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.”

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.

 

 

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:

List of Films Noir In US Library of Congress National Film Registry

Cat People (1942)

A reader has asked which American films noir have been inducted into the US Library of Congress National Film Registry.

I did a little digging and identified 26 Hollywood movies in the list that fall under the film noir umbrella.  There are 650 films in the list so the standard e&oe disclaimer applies.

 
Film Title Year of Release Year Inducted
Cat People 1942 1993
Detour 1945 1992
Double Indemnity 1944 1992
Force of Evil 1948 1994
Fury 1936 1995
Gilda 1946 2013
In a Lonely Place 1950 2007
Kiss Me Deadly 1955 1999
Laura 1944 1999
Mildred Pierce 1945 1996
Out of the Past 1947 1991
Sunset Boulevard 1950 1989
Sweet Smell of Success 1957 1993
The Asphalt Jungle 1950 2008
The Big Heat 1953 2011
The Big Sleep 1946 1997
The Hitch-Hiker 1953 1998
The Killers 1946 2008
The Lost Weekend 1945 2011
The Maltese Falcon 1941 1989
The Naked City 1948 2007
The Pawnbroker 1965 2008
The Thin Man 1934 1997
Touch of Evil 1958 1993
Vertigo 1958 1989
White Heat 1949 2003

Noir Beat: The Finnish Connection

Film Noir had antecedents in the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and French Poetic Realism in the 30s, but there are movies from other national cinemas that also explored the corrosive aspects of modernity.

Three films that have recently come my way are in this vein. One is a German silent and the other two are later films from Finland. All feature little known actresses with a stunning cinematic presence.

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Asphalt (1929 Germany)

While Asphalt (1928), a late silent film from German director Joe May, is perhaps not in the same class as the UFA films of Fritz Lang and other Expressionist luminaries, this modest effort is firmly grounded in the bustling and bohemian life of 20s Berlin. The opening title sequence is a rhythmic documentary survey of the bustle of the modern city punctuated by pneumatic drills breaking up roads. Even tar and cement have a limited life in this burgeoning metropolis. The camera then focuses on a young traffic cop following his banal occupation. But not for much longer. On his way home he gets mixed up with a glamorous gamin who has tried to lift some jewellery from a jeweller. Seduction and circumstance soon envelope the protagonists in a dark web of passion and tragedy. The luminous ex-pat American actress Betty Amann plays the erotic femme fatale with a panache that is sensual yet hesitant, and totally sincere. A gritty melodrama that strives to greatness.

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Stolen Death (1938 Finland)

In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo. A great film.

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Cross of Love (1946 Finland)

Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of Finnish melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Last year I reviewed The Way You Wanted Me (1944 aka Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), a dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, hurtling along roads of melodrama from an idyllic first love on a rural island to the hell of Helsinki bars and bordellos. From youthful abandon in the sun to a night of decrepit darkness, a young woman’s journey to perdition is one of relentless betrayal by men and by fate. Tulio’s Cross of Love (1946 Rakkauden risti) is yet another torrid melodrama of rural idyll and innocence destroyed by metropolitan decadence. What distinguishes this film is the sublime performance of Regina Linnanheimo as the tragic victim, and a tour-de-force opening sequence around a tempest at sea. The chaotic expressionism of wild scenes featuring a madman in an isolated lighthouse on a stretch of treacherous reef, jumps off the screen with a violence that has you mesmerised. A must-see.

 

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.

 

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.