The Unreliable Narrator: Caligari, Rashomon, and the art of the B-Movie

The Locket (1946)

The producer-added ending to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) merged the horrific scenario that went before into an hallucination of the protagonist’s disturbed mind. The savage critique of Germany’s emerging fascism was blunted, but a new dark expressionism survived. States of mind and dreams were irrevocably projected onto the cinema screen. Fetishism and fantastic scenarios ushered in the demonic and the surreal.

The deranged mind in Caligari was revealed through flashback.  Cinema moving backwards and forward in time, a quantum leap that thrust the oneiric engagement of the viewer within the frame of flickering images from passive observer to a participant who must engage actively in constructing a narrative.  The revealed unreliability of the narrative throwing the viewer into an abyss of incomprehension and confusion in movies like Un Chien Andolou.  A fractured kaleidoscope where meaning is continually undone and rewoven before the audience’s eyes.

Akira Kurosawa’s break-through movie Rashomon (1950), uses multiple flashbacks by different narrators to explore the nature of truth.  Truth not as fact, not as concrete events, but truth as competing and self-serving ‘stories’ about the narrator’s experience of a crime as recalled by different protagonists.  Kurosawa based his scenario on a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa, which, unlike Kurosawa’s film, has the differing and conflicting re-tellings of the crime left hanging and unresolved.  Kurosawa on the other hand pursues a contrived moralism by adding a redemptive ending about the adoption of a foundling in swaddling clothes.

The creative influence of German expressionism on the dark Hollywood b-movies known as film noir through a generation of expatriate European directors is well-documented.  One such director is John Brahm, who in the 1946 b-movie The Locket made audacious use of flashbacks from different narrators in a story about a schizophrenic woman who is both a kleptomaniac and a murderer. The woman’s psychosis is revealed through not only a series of flashbacks from different narrators, but at one point, a flashback within a flashback.  I have previously reviewed The Locket here. In this discussion, a quote from  Borde’s & Chaumeton’s  seminal ‘A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953 (1955) is sufficient:  “Never has the device of the flashback been taken so far.  Narratives are jumbled up, parentheses opened, exploits slot one inside the other like those Chinese toys sold in bazaars, and the figure of the heroine gradually comes into focus…”. Also, due credit should be given to Sheridan Gibney and Norma Barzman (uncredited), who wrote the original script. The ending is decidedly downbeat with a dark irony pointing not only to the uncertainty of the anti-hero’s fate, and an ambivalence about her culpability, but overarching doubts about the reliability of each and all the narrators of her story.

Noir Poet – Kenneth Fearing: “appeals urged across kitchen tables and the fury that shouts them down”

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)


She sleeps, lips round, see how at rest
how dark the hair, unstrung with all the world
see the desirable eyes, how still, how white, sealed
to all faces, locked against ruin, favor, and every

Nothing behind them now but a pale mirage
through which the night-time ragman of the street
below moves in a stiff and slow ballet
rhythmic from door to door, hallway to curb and
gutter to stoop, bat’s eyes bright, ravenous,
ravenous for the carrion found and brought by
tireless fingers to unreal lips

Her hand relaxed beside the enchanted head, mouth red,
see how at peace the human form can be, whose
sister, whose sweetheart, daughter of whom,
and now the adorable ears, coral and pink
deaf to every footfall, every voice
midnight threats, the rancor stifled in rented bed-
rooms, appeals urged across kitchen tables and
the fury that shouts them down, gunfire,
screams, the sound of pursuit
all of these less than the thunderous wings of a moth
that circles here in the room where she sleeps

Sleeps, dreaming that she sleeps and dreams.


-From ‘Dead Reckoning’, A Book of Poetry by Kenneth Fearing (Random House, NY, 1938)



Marlowe: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

The Big Sleep

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

– Raymond Chandler, first paragraph of  The Big Sleep (Published 1939)



Jean Valjean in the Shadows

Harry Baur as Jean Valjean, just released from prison, in the epic 1934 French film adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables directed by Raymond Bernard.

“At times he did not rightly know himself what he felt. Jean Valjean was in the shadows; he suffered in the shadows; he hated in the shadows; one might have said that he hated in advance of himself. He dwelt habitually in this shadow, feeling his way like a blind man and a dreamer. Only, at intervals, there suddenly came to him, from without and from within, an access of wrath, a surcharge of suffering, a livid and rapid flash which illuminated his whole soul, and caused to appear abruptly all around him, in front, behind, amid the gleams of a frightful light, the hideous precipices and the sombre perspective of his destiny.

The flash passed, the night closed in again; and where was he? He no longer knew. The peculiarity of pains of this nature, in which that which is pitiless–that is to say, that which is brutalizing–predominates, is to transform a man, little by little, by a sort of stupid transfiguration, into a wild beast; sometimes into a ferocious beast.

Jean Valjean’s successive and obstinate attempts at escape would alone suffice to prove this strange working of the law upon the human soul. Jean Valjean would have renewed these attempts, utterly useless and foolish as they were, as often as the opportunity had presented itself, without reflecting for an instant on the result, nor on the experiences which he had already gone through. He escaped impetuously, like the wolf who finds his cage open. Instinct said to him, “Flee!” Reason would have said, “Remain!” But in the presence of so violent a temptation, reason vanished; nothing remained but instinct. The beast alone acted.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862) – Excerpt from Isabel Florence Hapgood’s 1887 translation.

Note: Read about the 1934 French film adaptation of Les Misérables in a post on film critic Leonard Maltin’s blog: Discovering Another ‘Les Misérables

Cinematic Cities: New York – The Noir Years

New York in the 1940s in noir guise. From the previously unpublished archives of Life Magazine.   Full size photos can be viewed on the Time-Life web archive.

1944 Photo: Andreas Feininger – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1947 Photo: Herbert Gohr – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1946 Photo: Andreas Feininger – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1944 Photo: Andreas Feininger – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1946 Photo: Andreas Feininger – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1944 Photo: Andreas Feininger – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1942 Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images


Hudson, NY: Scenes from Odds Against Tomorrow Then and Now

Robert Wise’s classic film noir Odds Against Tomorrow – see my review here – was shot on location in New York City and in the Hudson river town of  Hudson, NY. Noir aficionado and film-maker Ray Ottulich visited Hudson this month and has kindly allowed me to publish his photographs of locales used in Odds Against Tomorrow matched to actual frames from the movie. I have taken some liberties with the montages to present them here, cropping and super-imposing shots to hopefully make the comparisons more dynamic.  Ray’s creative talent and invaluable contribution to film noir history is to be applauded.  After all, as the years roll on, the odds are against these locales remaining as they are. Great work Ray!

Hudson is where the heist, which is the dramatic focus of the movie, takes place, and a fair amount of screen time is spent observing the central characters as they wait out the day of the heist which goes down that night.

Wicked Women: “transforming sexist into sexy”

The Justice & Police Museum in Sydney is hosting an exhibition of original paintings by Australian artist Rosemary Valadon Wicked Women features portraits of contemporary Australian women inspired by pulp fiction and film noir.  Valadon’s paintings are promoted as both embracing and subverting  the genre’s stereotypes – sexist becomes sexy.

Tara Moss, Rachel Ward, Skye Leckie, Imogen Kelly, Sonia Kruger, Ros Reines, Larissa Behrendt, Antonella Gambotto-Burke, Margaret Cunneen, Essie Davis, Annette Shun Wah, Kara Shead, each chose a classic film poster or book cover for their sitting.

The paintings are indeed a cheeky and edgy feminist response to the motif of the dangerous femme deftly portrayed, and with a real feel for noir archetypes.

The exhibition runs from Saturday 20 October 2012 to Sunday 28 April 2013.


New Film Noir Poster Book: “Where Danger Lives’

Alain Silver and James Ursini have produced yet another book on film noir. This time they look at the graphics used to market noir movies.  The book titled ‘Film Noir Graphics: Where Danger Lives’ is lavishly illustrated with over 300 full color posters, lobby cards, and other marketing handouts. All the graphics are rendered in high resolution from pristine originals. Many items I have not seen before, and quite a few are for more obscure films that will whet the appetite of many a noir fan.

More a coffee-table short black than a serious study, the book is one you will want to dip into between movie sessions.  There is a commentary of sorts organized by chapters with titles derived from major films noir, such as ‘Touch of Evil’ and ‘Night and the City’.  The narrative is a set of elaborated captions that segue into each other as you move from page to page.  Silver and Ursini attempt to unify their comments by covering the use of noir motifs and how these elements are rendered by the artists who produced the artwork. Differences across studios and countries are identified.  What is interesting is the artistic license taken by some artists depicting scenes and themes which are not found in the actual movie.  There is a degree of repetition in the text from chapter to chapter, and sometimes the commentary jumps across pages and you find that you are not quite sure which graphic is being referred to.

Whether the US$40 price-tag is value for money is debatable.  The internet is a treasure trove for poster addicts, with such sites as offering free downloads of high-res images organized in a searchable database.  It comes down to the value you place on the commentary, which does offer some insights. What is missing is a wider survey of the role of graphics in movie marketing, and a behind the scenes look at who the artists were and how the material was produced.

You can buy the book from Amazon. An eBook version is not currently available.


Everbody Knows The Dice are Loaded

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

The finale from Season 3 of the noirish and very downbeat TV show Damages (2010) closes with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ sung by Holly Figueroa over the soundtrack, bringing to a close a sorry tale of greed, corruption, and downright evil set in the bright concrete canyons of Manhattan, where life is cheap and the pursuit of wealth by any means a sordid mantra.

A recent study by Emmanuel Saez from the University of California shows that in the United Sates between 2009 and 2010, the first year of the current ‘recovery’ the one percent captured 93% of the growth in national income (The Wall Street Journal, March 6 2012). This is only the most recent manifestation of the growing inequality in America which began during the Reagan presidency, and has seen the top 10 pct of income earners share of national income return to the obscene levels of the years just before The Big Crash in 1929 – the top 10pct of income earners grabbing half of national income – as shown in this graph from The Saez study.