Friday, February 1, 2008

Noir and a Whole Lot More.

Cops confront Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

Noir City 6
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco
January 25th - February 3rd, 2008

Hangover Square (Fox Home Entertainment)
Dangerous Crossing (Fox Home Entertainment)
Reign of Terror (Alpha Video)
Border Incident (Warner Home Video)

Once again the question comes up, what exactly is film noir? It defies easy categorization, unlike other genres, for instance, westerns or horror films. Those genres are readily definable and have existed since the beginning of the film history and continue to be made today. Instead, noir resembles an art movement, a series of artist (writers, directors, cinematographers etc) all working in a similar style and on similar subject matters, sometimes independently, sometimes in collaboration, produce a remarkably uniform end product. Like many art movements, the artist themselves don't come up with the name and parameters of their style, but rather critics identify the movements and their key elements later. In this case, the French authors Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, in their seminal book A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953, identified, named and cataloged the common denominators of film noir. Ever since then, the arguments have raged about what is and what isn't a true film noir.

Most critics and academics agree that the noir period began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ended in 1958 with Touch of Evil. Most agree that the visual style is marked by high contrast black and white photography, an above average amount of unusual camera angles; chiaroscuro lighting; urban locations; enclosed claustrophobic settings; and a preponderance of night shots. Most would agree that the script typically involves a fast moving and complicated plot, first person narration and use of extended flashbacks. Often the storyline features a hero who decides to follow a dangerous course of action to get money and a dame and winds up with neither. The dame is usually a femme fatale, a woman of dangerous sexuality who betrays the man (and several others) for her own purposes. Now, this is where things get tricky, some critics consider the excellent Leave Her to Heaven (1945) film noir, but many would automatically disqualify it, because it was shot in color. What about Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951)? Does the desert setting automatically disqualify it?
When I wrote an article detailing my favorite all time noirs ( I stated, "I have a very definite sense of what film noir is- so no color films on this list or sub-genres like noir western, gangster films, heist films or police procedurals, and nothing past the 50s. For me, noir must have an actual crime, deep-seated emotional conflicts, dangerous desire and take place in a morally ambiguous universe typically located in a rain soaked city where it always seems to be night. Witty sarcastic dialog preferred." I still feel that way. However, I don't necessarily want to spend 10 days watching 20 films with the same setting and storyline. So, I greatly appreciate the Noir City 6 programmers for opening up the festival to some films that clearly challenge the traditional definition of noir. Plus, it's fun to hear the audience argue over whether or not the film was noir enough to be screened. It's heartening to hear the passion they all have for the genre, or is it a style?
Linda Darnell in Hangover Square
Hangover Square (1953) and Dangerous Crossing (1953) played together in celebration of Fox Home Entertainment's DVD Film Noir Collection on Tuesday night. Tellingly, in terms of the controversy over what constitutes noir, Fox themselves did not release Hangover Square as part of their noir collection but rather as part of their Fox Horror Classics Collection. The film is based on an exceedingly noir novel by Patrick Hamilton set in contemporary World War Two London. Fox bought the property, and after the success of star Laird Cregar in The Lodger (1944) (Fox), a Jack the Ripper story, they decided to transpose the novel to the Victorian period and make the protagonist a concert pianist. The setting maybe Victorian, but the story remains pure noir.
Cregar portrays the sympathetic George Harvey Bone, an emotionally high strung composer who suffers from periodic blackouts. He fears, correctly, that he has committed acts of violence during these blank periods. Amnesia is a common motif in film noir, as is the cheap gold digger who uses the protagonist for her own ends and then dumps him. In this case, Linda Darnell, who played an almost identical role the same year in the Otto Preminger's most definitely noir Fallen Angel (Fox), renders the tramp Netta to vixenish perfection. Of course, per usual film noir, the sucker/hero abandons the good girl who loves him and destroys himself in his reckless pursuit of the femme fatale. Murder and a truly spectacularly fiery ending ensue. Clearly the storyline and the characters are typically noir; only the Victorian setting makes the noir label debatable in this case.
Dangerous-Crossing_photo.jpgJeanne Crain and Michael Rennie talk things over
in Dangerous Crossing
The inclusion of the second film of the evening, Dangerous Crossing (1953), in Fox's Film Noir Collection raised more than a few eyebrows. Sometimes, it seems as if it's a crime thriller and it's in black and white, Fox is pretty much game to include it in their series. Dangerous Crossing, while not noir, is a good thriller with a clever twist ending. The film features a couple of noir traits. For one, a relentless sense of paranoia and danger engulfs the heroine constantly, making her world both hostile and dreamlike. Secondly, the setting of the enclosed space of the ship gives the story an intense feeling of claustrophobia.
Director Anthony Mann Enjoying a Stogie
The next night, in a tribute to noir stalwart Charles McGraw, the programmers included two more borderline noirs, Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (1949) and Border Incident (1949). Both were directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton who had previously collaborated on three noir classics, T-Men (1947) , Raw Deal (1948) , and He Walked by Night (1948). The noir style clearly influences Reign of Terror. In fact, I would qualify this film as noir despite its historical setting and relatively happy, but still violent, ending. Visually this film displays the noir style- high contrast black and white photography, many high and low angled shots as well as extreme close ups, and the chiaroscuro lighting. At one point Venetian blinds cast their familiar shadow on the wall- in Revolutionary France!
The narrative of the film also displays most of the major noir traits. The opening sequence features a narrator who introduces the political situation, and its major players, to the audience in the newsreel style reminiscent of noirs like The Naked City (1948). The hero functions as a detective and his storyline belongs to the noir detective film. He goes undercover to undermine a group of ruthless killers (the Revolutionary government) and topple a king pin (Robespierre). The king pin is ruthless, slightly neurotic and powerful. Our hero only has twenty four hours to recover an object, the black book, which will bring about the destruction of the group. While trying to recover the book, he encounters a beautiful old flame that he's not sure he can trust. The dialog rings with the cynicism endemic to noir. When his ex-lover invites him to meet her at a tavern later, he replies, "Seems I remember an appointment we had four years ago. Only one of us showed up. The stupid one. Your Charles has grown up to be a smart boy, now." She counters with "I'll be waiting.' He responds with, "I wouldn't count the minutes." This exchange, as well as the style, plot and characters of the film, belong to a noir, not an eighteenth century adventure story.
Characters actors up to no good in Border Incident
Border Incident, if you consider the crime documentary as part of the noir cycle, would also qualify as noir, despite its rural setting. The crime documentary or police procedural, usurped noir's dominance of the crime genre in the fifties. Many film writers consider the crime documentary as a sub-genre of noir. Others argue they are two distinct genres. Both types of stories center on crime but with a major difference- traditional noir tells the story from the point of view of the criminals, whereas the crime documentary tells the story from the point of view of the investigators. In traditional noir, if the story centers on a police officer, he is usually in the middle of a moral crisis, as in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). This narrative shift is indicative of a deeper shift, from a cynical world view where everyone is of questionable morality to a simpler one where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.
Border Incident tells the story of two undercover immigration agents, one Mexican, Pablo and one American, Jack. The film details their investigation of an illegal immigrant smuggling ring. Pablo pretends to be a bracero, an agricultural worker, and Jack pretends to be a dealer in stolen immigration papers. Together they infiltrate the racket from both the criminal and the victim sides. The film's narrative structure belongs to the criminal documentary, but the tone is decidedly noirish. Alton's cinematography, the preponderance of night shots and the way in which each member of the racket constantly tries to double cross the other members contribute to create the unstable and dangerous universe typical of noir. Most importantly, the intense and brutal violence visited upon the innocent braceros, and even onto the undercover agents, nullifies the opening and closing narrations attempt to reassure the audience that good has triumphed over evil.
With the screenings of Hangover Square, Dangerous Crossing, Reign of Terror and Border Incident, Noir City 6 has pushed its programming borders beyond traditional noir creating a more varied and exciting festival. These boundaries will be pushed even further in the future. Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, presenters of the San Francisco International Film Festival announced that SFFS would be joining forces with the Film Noir Foundation to present an International Film Noir event. This event promises to open up even more discussion on what noir is and isn't and especially what noir means beyond the world of American cinema.
For more discussion of Noir City 6 go to:

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