Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Gun for Hire (1942)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Alan Ladd's first film role is as Raven, the Gun of the title. He is hired to kill a scientist who has been stealing secrets from the company he works for. Once the deed is done and the secrets are retrieved, Raven is double-crossed by the company representative (Laird Cregar) who pays him in marked bills. In a convoluted plot, Ladd decides to track down Cregar for revenge, while running from Robert Preston, the LA cop who was on vacation in San Francisco visiting his girlfriend, Veronica Lake, who has also been tapped by the government to keep an eye on Cregar, because she is a combination cabaret singer/magician that has been hired in Cregar's club and ends up sitting next to Ladd on the train to LA.

Raven is easily the most ambivalent character so far in the series. Clearly a contract killer, he is also a victim. In the beginning minutes of the film, he feeds a stray cat that comes to his hotel window, but has no trouble beating the cleaning woman that tries to shoe the cat away. He has done more heinous things than any other character in the film, but Cregar and his boss, "The Old Man" (Tully Marshall), are painted as the true villains for their disloyalty to country.

Finally in the series we have a film from the point of view of a true criminal, and a film structured as a straightforward suspense thriller, with no flashbacks. But even so, this career criminal, this paid assassin, is given a freudian excuse for his deviant ways. You see, his mother was abusive and hit him with an iron when he was young, breaking his arm in such a way that he still carries the deformity, a physical reminder of the past he cannot escape in his mind. And since violence breeds violence, he had no choice but to become a killer.

There has been a steady build-up of fatalism in the series, particularly in the last three films. Not coincidentally, these have all been from the point of view of the people who commit the crimes, in a time still under the Hayes Code that instructed all crimes be paid for by the end of the film, and it comes to its final fruition in this film. The contract killer is struck down by the straight-laced cop, but finds an amount of redemption before he goes, protecting the woman who trusted him.

There is some of the dramatic, expressionistic lighting you would expect to find. But, being straightforward, there is little oneiric or strange about the film. The remorseless killing is the heart of cruelty, as Veronica Lake is the heart of eroticism, and all this puts THIS GUN FOR HIRE at the heart of the film noir movement.

Next time: The Killers

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Woman in the Window (1944)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Edward G. Robinson, "third star" of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, this time stars as the stuffy professor of psychology, Richard Wanley. He is a loving and devoted husband and father, but bemoans the onset of middle age, when he seems to have little time or inclination for the type of adventure he used to get into. When his family leaves him behind for Summer vacation, however, he finds himself meeting an attractive woman (Joan Bennett) and going back to her apartment, where a man attacks him. Wanley kills him in self-defense and, though he clearly states in his lecture at the beginning of the film that not all killers are murderers, finds himself covering up the incident so that the impropriety won't be revealed, thus ruining his reputation.

This film is a fine example of a man getting into trouble despite his better sense, and proceeds at an unhurried pace, building in tension to the final solution, although it is undercut by the "Wizard of Oz" ending. I have been building a respect for Edward G. Robinson, who is probably best remembered as Rico in LITTLE CAESAR, but contrarily was quite a restrained, understated actor in most everything else I've seen. He fits perfectly in this role as the sedate professor, and is completely believeable trying to work his way out of the jam, up to and including his recognition that he knows that police can use the most minute detail as a clue, but admitting that he has little idea how they put those clues together.

The film is lit in a straightforward way, instead relying on mirrors and reflections to suggest the duality of the characters. It seems clear to us that Robinson is attracted to Bennett, but nothing untoward happens, undercutting the eroticism. But this is also the most interesting aspect of the picture. Robinson feels compelled to cover up the killing not because of the act itself, and not to conceal something he has done wrong at Bennett's apartment, but to eliminate the appearance of impropriety, which to him is the most damaging consequence. It is possibly the most selfish of motivations in the series so far.

It is not a dream-like film, until the end, and is not strange in any way. There is no extraneous cruelty. Even the poisoning is described in very clinical terms. But the ambivalence of the main character is what puts this film stongly in the category of noir.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY is the story of Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who becomes enamored with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while seeking a policy renewal, and plots her husband's demise. What's nice about this film is the self-determination inherent in Walter's downfall. Yes, Phyllis puts all her sexuality on the line, and maybe she asks leading questions, but she never actually asks Walter to murder her husband. Walter sees the woman, wants her, wants the money, and secretly believes he has devised a way to skirt the insurance system, by working within it, while gaining the maximum benefit. But Walter soon realizes that you can't account for everything, or everyone.

This is the first film in the series that is truly from the criminal's point of view, and thus also the first with a truly fatalistic world view. It is again told in flashback, Walter suffering from a bullet wound while dictating the details to his boss (Edward G. Robinson). It is left for the audence to wonder whether Neff dies or is arrested for murder, but either way, life as he knew it is over. Walter begins the movie as a straight, law-abiding citizen, and it could only be through the events of the film that he ends up as a bloody, beaten criminal. Yet even as there is self-determination in the sexual desire and hubris that makes him a criminal, there is also self-determination in his downfall, as nerves get the better of him, and he decides to end it all, before Phyllis drags him down with her.

The film is shot through with dramatic low-key lighting, especially with light coming through blinds into darkened rooms. Often, portions of a character's face will be highlighted, the eyes or the mouth, or the face will be split, half in light, half in dark. And while the images in the first half of the film are about bringing Walter and Phyllis together, the second half is about keeping them apart, either showing them in separate shots, or by putting something in between them within the frame.

There is again the dream-like quality of memory, and certainly enough eroticism. But the strangeness is lacking, as is the cruelty, aside from the off-screen murder. There is a degree of ambivalence, as the audience wants to root for Walter, to see if he can get away with it, while being reassured that justice will be done in the end.

Next time: The Woman in the Window

Friday, March 27, 2009

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Serendipity happens sometimes. Last night I re-watched MURDER, MY SWEET, based on the novel "Farewell, My Lovely" by Raymond Chandler, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, based on a James M. Cain novel, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. All on the 50th anniversary of Chandler's death.

MURDER, MY SWEET was not the first time a Philip Marlowe novel was brought to the screen, but it was the first time Philip Marlowe was brought to the screen. In 1942, both "Farewell, My Lovely" and "The High Window" were used as source material for screenplays in existing silver screen mystery series. "Farewell, My Lovely" turned into THE FALCON TAKES OVER, third in the "Falcon" series with George Sanders, and "The High Window" became TIME TO KILL, seventh in the "Michael Shayne" series with Lloyd Nolan. But this was definitely the closest to the spirit of the Chandler novel.

Dick Powell, a musical star, fought for the role and proved himself the equal of this new tough-guy persona. Marlowe, bored and broke, agrees to help "Moose" Malloy (the great Mike Mazurki, but more about him later), recently released from prison, find his old girlfriend. He starts his search, but is waylaid by another job, as security for a jewel-heist payoff. The payoff goes wrong, Marlowe is knocked unconscious, and wakes up next to a dead body. Things go downhill from there.

This film, like LAURA, has a voice-over and is told in flashback, giving it the same dream-like quality of memory. But this film expands on that imagery by drugging Marlowe and showing us his deluded nightmares, of giant hypodermics, doors that lead to more doors, and the relentless pursuit by an emotionless doctor (thanks to double exposure) that makes it both dream-like and strange. The imagery is also boosted by the most extensive use of the german-influenced low-key lighting so far in the series. Its purpose may not always be clear, but is certainly striking and adds to the mood, from shadows lurking behind characters shoulders, to window lettering shadowed onto the chest of a prospective client, to the image of Claire Trevor, prone on a couch in total darkness, puffs of smoke reaching to the light each time she exhales.

There is also the erotic about this film, in the form of Claire Trevor who, according to my count, romances at least five men in the film. She is countered by the virginal Anne Shirley, a scrappy young red-headed girl next door, folded into the mystery for the sake of her father. The violence and cruelty are heightened from LAURA's levels. Malloy physically threatens Marlowe on many occasions, several people are shot, eyes are scorched, and there is a fairly graphic metaphor in lieu of a description of a corpse.

In short, this may be the most classically noir of the series yet. And in so doing, it may be the least accessible to modern audiences. The voice-over and dialogue represent the detached cynicism of the time, but they also provided rich fodder for subsequent parodies and send-ups. Without context, it can sound jokey. I saw this film with an audience in January and I was disappointed to hear them laugh through most of it. But this is not a new phenomenon. Borde and Chaumeton tell of a 1953 screening, just 7 years after it had been released in France, that also produced laughter in the audience. Film noir was already beginning to reflect itself.

Next time: Double Indemnity

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Megan Abbott, Redux

Taking a break from film noir to remind you that Megan Abbott's visit to Rochester is only a week away, and that you should be making your plans accordingly.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Laura (1944)

These essays are intended for people that have already seen the films being discussed. This entry will DEFINITELY spoil parts of the movie for you if you haven't seen it yet.

Oneiric? Check. Anytime you start a film with first-person narration you flirt with the dream-like since dreams and memory tread the same muddy water. The fact that the person doing the narrating is the killer adds the concept of seeing the crime from the criminal's perspective, but he ends up not being the main character. So these can't be his memories, as he isn't present all the time. So might they be the extrapolations of what he knows?

Strange? Maybe not in the Kafka-esque sense. Except for that one instance about halfway through the film.

Erotic? Check. Our hero (Dana Andrews) has a romantic obsession with a dead woman, especially the portrait hung over her mantel, which is in as many shots as director Otto Preminger makes possible in the first half of the film. He fetishises her possessions, getting to know her indirectly, while yearning for the unattainable. Our killer fetishises the woman herself, dressing her up, changing her hair, a Pygmalion of the mid-century.

Ambivalent? Not as much as a film with an anti-hero might make me feel.

Cruel? The dead woman had her face shot off with both barrels of a shotgun. Check.

And so we have something closer to the signpost definition that Borde and Chaumeton offered, but still somewhat removed from other noir. Dana Andrews, though he wonderfully underplays his part as the detective, is certainly the part of the traditional romantic hero, with a bit of psychosis. Laura is the romantic ideal that he must achieve, but she remains unattainable, first through death, then through interference from her self-appointed protector, then through suspicion and finally, again, through death (almost).

Gone is the overt criminal element, replaced by friends of questionable motive. There is the wandering fiance, the back-stabbing aunt, the over-loyal maid, and of course the killer. There is little violence, other than what is referred to, and never would have been shown anyway.

What there is, that was absent in THE MALTESE FALCON, is a distinct, controlled style. There are a few worthy noir-shadowed shots, but most of the visual information is communicated through clever mise-en-scene, an airy, floating camera, and zooms that close the frame when the characters need to be brought together. There is also some use of the deep-focus pioneered in CITIZEN KANE (1941) that FALCON was not able to take advantage of.

So what do these first two films have in common? Crime, certainly. And an ambiguity of character. But this is common is crime fiction, especially when there is a mystery involved, and there are characters that are trying to evade exposure. Perhaps a more cohesive through-line will present itself as we go on.

Next time: Murder, My Sweet

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

For the two people reading this blog that don't know, THE MALTESE FALCON is the story of Sam Spade, a private detective hired by a woman that is looking for a way out. As a result of taking her on as a client, Sam's partner is shot dead, and he is frequently threatened at gunpoint, followed, drugged, questioned by the police, invited to take part in the central crime, and forced to make a choice between love and justice.

But Spade, as played by Humphrey Bogart, is not the upstanding private dick that movie-going audiences had become accustomed to. He is not the Pinkerton hired to protect the shipment, nor the debonair Nick Charles, also a Dashiell Hammett creation, a bon vivant with a knack for detection and staying alive. No, Spade is the kind of guy that will sleep with his partner's wife, assure her that the only thing standing in their way is her husband, then turn his back on her, even when the partner's out of the picture. He's the kind of dick that will take your case if you give him enough money, even if he knows you're lying. He's the kind of guy that will take your gun away and pause long enough for you to see him smile before he punches your lights out, the kind of guy that will kiss a girl in response to her question, "What else can I buy you with, if not money?"

So here is a noir character from the father of the hard-boiled novel. A man with a shifting morality, or only the most basic morality: staying alive and making money. Everything else is negotiable. And I think this is the basis of the film's noir qualifications. Our protagonist is an anti-hero. Although this film isn't seen from the criminal's point of view, our main character is little better than the criminals he is dealing with.

And what of the criminals? Their characterization was new, as well. No longer were they a cohesive unit of evil, but a federation of sociopaths, playing the situation from different angles, depending on the current climate. They joined together with the same dispassion that they betrayed each other.

Except for Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She was the villain that showed the most passion. In fact, it was her most powerful weapon. She had long ago learned that she could manipulate a man into doing what she wanted him to do. With a little intimation and a lot of lying, she could maneuver her men like chess pieces against one another, using them up and moving on, staying above the fray, always finding her way out, until she met her match in the cynicism of Sam Spade.

But beyond the characterizations, there is little to qualify this film as noir. There is little of the low-key lighting that would later become a trademark. The film is not oneiric, strange, or erotic; but definitely ambivalent and certainly cruel.

Next time: Laura

Monday, March 23, 2009

The 10-Day Film Noir Challenge

I started watching film noir seriously about a year ago. It was always there at the back of my mind, but I had never set out to consciously sit down and burn through a stack of DVDs and tapes, educating myself to this group of films. Now, as you might be able to tell by that last sentence, I don't even know what to call it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? I've heard it called a movement, and a series. No one can agree on when it started or when (or if) it ended. Books on the subject are of little help, as each list of film noir I see gets longer and longer. The Film Noir Guide, by Michael Keaney, lists 745 films that qualify, and these are all from the "Classic Period," which Keaney defines as 1940 to 1959.

I'm not even sure if the words film noir have any meaning anymore. Let me re-state that. I went in with the assumption that the term film noir was chosen for its descriptive value. I assumed that "black film" was meant to describe not only the oppressive shadows cast by the German-influenced lighting, but also the darkness that our characters would delve into, their hearts blackened by circumstance and greed. I was even ready to proclaim, in my most didactic archivist voice, that "film noir is not noir without film." But as I'm reading comes the realization that film noir was coined after a series of gothic novels from the 18th and 19th centuries were called roman noir. Now I don't know if my original assumption was correct, or if the term was coined as a mirror to the roman noir, in that it evoked that sort of emotional response in a modern crime milieu. Or maybe it's both.

Panorama du Film Noir Americain was the first book published on the phenomenon (genre/style/series) by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in 1956, directly after the what they saw as the end of the series with the nuclear explosion in the finale of KISS ME DEADLY. The other most often-cited end of the Classic Era is Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL in 1958, making Borde and Chaumeton's tome the only possible book published concurrently with the series itself. It, however, is no less clear in what defines a film noir. In fact, the title of Chpater 2 is "Toward a Definition of Film Noir." Not an actual definition, just a general direction toward the definition. It gives us a few clues: "It's the presence of crime that gives film noir it's most distinctive stamp" (p.5), that the crime is viewed from the criminals' perspective (p. 6), that the morality is ambiguous, the characters ambivalent (p.7). They also offer us some signposts (though they admit them to be simplistic): that films noirs are "oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel." All of this while discussing films that are classically noir (THE BIG SLEEP, THE KILLERS, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) alongside films that are either questionably so (THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, THE NAKED CITY) or appear on no noir lists that I've seen (ROPE).

So, then, What is Noir? And how can the merits of these films be discussed without a mutual definition? Well, it's been done for years, and it has bled into literature, primarily with the publication of the serie noire in France, composed mostly of American authors, and unilaterally as a marketing tool for scores of authors writing in the same vein and theme. But I won't feel comfortable discussing it as a concept until I've wrapped my head at least around a definition that I can accept.

There is one fact that everyone seems to agree on as the impetus for the naming of the series: that in the late Summer of 1946 in France, there were a group of American films released in rapid succession that had not been available through the war years, and that displayed a similarity of darkness in tone and content. And that this "series" was continued through the end of 1946 and into January of 1947, solidifying its presence. These are the 10 films: John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), Frank Tuttle's THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944), Edward Dmytryk's MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), Fritz Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), Robert Siodmak's THE KILLERS (1946), Charles Vidor's GILDA (1946), Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP(1946), and Robert Montgomery's THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1947).

Over the next 10 days, I plan to watch each of these titles on DVD or VHS and try to put myself in the shoes of the French critics of the day, distilling the essence of what they called film noir, and pushing myself "toward a definition of film noir." I call it the 10-Day Film Noir Challenge. You can join me if you'd like.

Next time: The Maltese Falcon

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Payment Deferred (1932)

1932 is well before the generally accepted start of the Film Noir series (1941 or 1945, depending on who you ask), but PAYMENT DEFERRED certainly gives us a clue that the central tenets did not burst onto the scene fully formed. In it, Charles Laughton is a man moved to murder for money.

He is a bank clerk patriarch with a loyal, if plain, wife (Dorothy Peterson) and a college-aged daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) who wants to continue her stenography education. He is set upon for money at every turn in the first reel, from his wife, from his daughter, from the bills piling up on the kitchen table, and from the shop owners who have given him goods and services on credit. The situation is so bad that the creditors have approached his employer to garnish his wages, a situation that normally calls for immediate dismissal. His long tenure at the bank buys him three days to raise 125 pounds to pay the bills, or else he'll lose his job. And if he loses his job, he'll lose the family home, moving everyone into the poorhouse.

Then, out of nowhere, a long-lost nephew (Ray Milland) shows up flush with cash. Laughton has some inside information about manipulation of the franc and wants the nephew to go in on a purchase with him, but the nephew refuses. Laughton, his back to the wall, spies the glass-front cabinet in the hallway, and the bottle inside that is necessary for his photo development: cyanide.

It's played as a straight drama, but it shares a lot, thematically, with Noir. Laughton is tempted to let his darker side take over, and he is rewarded for this. But it eats at him throughout the rest of the film, providing the film with that singular Noir fatalism. There is even a femme fatale of sorts (Verree Teasdale) that blackmails Laughton for some of the money he's earned.

There is none of the later Noir style that would emerge, save for one shot where Laughton laughs maniacally as he sits in his chair. The shot irises down until it's just his head, laughing away against the blackness.

I was tempted to call this film a proto-Noir, until I was absolutely positive I had no idea what was Noir and what wasn't. Thus, the Challenge.

Next time: The 10-Day Film Noir Challenge

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Crime Beat

Canandaigua police reported a Waterloo man was charged with second-degree criminal impersonation Saturday, March 7, after they saw him walking through a park on South Main Street with an open container of beer.

What. It's illegal to impersonate a hobo now?
And then I saw that there was another paragraph that went with it:

Police said Mark R. Hamblin, no age available, of 195 Steele Road, gave them a false name and birth date when they confronted him.


Friday, March 20, 2009

What is Noir?

"If somebody dies at the beginning, it's most likely a mystery. If somebody dies at the end, it's more likely Noir."

--Jared Case, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Megan Abbott

Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott will be gracing the daffodil-lined streets of beautiful Rochester, NY this Spring. She is going to be reading from her 2007 novel Queenpin, as well as the forthcoming Bury Me Deep. This book had huge buzz way back in October, and from the likes of Laura Lippman and Reed Farrell Coleman.

The event will be held Thursday, April 2 at 7pm on the campus of St. John Fisher College in the Golisano Academic Gateway building, Midlevel. It is open to the public and free of charge.

If you're into 50s-style pulp, film noir, or just great writing, and you're within 3 hours drive time, come on down. I'll buy you a drink afterward.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Crime Beat

From one of my spies:
(Yeah, I got spies...):
(All right, it's Charles Benoit, but seeing as how he's working on a book set during WW2, he's probably picked up a lot of spy-type information!):

State police received a report of an alarm going off at the Tractor Supply store on Route 104 in the Town of Ontario on Saturday (2/14) at 1:22 am. According to police, Michael R. Ternoois, age 17, of Buerman Road in Sodus attached a stolen go-kart valued at $1799 to the bumper of his vehicel and began driving off with it in tow. He soon discovered that he could not control the pulled vehicle and asked his girlfriend, Amber M. Provoost, age 17, of Route 14 in Alton, to steer his vehicle while he rode and attempted to steer the go-kart. Police stopped the vehicle travelling southbound on Lincoln Road and took the pair into custody.

The youth of today - they can't even steal their own getaway karts. And did you notice what day this happened? I never would have thought of getting my wife a felony for Valentine's Day.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Crime Beat

At 2:55 a.m. Feb. 22, a glass cup was reportedly thrown at the drive-up window at a fast-food restaurant on the 600 block of East Ridge Road. The window shattered; damage was estimated at $200.

At 8:55 a.m. Feb. 25, $300 worth of damage was reported to a Dumpster that caught fire at a fast-food restaurant on the 600 block of East Ridge Road.

Look, I understand that the McDLT was a great invention. Hell, it was hot on one side and cool on the other. But they're just never going to bring it back, no matter how much you hassle them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Crime Beat

Police are investigating the theft this past month of $1,600 worth of Blackberries from Mobile Solutions, Mall at Greece Ridge. The thefts were reported on March 4.

That's gonna make a lot of pie.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Crime Beat

Between May of last year and Feb. 24, someone reported seeing a man standing naked in a second-floor apartment window of the Clintonwood Court Apartments, which is visible from the South Clinton Avenue bus stop. The man said he wasn’t used to city life and said he would make sure the shades are closed in the future.

Now, was this one incident where the person reporting it had trouble nailing down the date, or was it several times over that span? And if so, why did they keep looking? And how does city life really differ when it comes to nudity? Or shame?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Crime Beat

A Sudbury Drive resident found an unwanted surprise on his front porch Feb. 17. Someone had left a bag full of cocaine with the word “Enjoy” written on it. Police destroyed the drug.

I heard the drug cartels were going corporate, but I never thought they'd start giving out free samples.