Friday, June 12, 2015

Film Noir: The Darkness Returns

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’ (1947)

Okay, I’ll spill.  I promised four long years ago to write some follow-up posts on film noir after my first one, saying what I think does and does not make a movie “noir.”  Well, time got away from me like an escaped con high-tailing it from the heat.  And I didn’t think that I had very much to add to Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s explanation of why they excluded gangster films, period pieces, and comedies from Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.  Plus, after several blogposts about what does or does not constitute a particular genre, I started feeling like a member of the genre police.  Still, I thought that a few more ramblings from me about film noir (unlike the tales told by the movies themselves) wouldn’t kill anyone. 

First, one reason why so many film buffs have so many different definitions for what film noir is and isn’t is because the concept of “film noir” was established virtually after the fact.  French critics in the late 1940s assigned the label film noir (‘black film’) to a number of American movies that these critics saw as darker and more cynical than the typical Hollywood fare.  The filmmakers who produced these movies didn’t see their offerings as related (except in the most obvious ways, of course) and therefore didn’t see any need to ensure that any of these films possessed one attribute or another. 

In his excellent book More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (which I recommend to any reader of an academic bent), James Naremore writes that “film noir” is an idea more than it is a body of film texts.  So, “film noir,” in this view, can mean anything that anyone wants the term to mean.  Moreover, Naremore points out that when French critics first applied the label “film noir” to American movies, they also attached it to non-crime motion pictures, such as Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), and only later was the term seen to apply exclusively to crime films.  So, the term itself has evolved over time, and it will probably evolve some more, making any attempt (like this one) to ascertain a hard-and-fast definition of “film noir” a fool’s errand, much like trying to determine the identity of the first rock & roll record

At the same time, if the mantle of “film noir” can be applied to anything, that renders the term virtually meaningless.  If you type the phrase “best noir films” into a Google search engine, a number of movie posters for works described as such on the Web appear at the top of your computer screen.  In addition to such widely accepted noir titles as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), there appears a poster for Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner.  Is Blade Runner a true example of noir?  If so, why?  Yes, Blade Runner has many of noir’s trappings: the relentless investigator, the hardboiled voiceover dialogue, shadowy photography, etc.  But is this enough?  If a category of film can encompass both Gun Crazy and Blade Runner, is that category helpful?  Let’s take a closer look. 
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946)

In my inaugural essay, I refer to film noir as a subgenre.  I realize now that isn’t the word that I was looking for.  Noir films can be made of any crime genre: a number are whodunits (The Big Sleep, Black Angel, etc.), suspense thrillers (Sleep, My Love; The Window; Alfred Hitchcock’s works, etc.), and gangster films (most notably, White Heat, which, while not a “classic” rise-and-fall story, is still about a gangster).  So, film noir is something that can permeate genres, not a subset of one.  Therefore, I think that we should retire the word “genre” and call noir something else.  Since film noir is a vague concept, I can’t think of anything better than the equally vague word “cycle.”  Film noir — something that I think lasted only in American-centered crime movies from the 1940s until the end of the 1950s — was a collection of styles and motifs that evolved, flourished, and then ran its course.  From here on out, noir is a “cycle,” not a “subgenre.”

My earlier definition of film noir, for the most part, still holds: “a specifically Hollywood [or American-centered] crime drama made sometime between the mid-1940s to late 1950s, characterized by cinematography with shadowy low-key lighting and an urban-inflected story with the strong potential to unnerve its audience.”  The key phrase is “unnerve its audience.”  The best noir films seem to pose some kind of existential dilemma to the audience.  The best tell stories that, at least for a moment, unmoor the audience from a sense of moral certainty and a sense of a steady place in the world around them.  Silver and Ward say that one of film noir’s most “consistent” attributes is the paranoid protagonist.  They illustrate their point by quoting dialogue spoken by detective Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) in The Dark Corner (1946): “I feel all dead inside.  I’m backed up in a dark corner, and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”  Silver and Ward write:

With its simple graphic language, Galt’s statement captures the basic emotion of the noir figure.  The assailant is not a person but an unseen force.  The pain is more often mental than physical: the plunge into spiritual darkness, the sense of being “dead inside.”  For Galt in his dark corner the mere fact of being outside the law is neither new nor terrifying.  It is the loss of order, the inability either to discover or to control the underlying cause of his distress, that is mentally intolerable.  (p. 4)

This component of uncertainty — however fleeting or however weakly contradicted by the Production Code-approved happy endings — is key.  If a 1940s-’50s crime drama doesn’t do something to unsettle the audience, aficionados are unlikely to embrace the film as an example of noir.  In a DVD review of the by-the-numbers police-procedural Union Station (1950) for the magazine Sight & Sound, Tim Lucas says:

True noir is something specific, tales of existential entrapment, drenched in irony and fatality.  Films such as Union Station — monochromatic tales of trenchcoated dicks and sadistic criminals staying resolutely on their own sides of the moral fence in a world where good wholesomely prevails — cry out for a category all their own.  So why not call them ‘near-noir’?  (Sight & Sound, XX, 10, p. 88)

Sounds good to me.  One film that I propose would be better branded as “near-noir” is a title often extolled as an exemplar of the film-noir cycle: Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948).  Critically praised for, among other things, its pioneering use of location photography, The Naked City is often one of the titles first mentioned as a pre-eminent specimen of the cycle.  However, there’s little sense of moral ambiguity in Dassin’s film.  It’s a straight-ahead police-procedural starring Barry Fitzgerald as an avuncular police investigator whose twinkling presence soothes rather than unsettles.  His younger plainclothes sidekick, played by Don Taylor, is likewise uncomplicated: the biggest moral quandary he faces is a boys-will-be-boys problem with his young son at home, and his pinup-worthy wife (Anne Sargent) suggests that all is basically well within the household.  (Is there any doubt that such a blissfully wedded and photogenic couple would have great sex?)  In short, there’s nothing about The Naked City that implies any ethical abstruseness: we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and justice prevails.  Why do so many movie-savvy critics regard The Naked City as a film noir? 

Mark Stevens (right) in ‘The Dark Corner’ (1946)

One point of contention among noir enthusiasts is whether or not a particular movie succeeds in unsettling its audience and, if so, to what degree.  Two pictures often labeled as film noir are two crime dramas with strong racial themes: Joseph L. Makiewicz’s No Way Out (1950) and Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959).  However, from where I stand, these two anti-racism tracts take such pains to paint their minority co-leads as exemplars of all that is right and good (Sidney Poitier in the former and James Shigeta in the latter) that this leaves very little room for moral ambiguity or psychological dislocation.  So, I have great difficulty accepting No Way Out and The Crimson Kimono as examples of film noir.  But I’m sure that other movie mavens would disagree with me. 

Similarly, if there is anything else about a noir-era crime film that intervenes between the audience and an inchoate sense of dread, such a movie would have a hard time being seen as part of the cycle.  Silver and Ward list some elements that would likely keep the audience at an arm’s length from the “true” noir experience.  Here are some other necessary requirements for film noir:

A crime: Film noir is, first and foremost, a type of crime drama.  The element of crime decisively ruptures the veneer of the placid, morally secure society, and this usually snowballs into noir’s murky interrogation of humanity’s dark side.  So, if no criminal conduct is present in a movie, it’s not a film noir.  For all of its pioneering narrative and visual stylistics that would eventually become absorbed by film noir, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) isn’t an example of the cycle: no crime is committed.  On the other hand, such a requisite crime may be large or small: it may be a vicious murder; or it may merely be a robbery that is set right before it is discovered, as in The Steel Trap (1952); it may be only the nominal “kidnapping” of a child in the next hotel room, as in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952); or it may be trying to frame someone and an implied murder at the end, as in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  Any crime will do.  But no crime, no film noir. 

John McGuire (left) and Peter Lorre in ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’ (1940)

A film made during the 1940s or 1950s: While some commentators have seen so-called “neo-noir” films of later decades as a direct extension of film noir into the present day, most critics agree that the “classic” period for film noir lasted only from the 1940s to the 1950s.  As Foster Hirsch puts it in Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen:

Film noir erupted in full creative force during a comparatively concentrated period.  In an early and influential article, “Notes on Film Noir” (1972), Paul Schrader places its outer limits from The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to Touch of Evil in 1958.  In a more strict dating, Amir Karimi, in Toward a Definition of American Film Noir, limits the period from 1941 to 1949.  Later critics suggest that the true heyday of noir lasted only a few years, from Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944 to the same director’s Sunset Boulevard in 1950.  But the long-range view, with noir extending from the early forties to the late fifties, is the most sensible, for the crime films of this period are noticeably different in theme and style from those made before and after.  
Films noirs share a vision and sensibility, indicated by their echoing titles: No Way Out, Detour, Street with No Name, Scarlet Street, Panic in the Streets, The Naked City, Cry of the City, The Dark Past, The Dark Corner, The Dark Mirror, Night and the City, Phenix City Story, They Live by Night, The Black Angel, The Window, Rear Window, The Woman in the Window, D.O.A., Kiss of Death, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, The Big Sleep, Murder[,] My Sweet, Caught, The Narrow Margin, Edge of Doom, Ruthless, Possessed, Jeopardy.  These wonderfully evocative titles conjure up a dark, urban world of neurotic entrapment leading to delirium.  The repetition of key words (street, city, dark, death, murder) and things (windows, mirrors) points up the thematic and tonal similarities among the films.  (p. 10)
The largest consensus among movie commentators that I’ve seen seems to be that the first film noir is Boris Ingster’s The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940 — with its European director, its “wrongly accused murderer” story, its expressionistic dream sequences, and its strong suggestion of sexual desire), and the cycle ends with such unease-inducing films as Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Irving Lerner’s City of Fear, and John Cromwell’s The Scavengers (all 1959). 

As I said in my first essay, film noir was largely shaped by the constraints of the Hollywood Production Code, a sanitizing set of rules which compelled filmmakers merely to imply disturbing issues (such as losing one’s sanity or the desirability of social transgression) between the lines of a censor-approved optimistic story.  This created a disconnect between the disturbing themes and the movies’ reassuring veneer, a disconnect that fragmented the perceived wholeness and self-containment of the filmic text.  By 1960, the weakening grip of the Hollywood Production Code meant that disturbing, impolite themes no longer needed to be hidden, no longer ran the risk of potentially bursting the bounds of a bowdlerized story.  By the time Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho in 1960, the film’s openness about such heretofore-verboten themes like adultery, non-marital sex, unambiguous gender ambiguity, all-but-shown nudity, and the grisly gore of murder eliminated the need merely to hint at their existence between the lines of a sanitized movie, thus eliminating the danger of fracturing the film via such suggestive indirection.  So, like many others, I set the timeframe of  “true” film noir between 1940 and 1959. 
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in ‘Lady from Shanghai’ (1947)

American protagonists or an American milieu:  Film noir intrigues its audience because it questions the optimism — and, some would say, the naïveté — of the American dream and the American mythos.  Noir films are stories of moral scarcity in the land of plenty.  This is what gives film noir its disquieting edge.  So, a film noir must either be set in the U.S. or be about Americans living abroad, such as Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949, a British film), and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950).  Lewis Milestone’s Arch of Triumph (1948) tells a sinister story of intrigue with low-key lighting and high-contrast black & white photography, but its French (and wartime) setting and French characters shield it from any unsettling implications for an American audience.  Two films often associated with noir are Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), but since these are European productions with European characters and European content (German and Italian, respectively), they don’t fit the bill for noir.  If a film noir is going to have a non-American protagonist, the setting should still be in or around the United States, as in Lady from Shanghai (1947), The Other Woman (1954), and Touch of Evil (1958).

A contemporary setting: To really shake up an audience, the viewer should feel that his or her sense of security could be whipped out from under them at any moment.  When a film is set in the recognizable past, it removes this aura of urgency.  I say “recognizable” past because films set in the recent past (e.g., Double Indemnity [1944] is set six years before the movie was made, probably to avoid any reference to World War Two) are usually indistinguishable from films with a here-and-now setting and don’t have this problem.  Therefore, a crime film like Hangover Square (1945), with its Victorian London setting, reassures the audience that its unpleasant story is safely secured in the unreachable past — have no fear.  For this reason (and its English characters), Hangover Square would not be considered noir. 

However, one period piece is often cited as an important film noir: Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), set in the 1930s, some 20 years in the past.  This period setting, the Southern Gothic trappings, and Robert Mitchum’s flamboyant take on the lead character cushion the audience from any sense of dread caused by the morally ambiguous plot or shadowy, low-key lighting.  As Silver and Ward put it: “[T]he period context [in the film] insulates [any noir] elements, as well as perverse sexuality or character alienation, and mitigates the immediacy of their impact” (p. 330).  So, I don’t regard the canonized Night of the Hunter as noir. 

No supernatural story element: A story instigated by a magical or paranormal problem can easily be resolved by a magical or paranormal solution.  A film noir should give its audience the sense that a recognizable, real-life, uneasily rectifiable dilemma may just be around the corner.  A movie featuring such an out-of-this-world problem cushions any sense of immediacy, any sense that the viewer might soon face the same problem.  So, for all of their noir-ish trappings, a horror film like The Cat People (1942) and a science-fiction movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) don’t count as the real deal.  (I hope that I have now given my reasons why Blade Runner, a science-fiction film from the 1980s, isn’t a film noir.) 

Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe in ‘Niagara’ (1953)

Black & white photography?: And speaking solely for myself — and if you follow my blog at all, you could probably guess this — I prefer a film noir to be in black & white.  Some color films are championed as film noir because of their quasi-expressionistic use of a many-pigmented palette.  Films frequently held up as color noirs include John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953), Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Raoul Walsh’s The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), Alan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet (1956), and Alfred Hitchcock’s polychrome productions of the 1940s to ’50s.  But I’ve only seen a few of these movies.  When I’m in the mood for film noir, I want to see the shadowy patterns on the screen shaped by the interplay of blacks, whites, and grays.  These are the kind of movies that come to mind when I hear the words “film noir.”  However, I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility of a noir film shot in color.  While such a movie wouldn’t be my first choice when I’m in the mood for a film noir, if color can abet any feelings of unease or disquiet in a crime drama, I would be interested to see how its done.  A film noir in color is like life on other planets: it’s not something I’m likely to see anytime soon, but I wouldn’t want to say it doesn’t exist.  

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