still be tragic.
In Lonely Are the Brave, Douglas plays an anachronism, a thoroughly
decent man destroyed by modernity. A cowboy and his loyal horse ultimately failing
to negotiate a highway that tears across the horizon. But not before a rifle shot
brings down an army helicopter in hot pursuit. The cowpuncher breaks out of a local
lockup after failing to spring his brother, who has been jailed for helping “wet-backs”
crossing over the border from Mexico. The film definitely resonates today. Another
bravura turn by Douglas. I see it as a noir. Others may quibble. But as Ray Ottulich
put it to me in an email: “Noir is in all of us. Think of us all as having an internal
tuning fork, these tuning forks are forged by our life experiences which are all
unique. When we watch these films their degree of noir-ness resonates with us differently,
so we either “tune” to them or we don’t.”
“A little girl is returning from the beach, at dusk, with her mother. She is crying for no reason at all, because she would have liked to continue playing. She moves off into the distance. She has already turned the corner of the street, and do not our lives dissolve into the evening as quickly as this grief of childhood?”
– Patrick Modiano, Missing Person (2004 Prix Goncourt)
Nobel-laureate Patrick Modiano’s novel ‘Missing Person’ traces soon after Word War 2 the search by an amnesiac for his identity. He has worked for a Paris detective agency for a number of years, and after it closes down he decides to find out who he is. With a bit of detective work, he starts to find traces that begin to come together slowly by dint of accosting erstwhile strangers for answers and pursuing other connections. By the end of the book, he is almost there but a man with perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is lost at sea presumed dead. Here we have a protagonist who is the missing person he is trying to find. And he discovers only vague largely impalpable fragments of memory. He may have found an identity of sorts but he won’t recover the lost memory of a life that has “dissolved into the evening”.
Dashiell Hammett in his novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’ has Sam Spade relate a fable which in academic writing on film noir has become known as the “Flitcraft Parable”. Spade tells the story of Mr Flitcraft, a realtor and family man who one day goes out to lunch and never returns. On the day he disappeared he had narrowly escaped death when a heavy beam from a construction site fell eight stories onto the pavement, just missing him. A typically noir moment. As Spade put it: “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”
Back in Paris at around the same time Georges Simenon is writing his novel ‘Monsieur Monde Vanishes’ about a well-off bourgeois, who one morning leaves his office and hops a train to Marseille, hooking up with a b-girl on the way. His wife reports him as a missing person. He gets works as a clerk in a dance joint. Neither happy nor unhappy, he exists perhaps in a way more real than in his comfortable life in Paris. But is his slumming permanent?
Monsieur Monde certainly takes all the risks and does make a shattering discovery, but like Flitcraft and the Paris amnesiac, has he found a new life or rediscovered an old one, the doppelganger in us all?
Film noir evokes the dark side where the noir protagonist is usually trapped in a web of dire circumstance.
A particular noir trope is amnesia. Hemmed in by internal barriers the noir amnesiac struggles to recover memory and meaning. The lost doppelganger, usually the dark flip-side of a new better self. In the redemptive noir the better self in the process of discovery cancels the past and gets a second shot, while in a less sanguine universe the fusion is bitterly destructive. A variation has the anti-hero hunting down the perpetrator of his own repressed memory, or stealing the identity of a better self.
The femme-fatale is a kind of amnesiac. An alluring front to a rotten foundation. On rare – perverse – occasions she repents and lives happily ever after. And it is not only the female of the species. Hommes-fatales are not unknown. Indeed pairings in-fatale though rare have a frission all their own.
And sometimes it was all a dream – or a psychotic delusion.
Identifying films noir that trace particular strands of fractured identity would be revealing too much, so here is a selective list to get you started:
Film noir aficionado Ray (“Cigar Joe”) Ottulich has launched a new blog where he will collect his film noir reviews from various forums, and post new reviews and noir-related snippets. The blog is appropriately titled Noirsville.
Ray over the past few years has introduced me to a number of b-movies and little-known neo-noirs, and Noirsville is a very welcome addition to the film noir blogosphere.
Click here to read his latest post on Arouse an intruiging and very obscure neo-noir from 1966.
Hollywood made two attempts at adapting Dashiell Hammett’s pulp masterpiece The Maltese Falcon before John Huston scripted and directed the definitive adaptation in 1941. The stunning serendipity of the casting of Huston’s film defines the characterisations in concrete for all time. Yet it is still worth looking at the earlier movies as they each offer their own flavour and particular piquancy.
In 1931 Roy Del Ruth directed a largely faithful scenario penned by Maude Fulton and titled The Maltese Falcon, starring would-be heartthrob Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the voluptuous Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly. The studio being Warner Bros. and the times pre-code, the picture has a dark gritty feel, and the sexual sparks between Spade and Wonderly are bright and thunderous. There is a coy frivolity in their antics even though in the end Bebe gets no reprieve. An early sequence starting with a scene showing a silhouette of a couple kissing in Spade’s office, which then cuts to one focused on a pair of shapely legs leaving the office, has pre-code all over it, and deftly establishes that Cortez’s Spade is definitely a lady’s man. His secretary Effie spends a lot of time on his knee while otherwise engaged in more routine office duties. The rest of the casting got the job done, and it is interesting to see Dudley Digges’ seedy portrayal of a very thin Gutman. Interesting too is seeing Bebe Daniels taking a bath, and her bare shoulders after stripping in Spade’s kitchen to prove she hadn’t palmed some of Gutman’s cash. It all gets serious by the end though.
Satan Met A Lady directed by William Dieterle in 1936 plays fast and loose with Hammett’s story, and mainly for laughs. Warren Williams as the private dick and femme-fatale Bette Davis chew up the scenery with rambunctious over-the-top portrayals. While a lot of the humour is over-played, ironically the whole affair can be seen as a cheeky satire of film noir made before Hollywood actually made one! While Williams’ exuberance is perhaps too theatrical, Davis is a delight, revelling in screwball antics that still have a whiff of pre-code insouciance. She has the best line in the movie when she is holding a gun to Williams – who throughout dons a hat which must have been borrowed from a nearby Western set – and demands “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun!” Another novelty is the Gutman character played as a matronly but mean old lady. Great fun.
In a 1954 interview Jean Renoir said of Hollywood: “Don’t go thinking that I despise “B” pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”
Raymond Chandler in 1948 in an acid essay on the Oscars, and 20 years before Pauline Kael wrote ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’, framed his critique by saying of the motion picture “that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can.” Though he didn’t spell it out it, Chandler was clearly highlighting the artistic choices made by the director of a film. Not until the 1950s did the enfants terribles of Le Cahiers du Cinema develop the insights broached by Chandler.
American film academic and writer Justus Nieland in a piece foreshadowing tonight’s Oscars titled ‘Auteurism and the Genius of the Market’ and published last week in The New York Times, writes:
“This logic of aesthetic judgment, in which films and their directors mutually ratify each other’s greatness has, of course, auteurist roots. The word persists today because a group of film critics in the 1950s hashed out a “politique des auteurs” that discerned, among the industrial products of American mass culture, signatures of a presiding, singular artist like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang or Nicholas Ray, among others. This Romantic view of expression, with its abiding myths of freedom, style and personality, sought to solve the problem of how industrially produced and distributed mass entertainment might also be art. But auteurism was also a category of reception, allowing cinephiles to sift and sort, and value and hierarchize, the films and directors to which they had access. In France and elsewhere in the 1950s, that meant seeing Hollywood cinema as a cultural sign of the economic and political power of the U.S… If the Oscars are important, then the best director award is the most important not just because it rewards the work of gifted nominees (and this year’s are an estimable bunch), but because the name of the director remains, for better and worse, contemporary film culture’s way of organizing knowledge about film artistry and its relation to markets and consumers. This says as much about what persists in our fantasies of aesthetic agency as it does about the strategies of the corporate present that shape, and limit, our power to discern the best.”
Hollywood ‘B’ movies of the 40s and 50s were production line ‘filler’. But for the reasons identified by Renoir and Chandler, and despite being made quickly and on the cheap, they sometimes transcended their humble aims and by virtue of the craft and artistry (of mostly journeymen film-makers) made a claim to being considered as art.
One such ‘B’ movie is The Killer is Loose made in 1956 by United Artists and directed by Budd Boetticher, who after completing this film went on to make six cult Westerns that established his auteur status. The Killer is Loose is not a great movie nor is it even particularly good. The plot is by this late stage of the classic noir cycle more of the same police procedural that noir largely devolved into as the War years receded. A gormless war veteran working as a bank teller provides inside information for a heist, and when cornered by police in his apartment and his innocent wife is accidently shot dead by a police detective in the shootout that ensues, he swears vengeance on the wife of the cop. After a couple of years he escapes from detention and heads onto a bloody path to the cop’s wife. The climax is a stakeout at night in suburbia. Strong performances from Wendell Corey as the disturbed killer and Joseph Cotton as the cop, and Rhonda Fleming as the hapless wife, don’t quite overcome the inertia of the scenario and plot-holes that most likely derive from keeping the running time to 73 minutes. The score is dramatic in the wrong places, better dialog is not hard to find, and the ending is predictable. What unshackles the movie is the consummate direction and editing. Deep focus outside and long fluid takes inside. The climax is a master-class in editing for suspense. Even daylight scenes have a tension that subverts otherwise normal life in the suburbs. A journey on a crowded brightly lit bus at night holds a palpable existential terror.
In November last year The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody named the recent archive release of the The Killer is Loose his DVD of the Week, writing that “Boetticher… saw violence everywhere and was sensitive to its ambient horrors, even when unleashed with principle. This movie, with its focus on crime and punishment—and on the private lives of police officers and criminals alike—redefines the very idea of the war at home.” Brody’s video review of The Killer is Loose is featured below.
After some encouragement from my Film Noir-loving comrades, I’ve decided not to be modest about my enthusiasm for Film Noir and to share this with you.
Recently I became slightly obsessed with the origins of Film Noir, of which I knew very little about, so decided to do some digging. Boy, did I ever underestimate the incredible journey that I was about to embark upon. It was a journey of discovery that took me through the mysteriously dark, yet compelling archives of silent horror movies, to early divas that shaped the mould for our beloved femme fatales (one of two for whom I developed a slightly unsettling school-boy crush), to the meaning of Pre-Code and the realisation of just how much freedom these early film pioneers were permitted in expressing themselves in the most imaginative ways. The results were often horrific, shocking, slightly perverse and even upsetting to watch sometimes, yet compelling to the end. Nevertheless, they had in common the fact that they were stylish, sexy, incredibly intellectual, and possessed of a charm that would make a grown man weep at their sheer, simple beauty.
I feel that it would be unfair to keep this treasure to myself, and so would like to share it with those yet to discover the mysteries of Film Noir’s origins. I use the term ‘treasure’ deliberately because the journey of discovery into this world is exactly that: a treasure hunt; identifying clues along the way that will lead you further and further back into cinematic history. My own personal treasure-hunt led me as far back as the mid 1910’s. But even here I had the distinct impression that the blueprint for what would later become known as Film Noir, had already been well established.
So you can call this little write-up a map of sorts, if you decide to take on the case! On the way you may encounter the very first femme fatales. You’ll then exuberate: “Oh, wait a minute. Ah, now I see where that came from”. I saw my first fatale in a 1913 German silent titled Der Student Von Prag (The Student of Prague) directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener. She was quite tame, and not as ‘naughty’ as her counter-part in the 1926 remake of the same name. But still she was distinctly present and up to no good. If you do decide to do some digging yourselves, I would suggest going down the ‘availability’ route, as so much early material has been lost. If you can get hold of anything pre 1930 from any of the following directors, you’ve found yourself a gem and another piece of the puzzle: Fritz Lang; F.W. Marnau; Robert Wiene; and Josef von Sternberg. A good starting point is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931) and then work your way back through the 1920’s and before.
Alternatively, you may consider yourself a bit of a maverick like me and think, “To hell with that. I’m going to start with material from as far back as I can possibly find and end with M. That makes more sense to me”, then bravo and good luck. That’s a tougher route because you may spend all your time looking for the door to the treasure chamber when you could be inside looking at the treasure itself. But it does indeed make more sense to do it that way starting with The Student of Prague (aka A Bargain with Satan) from 1913. Last I looked, it was available on YouTube. If you can’t find the original version, the 1926 remake, (aka The Man Who Cheated Life) directed by Henrik Galeem, which is just as important as its predecessor. Many critics claim it’s even better, but that’s for you to decide. These silent classic will be your Stranger on a Train pushing forward or back in time.
Obviously none of these films are listed as Film Noir, but rather as horror films, thrillers, crimes or dramas. They are almost all silent films and mostly German (ordirected by Germans in Hollywood).
Your assistants on this journey will be YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, IMDB and a multitude of online streaming sites. Finally, here are a few clues to get you started. Beware there is a red-herring among them!
German Expressionism (this is a massive clue!)
Eliza La Porta
George Wilhelm Pabst
“An azure-colored celestial being”
Good luck. I envy you – especially if you have not yet made the acquaintance of Louise Brooks!
Alan Fassioms is a freelance writer and self-confessed “film noir addict”. You can read more of Alan’s writing on film at his blog Stranger on the 3rd Floor.
Some film noir academics dispute the widely held view that the “expanding cycle of hard-boiled and cynical films” (as Bosley Crowther described them in the New York Times in his May 1946 review of The Blue Dahlia) produced in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period, necessarily reflected a darker pessimistic mood in American society in the shadow of WW2, as there was still plenty of Hollywood’s traditional romantic and escapist fare screening in the US at the time, and that the movies retroactively labelled as film noir were not big box office.
Mike Chopra-Grant in his 2006 book, ‘Hollywood Genres and Postwar America’, put this view as follows (my emphasis):
“when I began to look at the rental revenues earned by films in the American market in 1946 no single mood or tone could be identified that uniformly characterized all of the most popular films, although the dominance of musicals and comedies suggested a lighter and more exuberant mood than the emphasis on film noir in academic writing would suggest… Despite the inconsistency between the number of upbeat musicals and comedies among the most popular films of the early postwar period and the “mood” of that period suggested by much film noir scholarship, I do not entirely reject the suggestion that the “tough” movie represents one response to the disruptions and uncertainties of the wartime and postwar period. I do, however, take issue with the suggestion that this kind of film represented the typical response of Hollywood filmmakers, and with the implication that the “tough” movie captured the zeitgeist of American culture in the period after the Second World War: the evidence provided by the popular films suggests otherwise, and in the contradictory impressions of the period presented by the combination of the most popular films and the “tough” movies the very notion of zeitgeist is revealed to be highly problematic… Although explaining these films in vague sociological terms, as a manifestation of historically existing social anxieties, produces an inadequate account of their place within the wider culture, examination of these “tough” movies in relation to the specific themes and discourses already discussed in relation to the popular films of the period does provide a way of understanding the position of film noir within its historical setting without the need to resort to common-sense truisms about the “mood” of the culture.”
On the other side and in the same year in her book ‘Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir’, Sheri Chinen Biesen argues that the dark expressionism of crime movies that started to appear during WW2 arose out of the economic constraints imposed on Hollywood by the war effort, such as the shortage of film stock and electricity rationing, dark lighting to hide cheap sets, and other deprivations, together with growing audience demand for “red meat” entertainment.
The other day I was idly ‘flipping’ through on-line archive copies of The Film Daily, a Hollywood trade journal of the period, and came across an interesting tabulation in the Friday May 23, 1947 issue: The Broadway Run Score Board comparing the weekly runs of new release movies in Broadway cinemas for the periods Jan-June 1946 and Jan-May 1947. The Scorecards are reproduced at the end of this article. I have highlighted all the movies that are now identified as films noir. There are quite a number, and more than a few had exceptional runs. Some prestige noirs did very well. Clearly, there was something going on.
How we account for these numbers I leave to the experts, but I do have a view which I set out in my article What is Film Noir. Basically, while many see film noir originating in post-WW2 trauma, I believe the origins of film noir lie largely elsewhere. Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WW2. This is not to say that the experience of WW2 did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of émigré European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30’s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornel Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30’s. Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression.
The Score Boards – Double-click on the image to zoom:
These frames from The Pawnbroker(1964) illustrate how Director, Sidney Lumet and Cinematographer, Boris Kaufman deftly cast the high density built environment to visually portray the isolation of the individual in the modern metropolis.