In the nineteen forties, the American dream suffered a traumatic blow due to war and psychological trauma. The eternal optimism of yesterday became the limping daydream of barbaric human animals. We were able to fathom beautiful delusions, but our instinctual drives would always prevent their fulfillment. The Set-Up, in 1949, opens on a series of signs which reflect this fractured psyche. The bold lettering of Paradise City, a boxing arena, dominates the frame. Below it, the sign of a nightclub, Dreamland, glows in the darkness of night. Beneath these two, the much smaller sign of a restaurant flashes Chop Suey. The combination of these play like an equation: Paradise City + Dreamland = Chop Suey. Chop Suey, an American rendition of Chinese cuisine, is an outdated term for all things inauthentic (think, what a bunch of hooey, Chop Suey). This equation seems to put its own words to the state of the American psyche. Dreams wrapped in delusions equaling an inauthentic way of life. A flavor made in America; a flavor we all love. With this bitter taste on our tongues we made authenticity a criminal, romanticism a fugitive, and put lovers on the run.
The Set-Up is a boxing Noir. Scorsese talks at length about boxing movies being the perfect metaphor for life. The fight is in the ring, the ring of life. The bell dings and you start to fight, round, after round, after round until someone is knocked out. This boxing film involves an organized racket fixing the fight. The fight is the one last chance at victory for the hero. His wife wants him to quit but he is a fighter and a fighter’s gotta fight—even though this may be his last. His wife can’t stand to see him take the beatings any longer. She thinks she knows he is going to lose again, so she takes a bet out against him, hoping to retire with the money. From the very beginning this film has no sympathy for the weak. A paper boy tells a fight card peddler complaining about fairness to “take a hike”. We watch the truth of struggle and survival take place in and out of the ring. In the alley behind the arena the gangsters bust the hero’s hand because he fights honest and fair. He won, but he and his wife are left with nothing but his honor. In the world of Noir, you can fight fair to the end, but it always ends with disaster.
The same is true in The Asphalt Jungle, made in 1950 by John Huston. This heist movie embodies the phrase, whatever can go wrong, will. Mr. Emmerich, a wealthy lawyer, cheats; on his wife and a gang of jewel thieves. The main theme in this film seems to tell us beware our passions as they eventually become our downfall. Dix loves horses; no matter how much money he steals, it all ends up at the track. He is never able to buy back his family farm, but at least he is able to bleed out there while horses sniff his corpse. Mr. Emmerich gets found out by the thieves and fingered by the cops; but in the end he blows his brains out—a fitting death for the worst kind of double-crosser. Mr. Emmerich was blinded by pride and greed, but Doc is smart until the end; that is, until his love of young girls distracts him long enough to be caught. I find it eerie that Marilyn Monroe got her start in this Film Noir. The period saw Freudian narratives and analysis popularized. The narratives made Marilyn a star while the analysis destroyed her life.
Though 1950 is a pivotal year for Noir, as they became harder and more realistic, it was still the height of the production code era. A script still had to be approved before production, which meant inserting moral scenes. In one such scene, the Police Commissioner demonstrates dramatically to the press what the world might be like without the Order of the Police. Though, I think Houston shows the mark of a great filmmaker as this scene is well done and less jarring to the narrative than other examples. A classic Noir sense of loss and longing to return runs through the film via Dix. The first thing he wants to do when he gets that money is to bath in a creek and wash off the city dirt. We can see Doll cry a little inside as she realizes she is part of that city dirt. For the most part, Film Noir has two motivations, passion and greed. This one has a touch of both.
Sunset Boulevard, made in 1950 by Billy Wilder, only really includes the first motivation through the fear of abandonment designation. There is a sub-genre of Film Noir, however, which discusses love. It attempts to embody the reality of love within the bounds of the Noir story world. It is called, lovers on the run. In a world where people live false lives manageable only through shared deluded constructs, anything outside the construct is an attack. Being barbaric animals, these people will then counter-attack in defense of their way of life. In the world of Noir, any authentic or unique experience is such an attack on the society at large. This climate of the Noir story world creates the perfect storm for lovers on the run. One of the characters, usually the male lead, is made a criminal due to misunderstanding or being forced to act in defense against society. He attempts to escape, becomes a fugitive, and is pursued by some representation of authority, i.g. Police or crime boss. Early in his escape he encounters a woman who understands him; after all, women have been persecuted by male dominated society for generations. She helps him escape, even if it is only through her understanding, and typically joins him on the road—becoming a lovers on the run flick.
TheyLive by Night; made in 1949 by Nicholas Ray, is a great example of this type of lovers on the run story. Bowie is a young man, imprisoned unlawfully as a minor, convinced by two career criminals to escape from prison. While on the run, he and the gang kill a Police Officer and lose all hope of turning back. Except for Bowie. Bowie is somehow freed through his love of Keechie, the neglected daughter of a poor drunken filling station operator. They attempt to hide out in a cabin and Bowie is then pursued not only by authorities, but the gang as well. When Bowie tries one final escape to save Keechie and his unborn child, a vengeful and selfish woman sets them up to be nabbed by the authorities. Bowie dies in a hail of gunfire while Keechie is left to raise his unborn child alone. Their fatal flaw wasn’t robbing banks or running from the law, but falling in love. Love, in the world of Noir, dooms one to a life on the run and premature death.
This romantic plot, where the man finds salvation through the woman, is not typical in Film Noir. Gun Crazy, made in 1950 by Joseph Lewis, is the more classic structure for Noir. In this case, the man is more psychologically stable in the beginning, though neutered. Then, one day, he meets a woman lusting for power, though unable to achieve said power without a fallace. So she is forced into the role of the black widow, to lay in wait for the perfect man, one made erect only through her intervention. The two become interdependent and whole in the presence of the other. Gun Crazy makes these themes even more evident through its fetishism of guns.
Bart is a sharp shooter obsessed with guns because of the power and purpose he feels while wielding a gun. However, he cannot fulfill the true nature of his talents—to kill. He trains others to shoot and kill but isn’t whole shooting targets. Bart meets Annie. Annie is a sharp shooter who shoots with flare. She lusts for more power and material wealth but is only limited by the man she uses. Upon their meeting, that man is a carnival boss. But with Bart in the picture it quickly becomes obvious that she can have more. Together, they are made whole. Bart is complete through her ability to kill and she through his fallace. They do stick-up jobs until there is nowhere else to turn but Bart’s past. There he is confronted by his impotence through his family and friends. In the final moments, Bart chooses to kill Annie rather than let her kill. They die in each other’s arms when the posse opens fire. Here a man corrupted by a woman, though, fulfilled through her, loves her, is again punished by society for his reluctance to fall in line.
These films are more sentimental than other Noirs. They’re almost responding to the traumatic times as a Neorealist might, had they been American instead of Italian. They Live by Night opens with text on the screen telling us the story is about two kids who haven’t been introduced to the world. This is supposed to express their innocence and set the audience up to empathize. This Noir takes the view of the sick barbaric individual and flips it on its head, depicting society as the sick one. It denounces original sin, highlights the innocence of youth untouched, of love when allowed to flourish and grow. I think the scene with the Justice of the Peace also says this. He knows the world is harsh and so he refuses to sell them false hope. He basically tells them that the only hope at salvation is in love itself. That love will be given no quarter, always on the run under the scrutiny of society. Love will either save you outright or you’re doomed to the same imprisonment of the system like everyone else. Gun Crazy has similar thoughts. The two eventually realize there is no way to rationalize their love or their behavior. They know they must run or die, though Annie chooses to fight against the power and Bart’s past, he would rather die in each other’s arms as martyrs.
These ideas don’t die with Bowie or Bart, but are carried on into New American Cinema by Beatty and Altman. The Neo-Noir pictures produced during this new era had become more intentional and self-aware thanks to the French NewWave. Critics like Godard coined the term Film Noir in Cahiers du Cinema, where they raved about the dark American films that had been totally overlooked and undervalued by American audiences. Godard said that Nicholas Ray is cinema and had it not already been invented he would have done so. Warren Beatty was influenced by the New Wave and decided to bring it to America. He made a film with Arthur Penn kick-starting “New American Cinema”. The term was coined by Pauline Kale when writing about their film, Bonnie &Clyde, made in 1967. In this film we see the male body as the vehicle of power to be manipulated through feminine intent more obviously than in Gun Crazy. Gun Crazy was one of Bonnie & Clyde’s major influences along with Breathless. These films depict a silent feminist revolution via the neutered male ego and his sex.
Bonnie & Clyde also shows us a sick society full of docile bankrupt people and business. Though I don’t think its intent is sympathy for the individual, but merely for us to see them. We are to be informed through them as Beatty is through Belmondo and the New Wave. Clyde overcompensates for his impotence with cocky confidence. We know he is aware of his impotence through his desperate need for approval from Bonnie. In Gun Crazy, Bart was totally unaware of, or at the very least cognitively dissonant of, his impotence. I suspect that Clyde was informed through his parents, Michel and Patricia, yet doomed to repeat the sins of his forefathers until freed finally at breath’s end.
Another leading figure of New American Cinema is the director of Thieves Like Us, made in 1974 by Robert Altman. He also plays homage to his Noir roots in this film, a remake of They Live by Night. Altman claims he didn’t know, until signing on to produce and direct Thieves Like Us, that it was a remake as he wasn’t aware They Live by Night was based on the book. Neo-Noirs are more naturalistic than expressionistic Noirs of Classic Hollywood Cinema. In Thieves Like Us, for example, we see Bowie and Keechie have sex. In fact, we see them in bed together for quite some time. While in They Live by Night, our only hint that they’ve consummated their marriage is through her pregnancy. The dialogue of Neo-Noir is more naturalistic, at times seemingly improved, but somehow doesn’t feel any more realistic to me. It lacks the subtlety of Film Noir. Though this is intentional because these filmmakers were free to produce their films however they wanted. And, of course, the film is in color—though full of shadows and texture, not a high-key Technicolor picture.
Though I love all of the films discussed so far, the film which I liked the most is In a Lonely Place, made in 1950 by Nicholas Ray. Dixon Steele is a man without hope. A writer in a world where those who employ him do not value his creative work, but merely use it as a commodity to be bought, carved up, and sold to the masses. He is driven to violence around those who disrespect the professionals victimized through the slaughter of creativity. Dixon attacks a studio executive after he slights the drunken actor. So, it is established early on though there are appealing attributes to Dixon, he is unpredictable and dangerous. It is here where the perspective begins to shift from the typical to the feminine. His love interest slowly becomes more and more paranoid as she believes Dixon has the capacity for murder. She thinks of leaving him and he tries to stop her only to realize himself that he has again raised his hand to a woman, and this time one he loves. He cannot control the world that continually misunderstands and rejects him. This traumatized soldier can no longer soldier on. He glances back once more from the darkness to the woman he loves, simultaneously convicted and vindicated.
This narrative plays on multiple levels. To anyone struggling with a demon, to the artist who struggles alone, and to the lonely place of love. It embodies the essence of a man; vulnerable, ugly, and needy. It starts off about a murder but the murder almost becomes secondary. It acts as a catalyst for the female lead to manipulate the audience psychologically as she struggles to decide whether she or society are right about Dixon. It depicts us as fearful creatures, so concerned with betrayal we cannot truly trust, or love. It shows us how violence and emotional extremes are inextricably linked to creation. If one looks at the explosion of a star, sex, or in this case, the writing of a story. Noir lives in us all. We are inextricably linked to darkness. Without it we would never know the light. Film Noir’s influence continues on in our society, pop culture, and my own appreciations.