Friday, May 29, 2009

Whirlpool (1949)

Gene Tierney plays Anne, a psychologist's wife whom we meet while she is shoplifting a $300 brooch. Seeing this, David Korvo (Jose Ferrer), an astrologer/hypnotist/advisor/swindler, talks the store out of pressing charges garners Anne's trust. But from the first moment he recognized her in that situation, a plan formed in his head. You see, Korvo had bilked $60,ooo out of another woman, who was now the patient of Anne's husband, Bill (Richard Conte), who was advising her to face Korvo and demand her money back, or she would take the matter up with the police. But with Anne in his back pocket, Korvo would have more access than he though possible to put a wrench in that plan. Sure enough, Anne is too embarrassed to go to her husband about the kleptomania, which causes insomnia, which she also can't go to her husband for. Luckily, Korvo is there to help her with a little hypnotic therapy and a few post-hypnotic suggestions.

This is a black-and-white American crime film, but the noir stops there. Anne is the main character in the beginning of the film, but once she gets put in jail, it is really her husband that carries the narrative. And while Anne commits a crime or two, they are either under hypnotic duress or explained away as the symptom of a larger problem, hardly a noir protagonist. And Bill is the classic hero, using his particular wiles to glean the truth from the psychological fog. The guilt he lays claim to in the last act is marital, not criminal in nature. Were this the story of David Korvo, perhaps it would be more noir, but instead he is the smooth-talking, oportunistic villain.

And, still, there is little noir to be found in the style of the film. As I mentioned in my review of LAURA, Otto Preminger is a very subtle noir stylist. Although where I was impressed with the mise-en-scene and camera movements in LAURA, there was little to hold onto in this film, until the last 20 minutes, when shadow began to creep in and there was one particular mirror shot that was pretty cool. Even using Borde and Chaumeton's signposts, it's hard to identify the oneiric, strange, cruel and erotic in this film, unless complete power of suggestion over women is your thing. Anne is certainly ambivalent, or maybe confused is a better word. Her desire to keep her husband loving her runs contrary to allowing herself to trust in his forgiveness. That may have been an accurate portrayal for 1949, but hardly the darkest side of the human soul.

Judgment: Not Noir.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Crossfire (1947)

A murder investigation lead by Detective Finlay (Robert Young) points to a group of post WWII soldiers stationed in Washington, DC. There is Keeley (Robert Mitchum) - the big-brother type; Montgomery (Robert Ryan) - the "regular army" guy; Floyd (Steve Brodie) - the guy trying to distance himself from the army; Mitchell (George Cooper) - the artist assigned to the signal corps; and Leroy (William Phipps) - the dumb Tennessee hick. Mitchell was invited up to the victim's room, but Montgomery and Floyd showed up later. Now Mitchell is missing and nobody seems to know what happened.

The film begins with the murder, obscured (of course) in shadow, and shot at a low angle so that only feet and legs are seen. We flash to later that night when the victim's girlfriend finds the body and the Detective is on the case. From this point we follow Finlay's investigation and I was hard-pressed, beyond the stylistic murder scene, to call this a noir. It seemed like a fairly straight-forward murder investigation, a la THE NAKED CITY. Young played the detective as somewhat cynical, but certainly not in the same league as Philip Marlowe.

Then a strange thing happened. The film lost its main character. Or, perhaps, it never had a main character in the strictest sense. I'll return to this.

What happened was that the narrative was carried by several different characters at different times in the film. We have flashbacks narrated by Montgomery and Mitchell, a separate investigation being conducted by Mitchell, Mitchell's wife even takes the lead at one point, and there is even a very important scene using Leroy as the focus. And in the middle of all of this is possibly the best explanation (in a film) of why the noir cycle happened after the second World War. In Mitchell's flashback he relates an analogy put to him by the victim. He compared the war to a peanut. (I'm paraphrasing as best I can. I imagine I'll see the film again soon and can do it more justice then). We put all our energy, our focus, our hate and violence into eating that peanut. And when the peanut is gone, then what? Where does all that energy, focus, hate and violence go? Naturally, we start to look among ourselves. And it is at this point that some of us turn our hate inward.

Does that not perfectly explain not only the vicious crimes that appear on-screen in films noirs, but also the self-destructive tendencies of so many of our noir protagonists? And in this film, it affects everyone. For Montgomery, the war turns the "regular Army" into a "civilian Army" full of incompetents. Mitchell is the prime example of self-hatred after the fact. Leroy is innocence and naivete lost. And Mitchell's wife has been robbed of the man that she married, and years of marriage, only to be expected to welcome this changed man home with open arms. Who is left for her to hate for what was done to her life?

From this perspective, and taking into consideration the shifting point-of-view, it is not a difficult philosophical leap to conclude that American society is the noir protagonist in this case, as shown in pieces to make up the whole. It is the society that is turning hatred in on itself, ashamed of what it has been forced to do in the past, and looking for ways to self-immolate in some sort of attempt at penance. The film posits that the only way to find peace is to somehow expunge blind hate from ourselves and our society, or it will cause an auto-catalytic reaction that will breed hate upon hate.

I am quickly coming to the realization that 1947 may have been the best year for film noir, as it saw not only the release of this film, but also those of the wonderful DARK PASSAGE, DEAD RECKONING, DESPERATE, KISS OF DEATH, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and OUT OF THE PAST.

Judgment: Noir.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Desperate (1947)

Steve Brodie plays a hard-working WWII vet whose work is starting to pay off. He plans on getting a new place for his new bride and start a family. When an old friend calls him up for a trucking job, Brodie leaves his homey celebration for an easy 50 bucks, not knowing that he's going to be the wheelman in a heist. When he finds out, he manages to signal a passing policeman before he and his truck get hi-jacked at gunpoint. Unfortunately, the policeman dies and the gang boss' little brother has been captured, left alone to stand trial for murder. The boss figures the only way to get his brother off the hook is to have Brodie go in and confess. But Brodie doesn't want to go to jail, especially now that he's found out his wife is pregnant, so they hit the road. But with the mob and the cops on his tail and his need to steal and kidnap to get away, it's only a matter of time before the past catches up with him.

This is director Anthony Mann's first of at least six noir films, and one of his best, though little seen. Although he is probably best-know for his series of dark Westerns with Jimmy Stewart (and which you can see at the Dryden Theater Tuesdays in June), the beginnings of those tales of cowboy vengeance are seen in his noir films, and he is very good at it. One particular scene uses a light suspended from the ceiling to alternately show and hide the violence from the audience, allowing our imagination to fill in the blanks between the punches.

Another possible revelation to viewers unaccustomed with noir might be Raymond Burr. He's benign as the American stand-in in GODZILLA, and his size and girth were used to portray the kindness and safety of a big teddy bear in his Perry Mason years. But here, as the gang boss, he is the imposing monolith, his power amplified by his anger and his fists. He is also that which you cannot outrun. As physically large as he is, his influence is even bigger, and he can track you down, no matter where you run. Burr is good here, but he's also good in PITFALL, and the best thing in HIS KIND OF WOMAN. If you haven't yet, you should give yourself a chance to experience the dark side of Raymond Burr.

Judgment: Noir.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Definition of Film Noir

Or at least a slightly tested version of it. This has been in my head in one form or another since about halfway through the challenge. I've watched some more films since then to test it, and it feels pretty good. It may be too wordy, but I wanted to be clear, because so much of this subject is not. Even still, there is room for interpretation. Anyway, here it is:

A Film Noir is a contemporary American crime story filmed in black and white, told from the point of view of a criminal, a cynical anti-hero, or a hero that is made to act like a criminal, and treats violence and cruelty in a realistic way, while utilizing a formalistic style.

I have come to the conclusion that film noir is a genre. A sub-genre, really, of what might be called crime fiction, which includes mysteries and thrillers, although noir cuts across both. I can accept it as a movement, as it does seem to have come to an end. I could even accept it as a series, based on Borde and Chaumeton's definition, although I like this less, as the implication is that there is forward progression.

But I don't think film noir is a style. It has a style, a very distinct and easily recognizable style. But this style was not born from the noir genre. It has its roots in German expressionism, the horror films of Universal and Val Lewton, and the set design and deep focus pioneered by Orson Welles at RKO. It is a style that has influenced films in other genres: Westerns (THE MAN FROM LARAMIE), period pieces (GASLIGHT), and science fiction (BLADE RUNNER). But these films usually boil down to some sort of crime story set in a different locale. Thus, this particular style is subservient to the content.

But film noir is not what it is without the style. Indeed, the style creates content on the screen as sure as a turn of phrase creates content on the page. We feel The Swede's fatalsism, decapitated by shadow, as he waits for THE KILLERS. We feel the violence as Raymond Burr's fist hits Steve Brodie in the face and continues straight on to the camera in DESPERATE. We feel the disorientation, deception and claustrophobia in the the house of mirrors at the end of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

The same story can be told twice, and be film noir only once. Take Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" as an example. In 1942 it was adapted for use in the "Falcon" series starring George Sanders. Only two years later, it is adapted into one of the quintessential films noirs, MURDER, MY SWEET. MURDER, MY SWEET = noir. THE FALCON TAKES OVER = not noir. So, it is first the subject and then the style that makes a film noir.

Borde and Chaumeton's signposts of "oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel" were helpful in identifying the attitude of a film noir, but were less successful in providing a definition. Indeed, without the presence of crime to anchor the concept, these attributes could be found in hundreds of films in the same combination and concentration as noir films such as LAURA or THIS GUN FOR HIRE. For instance, REBECCA is a very moody and dark film, with a mysterious death at its core, yet it is told from the point of view of the innocent second Mrs. deWinter, thus it is not noir. In order to explore the blackest parts of the human soul, we must experience it through the eyes of a participant and not an observer.

I'd like to hear what you think. Can there be a definition of film noir, and if not, then how do we discuss it?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Crime Beat

Someone spray-painted “BREH” on a building at 1900 S. Clinton Ave. between April 24 and 26. Heating units on the roof were also spray-painted.Between April 28 and 29, similar markings were reported on the side of a building at 1750 and 1760 Monroe Ave. Similar incidents have occurred in Brighton in recent months.

The wrath of Herb is felt throughout the affluent suburb!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime Beat

On either April 12 or 13 someone climbed onto the roof of a Twelve Corners business and spray-painted the letters “BREH” on two air conditioner units and two other parts of the roof. The letters were also painted on the front and letters “DRED” were painted on the North side.

Come on, Herb. If you don't want us to know it's you, you're going to have to use a code-name more clever than your name spelled backward. And you're still spelling "dread" wrong!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

From the File: "Intrigued/Repulsed"

THE GARY COLEMAN–EMMANUEL LEWIS PROJECT by Dan Fogelman “Emmanuel Lewis and Gary Coleman save the world from an evil madman.”

This script is floating around Hollywood, and apparently has some buzz. At least according to The Black List. I suppose it doesn't help matters that I was born on the same day/same year as Webster.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Crime Beat

An unknown person threw an empty bottle of beer against a first-floor window on Southwood Lane causing the window to break on April 12.

Yes, but when was the bottle thrown?

Sorry, the editor inside me comes out to play.