Thursday, March 29, 2012

Film Noir: The Directors


I'm pleased to announce that I have an essay in the new collection FILM NOIR: THE DIRECTORS, the latest book edited by scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini. Since Silver and Ursini set the bar on noir studies with their earlier collections, I'm really excited to be included. The book covers the careers of thirty individual directors, from Robert Aldrich to Robert Wise, and I have an essay on the noir work of the little known craftsman Felix E. Feist (THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, THE THREAT, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY). Feist has been underrated for a long time now, and I did some of the first work on his career a while back for the Film Noir Foundation. To now publish the first comprehensive overview of his contributions to noir is a thrill for me.


I couldn't be more pleased with the book itself. It's 476 pages, packed with gorgeous photos. Just the work on my Feist section alone is beautiful. FILM NOIR: THE DIRECTORS is really an essential collection for any noir fan. Check it out.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Violence of Tenderness: SHANE and DRIVE


I have a new essay up at Criminal Element about the thematic connection between the classic Alan Ladd western SHANE and the Ryan Gosling neo-noir DRIVE. If that seems like an odd association to make, consider the following: both films are variations on a well established tendency in genre films--the transmutation of a man's love for a woman into violence against another man.

Check out the essay here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Film Noir, Ingmar Bergman and The Danish Doctor of Dread

ABOVE: Max von Sydow in WINTER LIGHT

There's a great piece over at the New York Times Opinionator blog by Gordon Marino called "The Danish Doctor of Dread" about the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the concept of anxiety. Kierkegaard was the philosopher most interested in angst--it's not for nothing that he's widely seen as the OG of existentialism--but Marino points out that far from being hopeless about the lonely state of humanity, Kierkegaard saw angst as the beginning of understanding.

The philosopher's central insight was that at the root of our anxiety about death was our simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from self-annihilation. Kierkegaard pointed out that when we stare over a cliff, we become dizzy not just with the fear of falling but with the bizarre desire to jump.

I haven't read THE CONCEPT OF ANXIETY in its entirety--my familairity with Kierkegaard is restricted to FEAR AND TREMBLING and to a few chapters here and there of EITHER/OR and THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH--but Marino's essay has reached me at a good time since these ideas have been on my mind lately.

About a week ago I watched Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT for the first time in a while. It's the middle film of Bergman's Silence Of God Trilogy (between THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and THE SILENCE). It's a masterpiece, though like so many of Bergman's films you have to see it a few times for its mysteries to unfold. (This has something to do with the director's lack of cliche and convention. While his films are incredibly studied and carefully composed they also seem organic in the sense that you do not know from moment to moment what will happen. At his best, Bergman was the least predictable filmmaker imaginable.) Like so many of his films, WINTER LIGHT has a frozen surface and a boiling center. At the heart of the story is a priest (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who has lost his faith. Confronted by a suicidal parishioner, the priest can muster only the most perfunctory words of encouragement. When the man kills himself, the priest must decide whether or not to go on or surrender to the final despair.

WINTER LIGHT is the kind of film that Kierkegaard might well have made (it's worth noting that the philosopher employed elements of fiction in his writing. Released in the winter of 1963, it is a film made very much under the threat of nuclear annihilation--the suicidal man lives in dread of the bomb--but it is really about existential angst. What meaning is there to be found in the face of certain death? As a hunchbacked parishioner points out to the priest in the film's penultimate scene, even Jesus felt abandoned by God in his moment of agony, crying out "My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Of course, my reading of this essay on Kierkegaard and re-watching WINTER LIGHT both have occurred while I'm continuing to study and write about film noir. Anxiety is the key element, as I see it, in the make up of noir. You see this in pivotal films like SCARLET STREET, IN A LONELY PLACE, ANGEL FACE, and perhaps most especially in the greatest of all noirs, DETOUR.

Of course, the Kierkegaard piece couldn't help but bring to mind VERTIGO. I think it was Robin Wood who first pointed out that Hitchcock's masterpiece almost works like a demonstration of Kierkegaard's central insight about the attraction/anxiety of death. Here's the big K in THE CONCEPT OF ANXIETY, "Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss." Jimmy Stewart looks down into the abyss at the beginning of VERTIGO and he can't unsee it. Falling in love with Kim Novak is just a way to dive off into self-annihilation.

To bring this all back to the Marino essay, the author points out that these days we "medicalize" anxiety, attempting to deaden it with pills, a practice that ends up robbing us of anxiety's insights. He recommends that we try Kierkegaard instead. I would add WINTER LIGHT and VERTIGO to that list. And DETOUR, definitely DETOUR.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Greatness of Joan Bennett


Part of the great thing about an obsession with film noir is that it is self-replenishing. Once you're seen every Lizabeth Scott movie you can get your hands on, you can switch to stalking Audrey Totter or Marie Windsor for a while. (Or, to be fair here, Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan.)

All of that is to say that while I've been an admirer of Joan Bennett for years, I've only recently locked in on her as an object of fascination. It's rather exciting, I must say, to rediscover her at this point in my noir affliction. She is one of the truly great leading ladies of the genre--while she could be a deliciously evil femme fatale, she was also one of the most human. Her filmography is deep and impressive, and her life story was a tabloid tragedy writ large.

Check my new essay on Joan Bennett over at Criminal Element.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rogue's Gallery

above: John Payne busting heads in LARCENY

Check out the new entry of Rogue's Gallery, the three man standoff I have on semi-regular basis with Eric Beetner and Cullen Gallagher over at Spinetingler Magazine. This time around we discuss noir's unlikely tough guys--dudes like John Payne and Dick Powell who started out in musicals or comedies and then worked their way over to noir.

As a PS to the article, one guy we left off was the great Dana Andrews. He's so well known now as a noir icon in films like LAURA and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS that its easy to forget that he started out as a singer.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pitt and Dominik reteam for COGAN'S TRADE


If you live in dread of the thousand comic book movies coming our way you can at least take heart that, for art house crime geeks at least, the future does hold some signs of hope. As I talked about the other day, Gosling and Refn are reteaming for ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

Just as exciting is the new collaboration between Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik. The two worked together previously on the brilliant, if largely unseen, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. That film made about ten cents at the box office--when I saw it in the theater, the small audience in attendance dwindled throughout the screening until only some dude and I remained--but it is as good a revisionist Western as I've ever seen.

The news is that Pitt will be joining Dominik in an adaptation of George V. Higgins's gritty 1974 crime novel COGAN'S TRADE. It's interesting to note that as cinema becomes ever more enslaved to the tastes and preoccupations of sci-fi-loving fanboys, genres like westerns and noir are becoming de facto adult programming. (That's not a dig at sci-fi or comic book movies or fantasy flicks. I like that stuff well enough. I just think the domination of fanboy material at the box office is monotonous and, ultimately, redundant. Enough already with the armies of CGI characters charging at each other with swords.) Dominik and Pitt are joined by an amazing cast: SOPRANOS alums James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola, the always welcome Ray Liotta, ANIMAL KINGDOM's Ben Mendelsohn, THE VISITOR's Richard Jenkins. If you can't make a good crime flick from with this cast, you cannot make a good crime flick.

One note of concern: there's word buzzing around the net that the name of the film will be changed to KILLING THEM SOFTLY. If true, this seems like an idiotic move. COGAN'S TRADE sounds like a crime classic. KILLING THEM SOFTLY sounds like, well, this. (Note: not dissing either Roberta Flack or Hugh Grant, just making the point that the new title strikes a, ah, different emotional chord. But, hell, who knows? Maybe it's the perfect title for the film Dominik and company have made. I'll be happy to see the film to find out.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gosling and Refn Reteam for ONLY GOD FORGIVES


I really liked DRIVE when I saw it in the theater last year, but when I bought new the Blu-Ray edition of the film I had one of those wonderful revelations that sometimes strike upon seeing a work for the second time. It turns out I love DRIVE.

Some movies have to percolate for a while. This is especially true of something like DRIVE, a film that has such an idiosyncratic mix of styles and moods. It's at once a lovely film and a gritty film, alternatingly quiet and bombastic. Its tenderness keeps close quarters (like elevator close) with its violence. A film this original (and this derivative) needs to be seen once just so a viewer can get a lay of the land, so to speak. Repeated views add rather than subtract from the experience. It's not for every taste. It is, however, for my taste. I love this flick.

Which means I'm excited to see the next teaming of star Ryan Gosling and director Nicholas Winding Refn. Their next project is ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Gosling plays a Bangkok gangster who runs a kickboxing club as a front for a drug running operation. When his brother kills a prostitute, Gosling gets roped into a violent cycle of revenge involving a cop known as The Angel of Vengeance, as well as his own controlling mother (played by Kristen Scott Thomas).

No word yet on a release date, but I'm hoping it's sometime in the fall. DRIVE came out in a dead spot in September and did surprisingly well at the box office, so maybe the Weinstein Company (which is releasing the film) will follow a similar approach.