Thursday, April 23, 2009

Film Noir -- a few more thoughts

On page 126 of Crime Films by Thomas Leitch, 2002, as part of a series called “Genres in American Cinema,” we read “The term film noir was first coined by French reviewer Nino Frank when the end of the wartime embargo brought five 1944 Hollywood films – The Woman in the Window, Laura, Phantom Lady, Double Indemnity, and Murder, My Sweet – to Paris in the same week in 1946. All five films seemed to take place in a world marked by menace, violence, and crime . . . In christening the young genre, Frank was thinking not so much of earlier movies as of earlier novels. The label film noir was adapted from Marcel Duhamel’s Serie noire translations for Gallimard of British and American hard-boiled novels. The private-eye stories of Dashiell Hammett and of Raymond Chandler, whose gorgeously overwrought prose made him the most obviously stylistic patron of noir, had broken the decorum of the formal detective story from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie. But even closer analogue was to be found in the breathless suspense novels of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934; Double Indemnity, 1936) and Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black, 1940; Phantom Lady, 1942), which trapped their heroes in a nightmarishly claustrophobic world of evil.

“Except for their common breeding ground in anonymous, claustrophobic cities that dramatized postwar alienation and disillusionment, noir heroes could not have had less in common with their gangster forebears. The principals of this new breed of crime films were not promethean challengers, or even professional criminals, defying the repressive institutions of their worlds, but hapless, sensitive, often passive amateurs who typically were seduced into criminal conspiracies through their infatuations with the sultry treacherous heroines, femmes fatales who had no counterpart in the man’s world of Hollywood gangster films.”

One can sympathize with Nino Frank who lived through the Vichy period and the beginnings of its aftermath to be hit by 5 dark films with much in common all at once. There were other films being produced back in the States, but in France , when he saw these all in one week, they made an impression and seemed a genre and now we are stuck with this genre, like it or not – or are we? On page 127 Leitch writes, “Even its duration has been the subject of considerable dispute, although most critics have bracketed it by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1948), and many more have defined the decade after Nino Frank’s list of 1944 films, ending with Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), as its heyday. As the quintet of films that first inspired Frank’s label suggests, the label of noir has often been invoked to constitute a tradition of films that seem to have little in common with each other except for the crimes their characters commit.”


How inconvenient for Baron to have created Blast of Silence in 1961 after the bracketed period the above referred to critics define as the Noir period. Can you do Noir after the period is over? Actually, Leitch seems a little confused here. If it is a period then you can’t, or shouldn’t do noir after the period is over, but if it is a genre then there is no reason that you can’t keep doing it indefinitely. Boorman’s Point Blank is in even more trouble from the bracketing standpoint because it was produced in 1967. But it is interesting that though Walker (Lee Marvin) begins as the typical noir hero-victim he doesn’t remain so. He is left for dead as Baron’s Nick Bono was, but Walker doesn’t die. He recovers, and then he leaves the noir pattern to become an unstoppable avenger. No one who participated in the robbing of him, associated with his being left for dead, will be left alive by the new – non-noir Walker.

If we move forward in time to the 1999 Mel Gibson remake of Point Blank called Payback, Porter (Gibson) is not a victim at all. He is betrayed by his wife and best friend, but there is nothing of the victim in Porter. He uses the skills and mindset he had before he was left for dead to kill those who participated in robbing him – much as Walker did but with more humor and with the Gibson wry grin. Lee Marvin’s Walker doesn’t grin. In fact he doesn’t seem human by the end of the movie. People who left the theater in 1967 might look into shadowy alleyways and shudder because a force like Walker might be watching them from there. But no one would worry about Porter. He and his girlfriend are off to spend Porter’s hard-earned money. Everything is bright and sunny for them.


Chris O'Grady said...

Gratifying to see Mr. Noto's views on Films Noir, because in an article I wrote about them, I came close to much of what he concludes. It's just a short chapter in a book of movie memoirs about going to movies when I was a kid in The Bronx, with a title too long to give here. I'll just give the ISBN # 978-0-8059-8526-9 in case anyone cares to check it out.

Lawrence Helm said...

The only sense I can make out of your note is that perhaps you are saying that for Walker to rise from the dead, so to speak, and become an unstoppable force is the stuff of comic books. I hadn't thought of that, but I can see the parallel.