Friday, July 06, 2018

Naked Film Noir!

By David in TN

[Some apparent typos are surely due to scanning errors that were never corrected.]

N.S.: To paraphrase David in TN’s succinct description, a film noir is about what happens when a man crosses paths with the sexiest woman (the femme fatale) he’s ever seen.

According to Scott Eyman in his biography of Louis B. Mayer, Lion of Hollywood, films noir were only a break-even proposition, and live not off of their profitability, but the fondness that intellectuals like socialist screenwriter-studio chief Dore Schary had for them.

TCM’s weekend “film noir” feature shows mostly B crime pictures that were not noirs, but which were profitable because they were made on a shoestring, often on location, had excellent direction and brilliant cinematography (e.g., by the great John Alton), and virtuoso performances by great actors like Edmond O’Brien, Sterling Hayden, and Barbara Stanwyck.

June 30, 1997 12:00 A.M.
By Paul Cantor
the weekly standard

Nicholas Christopher
Somewhere in the Night
Film Noir and the American City
Free Press, 288 pp., $ 25

I am as much a fan of semi-gratuitous sex and violence as the next guy, but I have always been leery of film noir. These gritty movies featuring fatally seductive women, hard-nosed detectives, petty criminals, and corrupt officials, all photographed in inimitably stylish ways, had their heyday in the first 10 years after World War II and have long been the darlings of cineastes -- the sort of people who notice camera angles and not Rita Hayworth's figure when viewing a film like Gilda.

As a kid in New York City, I grew up watching Channel 9, which was owned by RKO, the studio most associated with film noir. Some of Channel 9's favorites, like D.O.A., made a deep impression, but others left me cold and confused. I still cannot follow the plot of The Big Sleep, and for the life of me I cannot figure out what Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich were doing in Mexico in Touch of Evil. Sometimes I am tempted to agree with the eminent (if fictional) critic for Premiere magazine, Libby Gelman- Waxner, when she explains that "the exact translation of film noir is 'sexy and really, really boring.'"

Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night forced me to rethink film noir. The book is a labor of love; in preparation for writing it, Christopher viewed all 317 movies listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia and about 50 more to boot. Somewhere in the Night consists largely of detailed descriptions of Christopher's favorite film noirs, from Out of the Past (1947) all the way to The Usual Suspects (1995). These accounts are highly readable and accomplish their purpose: They make you want to go out and see the movies he discusses. Christopher's prose often mirrors the complex, overwrought texture of the movies themselves; he sometimes goes over the top, but on the whole he stays in control.

Which is more than I can say for his central thesis. "Film noir is an utterly homegrown modern American form," he tells us -- a genre that captures the distinctive and irredeemable corruption of 20th-century America. Indeed, Christopher believes these movies form a distinct genre because of their portrait of a corrupt America caught up in a senseless and paranoid Cold War run by a military-industrial complex.

Christopher is the kind of person who is still worried about "the Strontium 90 in [his] bone marrow from the milk of the 1950s cows exposed to atmospheric testing of atomic bombs." That is to say, he is a leftwing intellectual straight out of central casting: For him, laissez-faire capitalism can legitimately be presented as indistinguishable from gangsterism, and the privately owned automobile is one of the most sinister forces of the century.

The classic film noirs really do reflect deep economic, social, and political problems in 1940s and 1950s America, and they do embody anxieties and fears that gripped the audiences for which they were made. But to regard these films as realistic depictions of postwar America is off the mark. They are, as Christopher himself repeatedly shows, among the most stylized movies ever made. What actually binds these movies together is their highly distorted view of the world, a view as skewed as their camera angles. They are nightmares, no more true to reality than the dream visions of wealth in the screwball comedies of the 1930s. The directors of film noir wanted to make a certain kind of film, above all a film with a certain look. And that look was not native to America.

Indeed, film noir is about as American as apple strudel. The ingredients may be homegrown, but the recipe comes from Europe. The true progenitor of film noir was the German director Fritz Lang, whose 1931 movie M., about a child molestor [N.S.: serial killer], is probably the real source of the genre. Christopher himself records how many of the directors associated with film noir came from Central or Eastern Europe: William Dieterle, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang himself -- the list goes on and on. Even a famous noir cinematographer with the American-sounding name of John Alton turns out to have been born in Hungary.

Many of these noir masters were indeed great directors, and they had much to teach their American followers, but accurate knowledge of life in midwestern towns was not high on the list. In fact, the emigre directors did not come to America; they came to Hollywood. Basically, the only Main Street, U.S.A., they knew was on a Hollywood back lot: No wonder it looked so hollow to them. Having lived under authoritarian regimes, these Europeans had trouble understanding democracy, and especially its American embodiment. To them, the freedom of America, especially its economic freedom, must have looked in many respects like anarchy. One sometimes gets the feeling that these directors would have felt more at home if, when the obligatory drifter wanders into the small town at the opening of one of their movies, some official had asked to see his papers.

These films are frequently antiAmerican in a distinctively European way; that is no doubt why the French were the first to name and appreciate the genre. Many examples of film noir deal with the encounter between Americans and foreigners, especially Europeans. Though the Europeans may be evil, they are usually culturally superior to the Americans -- more literate, more tasteful. As early as 1934, Edgar G. Ulmer, who went on to create the famous film noir Detour, made an astounding (and much underrated) horror movie, The Black Cat. It contrasts cultured but satanic Europeans, scarred by guilt from World War I, with nice but bland Americans, touring Europe but oblivious to the meaning of the horrifying drama being played out around them. The American characters end up sleeping throughout most of the film, while the Europeans in protonoir fashion play chess, indulge in incest and necrophilia, and hold a Black Mass in Latin to the music of Bach.

The peculiar history of the film noirs and the men who made them is another chapter in the fascinating cultural history Allan Bloom unveiled in his Closing of the American Mind. The standard film-noir view of American values as empty and American institutions as hollow may indeed be another strange instance of what happened when European ideas and attitudes were transported to America as a result of the convulsions in Europe.

European directors, who had fled from Hitler and watched as their civilization was turned to rubble, were tempted to project a cataclysmic or apocalyptic vision of America as a warning of what might happen here. More conventional American filmmakers did not fully comprehend the inner meaning of these films, but they knew a good camera angle when they saw one. Since in movies style often is substance, the dark vision of film noir has suffused American movies for four decades.

Thus, film noir may ultimately be best understood in Bloom's terms -- as nihilism Hollywood-style, a European glimpse into the abyss served up in glorious black-and-white to American matinee audiences. Maybe I was right as a kid in Brooklyn to be suspicious of those Million Dollar Movies on Channel 9.

Paul Cantor

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