Tuesday, June 29, 2010

LAURA v. Laura

LAURA is a film noir that stands out for several reasons. It is surreptitiously told in flashback and post-mortem from the point of view of the killer, Waldo Lydecker, though the majority of the film, and the narrative thrust, is carried by Lt. Mark McPherson's investigation. Despite this, much of the psychological complexity comes from McPherson, and his obsession with the presumably deceased Laura. Otto Preminger's style does not focus on low-key lighting and off-kilter angles. Instead, he moves his camera, smooth and dream-like, to change the composition of the shot, and uses his ubiquitous three-shot to clarify relationships.

Also, it doesn't fit neatly into the violent and gritty world that most associate with noir. The characters in this story are mostly upper-crust Manhattanites. This murder is an intrusion on their staid existence, a shock to a system which thrives on the urbane and the sophisticate. Not only does this not sound noir, it doesn't even sound hard-boiled.

It is no surprise, then, to find that the novel the film is based on defies most categories as well. True, it is a crime story, and the mystery surrounding the murder still exists, but the film actually does great service to the tone and complexity of the novel. It is presented in five sections. The first, and longest, much like the film, is the beginning of the story, from Lydecker's first-person point of view. The second section picks up the investigation from McPherson's first-person perspective, as Laura makes her reappearance. The third section is a short transcription of an interview between McPherson and the ostensible suspect, Shelby Carpenter. The fourth section is Laura's, and the final short section wraps up the story from McPherson's point of view.

Even for someone who knows the story, it is hard not to root for Lydecker, the self-proclaimed champion of the victim, seeing a third of the book through his eyes. But it is truly the story of three people, forced into a perverse love triangle, and each individual personality is given its due time. What in the film seems to be a clever ploy, plays as if it were the only possible solution in the novel. Of course, the technique is different. Where the author Vera Caspary has pages of passages to explore the self-aware workings of each individual, Preminger achieves much the same effect by placing his camera so that Laura's portrait is looking over McPherson's shoulder. But the psychology and obsession are there, in vivid detail.

Yet for all its eccentricities, LAURA comfortably sits inside the definition of film noir, as a film told from the criminal's perspective, utilizing realistic violence (most shots fired kill someone) and formalism (subtle, bewitching style by Preminger) to tell a story that features oneiricism (flashback) and eroticism (true love with a dead woman). And Laura fits within the understanding of noir literature, in that it deals with the downfall and ultimate end of a man driven to crime by obsession, and in this case, the fundamental obsession with a woman.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hey! I'm a Hit! (on YouTube)

Since I put the videos of my introductions to some of the films in the last film noir series on YouTube, they have slowly but steadily getting viewed. And now I have learned that both the KISS OF DEATH intro and the MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS intro have gotten over 50 hits. A mere blip in the cloudsphere of the interwebs, but what it means to me is that George Eastman House has reached out to 50 more people that weren't at the shows this winter. Maybe they're just looking for Richard Widmark or Joseph H. Lewis. But maybe they're watching the film or DVD after seeing the intro, and taking a little bit away. I'm really excited about these new possibilities, and I hope to do several more in the future.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Justified 1.13

Fathers and sons, justice and vengeance, religion and business, all come to a head in central Kentucky. A season finale that kept my eyes open the entire time. And I'd give Walt Goggins any sort of organ he needed. That's how good he is.

Give me a little time, and I'll try to overview the season.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Justified 1.12

This episode didn't get posted until late last night, so I didn't get a chance to watch it, but here's the description:

"Raylan is ordered to enlist his estranged father's help against the increasing threat of Bo Crowder."

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I just sent in my registration for NoirCon 2010, to be held at the Society Hill Playhouse in beautiful Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from November 4 to November 7. Now, you should, too. The guest list is already filling, and it promises to be a fantastic four days. The hotel for the Con is the Downtown Doubletree Philadelphia.

"Years down the pike, the boast will be: 'NoirCon? I was there.' " Ken Bruen

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So Dark the Night (1946)

From the American Film Institute:

"Parisian Detective Henri Cassin, suffering from overwork, takes the advice of his doctor and goes to the village of St. Margot for a restorative vacation. The inn at which he stays is run by Pierre Michaud and his wife Mama. Although Pierre's daughter Nanette is engaged to be married to farmer Leon Archard, her gold-digging mother urges her to marry the wealthy Henri instead. Nanette takes her mother's advice to heart and begins to woo him with her charms. The scheme works, and Henri soon falls in love with Nanette. In a short time, they become engaged, and at their engagement party, Henri vows never to let another man romance her. Although Nanette's mother is eager to see her daughter marry Henri, Pierre and the inn housekeeper, Widow Bridelle, are opposed to the marriage. When it is discovered that Nanette and Leon have disappeared, Henri wastes no time starting an investigation."

To label this film as a film noir is to do it a disservice for those who haven't seen it yet. The fact that it is a film noir suggests to the viewer that the protagonsit is a criminal, but since he doesn't yet know that, the film's narrative takes a pretty straightforward approach to the crime(s). Our hero is just that, a straight hero, until his own powers of deduction outwit his concealed culpability. "Wagon Wheel Joe" Lewis turns in another fine directing job, moving his camera in and out, and placing objects in front of the action, particularly in a striking shot where the bow of a violin violently cuts across Nanette's face. He seems to relish finding natural, outdoor objects to foreground, such as weeds growing from the earth or branches hanging from a tree. All of it helps keep the audience interested until the twist is revealed and he can really play with some lighting effects that reminded me of THE RED HOUSE, which came out early the next year.

Judgment: Noir

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why We May Never Know What Noir Is

The search for a definition of noir has been abandoned by better minds than mine as an exercise in futility. Some people would tell you that no such definition exists, that to prescribe boundaries is to unnecessarily limit discussion. Which makes me beg the question, If we have no consensual frame of reference, what value does comparative analysis hold? Be that as it may, my naivete allows me to at least discuss the impossible. I have come to realize, however, that there are certain practical limitations to a definition of noir that must be acknowledged before we can honestly and objectively set our minds to it.

The first of these is that the common usage of the term noir has been as a marketing tool, which has obfuscated any meaningful discussion. Advertising and marketing have never been the most trustworthy sources of accuracy, but this transgression seems to be particularly egregious. Any time someone, whether it be an author, a director, a critic, wants to reach an audience perceived to be interested in the edgier, darker side of life, they will tack on the word noir as part of their product's description, leading to such paradoxes as retro-noir, Medieval noir, and cozy noir. Also, I don't think anyone had any objections to the line-up of Warner Bros.' first Film Noir Classic Collection: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, GUN CRAZY, MURDER, MY SWEET, OUT OF THE PAST and THE SET-UP. But when Vol. 2 came out they included DILLINGER, a gangster film, for sure, but noir? Not alongside classics such as CROSSFIRE, BORN TO KILL, CLASH BY NIGHT and THE NARROW MARGIN. It is this proliferation of noir marketing that has caused a shift in the general understanding of what noir is. To the critic, to the academic, who have an understanding, at the very least, of what they view noir to be, the marketing is understood for what it is and, if not accepted as a necessary evil, then supported for furthering interest in noir and creating a market for it. For the uninitiated, it provides definition by context, confusing darkness and evil with fatalistic self-determination.

The second factor we must overcome in defining noir is the apparent cache that the word "noir" carries. For those of us who love and study noir, who speak of it reverently, there is a tendency to lionize our subject, to place it above other narrative forms in esteem. It is an opinion, one shared by an increasing number, especially those confused by marketing teams, but an opinion nonetheless. When this opinion is wielded by talented, persuasive writers, however, one might get the idea that "noir" films are "good" films. Thus, using the law of symmetry, we can also surmise that if it is a "good" film (especially one that has something to do with crime), it must be a "noir" film. This is not true. Not all noir films are good films, nor are all good crime films noir. But until we allow ourselves to let go of our personal favoritism, there will be no consensus.

We also need to understand that there is no way to achieve a Unified Theory of Noir across media. My favorite analogy of the differentiation between "noir" and "hard-boiled" literature apparently traces back to Scottish author Allan Guthrie who said that "the crucifixion is noir, the resurrection hardboiled." This highlights the belief that fatalism is a central tenet of noir, while walking on the dark side is something that is survivable in a hard-boiled novel. In light of this distinction, how do we reconcile that so many of the early films noir were based on hard-boiled sources? Borde and Chaumeton identified 10 films as those that first caught French critics' eyes in 1946, in which at least six of the protagonists survived, including three Philip Marlowes and one Sam Spade. These are clearly hard-boiled narratives, based on Guthrie's distinction, yet they are universally hailed as classic films noir. Can noir mean something different in print than it does on film? And if so, are there still shared similarities between the two forms? And would those similarities still be considered noir? And then what would the differences be called?

Indeed, since film noir is so dependent upon style to create content, there really is no way to accurately translate this content between media. One of my favorite shots in all of film noir comes from THE KILLERS (1946). Burt Lancaster, as The Swede, awaits the fate he knows has finally tracked him down. He is tired of running and is willing to accept his death. He sits, alone in his bed, back against the wall, smoking a cigarette, decapitated by shadow. It loses something in my telling, and I haven't even mentioned the Miklos Rozsa score, or the building tension crafted by the cross-cutting of the shadows created by feet under the door. Each medium has its strengths, but they are not always compatible. Perhaps, in the interest of understanding, we must accept that they each create their own noir, connected by theme, but mutually exclusive.

Thus, once we can overlook the overuse of the word, and our own personal feelings, and understand that literary noir and film noir must stand on their own, we may be able to begin to agree on that which we all thought we understood.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Private Hell 36 (1954)

From the American Film Institute:

"In New York, a man is killed and robbed of $300,000 on his way to a bank night depository. A year later, as Los Angeles police detective Calhoun Bruner is walking home one night, he happens upon a drug store burglary in process, shoots one of the two burglars and arrests the other. The police then discover that some of the money the burglar took is "hot" and from the New York robbery, for which no arrests have been made. When Captain Michaels asks the drug store owner where a particular $50 bill came from, the druggist tells them that he received it, as payment for filling a prescription, from a bartender at a local night club. The next day, Cal and his colleague, Jack Farnham, interview the bartender, who tells them that he borrowed the bill from Lilli Marlowe, a singer who works at the club. Unfortunately, Lilli can only give a very vague description of the drunk who gave her the bill. After more bills show up at the Hollywood Race Track, Michaels asks Lilli to go on a stakeout with Cal and Jack in the hope that she may recognize the man. Although several days at the track prove fruitless, a romance develops between Cal and Lilli. On yet another day at the track, while checking cars leaving the parking lot, Lilli spots the man and Cal and Jack chase after him, but the fugitive's car crashes off the road and he is killed. In the wreck, Cal and Jack find a metal box full of money and Cal takes four wads of bills."

And that's where things really get interesting.
In this film, written by and starring Ida Lupino as Lilli, and directed by Don Siegel (who went on to direct THE LINEUP, the remake of THE KILLERS and DIRTY HARRY, among others), Cal Bruner is our noir protagonist. He falls hard for Lilli and sees her noticing nice things like diamond bracelets. He wants to get those things for her, and figures he can pull his partner in, since he's having money troubles with a wife and kid. The style is not overt, and Lupino's script can sometimes make 75 minutes seem like a long time, but when it gets going, it's a good look into how one man can talk himself into a downward spiral and take it "straight down the line."

Verdict: Noir

edit: Also, the film ends with this great voice-over narration: "A policeman, unlike most men, lives close to evil and violence. He can, like all men, make his own private hell. The good pass through it with minor burns. The evil stumble and fall, and die in strange places." Awesome!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Justified 1.11

Things are heating up between Harlan and Lexington. Boyd confronts his daddy, while Raylan finds out something about his. The pieces are in play for a final confrontation, and there are only 2 episodes left in the season.