Luscious Collisions: the third of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

In the previous two posts I’ve enumerated some of the principal characteristics of noir, and maintained that if we approach these films with an open mind and a supple methodology we can’t help but see how consistently and self-consciously noir demonstrates these characteristics.

To recap some of the salient points from those posts (and build upon them), films noir often stage tribute shots to one another in ways that simultaneously reinforce the visual style and reflect upon it: these careful framings of frames generate narrative action and a de facto critical commentary upon that action.  Likewise, these films often stage the collapse and collusion of the narrative and the extra-narrative in ways that similarly constitute critical self-reading (what I’ve referred to as auto-exegesis).  We’ve discussed that tendency in terms of the death of Welles’s Quinlan in Touch of Evil (and, we might point out, the death of noir more generally: it’s not an accident that film starts with an explosion and then precedes to blow apart all our expectations about noir (nor is it any wonder, then, that most consider it the last noir of noir’s classic period)).  We could likewise point to the ways Sunset Blvd. turns itself, the movie business and Hollywood history inside out.  Examples of such self-reflexive moments abound in noir, and if we aren’t hip to them, we’ll find our own critical reflections have already been “plagiarized by anticipation” by the films themselves (for more on the term “self-reflexive”, see the comment thread to my first post below).

If that is the narratology of noir, its philosophy is something else.  While noir is consistently playful in the former arena, it is most often deadly serious in the later (though it can be comically serious, as in the case of the poodle breaks Johnny Clay’s will in The Killing, or the monkey funeral that fundamentally alters Joe Gillis’s lot in Sunset Blvd.).  In yesterday’s post I explored noir’s surprisingly consistent world view, maintaining that noir is a particular form of absurdist existentialism, wherein noir players come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.

Now I’d like to briefly consider what all this allows noir to do. What comes of these postulates?  What are the resultants of such an equation?

If we understand noir only as a visual style, as so many have, we will see that it spread out quickly but thinly on the surface of other contemporary films styles—covering them with a superficial darkness.  Those noir-stained films have not, generally speaking, endured.  Yet those are the films scholars will point to if they’re interested in saying noir is just a style (not a genre, not something more).  Those are the films that have allowed some scholars, interested in seeing noir as a short-lived and easily containable mid-century phenomenon, to say just that.  And those are the trappings of style that made noir an easy target of parody in film and literature, from the forties onward.

But if we think about noir as a substantial and nuanced philosophical position, and a film style that has an uncommon ability to allow filmmakers to reflect upon their stories and the means they use to tell them (uncommon because such gestures are fundamentally a part of noir, and need not feel like an obtrusive aside), then we see that noir served as a narrative, technical, philosophical template for a wide variety of films, and continues to do so today.

Directors with an understanding of these more substantial characteristics of noir have been able to make substantially noir films out of material that by all appearances should have little to do with the noir universe: science fiction tales of human “replicants” in a high-tec future (Blade Runner); high school melodramas set in a contemporary Los Angeles where teenagers speak like 1930s gangsters (Brick); a case focused (if focused on anything at all) on a cheap rug purloined from an unemployed surfer Dude (The Big Lebowski).  When directors drill deep into noir’s philosophical foundations, and build upon them with appropriately self-conscious pilferings from noir’s visual library, the result is a series of truly luscious collisions.

Not surprisingly, we first see these more substantial neo-noir experiments in France—in the work of exiled American directors such as Jules Dassin (think Rififi), then in the New Wave.  This trend then boomerangs back to America, in even quirkier but no less noir experiments such as those I’ve highlighted above.  Clearly, such profoundly noir neo-noir experiments have erupted in other places and other genres, and I hope readers of this post will give their own thoughts on titles that should be added to this list (and why).  But it seems to me, in ways that I’m still trying to understand, that the history of noir—and certainly the history of understanding noir—is a Franco-American affair.

In this spirit of ongoing investigation, and in the interest of opening that investigation to a larger public, I would like to conclude by offering up one more of the insights into noir that Richard Edwards and I articulated in the course of our podcasts.  It is rudimentary by comparison to the others I’ve appended to my posts, but it is one that constituted an important early insight into some of the themes I’ve explored above (and continue to explore):

~ Luscious Collisions

Despite its reputation as an American film style, noir owes a great deal to German émigré directors: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Otto Preminger came over to America with a European sensibility, and changed the way Hollywood told the hard-boiled stories.  In the making of Rififi, we get the reverse trajectory—a Hollywood filmmaker, Jules Dassin, working in France due to the Blacklist in the United States, bringing with him the American attitude, in order to make an American-style, hard-boiled film within the French film industry.  The result is a film full of luscious collisions.  –Richard Edwards

There’s no greater such collision than a scene in a nightclub when Viviane (Magali Noël), the club’s singer, performs a song that explains what “rififi” means.  As she’s singing, there’s a screen in the background onto which is projected an image of a cobblestone street, and behind the screen is a man in a suit with a hat and a cigarette in his mouth dancing an interpretive dance that acts out the action of the lyric of her song. It’s hard to imagine an American noir would ever contain a scene—and it’s a crucial scene to the film—with an interpretive dance that acts out a definition of a slang term that is the title of the film. A truly luscious collision, and the highly stylized vision of noir that will prove crucial to French crime directors such as Godard.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Breathless without a precedent like Jules Dassin’s Rififi. –Shannon Clute

4 Comments to “Luscious Collisions: the third of three reflections on noir”

  1. I’m so excited to watch you introduce Rififi on TCM, Shannon–and to watch it–I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen it.
    Shannon, I know it’s Paul Schrader’s big claim that Touch of Evil marks the end of noir, its epitaph–and I love Schrader and can’t imagine understanding noir with his “Notes on Film Noir” (http://i.mtime.com/Noir/blog/1433838/), but I’ve never really thought so. I think most of all because Welles does to noir what he does to all “genres” (whether we consider noir a genre or not)–and he just doesn’t love it or believe in it enough to be its fair “epitapher.” Or maybe he’s just too amused by it. If Lady from Shanghai came out a decade later, we could easily call it the end too, by that token (of course, Schrader would say it would never have been made a decade later…I don’t have an alternative here, though–because I don’t think noir ends. It only ends if those of us become so self-conscious about it that we can’t express it authentically enough…?

    (BTW, cheers to Rich for the phrase “luscious collisions.” Perfect.)

  2. Where do “Chinatown”, “Body Heat”, and “The Last Seduction” fit into all this? Post-noir? I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen “Rififi”. I must have, but….

  3. Thanks so much for this, Shannon!

  4. This is a great point Megan, and I see looking back that I didn’t say quite what I meant to (the perils of writing early before work!). I don’t see Touch of Evil as the death of noir, but rather the death of the classic era of noir. Noir very much continues: in the sorts of luscious collisions I mentioned above (as it moves out across film genres and cultures while retaining its fundamental qualities) and in later films like Russell mentions above (as it moves out across time). Touch of Evil simply pushed noir’s inherent self-consciousness to such a point that for a while it became impossible to tell a straight noir story–every noir after that was either a watered-down visual souvenir of noir that lacked the noir soul (the films I’ve discussed in post 2, which to my mind don’t actually qualify as noir), or it retained the fundamental noir Weltaunschauung and was forced, by the very precedent of Touch of Evil, to express that world view in ways so self-conscious that they exceeded anything noir had been previously. I believe that’s why after TOE you see an acceleration of the sorts of “luscious collisions” that were already starting to pop up (due to noir’s inherent levels of self-consciousness) in the late classic period (early ’50s to ’58), and you don’t see a return to somewhat straighter, somewhat less self-conscious and traditional noir stories until films like Chinatown come along.

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