Noir, Now and
Greenwood Press, 2001
214 pgs, hardcover
noir is a French word meaning Hollywood
In the little known noir classic The Prowler (1951) the doomed protagonist says to the woman he loves, "Whatever I did, I did for you." As the cop who becomes the prowler, this Van Heflin character is typical of the dangerous male who preys on beauty only to later find himself redundant. He murders the husband, knocks up the widow, then dies violently in a desert ghost town as soon as his child is born.
You can read a lot into this fatal allegory, the last film made by Joseph Losey before he fled the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, chose exile in the U.K. ...and making art films with the absurdist dramatist Harold Pinter. Sex always comes with a heavy price in film noir. Yet, why in this mannerless, graceless era do many of us look back to these films for the lost protocols and rituals of a generation of the politically incorrect? Why the fascination? Nightclub singers, vigilante cops, musicans, drifters, hustlers, beautiful losers all. They wore suits, danced geometrically, their tragedies always equations... a long way from the formless shuffling of X-Ravers in darkened warehouses and their totemic desperation of body-piercing.
So... what exactly is film noir? Was it ever a genre in the first place?
"Noir is not a genre but an unconscious, stylistic movement shared by many directors in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood," says Ronald Schwartz in his new book, Noir, Now and Then. "The viewer is constantly jarred by the editing... always surprised by the asymmetrical compositions... the mystery of the plot, the xenophobia of the characters as they move through the darkness towards an unknown conclusion."
Is film noir an impossible genre for today's filmmakers? Can you say with any certainty what films are or are not film noir?
If anyone should be able to nail it down, it should be Ronald Schwartz, a Professor of Film at N.Y.U. Following his impressive 1997 book, Latin American Films, 1932--1994, RS uses his signature approach of succinct summaries and sharp analyses of individual films to expose the culture and define the theme. His approach is crafty, as he avoids the issue of whether or not the noir ambience belongs strictly to the b&w era. He chooses Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) as the beginning of neo-noir ("the re-emergence")1 ... and ends his study with the risky inclusion of Godard's Breathless (1960)2.
noir and neo-noir
Yet, who can dispute RS's choice of Double Indemnity (1944) as the real keystone for the beginning of it all? Perhaps he's a little hard on Kasdan's brilliant neo noir homage Body Heat (1981) when he calls it "a rip-off" -- it's no mere scene-by-scene transposition of Wilder's Double Indemnity -- although you can forgive this thrust when you realize he actually likes Kasdan's film. Then, of course, there is the sheer usefulness of his exhumation of the remakes, three of them TV films. Good stuff here for the scholar, student, and movie mystic.
RS certainly casts a wide net to capture what he thinks qualifies. Femme fatales manipulating their male dupes, psychotic gangsters plotting heists, hardboiled P.I.s hunting criminals, patriarchal cattle barons resisting industrial encroachment... what? Westerns? Impossible, you say. Perhaps... but when RS covers noir originals and their remakes, anything is possible. Hence Broken Lance (1951) -- the western remake of House of Strangers (1949) -- becomes part of the wider film noir culture. So too the hard-core western The Badlanders (1958), which is a retrofit of the seminal John Huston crime thriller The Asphalt Jungle (1950), both scripts based on a crime novel by W.R. Burnett.
You might say none of these films qualify as noir. And certainly RS discounts The Badlanders as noir. Even when some of the dialogue is the same, the issue becomes one of whether or not any film -- remake or an original -- can have that special chiaroscuro noir atmosphere if color stock is used. Certainly the definition is more convenient if limited to black and white movies only. Then it fits a generation as well as a technology.
Perhaps this is why so many of the remakes fail. A good example is Against All Odds (1984), which RS calls "curiously antiseptic" compared to the grim war-shadow original, Out Of The Past (1947), star. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. No argument here. There's something very true about the edgy characters in the original that's missing in its "torpid" remake. RS concludes that roughly 25% of these remakes "broke the mold and improved in some way upon their predecessors."
the story of the story
Most film studies fail because they exist too much in generalization. Authors assume too much, eager to nail down the big picture. Paraphrase the action, the story? Either they can't or they won't, dismissing the technique of story summary as paraphrasing without insight. Fact is, "the story of the story" is the real art, something creative writers have known for years. Ronald Schwartz certainly knows it, writes with an unassuming clarity and economy. You don't expect this from an academic. Academics have too often allowed themselves to be trivialized by argument, their books mere plagiarisms of quotes & footnotes, indexes of another mind, another space. Yes, Noir, Now and Then has its share of appendices, but these serve the purpose of alerting the reader to those films and dramas on the margins of film noir, either as precursors or derivations. Here you will find RS discussing such standout films as Purple Noon, Cape Fear, Rebecca, The Letter, et. al. Great stuff.
Why did he include Rear Window but not House of Games? Night of the Hunter but not Bad Day At Black Rock? You be the judge. You will not fail to be impressed by his rundown of The Big Clock and its 1987 version, No Way Out. Don't know them? There might be films discussed here that you have neither seen nor heard of... and you will say what about Kubrick, Jean-Pierre Melville... X, Y and Z? As RS says in closing, "Note bene: I am certain readers of Noir, Now and Then will find other originals and remakes of noir films that continue to tantalize and fascinate. Vale."
So, is "noir" a French word meaning "Hollywood"? Read this excellent study by Ronald Schwartz about the greatest movement in film drama and find out.
© LR 1/02
2Breathless is significant as a clear marker of the arrival of post-modernism -- self-referencing, derivative, a veritable cargo cult to American crime movies -- but is it film noir? Only if you agree that all American crime thrillers of the 40's and 50's are film noir. Yes, what fun it is to read and debate!
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