Monday, February 21, 2011

Darkness Falls: The (Black) Beauty of Film Noir


Last year, the great film bloggers Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren hosted a fundraising blogathon geared toward film preservation. Called For the Love of Film, the blogathon raised about $30,000 for the National Film Preservation Foundation to help rescue a couple of silent short films from the 1910s. I contributed some of my hard-earned dough to that, and even contributed a blog post to it.

Now, those two intrepid bloggers are back with For the Love of Film (Noir), this time trying to raise film-preservation funds for the Film Noir Foundation. And unlike last time, we actually know from the outset the film that this latest blogathon is trying to restore: a 1950 crime drama directed by Cy Endfield called The Sound of Fury. I haven't seen the film, but for those who want to know more about it, you can read R. Emmet Sweeney's and Imogen Smith's posts about the actual film, then read the Siren's interview with Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, here.

Maybe these blogathons just come at a bad time for me. My blog contribution to it last year came at the veeeeeery last minute, and this year, the week of For the Love of Film (Noir) has found me focusing more on scrambling to nail down reasonably priced housing and flights for South by Southwest next month. Believe it or not, yes, this has taken up much of my time this past week...though thankfully, I think I finally have secured both. But I've already missed one blogathon deadline this week because of all the attendant stress (it looks I won't be participating in this year's White Elephant blog-a-thon—a shame because I thoroughly enjoyed writing about the against-all-odds fascinating masterpiece of trash that was Michael Winner's 1984 film Scream for Help), and it looks like, while I won't technically be missing out on For the Love of Film (Noir), once again I'm holding my own contribution down to the wire. (For what it's worth, I've already made my donation...which you can do here.)


Ah, film noir! It's such a wide-ranging subject that honestly, I've had trouble coming up with a specific topic to write about for this latest blogathon, or at least one that I feel comfortable and authoritative enough to discuss at the moment. Perhaps, then, I'll start with what it is about film noir that fascinates me so much.

Maybe it's because of my own sheltered suburban upbringing that, over the years, I've developed a certain fascination with the kind of art that dares to shed light on the darker sides of human nature—the sides in all of us that we may suppress in the interest of good taste and decorum, but which often simmer underneath the surface. Film noir, at its most potent, is all about drawing out those buried tensions and exploring them to the limits, and sometimes even exploding them altogether.

I didn't get to see as many of the films in Film Forum's recent "Fritz Lang in Hollywood" series as I had initially hoped (blame my extended illness for that), but the Lang films I did see all made a deep impression on me for the depths with which Lang was willing to go to explore the forbidding corners of the human psyche. Neither Fury (1936) or You Only Live Once (1937), or, later in his American career, The Big Heat (1953) or Human Desire (1954)—all of those which I saw during the Film Forum retrospective—have a whole lot in common as far as the stories he tells. What makes them legit film noirs is, as Paul Schrader famously noted in his classic essay "Notes on Film Noir," "the subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film 'noir,' as opposed to the possible variants of film grey and film off-white." And indeed, all of those Lang films share a doom-laden mood suggested as much by his dark-hued expressionistic visual sensibility as by the deterministic bent of their respective plots. Witness, for instance, the near-surreal mist that envelops the prison that a desperate Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) tries to break out of in You Only Live Once, or the pool of shadow that engulfs Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) when his brothers first see him after his supposed death by lynch mob.

Such visual coups, though, are put in service of portraits of human nature that refuse to shy away from people's less savory potential. Fury, most notably, features as its protagonist a character who becomes so consumed by his increasingly inhuman sense of justice that he even threatens to cast off his devoted lover (Sylvia Sidney) when not even the conviction of the townspeople who "killed" him seems to bring him the satisfaction he desires. (The fact that his humane side eventually wins out doesn't lessen the pungent aftertaste left by Lang's otherwise pitiless depiction of mass hysteria and personal bloodlust.)

For me, though, it's not enough for a film to throw up appalling human behavior on the screen, surround the film with genre archetypes (hard-boiled gumshoes, femme fatales, and the like), bathe it all in an attractive visual style and call it a black-hearted noir. The best film noirs may feature disturbed characters and unsavory subject matter, but they have a sense of moral and spiritual anguish that adds genuine heft to their genre conventions. For all the world-weary wisecracking he does, Jeff Bailey, the trampled-on p.i. Robert Mitchum plays in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), seeks to be delivered from his troubled past; his sense of honor, in part, eventually pulls him back into the depths, as often happens in film noirs...but Tourneur and Mitchum manage to involve us emotionally in this character anyway, making you feel the full weight of his quest, and the pathos of his eventual, tragically inevitable failure.

Or consider Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), one of the doomed thieves at the heart of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). During the Great Depression, Dix's family lost control of their horse farm in Kentucky; Dix—who functions as the muscle for the heist masterminded by Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe)—sees this robbery as his ticket to buy back the farm and regain his lost livelihood. When the heist doesn't go as planned, however, a series of deceptions and double-crosses leads an injured Dix, towards the end of the film, to drive all the way down to that horse farm and eventually die, as horses surround hims dead body. Unlike Tourneur and Lang, Huston adopts a naturalistic style in his film; much of the film plays as cool-headed dissection of a heist gone wrong. Within that style, though, The Asphalt Jungle manages to lavish utmost attention on the desires that drive the various characters in this drama; we end up developing a genuine stake in seeing these characters succeed—a subversive feat regarding characters that, in real life, we might merely dismiss as mere lowlifes and hoodlums.

That's the beauty of not only film noir, but of cinema as a whole: the ability it has to bring us into the lives and desires of characters we may never think of observing or even sympathizing with, as well as the possibility of being drawn to consider a way of looking at the world that might disturb and discomfort. As long as humanity carries desires, however unsettling, that we mostly try to suppress, and which sometimes rise to the surface in terrifying fashion, there will always be a place for noir. Now and forever.

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