Archive for ‘Film Noir’

May 4, 2011

keep your eyes on it

by Megan Abbott


I spotted him on the street, his eyes glittering with energy. He said he thought we were going the same place, and we were.

A man met us in the lobby. You won’t be able to talk about what you see, he saidNot until we say so.

The floor numbers flickered as we rode up the soundless elevator in the sleek, buffered building in Soho, a few steps from one of the noisiest stretches of Broadway but a world away.  

It all felt  big-ticket, plush. My shoes looked pretty scuffed. But I wasn’t there to admire the creamy white walls, the sun-struck lobby, the chrome and leather offices filled with dark-haired men with sharp eyewear and complicated wristwatches.

I was there for a job.

But it wasn’t what it seemed, not by a mile, and I had no idea what I was getting into until it was too late. Until I was peering over the edge into something dark, strange, irresistible. Who was I to say no?

About six weeks ago, I got a dream assignment—to write a story set in my favorite time and place: Los Angeles, 1947. The epicenter of my imaginative life. And it was to be for an anthology titled L.A. Noire, to be published on June 6 by Mulholland Books.

The building in question was the headquarters of Rockstar Games, the developer/publisher behind such phenomena as Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. I’d been invited by the editor of the anthology, the wonderful (and dashing) novelist/artist Jonathan Santlofer. Then, for an hour or more, I sat with fellow contributors Hard Case Crime wunderkind Charles Ardai and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski in a conference room and watched embargoed goods, a preview of a new videogame, L.A. Noire, developed with Team Bondi, which will be released on May 17.

Set in a hauntingly rendered Los Angeles of 1947, L.A. Noire requires its players to solve a series of crimes, most of which interweave fact (the Jeanne French-Red Lipstick Murder) and fiction. Aaron Staton of TV’s Mad Men (Ken Cosgrove, the blonde prepster and author of “Tapping A Maple On A Cold Vermont Morning”) portrays the lead police detective.

The accompanying short-story anthology is meant to compliment the game, a series of tales by authors including Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Vachss, all set in this phantasmagoric world of 1947 Los Angeles.

I admit I am no gamer (lacking even the most fundamental skills). More to the point, though, I have an inherent suspicion of attempts to recreate 1940s Los Angeles, which, to me, must meet the exacting, sleazy, riotously violent and startlingly romantic standards of the Bible of my 1940s Los Angeles: Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet.

But watching the game that day, and the young man playing it for us, was quite an transporting experience. Burrowing past the venetian blinds-sheets-of-rain-bourbon-in-desk-drawer kitsch noir we all know so well, this Los Angeles is qualitatively different.

First, it’s in color.  It’s a sunny, sprawling yet infinitely sleazy realm, radiating so much of the haunted LA-ness I could ever have wanted: the pastel-drenched buildings, the low, dry courtyard apartments with their brooding eucalyptus, their flat sorrows and the off-screen sounds of bottles rolling and someone crying softly, somewhere.

It was uncanny, watching the game, engaging with it. It was different from seeing 1940s L.A. in a movie, its inherent “movie-ness,” and different too from the way an Ellroy novel can pitch its inky darkness through the front-most reaches of my head. It was different because it was happening and we were part of it. We were in the game, all of us. Questioning suspects, driving along Sunset, walking in the LAPD’s Old Central, passing Clifton’s Cafeteria, gazing up at the luminous white of City Hall at night. Of course, we were “in it”—that’s the special beauty of videogames. But the “it” this time was the luminous simulacrum.

But there was a different kind of uncanny too. Apparently, L.A. Noire makes use of a new MotionScan facial recognition technology.  The idea is to capture more  of the characters’ (actors’)  nuances. To look, essentially, more natural. More as we experience one another in life.

In the case  of L.A. Noire, the game depends on it, on how well we can read faces, detect lies. As we guide the police detective-hero, we need to be able to penetrate suspects and witnesses, to consider their body language to try uncover what they may have to hide. And when they are lying.

But watching it, and sometimes guessing correctly and other times not, I was struck by the most uncomfortable feeling. It was something in the way the suspects’ eyes moved, darted, vibrated, blinked, averted … mine. They seemed to be looking at me, and not looking at me, at once.

It reminded me of the term “uncanny valley,” which is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori  (and relies heavily on Freud’s “The Uncanny“). It refers to, as I understand it, the point at which an almost-human object causes humans to be instinctively unnerved. The closer a robot (or prosthetic limb, or puppet, cyborg, etc.) becomes to being lifelike, the more the tiny elements that don’t seem lifelike—a slight stiffness in the gait, eyes that don’t quite focus on your eyes—we become unnerved. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the precise point at which a simulation of life becomes so perfect it’s terrifying.

Frequently quoted in discussions of the uncanny valley is this line from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.

In the case of L.A. Noire, the feeling for me was magnified. Not only did these characters (many assayed by actors I was sure I recognized even when I couldn’t name them—because they looked like themselves, and yet not precisely) enact stories (famous 1947 crimes) I knew so well, but that had been, just slightly,  fictionalized. The same but different. Real but not real.

But there was this: I know this world through books, through movies, through driving through Los Angeles and finding the remaining haunts—battered tiki bars, peeling-leather-boothed bars, the sleek deco lines of the Pacific Dining Car.

Except this time, the police detectives, the victims, the criminals, the killers—were looking back at me. Were telling me things to see if I believed them. Were lying to me and seeing if I could tell.

The experience was powerful and made me understand something about the allure of games I hadn’t before. As much as one might believe technology distances us from ourselves, from each other, it might in fact do the opposite. Facing a game that plugged into my deepest imaginative life, any distance I had left from that time and place felt very nearly effaced.

Sitting there that afternoon, I came to recognize—those uncanny eyes flashing on me, looking straight into my own eyes—how intimate and personal games can be. How they can seep into your head, tug at things, make you feel. How there are times in all our lives when everything we thought we knew was not exactly what we thought at all. And how we may not be either. (And, within that gap, that particular valley, lies all kinds of unwanted revelation.)  How we make our own worlds and invest them with ideas of truth, permanence. But that’s a fiction too.

(My story, “The Girl,” is excerpted here.)


March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

March 7, 2011

Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!

by Sara Gran
Cover of "Raising Cain"

Cover of Raising Cain

Even after two watchings it’s hard to say for sure what was real and what was dreams in this Hitchcock homage (or deconstruction, for lack of a better work). As in many DePalma movies, time is disjointed and not particularly sticky, both in terms of the action and in terms of cause and effect. Clocks are everywhere here, but they confuse more than clarify; likewise childhood events (and the people who inflicted them, supposedly long gone) are front and center. Janet Maslin might have said it best: “Raising Cain is best watched as a series of overlapping scenarios that may or may not be taking place in the real world.” On the second watching, things were far more clear, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Like my favorite V.C. Andrews novel, My Sweet Audrina, this isn’t a movie interested in plotting things out on a timeline and straightening them about. It’s about throwing a bunch of ideas, images, and obsessions into a pool and diving in.

There’s a lot in here from my favorite Hitchcocks, and some other favorites as well–Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, has multiple personalities due to childhood abuse (Psycho). But in this case, the abuse was intentional–Carter’s father, the Norwegian Dr. Nix, was a child psychologist (Spellound) at an “institute for child development” (Oh, DePalma and his institutes!). Dr. Nix intentionally tortured his children into developing split personalities. Now Carter lives in the Bay Area (Vertigo), where he’s a stay at home dad in a nice suburban community (Orson Wells’ The Stranger), until–well, until all kinds of stuff happens. Carter’s father, Dr. Nix, who may or may not be dead, needs more children for his experiments, so Carter and his multiples/siblings/aspects go about taking some, which means killing their parents. Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny runs into an old flame, Jack. In a long sequence that drifts in and out of dreams, hallucinations, and reality (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jenny and Jack make love in various places (or don’t), Carter catches them (or seems to), and Carter kills Jenny (or doesn’t).

The attention here is on Carter and his father–but I found myself most interested in two minor characters. The first was Carter’s own daughter, Amy. Carter has a video-camera baby-monitor set-up via which he can watch Amy, and we can watch him watching Amy. Remember, Carter was tortured by his father into developing multiple personalities, and now his father wants Amy to experiment on. Watching Carter and Amy through the video monitor is creepy and terrifying because of what could happen–but nothing really does. Carter, as far as we see him, is a great dad. And in the end, the personality that rises to the top of Carter’s psyche is the mysterious Margo–a Kali-ish kind of mother figure who will (and does) kill to protect children. What exactly did happen to Amy–did Margo and Carter protect her, or did the other personalities have their way with her?

The other character who really entranced me here was Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Spellbound again), a  doctor who’d worked with Carter’s father. In a beautiful long tracking shot, Dr. Waldheim explains the story of Dr. Nix to two policemen as they walk through a municipal building to the morgue, veering off into wrong turns at every chance.  I can’t say what it was about her, or her character, or the story–but somehow, in some sense, she was the lynchpin that made this all come together.

I also want to say this: for reasons I don’t understand, the near-to-final scene of John Lithgow, in an elevator, wearing a wig, a trenchcoat, and no shoes, holding up a bag of groceries to cover his face, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why John Lithgow’s feet are so terrifying but trust me, they are.

March 4, 2011

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

March 3, 2011

“I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The noir universe is often considered to be fatalistic, or more broadly nihilistic.  I believe it is more accurate to see that world as existentialist, for a simple reason that has vast implications: to be fatalistic is to accept one’s situation; to be existentialist is to recognize how one’s agency has created one’s situation.  It may sound like a razor-fine distinction, but the thinnest blades cut the deepest.

When we first feast our eyes on the abundant misery of noir’s drama, we see broken players, or players bending until they break.  For reasons I addressed in Tuesday’s post, we can’t help but revel in the particular pains of noir.  But over time that revelry would create a real hangover if there were no other nuances that kept us coming back.  Two of those I discussed already: noir’s overt self-consciousness and its deeply quirky, highly self-referential humor.

To these we must add a particular philosophical stance—one that is, once again, marked by profound self-awareness.  It is what distinguishes noir from westerns, war films, and straight domestic melodramas.  It is likely what made this dark body of films resonate so deeply with American viewers in the wartime and immediate post-war years.  Granted, it was easy for most to recognize they weren’t living the Technicolor suburban dream Hollywood was starting to feed them, and that alone might explain some of noir’s popularity .  But in the wake of two wars that scarred the world forever, everyone was feeling some measure of guilt.  Everyone felt complicit.  Noir let them suffer, and go on, in ways they felt they should.

A lot has been made of noir as a visual style—an outgrowth German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, once immigrated.  These are compelling arguments that any fan of noir should explore.  Less has been made, by film scholars at least, of the equal contribution of American hard-boiled writing to the creation of noir.  That is a lacuna that must be filled, and one we have often addressed in our “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” podcasts.  The types of stories noir told, the idiom in which it told them, the characters that populated these stories—they were all distinctly American.  German Expressionism was just that until it ran smack into the pulpy world of mid-century America.

But in that collision was an alchemy that created a hitherto unknown essence, at once ethereal and very worldly (for more on the alchemical moment of collision, see the entry on The Killers at the bottom of this post).  I would maintain it is the very essence of noir.  It is noir’s philosophy, and it is surprisingly fleshed out, surprisingly nuanced.

For want of a better term, I have called it existentialist.  That’s a fairly descriptive term, as long as we understand what branch of existentialism we’re discussing.  In noir I don’t see Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Heidegger.  I see something closer to Sartre and closest to Camus, and it’s probably no wonder French critics were the first to see coherence in this dark body of works coming out of Hollywood at the time, and to give it a name—film noir (a term they coined, we must remember, because of the well known imprint from Gallimard called Série Noire, which specialized in hard-boiled American fiction).

That brand of existentialism is unique for many reasons, but two seem particularly relevant to noir.  The first is Sartre’s explicit dictum “Existence precedes essence” (to paraphrase somewhat selectively and recklessly, nothing is anything before it takes action).  The second is the concept of the “absurde,” best articulated by Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  I like to think of Camus’s absurd as purposeful action in the face of meaninglessness, a recognition of the importance of one’s own agency in the act of ultimately changing nothing.

That, to me, is noir.  It is what keeps us from pitying noir heros who ultimately can’t change the world.  It’s what makes us love the scoundrels whose greatest virtue is to keep being scoundrels.  It is why femmes fatales don’t strike us as simply immoral, but as somehow determined and admirable in their recklessness.

I should say at this point that Richard Edwards and I, in our podcasts and in the book that those inspired (The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, forthcoming from UPNE in the fall, as Megan was kind enough to mention), have studiously avoided the question of what “is” and what “is not” noir.  This leads us down the path of debating style versus genre, of establishing a noir canon, and so on—well worn paths in the world of noir studies that at this point have little potential to reveal new information about noir, or help us achieve new understandings.  But because this is a blog, and blog musings are by definition rather personal, I’ll step away from my co-investigator for just a moment and offer this contentious musing.

He Walked by Night

To my mind, films that don’t evince the philosophical stance above don’t ultimately feel very noir.  These would include, above all, any films where a character set up to be a moral force within the film counterbalances or corrects the agency of a character set up to be flawed: films gris such as The Big Heat; noir-styled westerns such as Blood on the Moon or The Naked Spur; noir-styled war films such as The Third Man (which unabashedly “borrows” John Alton’s sewer scene from He Walked by Night for its own climax)—none of them are, to my mind, truly or fully films noirs.  They have all the trappings.  They may even have the proper measure of misery.  But something is amiss.

The Third Man

In the films that strike me as most fully noir, protagonists recognize their mistake.  That doesn’t mean they give up, or turn themselves in (in fact, they usually go down swinging).  But they 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.   They know they will be punished, but damn it, it won’t be by something as inconsequential as another person representing order or good.  It may be Law itself, or Fate, or Desire—forces we can only understand in caps, even if they occasionally appear in an embodied form—but nothing as small as just a man or woman.

Here’s an example of what I mean, drawn from a podcast conversation Rich and I had in which we began to formulate some of the thoughts I’ve expressed above:

~ A Frenchman’s Question and The Swede’s American Answer

The Killers

Near the beginning of The Killers, Nick (Phil Brown) runs to tell The Swede (Burt Lancaster) two men are coming to kill him.  The Swede says there’s nothing he can do about it.  Nick asks, “Couldn’t you get out of town?”  The Swede answers, “No.  I’m through with all that running around.”  What we see at play in this exchange is the fundamental question of the post-war era—the question Camus poses in his 1940 essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In the Hemingway story that is the source material for The Killers, the only physical detail we have of The Swede, besides him being an ex-heavyweight who’s too long for his bed, is that he has a mashed-up face.  In a film, of course, we can’t have a protagonist with a mashed up face, for he has to have leading man good looks.  But as The Swede is gunned down and lays dying in his bed, he reaches up with his right hand to grasp the bed frame, and what we see is a prominent scar on his hand.  This is a very different sort of scar, because it doesn’t indicate that he has taken a beating.  It would seem to indicate that he has given a beating, that he has gone down fighting; and yet, he doesn’t go down fighting.   The Killers examines the story behind the scar The Swede bears; it is the story of the reasons for his decision not to fight any longer. –Shannon Clute

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The film’s action alternates between present moments in which insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to discover what happened to Ole Andersen, aka The Swede, and moments in The Swede’s past.  The film underscores the centrality of the question of suicide by making it an early plot point, and Reardon begins to really get interested in The Swede’s story when he realizes that the beneficiary of The Swede’s life insurance policy is a person who prevented his earlier attempt at suicide years before.  So the central thrust of the film is an investigation into what propels Ole to continue, or to give up.  In the post-war years, this really is analogous to the Sisyphean question.  Why does the Greek myth of Sisyphus exist?  The fate of Sisyphus, which most philosophers read as a very negative existence, is that he is doomed for all eternity to roll the rock up the hill without ever completing his task; just before he can push the rock over the top, it comes bounding back down Camus, writing from an Existentialist perspective, has an interesting take on this myth, which I think Siodmak shares.  Rather than focusing on the moment when the rock rolls down the hill, both pay attention to the instant at which Sisyphus decides to go back down the hill to get started over again—or in The Swedes case, decides not to. –Richard Edwards

This is the key part of Camus’s argument.  The absurde allows us to recognize, in the words of Camus, that “Our solitary effort, our day to day revolt, gives proof of the only truth.  Which is defiance.”  And so it’s at the moment that Sisyphus turns and looks back down at the rock that has crashed to the plains below, and decides to take that first step back down to retrieve it, that he becomes greater than his fate.  With this action, Fate is to some degree undermined.  Ole Andersen finally gets to a point where he’s just too tired to take that step. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

A poodle on the tarmac: The first of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Granted, there are the shadows: the men lurking beneath fedoras, their faces split by darkness like their psyches; the women flickering like a candle’s flame against a black world, all warm glow and deadly heat.  (You know them so well they feel almost like family; like sweet Uncle Charlie, you invite them in, and realize too late they’ve concocted a makeshift gas chamber in your garage and they’re trying to off your kids.)  But there are also thieves dressed like children dressing up like cowboys, putting a bullet through a gumball machine just to show they mean business.  And there are poodles on the tarmac.

Noir is a world of dark streets, but it is also a world of absurdity and humor. To speak of the one without the other is to see half the picture: it is to see the shadow beneath the fedora but not the light, to see the torch singer’s danger but not feel her warmth.  It is to assume noir is as dark as we seem to want it to be, rather than to see it as it is.

We are drawn to noir because we want to feel bad, and noir let’s us do that—beautifully.  Never was heartbreak so heartfelt.  Never was danger so charged.  But we return to noir because it makes us feel something more.  Maybe that something is a sense of optimism (that sort of hope that can only arise from the lowest muck).  Maybe it is an existential laugh, bitter but meaningful because it is born at the moment we have nothing left to hope for or to fear.

I remember when I started to see both sides of noir.  It was a sun-drenched spring day in Moraga, California, on the campus of Saint Mary’s College.  The Japanese cherry trees were in blossom.  The whitewashed walls of the chapel shone impossibly bright against the emerald green hillsides.   I would say we stood in the shadow of that imposing chapel, but I don’t recall there being any shadow that day.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Richard Edwards, a professor of film and new media, about our shared love of noir.  We did the sort of sparring academics do before having real conversations (and academic conversation usually stops at sparring): we offered each other a series of platitudes about noir cinematography and lighting, about German Expressionism and French poetic realism, about Siodmak and Tourneur and Wilder, about Chandler and Cain.  Little by little, it became a real conversation, and before we knew it we were offering up thoughts on Peggy Cummins shooting the matches off John Dall’s head in Gun Crazy, on Humphrey Bogart rubbing his ear in The Big Sleep.  And why the hell (just what one has to wonder in the shadow of the chapel) hadn’t anyone found a way to talk about both in the same conversation and in a way that might matter—as fluidly as films noir themselves managed to do?

Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

Well, that did it.  Soon Richard and I were brainstorming, researching, talking.  And as you can probably guess by the length of this preamble, we’ve never stopped talking.  The result is a series of 50 (so far) podcasts on film noir (the Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir series) and 28 conversations with authors of hard-boiled, mystery and suspense (the Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed podcasts).

These podcasts are our answer to the questions raised by that fateful conversation.  They are our attempt to create a new brand of noir studies that can account for the deadly serious and the wickedly humorous aspects of noir, that is fluid in its medium and methodology so it can swerve quickly when the poodle crosses the tarmac (as it does in Kubrick’s The Killing) and thereby end up in a new and unanticipated place.

The poodle on the tarmac (The Killing)

We have dubbed our critical medium the “serialized academic audiobook,” and believe that ours was the first academic film and literature analysis podcast.  But that matters about as much as what sort of car Uncle Charlie cranked up in the garage that day.  What matters is that it has helped us to see noir in a whole new light.

What we have come to appreciate is that noir hides nothing in the shadows.  In fact, it lays all the evidence out on the table, so plainly that it is easy to overlook—like Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”  As the career inspectors buzz all around it, peering in shadows, roughing up the gees and laying bare the dames, it still sits right before our eyes, unopened.

What is its secret?  What does that letter say?  Well, I’m not going to presume we’ve gotten that far in the investigation.  But what I can tell you is this.  Noir is trying to help us be better readers of noir, even if it doesn’t want to give up it’s ultimate secret (just as is true of Poe’s purloined letter, or Henry James’s figure in the carpet).

By keeping our eyes open to what we see in the films (rather than to what we want to see or expect to see), what we can’t help but see is that noir is an extremely self-conscious film style.  It stages tribute shots that constitute a critical commentary on—an “auto-exegesis” of—the film in which they appear (think of Emmerich’s descent of the staircase in The Asphalt Jungle vs. Mrs. Dietrichson’s in Double Indemnity), it stages visual and aural puns that demonstrate an awareness of how it is telling stories and at whose expense (think of the closing echo between the author and the protagonist at the end of Touch of Evil, or that same film’s multi-layered sign for viewers that hangs in the blind shopkeeper’s store: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself”).

Noir constantly frames its own evidence and offers it up.  If we fail to weigh the evidence as we watch, or if we are so bound to one method(ology) for investigating that we fail to see that certain clues are offered up with a wink and a nod, then we’ll find we’ve found little (and will only discover too late that the joke’s on us).

We don’t claim to have the answers.  But we would argue that we have to stay flexible in our approach to noir: we have to find a method that embraces the passion and encyclopedic knowledge of fan scholars without rejecting the insights that come from the close critical reading practices of academics.  And above all, we have to appreciate that noir has already laid the goods on the table.  If we don’t try and see the way it is framing stories about reading, then we’ll find we’re the saps in the story—outguessed and outgunned at every turn.

If you want to know what all this talk means in practical terms, we’d invite you to listen to our podcasts.  We also have a book coming out in the fall that gathers together some of the insights we’ve gleaned through podcasting.  It’s called the Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism.  Here’s an entry from that book that gives you a taste of what we see in noir:

Touch of Evil

Heston in Touch of Evil

~ The Slightest Separation

Touch of Evil can be seen as, above all, a meditation on filmmaking. The final sequence of “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) trying to record the conversation between Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), going through the muck and the oil rigs with a recording device, is ultimately a metaphor for filmmaking itself. On the set, these actors are being followed by filmmaking crews, and when Welles as Quinlan is standing on the bridge, and he hears the echo of the recording device, Welles the director is making a self-conscious pun on filmmaking. Welles knows the scene is actually double microphoned, because he is also recording the scene for us in the audience.  In the action and the mise en scène, he is exploiting these doublings and double entendres on every level in the final scenes of this film. –Richard Edwards

Ultimately the question is what options remain when a film becomes this self-reflexive? The self-conscious auteur of such a work has to write himself out of the picture in the end, for there is no where else to go.  The perfect moment of filmic punning, this double gesture both narrative and extra-narrative, is illustrated in the death of Quinlan. As Vargas follows them around, with a device to record their conversation, he gets closer and closer, until Quinlan hears a slightly delayed echo of his own voice from the device. In other words, the film stages the closing of the gap until there is just the slightest delay, the slightest separation in space and time, between Welles the director and Welles the actor, between the extra-narrative stuff of filmmaking and the narrative that is being constructed. At the moment these join, the auteur must die, and he right after he hears the slight echo of his own voice, Quinlan is killed. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

last night’s spangles, yesterday’s pearls: meet Shannon…

by Megan Abbott

Shannon Clute (left) and Richard Edwards

I first met Shannon at Bouchercon, the crime fiction convention, a few years back and discovered Out of the Past, his brilliant podcast with Richard Edwards—the two a dream duo, with Shannon’s intense, fluid mastery of theory and Richard’s vast and enriching knowledge of studio history.

A decade out of graduate school, I so missed the kind of endless ruminative and riveting conversations you can get in about movies in that environment, and listening to these podcasts about some of my favorite films—well, it was better than grad school because there need be no pretense that we do not LOVE these movies. Listening to each of these lush, dark melodies was both intoxicating and invigorating. (and you will be forever convinced by their recasting of It’s a Wonderful Life as a film noir).

More recently, I was thrilled to learn that the project has led to an upcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, to be published by UPNE/ Dartmouth College Press this fall.

In 2006, Shannon’s novel, the Chandler-esque The Mint Condition was selected as one of ten semi-finalists in the Court TV “Next Great Crime Writer” contest. More recently, Shannon began working for Turner Classic Movies and, on March 17, he will make his on-air hosting debut, about which Shannon will have more to say. TCM is damn lucky to have him, and so are we. He’ll be with us all week, folks!

1. what is your greatest fear?

Never accomplishing anything worth remembering; conversely, spending so much time worrying about never accomplishing anything worth remembering that I neglect my friends and family.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Really?  Just one favorite?  How about three?  Camping with my wife and daughter; hiking in hilly regions anywhere in the world (but especially upstate New York, the Colorado Rockies, the central Apennines in Tuscany, or the Ardennes in Belgium); and, before I gave up the bad habit, smoking a nice pipe and reading a good book on the back porch (preferably a Peterson 341 system pipe with a little McClelland Tastemaster, and a hard-boiled treasure of the ‘30s or ‘40s).

3. what is your most treasured possession?

I am clearly not hardwired for these sorts of questions.  How about I narrow it to three again? First, a roughly 40-acre plot of desert in the mountains of southern Colorado that my brother and I bought with our father’s life insurance money after he passed away; second, a pocket watch presented to my great grandfather after he returned to Glasgow to repay all his creditors (they allowed him to head to America to try and make good, despite the fact he owed them big bucks: he got a shipment of bad rubber to his boot factory, and unwittingly supplied the British Boer War troops with defective boots, thus bankrupting him); a very modern flatware set in a teak box that my grandmother bought while living in New York City in the ’30s.

4. when and where were you happiest?

At the birth of my daughter. (Finally, one I can answer definitively…though there have been plenty of other highlights.)

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

Now that I’m a parent, my greatest indulgence is getting up ungodly early each morning to take about an hour and a half all to myself to write (which I’m doing this very moment)

6. where would you like to live?

Oh, now you’ve done it!  You’ve asked the question that I spend most of my waking hours thinking about (for it is so tied up with every one of these other questions: isn’t happiness a perfect place to live? Isn’t is just bound to be the next place you move?)  Mind you, this depends not only on the season, but the day, the particular quality of light, the ambient humidity, the most recent careers I’ve read about, how badly I’m needing to exercise that day, etc.  There have been several strong contenders in recent years: Burlington, Vermont; Liège, Belgium; Doolin, Ireland; Ithaca, New York; Crestone, Colorado; Rome, Italy; Chadron, Nebraska; etc.  Unfortunately, the most honest answer may be, “Wherever I’m not.”

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Honesty.

8. how would you like to die?

Instantaneously.

9. what is your secret superstition?

I do everything in multiples or divisors of eight (was this questionnaire designed to reveal madness, or is it just me?)

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

Throughout my life I’ve had a nightmare that I’m working on an old fishing vessel—wind powered, riggings and all—when the boom swings around, knocks me on the back of the head and I go overboard.  My last vision is of the moonlight playing on the surface of the water far above, all around the shadow of the boat.  My best dream?  There have been too many great ones to name “the best.”  I guess I’m only consistent in my nightmares.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

I always have music in my head, so this is tough.  Beethoven’s 9th and the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are there a lot (along with the slow parts of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major).  I’m always hearing the opening bars of Gillian Welch’s “Barroom Girls.” Also, “Samson” by Regina Spektor, “I Lost It” by Lucinda Williams, “The Liar in My Heart” by the Star Room Boys.  I should stop.  It’s getting loud in there.

12.  what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Chandler and Cain never fail to delight me. The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and It’s a Wonderful Life usually do the trick too.  The soundtracks of sadness laced with hope (or at least defiance) would be The Star Room Boys, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, or Kelly Joe Phelps.

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Sleep, exercise, or good food (in huge quantities).

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

Now that we’ve gotten this far, can you imagine me ever holding anything back?

Visit Shannon on Crimespace or go to Noircast site.

February 28, 2011

Trouble In Mind

by craigmmcdonald

The books of others rarely inspire my own writing.

Most often, I’m more moved by music.

Very rarely, a film gets me there. When that happens, it’s usually tied to a director and a body of work.

There’s this particular director, and a film he made deep in the heart of Morning in America, that’s been on my mind lately. That film (and its successor, The Moderns, about 1920s Paris), left fingerprints all over my own crime fiction.

The mid-to-late 1980s: A time of skinny ties and suits without socks; a burgeoning sense of deconstruction and post-modernism; meta-fiction looms in the wings. The work is the thing and thing knows exactly what it is. Knowing winks and self-referentialism are fast becoming hip.

Back then, most crime fiction wasn’t hip. You had your Ellroy; you had your James Crumley…and no deep bench behind those two scribes.

In 1985, director Alan Rudolph released, Trouble in Mind. I saw it the way most others probably did at the time — a blink-and-you-missed-it three-day run in some campus art house theatre. But I was captivated; made do in the years after with a discarded rental of Trouble on full-screen VHS.

Kris Kristofferson anchors the film as “Hawk,” an ex-cop just sprung from prison for the fatal shooting of a “Rain City” crime boss years back.

“Rain City” stands in as a vaguely fascist, pre-Starbucks Seattle, every bit as drenched in neon-kissed rain as you would hope. A place where WASPs threaten and scream at one another in disarming volleys of Korean from time to time; where policeman and soldiers roam the streets and parade around with weapons.

Hawk, whose hobby is building highly-detailed scale models of Rain City landmarks, quickly settles into former habits and old haunts, chiefly a café run by his old friend Wanda (played by Geneviève Bujold, a Rudolph stalwart).

Wanda’s Café is Rain City’s version of Rick’s Place. Wanda was once under the thumb of a local crime boss — the man Kris/Hawk ventilated with a single shot between the eyes in a room filled with witnesses.

Soon enough, Hawk is courting a luminously innocent Lori Singer, a new mother badly married to a scrambling, scuffling Keith Carradine.

Casting a shadow over the city is an über fey reinvention of The Maltese Falcon’s Caspar Gutman — the kind of part Sydney Greenstreet might have played in post-Code Hollywood. Rain City’s new crime lord is Hilly Blue, portrayed by the late-Divine in a rare turn in pants.

A new, 25th anniversary edition of Trouble In Mind has recently been released on DVD, and just in time according to its director, who rues the last print of the film was in a pretty sorry state. For the first time in a quarter century, initiates can explore a film that despite its rarity has achieved a brand of stubborn cult status.

It had been a few years since I’d revisited my grainy, cropped VHS version of Trouble. The DVD extends the frame and draws out details that videotape obscured. Things, overall, are brighter than I remember, and maybe not for the better, but there it is.

Nevertheless, Trouble in Mind, set to a moody Mark Isham score, still walks a tricky line between pastiche, noir and the loopy logic of dreams. The film’s misty, dark world anticipates the same flavor of twisty terrain David Lynch would explore a few years later, a kind of (kissing) city cousin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Rain City deftly and swiftly asserts its own reality and cultural mash-up: one where 1960s-era American cars proliferate; where skinny ties, fedoras, trench coats and sharkskin sport jackets are concomitantly in fashion.

Rudolph says in supplemental materials that Rain City was conceptualized “as a place where past and future meet, but not in the present.”

It is classic film noir’s stylistic flourishes, Rudolph has argued repeatedly, that gave vintage crime films a patina of hyper-reality. By the terms of that proposition, Trouble In Mind’s nth-degree attention to detail qualifies the film as a significant, if under-known, neo-noir.

I’m the first to admit Rudolph’s films can be an acquired taste that eludes many samplers — too stylized and self-aware to suit every palate.

Yet I think Trouble has reached beyond its initial art-house run to assert enduring influences on the works of others. Like Hawk, briefly depicted working out with a heavy bag, Trouble in Mind punches above its weight.

February 27, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club: earn your RAISING CAIN badge

by Sara Gran

I have Raising Cain burning a hole in its little red envelope! If you’re playing along at home,we’ll be discussing that soon. Megan hasn’t announced her first pick yet but I’m really, really hoping it’s Body Double, a movie that has a strange hold on my psyche (that house! that music! Frankie Goes to Hollywood!). You know, 90% of the reason I love having this blog is because I know I’m going to get read something by Megan two or three times per week. The other 10%? I get to talk about Brian DePalma!

February 18, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club: The Fury

by Sara Gran
Cover of "The Fury"

Cover of The Fury

The Brian DePalma film club officially commences NOW (!!), with a discussion of a strange little gem from the seventies, THE FURY. As per our previous discussion, a lot of DePalma’s best and worst is on display here; the interest in supernatural abilities, the Hitchcockian psychosexual stuff, the fascination with power/powerlessness. Amy Irving (Gillian), surreally beautiful as a teenager with psychic abilities, is psychically linked to Robin, a teenager who also has strong abilities.  Robin is kind-of sort-of kidnapped by a government agency that wants to use his powers for evil. And so Robin’s father (Kirk Douglas)  goes to look for him and et cetera and …well, let’s cut to the chase: DePalma’s strong suit in general, and in this movie in particular, is not a cohesive well-thought out plot. So let’s just say there’s two young, attractive, highly sexual/sexualized psychic teens both preyed on and protected by a cadre of older, not wiser, folks.

A few recurring DePalma interests are exalted here. One is telekinesis. This was made after Carrie, and it feels a bit like–well, I’ll call it a second-course movie. Writers & filmmakers, I think you’ll recognize this feeling: you write a book (or whatever) on, say, mourning doves. And you think you’ve explored mourning doves from every angle, but when you’re done, somehow, you’re still just not done with the doves. You’ve got doves on the mind. So, even though you swore it’s the last thing you would ever do, you write another book about doves. (Does that make sense to anyone but me?) This is not at all a bad thing. Some of our best work is the second course! Regardless, DePalma’s interest in the supernatural seems focused on its use as a tool of power, rather than as a tool of, say spiritual enlightenment.

Another recurring DePalma image on display here is, hmm, let’s call him the Very Very Bad Man. Maybe someone can help me with this, but someone wrote something (that’s the part I need help with!) about David Lynch and noted that in nearly every Lynch film there’s  a man who is completely insane and entirely out-of-control, and derives oodles of power from such. Think of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, or Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway (“I’m sorry about that, Pete, but tailgating is one thing I cannot tolerate”).   DePalma’s films often have a man–the Very Very Bad Man–who could be related to those men, although he is a bit more controlled and takes less of a center stage: John Lithgow in Blow Out, “The Indian” in Body Double. In The Fury the Very Very Bad Man is a skinny, sleazy little character who works for the institute and helps them ensnare the lovely Amy Irving. He only shows up for a few scenes but you can practically smell his evil through the screen. But these two men are related, I think–cousins, if not brothers.

Another recurring theme here is the use of sex as a weapon and a tool of control. In any DePalma movie, is there ever an expression of sexuality that isn’t evil (well, maybe at the end of Body Double)? Robin’s handler at his special institute uses sex to control and confine Robin. But–and this is another DePalma theme–in the end, Robin is pushed too far. His father finally finds him, but the sweet boy his father has worked the whole film to rescue is gone. Robin has become a monster–manipulative in the psychological sense, in that he brattily insists on getting his way, but also literally, as he uses his powers to send people flying around the house.  It’s a big cheesy, corny, predicable–and deeply heartbreaking–finale. The special effects are, by today’s standards, silly and distracting, and Robin himself has become a bit of a cliche. But that’s exactly what’s so heartbreaking–Robin was brought to life so beautifully early in the film, and his relationship with his father was so real and honest, that the tragedy of Robin is exactly that–that he has turned into a cliche, a selfish little brat who cares about no one but himself. And ultimately, I think that’s the point.

Incidentally, there’s a lot of great actors in this film: John Cassavettes as a bad guy (Roger Ebert: “Cassavetes always makes a suitably hateful villain (he plays the bad guys as if they’re distracted by inner thoughts of even worse things they could be doing).”), Denis Franz as an ill-fated cop partnered with, drumrole Bill’s partner from Henderson’s Home Plus from Big Love (A stupendous bit of star-spotting by my boyfriend, by the way!).

All in all, an interesting bridge between seventies DePalma and eighties DePalma. I think next up will be ladies’ choice–and since Megan’s the only lady around here (ba-dum-DUM), that means her!

What did you think? His best or his worst or neither? Share your thoughts below and newcomers, don’t hesitate to jump in!