Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Out of the Past - a Noir Appreciation

Author: Theo Wulff

I am obsessed with old black and white films, in particular those which fall under the shadowy, bleak category of film noir. These films are pretty much all I watch these days. The ghostly, fog-heavy landscapes and half-obscured faces that fill these films provide a dream-like visual aesthetic that is almost entirely missing from color films. Bright, cheery color lacks the depth and ambiguity offered by black and white cinematography: Ted Turner’s contemptible campaign of colorization providing perfect illustration of this, as the deeply impressionistic and allegorical compositions of black and white were lost with the garish, gaudy substitution of color. For me, the indelible image of doomed, three time loser Richard Widmark in Night and the City (a title that is as representative of the noir aesthetic as any), scurrying across the sinister, shadowy streets of London’s criminal underground, decaying, desolate tenement houses threatening to swallow him whole, is far more powerful and iconic than anything I could hope to find in a slick, CGI-laden blockbuster at the local faceless multiplex.

These films don’t just appeal to me visually, though many has been the time I have paused my DVD player to marvel at the carefully crafted composition of a particular shot, as haunting and evocative as any painting. The acting and dialogue in films of this era are also, in my opinion, far superior to their modern day counterparts. Watching Humphrey Bogart in a film like The Maltese Falcon, tossing off caustic, cynical one-liners with sneering aplomb is a true joy. With his haggard countenance and world-weary eyes, Bogie’s authenticity is unimpeachable: he doesn’t just play a role, he lives inside of it.

Robert Mitchum is another one of my favorites. An intriguing combination of hard-drinking macho man, intellectual proto-beatnik, and sensitive soul, Mitchum is the epitome of cool. His acting style is unique, as a laid-back, almost indifferent demeanor belies a smoldering intensity that is put to wonderful effect in films like Out of the Past. After amoral, doe-eyed Jane Greer protests that she didn’t take the forty grand she is accused of stealing, he intones in his syrupy, somnolent baritone, “Baby, I don’t care.” (That phrase is also the title of Lee Server’s wildly entertaining 2001 biography of Mitchum.)

In 1955, Mitchum would star in one of the finest American films ever made, the gothic, surreal Night Of The Hunter, in which he played a demonic, scheming preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed across the knuckles of his hands. The film is a startlingly original piece of cinema, owing as much to German expressionism as traditional Hollywood narrative. Of course it was a box office failure, ending the directorial career of stage icon Charles Laughton almost before it began.

There is a priceless photograph taken during the conclusion of Mitchum’s 1948 trial for marijuana possession, in which he is standing between co-defendant Lila Leeds and high-powered attorney Jerry Giesler. Leeds and Mitchum have just been found guilty, and their responses are caught by a reporter’s camera. Leeds stands mouth agape, shocked and dismayed. Giesler, his hands on his hips, glowers and grimaces. Mitchum has a delighted smirk on his face, reacting as if the judge has just told him a rather risqué joke, rather than pronouncing him guilty of drug possession.

The femme fatales that inhabit these flickering, fatalistic films are as memorable as the male leads, luscious glamour girls whose style and grace easily outclass the actresses of today, who are primarily a dull, unrefined lot. You’d never see Grace Kelly stumbling around in sweatpants or drunkenly flashing her crotch outside a nightclub, that’s for sure. On screen, they were mesmerizing. Once you have seen beautiful, beatific Veronica Lake smile, her luscious locks cascading onto her shapely shoulders like a honey blonde waterfall, you won’t soon forget it. Gorgeous Gene Tierney, as the coldly calculating murderess in Leave Her To Heaven, even manages to make overbites look sexy. Then there is the iconic image of Barbara Stanwyck, clad in towel and cheap blonde wig, alighting on a staircase in Double Indemnity, a silky half smile playing across her crimson lips. This enticing vision holds more erotic possibility than any number of interchangeable, gratuitous Hollywood romps in the sack. I would rather watch Rita Hayworth’s virtually skin-free striptease in Gilda, as she slowly, deliciously pulls off her long white gloves, than sit through Demi Moore’s disrobing in Striptease any day of the week.

The dialogue in film noir titles is also first rate. Crackling, razor sharp prose flies from the sneering mouths of the actors, reflecting the pessimistic, dour attitudes of many Americans in the post-war era, who had become disillusioned and weary, their happiness sapped by the horrors of WWII. Even the dullest and most uninspired films from this era still have a least a few redeeming moments of snappy patter, the kind of verbal repartee that is sorely lacking in today’s cinema, where well-written dialogue seems to have taken a back seat to mindless violence and gratuitous sex. In the 1940s, with the restrictions of the Production Code, sexuality could never be shown outright, which led screenwriters down a far cleverer path, as they were forced to use subtle, witty metaphors to get the message across. For this viewer, the sexually charged, double entendre-loaded exchanges between Bogart and smoky voiced Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep provide much more of an erotic thrill than the cold, clinical coupling of Angelina Jolie and her latest on-screen conquest. Witness this wonderful exchange from Double Indemnity, a verbal ping-pong match/mating dance between insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred Mac Murray) and conniving housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck):

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren't you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

These are films I invariably view alone, as I have long since given up attempting to convert my friends to black and white aficionados. My suggestions of Detour or DOA are always met with eye-rolling derision and vetoed immediately, and I am then forced to sit through the latest Adam Sandler opus. This essay does paint an admittedly dire portrait of modern cinema, and I would like to make it clear that I am not dismissive of the entity as a whole. There are current directors like Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch, Bela Tarr and Aki Kaurismaki that create original, memorable films, but such auteur seem to be few and far between these days. The films that I treasure and am captivated by come from a bygone era that most of my peers are indifferent to or unaware of, a reality that I have reconciled myself to. To invoke the title of a Robert Mitchum film again, these pictures come from Out of the Past, a past that I am forever fascinated by.

And here's Rudolph Maté's "DOA"...

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