Film Noir: Dark, Delicious and Deserving of a Comeback
July 4, 2011 Leave a comment
Celebrating American independence need not entail fireworks displays and barbecues, especially on this side of the Atlantic where such things may not be practical for most of us. This Fourth of July, why not enjoy one of the truly American art forms? Along with the Western, the most American of film genres has to be Film Noir – and moreover, it just happens to be my favorite one. These films from the 1940’s to the mid-50’s are not only entertaining but incredibly stylish. Look back at a time when men wore hats, always had their hair sharply parted and ties and jackets were a given. It seems that even the bums and hobos of that era dressed better than, say, retail business managers today. Perhaps the Great Depression forced people to sell themselves a lot more? The cursed casual movement of the sixties still upsets me to no end, and I long for a time when something resembling civilisation might return. Another round of quantitative easing might just do the trick. The women looked swell, too. Curvy actresses and the good old 70% waist-to-hip ratio, ideal for childbearing, were in. Sure women were slapped around a lot, but they often deserved it. Film noir featured lots of moral ambiguity, which I always found fascinating, considering they peaked at a time when we were fighting the ‘good war’ to save civilisation.
There has been no great flood of film noir titles in recent years, so its the perfect time to anticipate a trend. Hollywood will no doubt look to the past when ideas run dry. One of my favorite films of the noughties was the unique neo-noir ‘Brick’ (2005) where many of the essentials of film noir (cynicism, crime, the femme fatale, a fast-talking detective and informant) were transplanted to a modern California high school. It worked. Kids talked Raymond Chandler and Hammett. Along with Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’, this film proved that film noir need not be in black and white.
One thing annoyed me about Brick. It was meant to be in 2005, but I don’t think I saw a computer or cellphone in the entire film. We see the lead character in a payphone several times. Why the absence of modern technology?
It actually made perfect sense. The plot of many a classic noir always seemed to hinge on cases of mistaken identity and the unknown, plots to which technological limits lend more credence. In 1955’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ a murderous deranged felon is a able to pass himself off as the prison chaplain of the penitentiary where a widow’s husband was executed (whereas in fact he had shared a cell with the man). The poor unsuspecting widow Willa Harper today could browse the details of every Federal inmate incarcerated since 1982 on this website, and probably find profiles of all the staff on the individual prison’s website.
Likewise ‘Detour’ in 1945 concerns a hitchhiker picked up by a man who dies suddenly. Fearing blame, the hitchhiker is able to dump the body, assume the identity of the deceased (who had not spoken to his parents in years and had no way of locating them) and even sell the car. Yet it gets truly terrifying when he picks a woman up who demands to know where he’s hidden the body.
Technological limits make the film noir world go round somewhat. Characters have to be anonymous, mysteriously displaced or with an unknown past that’s not possible in the age of Google.
So, while I’m not a person who holds that true film noir is no longer possible since the colour camera, I do think to be as ‘real’ as possible they have to take place in the 30’s (like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential did) or the 1940’s. Nothing wrong with that. We can get fashion tips. Is yours a face for a trilby or fedora?