Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The endurance of film noir - continuing influence of dark, brooding film style on modern motion pictures

To these films I would like to add some films I have watched recently for the first time: The Good German, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, Jack Palance's first film!

There was a time not too long ago when film noir (literally, "dark film") was an arcane term found in cinema studies textbooks. To use it in front of a lay audience meant risking a sneer. The expression was one of those snooty French ideas that intellectuals refused to translate into plain English. Today, MGM/UA, Warners, and other home video outlets release "film noir classics" to a public apparently not displeased anymore to be confronted with highbrow French terminology. More important, film noir more or less has entered the popular lexicon of the reasonably educated moviegoer. TV commercials make all sorts of noir allusions, and the term itself is a journalistic descriptive adjective. Film noir endures not only as a style and a genre (it is both) from yesteryear, but continues to influence contemporary moviemaking.

Film noir generally is recognized to be a certain style that influenced primarily the crime movies of the 1940s and 1950s. These black-and-white motion pictures--with their high-contrast shadows, lonely protagonists on empty and foreboding city streets, off-kilter camera angles, and often psychopathic personalities--were seen as characteristic of World War II and postwar anxieties. The examples are plentiful: "The Big Sleep," "In a Lonely Place," "The Big Heat," "White Heat," "Kiss of Death," "Double Indemnity," and "Kiss Me Deadly" are just a few of the more outstanding examples.

Many expatriate German artists such as Fritz Lang helped craft the film noir style. They brought with them the influence of the Expressionist school of art that flourished in post-World War I Weimar Germany before the Nazi takeover. This artistic style, like its noir heir, was characterized by odd camera angles, pervasive paranoia, shadowy nightmare landscapes, and hopelessly lost heroes. German silent movies like "The Student of Prague," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Metropolis," and "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" show the origins of the noir sensibility.

Many students of film noir argue that, just as the Weimar cinema evidenced a feeling of impending doom with its strange stylistics and forlorn protagonists, film noir reflected America's anxieties after the Depression and World War II. Although the U.S. was ascendant in the postwar years, the nuclear age, McCarthyism, and the Cold War gave rise, critics argue, to an anxious undercurrent in the body politic that made film noir popular. Although noir is associated chiefly with the crime film, its style soon saturated horror, sciencefiction, melodrama, and other genres.

Ridley Scott's 1982 science-fiction classic, "Blade Runner," owes as much to noir as to its sci-fi forebears. With its lonely cop Deckard (Harrison Ford in a Humphrey Bogart-like persona) walking dark, mean streets in a city of eternal night and perpetual rain, "Blade Runner" exemplified noir's postmodern incarnations. The film was one of many that proved noir was not a genre confined to a specific period, but, rather, a style that eventually saturated a good deal of the American cinema.

"Body Heat," the 1981 Kathleen Turner/William Hurt vehicle, was an uncredited remake of "Double Indemnity" that focused explicitly on the kinky sexuality that always was an implicit undercurrent of noir. The frequency of the reappearance of noir may be indicative not only of the nostalgia mode into which mass culture has entered, but a fascination with the paranoia and perversity that are hallmarks of the form which may indicate something of an unaddressed pathology in American life.

Last year's "L.A. Confidential," which did well at the box office, is but one of the more recent (and very mannered) re-creations of noir. This movie refashions noir rather literally. It is a crime film set in the early 1950s, with detailed period decor, smoky atmosphere, classic automobiles, and the requisite femme fatale (Academy Award-winner Kim Basinger doing a Veronica Lake mm). The picture deals with a totally corrupt Los Angeles Police Department in a world beset by conspiracies and collusions (big fixations of the 1990s). While earlier noir efforts, for the most part, would set things right by the end, "L.A. Confidential" concludes on some uneasy notes, suggesting that the old order of things might not be fully recuperable.

Above all, this film uses noir for a meditation on the American past. The heavily stylized noir approach tends to remind the audience that America in the postwar period is about images--about style and facades. The current versions of noir are too self-conscious to transmit the same anxieties of the original noir films. Instead, they trade on an even spookier notion: All emotions are a thing of the past, gone the way of the traditional virtues. The current cult film "Dark City" is a case in point.

"Dark City" is a convoluted synthesis of science-fiction and crime melodrama, with a hopelessly obscure plot about an alien race that creates a city-planet with the intention of generating, studying, and stealing human emotions. The images evoke "Metropolis" and the best Bogart films, but the narrative is highly elliptical, playing off of noir's sense of humanity lost and out of control of its destiny. A central image of "Dark City" is a whirlpool, and characters are seen literally spinning out of control through the vertiginous webwork of the film's malevolent cityscape. Yet, "Dark City" feels like a clinical study of a film style, a work that looks nostalgically to a time when we really could feel anxious, paranoid, and out of control, rather than apathetic, with a "loss of affect," as psychoanalysts would have it.

One might suggest that the permanence of film noir's intrigue might indeed be part of one of the more worrisome aspects of the nostalgia mode of our modem world. Film noir may represent a time when we genuinely shared something, even if it was a profound fear about the future. The darkest aspect of the contemporary noir resurgence may be its suggestion that past emotions are sentimental trinkets to be memorialized on a pop culture video shelf.

Dr. Sherrett, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is associate professor of communication, Seton Hall University South Orange, N.J.

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