It was a dark night and I was thinking some deep thoughts on religion and politics when I got caught up in an old film, Out of the Past. The description on TCM said that Robert Mitchum was fooled by a “no good dame,” so I had to find out what a “no good dame” was like. It was one of those black and white films of the ‘40's with lots of shadows and men wearing hats with large brims and trench coats. It was a style I knew and I was hooked again. The “no good dame” was Jane Greer, who betrayed everyone for money.
You see, one of my favorite segments of Prairie Home Companion has always been Guy Noir, the detective in St. Paul who ponders life’s persistent questions. Everything about the show is right. I looked up the theme music and discovered a key to these dream-like intrigues about ambivalent situations and confused characters who would never be thought of as heros. The opening chord is a minor triad with a major seventh. Try it and you will see what I mean. (Bernard Herrman used it in Psycho, so some call it “the Hitchcock chord.)
So I got this book, A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953, by two French film freaks, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. They introduced me to film criticism that makes me feel at home. You know, the contradictions, the incoherence of life, being not particularly handsome, not being in control, the unpredictable fate that we should have seen coming. I learned to use the word “oneiric” (dreamlike) and insolite (strange, Kafkaesque, drole, bizarre, singular, “anormal” = mentally defective). Yeah, the French have a word for it. Film Noir is also erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. It is a style that reflects the malaise and tension that the viewers experience from “the disappearance of their psychological bearings.” It's about not understanding what is going on until it has gone on. I identify with this.
Did Film Noir end in ‘53? Or with Touch of Evil in ‘58? But it still goes on – Chinatown, Basic Instinct, The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential, Shutter Island. Does it have to be black and white? I subtract most gangster films, cause the best noir is about regular people, little people, in difficult situations, of which, mostly, they can’t get out. Sometimes they are Westerns; sometimes they are Asian (Thai detective films on Netflix are great!)
Last week I saw Public Eye with Joe Peschi as the real photo journalist who published his pics in The Naked City, and whose book then inspired movies and TV shows. Check out IMDB.com and Google “film noir.” And my library system has more than 20 more books on the subject.
I could go on about surrealism, German expressionism, Eastern European film directors in Hollywood, and what was going on in American culture in the ‘30's and ‘40's. I remember reading Raymond Chandler’s Red Harvest, which didn’t make it into film, and James M. Cain’s works, which did.
One film crit says “Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WWII.... Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression...; painter Edwards Hopper’s study of the long lonely night in Nighthawks was painted in 1942.” I don't think we have a very good grasp of our past yet. Or ever. And it keeps catching up with us.
This week I saw Detour (low budget and little known but much underrated!) and Mildred Pierce (always chilling). It’s raining and dreary. Think I’ll watch Fear in the Night or The Woman in the Window.