In a past blog, I made a bold declaration, and I stand by it. If all new media were to suddenly cease tomorrow and we were all forced to revisit past works for our storytelling fix, I’d be fine. After all, there’s plenty of material we’ve either ignored or don’t even know about.
Today, I’m going to go a step farther and say there are times when all I want to do is live in the past. When I look at modern filmmaking and get depressed by the sameness of it all, whether it’s an independent navel-gazer, an Oscar bait contender or a big budget, blockbuster tentpole, I reach for the antidote to cinematic ennui.
I’ve learned that the surest cure for the movie blues is black-and-white film noir.
Film noir is notoriously difficult to define. You can’t say it HAS to be set in a city or it HAS to involve a private eye or even that it HAS to be black-and-white (although the majority are; Hitchcock’s Vertigo is the major exception to that rule). Film noir is bigger than any of those individual criteria.
Film noir is both a style and a philosophy. That style is all about contrast. Heavy blacks, deep shadows countered against blinding brightness, unusual lighting patterns that seem almost unreal or dreamlike and strange camera angles, tilted, off-kilter. There is a sense of foreboding and dread in film noir, but also a sense of disorientation and an almost fantasy-like weirdness considering the starkness and the ostensibly grounded nature of the narrative.
And the philosophy: it’s all about broken people; not anti-heroes per se, not badasses, but neither bastions of moral integrity. The characters of noir films are rather average, run-of-the-mill, flawed individuals struggling to get by and one mistake away from total ruin. Like an insect trapped in flypaper, struggling just makes it worse. And though fates differ for many of the protagonists in these films, there’s a better than average chance the main character is going to end up demoralized, defeated or dead.
It may sound cynical, depressing even, but noir is too stylish, too slick, too unpredictable to ruin your mood. There are plenty of modern films that tell grounded, authentic, realistic stories with vulnerable characters and the end result is you want to go find a sharp razor blade and a warm bath. Noir films have a vitality, an energy and a sense of ironic, dark humor that helps remove the proceedings from being confused with stark reality; there’s a theatricality to noir and also an inevitability to the way the better stories are structured that makes even the most tragic of endings counterintuitively satisfying.
I regret to admit that I haven’t watched every film noir (there are some 300 of them between 1940 and 1958 by some counts), and there are even some time-honored classics that haven’t yet hit my Blu-Ray player. But I have seen enough to know what I like and to pick out the elements of noir that are so unique to that style of filmmaking.
Let’s talk about the dames for starters. Even in 2016, it’s rare to see a female protagonist in a mainstream film. That is clearly changing, and that’s an exciting difference in modern filmmaking from what has come before. But in the grand scheme of things, women have mostly been relegated to romantic interests and supporting roles for the last half century plus. There are notable exceptions, of course: All About Eve, Thelma and Louise, Alien, for starters. But female protagonists probably comprise somewhere between 5-10% of all American Hollywood films AT BEST.
The great thing about film noir is that even though women are rarely the protagonists, they are at least given interesting roles beyond the stereotypical love interest for the leading man. In many cases, the female roles are the dominant performances in the films, the driving force for the plot even if we are seeing the events unfold through the eyes of a man.
Consider Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard, both films from director Billy Wilder. It’s Phyllis’ diabolical plan in Indemnity and her manipulation of Walter that results in the tragic comeuppance that ultimately engulfs the both of them. And in Sunset, it’s Norma Desmond’s obsession and egomania (and admittedly Joe’s failed plan to exploit that madness without getting pulled under) that is the center of all conflict. Both Phyllis and Norma are wildly different characters from each other and far more nuanced and complex than the majority of female roles offered at the time.
The femme fatale may be a construction of a misogynistic fear of women manipulating mankind, but to play devil’s advocate, it also insinuates a certain level of respect for a woman’s superior intelligence. Choosing between a blonde bimbo in a bikini and a manipulative, insane shrew may not provide an ideal choice for any self-respecting feminist, but you can’t deny that there is at least a depth and pathos to the latter. The femme fatale has agency and is always looking out for her best interests, not content to allow any man to determine her future.
Consider Kathie from Out of the Past. A mistress for a gangster named Whit, she injures him and runs away with his money. When private investigator Jeff is hired to find her and bring her back, he falls in love with her instead. But she’s setting him up and playing the long game, returning to Whit when she needs more money and setting up the ruined, on-the-run Jeff as her fall guy for a murder he didn’t commit and money he didn’t steal.
Beyond the femme fatale component, great film noir provides us with protagonists that are simultaneously endearing and infuriating. Whether it’s the aforementioned Jeff from Out of the Past, Double Indemnity‘s Walter, or The Swede from The Killers, these are men who are flawed and weak when it comes to the opposite sex. They’re easily manipulated, but they’re also fighters and survivors… until they reach the end of their rope, that is.
The Killers is a particularly apt example of these flawed but still sympathetic protagonists as it actually begins with The Swede’s death. Through an investigation, the backstory of the character is revealed and the reason for his murder (and his willing acceptance of that violent death) is made clearer. Falling in with the wrong crowd after a failed stint as a boxer, The Swede falls hard for a hot dame called Kitty. Before he knows it, he’s committed a heist with a dodgy group of gangsters and been double-crossed by Kitty, who recognizes the hold she has on him and exploits it to its fullest. Exactly like Jeff from Out of the Past, he ends up an outcast in a small town working a mundane existence at a gas station until his past finally catches up to him.
Another down-on-his-luck boxer shows up in the form of Davey Gordon from Killer’s Kiss, one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest films. Atmospheric and spare on plot, Kubrick’s film noir is less a story than a sensation; the expected plot tropes are present, but it’s the visual style that makes this a noir film worth seeking out, whether it’s the Rear Windows-ish voyeurism of watching neighbors through their apartment windows, the sleazy glitz and phony glamour of a shady “dance hall” encrusted in neon, or the simultaneously creepy and thrilling chase through a mannequin warehouse in an unpopulated section of the city’s docks. And at just 67 minutes long, it’s especially remarkable for how memorable and haunting it remains.
I could go on. There are a million variations on the basic formula intrinsic in a good noir caper, but they play with all the things I’m most excited to see in my cinematic entertainment: rich characterization, compelling visual artistry, and labyrinthine plots with twists, turns and “gotcha” endings. Old movies can sometimes feel like homework to watch, but I stand by any of the films I’ve mentioned above as eye-opening, transformative works that will not only keep your attention but keep you on the edge of your seat.
Film noir may be an era that only lives on in imitation, homage and parody, but there’s still plenty of the original flavor waiting to be rediscovered.