Friday, April 12, 2024

Cry Me a River: The Sweet Sorrow of Film Noir

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy when seen in the long shot.” – Charlie Chaplin

Melodrama: the essential link between classical tragedy and ‘dark film’. “Suffering, with style” is the succinct and totally apt way that Turner Classic Movies curator Eddie Muller characterizes this unique mode of film noir storytelling: “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy and revenge, which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul crushing despair and a few last gasping breaths in a rain soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you’re going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.”

From the moment the term film noir or dark film was first employed by advanced French critics in the post-World War Two global culture, there was also an instant debate about what it encapsulated so vividly. Muller, who is also an author of crime fiction himself, further defines the concept as being about a protagonist who, driven to act out of some desperate desire, does something that he or she knows to be wrong, even understanding what dire consequences will follow. Karma always looms large in noir.

Muller goes on, “When most people think of film noir, however, it’s the inimitable style they are considering: the sensuous and seductive shadows, the gleam of street lights on a ’48 Packard, the whispering rustle of Rita Hayworth’s gowns. This iconography now flows in the cultural bloodstream, absorbed and endlessly imitated in movies, television, art, fashion and advertising, in everything.” Muller has quite rightly identified noir as one of Hollywood’s only truly organic artistic movements, along with the western, musical and romantic comedy. Noir emerged in the mid-1940’s as a result of a remarkable intersection of forces and influences. Among the principal impulses was the American appetite for outlaws, and for their vivid portrayal in pulp fiction literary traditions.

Writers such as Cornell Woolrich, W.R. Burnett, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler would be among the stylistic precursors of what we could call noir fiction, which, in an early Hollywood nervous about morality and censors, was a bleak style often bereft of the wholesome messages most executives believed would sell best on screen. Eventually, however, a more mature phase did slowly emerge, exemplified by directors such as John Huston and Billy Wilder, who would apply the genre of noir in subversive ways that first enlivened and then more or less obliterated moral cinema codes altogether.

A major source of suffering that manifested itself in film noir is the experience of the many film directors who fled Nazi Germany, both to survive literally and to thrive artistically, and they brought with them a heightened signature visual style which essentially was derived from the German Expressionist movement. Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Curtis Bernhardt, and of course Wilder tended to carry in their hearts the darkness they had just escaped, and they gleefully shared it with the rest of us. Muller explains that it was largely the result of the characters the genre put up on the screen: “What made these films popular with the American public was the newfound willingness—even eagerness—of major stars to play amoral characters. Bogart set the tone. Plenty of imitations followed, characters with a savvy attitude and a smart mouth, and when they tumbled off the fence to the dark side, you had a truly noir protagonist.”

This sudden turn toward the dark was fueled by a post-war appetite for bad people doing bad things, and surprisingly, actors and actresses who had built substantial careers on playing good, kind, humane characters now were matched with directors who wanted to show a more human, if less humane, side of our natures. The best example of this shift is Fred MacMurray, a lightweight comic actor of great skill, whom the visionary Wilder cast against type in his classic 1944 noir Double Indemnity, opposite Barbara Stanwyck, inviting him to take chance which might or might not threaten his popularity. However, instead it launched them both into a whole new dimension of their acting craft, and one that the public adored. Alluding to the idealized beauty, snappy dialogue and quick wit of the greatest noir performances, Muller sums up our fondness for these usually unsavory folks: “If only we could all think this fast and look this good. In the final analysis, that probably sums up noir’s eternal appeal as well as anything. Today, the cynicism and fatalism found in classic noir seems almost comforting compared to the pessimism we confront on movie screens. We watch noir with endless fascination and an undeniable aspect of our fascination is the realization that, as a culture, we will never be that stylish again.”

Noir are essentially a kind of melodrama. As the gifted theatrical director Peter Brooks reminds us in his comprehensive study of the subject in The Melodramatic Imagination: Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, the term originated from the early 19th-century French world mélodrame but is derived from the Greek melos (song, strain). For me, the most effective evocation of the noir sensibility and its origins in melodrama was explored by Robert Kolker in his Film, Form and Culture, a book that never stops clarifying our often obscure modernist connections to antiquity. He points out that genres are such complex things that focusing on just two, melodrama and noir, demonstrates for us how their structures, themes and variations work:

One of the genres, melodrama, is very old and predates cinema, the other one, noir, is relatively new and particular to film. Melodrama can be understood as a genre and a master narrative, an overarching narrative form that controls all films that aren’t comedies and that had an existence before film was invented. Film noir, on the other hand, is original to film and is also a kind of hybrid. It developed out of detective fiction, the gangster film, thirties French cinema, the thriller and melodrama itself. Curiously, at the time of the creation of noir in the early forties, nobody knew that they were inventing what would become one of the most celebrated of all genres.

There is a direct cinematic line which can be traced from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane in 1941 through Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), and arriving in an ultra-rumpled form in Welles’ harrowing Touch of Evil in 1958. But as Kolker notes, melodrama was not original to film, and Welles, a man of the theatre before he arrived in Hollywood in 1939, had conducted many theatrical experiments on the New York stage. He came to film with a desire to translate his radical approaches to lighting, sound and composition to the big screen, with specific fascination for the Expressionist use of shadow and a dark mise-en-scène which used shadows as a thematic and stylistic device.

For Kolker, melodrama has historically been defined as being “about feeling, or more accurately, about provoking emotions, perhaps more intense than what are called for by the story being told. The desire to provoke emotions, and for the audience, to have them provoked, was a driving force in the development of American cinema’s classical style. Circumscribed, predictable, closed, the codes of melodrama can permit extravagant stories to be told, stories that articulate deep, subjective passion and terrors, which are always contained within the bounds of the master narrative.”

Subsequent to Citizen Kane’s otherworldly style innovations, a new genre developed, seemingly out of the thin urban air but actually out of the clear merger of classical tragedy, theatrical stage intensity, contemporary melodrama, German Expressionism, hard-boiled detective fiction and the shift in social values after the upheavals of World War Two. These cinematic roots overlapped just as rock and roll was born from an amalgamation of African trance music, black gospel, secular soul, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and country music.

As Kolker further clarifies the Welles noir ethos, “Even though its popular appeal took many years to form, its appeal to movie professional was immediate. Directors, cinematographers, and production designers were taken by its radical style, which depended so much on the visual structures of Expressionism. The influence of Welles and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, on the style of forties cinema was enormous. Darkness descended on Hollywood filmmaking.” Two other valuable tomes which illuminate this brilliant darkness for readers seeking additional maps of this terrain are Street With No Name by Andrew Dickos, a history of the classic American film noir, and Dark Cinema, American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective, by John Tuska, both of which I return to in my excavation of this somber but beautiful landscape.

Greenwood Press, 1984.

The darkness continues, it hasn’t abated, in fact there are few more durable motifs in cinema, especially if one considers that what started with a few German expatriate artists, and then the amazing outsider Welles, eventually ended up being renovated anew by artists as diverse as Paul Schrader, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. The beat goes on. Classical noir thrived through the mid-Fifties, although its climax coincided with an ultra-self-conscious style that occasionally verges on camp, as it would in the later contemporary directors just referenced. Kolker put it best, “Noir is usually about implosion rather than explosion. But as the poet TS Eliot pointed out in the twenties, the end of the world does not have to come with a bang. A whimper is more likely. When light pierces through the noir darkness, the world comes apart. This is the peculiar double-edged paranoia of the Fifties. Men will collapse into lonely isolation, or, if they really find out the world’s secret, they and everything else will be destroyed. But between implosion and external destruction, there is another possibility. Create a world that appears as an ongoing nightmare of dizzying perspectives, long dark streets, bizarre individuals careening around an unstable landscape of strip joints, hideous motels, oil fields, and barren gray intersections. In other words, update the Expressionist vision to address the modern age.”

Tragedy, the binary counterpart to comedy, is an even more ancient and revered medicinal remedy for our ills, one which contains the irony of being homeopathic: it provides immunity from a surfeit of sorrow by injecting tiny amounts which over time might make us immune. The great Greek tragedians, whose craft provided a delivery system that transcends melancholy by celebrating it in daily doses, figures such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, gave us a recursive kind of therapy. It lead directly into the waiting modernist arms of classic film noir, with familiar twisted tales of woe shared by Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Anthony Mann, and, of course, Brackett and Wilder.

Alain Silver touched upon the complexity of this seemingly simple genre, or species actually, when he quoted the contemporaneous observation by Raymond Borde in Panorama du Film Americain, from 1955, for his Introduction to the first of his multiple and marvelous Film Noir Readers: “The existence over the last few years of a ‘serie noir’ in Hollywood is obvious. Defining its essentials is another matter.” They were right about the plethora of definitions back then during the first wave and they’re still right about it today, about fifty five years later. Few critics however have noted the indigenous strain of noir ethos already growing in the American homeland long before it bounced across the ocean to France and then back again, after gaining a fancy name.

Alienation from the mainstream has always existed and persisted as a motif, ever since the mainstream itself became so large that it tended to shudder into the shadows all by itself. John Tuska, in his Dark Cinema, amusingly pointed out that “The esteem accorded the German cinema by Americans was so evident that even early in the 1920’s Will Rogers, in his silent film The Ropin’ Fool, remarks on a subtitle card, ‘If you think this picture’s no good, I’ll put on a beard and say it was made in Germany. Then, you’ll call it Art.” America didn’t need to or have to import either old prewar German angst or recent Gallic postwar pessimism, anymore than it needed to absorb the tragic seeds of ancient animus lodged in the classical Greek theatre.

But it did. And it just rolled those influences right into the batter for a bleak cake is was baking on the west coast and which Hollywood was about to deliver, gift-wrapped in gloom, back to the world. But it’s a multi-layered cake with so many ingredients thrown in, some of them borrowed from another stylistically melo-genre, the western. Also one without any mythology, since in noir all the dreams have drained out of the town, leaving behind only the residual reverie of characters bereft of any empathy for others, caught in a kind of solipsistic theatre of the absurd where their own fate is just about as inevitable as the darkness that drives them towards it.

In his preface to Street With No Name, an informative American noir history, the author Andrew Dickos references the great German Jewish culture critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote in a seminal 1935 essay on transformations to the work of art once it can be mechanically reproduced, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of a tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and changeable. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of ritual—first the magical, then he religious kind. It is significant that the existence of a work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.” This insight also reminds us that, as Dickos put it, “Melodrama narratives continue to be told, cast in a noir haze, but often unmoored from the philosophical allure that they once intrinsically possessed by virtue of their need to be told.” And few things are more ritualistic than the ritual of watching a noir-tragedy unfold in a quiet cave-like theatre filled with strangers sitting in the dark together.

There are in fact so many branches to the family tree of noir, with so many debates and discussions about which titles belong on it, that sometimes one can’t see the forest for the films. But it’s the tone and mood of the imagery and screenplay that often settles any doubts, as Raymond Durgnat pointed out in his 1970 essay "Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir": “In 1946, French critics having missed Hollywood films for five years, saw suddenly, sharply, a darkening tone, darkest around the crime film. A bleak, cynical tone was invading all genres. The tone was often castigated as Hollywood decadence, although black classics are as numerous as rosy. Black is as ubiquitous as shadow, and if the term film noir has a slightly exotic ring it’s no doubt because it appears as a figure against the rosy ground of Anglo-Saxon middle class, and especially Hollywoodian optimism and puritanism. Greek tragedy, Jacobean drama and the Romantic Agony are earlier responses to epochs of disillusionment and alienation, but the socio-economic parallels can’t be made. Late 40’s Hollywood is blacker than the 30’s precisely because its audience, being more secure, no longer needed cheering up.”

Yet Robert Porfirio, in his interviews with classic noir directors for Film Noir Reader 3, has helped to clarify the already healthy wellspring of angst which pre-existed in Hollywood long before the injection of the European variety melted into the postwar culture. “Perhaps, as some film historians have suggested, the European emigres brought to Hollywood a mordant sensibility drawn from their own homelands, which were being decimated. This in turn could partially explain the bleak outlook of the film noir and how it ran counter to an American spirit historically described as optimistic. But World War II’s effect on Hollywood went beyond the American infusion of European talent. Nor was a paranoid outlook which was not the exclusive domain of the European emigres.”

In his interview with Billy Wilder in Film Noir Reader, Porfirio discussed how 1947’s commencement of the ‘red scare’ helped to generate a homegrown atmosphere of fear and recrimination in the Hollywood community, especially among those whose lives and careers were impacted by the notorious blacklist. Clearly, the departure from working ranks within the noir cycle did have a downward effect, but so did the impact of the arrival of a new form of broadcasting images and stories called television, a small screen and privately viewed medium ironically suited to the claustrophobic atmospheres of noir itself.

When Wilder first started working in the film industry, Porfirio mentioned to Billy, there was a kind of angst pervading Central Europe after World War One and prior to the second war. “Did your background, being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly antisemitic, create a darker side to life.” To which the insightful director responded, surprisingly perhaps given the prevailing wisdom, “I think the dark outlook is a quintessentially American one. Even in the noir films. So many were made by Euro-emigres. But you see, there’s a key concept: that of looking for patterns. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, but I am not aware of patterns. We’re not aware that ‘this picture will be in that genre’. It comes more naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.” For great cinema artists such as Billy Wilder, that handwriting, and its embedded storytelling style, might best be described as melodrama without sentiment, and tragedy without tears. Ironically, noir and comedy were both, for him, flip sides of the same exotic human coin.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work is a book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, published in January 2024.


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