Thursday, June 6, 2013
FilmNoir does not really exist. It is merely a term of convenience used in reference to a variety of films made by a number of studios in the same time period. Film Noir sums up a complex set of films usually sharing similar features, in particular, an over-arching attitude. In these early years, Film Noir should not be confused as a genre which filmmakers set out to produce. It is not until roughly thirty years of haunting the collective American psyche that Film Noir is considered a genre. Even then, it is aloof and typically depicted through extremes or parody in films such as Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Sin City, Se7en, or Memento. Still, one could make a pretty good argument that these films are better defined as exhibiting the symptoms of noir and more closely resemble crime dramas, thrillers, or detective flicks.
The term Film Noir came out of France after World War II. The French had been isolated throughout the war. Their last images of American cinema were of Hollywood’s musicals and highly contrived dance pictures. Critics in Cahiers du Cinema saw American films pouring in during peacetime that had grown dark in look and subject matter. If musicals were representative of the American Dream, these new films were the American Nightmare. The war itself had much to do with these grim projections. Our knights had come back from the war with their shining armor covered in blood. Along with their physical scars they brought back a traumatized mind and the refugees of eviscerated nations. In short, tension. A tension that would intensify and reverberate through all layers of society once home and the veil of the American Dream had been lifted. Fatalism had attached itself like a disease to the American psyche and it seemed that nobody could find a silver lining. Our films projected this as we had finally found problems ninety minutes could not solve. Nonetheless, we were compelled to share these inner conflicts in hope of finding some resolution, some solace through national group therapy.
Suffering this extreme shock had left us a blank slate with little besides empty consumer myths to flesh out the story. Our culture saw an influx of new influence, in particular, Jews fleeing Germany. With them came a reinforcement of this fatalism and a German style of filming. The chiaroscuro lighting and dutch-angles would coalesce with pulp fiction to produce the perfect storm, a dark wet hurricane. Most critics say Film Noir began in 1944 with an explosion in 1946 but before then we can see precursors to noir style. German Expressionist films like M, made in 1931 by Fritz Lang, give us a great example of a noir precursor. The film depicts a world of extremes, darkness next to light, innocence parallel to malicious intent, a world off-tilt. This look of an off-tilt chiaroscuro world seen in other Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, made in 1920 by Robert Wiene, exemplify the dark look that is found in most noir films. They also exhibit the dark feelings associated with noir. M is about a child killer punished by and cold angry mob and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a zombified strangler.
WarnerBrothers is probably the most recognizable American influence of noir style. Before WWII they popularized gangster films. Their gritty crime dramas typically depicted working class people gone wrong. But we saw their films from the criminal’s perspective and thereby the working class was usually justified in some way. This changed in 1931 with Public Enemy. The villain is a psychopath. He takes what he wants and kills without second thought. There is no justification of his violence. This is another precursor to the Film Noir style, a selfish disregard for others and justice. But in order to better understand what Film Noir really means, we must first understand what it is not. For some time Hollywood had a set of dreamy standards to which all films aspired. Classical Hollywood films followed logical action, defined characters, and a psychologically stable hero. Their films would celebrate heterosexual romance through the gaze of a patriarchalmale. The endings were motivated and happy with clear restoration of justice. Said restoration was made even clearer through stable space, composition, and lighting. The editing was neutral or invisible making the construction of the film seem seamless. Slowly the dark sickness began to eat away at these standards to better project the diseased version of the dream.
The films of noir style were a rejection of conformity and an assault of psychological stability. The protagonist of the noir story suffers internally and a greater emphasis is put on compositional tension rather than physical action. This is done using complex chronological order and by tracing the mental states of the hero through voice-over, flashback, and subjective point-of-view. Scenes are typically lit for night and full of oblique and vertical lines. Actors and settings are often given equal lighting emphasis. The motivated happy ending is attacked through fatalism and predetermined fate. Heterosexual romance is made laughable in the presence of the powerful black widow. In the presence of these new femme fatales yesterday’s bulging hero is rendered helpless and limp. PaulSchrader says these techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, insecurity and are then submerged in mannerism and style. He says, “in such a world, style becomes paramount.” In short, Noir style is a film negative of classic Hollywood films.
The Hollywood musical is the Apex of classicism, what all of Hollywood aspired to achieve. In 1955, Oklahoma sings out proudly about a bright golden haze on the meadow, about a beautiful morning. Classic films are bathed in bright light and smiles while in the world of Film Noir it is always raining. It is a world of frantic jazz and somber minor tones. A corrupt city where nothing is what it seems. Murder My Sweet made in 1945 shows this as a drunken woman lays it on thick one moment, only to suddenly sober up and make a phone call. The protagonist watches this play out through the window and knows that she is setting him up for certain death. His reaction? He moves calmly on down the road to face the inevitable. This fatalism is taken even farther in Noirs like Sunset Boulevard, made in 1950, where we meet our hero already dead. His voice-over takes us back to the beginning and we watch him spiral down unable to hit the brakes. No matter which way you turn in the world of Film Noir, fate always sticks out its foot to trip you.
This feeling of hopelessness is the chief identifier of Film Noir while the look itself is secondary and varies based on who produces the film. Casablanca, made in 1942, helps illustrate my point. This film exhibits all the outward visual signs of disease but not the disease itself. We see chiaroscuro lighting, snappy dialogue, a seemingly unstable hero; however, the ending of Casablanca shows its true colors—red, white, and blue. This patriotic Hollywood propaganda film is best identified as a “preparedness film”. Rick, the main character, is an isolationist running the Café Americana. He had been burned by romantic endeavors in the past and now lives out a selfish philosophy, that is, until that romance comes back into his life and gives him something to fight for. Rick comes to his senses and lives up to his psychologically stable potential by deciding to murder Nazis. This film may exhibit the symptoms of Noir but is merely another stylistic precursor.
Hollywood’s dreamy standards were still enforced throughout the period Noir, but filmmakers began to subvert them through crafty dialogue and symbolism. “Low budgets bought you freedom,” says Scorsese in Director As Smuggler. Scorsese is making reference to the stage on which Film Noir was birthed—the low budget double feature. Noir films were overlooked by studios because they were cheap and thrown together quickly to be paired up with a bigger better picture. Detour, made in 1945, was shot for twenty thousand dollars in six days. It ran sixty-eight minutes long and was diseased dream to the core. This high contrast film flashes back from an erratic broken man in a diner via voice-over. Through bad acting and one take wonders we watch an existential victim spiral down a murderous road right into the arms of a femme fatale. She wraps him around her finger and attempts to drag him deeper into the murky waters of noir for her personal gain. He eventually murders her and continues down the road to his inevitable incarceration. A self-imposed prison as he could have taken a more active role in his fate early on if he only tried. He could have been with the good girl, but he passively fell into the black widow’s web—a fatal flaw of Film Noir protagonists, passivity without a strong ego. This type of set up was common in Noir as male paranoia was on the rise with the shifting social norms.
Through Hollywood standards, women were culturally constructed to develop taste for masochism and men sadism. Women’s films were referred to as “three hanky movies” or “women’s weepers”. But films like Detour were the beginning of “men’s weepers”, indulging the disenfranchised hopelessness of the modern man. Rosie the Riveter filled in for and supplied our boys while they were overseas. When they returned home, she, and our nation, was fulfilled in more ways than one. Women had been equalized and no longer had to just close their eyes and think of the homeland. Once given a taste of equality one can hardly go quietly back into submission. PTSD paranoid male view saw the femme fatale hit the screen. She aggressively put her sexuality on display and was not afraid to use it to carve out a piece for herself. And so our male protagonists received a dose of masculine masochism usually cloaked in obvious false superiority. In Double Indemnity, made in 1946 by Billy Wilder, we see Fred McMurray sold as a pussified push-over and the audience buys it. He pathetically bats at the balls of yarn set out for him not knowing they’re the silk string of the black widow’s web. He plays macho with the cheap blonde and even we laugh at his speeding metaphor. He goes limp at the sight of a woman allowing her to lead him around by the fallace.
RobertMitchum gives a more convincing performance as macho-man gone weak-in-the-knees in Out of the Past, made in 1947. Around the “good girl” he meanders instead of taking a bite just like his buddy Tom Neal and his number one dame in Detour. Their hopelessness highlighted and intensified by women, through their inability to perform. Then she, the “bad girl”, stepped out of the sun and into shadow. By then it was already too late. He was weak and drifting while she was willing to do what he could not. They’re both rotten and deserve each other. Mitchum sure talks tough and puts on a good show, but don’t let the “sex” scene fool you. He appears to be in control, taking the towel off her head, tossing the veil aside, shattering her light; but as they fall off screen and her front door is blown wide open one can’t help thinking, who is taking whom? We receive confirmation by the end but, of course, it too late for anyone to save our poor hero.
Film Noirs like Detour and Out of the Past remind me of another post-war film movement, Italian Neorealism. The Noir and Neorealist birth pangs are similar yet their working conditions so different each ends up the other’s evil doppelganger. Due to budget constraints they both use locations, fast paced shooting, no name actors, and, most important, both are born out of World War II. The Italian Neorealist reaction is quite different than American Film Noir and I believe boils down to perception. The United States were shocked and traumatized by the horrors of war and made fertile ground for Freudian ideals through the vein of Edward Bernays. They declared that humans were not to be trusted. As inherently violent selfish beings the nation should strive to subvert and deny human nature. Hollywood, advertising, and other forms media spend decades attempting to indoctrinate the population. The battle over our fractured minds today continues today.
The Italians on the other hand move in a different direction. They suffer through the brutality and destruction of fascism and war on their own soil. With their homes destroyed and society raped they reject the robotic delusion of the human spirit and turn to the Franciscan roots hidden away in Catholicism. Their films depict disillusioned individuals rising, finding silver linings. They show the power of innocence in the face of abuse. I find similarities here with the deaf character in Out of the Past. He is perhaps the strongest character in the film taking on the most active role. We share special moments with him as he saves Mitchum and again later when he frees the good girl from an obsessive future filled with what-ifs by lying to her. I can’t help but think of Cabiria looking out at us passing the peace when the deaf kid turns to the sign and salutes the dead Robert Mitchum. Small world or a big sign.
My favorite of the three films we watched was Gilda, made in 1946 by Charles Vidor. Vidor’s film may seem cynical and hopeless on the surface but looking closer I think the subtext of this film is up to a lot more than the plot reveals. The film takes place in Argentina after WWII, a well-known Nazi hide out after the war. A majority of the scenes take place in a panopticon-like nightclub casino. The two sides are separated by a mirror, one side a lavish nightclub and the other a series of rigged payoffs in which the house always wins. The owner of this nightclub is old money, running a tungsten cartel to launder fascist money. His weapon of choice is an elegant black cane which conceals a deadly blade. Through venetian blinds and hidden microphones this Friedmaniacal fake spies on all around him while delicately pulling the strings.
The main characters are two Americans. A man and woman who both think they are smart and in control but, like other Noir protagonists, are actually being manipulated by the black widow. In this case, the black widow is the fascist boss. The Americans would do better if they worked together, however, they are at odds because of old scars. They have a history that leaves both feeling abandoned and betrayed by the other. They’ve now grown to find security in the rich embrace of the boss without realizing they are his pets. The only one who sees the bigger picture is an indigenous peasant philosopher left cleaning the bathroom and shining shoes. The man dislikes him while the woman finds him charming. After the fascist fakes his death our main man starts feeling secure in his position at the top of the panopticon—that is if he can control the woman. She runs off finding new security in the arms of a lawyer who betrays her to the new system of power. Long story short, our hero tries to run the cartel but bungles it. The local cops were just letting the fascists show their hand before they stole the pot. Just as the old money swoops in to exact his revenge, who is it that saves the day? You might think it was our hero but no, it is the philosopher peasant who turns the fascist’s own fallace against him. He stabs him in the back to remind us all where true power lies, in the hands of the workers. The local cops rule it justifiable homicide. The disenchanted romantics are free to return to their homeland, free of the fascist regimes which have tried to snuff out the human spirit. However our Americans return to a nightmarish society full of fear and paranoia. Maybe these two should have made their way to Italy.