Noir Beat: The Death of Film Noir

The Death of Film Noir

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 The 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.

Kirk Douglas’ Century

To celebrate Kirk Douglas reaching his first century – and many happy returns – I recently watched two of his movies: Champion (1949) and Lonely Are The Brave (1961).

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 star in 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.”

Amnesia and Missing Persons: “our lives dissolve into the evening”

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

“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?

 

Noir Amnesia

Noir Amnesia

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:

Noirsville: New film noir blog

Arouse (1966)
Arouse (US 1966) an intruiging neo-noir featured at Noirsville

 

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.

 

Not the Maltese Falcon: “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun”

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

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 (1936)

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.

 

The Oscars, Jean Renoir, Raymond Chandler, Auteurism, and Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956)

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

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.

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