Monday, February 28, 2011

Notorious (1946)

“Truth was it wasn't film noir. The high-priced actors like Cary Grant back at the studios got all the lights. So ours was lit with cigarettes."
- Robert Mitchum on the dark look of Out of the Past

Mitchum was right. There was no film noir in the 1940s. There is now... and that's part of the problem - trying to classify what is film noir and what wasn't when looking back at movies out of the past.

There are many films that aren't as easy to put into the noir category as some of Mitchum RKO thrillers are. Notorious - starring “High-priced actor” Grant -- is one of them. Directed by the master and starring two of the biggest movie stars of all time. But is it a film noir?

I put that question out there to see if there's a consensus. What I found - as I usually do when discussing film noir - was that there are many ways to define film noir.

As noir as it gets

Zet Torbjörn Astner on Facebook:
“As noir as it gets! But please notice that it's very much the story of one extremely lonely woman in a world where, except for Claude Rains' mother, after Ingrid's arrival in Rio, you see hardly any other women at all. (Well, there's that great party-scene of course, but after that) She reminds me of characters in Bresson-movies: Joan of Arc, even Mouchette. And of course Marnie and Janet "Marion Crane" Leigh in Psycho - the loneliness of these women is as heartbreaking as frightening.”


Andrew666 at Back Alley adds up the individual elements to to see how noir Notorious is:

For me, Notorious would score about 6 out of 10 on the scale of noir. There are some things that I would see as being noir influenced -

  • sharp angular shadows,
  • some of Hitchcock's vertiginous shots
  • Both Grant and Bergman being the victims of forces bigger than they are
  • The crime element - the selling of the uranium
  • Objects which become fetishistic symbols - the key to the cellar
  • Hidden motivations that shift as the film unfolds
  • The conflict between desire and duty
  • Ingrid as a (reluctant) femme fatale to Alex
  • Alienation - when Ingrid feels she has been abandoned emotionally by Devlin
  • Twisted relationships such as Alex and his mother

On the other hand, there are elements that I find hard to accept as noir

  • The smoochy kiss (enjoyable though this was to watch)
  • the upbeat ending
  • the spy plot
  • the Latin setting for the main story

Well, okay, maybe that's 7 out of 10...

Andrew's point about the famous kiss is interesting.

Too big to be a noir

Noir got its distinctive look and sounds when it was skirting censorship rules. Clever dialog and having most of the sex and violence happen in the shadows were a necessity then (especially when making James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice into movies). The film makers behind Notorious didn't have to play by the same rules - the kiss Andrew mentions is proof.

“In 1946, MGM claimed that a lengthy kiss between John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice was timed with a stopwatch to make sure it did not exceed censorship regulations. In the same year, the Selznik studio announced that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's extended embrace in Notorious - an embrace accompanied by a good deal of low-voiced conversation - was the longest kiss in screen history”
- More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts by James Naremore

So while noir film makers avoided censorship, guys like Hitchcock and Selznik could actually change the rules.

Big budget films with big stars - say many - just can't be noir. Or can they? Some noir fans at Facebook would classify it as a rare big-budget noir.

Bud Palmer on Facebook:
“There are low budget (B Movie) Noir films and big budget (A movie) ones. Notorious, I believe, is the later.”

Others would disagree. Jörn von Gummersbach:
“What a coincidence. I've watched it some days ago for the first time. My girlfriend and me checked nearly 50 Noirs up to now, and we both have the opinion, that this film is NOT Noir. Sure, it has some elements, but the parts don't add to a Noir how we see it. Hitch has made only one real noir and that's Strangers on a Train.”
(Editor's note: an argument could be made that Hitchcock's one real noir was Vertigo, as Roger Wade mentions at the Back Alley. But that's another discussion for another time.)

The Film Noir Encyclopedia calls Notorious a romantic thriller but notes “Hitchcock incorporates familiar film noir themes” but other don't find the film fatalistic enough. Jay M. at the Back Alley writes:
“It just doesn't have the fatalistic quality of true noir. There are elements in it that relate to noir: the heroine's predicament in particular, and the character played by Claude Rains have noir overtones. But the overall feel of the film is more of a romantic intrigue.”

It was in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

When the Steve Martin spoof, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid came out in 1982 the term “film noir” wasn't as popular use even among movie critics. Although the film today is clearly a homage to film noir, at the time of its release even Siskel and Ebert didn't use the term film noir when describing it. Almost 30 years later almost all the films snipped for use in the comedy are considered noir - including Notorious. I know more than one film fan who became obsessed with film noir after trying to see all the movies seen in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I know this isn't the strongest case for Notorious but I think it's a valid one. If it's in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid it's probably noir.

Does it matter if it's a noir?

Does it matter if it's noir or not? No. We routinely feature movies at Film Noir of the Week that aren't 100-percent noir. Should we be obsessed with trying to categorize movies or should we just appreciate that these old movies aren't forgotten? Personally, I would say the movie isn't noir. But it is one of my favorite films so I have no problem discussing it here.

I'll end this week's article with one final quote. This one from Amy Sullivan on Facebook:

“I see it as a Noir and I honestly can't think of another film that has a more astoundingly beautiful looking couple than Grant and Bergman... it's a brilliant film and easy on the eyes.”

My thought exactly.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, February 21, 2011

Heatwave (1982)

For years Heatwave has languished in the shadow of director Phillip Noyce’s more recent and successful films.

It’s a great pity. Not only is Heatwave a dark, well-made thriller that can legitimately stake a place among the small group of Australian films with genuine noir sensibility, it is politically sharp-edged without coming across as either preachy or didactic.

Heatwave is one of two Australian films based loosely on the real life disappearance in 1975 of Juanita Nielson, a prominent local activist against mass development in the colourful vice quarter of inner Sydney known as Kings Cross. The other, Donald Crombie’s The Killing of Angel of Street, appeared the previous year. So close together were the two films that at one point they were reportedly both shooting at the different ends of the same inner city Sydney street.

Heatwave takes place in the lead-up to Christmas and, as the title suggests, Sydney is sweltering after successive days of high temperatures. A group of Kings Cross residents are fighting attempts to demolish their houses to make way for a giant development named Eden, financed by businessman Peter Houseman (Chris Haywood).

For three years, young firebrand Kate Dean (Judy Davis), and Mary Ford, editor of the community newspaper have led local opposition to Eden. In an effort to dramatically up the ante and bankrupt Houseman, the two women manage to secure the building union’s agreement to place construction bans on the proposed Eden site.

Although the protesters regard Eden as nothing more than a threat to their homes and community, others consider it represents the state of the art landmark in urban development. No one believes more than the brains behind the Eden’s design, architect Stephen West (Richard Moir).

With his million dollar Sydney harbour view and elegant European wife, West is far removed from the conflict being played out in the streets of Kings Cross. “The inner city is changing,” he tells the protestors. “Everyone wants to move closer to the centre and they’ll pay to do it. I’m sorry it’s just a natural process.” However, through his contact with the residents, particularly Kate with whom he develops an unlikely relationship, this ironclad worldview gradually begins to shift.

Houseman, meanwhile, is running out of money and patience. The head of the architectural firm West works for is also under pressure. The Eden project now comprises 90 per cent of his business. If it goes under, so will he.

In an effort to placate the union, Houseman offers to modify Eden’s design to incorporate the contested dwellings. “What your talking about is like cutting off a foot.” West implores to him. “It will destroy the balance and grace of the whole building.”

Then Dean’s co-conspirator, Mary Ford, disappears. The police are dismissive, telling Dean that her friend has probably just gone on holidays. Despite official disinterest, Dean investigates further, at which point someone sets fire to the last of the remaining houses due for demolition, killing a long-time resident. Police raid Dean’s house, finding a detonator and a stick of dynamite.

West believes the destruction of the homes offers a chance to revert back to the original design, only to be told by Houseman’s sleazy lawyer, Lawson, that the financial situation has changed. Peter realises that Houseman never intended to build Eden, that all the architect’s work was just a cover for the kind of mass concrete development he loathes.

From here on the plot lines multiply. Lawson is brutally murdered and Houseman flees the country after his company is taken over by a shadowy interest called Selco Nominees linked to a malevolent Kings Cross strip club owner. The movie reaches its conclusion on New Years Eve as the heatwave breaks and the city is engulfed in rain.

Coming off the huge success of his first feature film, Newsfront, in 1978, Heatwave confirmed Noyce’s reputation as a director to watch. The film works well on many levels, particularly the push-pull attraction between the characters played by Davis and Moir.

Davis, in only her third role, excels as Dean, the radical with a patrician background. With her short spiky hair and t-shirts emblazoned with radical slogans she’s every bit a “mouthy sheiler”, as she’s called at one point. It’s easy to see from this film how she went on to bigger and better things. A talented actor, Heatwave was unfortunately the peak of Moir’s career. As West, he manages to portray a man who is cool, almost cold blooded, at the same time as being obsessive about his architectural vision.

They are supported by a great selection of Australian acting talent, including John Meillon, Bill Hunter, Dennis Miller, and Chris Hayward who is especially good as Houseman, a self-made millionaire who has lost none of his used car salesman attitude. Haywood plays the character for all it’s worth, without resorted to clichés.

Noyce has commented in subsequent interviews on how Heatwave belongs to a different era of Australian cinema, when directors were prepared to take more risks, and that if he’d made it now it would be a very different film.

Heatwave is indeed unusual in that so many sub-plots and characters swirl about; yet, it works, the dense, complex story mirroring the murky, unresolved feel of the events that inspired it. Juanita Nielson had disappeared only seven years earlier and the events surrounding the crime were still fresh in the public imagination.

Nielson had been the target of threats against her life for some time due to her role as one of the leaders of Kings Cross residents opposed to the redevelopment of their suburb.

She was reportedly lured to the nightclub of a prominent Kings Cross vice identity with the promise of advertising for the small community newspaper she edited. Her handbag and other personal effects were later found near a freeway but she was never seen again. That the crime was never solved surprised few given the corrupt state of the New South Wales police at the time. Indeed, one of the culprits in her disappearance was rumoured to be a senior cop.

The very last scene in Heatwave of a female body (obviously the missing anti-development campaigner, Mary Ford) bobbing to the surface of an overflowing stormwater drain on Eden building site are a variant of the widely held view that Nielson was murdered and her body hidden in the concrete foundations of the building she opposed.

Not only did Noyce take risks with the plot. The tone of the film, dominated by the contrast between shadowy dark nights and glaringly sunny days, was unusual for Australian cinema at the time.

Additional layers of texture are added by the oppressive heat and the ever-present background hum of noise, the radio news, police sirens in the distance, the shouts of protestors and partying crowds. The cumulative impact of all this is constant feeling of nagging anxiety. Events, either peripheral or central to the story are always happening somewhere else, just out of sight of the viewer.

The greatest strength of Heatwave is the way it refuses to answer every question and neatly wrap up every plot line. In the film, as in the events it was based on, we never get the full story.

Written by Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. His blog, Pulp Curry looks at crime fiction and film, with a focus on Asia and Australia.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

For the Love of Film Noir

What a great idea. There are hundreds of blogs dedicated to classic films. How about a Blogathon to raise money for film restoration? Ferdy of Films and The Self-Styled Siren have done it. Last year they dedicated their efforts to Silent movies. This year... film noir. I jumped on the chance to get the word out about the Film Noir Foundation and their preservation efforts. I contacted the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller and we decided to talk about restoration this week instead of our normal film article. The bottom line: If you're a film noir fan you should be a member of the FNF!

Steve-o: Let's talk about the goals of the Film Noir Foundation -- restoring classic film noir. How did the Film Noir Foundation get started?

Eddie: It began when I realized that there were films I could not screen at my festivals because we were not a certified non-profit corporation. Film archives won't provide films to for-profit theaters. So if I wanted to show things like Ben Hecht's Crime Without Passion (1934) or Joseph Losey's version of M (1951), we needed to be recognized as a non-profit entity. From there it was a short step to creating a simple, closed-loop system in which the profits from exhibition were used to fund restorations.
Steve-O: When I explain the FNF's goal of restoring movies people assume I'm talking about DVD releases or digital media. We're actually talking about the film, right? Why should we care if a movie is restored if we have a copy already on DVD or recorded off of TV?

Eddie: Simply put, a digital copy of a film is not the same as preserving the film in its original state. Digital makes films accessible, which is fantastic. But there is no reason to abandon the film as a film. In some cases, you simply can't have a digital version without preserving the film first. Consider films that we recently preserved like Loophole and The Hunted ... there is no digital version of these. By preserving these films before the original pre-print deteriorates, we have ensured that some day, some way, those films will be accessible to movie fans. Woman on the Run is a film that we discovered in a pristine 35mm print in 2003, the only print we knew of in the world. In 2009 that print was destroyed in a fire at Universal before the film was deposited at UCLA for preservation. I now have the only digital copy of the film made from that terrific print. So I ask you: is it enough that it exists digitally? ... or would you feel better knowing that Woman on the Run still existed in its original 35mm state? A little piece of me died when that print burned. We may never see it "properly" ever again.

Steve-O and Eddie at Noir City 2009

Steve-o: Too Late for Tears is a film that is begging for a restoration. Is it beyond help? Are there any decent copies of the film out there?

Eddie: I expect we will restore it this year. We have located a complete nitrate print of the film, and by augmenting it with pieces of three other prints we've discovered, we should be able to create a new negative of the film. You're right, it's a great film that deserves to be returned to its original form.

Steve-o: What films are you currently working on?

Eddie: The Sound of Fury, obviously. Too Late for Tears; things are looking good for restoring the nifty little Monogram B film High Tide (1948) , and I remain optimistic that we'll be able to restore Guilty Bystander (1950) at some point. I also hope to be able to make new prints, with English subtitles, of some remarkable Argentinean noir films that Fernando Peña has introduced to me. I'd like to not only restore Hollywood noir, but bring to prominence films noir from other cultures made during the same era.

Steve-o: The Prowler was just released by VCI to excellent reviews (not just for the movie but for the DVD itself). Should we expect more? How are the sales of the DVDs tied to the Film Noir Foundation?

Eddie: Yes. We certainly want to make our restored films accessible. But there are many factors that come into play that make reproducing the films digitally more complicated than preserving the films as films. I hope we can do more—but unlike the restorations, the decision to produce and market DVDs is not something we can always decide unilaterally. There are rights issues, licensing costs, mastering costs, the expense of special features, etc. Sales of The Prowler have, I think, exceeded VCI's expectations ... we'll see how well that bodes for more releases.

Steve-o: Folks can go to to become a member. What are the benefits?

Eddie: Knowing that you playing a part in saving film history. That should be its own reward, and based on the gratitude of donors I communicate with, it is.

Steve-o: Do you ever get sick of film noir? Ever take a break from them - especially after Noir City?

Eddie: Amazingly, I never burn out. I get immense satisfaction from watching the films with an audience, seeing them react to the films as if they were new releases. I feel that the writers, directors and actors of these films would be greatly appreciative of what we do to keep their work alive, and bring it to a new audience.
For more from Eddie, check out the Self-Styled Siren's interview here. You know what else is great about this Blogathon? Some of my favorite blogs -- the usual suspects when it comes to classic film discussion-- are part of it. The Self-Styled Siren is one of them near the top of the list.

Editor's note: I run the message board Back Alley Noir - which is the official message board for the Film Noir Foundation. Eddie and a number of contributors to BAN and The Film Noir of the Week are members of The Film Noir Foundation.

Monday, February 07, 2011

First Snow (2006)

"Your fate lies on whatever road you take even if you choose to run from it."

Whether it’s eyeballing a good pair of legs (Double Indemnity), picking up a hitch-hiker (Detour), or taking a job as a used car salesman (The Hot Spot), noir characters make decisions that lead to trouble. These characters can exhibit a range of conduct that stretches from morally questionable to viciously murderous, but however they attempt to shape their destinies, they all have one thing in common: no one escapes from fate. This is one of the defining traits of noir. The 2006 neo-noir film First Snow, a doom-ridden tale from first-time director Mark Fergus is a superb, hallmark example of one man’s struggle against his fate, and the film works so well not only for its excellent, well-paced script, but also for its well-defined main character--cocky flooring salesman Jimmy Starks (Guy Pearce).

Starks doesn’t take life too seriously, and this is partially due to his supreme confidence. There are some grubby issues in his past, but Starks appears to have walked away unscathed. While he isn’t a ‘bad’ person, he’s not someone you’d want to rely on. For Starks, lying comes easily and the film almost immediately hints at moral weakness and touches of vanity. He’s a quintessential salesman. This translates to Starks believing that he’s capable of defining his destiny and that he can talk anyone into anything. He talks his best friend Ed (William Fichtner) into covering for him at work, he’s trying to convince his boss Roy (Luce Rains) to invest in vintage “fully-refurbished” Wurlitzers, and he even talks his harried girlfriend, forgiving real estate agent Deidre (Piper Perabo) into ditching clients and having sex.

Starks and Deidre live in Albuquerque in a tiny pueblo-style home--one of many in a bland new development. She would like to put down roots and has her eye on a fixer upper on 10 acres in Taos, but this not a goal Starks shares. He is right at the stage in life when he can no longer delude himself that he’s going places, and yet he’s convinced that his big break is right around the corner. That big break is finally just within reach when he’s pulled back by fate to pay for the sins of his past.

The film begins with Starks driving on his sales rounds when his car breaks down at a desert pit stop. Stuck waiting for repairs, and with a few hours to kill, Starks tries to turn the wasted hours into a sale. Bending the ear of a disinterested bar owner, he makes a pitch for a Wurlitzer he doesn’t yet have to sell. Handing his flooring salesman business card to the skeptical owner along with obligatory flattery, Starks doesn’t grasp just how sleazy he appears.

Wandering around the desert oasis waiting for his car, Starks eyeballs the various vendors who are gathered hoping to snare the occasional stray tourist with local wares. Outside of one trailer is a dusty, faded unimpressive sign: “Fortunes Told” and Starks decides to pay the money with the attitude you’d expect from someone at a circus sideshow. He views the experience as entertainment, so he’s disappointed at the lack of atmosphere. Just as the trailer seems an unlikely setting for a fortune-teller, the psychic, a blue-eyed, middle-aged cowboy named Vacaro (J.K. Simmons) is also not exactly what you’d expect. No crystal ball. No candles. No costume. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get set-up is so banal that Starks complains. He was hoping for more of an “effort”--more of a sales pitch poured into the experience.

The palm reading which starts as a lark initially seems simple with Vacaro telling Starks a few things that could easily guessed. Starks wants to know if his car will make it home and whether the new business venture (with the Wurlitzers) will come to fruition. The reading is fairly mundane until the cowboy mentions some trouble in Jimmy’s past. Starks rapidly switches the subject and instead asks the seemingly safe question whether or not the New Mexico Wolves will win or lose the next game. Vacaro insists that the team will win, yet this seems unlikely since a star player is out with a crippling injury. While Starks finds this information incredulous, he’s somewhat mollified when told that a “large sum of money [is]coming to you by way of Dallas.

The reading is abruptly curtailed, however, with no explanation when Vacaro appears to experience some sort of psychic disturbance. Starks first thinks it’s “part of the show,” and he wants to “go again.” Vacaro tells him the reading is over, and when Starks expresses displeasure, the cowboy returns his money and tells him to leave. Starks decides he’s been ripped-off and tells the cowboy to “work on your presentation a little.” By calling Vacaro a fellow salesman, Starks not only denigrates the experience but also subtly reassures himself that he has superior talent and that he still calls the shots. But underneath his bravado, it’s an unsettling incident, and from this point on, Starks begins to feel a sense of growing unease. This unease is compounded by the first of many hang-up calls that plague him.

The next day, Roy calls Starks about a problem with another employee, Lopez (Rick Gonzalez), who, according to Roy, is “padding” his expensive account. It’s up to Starks to fire Lopez which he does in the middle of a hotdog lunch while he fusses his hair and assures Lopez that he has a great future. Lopez, who’s been ‘shown the ropes’ and encouraged by his mentor Starks to “fuck the rules” when it comes to expense accounts, explodes with anger. Lopez feels betrayed while Starks fails to see the deeper implications of the event. But since nothing sticks to Starks, he initially forgets the incident and refuses to feel any responsibility for Lopez’s firing.

The feeling of unease Starks feels increases when, against the odds, the New Mexico Wolves win their match, and then he receives word of backing for his Wurlitzer project after Roy attends a conference in Dallas. Plagued by hang-up calls, and a health scare, Starks then receives a death threat. Not only does Starks now believe in the psychic’s power, but he also wonders what else Vacaro saw in his abruptly curtailed reading. He hunts down Vacaro, and the psychic reveals that he “saw no more roads left. No more tomorrows.” From this point on, Starks loses his confidence and grows increasingly edgy and paranoid as he tries to escape the death sentence hanging over his head.

As a salesman, Starks thinks he knows all the tricks of the trade. His slickness translates to his belief that everything is a sales pitch which either works or fails. The psychic’s failure to use a sales pitch, no bells and whistles with which to garnish his ‘act,’ initially annoys Starks who thinks he’s buying an experience. Starks interprets this to mean that he’s been ripped off and that Vacaro is a ‘bad salesman’ of his psychic powers as he fails to deliver on the hocus-pocus factor, but then when Vacaro’s predictions come true, and Starks’ faith in his ability to shape his own destiny is shaken to its foundations. As Starks’ life unravels, his arrogance melts. He fails to convince anyone else of his story, and this is a change for Starks; he’s always been able to convince the people in his life to bend to his desires. A frightened Starks tries to avoid the prediction, but instead he finds himself hurtling towards it--caught in the sticky web of fate.

As the plot develops, First Snow introduces some interesting philosophical questions: would we really want to know when we are going to die? And if we did know, how would we act? At what point is Starks’ fate sealed? When he turns snitch on a best friend? When he visits a palm reader? When he fires Lopez? Or when he looks up Vince (Shea Whigham)? If character is fate, then all these incidents are just marks on the map to the inevitable:

“This road you’re on, you put yourself on this road. On this exact night, you chose this.

A Man makes his own destiny, right? Nothing makes the gods laugh harder.”

First Snow director Mark Fergus co-wrote the film with his long-time writing partner, Hawk Ostby. The two men live on different coasts, but have an interesting arrangement, responding to each other’s writing and making it a rule to never write in the same room. The script is evidence of the team’s intense honing of the theme of fate reiterated through the synchronicity of events. The film’s photography emphasizes man against the landscape and night shots of endless dark, empty highways while the excellent score complements the film’s moodiness.

I’ve read some negative reviews of First Snow--reviews that are quite harsh and dismissive. Perhaps it takes a noir fan to appreciate the role of fate in this tale--a dark well-executed sleeper film with an almost perfect delivery.

Written by Guy Savage

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