Posts Tagged ‘Noir




Continuing in the cult movie vein, I saw Bound for the first time a few days ago after meaning to get around to seeing it for years. For as long as there are video stores, this is one movie you’ll always be able to find for the infamous sex appeal between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Their relationship has become a classic in some lesbian circles and no doubt a favorite amongst legions of straight men. With that said, there has also been a fair amount of controversy about whether the film is a feminist-leaning subversion of traditional gender roles and heteronormativity or whether it is just another male-fantasy, lesbian-exploitation film with some clever twists on the noir genre. Honestly, I feel some ambivalence about it.

One of the things that first made me like cult movies was how much more playful they can often be about gender, race, and sexual orientation, with a deeper interest in subverting categories and spoofing Hollywood conventions than most mainstream popular films. This is a characteristic of cult films that has clearly followed through from the older, pulp classics of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and straight through Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. This is very much present in Bound too. I am, in fact, a big fan of Jackie Brown in particular, where Pam Grier does such a great job of bringing her refreshingly three-dimensional character to life. The characters in Bound are definitely not as sensitively developed here and are more like something out of a pulp novel, like old-time lesbian classic Beebo Brinker, or a B-movie noir.

Jennifer Tilly’s Violet is a sort of Mae West, gun moll type and Gina Gershon’s Corky (ahem, I really almost couldn’t get past how ridiculous her name is) is James Dean by way of K.D. Lang. Is it over the top? Undoubtedly. Does their first sexual encounter seem pretty stilted/tawdry? Definitely. Is it still super entertaining? Pretty much. The best thing about the movie and the reason that it deserves to haunt video stores from coast to coast is that it’s a pretty cleverly written little noir, where nothing goes as planned, but the main characters still somehow manage to keep on going. In comparison to the mega-overblown scripting of the Wachowski’s next series of films, (The Matrix series), it is nice to see the little indie film they started with which wraps up so neatly and has a lot of similar lovable touches to it that have always made the Coen brothers films such masterpieces.

For another thing, SPOILER ALERT, it is really nice to see a movie where the lesbian leads get a happy ending for once, in comparison to so many of the other lesbian-themed films out there (typically the ones written by honest-to-God lesbians) which are crushingly depressing. For all its cheesiness, this movie is really fun to watch and is good for what ails you if ye olde patriarchal hegemony is getting you down.


In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.


SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.


Paris, Texas


I don’t know how I feel about German director, Wim Wenders. I saw Wings of Desire a few years ago and felt deeply ambivalent about that film and I had similar feelings after watching Paris, Texas.

The movie places a lot of emphasis on the Texas and California landscapes that dominate and almost dwarf the understated characters. This is not really anything new, with the desert/red rock country being a major feature of most Spaghetti Westerns, if not just Westerns in general, but of course Paris, Texas focuses on the aftermath of emotional/psychological violence between outcasts as opposed to the commission of violence between outlaws. The desolation of the empty desert and the emptiness of the blank Los Angeles suburbs mirrors the benumbed emotional and mental life of the main character, Travis, played masterfully by Harry Dean Stanton (who is certainly one of the most underrated contemporary actors). As someone who grew up in the west, I’m very familiar with the power and beauty of that unique landscape and I can easily see how this aspect of the film alone captured the imagination of many when the film first came out.

Beyond the cinematography, Wenders does create an entrancing mood of mystery, loneliness, and memory, with dramatic tension that builds in a natural, consistent arc toward the ending. The viewer has an eerie, dream-like feeling almost the whole way through as you become more and more enveloped in the story and the unraveling of what is haunting Travis, especially when we glimpse the former bliss of the little family he once had and the developing relationship between him and his son, Hunter.

But in a certain way, I feel like maybe Wenders does a little too good a job of setting up the tension and the sense of mystery in the film for the resolution we are ultimately offered at the end of the picture. Cue spoiler alert. In the culminating scene of the movie, Travis finally talks to his former lover and Hunter’s mother, Jane (played by Nastassja Kinski), and this conversation fills in all the missing pieces of what went wrong between them for the audience. Mother and child are ultimately reunited and Travis rides off into the proverbial sunset, seemingly too damaged by his history with Jane and too worried about his Hunter’s future for the full reunion the audience hopes for.

The film is an extended exercise in understatement, with the audience inferring the deep emotions that are too powerful for any of the battered, regret-laden characters to directly address for a full 90% of the movie. Travis is in so much pain at the beginning or has at least been so extremely adverse to remembering that pain, that he does not seem to remember how to talk or who is brother is. To me, this pushes things too far beyond the balance. It is like being given a close-up of just a weight-lifter’s face right as she raises the barbell, with all its pain, misery, and concentration. You’re likely to imagine such a terrible burden that when the camera zooms out and you see the banal, literal weight she’s lifting, you’re bound to be disappointed.

After the tremendous build-up and atmosphere established in the beginning of the film, it is vaguely unsatisfying, bordering on inconsistent to have the story boiled down to the all-too-familiar plagues of the modern American family- alcoholism, poverty, and domestic violence. That which had seemed so loaded with existential power and meaning dissipates into the dry, Texas air. Wenders gives us no flashbacks of the family’s destruction which could concretize and dramatize these demons, but does give us enough of a blank re-telling for almost all our questions to be answered. I can’t help but wish that Wenders gave the audience either a little more or a lot less.

And it certainly feels like less than a happy ending, not just because Travis melts into the background, but also because Hunter is taken from a happy, loving middle-class household and left with a mother who is no doubt still poor, still single, and still emotionally stunted as far as we can tell, since she’s now been reduced to sex work to make ends meet. Supposedly Travis has righted his former wrongs and restored order to their lives, but seen in another light, this ending seems like more pain for everyone involved on top of everything they’ve already been through.

It isn’t clear to me if this ending is intentionally unhappy or not, but it definitely left me unsettled. It particularly bothered me since Hunter is not allowed to even say goodbye to the only parents he remembered up to that point. Perhaps such a scene would have disrupted the arc of the film’s emotional tension, but to me it felt too distortive of reality. For Travis’ character to deprive his brother and sister-in-law of at least a goodbye after having raised him for the past 4 years, he would have to be not just ungrateful, but almost totally heartless. Harry Dean Stanton portrayal of the character really draws on your sympathies up to this point and this moment of cruelty felt unnecessary and out of place.

Overall, I found Paris, Texas very compelling and definitely worth seeing, but not quite the magnum opus that some people seem to think it is. I’m aware that aside from the close analysis that can be done of the film’s plot, the movie is also meant to be a broader allegory about what it really means to love someone, to be a good husband and father, and to be an American after waking up on the wrong side of the American dream. I think part of the failure of the movie is that it takes itself far too seriously and seeing the answers to the questions it raises as being deeper or more ground-breaking than they really are. I feel like Wings of Desire suffers from exactly the same problem. In a weird way, the understated tone overemphasizes its subject matter and it doesn’t quite feel right.


Mississippi Mermaid

Mississippi MermaidTonight I saw Mississippi Mermaid by Francois Truffaut, which I’d wanted to see for a while since I’m into noir and I just finished a book by Cornell Woolrich, whose work inspired both this film and another Truffaut movie that I very much enjoyed, The Bride Wore Black. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a clunker. It’s intended to be a sort of fable about a love story gone off the rails, beginning with an exotic island wedding and (Spoiler Alert!) ending in a poisonous Swiss blizzard, but it never quite manages to work up a steam.

For one thing, Jean-Paul Belmondo is kind of laughably far from being the hyper-masculine, hardened leading man which is such a common feature amongst most noirs and which would maybe make better sense in this role. Despite his star-making turn in Breathless, he just doesn’t have the charisma to pull it off and the audience at the screening often giggled during his wooden speeches, he so badly fit the dialogue and the character. For another thing, the chemistry between Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve was badly off, with the love story never building up the appropriate level of tension and magnetic energy which the movie needs for the plot to work. At best the romance achieves a sort of cheesy eroticism and at worst the lovers seem glaringly mismatched, nothing compared to the star-crossed loves from great noirs like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

To make matters worse, there’s something very weird about the pacing of the film. The movie starts as a thick largo familiar from other films with a post-colonial setting; there are lingering shots of the jungle, the massive plantation house, and the local culture. But then it ultimately speeds into a headlong rush with the two hopping from place to place and filing in the gaps in the middle with rambling exposition. The transitions feel very patched in and ultimately, it feels like the film could stand some massive editing.

A move like this should roll forward like a roller coaster climbing up a hill, with the audience being drawn into the luminous essence of the affair while also being well-aware of the big fall closing in every moment. It should be lean, tight, and sharp with a natural momentum built in at the center of the action. Instead, there’s a rambling uncertainty about the whole thing: as though Truffaut can’t decide if he wants to make a real noir like The Bride Wore Black or an obtuse, slice-of-life musing on the illusory nature of love like in Jules and Jim. Altogether, a surprising disappointment from a darling of the French New Wave.


Lady in the Lake & Dark Passage

I saw Lady in the Lake last night, a noir based on the Raymond Chandler novel. I rented it because I saw Dark Passage for the first time a few months ago and thought the use of first person camera work in it was fantastic. Both of these movies use the camera as the main character and the audience sees what he sees, as he sees it. It’s the kind of gimmick I’m a sucker for, because it provides that little special twist that makes a genre movie suddenly feel surprising and new.

Dark Passage was released several months after Lady in the Lake, in the same year, 1947, after Robert Montgomery first pioneered the technique. Unfortunately, Lady in the Lake is clearly the inferior of the two, even though it commits more fully to the technique by adopting it for almost the entire length and was the first to use it. Most importantly, the difference in acting quality and style is dramatic. Admittedly, Bogart and Bacall would be stiff competition for anybody, but the acting in Lady in the Lake drowns on its own merits. Montgomery’s Marlowe is decent enough considering we do not see his face for a good 90% of the film, but Audrey Totter’s Ms. Fromsett is one of the most affected, jumpy, unlikeable performances I’ve ever seen. Just check out this still:

Shooting in the first person means that the actors have to direct their performances straight at the camera and not only do an effective job of portraying their own characters, but also somehow evoke the reactions of the other character they are speaking to. A real dose of nuance and subtlety is required to really pull this off and the hammy, overacted performance of Totter demolishes your ability to sympathize with her at all. This is a serious problem for the movie considering that Totter is supposed to have a significant amount of romantic tension with Montgomery. While the character of Adrianne Fromsett is certainly intended to be ambiguous and not quite trust-worthy, there also has to be something genuinely and obviously alluring about her. The combination of Marlowe’s frosty dialogue giving away little of his true feelings and Totter’s definition-of-harpie performance, adds up to a love story that literally comes out of nowhere. And the romantic subplot is a big enough distraction from the murders which should be the rightful focus of the film, that it basically ruins the whole movie.

In contrast, Dark Passage is a dynamite little noir where everything works just right and the real potential of this unusual camera technique is fully realized. The movie begins with Bogart daringly escaping from prison, getting involved in a violent scuffle, and then having the unbelievably good fortune of getting picked up by Bacall. Daves uses the first-person camera in these scenes to create the same kind of effect we see so commonly now in IMAX movies; it’s like when they put the camera on a roller coaster and your brain is tricked into feeling just like you’re on the ride. The technique must have been mind-blowing for audiences when it first came out and it’s still pretty thrilling.

Daves also understood that since the first-person camera could make the audience feel like they were actually experiencing all of this, there was not the usual need for the audience to identify with the character’s personality or motives. We have no context for Bogart’s character when the movie begins. For all we know, the person whose eyes we see through is a dangerous and evil man and we are committing criminal acts right along with him. But we identify with him because we have to, we literally see through his perspective. This is especially brilliant because of the nature of the noir genre, which is built so heavily around anti-heroes. James M. Cain’s novels are all about playing off the reader’s natural voyeurism and getting you to be sympathetic to the criminals in his books, even if you don’t entirely forgive them. He draws you into an understanding that there is no easy barrier between those who are innocent and those who are guilty. The victims of the murders are almost always unlikeable and the murderers themselves often become entangled in circumstances that they are incapable of resisting.

In Dark Passage, Daves uses the camera to play off the audience’s voyeuristic fascination with crime and refuses to allow the audience to separate themselves from the character in the usual way. The fact that you have such an instant identification with the main character without the usual acting or dialogue clues that he’s really a good guy, challenges the ethical myth that there is a clean line between good people and bad people, us and them. There is a mingled horror and pleasure in taking on the perspective of someone beating another person and you feel the terror of being captured by the police in an extremely visceral way. To me, the moral ambiguity noir creates is the whole essence and appeal of the genre and this is an example of it at it’s best.

Next, Lauren Bacall, isn’t necessarily the most subtle actress of all time, but her chemistry with Bogart is legendary and she uses the first-person camera work in Dark Passage all to her advantage. When she looks at the audience straight on with that devastating sharpness of hers, it’s hard to look away. Indeed, having someone as smoldering and sexy as Bacall looking straight at you and taking care of you is at least as emotionally affecting as feeling like you’re punching someone in the face. There is zero need to see Bogart’s face to know how he must be feeling about Bacall in the film; the audience feels the same way. Admittedly, her character does not have the mingling of good and bad character traits of Totter’s and lacks some complexity, but her motivation for helping this escaped convict is enough of a mystery early in the film to create the necessary tension.

Daves’ other inventive and effective choice is to switch out of the first person camera work after Bogart gets plastic surgery. As Bogart’s face is changed, the audience is pushed out of their ability to have an immediate identification with his character and see as he sees. Suddenly, we are outside and can look to the character’s expression and mannerisms and read the subtler cues underneath the lines he delivers. Yet, since we are aware that the face we see is a false reconstruction, a mask designed to hide the true identity and age of Bogart’s character, our ability to make the kinds of straightforward, basic judgments movies normally encourage remains uncertain.

After the forced, visceral identification of the audience with the violent, criminal main character in the first half of the movie, we are forced outside the character, through the camera work and our knowledge of his facial reconstruction, after we are more reassured of his innocence and goodness. This means a certain sense of unease remains, even when our doubts about the character should be resolved. Having these two mirrored halves in the film is an amazingly masterful way to directly challenge the quick moral assumptions we make on a daily basis. In a very literal way, it undermines the audience’s basic confidence that we know who a person is and what their experience is just by looking at them.

At the time it came out, Dark Passage was a tremendous box office failure- ironically due to the fact that you don’t actually see Bogart’s face for the whole first half of the movie. Sadly, this has obscured what a classic this movie should be. It is certainly one of the most intriguing, complex, and genuinely entertaining noir films I’ve ever seen.

-Vicky Vengeance