Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Role of Shadow in the Noir Film " Sudden Fear "

In director David Miller's 1952 film noir classic, "Sudden Fear", a clock's pendulum rhythmically sways and its shadow falls across Joan Crawford's face, shifting from side to side like her thoughts. Although we cannot see the thoughts within her mind, the shadow of the clock speaks of them: "Do I kill him before he kills me?"

The clock ticks away, measuring the seconds. She holds a written schedule in her hand. It forecasts the minutes before and after midnight tonight; I leave her house at a certain time, Irene goes to the garage to meet Jack at midnight but he isn't there. Jack comes to Irene's house while she's away, and there I shoot him with her gun. She returns when I am gone and is convicted of murder. Everything is in place, and everything is simple.

We see what she sees as she imagines each element of her plan. It ticks away like clockwork in her mind, each piece falling into place perfectly. In her mind, the plan is executed as void of emotion as the clock. The clock doesn't care about each minute it measures, and Myra Hudson doesn't care about each step in her plan. At least, not right now.

The shadow continues to tick across her face.

But when the time comes to put the plan into action, there is no clock to measure her steps. The pieces are falling into place, the clock of fate has been set in motion, but can she stop it? If her plan is discovered, he will surely kill her.

Myra tries to flee, but Jack sees her leaving Irene's apartment. A chase ensues and the shadows no longer tick away like a smooth running machine. The shadows are awkward, indecisive. Railings go this way and that, and the shadows are disorientating.

But this is film noir, and shadows are practically a character in the story.

In "Dark City: The Film Noir" Spencer Selby calls "Sudden Fear" one of the most stylish and refined woman-in-distress noirs. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Joan Crawford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Palance), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Best Costume Design.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nameless in the Shadows of Cornell Woolrich ' s " I Married a Deadman "

"I Married a Deadman" echoes the sense of doom and personal impotence found in much of Cornell Woolrich's fiction. Francis Nevins called Woolrich "the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows, the Hitchcock of the written word" (Francis M. Nevins. “Tonight, Somewhere in New York”. Carroll & Graf, New York, 2005. p. 1). Between 1938 and 1950, 15 films and at least 20 radio plays were produced based on his fiction. But even though Woolrich was a significant influence on the development of film noir's themes, characters, and world view in the 1940s, his novels have been out of print most of the last 60 years.

Published in 1948, "Deadman" is the last novel of Woolrich's main creative period and could be described as one of his most cynical; life is a game we are destined to lose, possibly because of the hopeless webs fate uses to ensnare us. What truly elevated "Deadman" is Woolrich's gift of prose, but it has been argued the existential dread of his prose was never captured in the three subsequent film adaptations of this novel.

One example of Woolrich’s talent for prose is the impersonal way he treats his main character early in “Deadman”. The nineteen year old Helen Georgesson has a name, but because she lived “a dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one” Woolrich withholds her name from the narration. Helen is “she”. Helen is “the girl”. Helen is simply “her”. She is alone, she is pregnant, and she is being shipped back to where she came from “a hundred years ago – last spring”, San Fransisco. It was as though she had no name until an accident, a twist of fate, caused the name on her hospital chart to read Mrs. Patrice Hazzard.

Helen was a girl who lived a poor life in the shadows, but Patrice was a woman who lived a wealthy life in the light. Ironically, Helen’s life depended on the darkest shadows when it was forced into this bright new life; only the shroud of shadow could hide her true identity.

Because of his homosexuality, Woolrich must have understood the dichotomy of walking between the shadows and the light. Helen is not called by any name at all until she is called by another woman’s name, and it is possible Woolrich felt his own public personna was a similarly borrowed identity. But much like Helen, Woolrich’s own borrowed identity seemed better than none at all. This fragment was found in Woolrich’s papers after his death in 1968:

“I was only trying to cheat death. I was only trying to surmount for a while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me one day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a brief while longer, after I was already gone. To stay in the light, to be with the living, a little while past my time.” ("Blues of a Lifetime. The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich." ed. Mark T. Bassett. Bowling Green State University Popular Press. Bowling Green, 1991. p. 152)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Poison as a Dramatic Device in Rudolph Mat é ' s Film " D.O.A. "

In Rudolph Maté's 1950 film "D.O.A." Frank Bigelow is looking for a murderer, his own. Bigelow has been poisoned and there is no antidote; he will have no more than one week to live. His urgent need to convict his murderer propels Bigelow's quest, as well as the pace of the film. It's a matter of life and death.

In a post-Hiroshima world (the film was released only five years after the tragedy of Hiroshima), society lives under a new and constant fear of nuclear fallout. While living his life unaware of danger, Frank Bigelo has been slipped a dose of "iridium", a toxin associated with radiation. He is "everyman" and his quest to track down and destroy the source of this poison could be said to represent post-War America's need to track down and destroy the source of a nuclear threat; the search for Frank Bigelo's murderer becomes the concern of every man, woman, and child who could fall prey to a similar poison from a less-personal hand.

But with typical noir cynicism we realize along with Bigalow that even if we destroy the source, it may already be too late.

While the search for a murderer creates the dramatic tension which binds this film together and propels the story forward, the individual scenes are what makes "D.O.A." a classic example of film noir. Noir's roots in German Expressionism are evident in several scenes, but perhaps no example is as striking as the scenes within "The Fisherman", the Beatnik nightclub where Bigalow is poisoned.

In the nightclub scene we see the odd closeups and camera angles typical of film noir, but the effect goes beyond film technique. The club patrons are frenzied, they're moving with unnatural responses to wild Jazz music. The musicians are bug-eyed and sweating, but it's more than that; they appear dangerous, possibly possessed. A mysterious figure with a checkered scarf exchanges Bigelow's drink for the poisoned version. We don't see the figure's face, but he is calm, quiet, and as such he stands out against the frenzied crowd. However the crowd is too frenzied to notice.

It isn't clear if the film intended to sound a warning against the threat of nuclear poisoning, but it doesn't take much to justify this argument. Frank Bigelow came into harm's way while performing his simple day to day duties as an accountant and notary. He wanted to have a little fun, but got caught up in the excitement and didn't notice the still, calm hand who brought an end to his life.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Time in Kenneth Fearing ' s Noir Novel " The Big Clock "

If you happen to own a big city publishing firm and have a little problem, like the fact that you’ve murdered your girlfriend, and you want to pin the crime on a man you saw outside her home right before the dirty deed, why not put your best investigative reporter to the task of finding that man? Sounds like a good idea, unless that same investigative reporter just happens to be the same man you saw outside your girlfriend’s place.

George Stroud merely became involved with the wrong woman, his boss’s girlfriend.

In Kenneth Fearing’s Noir novel “The Big Clock” Stroud tries to keep personal life and the office separate; he has to, because the facts about his evening with the boss’s girlfriend threaten more than just job security. If he is pinned as the man seen leaving the scene of the crime, he’s likely to be pinned as the murderer as well. That is, if the boss gets his way.

His life in danger, Stroud’s survival is measured in the minute-by-minute movements of the huge central clock of the office building where he's hiding. Any modern man sells the minutes of his life in exchange for a salary, but Stroud’s boss exercises another type of control, the threat the minutes of his life will come to an end. The big clock in this book’s title not only represents the clock on his employer’s building, but it’s the time clock we all punch in on when we are born and punch out on when we die.

Time has been a common theme in literature. Shakespeare's play “Macbeth” contains many references to time (Macbeth's famous "Tomorrow" speech is only one example), and “Othello” manipulates the passing of time to dramatize a comprehensive view of the moor. Fearing uses time as a dramatic device too.

In Fearing’s novel, the passing of time and the threat it could run out creates tension and keeps the plot moving forward. If Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” contemplates the sleep which falls upon us all at the end of our lives, Fearing’s “The Big Clock” reminds us of the instrument which ticks away the minutes leading up to that sleep.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

" The Big Sleep " as Pulp Fiction for the Thinking Man

Howard Hawks, director of such favorite movies as "His Girl Friday" and "Bringing Up Baby" is reported to have defined a good movie as "three great scenes and no bad scenes." The final theatrical release of his film "The Big Sleep" includes reshoots which give us one of the film's great scenes, and is said to have had cuts which eliminated some of the bad ones. The point seems well taken, because "The Big Sleep" is considered by many one of the great American films.

The movie was filmed prior to Lauren Becall's starmaking performance in "To Have and Have Not", but hadn't been released; since the war was drawing to an end, "The Big Sleep" had been shelved while Warner Bros. released a backlog of war related films before interest waned. But when it came time to release the film, it didn't seem a strong enough star vehicle for Becall's new celebrity. Among others, a suggestive new "horse racing" scene was added, although it made little sense within the context of the story.

Bacall: "...speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they're front-runners or come from behind... I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free...."

Bogart: "You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go."

Bacall: "A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

Knowing the scene was shot nearly two years later than the rest of the film, it does seem to stand out. It seems to be shot in a more classic style. The lighting is brighter and there are fewer shadows. In this scene we don't see the paranoia and cynisism characteristic of its film noir genre, and characteristic of the rest of the film. While it could easily be argued as one of Hawks' required "three great scenes", and "The Big Sleep" wouldn't have been the same without it, the scene could easily belong to another film as well as another genre.

One of the principle reasons for the new scene could have been Bogart and Becall's chemistry in "To Have and Have Not", which was released in 1944. The entire film seems to have been reworked, capitalizing on the stars' real-life marriage and their knack for insolent interplay. The result, according to reviewer Tim Dirks of filmsite.org, "included some of the toughest, most sexually-electric, innuendo-filled dialogue in film history".

The film is based on Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel of the same name. The film shares many of the same characters, and basic plot points, but leaves its references to pornography, homosexual relationships, and drugs to the audience's imagination. Even the femme fatale undergoes the change of a surname, and her husband in the novel is her dad's friend in the movie; a married woman becoming romantically involved with the film's hero would be adultry, and this, along with the pornography, homosexuality, and drugs, were against "The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)".

The book features Chandler's signature style of bare, sparce, ironic sentences, a signature many subsequent authors have tried to forge. James Topham of About.com said "Philip Marlowe became the image of what every man wanted to be" and "the man every woman wanted to love". "The Big Sleep" was Chandler's first novel, but its language wasn't that of the pulp fiction said to have given it birth. It's a tough, cynical language, but with a touch of poetry; Marlowe's consideration of death (the "big sleep" of the title) echoes Hamlet's "To sleep, perchance to dream- ay, there's the rub." "Hamlet" (III, i, 65-68):

"You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was."

Chandler's descriptions paint vivid characters using a minimum of words:

"Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has anymore moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had."

Often, plot and characterization are rocketed forward in the span of a few sentences:

"I was wearing my powder-blue suit... I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

"The Big Sleep" gave its readers the excitement of pulp fiction, but James Topham called it "pulp fiction for the thinking man".

So although the plot of the book and the plot of the film are both notoriously convoluted roads, "The Big Sleep" is still a journey worthwhile. The book has an unsolved murder (Chandler said even he didn't know who killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor), and some plot points in the film seem senseless, but its a story about the investigation of crime; it isn't so much about the solution.

Much like life, it's more about what happens along the way.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Life as a Marathon Dance in Horace McCoy ' s " They Shoot Horses, Don ' t They? "

In Horace McCoy's novella "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" the cycles and repetition of life are represented by the circular movements of marathon dancers suspended on a pier over the ocean's rolling waves. The marathon, and life by comparison, is a draining and degrading dance contest, and most likely the outcome is fixed. But underneath it all, the tides roll in and out and you can feel the rhythm of the waves beneath your feet, a rhythm which has been rolling forever.

We walked around the side of the building onto the pier. It stretched out over the ocean as far as I could see, rising and falling and groaning and creaking with the movements of the water.
"It's a wonder the waves don't wash this pier away," I said.
"You're hipped on the subject of waves," Gloria said.
"No, I'm not," I said.
"That's all you've been talking about for a month--"
"All right, stand still a minute and you'll see what I mean. You can feel it rising and falling--"
"I can feel it without standing still," she said, "but that's no reason to get yourself in a sweat. It's been going on for a million years."

The story's hero, Robert, stops to feel waves hitting against the dance hall's floorboards. He makes a conscious effort to understand the cyclical nature of life. The contest consists of periodical "derby races" where the dancers do laps around the dance floor and the couple with the fewest laps is eliminated. Robert develops a strategy of staying in the middle, not using too much energy but not being the slowest, but realizes winning the race depends on giving your maximum effort. On the other hand, Gloria is weaker and at times Robert has to drag her along. Her summation of the rise and fall of the waves, "It's been going on for a million years", shows her more fatalistic attitude. Not only is she trapped in the sunless dance hall, but she feels she has nowhere else to go.

The dancers in the marathon are barely human, and like race horses which are bet upon, whipped, and driven to exhaustion. They are profoundly desperate and have no purpose in life but to be exploited by the marathon's promoters. In the end, almost all of them will be losers.

Robert and Gloria hang on by a tenuous thread of hope; the feint hope of winning. But when the marathon dance is shut down their dreams are broken and hope is lost. Robert merely takes their treatment to a frighteningly logical next step by honoring Gloria's request to be "put down" much like a lame horse, stating with cynical insight, "They shoot horses, don't they?"

German Expressionism in Edgar G. Ulmer ' s Film Noir " Detour "

Filmed in a style so classically noir it verges on parody, all the genre's defining elements are present in director Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour": confusion, fatalism, and claustrophobia, filmed in a style calculated to intensify the effect. Ulmer's film is one of the darkest of the film noir genre, more specifically, a dystopian example of the "road movie" ("It Happened One Night" is a popular example of the road movie genre).

The road is seldom clear in noir, and Al Roberts fumbles though the confusion like it's an unfamiliar road, like the "detour" of the film's name. But Roberts doesn't seem to be doing the driving; it seems fate has taken the wheel and he is just a hitchhiker along for the ride. At first he struggles against it, but by the end he adopts a fatalistic attitude.
"I keep trying to forget what happened and wonder what my life might have been like if that car of Haskel's hadn't stopped. But one thing I don't have to wonder about, I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all." - Al Roberts

Much of "Detour" is framed by a diner scene where Roberts narrates the story, and these scenes are shot in classic noir style. The lighting is shuttered to primarily light Roberts' eyes, both drawing focus to the agony in his expression and creating a feeling of claustrophobia, a feeling echoed by cramped scenes in the car and the apartment he rents with the tough femme fatale, Vera. In these diner scenes, Roberts is isolated from those around him; activity continues all around, but the other characters are in a dim light and the shadows seem to wall them off. The camera zooms in on shots of Roberts' coffee cup, and we can almost taste the dregs at the bottom of it; a juke box, playing the song that spurs Roberts' tale, fills the frame as its music segues into the orchestra music from Roberts' past and the start of his story.

Edgar G. Ulmer got his start in film during the German Expressionism period of the 1920s where producers used abstract settings, lighting and shadow in place of lavish production budgets. So although Ulmer was accustomed to dealing with budget constraints, the fact "Detour" was filmed with one of the lowest budgets of its day makes the film's attention to style all the more remarkable.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Visual Representation of Psychological Separation in Billy Wilde ' s " Double Indemnity "

They hadn't seen each other that evening, but it could also be said they had never truly seen each other at all. They worked together on faith and hope; hoping the other person was someone they could trust and faith that other person really was. They were on a journey together, a journey which Walter Neff's co-worker and friend Barton Keyes had said ends only at the grave, but something stood between them; they had to depend on faith and hope because they didn't know each other well enough to have it another way. In the film "Double Indemnity", based on the James M. Cain novella of the same name, things were seldom as they seemed.

Walter returned home, confident they had accomplished the perfect murder. Phyllis called from the drug store and wanted to see him, and he agreed. But before she arrived, Keyes payed Walter a visit; something was on his mind about this murder case and he wanted to bounce it off a friend. If Keyes happened to see Walter and Phyllis together, it might help him find the answer. But for now, Keyes has no reason to suspect his friend Walter Neff has conspired with Phyllis Dietrichson to kill her husband and collect the insurance money.

Keyes keeps his visit short and is headed for the drug store to get something for the indigestion this case has given him. He doesn't know the remedy is waiting in the hall, listening through the door. If Phyllis hadn't heard Keyes, and had interrupted the conversation, it would have been over. As Keyes leaves Walter's apartment, Phyllis ducks behind the door. Walter has come out of the apartment to see Keyes to the elevator, but also to keep watch for Phyllis. She tugs slightly at the door, letting Walter know she's there, so he remains by the door.

Keyes starts down the hall, but turns from the elevator and returns to Walther, not realizing Phyllis is there too. The movement could be seen as symbolic of how Keyes is unknowingly moving closer to the truth. A few steps more would reveal the woman standing behind the door, just as a few more steps in Keyes' logic can reveal that same woman's secret.

As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson point out in "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir", Barbara Stanwyck is lit in this scene with direct, undiffused lighting to give her Phyllis character a "hard-edged, mask-like surface beauty". This is the mask she always wears around Walter, and on the other side of the door, Walter appears soft and vulnerable.

The use of physical elements to convey psychological meaning was common in film noir. As such, the door in this scene gives insight to the entire film by representing the true nature of Walter and Phyllis' relationship. They stand in danger together, but at the same time they are separate. Right now it's just the door between them, but at other times it's the lies Phyllis has told Walter. Neither of them knows for certain who is on the other side of the door, but they've placed their entire trust in whoever it is. The door isn't all that separates them.

The Cat Theme in James M. Cains " The Postman Always Rings Twice "

Frank Chambers' partner in murder, Cora, has gone to visit her dying mother and he takes a trip down the coast with a girl named Madge Allen. Madge raises cats, but not the domestic type.
"Cats, hey. What do you do, train them?"
"Not the stuff we've got. They're no good. All but the tigers are outlaws. But I do train them."
"You like it?"
"Not much, the real big ones. But I like pumas. I'm going to get an act together with them some time. But I'll need a lot of them. Jungle pumas. Not these outlaws you see in the zoos."
"What's an outlaw?"
"He'd kill you."
"Wouldn't they all?"
"They might, but an outlaw does anyhow. If it was people, he would be a crazy person. It comes from being bred in captivity. The cats you see, they look like cats, but they're really cat lunatics."

In "The Postman Always Rings Twice", James M. Cain's hardboiled novel from 1934, cats are a continuous presence. When Frank first made a pass at her, Cora "was snarling like a cougar (10)" and when they discuss her hatred for her husband Nick she is called a hell cat. A cat's accidental suicide foils Frank and Cora's first murder attempt and after they succeed with the second murder plan their lawyer's name is Katz. But the cats in this story are the dangerous, outlaw kind.

The first cat was a true case of "curiosity killed the cat". Frank had put out a ladder as part of the plan for killing Nick, and the cat climed it but was fried by stepping on the fuse box. On some level the cat might represent the alley cat nature of Frank, but because it's referred to as "she" the cat may actually represent Cora, foreshadowing how she is later killed as the result of her association with Frank. Cora is the she-cat to Frank the tom-cat, but Frank is the outlaw kind of cat.

Madge Allen says all the cats might kill you, but the outlaw kind will. Frank is the outlaw kind. Cora believes Frank is merely a bum, but he's the wild cat born in captivity, the cat lunatic. Madge wants Frank to take a trip south with her to catch a wild puma, but that's not enough for Frank; a lunatic has no use for jungle cats because he can't convert them.

Frank is the one who first calls Cora a hell cat. He wants to believe she is like him. Cora hated her husband Nick, who called her a white bird, so the idea of being a wild hell cat appealed to her. She wanted to explore the dangerous side of life, to climb the ladder Frank had set out for her, but in the end it lead to her destruction. In the end, perhaps Nick was right; but the cat got the bird.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...