. . . Film noir

. . .

Elements of Film Style: Film noir

"Film noir" (French for "blaxploitation"; ignoring Robert Osborne's example, the French pronounce the final "r") refers to 1940s and 1950s movies that, like the mudskipper and former Netscape executives, adapted to environmental pressures in a most peculiar way.

Postulates: a) Many cheap movies had to be made. b) According to the Production Code, any action too emotionally complex for Margaret O'Brien to handle before breakfast had to be punished.

  1. If Cheap, then No Spectacle.
  2. If Many, then Low Interference from Executives.
  3. If Low Interference from Executives, then Interesting.
  4. If Interesting and No Spectacle, then Emotionally-Complex Action.
  5. If Emotionally-Complex Action, then Punishment.
  6. Therefore Punishment is Inevitable.
  7. If Inevitable, then Fate.
  8. If Punishment and Interesting, then Sadism.
  9. Therefore, Sadistic Fate, or Film Noir. Q.E.D.
Happily, Sadistic Fate also happened to be of special interest to artsy filmmakers who found themselves trapped in Hollywood.

A few years before it was named, film noir died at the hands of TV, which, aside from the rare throwback like "Green Acres," was blocked from the Sadistic Fate route by sponsor qualms and the demands of series-plotting.

In contrast, the contemporary genre sometimes called "film noir" derives from the need to show recognizably female breasts while avoiding recognizably human characters.

. . .

Juliet Clark writes:

Speaking of film noir: when somebody at the movie site where I used to work suggested doing a special item on Pam Grier, the 23-year-old Minnesota-born Swedish-American who was the company's most favored "content provider" sprung out of his slouch and cried, "Lemme do it! I AM Blaxploitation!!"
And in a way I suppose he is....

. . .

Back-to-School Thesis Fodder: Juliet Clark informs us that a superbly self-aware description of film noir style was supplied by John McGuire in what's commonly cited as the first example of the genre, The Stranger on the Third Floor:

"What a gloomy dump! Why can't they put in a bigger lamp?"

. . .

The twelfth issue of The Baffler disappoints, hitting rock bottom with a received "history of punk" banal enough for Gina Arnold. One of its reviews, however, points out an essential difference between the neurotic thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s and our current neo-noir: the old stuff reeked of proles and the downwardly mobile, whereas the new stuff carries on Chandler's non-noir fascination with the rich. (That's one way 1996's Caught stood out from the crowd.)

It's the same drive that changed the fearful lower-middle-class-and-struggling clerks of 1940's The Shop Around the Corner into the entrepreneurial business owners of You've Got Mail. The rich have gone from being "different" to being the only characters that Hollywood can imagine as interesting.

+ + +

The prole thrillers which came closest to the jokey splatter of neo-noir weren't from Mickey Spillane but from Chester Himes. I recently read the second volume of Himes's autobiography, which, amidst hundreds of pages of complaints about girlfriends, royalties, and his Volkswagen, revealed just how liberating Himes found the hard-boiled genre after a dozen years of working the Richard-Wright-defined mainstream:
I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one can not tell the difference.

.... I was writing some strange shit. Some time before, I didn't know when, my mind had rejected all reality as I had known it and I had begun to see the world as a cesspool of buffoonery. Even the violence was funny.... If I could just get the handle to joke. And I had got the handle, by some miracle.

I didn't really know what it was like to be a citizen of Harlem; I had never worked there, raised children there, been hungry, sick or poor there. I had been as much of a tourist as a white man from downtown changing his luck. The only thing that kept me from being a black racist was I loved black people, felt sorry for them, which meant I was sorry for myself. The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.

-- p. 109, 126, My Life of Absurdity by Chester Himes

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Reckless Moment Meeting the son-in-law

"Cyberspace is no place for mommies." -- Karen Joy Fowler
Maybe not, but The Reckless Moment proves that there's sure a place for 'em in film noir. In fact, as with a lot of formulas favored by self-pitying spoiled sons, film noir makes more sense with a mommy in the lead.

Sit-coms and comic strips love the American family because something big always seems to be happening but everything is back to normal by the end of the episode. The Reckless Moment repositions that once-a-day cycle from the mother's point of view: the family member's job is to present every passing fancy as an emergency to the mother, but the mother's job is to maintain stability at any cost. Where Douglas Sirk's domestic tragedies emphasize suffocation (the enveloping family keeps you warm at the cost of snuffing out flames), Ophuls pecks to death.

The eventual effect of this affection-hungry din is to level all stimuli out. Thus Ophuls's thoroughgoing use of a narrative technique I've never seen used anywhere else in film, fiction, or theater: the deliberate tossing away of obvious opportunities for suspense and emotional climaxes. Drama is replaced by fretfulness:

And so on, until it's completely understandable that someone who needs $5000 overnight would start trying to figure out how to trim the electric bill, and that someone might panic as much over the distinction between "getting" a loan and "making" a loan as about murder, blackmail, and truly doomed love.

(Those intrigued by Ophuls's gynocentric approach to film noir should also seek out Caught, which must be the only Hollywood movie in which a miscarriage supplies the happy ending. And then probably move on to Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles....)

. . .

Movie Comment: Something Wild, 1961, with Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker

Mr. Maltin calls this film "bizarre," but that's just plain wrong. It's actually pretty fucking bizarre, starting like a film noir Ms. 45 ("She couldn't say 'NO' ... She couldn't say anything!" reads the tagline) and ending like a Roman Polanski Moonstruck.

The cast and the Sanitation-Department-less New York location shooting prepared me for a Kazan-Lumet snorefest. What I got instead was the sole American representative of Rossellini-and-early-Fellini-style Neorealism, complete with ritual degradation of the director's wife. Not that the direction's as good as Rossellini or Fellini; in fact, it's kind of rotten. But it's American! (You know it must be 'cause Aaron Copland did the score.) It's New York! It's Carroll Baker! Ralph Meeker (whose character must've picked up a copy of "How to Brainwash Girls" during his stint in Korea)! And Jean Stapleton! And that's gotta beat good direction.

Almost just as well, since "good direction" might have ruined the Euro-trashier delights of the movie. Like the Bergman-does-Tobacco-Road scene where Ralph Meeker crawls slowly moaning, more slug than dog, towards stock-still Carroll Baker, grabs her ankles, gets pushed away, does it again, gets pushed away, does it again, and gets kicked in the eye! Boy, then do we hear some moaning. Blood comes pouring out.... And the tiny horrible apartments and feverishly icky sadistic voyeurism put those Italian comparisons of mine into a sweatbox till they shrivel to more like Polanski. Which makes a feverish icky kind of sense, since the director is an Auschwitz survivor....

Plot: Take a downtrodden girl and just keep treading harder.

Moral: If you love something, lock it in a cage in the basement for six months and then let it go.

Cinematography: What C.H.U.D. should've looked like. (In that same year of 1961, the same cinematographer shot The Hustler. 1961, Eugen Schüfftan, grotesquely sharp black-and-white, and tortured neurotic ladies will forever slumber limbs-a-tangle in my mind.) (And two years earlier, as if stocking up against Ralph Meeker's later shortage, Schüfftan had shot Eyes Without a Face.) (And thirty-one years earlier, he'd shot People on Sunday, and here I boggle past speech.)

. . .

Movie Comment: The Tall Target

As Americana indexer Juliet Clark points out, film noir lighting and camerawork are perfectly suited to handle a mostly-nocturnal 1861 train trip, and although The Tall Target may sound like an episode of The Wild, Wild West, it's actually more like The Narrow Margin with Marie Windsor replaced by Abraham Lincoln.

And with no love interest.

And with no police backup.

And with a civil war.

  New York Zouaves

Domeless Capitol   And -- here's the real sad part -- with Dick Powell as the hero.

Director Anthony Mann always inclined to sullen stasis, and having to rely on Powell as his man of action takes all the spunk out of him: the stalemates are convincing, but oh, how those tired old joints creak in the plot transitions.

The period look and feel are gorgeous, though, and there's the anachronistic spice of seeing a character named John Kennedy try to stop a conspiracy of twenty well-hidden sharp-shooters with telescopic rifles from assassinating the president....

. . .

And so ends the story of: HATE, ZIP-POW!, and REVENGE

The Comics Journal message board supplies a surprising addition to the short list of "Krazy Kat" / film noir crossovers (and Fritz Lang / Jonathan Lethem connections):

Fritz's parting present to me was a collection of his favourite comic strips by George Herriman.... he wrote on the flyleaf:
Dear Jan

May you acquire Krazy's philosophy which makes a brick on his - (her?) - noggin the purveyor of true love. For the Krazy's of this world there are no austerities.

Sept 29th - 47 Fritz Lang

. . .

Wendell Corey abraded 1950s Hollywood like an imperious acne-scarred iguana: outstandingly inexplicable as The Furies' love interest -- Barbara Stanwyck should've spent more time studying that copy of Are Snakes Necessary? -- and delivering his Rear Window banter with such open contempt that I half-expected him to try to pin the murder on Jeffries's little trollop.

But Corey also landed at least two parts perfectly suited to his Republican alienation from the species: "Smiley" Coy and Leon Poole.

You shouldn't have done that
"I don't know why you'd do such a thing."

I'd say Corey's Poole was as indelible a performance as Perkins's Norman Bates or Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, except that no one seems to remember it. It certainly seems more realistic (although I've only met, that I know of, one mad killer myself), much more someone about whom you'd say, "He always seemed like such a nice man" and still never want to befriend or even stand very close to.

My shame to admit it, I probably wouldn't have gotten palsy with John Payne or Tom Neal, either. As Juliet Clark pointed out to me, Poole is a film noir hero in a film noir villain's role. The Killer Is Loose crossbreeds three strains of thriller (with a suggestion of the big heist film in the background):

And Poole comes spinning out the top chute. When his old sergeant takes advantage of Poole's service industry position to nostalgically revive an old course of public humiliation, he maintains professional cool:
"Even the island boys, they'd say Corporal Foggy, he get lost again, he forget his rifle."
"Yes, I remember."

Kitchen with gun
"Yes, I remember."

Thus for the military. That other masculine bureaucracy, the police department, is equally dismissive:

"Worked himself into quite a stew, hasn't he?"
"Scared amateur -- bolted inside."
We want Poole to prove his worth and show up the bullies, ideally without undue show of ego, just as part of the dirty job what a man's gotta do....
"Don't you see how wrong it was to do that?
I'm certainly going to settle with you for it."
Which he does, kind of. Like later comic hero Travis Bickle would thwart the villains and get the girl, kind of.
"You said he wasn't crazy!"

Model prisoner
"What's more, you've demonstrated an earnest and sincere intention to pay your debt."
"I've tried to follow the rules, sir."

Although Poole remains self-possessed and hard-working, the clear-headed dignity of his first scenes proves anomalous. Unbenownst to us, he was being sustained by the love of a good woman. Love meaning:

"She never laughed at me once."
We never get to know this good woman, and, given the general run of pariah relationships, that might be just as well. But even if she had turned out to be Marie Windsor, the Pooles would've been sure to present a more appealing spectacle than the passive-aggressive whine festival offered by the movie's purported hero and heroine.

In Touch of Evil, Orson Welles mocked the narrative convention of the noble cop's good marriage with parody. The Killer Is Loose undercuts it more directly by collapsing that convention into the convention of the middle-class family who's never been tested by fire. By 1956, Joseph Cotten's schoolmarmishness had ripened into querulous old-maidhood, and his shallow bride (best known to noirists as Out of the Past's second-string femme fatale) makes his dithering dotage even more glaring.

The couple's domestic ineffectiveness seems catching, eventually spreading through the entire LAPD and squandering technology, time, and personnel in cross-purposed confusion.

"I think so, but I can't be sure."
"Is it a man or is it a woman?"
"I'm not sure."
"If it is Poole, what's he waiting for?"
"He's not sure it's Lila."
"That could be...."
  Ugliest broad in L.A.

While Poole advances unprofessionally, clumsily, obliquely, bumping into a police car, driving over the center line, limping through the rain, slumping, slopping....

Does he make it?

Silly question. Naturally the natural order prevails, depositing a foggy pool of drag on a neatly trimmed lawn, to be mopped up off-screen later by some equally discardable service industry peon.

That's the story we've been told we were being told, but it's not the only story we've heard.

There's the triumph of being the one who walks out of the last frames of the movie, and there's another type of triumph in defining them. There's the triumph of victory, and a triumph in having set the game. And even a triumph in refusing to acknowledge the existence of a game at all.

What would such uncompetitive types want with winning anyway?

. . .

Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?

A question at the end of one of Jeff VanderMeer's recent posts has been nagging at me -- "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?"
- Mumpsimus

Conclusions elude us. It could be there are none to be drawn without distortion.

  1. The laws are ambiguous and the judges are prejudiced.

    Matthew Cheney and I both seek out the tang of the unexpected problem; we welcome obstacle. And so, faced with increased experimentation, we're likely to tilt our camera eye to make a narrative of progress where others may tilt a decline. Whenever Joyce published, he lost a former supporter. Gardner Dorzois, among others, regrets the "squandered promise" of Samuel R. Delany's maturity. And I'm sure there are some who wish M. John Harrison had never put Viriconium through its literary retcon.

  2. Outside a historical context, terms like "craft", "good story", and "experimental" are little more than Whiggish fertilizer.

    Nothing I've read in the past few years can compare with the experimentation of Tom Jones or Wurthering Heights, but we don't see Mark Amerika giving them props. Me, I don't think Beckett ever again wrote anything as brain-droppingly new as Watt; I think of his last thiry years as laying down a very good groove and think of John Barth's later career as safe shtick. Make Barth as hard to find as Barbara Comyns or Bob Brown and I'll reconsider.

  3. It's chancy to generalize about particularities.

    Was Orlando more or less experimental than To the Lighthouse? How about positioned between To the Lighthouse and The Waves?

    Flaubert started out with wildly uncontrolled blurts of fantasy. Were those stabs in the murk less or more experimental than Madame Bovary? Was Salammbo less experimental than The Temptation of St. Anthony? Bouvard & Pécuchet?

  4. What seems blandly normal or tediously artificial to the reader may have been a coltish celebration of new skills for the author.

    If Melville chafed against the limitations of the autobiographical sea story while writing Typee, it doesn't show. The sincerity of Modernist poets' juvenilia is hardly its besetting problem.

  5. In conscious transitions from "expected" to "peculiar", what matters may be the sheepskin, not the education.

    That is, the trigger is being granted permission to experiment, either from the publishing industry or oneself. If you write to make a living, there may not be much of a distinction. The Glass Key wouldn't have been Hammett's first publication, if only because he couldn't have afforded it.

    The most startling such transformation I've personally witnessed was at Clarion 1993, when a workshop member who'd slaved over unconvincing Analog filler realized that such an apprenticeship wasn't required, and suddenly began producing beautifully polished and balanced works of ambiguous speculation. (Like most good artists, he seems to have eventually decided that artmaking wasn't worth the effort, but that doesn't dim the thrill of witness.)


Discussion continues at Mumpsimus, at Reading Experience (with a clumsy, verbose response of my own), and at Splinters.

And does Dan Green's hospitality know no limits?— still more at the Reading Experience.

Update: Dan weeded and discarded his initial post in 2006. Here was my comment at the time:

I'm prone to note resemblances, which is fine, but then rhetoric sometimes tempts me to go too far. So I might talk about a "tradition" of presumptious lyric, and in that jumble together some unaristocratic Tudors, some Restoration satirists, Keats, the Objectivists, the New York School, and Language poets. I suppose somewhat the same impulse determines Oxonian anthologies and encourages such after-the-fact categories as film noir, nationalist canons across the world, and women's writing.

In your brief overview of "experimental writing," there's a temporal gap between "Tristam Shandy" and James Joyce's career. Do any books fit in there? I ask partly because I think I'd like them, and partly because explicit experimentation *as a tradition* would seem to require a firmly established norm, and I'm not sure when the particular narrative conventions being fought became firmly established, or how long it took before insurgent tactics became narrative conventions in their own right.

I also wonder about the conceptual gap between a single book and a career. "Tristram Shandy" stays just as wonderful but becomes slightly less startling positioned between the "Sermons of Mr. Yorick" and "A Sentimental Journey"; Sterne-as-career becomes slightly less startling positioned between the polyphonic digressions of sixteenth and seventeenth century English fiction and the sentimental, didactic, and political novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Even before an "oppositional" tactic becomes group property, it may be a personal habit. Is a writer who attempts something drastically new in each new publication only as "experimentalist" (to use Steve Mitchelmore's word) as a writer who challenges narrative convention the same way every time? (I'm not denigrating the latter, by the way; I believe in the power of the groove.)

Conversely, early Joyceans proved that it was easy to miss the formal ambitions of "Dubliners" and "Portrait" without "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" to foment suspicion. One might read "Moby Dick" as a (failed) conventional narrative, but can one say the same of "The Confidence Man"? 150 years after "Madame Bovary", we might take it as conventional, but I believe Kenner is right to draw Joyce's artistic ambitions directly from Flaubert: "A Simple Story" to "Dubliners", "Sentimental Education" to "Portrait", "Temptation of St. Anthony" to the later episodes of "Ulysses", "Bouvard and Pecuchet" to Leopold Bloom -- and, on a different trail, to Beckett's "Mercier and Camier".

And there's that final gap between the isolated heroic figures of the modern canon and a contemporary American school of writers who share some publishers, make livings in academia, and swap blurbs, bridged by the pulp-sprung and compulsive Burroughs.

Well, I'm afraid all this gap-minding sounds both more detached and more combative than my feelings justify. You yourself call it a "pragmatic" distinction. I suppose my uneasiness truly comes down to worrying just what use our pragmatisms get put to. Provisional categorization can work as a portal of discovery. (Jerome McGann's championing William Morris as the first Modernist is a delightful example of what can be done with hindsight genre.) But windows require walls, and human beings do seem to love their wall-building. Once we have our categories up, it may be hard see around them. If I'm not mistaken, a similar uneasiness stirred your "Don't Change" entry of September 22.

I suppose I sound as if I'm trying to eradicate distinctions, when what I'd like is to make them finer.


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.