The Crime Film
There is a wonderful conversation between Chris Fujiwara and Mark Roberts at the Japanese site Flower Wild. I cut and pasted the entire text into a Word document and printed it off; it runs to about 25 double-spaced pages. Lengthy but all eminently worthy reading.
The conversation ranges widely: 'thieves' and 'theft' in cinema; the phrase "film noir"; Jacques Becker; Hitchcock; postmodern nostalgia; comparisons of citation in Tarantino and Godard, etc. It's spread over three pages: one; two; and three.
Here are a few of the juicier bits:
CF: “I have a problem with the phrase "film noir," for I'm not sure what it really is. Maybe in Japan and France, people can talk about this genre more precisely, but in America film noir became more of a marketing tool — and a very important one — because it was one of the ways that repertory movie theaters in the United States managed to stay alive. They found that audiences were drawn to these so-called film noir, crime or mystery thrillers, films with actors like Humphrey Bogart. Actually, Bogart was one of the stars most strongly associated with the American repertory-theater movement, since the Brattle Theater in Cambridge was the place where they revived "Casablanca" in the 1960s and thereby helped that film become well known again. So, for me as an American, the phrase "film noir" has a certain association with marketing.”
[…] “Perhaps film noir is a concept whose main meaning might be of making a genre film as an art film. It's worth remembering that the art film itself is a concept that hardly existed in the 1940s, in America, when these films were made. Nobody had this concept. People made experimental films but for the most part a movie was something that was shown in a theater for a mass audience. Sometimes it's said that "Citizen Kane" (1941) was the first American art film. So, it does seem that there was a kind of transaction, back and forth across the Atlantic, in which the French saw "Laura", "The Lost Weekend", and "Double Indemnity" — all of which were made in 1944 or 45, but weren't shown in France until 46, after the war — and they said: "these films are amazing, they're very black, we'll call them film noir." Eventually, the Americans got wind of this and they started making films that were a bit more self-conscious both visually and aurally. I think that had to do with a certain awareness of the ways the French appreciated these films. A film like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) reveals that very clearly. This is a film made by somebody who is quite sophisticated with respect to visual design, which is something we can see in many films later described as film noir.”
[…] “That's probably a key moment in film noir, that dream sequence [in Dmytryk’s “Murder My Sweet” (1944)]. However, it's not true either to say that a dreamlike atmosphere defines film noir. Jacques Tourneur, for example, is now considered one of the great noir directors, and his films don't really use dream sequences. There's one in "Cat People" (1942), but that's it. There are no scenes that are filmed in this distorted fashion that Dmytryk used in "Murder, My Sweet". Tourneur always films everything in the same style, which is very realistic, yet also quite poetic. We could say something similar about Otto Preminger, also considered one of the masters of film noir, mainly because of "Laura". All of his films are very direct, very much on the level of reality as the real. There would never be a dream sequence in a Preminger film. It would be an outrage to his system, his sensibility. So, these things make me tend to question the concept of film noir.”
[…] “There are a number of films by Becker that might be compared to film noir. "Falbalas" (1945) is about a fashion designer who falls in love with a girl, becomes obsessed with her, and finally goes berserk. Almost any other director making a film on this subject would have treated it in a very different way. Becker's treatment is quite beautiful, but very straightforward. Becker isn't really in love with madness for its own sake. He's interested in madness, as many artists are, but he doesn't see it with any false glamor. He doesn't use it as a way to make the film more interesting or do something different with the camera, something a little crazy or erratic. It's like what I mentioned before about the "level-ness" of Tourneur and of Preminger. Becker is the same. When these directors make a movie, they don't put its parts in hierarchies. They don't say: "X belongs to fantasy and Y belongs to reality, so I'm going to shoot this one way, and that another way," or "I'll use two styles to show that one type of person or way of life is better than another." They decide they're just going to show things. Becker's approach is similar.”
[…] “It's interesting how in "The Wrong Man" that false accusation opens up an entire world that Henry Fonda didn't realize was there. He didn't realize there's a legal system that one must pass through when accused of a crime, that one must find a lawyer, stand in line, and all sort of things, just to go to court. There's a phrase from Orson Welles, perhaps in "The Stranger" (1946), which Welles attributed to Emerson: "Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass." I think Hitchcock is one of the people who takes that phrase and makes it the principle of an entire film, but in "The Wrong Man" it goes even beyond that. Here, you don't even have to commit the crime, you only need to be accused of the crime, and then the world is made of glass. There's something fundamental about American cinema in that kind of assertion. To the extent that we agree that film noir exists, or that we could call this cycle of crime movies "film noir", all of them really show how the world is made of glass. This means two things: it means that it's very breakable, fragile, that you could fall through at any moment, but it also means that you can see through it, that surfaces are meant to be seen through. So in the films of the 1940s, we find a series of beautifully polished, composed, and fantastically elegant ways of shooting scenes — we see this in the work of John F. Seitz, Billy Wilder's great cinematographer, and it appears literally at the end of "The Lady from Shanghai" (1948) of course, when the mirrors are shattered. All of these people devoted such fantastic talent and energy to creating the image of a world that's made of glass.”
[...] MR: “There's a sense in which there is no longer an industry. It's no longer possible to just make B-movies in the same way. Everything is supposed to be a blockbuster. Directors are now in a different relationship with post-industrial Hollywood. We find people like Quentin Tarantino, who seem to fantasize about being studio hacks from another era. [...] It seems that Tarantino wants badly to be a B-movie director, perhaps because that would be the signature of real artistry. The ideal seems to be the director who was working under extreme institutional and budgetary constraints, and yet made brilliant movies. If somebody can do that type of film very well, then they must be a very fine director. The irony in the case of Tarantino is that he probably has carte blanche to do whatever he wants now. Yet, what he wants, it seems, is to be a man without the means to do what he really wants.”
Coincidentally, I dived into some film noir watching and reading last week, and was stunned by the amount of solid writing on noir that's out there. (Why am I surprised?) I'm in the middle of James Naremore's 1998 book More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts, and it's amazingly good; Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his shortlist of basic cinema books, along with books by Bazin and Manny Farber. Also, the four Film Noir Readers, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, are eclectic and plentiful in their coverage, mixing journalistic and academic essays. And they don't just spotlight current writing on noir, but also include early and important French pieces by Nino Frank (who is often credited with coining the term), Jean-Pierre Chartier, Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton (the surrealist authors of the first book on noir in 1955), and Claude Chabrol. Reading all this makes me realize how naively unproblematic and narrow my notions of film noir had been. I will report back after I've digested a small fraction of this mountain of noir writing.
On the viewing front, I just did a series of strong Otto Preminger noirs including Fallen Angel, Where The Sidewalk Ends and Whirlpool. What struck me most about these films were the incredibly long takes, complex blocking strategies, and ingenious reframings. This is highly choreographed camerawork, but not at all flamboyant. You have to be alert and really look to notice it. Also, I finally caught up with Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) last night--a brilliant film! (Why isn't Siodmak better known and written about, I wonder?)
Your thoughts on the Fujiwara-Roberts interview, film noir, etc.? Feel free to share.