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FILM NOIR: SLOW FADE TO BLACK


by L. E. Ward

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Certain genres of film seem to yield more and more, as the decades go by, of their richness, denseness and complexity. One of these is, certainly, the belatedly titled (by French critics of the 1950s) black film, or film-noir. The reputations of literateurs in our history (including Poe and Washington Irving), have often begun in Europe, not to mention that entire post-WWI generation of expatriates — who had been predated by Henry James and Gertrude Stein, among others, in the late nineteen, and early twentieth centuries.

At times, American excellence is too close-up; too visible to be “seen”; or viewed with a vision of the happenstance; the taken-for-granted. The Scriptures said it originally: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.”

I first saw films-noir as a matinee-going child of the 1950s. At that time, I was not aware of them by a name, or even, necessarily, as a genre, except as depictions of crime and corruption, usually in a tense, urban setting. Films which stood out for me — with no recommendation or reference other than my own personal, boyhood viewing — in that era, were Finger Man (1955; Harold Schuster) and The Prowler (1951; Joseph Losey) — these, in particular, and for their particulars. Titles which emerged were The Phenix City Story, various city “confidentials” and “exposes”; even imported, low-budget British films, like The Square Ring (1953; U.S. release, 1955). Frank Lovejoy and Richard Conte were typical protagonists. Espionage or theft under a low sky emerged in Shack Out on 101 (1955) and Highway Dragnet (1954) — films remembered, by me, today, only in terms of an impression of atmosphere.

As I recall, after a third of a century, The Prowler had to do with a policeman (Van Heflin) enticed by a housewife who claimed she was disturbed by a “prowler”, and who lured him into a scheme to kill her husband. The climactic car chase on a dusty road is the only image retained by me. Finger Man yielded more: the terseness, tenseness, of Frank Lovejoy as a criminal, gone undercover after a booze-ring, with the heroine (Peggy Castle), walking alone on a dim-lit, city street, to her death at the hands of a scarred villain. When Lovejoy later apprehends the fiend, he says: “I know why you killed her, but did you have to do that to her face?” decades before I ever heard of existentialism, this remains my vivid, non verbalized introduction to the “night-world.”

The 1940s films-noir were seen by me, almost in toto, when they came to television, in the late 1950s, and early 1960s, when various studios sold their backlogs to television. One had heard of some of the more famous; but one got to see, and learn to appreciate, to immerse oneself, in the ambiance; the period atmosphere, again, independently.

Most of the films not only were in black-and-white but they used shadows for emphasis; for, indeed, a kind of poetry. If anything is disturbing about these colorizing fiends, it is all that they have missed, and has been missing, in recent decades. Present color has accompanied an abandonment of the old shrewdness in mannerism, art direction, and set decor.

The German Expressionist backgrounds, as well as the flight from the Nazis, of many of the writers, directors — and even some actors of “black” film, are undeniable; or, at the very least, suggestive. Some critics have squabbled about how something — a genre –could really exist, if its makers had not so labeled it and declared themselves, and their intentions.

The strongest, clearest, adequate evidence is the films, themselves and their abundance, in both quality and quantity. What B-film or television episode about crime or detectives, or not, can compare to the work of the 1940s (and somewhat of the 1950s)? Miami Vice has had effects, visceralness, “colors”; so has Crime Story. To me, neither is matchable.

This is definitely to be said for the 1940s movie-makers: they created a corrupt, aristocratic, materialistic world — making it compelling, and not glossy. It was a world imbued with a knowledge of lofty ideals, but a realization of the way men really “live,” and the beast that dwells underneath the skin. Some revisionists have carped that Hollywood did not know, or “allow,” the atrocities of the fascists, either to be seen explicitly or precisely, in the wartime era, or even its aftermath. While one can counter this, somewhat, with examples like Saboteur (1942), The Stranger (1946), and a few others, this is not, terribly, the point.

The vision of blackness is timeless, is eternal, is instinctive, as well as subjective. Of course, it involves a visual, as well as aesthetic ambiance; we are-entertained, entranced, by inequity and iniquity. Still, one was never puzzled, or less than certain, of what inhumanity or corruption was. The city — impersonal, dangerous, uncertain, and unreliable — contrasted with rural and small-town bourgeois values. The seduction of the cosmopolitan -that glitter that was gold, and not “golden” — was a conundrum. I recall the moral center of Veronica Lake’s impassivity, which was, really, not passive, either in the main or in its results. Most of the detectives were loners, independents; they were a part of, yet apart from, the often-corrupt, and always tractable, “police.” They knew the score; worked for hire, for a living, were rarely conned, although they could be; and were resolute to the photo-finish.

Before the 1940s, the “detectives” were urban gentlemen (whether Philo Vance, Nick Charles, or Sherlock Holmes — or Charlie Chan), who approached crime as a hobby, as well as an intellectual incentive. By the advent of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), nothing would be so elitist or flippant, again. For all the tartness of 1940s detectives’ tongues, and their maintenance of an attitude of cool, of tight-lipped composure, they were like aerialists on a tightrope of experience, with only the abyss, or the knowledge of the abyss, beneath.

The genre progressed, and changed, slowly but surely. Alfred Hitchcock was one of its greatest originators, as well as stylists, but so were Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Robert Siodmak. Some producers focused upon unusual intelligence and even artistry in handling of mediocre material, significantly, Val Lewton. Billy Wilder, Henry Hathaway, Otto Preminger and many others brought additional nuances.

By the 1940s, private detective films became a surfeit; although their guises were, truly, various and subtle. Consider Edward G. Robinson as the insurance investigator, Keyes, in Double Indemnity (1944), as well as the committed Nazi-hunter in Welles’ The Stranger (1946), as indications of just how precise, yet variable, depictions of the moral adversaries of the “immoral,” could be.

Some historians have seen the femme-fatale as a causal factor of blackness to descend upon humanity; others have been attuned to the aestheticism of elitists, themselves (the old saw of art versus reality; education versus feeling). Double Indemnity, among others (Ivy, The Locket, etc.), can be cited in the former instance; many others (Laura, The Unsuspected, The Madonna’s Secret), among the latter.

Film-noir, probably, does have parameters, but they are not as easy or as facile as this. Above all, dark film is serious; it is like a cat enticing a mouse into its trap. What would not succeed as a sermon, captivates as a come-on.

Take the “world” of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura:  Can anything have been more visually “lovely?” Consider the elegance of urban “great houses” and country-retreats moved through in Saboteur, The Fallen Sparrow, The Unsuspected. Consider the elegant eroticism of “loveless lovers” in Gilda, Mildred Pierce,  and Double Indemnity; and consider the wide (if unrecognized) strain of a sexual nonconformity — too easily dismissed as misogyny. Book after book on film-noir comes from the presses, but I still see no reference to Van Heflin as a platonic gay companion of Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager (1942); more to the point, what did the hatred of conventionality mean for the audience and the actors, in Laura, The Uninvited and Rebecca (with strong suggestions of lesbianism); and the woman-killing “Uncle Charley” (Joseph Cotton) in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Sometimes, the fascists were established as explicit enemies: cold, wealthy, impervious to human feeling, and life, itself–whether as Conrad Veidt in Casablanca (1943) or Claude Rains in Notorious (1946). The sex may have been “bad,” and “good,” but only rarely was it given a suggestion of goodness, as in the case of the psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) who saves Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945). Even in Road House (1948), the good man -Cornel Wilde — saves the good woman (Ida Lupino); but twisted sex, in the form of the evil jealousy of Wilde’s partner (Richard Widmark), put both their lives and limbs at risk, until the conclusion. The political seriousness of film-noir in the 1940s with prewar, wartime, and postwar corruption and criminality all being called, at various times, and in various guises, to account, as well as to attention — can be emphasized by a kind of negative proof. When the true brutalities of war, and its immediate, postwar aftermath, ended (or at least ebbed), the budgets (at the very least), and critical and commercial importance of films-noir, did not cease, but they, frankly, subsided.

They did not, of course, disappear, even into the present. From time to time (the mid and later 1960s — upon occasion, during the 1970s and the 1980s) they, like Satan, have recurred when we have had need of them. The old ambiance of wealth, Eros, and danger recur in Chinatown (1973) — with its suggestion that Mrs. Mulwray cannot go to the police (“He owns them, too”). One cannot even trust oneself, as William Hurt discovers in Body Heat (1981) — where his salvation and nemesis, in the form of Kathleen Turner turns out to be one and the same person.

Evil, corruptibility, malleability have all remained constants. What was unique was what, in a burst of pique, yet fascination, numerous 1940s filmmakers made of them. They looked at the monsters close-up: of big people, who were low-living; and of small, or little, people, who could be corrupted. One rarely, if ever, laughed — or even cried — while watching film-noir. Laughter and tears are, after all, feelings; emotion; sentiment. Film-noir — for all its gaudy apparel — is a black world, a dead universe; where feeling has ended. One may tear a little, in remembering the films and film-viewing experiences, of eras past; At Tangerine being played in the background, at the end, of Double Indemnity, or at Clifton Webb reciting Dowson’s “They are not long the days of wine and roses, love and desire and hate,” near the end of Laura.

One remembers bits and pieces — dialogue; interior decoration; other oddities — from more of such films, than anything except the most beautiful and buoyant of musicals — which are, of course, their antithesis — even to the Technicolor the musicals were almost always originally photographed in: Bette Davis, falling dead on the railroad tracks, to the strains of Chicago, in Beyond the Forest (1949); Gene Tierney, wearing dark glasses, sitting as “Danny” (Darryl Hickman) drowns in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — a fine film which the rare, original Technicolor, destroys, dramatically and thematically. Marilyn Monroe as the tawdry, yet understandable, Rose — writhing up the final steps of the bell tower in Niagara (1953) — one of the few films-noir made in Technicolor, where the color was not only an “asset,” but not a liability. “They can’t play for you anymore, Rose,” Joseph Cotton says about the bells to the lifeless body of Marilyn Monroe he has just suffocated.

But they “play” for us endlessly, on film, and in such films. For politics, Eros, color, or black-and-white, changing pretensions and fashions, aside, film-noir returns us to the original, undying jungle of earth, both pro and con — at one and the same time. In their presence, we are both villain and victim. Both Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, ruining the child’s ice cream cone, strangling Laura Elliott, and the vision of Hitchcock, seeing her murder — helpless to assist, or prevent — through her glasses, which have dropped to the grass. We are mortal; guilty yet innocent; innocent yet guilty — as we witness the great shadow of Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce — move from the room in which her younger, neglected daughter has just died. We see the shadow on the wall, alone; and it expresses the inexpressible; nothing, yet everything. We are in the world none of us ever made; and from which none of us will ever escape alive; informed of our pleasure, and pain; our complicity — and of our own sentence to the “night-world” of eternity.

Ed. Note: This essay previously appeared in Movie Zine

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

Richard A. Barney (ed.), “David Lynch: Interviews”

KM: If your paintings had sound what would it be like?

DL: Different paintings would have different sounds. So This is Love would have a muffled sound like talking through a glove. A Bug Dreams would be a really shrill 15,000-cycle piercing sound. She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone, She Was Hurt Bad would be an extremely slow motion, muffled breaking glass sound.

KM: What kind of things function as seeds for paintings?

DL: Inspiration is like a piece of fuzz—it kind of comes up and makes a desire and an image that causes me to want to paint it. Or I can be going along and see an old Band-Aid in the street, and you know how an old Band-Aid is. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some black little balls, and you see the stain of a little ointment and maybe some yellow dirt on it. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock, and maybe a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.

Italo Calvino, “The Uses of Literature”

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and, judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmological family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

Clement Greenberg, “Art and Culture”

One cannot condemn tendencies in art; one can only condemn works of art. To be categorically against a current art tendency or style means, in effect, to pronounce on works of art not yet created and not yet seen. It means inquiring into the motives of artists instead of into results. Yet we all know—or are supposed to know—that results are all that counts in art.

Nineteen out of twenty—nay, ninety-nine out of a hundred—works of abstract art are failures. Perhaps the ratio of success to failure was the same in Renaissance art, but we shall never know, since bad art, even in ages considered to have had bad taste, tends to disappear faster than good art. But even if the proportion of bad to good were higher nowadays, and higher in the field of abstract art in particular, it would still remain that some works of abstract art are better than others. The critic of abstract art is under the obligation to be able to tell the difference. The inability to do so, or even try to do so, is what more immediately makes denunciations like Lewis’ suspect. And the suspicion is not allayed in this case by the statement that Moore, Sutherland, Bacon, Colquhoun, Minton, Craxton, Pasmore, Trevelyan, Richards and Ayrton form “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known.”

Christopher Ricks, “True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound”

Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hectht, and Robert Lowell under the sign of Eliot and Pound: the figure of speech comes from T.S. Eliot, who used it in a letter of 18 October 1939 to the scholar Edward J.H. Greene. Of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations, only four (Eliot said) place themselves “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue.

Here are five poets who mean a great deal to the world, to me, and—this being the claim of True Friendship—to one another. (Though not quite, I grant at once, to every single one of the others.) That Eliot and Pound were as fecundating for each other as had been Wordsworth and Coleridge—this is not news, although in this setting there may be a few new things to notice about it. Eliot and Pound cared diversely about Lowell and his art. Lowell’s poems and criticism engage in turn, albeit very differently, with Pound and Eliot. Hill’s poems as well as his criticism wrestle angelically with Eliot, with Pound, and with Lowell. Finally, Hecht’s criticism and poems undertake their fervent discriminations in apprehending Eliot and Pound, calling Eliot to account and calling Pound’s bluff. There is nothing by Pound, so far as I know, that touches upon Hecht or Hill, but there remains only the one two-sided vacancy that is of any moment: that Hill and Hecht, despite the shaded respects in which they comprehend their art and its common but far from commonplacec concerns, never really met. Which may provide the ground against which the other related figures can be seen.