A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir

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I recently decided to venture into providing myself with a cinematic education, simply by watching films. Unsure of where to start, I decided to choose the nebula of film noir. I can’t say why I decided to pick this genre, maybe its my overall fondness for the genre, maybe it was because I had just seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, maybe it was because it seems to represent the first significant shift in the entire shift American cinema since the introduction of sound. Perhaps a mix of all three, but the legacy of this genre still lives on, permeating like a virulent strain in the collective conscience of the cine-literate, one of the few genres to have given birth to a ‘neo’ form of itself (neo-noir). It’s knowledge imparts itself on two of my favourite works, Blade Runner and the Japanese Anime Cowboy Bebop. Maybe its simply that its sensibilities, its aura and feel, seem to be absolutely essential to the make up of cinema since then.

So I watched these 11 films for research, in no particular order:

-Gilda                                                                                  -The Maltese Falcon

-The Big Sleep                                                                   -Gun Crazy

– Sweet Smell of Success                                                 -Double Indemnity

-The Postman Always Rings Twice                             – Strangers On A Train

-Sorry, Wrong Number                                                    -The Killers  

-Touch of Evil

Plus four I did not see specifically for this matter, a while ago:

The Lady From Shanghai                                            – The Third Man

Sunset Boulevard                                                           – Notorious

So with that, I’m just going to try and expound on what I learned, listened to and felt whilst I immersed myself in film noir.

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THE INHABITANTS

It’s tough to describe the archetypes of film noir, simply because the characters that populate them are simply so vast and varied. Take the femme fatale, perhaps the most famous contribution to the canon of cinematic text, the raw, firey seductress who entices, entraps, ensnares the protagonist, induces the burgeoning evil laying in the heart of the man by sheer overwhelming sexual desire. On two occasions in the films I saw, the trope/archetype was used to its fullest extent, in Gun Crazy (see here) and in The Killers (see here). In fact, the prime example of this character is Kitty Collins, Ava Gardner’s character in The Killers.

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She’s a temptress, a manipulator, a woman who inflames the passions of the macho men around her, one would perhaps even say caniving, as she ruthlessly manipulates the men around her to find the best deal, and the film condemns and ultimately punishes her, as we watch her plead with her dying husband to falsely absolve her of her crimes so she can get off scott free, and all the characters grinning with perverse enjoyment as she gets her comeuppance, like all woman do in film noir, right, case closed?

Well not really. Most of them are far more complex, and maneuver their ways through the ordeals very differently. I did an earlier post on Gilda and “Sorry, Wrong Number” , but the fate and portrayals of the woman vary wildly. It’s tough to talk about film noir without at least mentioning its internalised misogyny, where female characters are routinely punished or saved, always at the hands of their male perpetrators. But I’d like to put a strike through the idea that because of this, women in these films play second fiddle and are sidelined in favour of the male characters. Honestly the discussions related to the gender politics on this issue are covered in far greater depth elsewhere, and so I’ll move on.

So let’s talk about the men then, always the central characters in these stories. Well the men are the salt of the earth, and they spend their time sparring and fighting with the rich, the crooked and the scum, of all classes. In Sweet Smell of Success, Tony Curtis plays a bottom feeding press agent looking for a good story. In The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart plays a private eye. In Double Indemnity, Fred McMurray plays an insurance salesman while in The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Garfield is simply a drifter, looking for work. Everyone inhabits the roles of the middlemen, the invisible cogs in the machines of the world, men with desperate ambition or wry, jaded world-weariness. Simply put, they were the birth of the post war man, when propaganda films were no longer need to keep morale up, they spoke of the world-weary, to the world weary.They were not good people, but then they often found themselves entangled in webs of villany and treachery, and were forced from innocuous beginnings (being enraptured by the femme fatale usually) into far darker territory.

But to deny their own natures would be disingenuous to the elements at play. They too, are driven by “vaulting ambition” to shocking, calculated acts of murder.I think perhaps, the only two exceptions to this are Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is primarily about the search for Harry Lime, and unpicking his unscrupulous web rather than the web of the protagonist, and Gun Crazy, where the man is fully exploited by the woman’s more masculine ambition. If anything, the most brutal example of their own nature is in Sweet Smell of Success, as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) engineers the downfall of a musician who is dating his boss’s sister, the boss (J.J Hunsecker)  played by the singularly terrifying and malevolent Burt Lancaster, in a role that perhaps shows his greatest acting performance. The men are ruthless, controlling, terrifying and insecure at the same time, occupying a schizophrenic spectrum which turns them into monsters.

In fact only the films with Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, does our protagonist manage to avoid becoming a monster, or becoming ruthlessly scarred by the events. Yes, in those two films, Bogart is simply such a gigantic figure that his personality fills the space where the character is, and so we watch, smooth talking, confident and secure Bogart maneuver his way throughout labyrinthine stories with all the confidence of someone who knows he can’t fail. In fact, those films essentially become about the mysteries that surround the characters, rather than the characters themselves. He plays both roles with immeasurable dexterity, his wit and his words filling the void where guns and physical violence would fill in today post-Hays Code film time.  In fact, I think I experienced the shadow of what men would have felt watching him in the time the films came out, simply because he embodies this style of rough around the edges suaveness that is impossible to replicate, only pay homage to (as Godard did).

THE STYLE

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There’s two sections to this, because I feel the second section is worth exploring. The first will be about general stylistic observations of film noir, the second will be about the meshing of auteur directors (Hitchcock, Mackendrick and Welles) bringing their own succinct style to the film noir genre, and how this fusion affects the style.

FILM NOIR IN GENERAL

The aesthetics of film noir are too numerous, intricate and sprawling for me to properly delve into in a professional way, especially since the expertise expounded on this style by numerous writers both online and off. But, I must venture forth.

To understand film noir, you have to understand two things, German Expressionism, and the pulp/crime genre. German expressionism can be summed up by watching Nosferatu (found here), Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari (found here), and Fritz Lang’s (found here) and Metropolis. Striking visuals and extensive use of shadows. Well as for the pulp/crime genre, it is the spawn of almost every film noir script. James M. Cain wrote the novels of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep (while also putting in screenwriting credits in on Double Indemnity and Strangers On A Train), Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel of Strangers On A Train, Ernest Hemmingway wrote the novel of The Killers, Lucille Fletcher wrote the original play and subsequent screenplay of Sorry, Wrong Number. Graham Greene wrote the original novel in preparation for the screenplay (which he also wrote) for The Third Man.

Yes the tendrils of literature extend far and deep into film noir, and its sprawl pops up in perhaps my favourite part, the writing. Simply put the scripts in this genre are of an impeccable nature, the dialogue forced into a position of great standing, since the Production Code at the time would not allow the kind of on-screen menace and violence that we can expect now. Instead, the writers (and by extension, the characters) are bursting with witty one liners, zingers, restrained devilishness, and a style of rapid back and forth that perhaps has never been equaled, with the absolute pinnacles laying in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s back and forth in The Big Sleep, and the entire script of Sweet Smell of Success, which is easily one of the greatest writing achievements ever put forth on film. Seriously, just look at this scene:

 

Finally it would leave a gaping hole without talking about film noir being literally that, black film. Not only is it shot in black and white at a time when colour film was feasible (John Dall, star of Gun Crazy is also the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, released around the same time), but also everyone by extension, is shrouded in various shades of grey (literally and metaphorically). The suits, the clothes, the hearts, everything is tainted by darkness. The shadows creep all over the films.

AUTEURS IN FILM NOIR

There are four directors in this selection who exert such an indelible presence over their films in this genre, that the work I believe is ultimately warped and transformed to fit into the style of the director’s vision more closely than the rest. These four directors are:

Alfred Hitchcock – Notorious, Strangers On A Train

Orson Welles – The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil

Billy Wilder – Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard

Alexander Mackendrick – Sweet Smell of Success

Now it is always a double-edged sword talking about auteurs, since it largely disregards every external collaboration and pressure put on the creator(s) of any film, but I’m only using their names as shorthand for any and all the creative visionaries behind each of these films.

Billy Wilder exhibits classic noir. In fact, I’d be hard pressed not to find any element of film noir that isn’t in either/both of those films, and would even go as far as to say they are both quintessentially noir.

Hitchcock’s films also exude his influence, providing an almost jarring disconnect from the rest of the canon of largely American influenced film noir, his sensibilities creating the same Hitchcockian style, suspense and latent building of pressure, only exacerbated by characters who are all extremely repressed, the torrents of emotion flowing underneath, only showing in sporadic moments (see the kiss in Notorious, or the fantastical finale of Strangers On A Train). Honestly his films take film noir sensibilities, rather than being film noir. Hitchcock is simply too powerful a force to ever submit to making a generic genre piece.

Likewise with Orson Welles, who’s directorial works in TLFS and Touch Of Evili can only really be described as Wellesian. Heady mixes of cinematic and character bravado are complimented by labyrinthine plots and constant tension, as opposed to suspense.

Finally Mackendrick, who’s film (alongside Welles’ Touch of Evil) was made at the tail end of film noir (Touch Of Evil is the last classically accepted film) and so only shares a tenuous connection to the genre’s staples, the film occupies such an intricate and idiosyncratic space and time, with the lilting and deftly elegant camera work, the blistering script and the phenomenal character work, it helps to mark the film distinctly, a fingerprint over the film which elevates it above genre fare to become something which utilises film noir’s elements and heightens them, elevates them to a film distinct from the trappings of genre.

The reason I wanted to expand on that is to show how film noir was both a genre, and also when utilised by the right people, became spirit like, pervading the senses of a film world without being standard fare (read: hardboiled detective stories and femme fatalies). Strangers On A Train doesn’t even have a femme fatale, neither does Touch of Evil or Sweet Smell of Success.

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CONCLUSIONS

So what did I learn from hanging out with film noir? Well I learnt that everyone is a vicious misanthrope. Besides that, I experienced simply an incredible time in motion picture history, the last hurrah of Old Hollywood before it entered the turbulent 60s and 70s. It’s a testament to the studio system, in part because it’s so unlike the studio system’s traditional image, film noir is not opulent, no sweeping epics. It’s about the nitty-gritty, about shady characters and murder mysteries. It’s about lovers who find their connection in their shared selfishness, bitterness, desperate need to escape their circumstances, no matter how seemingly good or bad they are. The love which drives the rich trophy wife of Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Glenn Ford, is the same as the love which drives hopless drifter John Garfield and small town wife Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And all of it is built on the shadows of humanity, the sides we try to keep hidden but motivate us beyond all rationality, our dark desires driving us forth, simply because we’re either in too deep or wish to be there. And simply put, it makes our lives into what the films used to be called, melodramas. Simply put, it adds weight to our wretched lives, as we grasp for things which we think will set us free, only for our own ruinous downfalls to occur because of that very desire.

It’s not nihilism, its tragedy. And it makes for great films, great art.

-Alex

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A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir