Saturday, January 27, 2024

Lady on a Train (1945).

The Noir story is a particular sub-genre of fiction that I don't think we've ever discussed in that much detail here at the Scriblerus Club.  We might have tackled stories that work as examples of this type of narrative, here and there.  Though always the focus was on the story as story.  I don't think we've ever paused here before to take stock of the nature of the genre as a whole.  Perhaps it's high time we did just that.  It can't hurt to broaden the media literacy of an age, and besides, it can help us to situate the nature of the movie that's on offer for today.  As per usual, though, here is where the trouble tends to start.  For the record, I'd argue that it's not impossible to get a good reading of precisely what a Noir story is.  In order to arrive at the proper definition, however, you do have to go through a number of baby steps, in order for a full understanding of the nature of the sub-genre to take effect.  In a PBS documentary on this subject, for instance, Richard Widmark (a frequent marquee headliner in films of this sort) describes the Noir narrative in the following terms:  "It was the 40s, right after the War.  Going to the movies was like going to a candy store.  Something for everybody.  Popular films were Melodramas, Romances, (and) Musicals.  The Big Song and Dance.  But that's not my kind of of movie.

"You could always find me in the theater round the corner.  People like me liked our pictures dark and mysterious.  Most were B movies made on the cheap.  Others were classy models with A talent, but they all had one thing in common.  They lived on the edge.  (They) told stories about life on the streets: shady characters; crooked cops; twisted love and bad luck.  The French invented a name for these pictures: Film Noir.  'Black Film', that's what they called them; about a darker side of human nature; about the world as it really was".  That description is a bit hyperbolic, yet it does convey perhaps a good sense of the atmosphere that these types of stories tend to evoke.  Another ingredient in the fiction of Noir is the way a lot of its most famous creative expressions seem to have been generated by the emotional fallout of the Second World War.  Edward Muller details this in his book Dark City.

"Film noirs were distress flares launched onto American movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory.  Some shell-shocked craftsman discharged mortars, blasting their message with an urgency aimed at shaking up the status quo.  Others were firecrackers - startling but playful diversions.  Either way, the whiff of cordite carried the same warning: we're corrupt.  The nation's sigh of relief on V-J Day ought to have inspired a flood of "happily ever after" films.  But some victors didn't feel good about their spoils.  They'd seen too much.  Too much warfare, too much poverty, too much greed, all in the service of rapacious progress.  Unfinished business lingered from the Depression - nagging doubts about ingrained venality, ruthless human nature, unchecked urban growth throwing society dangerously out of whack.  Artists responded by delivering bitter dramas that slapped romantic illusion in the face and put the boot to the throat of the smug bourgeoisie.  Still, plenty of us took it - and liked it (ix)".  Once more, we are in the realm of grandiloquent hyperbole.  Muller's style is often prone to the same sense of the theatrical that infuses Widmark's own two cents on the matter.

It is still possible to give both commentators credit where it's due, though.  Widmark does a fair enough job of suggesting the specific type of emotional response that stories or films of this caliber were and are meant to suggest to the reader, or audience in the aisles.  Muller takes Widmark's comments on the proper atmosphere and does manage to expand the scope of things, at least by a bit.  His words bring the place of the trauma suffered by American soldiers during WWII to the forefront.  This is an important aspect of the Noir genre to keep in mind, as it is just possible to claim that one of (if perhaps not the) major driving factor that caused Noir stories to spike in the aftermath of that conflict was the sense of unrelieved tension that a lot of GI's brought back with them from the European Theater.  In fact, such a setup does serve as an unspoken background element in a 50s adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, where Mike Hammer, the film's anti-hero private detective has items and mementos lining the walls or boxes of his house that hint at the past of a bright faced, maybe even sophisticated college kid who's entire nature was re-framed by the incidents sparked by Pearl Harbor.

So it is possible to see this as an ingredient in the makeup of the modern form of Noir.  The problem with leaving it at this, however, is that it still doesn't bring us to the core of the sub-genre.  Neither Widmark nor Muller are able to lead us to the beating heart of the contemporary Mystery Thriller, and show us the engine that has kept powering this type of narrative throughout the years.  In order to do that, we have to go beyond and before the War years, out of the realm of cinema, and way back into the field of literature.  We have to go right back, in fact, to that same strand of literary Romanticism that Widmark and Muller claim to repudiate.  A closer look at the genre's origins, however, reveals that such clear-cut separations are less easy to make, and that perhaps the true allure of the Noir story is that it in fact does have a Romantic strain all its own.  It may count as something of a riff on a more familiar generic type of fictional narrative, yet the Romance of it all still remains, even when painted in darker shades.  The best excavation of the nature of this type of storytelling comes from the pages of Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet.  His basic premise, that the fiction of gangsters, detectives, psychos, femme fatales, and the type of alienated, lonely protagonists who stalk the world of Martin Scorsese's films all have their origin in the Horror genre is the most convincing.

It gives a greater sense of scope, perspective, and literary weight to the sub-genre, and helps us to gain a better sense of its overall artistic nature.  As Meehan helpfully informs the reader, "When it first emerged as a genre during the 1940s, film noir derived its distinctive visual style from the horror film.  Like horror, film noir exists inside a shadow realm of fear, darkness, fate and death.  Both forms exhibit a propensity toward nightmarish dream imagery and surrealism.  While it's more difficult to discern commonalities between the realms of science fiction and film noir, the connection with the horror genre is much more obvious.  The modern horror and mystery literary genres both had their origin in 18th and 19th-century gothic fiction, where the workings of human perversity were played out amid the trappings of the supernatural.  The works of authors Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle defined the emerging mystery genre in these early years, and the grotesqueries of gothic fiction were later reflected in the works of proto-noir American writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (1)".  I think Meehan's insight of Noir's relation to Gothic fiction is the key one.

It provides the final puzzle piece that completes the picture, and allows a greater sense of coherent order to the more impressionistic thoughts of Widmark and Muller.  In making a sustainable claim for Noir as an offshoot of Horror fiction, it also expands our understanding of a very particular mid-20th century expression of the American Gothic, and allows us the opportunity of viewing Noir as a sub-genre of Horror with a shared storytelling vocabulary, allowing for a greater sense of thematic overlap.  It also gives a better sense of generic definition.  Looked at from this angle, a Noir is little else except the setup and format of the classic 19th century Gothic novel of manners updated to a modern urban setting and environment.  The feasibility of this definition can be found by appealing to an undisputed master of the sub-genre.  Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is based off of a 1938 novel written by Daphne Du Maurier.  With the exception of the book's then contemporary setting, the plot itself is nothing less than the kind of 1800s style bodice ripper complete with star crossed lovers, a Byronic hero with a troubled past, and a creepy housekeeper who knows where all the skeletons are in the closets.

Rounding it all off is the setting of the main action in a spooky, old dark house straight out of Poe or Mary Shelley.  The entire plot amounts to a kind of B grade melodrama, however Hitch's direction manages to give it an A list budget.  In both its story and atmosphere, Rebecca is the kind of tale that validates Meehan's thesis that Noir is, in the last resort, an off-shoot of Horror.  This is not to say that either genre has to be taken in a one-hundred percent serious tone.  Sometimes even the genre of crime and corruption can surprise you with its sense of humor.  That's the case with today's film.  Produced in 1945, and directed by a forgotten filmmaker known as Charles David, this is Lady on a Train.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Catch Me If You Can (2002).

There's an old saying that goes "Truth is Stranger than Fiction".  In a way, I guess time has told on that adage.  You here phrases bandied about such as "Post Truth", or "Alternative Facts" when it comes to attempts at delineating the kind of society we all live in.  For my own part, I prefer to use a much older model or lens through which to view these contemporary conundrums.  So far as I can see, it really takes no more than a few good read throughs of Classical Philosophy to realize that what's happening in the world at large now is no more than an old challenge showing up once again.  This time it comes in a suitable, modern appearance which fits the time and age of its recurrence.  All we're dealing with today is nothing less than the same challenges that Plato outlined in his Allegory of the Cave.  For the longest time, it seems, we thought we had a pretty good grasp on the nature of reality.  Then advances in science and technology have come along and more or less proven to us all that this conviction was perhaps always little more than a convenient, but ultimately unworkable mask, and that the column of reality always had more than a few holes in it.  The result seems to have left us all in an unenviable position.  We've seem to have reached a point where its now become part of our daily routine to separate truth from falsehoods.

Rather than becoming a vehicle of spreading truth and democracy, it seems as if the advent of the Internet, and its attendant "digital village" has instead served to effectively dismantle the public square.  The net result of this successful attack is that it becomes possible to claim that any legitimate forum for public debate has, in effect, become co-opted.  Free speech, in other words, has been successfully infringed.  And the real kick in the teeth is how to do you regulate such infringements when the reach of the entire problem seems international in scope?  The sad part is I really can't offer you any solutions to these problems.  All this is just the simple train of thought kicked off by an encounter with Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.  I almost described it as an adaptation in that last sentence, for the simple reason that this is what it is.  The movie is based off of a book by the same name.  It was published way back just as the director of Jaws and Indiana Jones was getting his start.  It was also written by an otherwise unknown face in the crowd by the name of Frank Abagnale.  For reference and convenience I always pronounce that particular moniker as follows: "ABA-nail".  Hope that helps.

So who is this name from nowhere in particular, or Anywhere, USA?  What was it about this guy that caught the attention of the creator of E.T. ?  What particular story does he have to tell, and is it worth a hearing?  More important than all of this, what can something such as the nefarious life, times, and exploits of a simple, unassuming con artist tell us about the struggle to get at the truth in an era where such ventures can sometimes be a necessity of survival?  Some of that is a tall order to ask for.  So I won't even to pretend to go and look for all the answers with the help of a simple early 20s rom-com-drama.  It's a lot more the case of a critic wondering if the story of someone like Abagnale can help ease us into the task of learning to tell false fronts from reality by presenting us with a useful, and thankfully less vitriolic case study, both on and off the screen.  So with that in mind, let's a game of play catch-up.