Borde & Chaumeton
Way back in 1955, two Frenchmen, Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, wrote A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953, the very first book on the genre. The first English translation of the book, by Paul Hammond, didn’t appear till 2002.
Being Surrealists, Borde and Chaumeton tirelessly hunt for a handful of qualities in these films: oneirism, strangeness, eroticism, moral ambivalence, cruelty, death, sensation. It makes for a delicious read; I thought I’d excerpt a few bits to give you an idea of its flavor.
All through the book, the word “exemplary” is reserved for the highest praise. On Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street:
Censorship has been at work and we haven't seen the best scene: the killer, perched on a post carrying electric cables, listening with delight to the buzzing of the current that's going to electrocute the innocent lover. We've been deprived of an exemplary sequence here.
Henry Hathaway’s Niagara:
A strangulation scene filmed in cast shadows recalls certain De Chiricos. And then the hysteria of Marilyn Monroe singing "Kiss Me" and her voluptuous tossing and turning in a hospital bed happily reenliven the erotic repertoire. “I once had occasion to write,” André Bazin said, “that since the war cinematic eroticism had shifted from the thigh to the breast. Marilyn Monroe makes it descend somewhere between the two.” [I wonder when and where Bazin said this?—g.]
Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep:
The sordid settings and their bizarre details, the brief but merciless fistfights, the furtive murders, the sudden reversal of roles, the “objects,” in the Surrealist sense of the word (such as the Khmer statue hiding a camera which takes pictures of the orgy scenes), the eroticism of blood and pain (Vivian kissing Marlowe’s bruised lips), the killer who lets himself be poisoned in order to go on concealing his accomplice’s name, the armed prowlers who watch over the nocturnal rendezvous and the environs of secret gambling joints, and lastly the wild dancing of the women: all this makes The Big Sleep a major event in the history of American cinema. Never will film noir go further in the description of a cynical, sensual, and ferocious world.
In the films of Josef von Sternberg:
[A]nguish is always accompanied by a certain sexual excitement. Baudelaire’s line could stand as an epigraph for his oeuvre as a whole: “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills.” Sadomasochists will always be drawn to these mirage-memories of some new Gomorrah.
John Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven:
This is the first time Technicolor has been used in a crime film. Up to this moment it had been reserved for exoticism, adventure films, and musicals. But then “the landscape is a state of the soul,” and John Stahl has contrived to accentuate the tragic aspect of the story by utilizing scenes of dawn and dusk, the rolling landscape, the color of dried blood, of the deserts of New Mexico, the oppressive solitude of a cabin lost in the verdure of the pine forests, and the glaucous waters of a high mountain lake.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur:
[A]n unjustly scorned chase film that contained, as well as the pursuit atop the Statue of Liberty, a very beautiful and strange sequence: a man on the run takes refuge in a cinema during the showing of a detective film. His derisory shadow glides along at the bottom of the screen at the instant the detectives in the film surround some gangsters. The voice of an actor, magnified by the sound system, invites someone to give himself up, and gunshots echo simultaneously on the screen and in the cinema.
True to Surrealism’s anti-religious spirit:
Elia Kazan has just botched a wonderful subject, the hold gangsters have on the unions, by giving in to religious imperatives (On The Waterfront, 1954). These commercial concessions are no longer tolerable. A Joris Ivens or a Georges Franju is needed here.
A call of discovery:
We finally arrive at one of the genre’s most indisputable successes. The Enforcer (1951) has revealed to the public the name of a director who will henceforth have to be contended with: Bretaigne Windust. His work has the documentary feel of Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1948) and the starkness of setting, the cruelty, and the sober tension of a world without hope of a Fritz Lang.
Well, Borde and Chaumeton didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that the film was mostly directed by Raoul Walsh.
I watched The Enforcer, and another Walsh that is one of my favorites of lesser-known 40’s movies: The Man I Love (1947), with Ida Lupino. A strikingly modern film, open and upfront about sex, with characters choosing temporary liasions for economic or romantic expediency. Lupino is wonderful, playing a tough-headed, soft-hearted nightclub “canary.” The film makes uncommonly intelligent diegetic use of jazz, with Bruce Bennett playing a pianist with huge hands. (They cover the keyboard like a blanket.) At one point, he is doing Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” and tells Lupino that his arrangement of it never saw any commercial action. “That’s because it was ten years ahead of its time,” she replies, referring to its modern qualities. Chris Cagle makes interesting points about the film’s blending of genres (musical, gangster film and the social problem film) and the film's own modern aspects.
All this makes me want to revisit High Sierra, White Heat, and They Drive By Night, the only other Walsh films I’ve seen. Care to recommend any other Raoul Walsh films? Tag Gallagher has a filmography (with star ratings) at the end of his Senses of Cinema profile of the director.
For those of you who are not aware of it, let me recommend for your RSS subscriptions, Dan Sallitt’s new blog, Thanks for the Use of the Hall. As a long-time lurker at a_film_by, I’ve admired Dan’s posts there, and it’s great to see him in the blogosphere. In addition, and I didn’t realize this until recently, Dan’s also made two films which I’m now eager to see. The Customflix site has high praise for them from Kent Jones and Arnaud Desplechin.
A few links:
-- Old but good, from last year: In The Nation, Gilberto Perez reviews Colin McGinn's book The Power of Movies.
-- David Bordwell's tribute to the recently deceased Rudolf Arnheim.
-- Dipanjan has a multi-part Ritwik Ghatak interview that he translated from Bengali.
-- Dave Kehr on Fox's 21-disc John Ford collection, expected later this year.
-- The Siren has a Father's Day John Ford post.
pic: Ida Lupino lights her pianist's cigarette at an after-hours rehearsal in Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love.