Saturday, February 28, 2009

Short Experiments in Noir

I've come to the conclusion that the most lasting imprint of film noir on modern cinema is its stylistic elements. This is mixed news. On one hand, style is surface-deep. It's a silver sheen that can be duplicated by any yahoo with black and white film stock, a fake gun, and a pack of cigarettes. Style can be ripped off.

On the other hand, style is important. Style is essential. The best noirs are often the most stylish. Watch the best of the best (Act of Violence, The Prowler, Angel Face, Pitfall, The Asphalt Jungle--just to name a few), and you'll see the style of noir as its meant to be seen.

Yet the best noirs don't coast on beautiful visuals. They use the noir style of b&w, slanted angles, and rain-slicked streets to create a dreamworld (or nightmare world) of sin and consequences. What modern filmmakers have to grasp is how to use the visual elements to tell stories that can be told no other way. Noir was invented out of necessity, after all.

The most famous recent experiment in noir was Richard Rodriguez's Sin City, adapted faithfully from Frank Miller's graphic novels. I liked the film, but like most hardcore noir geeks I know, I was underwhelmed by it. (warning: digression ahead! I blame most of that on Miller's source novels, which are fun as far as they go, but, again, seem too obsessed with surfaces. Great noir novels are great underground literature. Miller wrote one great book--Batman: Year One--and then seemed to give up trying to create literature. Maybe I'm wrong, but I've always loved looking at his books rather than reading them.)

Of course, the best elements of noir live on in retro noirs like LA Confidential, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Hollywoodland, and in neo-noirs like Se7en and Transsiberian, so there is always still hope that goof movie makers will keep the tradition alive.

Which brings me to the subject of short experiments in noir style. Maybe because the genre, more than any other genre, is known for its visuals, you can find many small productions tinkering with its basic elements. Here's a little sampling of some of these forays into the style and, maybe, substance of film noir:

(note: all these films contain graphic violence, cussin', or nudity. Which is fine by me, though it invites a discussion for another time: does part of the power of noir come from its limitations in these areas?)

Here's a goofy little intro to film noir style from and outfit called Four Minute Film School.

Here's a little seven-minute film from directors Andrew Rowe and Jake Dunbar. It owes more to Sin City than classic noir, but it's interesting.

Here's a short film called Planet Man, a fifteen minute professional short film from director Andrew Bancroft. It's from that little known genre of homoerotic New Zealand sci-fi noir. Of these short films, it's by far the weirdest and least noirish (it's in color, for one thing), but it actually does the best job of building on the themes and visual set ups of noir. It also has the best acting.

Finally, here's an 18-minute short noir called Siren from writer-director Andrew Mandapat. It's a fun little working over of a common noir story: the love triangle turned bloodbath.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ophüls Noir Part Two: Caught (1949)

I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces (Letter From An Unknown Woman, Madame de…, Lola Montès), and those are the films for which he is remembered today. Most people don’t even realize that in 1949 he made two film noirs back to back, nor do they realize that these two films represent exactly half of his American output. Wedged between Letter From An Unknown Lady in 1948 and La Ronde in 1950, these two B-movies have been largely overlooked by critics in favor of Ophüls’ more celebrated work.

The irony of this neglect is that The Reckless Moment and Caught are both brilliant film noirs. Each feature Ophüls’ celebrated mise-en-scène and camera work, and each feature strong female protagonists. Of the two films, The Reckless Moment is tighter and more controlled, but Caught darker and deeper.

It tells the story of a poor young woman named Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes). Her big dream is to meet Mr. Right, preferably a rich Mr. Right. She takes modeling and charm school lessons, and then one day she lucks out when the slimy personal assistant to a millionaire sees her modeling fur coats at a department store and invites her to a yacht party. Leonora is so turned off by this creepy little guy’s insinuating manner—he essentially treats her like a self-deluded prostitute—she almost doesn’t go to the party. At her roommate’s prodding she changes her mind, but it’s unclear exactly why she changes her mind. Leonora is funny that way. She doesn’t want to be treated like a prostitute, but she does want to get on that boat and maybe catch herself a millionaire.

She never makes it to the boat, though, because she runs into the millionaire on the docks, and he invites her along for a ride in his convertible. His name is Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and he is a hulking mass of money and nerves. He doesn’t so much sweep Leonora off her feet as much as he decides to buy her. In no time at all, they’re married and completely miserable. Smith seems to detest Leonora for merely existing, convinced that she only married him for his money. Leonora professes her love for him, but the fact is, she did marry him for his money. However, when Smith humiliates her in front of his drinking buddies one night, Leonora leaves him and gets a job as a receptionist for a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason). She and the good doctor soon fall in love, but Smith starts poking around, threatening to make trouble for both of them. Then Leonora discovers she’s pregnant with Smith’s child.

I have to tread carefully over plot details here because part of the power of the last act of Caught is its surprising attitude toward this pregnancy. The audience isn’t happy that Leonora is pregnant with Smith’s child, and neither is she or Quinada. Smith is happy because it gives him a way to “break” Lenora. He tells her that if she doesn’t come back to him, he’ll take the child away from her in court. Smith (who was reportedly modeled after Howard Hughes) is one sick bastard of a man. Why does he want Leonora back? Because she doesn’t want to come back. He just wants to break her. The movie finds a way to resolve this showdown, but the last few minutes of the movie are shocking. In today’s Hollywood, a movie studio would never allow a film to have such an ending. I can’t image what people must have thought in 1949.

The film was based on a novel by Libbie Block, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. This was much tinkering on the film—especially the ending—by the studio and the censors, but film that emerged is a fascinating piece of work. Ophüls was known as one the great “women’s directors”, but a better way to phrase, really, would be that he was one of the first feminist directors. Leonora’s quest to find a husband is a set up for her brutal awakening. What does she want? Why does she want it? She will have to confront her own underlying assumptions about marriage and motherhood before the movie is over.

Ophüls’ direction is superb. Here was a director. His camera glides back and forth throughout the film but never simply for the sake of being flashy. Look at the scene of Leonora and Quinada out on their date, jostled on the dance floor, deciding that maybe they’re in love, and notice how the camera finds them at all the right times. Or look at the scene of Quinada and his partner at the doctor’s office after Leonora has run off, the camera swooping back and forth between them as they talk, Leonora’s empty desk between them highlighting the power of her absence.

For all its virtues, the film does have flaws. The last two or three minutes feel awfully rushed—as evidenced by a clumsy inserted shot of Bel Geddes that looks like it’s from a completely different film stock. And I couldn’t help but think that an opportunity had been missed in the casting. Robert Ryan played a psycho better than anyone, but it might have interesting to see Mason tackle the role of Smith Ohlrig. I mean, James Mason just looked and sounded like a guy named Smith Ohlrig. He does a serviceable job as Quinada, but Ryan would have brought more warmth to the role.

As Leonora, however, Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful. An accomplished stage actress, Bel Geddes never made the big splash in the movies that she should have. Today she’s mostly remembered for her television role as the mother on Dallas, but for movie fans she’ll always be Jimmy Stewart’s lovelorn friend Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She also appeared in a few noirs (Panic In The Streets, Fourteen Hours), as well as Robert Wise’s terrific Western-Noir Blood On The Moon. With her spunk and palpable intelligence, Bel Geddes is a welcome addition to any movie, and she positively anchors Caught. Leonora could be played on two different extremes, either as coy or as self-pitying. Instead, Bel Geddes makes her a woman wrestling with her own sense of self. Her choice between Smith and Quinada isn’t simply a choice between two men or even two ways of life. It’s a choice between two Leonoras.

The AFI in Silver Spring Maryland is currently having a Ophüls retrospective. The noir portion is over I'm afraid, but they're still showing some of his later, greater masterpieces. Here's the information on the films and show times.

Here's another look at Caught, including some great stills.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ophüls Noir Part One: The Reckless Moment (1949)

Most noirs are about men, and it’s easy to understand why. After all, most the talent working on these films, from the studio brass down to the technicians, were male. Look at most of the films made in Hollywood during the classic period (or indeed, all through its history up to and including today), and you’ll find that the films mostly center around the struggles of men.

This puts a special emphasis on films concerning women. In noir—where gender assumptions often play a large role in the plot—it is especially interesting to see a film that is not only about a woman, but is about being a woman. A shining example of this minigenre is Ophüls’ fascinating The Reckless Moment, which on the surface is a domestic thriller about a wife and mother who finds herself involved in trying to cover up a possible murder, but which underneath is asking some hard questions.

The movie stars Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper, a married mother of two living in a quiet coastal town in California. Without telling anyone where she’s going, one day Lucia drives the family station wagon down to Tahoe. She’s going to a cheap hotel to see a man named Ted Darby. He’s a shady character, all sleazy charm and insinuations, who has being seeing Lucia’s teenaged daughter, Bea. Lucia wants him to stay away from her daughter, so Darby smiles and suggests that he might be open to a little monetary persuasion. Lucia throws his offer back in his face, confident that when she tells Bea about Darby’s offer, the girl will end the relationship herself.

Lucia underestimates Darby, though. He calls Bea before Lucia can get to her and sets the girl against her mother. That night, he sneaks up to the Harpers’ waterside home and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s no fool though, and soon enough she sees through Darby’s lies. A struggle follows, and in a complicated sequence of events, Darby ends up dying without Bea realizing what has happened. She goes back to the house, swears to her mother that she’s through with Darby and goes to bed. Early the next morning, Lucia goes for a walk down by the boathouse and finds Darby’s dead body.

It is at this point that The Reckless Moment becomes truly fascinating. Lucia disposes of the body, unsure exactly what has transpired, but suspecting that she is covering up her daughter’s murder. Once the body is found by the police, Lucia is the only one who knows what happened—up to a point, because even she doesn’t know exactly what happened. Things get worse with the arrival of a hood named Martin Donnelly (James Mason) who has some love letters written by Bea to Darby. He wants five thousand dollars (a heady sum in 1949) or the letters will go to the police. Donnelly is not a particularly good blackmailer—he’s clearly charmed by Lucia, maybe even oddly protective of her—but he’s working for a shadowy character named Nagel. Unfortunately, Nagel is a good blackmailer, and he’s not charmed by Mrs. Harper. He wants his money or Bea is going to wind up talking to the cops, her name all over the papers.

The Reckless Moment was directed by the great Max Ophüls, a man known for both his exquisite technique with the camera and for his sensitive treatment of female protagonists. In this film, both are on display. His tracking shots, which are more like tracking glides, were simply the best in the business. Many directors move their camera; Ophüls’ camera seems to float. If you only know his lushly romantic pictures like Letter From An Unknown Woman, you might wonder if his style could work in noir. That it works superbly is not so much a testament to how much Ophüls adapted to the material, as much as it is proof of how evocative and fraught with tension his style was to begin with. You can look at the first scenes in the movie—Lucia’s meeting in the sleazebag motel with Darby—and tell in an instant that you’re watching an Ophüls movie.

With this film, he delivered another of his great “women’s pictures”. He was working from a screenplay with a number of fingerprints on it, but most importantly he was working from a source novel by suspense writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. These days, Holding has been unfairly forgotten, but no less an authority than Raymond Chandler once called her “the top suspense writer of them all.” Her novel is a rich, dark story, and Ophüls seized on it as a way to tell the story of female entrapment in the postwar years.

Lucia Harper is boxed in by her family—her daughter, her son, her father-in-law, and even the mysteriously distant husband, Mr. Harper, at work overseas “building a bridge.” She loves her family (and the family clearly loves her), but that only makes the weight of her commitments to them all the heavier. In fact, Lucia’s chief difficulty in navigating the blackmail scheme is that her family is always watching her. She keeps stealing away to Tahoe. Strange men keep showing up at the house. Questions arise about money. Exasperated, at one point Lucia tells Donnelly, “You don’t know how a family can surround you sometimes.”

“You never get away from your family, do you?” he replies.

She stares out the window when she answers him. “No,” she says.

As Lucia, Joan Bennett gives a stunning performance, all the more stunning if you know her primarily as the sexy bad girl from The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlett Street (1945). To see her trapped in Lucia Harper’s world of tortured middle-aged motherhood and bourgeoisie asphyxiation might be a shock, but it’s a bigger shock how well she pulls it off. She sinks into this role, portraying Lucia as a frantic, unhappy, but ultimately resourceful woman. The film was produced by Bennett’s husband, Walter Wanger, and perhaps it was intended as a showcase for her acting chops. If so, it is one hell of a showcase.

Postscript: If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the film was remade in 2001 by Scott McGehee and David Siegel as The Deep End. Their impressive remake stays remarkably close to the original, with the significant exception of changing the daughter to a son. This change is important and helps add a fascinating dimension to the story’s look at gender, yet I can’t help but feel that The Reckless Moment feels more authentic. The Deep End is a fine film—well acted and directed—but watch it alongside The Reckless Moment and a faint but certain anachronistic quality creeps out of it.