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Film Noir

Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

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Will Eisner, Frank Miller and “The Spirit”

“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …

“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”

– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"
Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.

Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the Sin City graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.

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“Touch of Evil”: Crossing the Line

[Editor’s note: This essay was originally written in 1998, before the re-edited version from producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, and is based on the 109-minute version that was rescued from the vaults in 1975, generally known as the “preview version. This version had replaced the original 98-minute theatrical version in retrospective screenings and TV showings, but it makes its DVD debut – along with the 98-minute theatrical version – on the new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition, which also features the previously released 1998 “restored” version. The essay has never before been published.]

Despite the fact that, like most of Welles’s films, Touch of Evil was the victim of injudicious cutting, it holds together narratively better than just about any film he ever made.  The result is a film even more corrosively insidious than Mr. Arkadin—a film in which we’re never quite sure what’s going on, but are always profoundly aware that, whatever it is, it is far more horrible than it appears. And, in Touch of Evil, that is very horrible indeed.

"intentionally seedy"
Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan: looming in low angle

It’s an intentionally seedy film—you can pretty much smell Hank Quinlan—and Welles, always a better director of space and decor than of actors, creates in his mise en scene a dynamic tension between the rich baroque and the decadent gothic. “Baroque” in the way it uses incidental ornamentation within the frame composition, insisting upon signs, posters, souvenirs and bric-a-brac to provide comment on character and event, as well as to lend atmosphere. Bulky Quinlan, looking up quizzically, belatedly prepares his defense against the lanky Vargas, in a room walled with bullfight posters and photos of the great matadors. We almost expect him to snort and paw the earth. This mise en scene was, in part, Welles’s debt to Karl Freund, neo-Gothic cameraman (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Metropolis, 1926; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930; Dracula, 1931) and director (Mad Love, 1935) who combined compositional richness with thematic darkness to create a Cinema of the Grotesque that seminally influenced the look and style of Citizen Kane (1941).

This sense of the Gothic, augmented with lessons learned from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, is evident in The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Sir Carol Reed but as closely associated with Welles in our cinematic collective consciousness as any film on which he received directorial credit. Reed had himself quoted the child’s bouncing ball and a few other tones and gestures from Lang’s M in Odd Man Out (1947); and the collaboration of Welles and Reed on The Third Man was one of like minds and visions, learning from each other, and creating, along the way, both a film masterpiece and an enduring document of the shattered physical and human architecture of postwar Europe.

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