Posts tagged ‘Touch of Evil’

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

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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