Prefiguring Postmodernism: Flashback in Film Noir

I am currently reading a fascinating book on the career of activist Hollywood writer and producer,  Adrian Scott,  ‘Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood’,  by Jennifer E. Langdon (2008 Columbia University Press),  which focuses on the production by Scott of three seminal RKO noirs, Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), and Crossfire (1947).

In a chapter on the making of Crossfire, Langdon relates that one of the most radical changes Scott and screenwriter John Paxton made in the adaptation of Richard Brook’s source novel, ‘The Brick Foxhole’, was the use of flashback.  Langdon goes on to expound a profoundly interesting take on the nature of the flashback in film noir:

flashbacks are a key narrative strategy in film noir, contributing to the genre’s existential exploration of truth and falsehood.  Historian William Graebner, suggesting the ways in which film noir prefigured postmodernism, explains, “By interrupting a traditional, linear narrative, the flashback challenged the form strongly identified with progress: the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and open to all possibilities.” Explicitly connecting the ruptured narrative strategies of film noir to the pervasive postwar sense of contingency and doubt, he argues:  “In the context of a military victory that seemed to have been won at the cost of demonstrating the inhumanity of humankind, and of a cold war that called for eternal vigilance, the ability of a cultural text to produce a conclusion consistent with, and implied in, everything that had gone before—what literary scholar Frank Kermode calls ‘the sense of an ending’ —withered and died.” * (p 85)

More on Langdon’s book in a future post.

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* William Graebner, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 54, 145.

The Naked City (1948): “There are 8 million stories… “

The Naked City 1948

Jules Dassin’s third major feature, The Naked City, is legendary for its cine-verite portrayal of the city of New York: on the streets and in deep focus, with a stunning climax on the Williamsburg bridge.  Deservedly, in 1949 William H. Daniels received an Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Paul Weatherwax  an Oscar for Best Film Editing.  Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner contribute a solid musical score.   A voice-over narration by producer, Mark Hellinger, who died before the movie’s release, follows the story of a murder investigation by NY homicide cops.

The Naked City 1948

The Naked City 1948

The story is well-paced with the who-dun-it and why tension elegantly elaborated. While the cast is solid and the dialog has a sardonic edge, the picture is essentially a police procedural of little irony or depth, and with a ‘magazine expose’ feel . Once we are into the story, Hellinger’s voice-over becomes tedious, and by the climax downright annoying, as he starts addressing a hood on the run. Thematically, there is little to distinguish The Naked City as a film noir. We have to wait for Thieves Highway the following year to begin to appreciate Dassin’s greatness as a noir director.

The Naked City 1948

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It is the city of New York and its people that hold our attention, and the several bit-portrayals of people going about their lives are truly engaging. The final scene where a street-sweeper in profile scoops up yesterday’s papers from the gutter and moves on into the New York night gives an arresting hard-bitten closure to the story behind the murder and to the film itself.

The Naked City 1948

The Naked City 1948

Val Lewton Screenplay Collection

I Walked With a Zombie (1942)

When researching my previous post on The Seventh Victim (1943), I came across the site The Val Lewton Screenplay Collection, which has many of the scripts produced by Lewton and other interesting Lewton resources.

A reminder too that on Amazon you can get the Val Lewton Horror Collection DVD Box Set with nine movies: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, The Leopard Man, The Ghost Ship, The Seventh Victim, and Shadows in the Dark for only  US$37.49 new and from US$29.99 used.

The Seventh Victim (1943): “And all my pleasures are like yesterdays”

The Seventh Victim (1943)

A young woman travels to New York to find her older sister after she stops paying her tuition fees, and discovers a satanic cult is threatening her sister’s life.
(1943 RKO. A Val Lewton production directed by Mark Robson 71 mins)

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Story and Screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O’Neal
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller
Original Music by Roy Webb

After Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and Leopard Man (1943), the head of the low-budget horror production unit at RKO, Val Lewton, could not afford the services of Jacques Tourneur, who had been promoted by RKO to a-production, and he gave Mark Robson, who had edited those earlier movies, hist first directing job with The Seventh Victim, a simply stunning film that out-classes Lewton’s earlier productions.

I cannot express the power of this movie better than Chris Auty from London’s Time Out Film Guide:

What other movie opens with Satanism in Greenwich Village, twists into urban paranoia, and climaxes with a suicide? Val Lewton, Russian emigré workaholic, fantasist, was one of the mavericks of Forties’ Hollywood, a man who produced (never directed) a group of intelligent and offbeat chillers for next-to-nothing at RKO. All bear his personal stamp: dime-store cinema transformed by ‘literary’ scripts, ingenious design, shadowy visuals, brooding melancholy, and a tight rein over the direction. The Seventh Victim is his masterpiece, a brooding melodrama built around a group of Satanists. The bizarre plot involves an orphan (Hunter) searching for her death-crazy sister (Brooks), but also carries a strong lesbian theme, and survives some uneven cameos; the whole thing is held together by a remarkably effective mix of menace and metaphysics – half noir, half Gothic.

The opening frame of the film, a close-up of a stained-glass window in a gothic school building, establishes the mood of foreboding:

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Knowledge of three further lines in Donne’s sonnet enrich our experience of this film:

I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste

“Despair behind, and death before doth cast”: the specter of existential terror haunts this film, where it is the angst of an empty existence that terrorises – not the super-natural. The noir motif of inescapable doom is developed as strongly if not more so than any other Hollywood film of the period.

Jacqueline Gould, a stunning dark beauty is not comfortable with existence: “I’ve always wanted to die – always.” Life nauseates her and in her desperation joins a Satanic cult, and when she re-cants and seeks to abandon the group, she is marked for death.  But she wants death on her terms, not theirs. She is the classic existential protagonist:

I can’t say I feel relieved or satisfied; just the opposite, I am crushed. Only my goal is reached: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood all that has happened to me… The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I. – Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938).

After a brilliantly filmed chase through dark city streets, Jacqueline escapes an assassin from the cult, and  reaches the tenement building where she is staying with her sister. She trudges wearily up to to the fist landing, then meets Mimi, an ill young woman, who lives in an apartment next to an empty apartment that Jacqueline has rented but never lived in, in which resides a terrible secret. The scene is strongly evoked by the very literate script:

NIGHT

Jacqueline, still running, comes into the scene and goes up the steps. She opens the front door and lets herself in.

INT. UPPER STAIRS – HALLWAY – NIGHT

The gas light has been turned down so that there is only a tiny flame to illuminate the hall. The draft in the hallway stirs this little flame and the shadows move with it. Jacqueline comes up the stairs. Now that she can be seen more closely, it can be seen also that she is exhausted, her eyes wild, her hair in disorder. She almost staggers as she reaches the landing and goes slowly supporting herself on the banisters, toward Mary’s door. Her way brings her past Room #7, the room with the noose. For a moment she stands weakly staring at the door, then goes on. She has reached Mary’s room, has crossed the narrow hallway and her hand is almost on the knob when Mimi’s door opens and Mimi, white night-gowned, comes out into the eerie gas light. Jacqueline looks at her face which is distorted and horrible in the moving shadows and flickering light. She stifles a scream. The other girl is also frightened. The two stand staring at each other for a moment.

JACQUELINE: (weakly) Who are you?

MIMI: I’m Mimi — I’m dying.

JACQUELINE: No!

MIMI: Yes. It’s been quiet, oh ever so quiet. I hardly move, yet it keeps coming all the time – closer and closer. I rest and rest and yet I am dying.

JACQUELINE: And you don’t want to die. I’ve always wanted to die – always.

MIMI: I’m afraid.

Jacqueline shakes her head.

MIMI (CONT’D): I’m tired of being afraid – of waiting.

JACQUELINE: Why wait?

MIMI: (with sudden determination) I’m not going to wait. I’m going out – laugh, dance – do all the things I used to do.

JACQUELINE: And then?

MIMI: I don’t know.

JACQUELINE: (very softly end almost with envy) You will die.

But Mimi has already turned back into her room. Jacqueline stands watching until the light snaps on in Mimi’s room and then the door closing, plunges the hall into weird half light again. In this semi-darkness, she turns away from Mary’s door and walks down the hall toward room #7. She opens the door and goes in.

This slide-show attests to the cinematic mastery of a film that displays the brilliant gestalt achieved by a team of talented film-makers:

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