In preparation for Part 5 of our “75 Years of Film Noir”, here at the Brattle we’ve gathered a small collection of articles discussing the key elements of film noir as a genre and movement. Also included are discussions of the legacy of not only film noir itself, but the classic noir character of the femme fatale.
Tag: Film Noir
By William Benker
Touch of Evil – 1958 – dir. Orson Welles
A film’s ability to remain timeless nearly fifty years after its release constitutes a work of brilliance that only few films possess. Specifically, in relation to recent political wars of immigration and borders, Touch of Evil divides a fine line between crime and innocence. Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan, at first sight, appears unbreakable – entirely devoid of any sort of empathy, as he strolls onto the screen, off balance from an old wound he obtained defending his friend. But as the classic noir unwinds, the director himself reveals a moral conundrum any and all face when questioned by the notion of “authority.” The overarching theme is never once mentioned, but left to the elaborate set design that the story encompasses within itself. Touch of Evil is a noir that still casts a luminescent shadow on issues that are far from outdated, signifying Welles’ keen insight into the issues of both past and present America.
By William Benker
The Bad Sleep Well – 1960 – dir. Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s neo-noir The Bad Sleep Well is a hybrid examination on the evil of revenge. Drawn by a thread of vengeance, each turn of events show that evil only grows more complex when driven by a sense of justice. While the film’s protagonist Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) reveals his vengeful pursuit through an embezzlement scandal that consumes his company, Kurosawa unravels the evil dimension that has trapped each and every character involved. It proves in the end that no matter what type of justice is sought after, the dirt it always on someone else’s hands. When all is said and done, the cleanest hands suffer the greatest loss.
By Melvin Cartagena
The Long Goodbye – 1973 – dir. Robert Altman
“If being in revolt against a corrupt society constitutes being immature, then Philip Marlowe is extremely immature. If seeing dirt where there is dirt constitutes social maladjustment, then Philip Marlowe has inadequate social adjustment. Of course Marlowe is a failure, and he knows it. He is a failure because he hasn’t any money…A lot of very good men have been failures because their particular talents did not suit their particular time and place.” – Raymond Chandler
In the first shot of The Long Goodbye, Marlowe (Elliott Gould) wakes up as if from a deep sleep. In time he demonstrates he is a stranger in a strange land, an intruder from a different time attempting to grok the free-floating morality of the sprawling city of twenty-four hours supermarkets and Laundromats, and neo-flower children practicing yoga naked, and new-age healers. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) punctuates this temporal dislocation in Marlowe when he refers to the gumshoe as Rip Van Marlowe, the victim of a long sleep that has thrust him into a time and place that has no love for a man of ethics, a man who cares. This is more than can be said for the police, who in typical noir-pulp fashion first arrest Marlowe, then grill him relentlessly for three days about Terry Lennox’s (Jim Bouton) escape to Mexico hours after the brutal killing of his wife Sylvia, and finally cut him loose after Terry’s confirmed suicide down in Mexico. One more for the books in the precinct, but this makes no sense to Marlowe, so it’s up the world-weary knight in tarnished armor to set things right in his mind.
By Melvin Cartagena
Point Blank – 1967 – dir. John Boorman
The opening sequences show deception, and Alcatraz. The closing scenes show deception, and Alcatraz. Point Blank explores relationships, mortality and alienation, yet retains a core of impenetrability in its ultimate meaning. An essential mystery remains that no critic or academic that has tackled this movie can fully explain it in writing. Even the mighty Pauline Kael somewhat recanted her initial opinion of the film, going from, “A brutal new melodrama is called Point Blank, and it is,” in a 1967 New Yorker review to “intermittently dazzling,” in a re-viewing of the film a few years later.
By Julie Lavelle
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1956 – dir. Don Siegel
Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has prompted countless debates over its political message: is it anti-McCarthyism or anti-communist? Although the iconic invasion narrative gives the plot cohesion, the film is most interesting for its bleak envisioning of a post-World War II America filled with broken promises, mental instability, and general uneasiness–a world in which anxiety rules and love can’t save the day.
By Melvin Cartagena
Gun Crazy – 1949 – dir. Joseph H. Lewis
The street could be Main Street from anywhere U.S.A., but in this case it’s Hampton, California. We see only a slice of the street, at an angle, from a connecting street. The effect is expressionistic lighting broken by a heavy rainfall. Then, a shadow slides across the storefronts for a moment before young Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn) peeks around a building’s edge, right at us. He advances, and the camera pulls back to show us the window front of a hardware store. Bart presses his face against the glass and looks at the display of six-shooters with a fascination that borders on worship. He picks up a rock, hurls it at the window, then turns to look back, momentarily striking a Jesus Christ pose with his arms stretched out at his sides. He reaches in and pulls out one Colt revolver and a box of bullets, runs away, and trips, causing the gun to slide across the rain-slick street, right at the feet of Sheriff Boston. The lawman advances on Bart and, his POV is a tracking shot that crowds young Bart’s wet face on the frame before we fade to black.
By KJ Hamilton
Kiss of Death – dir. Henry Hathaway – 1947
It all began with an act of desperation: a jewel heist at Christmastime. Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) was an ex-con with a record a mile long, but the most important thing to him was his family. Unable to secure a job, he returned to his old ways in order to have money for Christmas gifts for his family. He was caught, and refused to rat out his partners in crime—on the promise that those partners would take care of his wife and two daughters. Bianco meets an interesting character, Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), whose laughter is nowhere near as infectious as it is scary. Months go by, and Bianco learns that his family has broken apart as a result of his wife’s suicide. He decides to make a deal with the assistant district attorney, Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy), and is eventually granted parole. He remarries and, with D’Angelo’s help, secures a home, a job, and a different last name. Bianco not only squeals on his partners in crime, he also relates back information that helps to pin Udo as the prime suspect in a murder case and takes the stand at trial. But, when the prosecution’s case falls apart, Bianco is forced to square himself with Udo. There’s only one way to catch a killer: red handed.
Pickup on South Street – dir. Samuel Fuller – 1953
Samuel Fuller didn’t fool around; he was not out to prettify film and once said being restricted to little or no budget was a blessing: “The cheaper the budget, the grittier the film”. And boy, are his films gritty! From the start of his career, Fuller fine-tuned a technique that was taut and raw, a bald tire style that makes you think everything and everyone in his films is going to explode at any moment. He did not embrace and had no patience for the lush, velour shades of a Lubitsch or a Capra; he didn’t give a damn if his pictures fell easily on the eye. He was concerned that they depict accurately that slice of the world he grew up in and knew, a world where you could as easily be kissed as killed,where one minute, you are being romanced by a handsome thug and being rubbed out by him like a half-smoked cigarette the next. Fuller celebrated low-life and the denizens of New York the way children celebrate birthdays — with noisemakers, pop guns and glee, and he made no apologies for accusations that he glorified crime – being Sam Fuller meant never having to say you’re sorry. His films were not blockbusters in their day; Time has turned them into lasting gems for now we see the honest tales they told; time capsule artifacts of a period in our history that truly was unique.