Archive for June, 2010

Film Noir

I usually write about a single movie and actually, that’s what I started with but I kept rambling on about Film Noir so I decided to dedicate the post to it entirely. Warning: This post just kept getting longer and longer.

If you’re not quite sure what film noir is or means, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Even the experts can’t seem to agree on it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? Is it a movement or a period? There are some fascinating and convincing arguments for all of the above. It’s one of my favorite film topics because no one can agree – it sparks some good articles, essays and books because naturally, everyone thinks they’re right. I’m no different…so, here’s my two cents…

First, to define exactly what a genre is. Here’s a definition straight from

Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.

Naturally, after I looked that up I was curious to see their definition of Film Noir:

Film Noir: a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
(This illustrates my earlier point completely – they’re technically calling a film noir “a motion picture” – they avoided the debate by not saying “a style” or “a genre” or “a movement”…cracks me up)

Anyways, I agree with their genre definition. With that said, I personally believe that Film Noir is a sub-genre. It’s not an out and out genre all by itself – like Drama, Comedy, Musical, Western, Romance, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, etc.

Instead, a Film Noir is like an off-shoot of the big genres. Using the genre definition above – a film noir does have a particular form, content and technique so it does meet the definition BUT – no one set out to make film noirs in the 40s and 50s. They were making mysteries and thrillers and detective films and dramas…no one making these films set out to make “a film noir.” That term wasn’t coined until AFTER many of the movies we call Film Noirs were produced.

So, in other words, Film Noirs can be classified as a genre because they all share specific characteristics but they were originally classified in other genres – and still hold to those other genre’s definitions. Thus, I call them a sub-genre.

Now, if you don’t know, you’re probably wondering where the term came from and why it was after many of the movies were made. This historical aspect is a big part of why I love them so much. They were an unintentional byproduct of the time and along with Westerns, are the only other uniquely American genre.

During WWII, American films were banned in Nazi-occupied France. Once the war ended, the French and the very influential French film critics got to see the whole backlog of American movies they missed during the war. Rather than seeing the movies spread out over several months and years the way American audiences did, the French saw them in rapid succession. Because of this, they picked up on something that no one in America did. During the War, many of our films became dark – and they became dark in all senses of that word. The French critics began referring to these films as “noir” which is the French word for black.

So how were these films “noir”?
These are general explanations. Obviously each film is unique and follows these “rules” a little differently or follows some and not others but, in general, this is how it is:

If you’re like your films with a happy ending, Film Noirs are not where you’ll find them. The stories always have a criminal element. Murder and blackmail are the most common plot devices. The characters are often just one step ahead of the law – trying to frame each other or come up with an acceptable ‘fall guy.’ Often, the plot in these stories can be very convoluted – the plot doesn’t always matter. In a detective story for example, traditionally the story is all about how it happened and the plot is very important. But in a detective film that’s also a noir, the story is more about why. Noirs tend to be very interested in psychology or human behavior.

The settings are almost always urban – the cities are concrete jungles: cold, callous and unforgiving. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the most common. Most scenes take place at night, in the dark because that’s when the characters of Noir come out. Their business is always transacted at night. During the day, they’re inside. The only sunlight to be seen comes in through the blinds, casting prison-like bar shadows over everyone. This leads to the next noir characteristic….entrapment.
Noir characters are often trapped somehow. Sometimes they’re forced to do the things they do or feel they have no choice. Usually, they accept their fate – often they know or at least sense that they’re doomed.

Another popular theme is greed. People do bad things for money. These films like to show that.

Noirs have an extremely distinct style. Most of them are in black and white which adds to their sinister look and feel. The lighting is done in a way to create many shadows. Noirs are heavy on symbolism. One character might always be in the light, another might always be in a shadow. I mentioned blinds casting prison bar shadows earlier. Also, wrought-iron fences or gates cast bars over the characters – we’re constantly bombarded with imagery that tells us, they’re trapped or there’s no way out. The characters have distinct styles too. The men always smoke and usually drink heavily. The smoke adds to the visual style – clouding out whatever speck of light makes its way into a scene. The men usually wear suits, often pinstriped. When they go out, they wear a trench coat and a fedora. The women dress elegantly – gowns, gloves, jewels, impeccable hair and make-up. The script is full of razor-sharp wit, dripping with cynicism.
Common Noir Characters:

Femme Fatale: Definitely the most famous character type. So famous, the French coined a term for her too: “The Fatal Woman.” She’s beautiful, mysterious and can make normally level-headed men, fall for her instantly. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants and men are there to do her bidding. She’s cold and calculating. Every move she makes is for herself. The men who fall for her, figure it out way too late. They’re bad people but feminist film theorists make some good points that the Femme Fatales were some of the first strong women on the silver screen. When all the men were overseas, the women went out, got jobs and kept things running. They became stronger members of society than they ever were before. The Femme Fatales aren’t good but they are independent women. Some theorize, these strong women helped make these movies even more unsettling to the men in the audiences. These women were out in the world with the men – they weren’t home baking, cleaning or raising children.Duped Man: This is one of the guys that falls for the Femme Fatale. He’s a regular guy who crosses paths with a gorgeous woman. She gets him to do something for her and soon, he’s in too deep to ever get out. At first, he loves her – soon, he knows he’s been ‘a sap.’

Tough Guy: This is the other guy that falls for the Femme Fatale but unlike the duped man, this guy – often a detective, is a little too smart to fall all the way. He’s very smart. It’s clear he’s had a hard life where he needed to be smarter and tougher than the other guy. His past is always mysterious and usually implied to be questionable. He doesn’t trust anyone completely and is often a man of few words. When he does speak, it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. Deep down, he might be a good guy but something or someone has led him astray. Now he’s just trying to survive. He hopes to get out but doesn’t put much stock in hope.
Rich Sophisticated Bad Guy: The ‘boss’ of the henchmen is quite often a rich and sophisticated man. Like the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the rich guy uses his money to get others to do his bidding. He’s charming and charismatic – but definitely evil or at least no good.

Nice Girl: She’s usually the girlfriend of either the tough guy or duped man. She often represents an unattainable peaceful life. These guys love her but feel bad for dragging her into their mess of a life. Then the Femme Fatale comes along and she gets brushed aside. Ever faithful, she waits for her guy to see the light but often is left behind. She’s too good for them and they know it.

Hired Gun: Usually a very young guy – inexperienced but quick to put a bullet in someone to prove he’s tough. The real ‘tough guys’ have fun pushing this kid around. But, this kid is usually psychopathic. He isn’t really tough or smart – he just wants people to think he is and tries way too hard. He’s only dangerous because he’s trying to prove himself. If he’s not a young guy, he’s still not really any good. He’s like a big dumb henchman and often gets killed off or made to play the fall guy.

As I mentioned, Noir scripts are full of razor-sharp lines. Here are a few of my favorites:

Out of the Past (1947)

Kathie Moffat: I don’t want to die.
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.

Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.

Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.

Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation…
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Laura (1944)

Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.

Waldo Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.

Waldo Lydecker: My dear, either you were born on a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

Walter Neff: I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

Gilda (1946)

Johnny Farrell: Pardon me, but your husband is showing.


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The Searchers (1956)

“That’ll be the day…” – Ethan Edwards

Before I say anything about the movie, I need to say something about John Wayne. Ever said, “that’ll be the day…?” Or heard the song of the same name? You know, the one that goes…”That’ll be the day..ay..ay…when I die.” Did you know, The Searchers is where it all started? Well, I bet someone, somewhere uttered those words before but I can assure you they were likely meaningless until spoken by John Wayne.

If you’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, you should. If his movies just aren’t your thing, do it just for the experience of seeing him – he’s like no other. I think he’s a great, often underrated, actor….but it’s his screen presence that is truly remarkable. He didn’t just dominate the screen because he was such a big guy. And he was a big guy. He was 6’4…and not a scrawny 6’4. But that’s really not the only thing – he had a way of delivering his lines, taking pauses in strange places…sort of drawing out every fiber of every word that makes you believe him. No matter who he shared the screen with, you couldn’t help but notice him.

He’s often associated with American patriotism, and whether you agree with his personal politics or not, he was a patriot on and off the screen. So many times, in so many movies – he stood for justice or just doing the right thing no matter what. But he had his own code and he was one of the rare few that could seem to stick to it. I’m going on and on because I think he deserves more praise as an actor than he gets. Yes, he did play similar roles – but they’re not all the same. More importantly – I can’t imagine anyone else in them. There is no other John Wayne. If you’re among the ones that doubt his acting talents, you must not have ever seen The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – or for a different kind of John Wayne: The Quiet Man. I recommend all three….well, and a whole bunch of others.

Anyways, onto The Searchers…

I used to watch John Wayne movies growing up, with my dad – I liked them but I didn’t appreciate them until later and that’s exactly how my love of The Searchers grew. I saw it, I liked it – I didn’t understand it was a masterpiece until later. I think it might be one of those films that the more you see it, the more it grows on you and the more you love it.

The Searchers begins with Ethan Edwards appearing as a speck on the horizon – coming in to his brother’s ranch. He’s riding alone, covered in the desert dust, and we learn a little bit about him through the family conversation. He fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy but he’s showing up three years after the war ended and he’s got a lot of gold pieces. Where has he been? What has he been doing? His past is a mystery but it’s implied that he’s done some questionable things. We learn from Clayton, a Texas Ranger, that he “fits a lot of descriptions.” We also see an unspoken but obvious love between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha. They share a few tender moments – nothing scandalous by any means. It’s sweet in a sad way. He kisses her forehead at one point, she clearly cherishes the moment. It’s likely they never had an affair of any kind – they’re both honorable. I think they fell in love long ago but because of Ethan’s loner ways and perhaps his tendency to be an outsider, they never married and she married his brother instead.

Shortly after Ethan arrives, a neighbor’s cattle herd is run off by some Comanches and the men decide to ride off and get the cattle back…Ethan tells his brother Aaron to stay close to the ranch. He suspected the Comanches could be luring the men away. Tragically, he was right. Like my usual posts, I’m going to give away as little as possible. I don’t want to spoil it. But the men figure out too late and by the time they get back – the ranch where Ethan’s brother, his beloved Martha and their three children live is burning to the ground. Ethan calls frantically for his family – especially Martha….and then he finds her dress. He stumbles forward into the burning house and comes back out with a look of terror and rage on his face. He obviously saw the aftermath of what that empty dress just told us. But Lucy and Debbie aren’t there – his nieces were kidnapped. Hopefully, they’re still alive. Now for the search….

“Put an Amen to it! There’s no more time for praying.”

That’s what Ethan says to the preacher (also the Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton) as he and the local ranchers are singing at the group funeral for Aaron, Martha and their son Ben. Time to find those girls and get them away from the indians before they’re “of an age” to… In 1956, they couldn’t come right out and say it but that’s the idea – he needs to find his nieces before they’re forced to “marry” their Comanche captors – that’s the nice way of putting it. There’s no sugar-coating it. He hates the Comanches and constantly picks on Martin (who is an eighth Cherokee). He was like an adopted son to Martha and Aaron. Martin, vows to find Lucy and Debbie too. He considers them his sisters. Ethan never fails to miss an opportunity to point out that Martin’s not really family. Also along for the Search is Brad – who is Lucy’s boyfriend. He’s incredibly fragile – has to be calmed down several times. Understandably so – the girl he loves was kidnapped by men who raped and killed her mother. He has a hard time but he needs to be a part of the search.

The search takes many different twists and turns – they follow any lead they get but the Comanches are a wandering tribe and they know they’re being followed. Now, this is where I need to stop sharing details or I’ll ruin it. What you can know now is, the search lasts years. Ethan will not give up. As he says at one point…

“Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter who’ll just keep comin’ on.”

People ask him to quit but as he says several times, so perfectly throughout this film – “that’ll be the day.” He means it. While this film focuses on Ethan’s search – there are MANY little side stories. This film shows how one man’s obsession or will not to quit can effect the lives of many other people – for better and for worse. Ethan is tough and to everyone, he seems callous with tunnel vision on his mission – to hell with the consequences. But Ethan has a lot of depth. He is one of cinema’s best “outsider heroes” – the man that comes out of the desert to do what no one else can or will. He doesn’t do it for praise or money or to show off – he does it because it’s in his code. This is something he has to do – get out of his way.

While watching The Searchers, Ethan can be hard to like but it’s almost impossible not to respect him. I think that’s to John Wayne’s credit in particular. Ethan says and does some nasty things but he still manages to be the hero. Martin, who searchers with Ethan, is the voice of moral reason. He’s like the conscience we’re not sure Ethan has. Again, Ethan’s not all bad – it’s just he doesn’t quite think the same way an insider in society would think.

Other than the actual story – this film is beautiful. Orson Welles once compared John Ford’s directing to poetry and it’s easy to understand when you see this film. Much of it is shot in Monument Valley – the sky couldn’t be more blue and the monuments (rock formations) almost glow orange in the sunlight. It’s gorgeous and it really makes me want to go visit someday. And then there’s the music. I’m having trouble describing it actually without simply saying, it’s perfect. The score searches on along with Ethan – follows him through all the setbacks. And then there are a few songs that are sung. I’ve learned to pay attention to the lyrics. They’re so fitting. Especially the song played during the credits – it’s about Ethan.

I know I’ve been vague at times and that I’ve rambled on for quite a bit now. But, my reasons are this – for me, this is one of the best films ever made. On one hand, I’d like to discuss every bit of it but on the other, it’s a great movie to figure out on your own. There’s a lot to it and, for me, I think it gets better and better each time I see it. I always notice more and I think everyone should see it, at least once.