Nippon Noir: Not everyone wants to be found

The Bad Sleep Well (Japan 1960)

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is a caustic tale of corporate corruption and greed, where the surface hides the ugly truth.  The death of a fall guy thrown from a multi-story office block in central Tokyo precipitates a simmering revenge by the victim’s son. Using a stolen identity he marries the crippled daughter of the firm’s boss.  The plan is meticulously orchestrated, and skewers the boss’s henchmen slowly, as the noose is gathered and readied to lasso the ‘big’ man – who despite his slight build and grandfatherly persona is a vicious thug – a “family man”.

But as in all noirs, where plans have the perverse habit of falling apart, the elaborate scheme unravels disastrously – and tragically. There is plenty of melodrama which is heavily stylized, and for western audiences rather mannered.

The opening set piece of the wedding reception for the daughter’s marriage,  where a chorus of muck-raking journalists gate-crashes the party, is a truly bravado introduction to the protagonists and the ensuing narrative.  A wedding cake in the shape of company headquarters with some unorthodox decoration is the centrepiece.  The glitz and confected purity is witheringly deconstructed as panicked minions are confronted with confounding and troubling portents.

While the rest of the film plays out with competence it feels like a let-down. Definitely worth a look but stamina and patience are needed.

 

The Ruined Map

“But I was the one standing here now. There was no mistake, I was the one. I thought I was following the husband’s map, but I was following my own; I wanted to follow in his steps and I followed my own. Suddenly I was frozen still. But it was not only because of the cold… nor was it the fault of the liquor alone, nor of my shame. My perplexity gave way to uneasiness, and that changed to fear.”

 

Kobo Abe’s 1967 novel, The Ruined Map, was adapted in 1968 as a film titled, The Man Without a Map, by director Hiroshi Teshigahara. I recently read the book and found it weirdly reminiscent of Chandler’s Los Angeles, and Hammett’s continental op.

Abe’s disorienting detective story is set in a windy alienating metropolis which is never named but is surely Tokyo, and which could as easily have been played out in LA’s bunker hill – a bizarro locale if you will, framed with hard-boiled prose redolent of the desolate poetry of Raymond Chandler. An unnamed private investigator is assigned the job of locating a missing person.

The missing guy as described by the pining wife is the essence of banality. He leaves a trail – but it leads nowhere. For his trouble the dick has to fight succumbing to the sex that emanates from the wife. She is neither young nor beautiful, and can’t be trusted, with an emotional distance that confounds any notion that she really wants the husband back, but… her skin, the way her hair falls, and the languor. Add to the mix the woman’s brother a second-rate hoodlum, a hint of incest, a gang of gay rent boys, a taxi racket operated by thugs, and a protagonist who you can’t help suspect is maybe borderline incompetent.

Sort of like a story written by an AI channelling Chandler and Hammett – if those guys were tripping on peyote and not their usual bourbon.

 

 

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 Beat: Tequila Philosophy

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

I haven’t posted here for a while: I have my own demons to contend with and my attention scatters.

The recent release of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) on Blu-ray coincided with my reading of Dorothy B. Hughes original novel. The film has the same principal characters and the story-line is similar, but when you compare the ethos of Hughes’ story with the film’s screenplay, there is a big disconnect.

The film is a call to good ol’ Americanism. The novel is decidedly down-beat and has a mystical element shaped from a locus of events played out over only a few days in a small New Mexico town during Fiesta. Hughes’ prose explores the tension between the hard-boiled musings of the criminal protagonist, the stoicism of the native Indians, and the pagan-inflected Catholicism of the local Latinos. There is the counterpoint of an unlikely friendship between three very different people: a Gringo desperado named Sailor, a young Indian girl, and Pancho a dirt poor Mexican man who operates a merry-go-round. Pancho’s tequila-fuelled philosophy centres on the local Indians and – to borrow a recent expression of an otherwise high falutin’ intellectual hubris – the end of history:

“Because they do not care -for nothing. Only this their country. They do not care about the Gringos or even the poor Mexicanos. These peoples do not belong to their country. They do not care because they know these peoples will go away. Sometime.” “A long time,” Sailor said, seeing the little shops, the dumps and the dives. It wasn’t easy to get rid of the stuff that brought in the two beets feefty sants. “They can wait,” Pancho said patiently. “The Indians are a proud peoples. They can wait. In time . . .” One thousand years. Two thousand. In time. Maybe it was the way to do things, not to worry about the now, to wait for time to take care of things. What if the measure of time was one thousand, two thousand years? In time everything was all right. If you were an Indian. Maybe that was the terror the stone Indian generated. In time, you were nothing. Therefore you were nothing. He’d had enough of Pancho’s tequila philosophy. Enough of thinking. “Drink up,” he said. “I got to get some sleep. Got business to take care of tomorrow.” Pancho squinted at the small remaining drink. “You promised your sainted mother.” He filled his mouth with the tequila, rinsed it from cheek to cheek, savouring it.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is great. One of the signature noirs. My review from four years ago is here. I love it. But Hughes had more and deeper things to say than Ben Hecht and Robert Montgomery allowed.

1946: The numbers and the when and why of Film Noir

Kiss of Death (1946)
An ad for Kiss of Death in a 1946 issue of the Hollywood trade journal ‘The Film Daily’

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:

The Film Daily Score Card - click to to zoom in
The Film Daily Score Board- click to to zoom in

 

Two New Books on Film Noir: Movie #3,500 and counting, or is enough enough?

cover35902-mediuma-companion-to-film-noir

They stopped making films noir 50 years ago, yet the books on film noir keep on coming.  The study of film noir is career-defining for many academics and noir pundits, and the selling of all those books and scholarly treatises must rake in the readies.

But sorry guys I am starting to get cynical about this plethora of prognostications and chatter about film noir.  Let me tell you why.  I will have to follow some currents and eddies but indulge me.

A new film noir encyclopedia has just been published, and I have been privileged to preview the galleys on-line. ‘A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide’ by prolific film author John Grant, is a 512 page behemoth that boasts capsule reviews of over 3,500 films. As you would guess the net has been cast far and wide to get this tally, with the publisher’s blurb telling me that the book covers “3,500 movie entries, including not only classic US film noirs from the 1940s through 1960s, but also modern manifestations like neonoirs and erotic thrillers. Films from every continent (except Antarctica)”.

I doubt even Eddie Muller has seen this many noirs, and my current list is only a bit more than 300.  So I will have to take Grant at his word.  Flipping through the book on my iPad, I see all the essential noirs are there, and Grant gets the stories right – something Silver & Ward in their pioneering effort, The Film Noir Encyclopedia, achieve only occasionally in their longer and rather overwrought entries. One thing Grant does do is avoid spoilers and this is definitely welcome.  His entries for the more important movies are longer, and provide some background and snippets on a movie’s aesthetics.  At US$50 it is a pricey but useful reference.

I just don’t believe there are that many noirs!  Let’s be honest. Most b-movies were b-movies: cheap and nasty. There are no doubt some forgotten gems still to be discovered, but not that many surely.  If you want a more manageable program of films that you can actually get hold of savour my list of essential films noir.

Hot on the heels of Grant’s book is a new academic treatise edited by UK academics Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, ‘A Companion to Film Noir’, presenting a new range of essays from the usual suspects from both sides of the Pond, and prefaced with an introduction by James Naremore. If you thought Grant’s book was beyond your budget, then this number is strictly for the birds at just below US$180 for the hardcover and US$160 for the Kindle e-book. No prizes for guessing that mere mortals don’t get a review copy. But the publisher Wiley has made the Introduction and a chapter titled ‘The Ambience of Film Noir’ available free on-line here.

A segue that may justify my increasing suspicion that we have an overload of books on film noir. In the introduction to Grant’s book he makes reference to the seminal film journal article in 1946 by French critic and existential intellectual Nino Frank, in which Frank coined the expression ‘film noir’. That year a backlog of Hollywood product hit Paris screens. (During the Nazi Occupation of France from 1941 to 1945 American films were banned).  Frank was struck by the darkness and ambience of a clutch of films that were radically different from Hollywood’s pre-war output. The films Frank wrote about were The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945). Wanting to know more about Frank I started searching for references to his writing on film noir, and thanks to Google, I discovered a web site devoted to Nino Frank which hosts an excellent paper on just what was written and discussed in Paris in 1946. Frank’s original article appeared in the French film journal L’Ecran français on 28 August, 1946, and he wrote a follow-up article in another French film journal La Revue du Cinéma in November of that year.

The paper is comprehensive, providing a detailed history with citations. What struck me was that the intellectual ferment in Paris in 1946 produced a synthesis and comprehension of film noir that has hardly been added to since by the myriad books and journal articles that have appeared in the wake of Frank’s first distillation. I commend readers to the paper titled ‘Nino Frank and the Fascination of Noir’ available here, and best of all it is free.

The PI as Anarchist

sam-spade

PI’s Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are outsiders, loners, whose chivalry is not esteemed let alone recognised, and it is sure as hell doesn’t pay well. Men who eke out their existence on the periphery, up against the rank underbelly of that rapacious beast, the modern metropolis. For the purveyors of the American Dream they are losers. Yet they are mythic.

In a recently published essay on the myth of the cowboy, the late British historian and Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, draws a parallel between “Gary Cooper at high noon” and Sam Spade.  A worthy comparison.

“Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can’t, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man’s right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don’t think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him… In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man.”

– Source: An extract from Eric Hobsbawm’s final book Fractured Times published by The Guardian as ‘The Myth of the Cowboy

The French have a name for it: noir

Farewell My Lovely aka Murder My Sweet

PI Philip Marlowe has the poet’s eye for the softer edges of existence while enmeshed in the hard reality of greed, corruption, and criminal passions.  The smell of places, dirt and dust, smog, rain, the sun on baking asphalt, the twilight that has no sunlight lit by dull incandescent bulbs that throw shadows in bars where angst is held at bay for as long as a shot of  booze does its job. A respite from the desperate loneliness of men and women in big cities where ethical conduct and loyalty are not rewarded but ridiculed, and get you into trouble, and deep.  You give up on true relationships and, well, love, it just doesn’t bare thinking about.

 “I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach. The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase a for everything and they are always right.  To say good-bye is to die a little.”

– [Raymond Chandler, ‘The Long Goodbye’]