Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Paul Schrader - Notes on Film Noir Part 2
The Wilder/Chandler Double Indemnity provided a bridge to the post-war phase of film noir. The unflinching noir vision of Double Indemnity came as a shock in 1944, and the film was almost blocked by the combined efforts of Paramount, the Hays Office and star Fred McMurray. Three years later, however, Double Indemnitys were dropping off the studio assembly line.
The second phase was the post-war realistic period from 1945-49 (the dates overlap and so do the films; these are all approximate phases for which there are many exceptions). These films tended more toward the problems of crime in the streets, political corruption and police routine. Less romantic heroes like Richard Conte, Burt Lancaster and Charles McGraw were more suited to this period, as were proletarian directors like Hathaway, Dassin and Kazan. The realistic urban look of this phase is seen in such films as The House on 92nd Street, The Killers, Raw Deal, Act of Violence, Union Station, Kiss of Death, Johnny O’Clock, Force of Evil, Dead Reckoning, Ride the Pink Horse, Dark Passage, Cry of the City, The Set-Up, T-Men, Call Northside 777, Brute Force, The Big Clock, Thieves’ Highway, Ruthless, Pitfall, Boomerang!, and The Naked City.
The third and final phase of film noir, from 1949-53, was the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse. The noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair, started to get bananas. The psychotic killer, who had in the first period been a subject worthy of study (Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror), in the second a fringe threat (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death), now became the active protagonist (James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye). There were no excuses given for the psychopathy in Gun Crazy—it was just “crazy”. James Cagney made a neurotic comeback and his instability was matched by that of younger actors like Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin. This was the phase of the “B” noir film, and of psychoanalytically-inclined directors like Ray and Walsh. The forces of personal disintegration are reflected in such films as White Heat, Gun Crazy, D. O. A., Caught, They Live By Night, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Detective Story, In a Lonely Place, I’ the Jury, Ace in the Hole, Panic in the Streets, The Big Heat, On Dangerous Ground, Sunset Boulevard.
By the middle Fifties film noir had ground to a halt. There were a few notable stragglers, Kiss Me Deadly, the Lewis/Alton The Big Combo, and film noir’s epitaph, Touch of Evil, but for the most part a new style of crime film had become popular.
Film noir was an immensely creative period—probably the most creative in Hollywood’s history—at least, if this creativity is measured not by its peaks but by its median level of artistry. Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western and so on. (A Joseph H. Lewis “B” film noir is better than a Lewis “B” western, for example.) Taken as a whole period, film noir achieved an unusually high level of artistry.
Film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors. Again and again, a film noir will make the high point on an artist’s career graph. Some directors, for example, did their best work in film noir (Stuart Heisler, Robert Siodmak, Gordon Douglas, Edward Dmytryk, John Brahm, John Cromwell, Raoul Walsh, Henry Hathaway); other directors began in film noir, and it seems to me, never regained their original heights (Otto Preminger, Rudolph Mate, Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise, Jules Dassin, Richard Fleischer, John Huston, Andre de Toth, and Robert Aldrich); and other directors who made great films in other molds also made great film noir (Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, Howard Hawks, Robert Rossen, Anthony Mann, Joseph Losey, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick). Whether or not one agrees with this particular schema, its message is irrefutable: film noir was good for practically every director’s career. (Two interesting exceptions to prove the case are King Vidor and Jean Renoir.)
Film noir seems to have been a creative release for everyone involved. It gave artists a chance to work with previously forbidden themes, yet had conventions strong enough to protect the mediocre. Cinematographers were allowed to become highly mannered, and actors were sheltered by the cinematographers to distinguish between great directors and great noir directors.
Film noir’s remarkable creativity makes its longtime neglect the more baffling. The French, of course, have been students of the period for some time (Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama du Film Noir was published in 1955), but American critics until recently have preferred the western, the musical or the gangster film to the film noir.
This prejudice was reinforced by the fact that film noir was ideally suited to the low budget “B” film, and many of the best noir films were “B” films. This odd sort of economic snobbery still lingers on in some critical circles: high- budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash, and to praise a “B” film is somehow to slight(often intentionally) an “A” film.
There has been a critical revival in the U. S. over the last ten years, but film noir lost out on that too. The revival as auteur (director) oriented, and film noir wasn’t. Auteur criticism is interested in how directors are different; film noir criticism is concerned with what they have in common.
The fundamental reason for film noir’s neglect, however, is the fact that it depends more on choreography than sociology, and American critics have always been slow on the uptake when it comes to visual style. Like its protagonists, film noir is more interested in style than theme; whereas American critics have been traditionally more interested in theme than style.
American film critics have always been sociologists first and scientists second: film is important as it relates to large masses, and if a film goes awry it is often because the theme has been somehow “violated” by the style. Film noir operates on opposite principles: the theme is hidden in the style, and bogus themes are often haunted (“middle class values are best”) which contradict the style. Although, I believe, style determines the theme in every film, it was easier for sociological critics to discuss the themes of the western and gangster film apart from stylistic analysis than it was to do for film noir.
The irony of this neglect is that in retrospect the gangster films Warshow wrote about are inferior to film noir. The Thirties gangster was primarily a reflection of what was happening in the country, and Warshow analyzed this. The film noir, although it was also a sociological reflection, went further than the gangster film. Toward the end film noir was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the materials it reflected; it tried to make America accept a moral vision of life based on style. That very contradiction—promoting style in a culture which valued themes—forced film noir into artistically invigorating twists and turns. Film noir attacked and interpreted its sociological conditions, and, by the close of the noir period, created a new artistic world which went beyond a simple sociological reflection, a nightmarish world of American mannerism which was by far more a creation than a reflection.