When noir was noir
[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, July 21, 1999; written in anticipation of a noir package on Turner Classic Movies]
The great French director Jean Renoir, obliged to become a great American director by the German occupation of his country, records in his memoirs a moment around the end of World War II when his two nationalities drolly intersected. It seems that a film festival was showcasing The Southerner, his pantheistic 1945 movie about a Texas sharecropper, when a French correspondent phoned in the news to his paper. But hélas, between the reporter’s pronunciation and, perhaps, the susceptibilities of the guy on the copy desk, “The Southerner, un film de Jean Renoir” became “Le Souteneur [The Pimp], un film de genre noir.” Something was definitely lost in translation.
Still, the confusion tells us a lot about that moment in film history and about how pervasive had become the phenomenon everybody and his brother now glibly calls film noir—”black film,” “dark film,” but by any name, fragrantly exotic film about an irredeemably fallen world. Back then, no one this side of the Atlantic used, or knew, the term—not the Hollywoodians who were making film noir nor the reviewers, who with few exceptions scorned the movies in question as cheap, vulgar, unpleasant, and otherwise regrettable. The films couldn’t even claim to belong to a proper genre: Some were private-eye pictures (The Big Sleep), some were period romances (Gaslight, So Evil My Love), some semidocumentary crime-fighting movies (T-Men, Street with No Name), some mysteries (Laura), some “women’s pictures” (Mildred Pierce). But the French could see, as six years’ worth of embargoed American cinema washed across their screens following the liberation, that the mood and politics and look and tone of Hollywood’s output had changed radically: it was darkened, bleaker, and yet more dynamic. As Paul Schrader would exult a quarter-century later, “American movies [were] in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk.”
This happened for many reasons: the sudden, fervently hoped-for yet uncannily disorienting cessation of the war and the loss of urgency for Americans to remain bonded in a communal effort; the doubts and suspicions servicemen harbored about the subtly changed homeland to which they returned after years away, and about the women who had remained behind and in some cases filled their jobs; the wartime influx of European directors, writers, cameramen, designers, and composers, with their more cosmopolitan (decadent? neurotic?) attitudes, including a tendency toward morbidity and a greater tolerance for ambiguity in character and motivation; the new taste for realism fostered by Italian arthouse hits like Open City, whose makers had had no choice but to forsake their studios (which had been bombed) and take their cameras and scrabbled-together film stock into the streets.
Some of Hollywood’s best homegrown talent, themselves touched by the war, had little stomach for settling into status quo filmmaking again. John Huston shot the battlefield documentary San Pietro within small-arms fire of the enemy, then came back to hijack The Treasure of the Sierra Madre away from the studio to Mexico to film a classic allegory of greed, betrayal, and dementia. Warner Bros. thought they were getting a Western; what they got was a film noir.
Huston received a pair of Oscars for Treasure, and a few other noir milestones were likewise duly honored—notably Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which made history by cinematically relocating murder to “where it belonged” (in the phrase of his writing collaborator Raymond Chandler), in the bourgeois American home. Double Indemnity doted on its Los Angeles locations, to the extent of setting a movie scene for the first time ever in that new triumph of merchandising, the supermarket—and a more sinister place you couldn’t hope to see.
But the great noirs mostly went unsung. Many were B-movies, after all, and B-movies didn’t get Oscar nominations. In most cases, they didn’t even get reviewed. The B-est B-movie ever made was Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, a 69-minute tale narrated by a no-talent schlub (Tom Neal) who plays piano in a nightclub so underdressed the set had no walls. His girl, a singer, leaves to try a career in Hollywood; after one frustrating phone call, he decides to hitchhike across the country to join her. The continent separating New York and LA consists of nothing but a few glimpses of desert on a back-projection screen, and the one ride we see him get ends in the grotesque accidental death of the car’s owner—a contretemps that leaves Neal torn between revealing what happened (and probably getting blamed for it) or taking over his benefactor’s money, car, and identity. He chooses plan B—and within minutes has himself picked up the most fatally wrong hitchhiker he could find. The movie progresses to a death-in-life conclusion so bleak and irreversible that his offhand arrest for “murder”—it’s hard to be sure which of two—almost comes as an act of mercy. Detour is a masterpiece, its strictly-from-desperation production values a metaphysical imperative. One more nickel in the budget, an ounce of acting talent in the forlorn Tom Neal, and the eerie sublimity of the nightmare would be shattered.
Although French and British critics and historians celebrated noir almost from the get-go, stateside appreciation of this native bloom had to wait till the Seventies. Critic and filmmaker-to-be Paul Schrader wrote his definitive “Notes on Film Noir” in connection with a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and once Richard Corliss featured the article as a position paper in Film Comment magazine, noir courses began appearing in universities. Locally, the Seattle Film Society scheduled periodic noir marathons (three and four films a night), and Seattle Art Museum film curator Greg Olson started reserving one season per year as a noir showcase—a tradition he maintains to this day. And it didn’t hurt that several key films of the decade—like Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye—found new resonance in the terrain, or that Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films (while lacking the stylistic sharpness and perversity of true noir) filed definitive briefs on a theme implicit in the classic noir cycle, the souring of the American Dream.
Those were grand times—by which I mean both the decade of discovery and the historical era, the late Forties through the mid-Fifties—that gave rise to noir, the era that noir to a large extent was. But things changed again. The voluptuous, inky-shadowed, insanely angular, brooding world of film noir gave way to a higher-octane brand of crime movie with less of an aura and less aftertaste, just as the regular-guy hero-villains whom fate reached out to trip in the true noirs—from icons like Bogart and Mitchum to nebbishes like Tom Neal—were replaced by Method crybabies.
And still worse things were in store. Once upon a time people used to interrupt you with “Film noir—what’s that?” but nowadays it’s a household phrase, bandied about by music-video directors, fashion groupies, and other trendoids. The noir of the Nineties—by all means let’s call it neo-noir—is a genre, a self-conscious affectation instead of an instinctive emanation of the zeitgeist. It’s derivative and strident and increasingly dumb. Please make it go away.
Please give in to the darkness by donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the restoration of Cy Enfield’s 1950 Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury), one of the many orphans of independently-produced film of the classic studio era.
“For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon” is hosted by Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren, who are compiling the contributions from all participating websites and blogs. For information on the Blogathon, see Ferdy on Film here, and for information in participating, see The Self-Styled Siren here. The official Facebook page is here.
And again, don’t forget to donate.