film noir

Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!

Reversing Noir

 

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Films of the noir era usually focused on one character who, though no saint himself, had a strict view of just how much bending of “right” was acceptable.  The hardboiled dick who lets the dame off despite the fact that she is guilty as hell because the guy had it coming is the typical storyline.  There is one other twist which is that everyone, including the point-of-view character is so deeply mired in muck that they are irredeemable.

By 1945, however, Michael Curtiz decided that the genre needed a new twist, and used that feeling to create his take on Mildred Pierce, an adaptation of the novel by James Cain (who you might remember from here).

In this film, while some characters are certainly sleazy, there is only one who is actually bad… and the rest of them spend the entire film putting themselves at risk in order to try to help that one character (I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who might be watching).  Their reward?  Betrayal of all sorts, from sexual to downright criminal.

Other than that particular twist, the film is notable for the way Mildred Pierce creates a business empire against all odds, often hindered by friends and family.  It’s a sign of how the war had affected American society – audiences accustomed to women performing war work were definitely ready to see them on screen as strong business leaders.  Although this isn’t the central theme of the movie, it is strong enough to be very notable.  And Joan Crawford is extremely believable in the role, one can’t help but think that she was a much better choice than the other women considered for casting.

This is a good complement to the noir era, something to watch if you’re really into noir in all its permutations.  Of course, it’s a film a casual viewer might never actually get to, but for fans of the genre, it’s a must.

Ann Blyth

Also, a shout out to surviving cast member Ann Blyth, who is notable because she was a key member of the cast – and central to the plot.

When Everyone is Out to Get Everyone Else

Murder My Sweet Poster

We’re on an unapologetic film noir binge here at CE, and we don’t care who knows it.

After our recent review of Double Indemnity–which established a lot of the basic format of noir while simultaneously ignoring the most important element, the hardboiled detective–we’re back in more familiar territory.  In fact, we’re entering hallowed ground, for we are about to speak of Philip Marlowe‘s film debut.

While other Chandler novels had been filmed–even Marlowe ones–the character had never appeared by name until 1944’s Murder My Sweet (which British audiences will likely know as Farewell My Lovely).

Possibly the most notable element of this film is that Dick Powell, known for light-hearted roles as opposed to anything Marlowe-esque was cast in the lead role… and, seventy years later, therein lies a problem.  The major issue is that the hard-boiled dick actor par excellence is Humphrey Bogart, and no amount of thespian versatility by lesser men could ever really equal that.  Having anyone else play Marlowe seems somehow sacrilegious.

This is still a great film, mainly because the plot is so twisted that one ends up needing a corkscrew to figure it all out… that is until the end, where the spider at the center of the web is revealed, and the motivations become a bit clearer.

Dick Powell in Murder my Sweet

We won’t spoil it by giving away the final revelation, but will limit ourselves to noting that most of the comments about human sorididity that we made about  Double Indemnity are still valid, but detract less from this film.  It’s one of those cases where having the plot focus less closely on the relationships between people and having more actually go on shifts the focus away from the baser elements of behavior.  This one feels more like a roller-coaster ride through the murky depths than the view through a microscope of that same muck… and gains by it immeasurably.

Watching the two films back to back is recommended for anyone who wishes to truly understand the extremes of noir, and how two aesthetically similar films in the same genre which touch on similar themes, and even use a similar flashback framing to tell the story, can feel completely different, and yet be unmistakably related.

And a final reflection is how dark films seemed to find favor during dark times, despite the best efforts of the Hays office.  Noir is a product of the early and mid forties, which would seem to be anti-intuitive; one would think that a people weary of war would look for light-hearted filmography.

But that clearly wasn’t the case.  Noir would never be done as well as it was then, much like comedy would never be as good as the screwball type of the thirties – Hollywood simply never recovered that particular magic.

We give this one four Schlemmons.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Double Indemnity Movie Poster

The nice thing about our Manifesto is that it allows us to cheerfully jump from the horrors of WWII weapons of terror to light-hearted reviews of science fiction anthologies without batting an eyelash.  Perhaps the move we are making today is conceptually much smaller (although, admittedly, the last time we discussed films we went on and on about crazy Russians), but it does take us back to somewhat darker themes.

Film noir has often been analyzed from an aesthetic standpoint, and with good reason.  The darkness and visual cues (such as venetian blind lighting) are signature moves.  But today, in analyzing a film that is often credited with creating the noir look, we’re going to be contrary and look at the characters, a sordid little bunch.

Let’s begin by saying that 1944’s Double Indemnity is a film with a bunch of unforgettable scenes and plot devices – perhaps the most memorable of which is the dictation of the story into a recording device by the main character.  Having said that, it’s not actually an enjoyable film.  One doesn’t watch this one with the same pleasure as, say, The Maltese Falcon.  Though the characters are equally down-on-their luck, and often just as self-serving as the ones surrounding Sam Spade, they don’t have that touch of black humor or dogged streak of hidden nobility.

Barbara Stanwyck's towel in Double Indemnity

What I applaud most is that they managed to get it past the Hays code – even if they had to make some compromises (notably the size of Barbara Stanwick’s towel)

Despite not being enjoyable, that’s probably what has made this film so respected even seventy years later.  Think back to 1944.  There was a war on.  The public was thinking of heroism, of sacrifice – and so many films of the time reflected that.  The ones that didn’t at least attempted to give the audience some sense of humanity’s redeeming qualities…  and along comes Billy Wilder with an unflinching look at the seamier side of human nature.

This is a film where the main character is a heel, where the girl is worse than he is, and where even the supposedly pure younger woman’s innocence and decency can very easily be called into question by cynical viewers.  It looks at the real world, a world in which Sam Spade is as likely as a flock of flying unicorns.

It moves along at a decent clip, piling intrigue upon intrigue until, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, we are back where we started, but we now know why the man is dictating into the machine.

It works, it’s powerful, it’s much more true to life than most of the hardboiled genre… but you won’t like it as much. On a scale of one to five, we give it three Schlemmons.*

*For an explanation of the Schlemmon system, see here… now we just need to get someone to create a Schlemmon icon for us.

Noir Gets Victorian

Gaslight 1944 Movie Poster

One of the interesting things about the 1001 movies list is that, unless you are up on your old cinema and theater, you don’t know what to expect with a lot of films.  Gaslight (1944) was one of these.  Before viewing it, I wasn’t familiar with either the play or the movie, so I expected it to be some kind of Victorian-era costume-drama love story.

Of course it was nothing of the sort – and, if I’d thought about it a bit, I could probably have predicted it.  You see, 1944 was smack in the middle of the film noir era, and its sensibilities ranged far and wide.  Heck some of the films were even set outside of Los Angeles.

The case of Gaslight, however, must be seen as an extreme example.  Setting a noir-esque film in Victorian London was a bit of a stretch, even for the era.  Given my choice, I’d have kept the genre in contemporary America – but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t interesting.  It has quite a few memorable aspects.

The first is that by being set outside of the usual time and place of noir, it gets to play with social structures and even technology quite foreign to the hard-boiled private eyes that populate more typical fare.  Even the film’s climax (won’t give spoilers) could not have happened during the mid twentieth century.  So in that regard, it is quite clever.

On the other hand, it also uses much of noir’s shorthand, especially the tortured human elements and unhealthy relationships that are so typical of the format. There’s even a hard-boiled detective (although he works for Scotland Yard as opposed to having a seedy office in a high-rise).

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Cover

Though it’s not a bad movie, this one probably earned its place on the 1001 movies list because of the fact that it experimented in mixing genres in ways that most noir flicks didn’t in the 1940s.  Yes, there were variations on the theme (making the hero an insurance salesman or a woman instead of a detective), but this one was probably the most extreme.  In a world a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a real thing (and soon to be a movie itself), an experiment of this sort probably wouldn’t attract a whole lot of attention – but that was not the case in 1944.

So, glad to have seen it, but not really all that keen to recommend it to anyone.  Watch it if the above has piqued your interest…  or give it a miss.  There are other, better films noir to spend your time on…  and we’ll have a writeup of at least a few of them here soon!