Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin
Film noir: "You sure you don't see what you hear?"
What questions would arise if the visual, narrative and structural features we usually associate with film noir were to be found in films we would not necessarily want to call film noir? Better yet, if they were nowhere to be seen in films we would want to call film noir?
Critical interest in film noir reached its peak and became summarily exhausted by the late 1970s with the British Film Institute publication Women in Film Noir and, in particular, the influential contribution (in two parts) by Christine Gledhill on Alan Pakula's Klute (1971). A close reading of Klute and several films conventionally considered both inside and outside the category, together with a re-appraisal of Gledhill's essay, can uncover many of the significant stylistic omissions and blindspots that come from studying film noir solely within the range of a finite number of films, and a specific moment in cinema history. What follows is not purely an exercise in dismantling what is perhaps a sophistic set of late 1970s arguments. The deeper aim of this essay is to demonstrate that while film noir is universally regarded as a highly stylized form of American cinema, the degree and peculiarity of its stylization has progressively been reduced to an unvarying set of attributes which tend to bear little more than token relation to what can be called the sensibility of noir.
The term sensibility is used precisely because it describes the power of formal, stylistic properties to elicit a consciousness of one's feelings and emotions. Its use here owes a partial debt to Susan Sontag in her book Against Interpretation. I employ the term to call upon images and effects of film noir that, from a certain perspective, are considered fugitive, markedly self-reflexive, and multi-inflectional rather than singularly resolute: mannerisms of a style that are almost ineffable, in large part because the metaphors of theoretical discourse stubbornly accord them this ineffability. In general, the history of debate in film studies necessarily shoves these mannerisms (in the interests of critical reason and correct ideological exigency) to the periphery, sometimes offhandedly designating them as moments of pure image or pure effect, for they seem to go nowhere, do not appear to be integral parts of the grander scheme of things. The images and effects of film noir I wish to ferret out are tenuously encoded, but encoded nonetheless: mannerisms where neither thematic concerns are elbowed out by form nor form elbowed out by theme.
When in Kiss of Death (1947), Nick Bianco (played by Victor Mature) has to set himself up for a hit and takes several bullets squarely in the stomach from the giggling Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in order to protect his family, there is a sublime moment-in-waiting before he ventures onto the street where the flashes of gunfire that cut across the screen will decide his fate. This moment-in-waiting is a tour de force in the visual and aural language of film noir. The camera consistently captures and recaptures the anguished face of Nick Bianco as he waits it out, each cut - to and fro - seems timed to the seconds ticking away, and each time we return to Nick's face the shot gets closer and closer into his solemn eyes. The frame appears intensely busy with movement, yet there is very little actual movement by the characters; it is the effect of the rhythmic montage between Nick, the restaurant patrons, the clock on the wall and the patient, and the carload of henchmen out on the street. Everything and everyone and time itself is frozen in silence (each tick of the clock seemingly amplifies the silence, protracts time); it is the camera which delivers an eloquent speech as it releases and recaptures anew Victor Mature's face, especially his eyes. This face, motionless, as if sculpted to last eternity, intensifies the circumstance through the nuance of each of its lines: the grim, downward slope of his lips accentuating the sullen curve in the brim of his hat, meet and envelope the tension in his eyes. And these eyes are not mere details for their own sake; they constitute formal details just like Tommy Udo's giggling is a formal cue to his psychosis. The eyes are the window to Nick's raison d'etre and final predicament. A man formerly in prison, burned by the thought of never 'seeing' his children again, makes a deal with the authorities which lands him in this 'kiss of death' with Udo. The law is powerless, he is left with no other alternative but to place his life on the line; whether he lives or dies, either outcome delivers Udo into the hands of the law. But this is not the issue; instead, whether he lives or dies once again opens up the possibility that he will never 'see' his children. In the decisive moment of Kiss of Death, the camera's insistence on his eyes brings to bear the (psycho)logic by which the film is driven, and which is all that Nick holds dear in this world - seeing his children.
These stylistic mannerisms are inextricably tied to psychological and philosophical abstractions about men that have a deep, emotive purpose, pertaining to a dark sensibility. These are the kind of images and effects, the mannerisms, that in many ways establish a line of tradition, but are somewhat irreverent of such lines. In the example from Kiss of Death, it is not so much the level of violence reached which harnesses the dark forces at work in Nick's world, as it is the moment-in-waiting. The visual and aural details blend and are tuned, in different degrees, with other formal details. And because these details blend they are locked into, but simultaneously can extend beyond, the immediate circumstance of the scene, or the film. They form kindred spirits with other films, are co-opted by other films, again to different degrees; films that cannot be easily or readily called film noir in the usual sense, films that cannot be called film noir period, but have strong affinities.
What does one do, for instance, when the eyes of Nick Bianco are the same sullen eyes literally burned in the Cecil B. De Mille epic Samson and Delilah (1949)? I do not wish to call Samson and Delilah a film noir, but it is interesting to discern, as the red-hot blade approaches his eyes, the fatalism of a man who made a deal, put his trust in another's hands, and lost out. Because of the encoding of Victor Mature and his eyes, there hovers about the film a noir sensibility. Moreover, what does one do when at the centre of Samson's downfall is Delilah (Susan Hayward), the treacherous woman, who uses her sexuality to uncover the secret of Samson's strength; and where their romantic relationship determines the outcome of the plot, is a form of struggle for control over one another and the different worlds they represent? To be sure, in Samson and Delilah's visual components there are no oblique camera angles, no chiaroscuro lighting technique, no heavily composed or crisscrossed shadows. But what does one do when the central structural components of a film like Samson and Delilah are closer to the canons by which we have come to understand film noir than a film like Kiss of Death?
E. Ann Kaplan writes in Women in Film Noir:
... the film noir expresses alienation, locates its causes squarely in the excesses of female sexuality ('natural' consequences of women's independence), and punishes that excess in order to replace it within the patriarchal order.
Kaplan's handy definition is indicative of the decisive character of Women in Film Noir as a whole, contained in the italicizing of the word 'expresses', which was to represent a kamikaze-type shift in the way film noir had previously been figured out in Anglo film criticism.
Prior to the publication of Women in Film Noir, in Anglo film criticism at least, the article "The Family Tree of Film Noir" by the irrepressible Raymond Durgnat, Paul Schrader's quasi-theoretical jaunt "Notes on Film Noir" and "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir" by Janey A. Place and L. S. Petersen are three works of distinction that made cohesive speculations outlining the thematic and stylistic territories of noir. 4 For many, however, this earlier body of work, especially Durgnat's, is seen as a throwback into (as it were) the dark. Durgnat's 'family tree' is unashamedly eclectic, and while he classifies some of the fruitful areas of concern for film noir, he tends to plunder different cultures, periods, genres and to include films of the most unlikely sort under his various categories and sub-categories. Following on from Durgnat, Schrader's 'notes' and Place and Petersen's 'motifs' are much more objective, isolating and stressing visual style as the most distinct element of film noir. But, as critical interest increased, Schrader, Place and Petersen were also seen to have considerable limitations in respect of defining the structural role of their recurring visual elements or motifs.
All three articles are certainly cognizant of a 'high' or 'classic' period (roughly between the early 1940s to the early 1950s) of film noir production in Hollywood, and are especially eager to map out (however tentatively) territories in and around this period; that is, expanding into "imperfect schematizations for some main lines of force", to borrow a phrase from Durgnat. But whatever preliminary ground these articles had gained individually and collectively was lost in the urgency of two issues: one, the question of the specific relationship between noir's style and concerns and the relevant historical period; two, the question of defining what is essential to all films classed as film noir. Durgnat, Schrader, Place and Petersen, however, much more in tune with the idea of a noir sensibility, tended to argue against establishing strict rules for classification and tying a knot too firmly around a specific historical relationship. (In retrospect, it is ironic that what was later considered a limitation was actually the potential expansiveness of this body of work.) It is interesting that Place, although she hints at the same in her essay with Petersen, puts forward the claim quite strongly (and I think she indirectly speaks for Durgnat and Schrader as well) much later in her contribution to Women in Film Noir:
The characteristics of film noir style, however, are not 'rules' to be enforced, nor are they necessarily the most important aspects of each film in which they appear; and no attempt to fix or categorise films will be very illuminating if it prescribes too strict boundaries for a category. This leads to suppression of those elements which do not 'fit', and to exclusion of films which have strong links but equally strong differences from a particular category.
Place writes in this instance as though she has already anticipated the impact Women in Film Noir would have on the study of this style.
The importance of Women in Film Noir's arrival onto the scene lies here, for the pervasive coupling of Marxism and psychoanalysis as criteria for examining the ideological, social and political effect of (Hollywood) cinema arose from the demand for a method that would be much more than speculative, that would fix universal rules and boundaries. Against criticism judged as too expansive, unable to determine causes between related phenomena, Women in Film Noir represented a shift to the rigour of a theoretical method. It provided the study with a specific socio-historical context, an industrial context and a set of structural components integral to noir's development, identification and ideological function.
Thus, film noir is nowadays predominantly thought of as a specific moment in cinema history in which the image of woman and thus an investigation into femininity was more crucial than at any other time. Not only is the notion of femininity thus radically re-evaluated, it is also tantamount to an understanding of film noir style. Whether from a socio-historical point of view (during the years of World War II and the immediate post-war period film noir reflected the drastic changes in the traditional roles of women and the re-organization of the family unit in American society), or from an ideological perspective (in which woman is characterized as an enigma within the narratives of film noir and henceforth posed an insufferable threat to patriarchal discourses), woman is seen as the well-spring of the "aberrant style" of film noir.
It is worth reiterating the fact that film noir is not a term coined in the context of the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s, but came into vogue among film critics in post-war France who, after a very lean time for movie attendances during the war, were suddenly engulfed with a substantial backlog of American movies in which they discerned an ever-increasing morbidity about subject matter and style. Richard T. Jameson comically and sufficiently demonstrates this fact by describing a fictitious, unlikely occurrence at RKO Pictures during the 1940s in which one director calls across the studio lot to a colleague, "Hey, baby, I hear they're giving you a film noir to do next". This understanding is also maintained by Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader, and it is evident that it determines their approach to film noir. It is also reiterated by Gledhill in a rather interesting fashion:
Film noir is a purely critical term (as opposed to an industrial category of studio production) and interest in the films it designates is itself fairly recent, arising as part of the 1960s revaluation of classic Hollywood genres and concern with mise en scene as opposed to auteur and thematic analysis.
This explanation comes in the midst of detailing the Hollywood system of genre production - its economic rationale as well as the system's ideological effects and underpinnings. Yet Gledhill's explanation here propagates a few interesting inconsistencies and contradictions which are apparent in her use of the conjunction 'as opposed to'. For one thing, her elaboration of this French term reshuffles the pages on the history of French film criticism.
Mise en scene analysis was never opposed to auteur or thematic analysis. For the French film critics of the 1950s (except perhaps for the aesthetes of Presence du Cinema) mise en scene analysis for its own sake would have been highly irregular. Mise en scene was intimately and inextricably tied to the figure of the auteur as an effective form of analysis of how certain thematic concepts, ideas or attitudes are dealt with visually and aurally, or made concrete through the arrangement of visual components within the frame, the camera's position, angle and movement, as well as movement within the frame, and the use of dialogue and sound. And so, as part of the production phase of filmmaking, mise en scene is the place where the director or auteur is most likely to inscribe a personal vision, attitude or philosophy. This is not to say that mise en scene analysis could not be put to the service of other critical interests, but it is important to remember that it was the attitudes, philosophies and the like which the 1950s French critics were most sensitive to in mise en scene analysis. Thus, instead of being opposed to one another, the two concepts are in a complementary relationship. (If anything, due to its pejorative use by the French, it is the concept of the metteur en scene - the merely functional or decorative director - that should be opposed to the auteur.)
Another question to be raised with Gledhill's explanation concerns the implication of lumping together "a 1960s revaluation of Hollywood genres" and "concern with mise en scene". But where did "a sixties revaluation of Hollywood genres" take place? If we are talking about the French context - and we must be if we acknowledge film noir as a critical term - then again we are talking about the movement more commonly known as the politique des auteurs, which emerged in the early 1950s and went on until at least 1968. It is difficult to ascertain if Gledhill is referring to this, since genre, together with mise en scene, is placed in opposition to auteuranalysis.
Genre analysis in film did not really stake its claim as a critical discipline until the early 1970s with the political aftermath of May 1968 and the influence of structuralism. There were the seminal works of Robert Warshow ("The Gangster as Tragic Hero" and "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner") in the late 1940s; and no less significant were those of André Bazin ("The Western, or the American Film par excellence" and "The Evolution of the Western") in the 1950s. 8 The concept of the auteur hardly figured in these articles, and at the risk of oversimplifying their arguments, Warshow dealt mainly with the two genres' capacity for mythologizing history (including recent history); while Bazin's interest here and elsewhere was in specifying the language of cinema. Yet, it should be emphasized that although these articles were certainly removed from auteurist concerns, there was no program (implied or otherwise) for opposing the concept of the auteur.
It is often wise to recall the evolution of a critical discipline. Contrary to the popular belief that genre and auteur analysis are set against one another, genre studies in film as well as cine-structuralism owe a great debt to auteur criticism in two significant ways. First, the formulation of the politique des auteurs did have something of a stated program. As a result of the increasing accessibility to an increasing store of films, the auteur critics discovered that the critical orthodoxy operating until this time was inappropriately and insufficiently dealing with film as an art form. This orthodoxy maintained the idea of 'film-as-art' but evaluated films according to the canons of the established arts, which meant only a few films could be elevated to the status of art. After the select few, what remained were exiled to the camp variously described as crassly escapist, popular entertainment, mass produced art for mass viewing audiences - in short, genre products. Auteurism, however, found itself valuing the artistic merits of a good deal of the exiles. Thus, in the process of discovering auteurs, the question of genre was highlighted simply because here were artists that were genre filmmakers and worked in an industry not thought to be conducive to artistic endeavours. Second, the claims for valuing a new group of artists that were made by the auteur critics from an enclave of genre products meant these same critics were looking at films very, very closely. Auteurism, with its insistence on more detailed, formalized methods of analysis - namely mise en scene - had brought along the institutionalization of film studies and paved the way for the development of genre theory and cine-structuralism. 9
Gledhill seems to be struggling with an inherent contradiction in giving film noir the status of a genre. She must deal with the implications of both the fact of film noir as a critical term and the unsubstantiated 'fact' of film noir as a genre. Simply put, Gledhill is ambivalently claiming film noir to be both a genre and not a genre. The difference between a critical genre and an industrial category, once marked, is then immediately masked in an unproblematic shift to the issue of genre as though film noir as a genre is and always was a given.
What does Gledhill gain from calling film noir a genre? The basis of her "subversive reading" of Klute as a contemporary film noir does not endeavour to trace a historically continuous relationship with film noir of the 1940s:
It is perhaps significant that [Klute's] explicit generic affiliations are to a phase of the thriller that is firmly locked away in history. 10
There is on the one hand something called film noir "firmly locked away" in the 1940s, and on the other hand there is the film noir of Klute and others in the 1970s - a gap of some thirty years. (It is interesting to note that unlike Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973), Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and Marlowe (1969), which are given as part of a 1970s revival of film noir, Klute is the only one among these titles that is neither set in the 1940s nor adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler or any other hardboiled writer of the 1940s.) Genre provides Gledhill with the most effective means for breaching the gap without having to account for the cultural 'whims' of different periods, the fickleness of a number of noir films, or the variability of the Hollywood context. What is not explicitly stated by Gledhill, but inferred by how she makes use of genre, is that the link between Klute and film noir of the 1940s is based on a teleological argument.
The five main structural features she outlines for film noir are offered as immutable "essences" of a genre, and establish a relationship of the absolute to the contingent in her analysis of Klute. These features are:
(1) an investigative narrative structure,
(2) the consistent use of flashback and voice-over narration,
(3) multiple points of view - visual, fictional and across several characters,
(4) unstable characterization of the female protagonist, and
(5) an elaborate visual style.
Taken together these features stand as the ideal form of film noir , and although not specifically stated as such, Gledhill's application of these in her analysis of Klute operates according to a conservative notion of genre production whereby an archetype is produced and then numerous elaborations, re-examinations or just run-of-the-mill imitations emerge in its wake. Her analysis of Klute is determined by the degree to which Klute measures up to the five features outlined. What is also important to note in this line-up is that of the five features there is one which oversees them all: the rest are only of interest to Gledhill insofar as the notion of femininity can be wedged within their conceptualization. Thus, for Gledhill it is the role of the female protagonist that finally establishes film noir as a genre.
Janey Place argues that the issue with genre is "more than a semantic dispute" when considering (the role of women in) film noir. Why should it be so necessary to argue through the concept of genre when it comes to film noir? Although Place makes the claim in an attempt to align film noir with film movements like German Expressionism rather than genre, this is especially true when examining Gledhill's argument, because both her five principal features and analysis of Klute are finally only dependent on the concept of genre (no matter how extensive or detailed her explication of genre is), insofar as it a forms a relationship to the idea of non-genre. For Gledhill Klute is a film that plays a hide-and-seek game with generic convention and stereotypicality by implementing a "Europeanized mode" of realism through its "exploration of the human condition."
[...] distance in time enables the noir conventions to be used less conventionally and more as metaphor and so to comply with the aesthetic needs of the European tradition which the film is assimilating. 11
In other words, Gledhill is proposing that Klute only looks like an authentic and progressive treatment of a modern theme about woman's independence in the European tradition; in actuality, it treats this theme is in the reactionary, conventional and stereotypical manner of Hollywood genre production. This is another way of saying that European art film is without genre, and Hollywood genre production does not deal in the human condition. Part of Gledhill's coup de grace, so to speak, is this veiled binary opposition between two types of cinema. Integral to her argument is a continual ping-ponging between the notion of (Hollywood) genre as opposed to the notion of (European) non-genre. The problem with this is that it is based on a cultural and critical assumption about the 'non-genericness' of European cinema, which in turn propagates ideological assumptions about the workings of Hollywood film. What is particularly disturbing about building an argument upon these assumptions is while Gledhill's five features are supposedly presented as specific and immutable (generic) elements intended to apply to film noir, they in fact have much more universal application to uncovering the ideological function of Hollywood film in general. So, in this sense, where Gledhill's argument is concerned with foregrounding genre elements, the argument itself is generic, tied to static rather than developmental codes of a general system.
So let us get down to specifics. Raymond Durgnat, in noting the transitional stage between the ghost story and the detective story, between the 19th century and the 20th, states "film noir substitutes, if only by implication, a nightmare society, or condition of man." 12 The latter, one suspects, means the condition of humankind, which is already implied in the "nightmare society". But I wish to take the idea of a "condition of man" more literally. Following on from Durgnat, then, I want to begin to capture the shadowy sensibility of noir through a neat little plot description: a man on the run with a bullet chasing him and another waiting at the other end.
More than the darkness of the images, film noir is the darkness suggested when men like 'the Swede' (Burt Lancaster in The Killers,1946) or Johnny North (John Cassavetes in The Killers, 1964) patiently await the six bullets they each no longer make an effort to avoid because they know they cannot. There is something deadlier than the female, something darker than the night, which pounds in the hearts of these men. This is not to say that film noir is not concerned with (cultural) images of women, yet unlike the prevailing argument which sees film noir as exclusively concerned with the role of women in American society at a particular historical conjuncture, I propose instead that the conceptual questions that are raised about film noir, and which are not merely suggested but textually articulated in the films, are predominantly about men rather than women. 13
In 1984, at the National Film Theatre's Guardian Lecture in London, guest speaker Robert Mitchum was asked by an audience member if, in all his years working as an actor, there was anyone he had come to admire greatly. In his typically laid-back and humorous manner, Mitchum responded thus:
Well, I never really thought of that, you know, but after being in Israel through the winter and walking the Via Dolorosa, I began to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, because I tell you, if I was packing that cross I'd have said, 'Fellas, do what you have to do, but I'm not packing this cross another foot.' 14
Despite the dry tone in which it's spoken, I find this statement a profitable starting point, for it strongly exemplifies the sensibility of noir. It is the sense of resignation, resigning one's self and mind to a condition that is not going to leave one with much else. To put it bluntly, if you are going to get fucked over, the only choice you have is making the place for it. In addition, I do not think the statement would be so revealing if it was uttered by anyone other than Robert Mitchum. There is certainly something to consider about the performance of certain actors in noir films. Robert Mitchum is one of those actors whose presence in these films (and elsewhere) is encoded to the degree that it signposts a particular sensibility and attitude about the world appellative to a diseased masculinity.
The title of this piece is a line of dialogue taken from Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in the central roles of Jeff Bailey/Markham and Kathie Moffatt. It is evoked here in two senses. First, as indicative of a crisis in perception experienced by the noir hero - how he sees or reads the world (and by implication a crisis experienced by the audience) - and from which I believe film noir generates most of its allusive, self-reflexive and fugitive power. Second, as an ironic statement upon Gledhill's reading of Klute, especially where her analysis is dependent upon the apparent contradictions between the voice-over of the heroine Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) and her actions within the image. To be fair, Gledhill's analysis of Klute takes into account the possible reconstitution of the film noir 'tradition' in order to have the conventions and devices assimilate a contemporary style of Hollywood filmmaking. However, what I hope to demonstrate is that Klute is not a filmnoir, and that the features she prescribes are not necessarily characteristic of the noir sensibility.
In film noir, "it's impossible to say exactly when a crime becomes the focus of a film rather than merely a realistic incident" (Durgnat). 15 This is true of Out of the Past, for while its investigative movements are related to crimes committed, the status of the crimes is never clear cut. Indeed, the film contains four murders, two attempted murders, criminal misrepresentation, the theft of $40,000, plus a few miscellaneous acts of blackmail and tax evasion. Yet these are never the central focus for, perhaps unexpectedly, the crimes are pragmatically solved as they are committed (even if by the audience's standards they are incorrectly or unjustly solved), and as such I believe this points to another set of more poetic, existential concerns about the world in which these crimes are performed.
It is significant that the questions asked in Out of the Past are centred around the noir hero's moral and psychological condition within this criminally ambient world. That there is no 'mystery' or 'truth' to be discovered about a crime questions Gledhill's proposition that the investigation of a crime is a form of investigation of female sexuality and desire. The ambiguity of the femme fatale and the mystery of a crime are synonymous in her argument. In this respect, the element of crime in film noir is regarded in the classical sense of a "whodunnit". According to how Gledhill has built her argument, the only way an investigation into female sexuality can be read is through the femme fatale's uncertain connection to an unsolved crime.
Klute serves Gledhill's purposes well. From the pre-credit sequence, the film is signposted as a traditional thriller or mystery story. The film opens with a shot panning left to right across a lengthy dinner table filled with people gathered for a festive occasion. A husband and wife, at each end of the table, smile and look admiringly at each other. The next shot is another time, but the chair once occupied by the husband is now empty - his absence says something is terribly wrong. There is the probability of a double life or murder. The FBI are unable to discover any clues other than a obscene letter connecting his disappearance to the life of a New York call-girl. With Bree Daniels the only lead to Tom's whereabouts, John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a family friend and without any experience in police work, offers his services. Around the missing figure of Tom Gruneman, Klute thus begins to chart a fairly straightforward investigative plot in the fashion of a whodunnit. But as already suggested, giving labels like thriller, mystery, or whodunnit to a film is not equivalent to calling it a film noir. Out of the Past proceeds in a radically different manner.
Three investigative movements divide Out of the Past into three large narrative segments, and each segment can be characterized by a central question concerning the noir hero: respectively, who, how and where is Jeff Bailey/Markham?
Of the three segments the first is the most elliptical, and for this reason I will concentrate mainly on it. With so many narrative gaps, however, the filmproduces an almost perverse, self-reflexive play of symbolic elements. The arrival of Joe (Paul Valentine), for example, is of interest for the way it 'signposts', in two significant fashions. In fact, the opening series of scenes is a virtual carnival of different signs: how characters communicate to each other, what they read off each other verbally and visually, the signs characters want to know and don't want to know - both natural signs and simple, everyday, man-made signs. 16
The film opens with exterior shots of an expansive landscape of mountains and forest dissolving into each other while the credits fade-in with each dissolve, until finally there is a dissolve into a stretch of highway with a road sign in the foreground pointing directions and distances for various towns. Into the shot drives a black car, casually travelling into the distance of the frame; then a cut to a travelling-shot from the rear of the car, at an angle over the shoulder of the figure dressed in black behind the steering wheel. The shot knits our point of view with his as we pass another road sign indicating the approaching town of Bridgeport. This shot is maintained until the car pulls into a gas station, but as soon as the car comes to a halt there is an almost immediate cut, still from the same camera position but at a slightly lower angle. The gas station building now takes up most of the screen space, horizontally spilling onto the road from left of frame, and in view atop the building is another sign set off against the clouds which reads 'Jeff Bailey'. This slight change in camera angle gives the impression of the building jutting out into the car's diagonal path as though it has forced the black-clad figure of Joe Stefanos to stop abruptly rather than stop by his own volition.
The next series of shots involves Joe's attempts at getting information on Jeff's whereabouts from a teenage, deaf-mute gas station attendant (Dickie Moore). That he is a deaf-mute is not insignificant. Dressed all in black, Joe looks ominously out of place in this small town setting, a peculiarity not lost on the deaf-mute teenager; this is reinforced when the teenager steals a glance at Joe as he steals a glance at a passing police car to make sure it has driven by. The figure of the deaf-mute underscores a communicative and perceptual process involving both the restraints and shifting credibility of verbal language, and the necessity for reading visual signals. The teenager receives more information about Joe visually than Joe can procure about Jeff verbally.
Unable to get information other than Jeff's expected return at an unspecified time later in the day, Joe crosses the street to wait at Marny's diner. A new pattern emerges when Joe crosses the street and the film simultaneously introduces the character of Sheriff Jimmy Douglas (Frank Wilcox), who is also Ann's jilted lover. His arrival is equally significant in terms of horizontal and diagonal movements within the frame: he pulls into a parking space outside the diner as Joe is about to enter it, moving from right to left of frame. Unlike previously where a horizontal line abruptly interrupts a diagonal, the Sheriff's diagonal movement pulls itself into line with Joe's horizontal movement, and the Sheriff soon follows Joe into the diner.
These movements give a sense of complicity between the two characters, as yet uncertain, but reaffirmed once they are inside the diner. First, it is odd that when only a moment earlier Joe was concerned about the presence of the law, now he is unperturbed. Second, the scene in the diner stands in contradistinction to the previous one in a very important way. Rather than a deaf-mute, this scene features a figure who actually talks too much. Marny (Mary Field), the proprietress, greets Douglas with non-stop banter about Jeff "mooning around his girl", while Joe casually listens in. The Sheriff seems to take most of it in stride and responds with the line appropriated for the title of this article, "You sure you don't see what you hear?" To which Marny adds, "I'm only saying what I see ... two things I can smell inside a hundred feet, a burning hamburger and a romance". Ill at ease and clearly not wanting to hear any more of Marny's more-than-suggestive banter, Sheriff Douglas soon leaves. It is here that the compositional complicity between Joe and Sheriff Douglas is reaffirmed: Jeff has interrupted Douglas' possible future with Ann (expressed verbally), just as earlier Jeff's name atop of the building seems to interrupt Joe's path (expressed compositionally).
The figure of Marny re-emphasizes the importance of reading visual signals. She doesn't repeat what she hears, she repeats what she sees. This does not necessarily downplay the role of verbal language; on the contrary, as she says when Sheriff Douglas exits, "Seems like everything people ought to know, they don't want to hear. I guess that's the big trouble with the world." The scene with the verbose figure of Marny, although taken in distinct comparison with the scene involving the teenager, is also its twin. Taken together, they accentuate four aspects of the restraints and shifting credibility of verbal language, how this effects the way characters relate to one another, and what kind of meanings are produced. One, the (re)articulation into words of what is seen. Two, those who talk as opposed to those who listen. Three, the question of who one entrusts one's words or information to. Four, those who listen as opposed to those who do not. It is essential to remember, however, that these are not static categories; they establish modulated relations among characters. Joe, for instance, who we know has already asked about Jeff, listens in and resumes the conversation with Marny; on the other hand, Sheriff Douglas, who does not want to hear talk of Jeff and Ann's romance, leaves, whereas the teenager, who cannot hear, 'listens' more productively.
The diner scene puts an intriguing set of character triangulations into relief, and simultaneously asks and begins to answer the question of who Jeff Bailey is. If unclear in the earlier scenes, the resumed conversation between Joe and Marny adds one definitive piece of information - Jeff and Joe share a past. Thus the emotional triangle of Jeff, Ann and Sheriff Douglas, placed alongside this new bit of information, conjoined with the compositional details described so far, comment on a possible similar condition in the past and hint at a future one. Which is precisely how Out of Past proceeds. On the one hand, the emotional triangle of Sheriff Douglas, the absent Ann and the absent Jeff prefigures the events to be revealed through the flashback sequence (within this first segment) which details the emotional triangle between Whit, Jeff and Kathie. On the other hand, there is the triangle made up of Joe, Sheriff Douglas and the absent Jeff which prefigures the third movement of the film when both the forces of the law (represented by Douglas in this instance) and unlawful forces (represented by Joe) are in search of Jeff's whereabouts.
Furthermore, in this miasma of communicating and perceiving of different signs, the film has set in train a pattern of similarity and difference in respect of the 'type' of film the audience is watching. The car which cruises along a country highway, signalling a destination, the ominous figure of Joe, the peculiarity of his dress, the way he makes inquiries about a local figure at a diner - these are visual cues, subtle but still strongly reminiscent of the arrival of the assassins in Robert Siodmak's The Killers, produced only a year earlier. 17 These markers are not coincidental. They draw forth certain expectations that an already encoded action is to be performed - the killing of Jeff Bailey. But there is an important difference. The film stages an expected action in order to have it undercut. Soon we learn that the immediate purpose of Joe's arrival is not the destruction of Jeff, but an uncertain invitation from his gangster boss. "The guy just wants to see you", says Joe. Thus, what we expect will happen in relation to what we have read is not the case.
The conversation between Joe and Marny ends up in the following way: when Joe reveals a past connection with Jeff because he happened to notice the sign on the gas station, Marny declares, "It's a small world". Joe decidedly shifts Marny's extrinsically innocent tone by adding, "Or a big sign". The last comment implies something other than the role of chance, something other than innocence, operating in Jeff's world.
The latter dissolves into the scene at the mountain lake which introduces Jeff and Ann. Jeff is not having much luck with his fishing and Ann sits on a boulder pondering a cloud; as well, the scene shows the deaf-mute attendant arriving to 'tell' Bailey of the stranger's presence. It is Ann in this moment who brings into focus the question of who Jeff is. She comments: "You should hear how people talk about you, 'The mysterious Mr. Bailey'". She enquires about his past: "You've been to a lot of places, haven't you Jeff?"; "You were never married, were you Jeff?" And she picks up on Jeff reading the teenager's sign language: "You sure are a secret man." As well, it is Ann who alludes to death when, a minute earlier, she gestures to a cloud and says, "They say when you die your name is written in a cloud", and soon after adds, "Every time I look at a cloud it reminds me of the places I haven't been to." With what often appear to be throwaway aspects of a film, it is often useful to ask where these aspects could go, what they might allude to. Ann brings into focus all that has happened previously in ways that seem to be symbolically fugitive. Her comment about the name in the cloud has been visually evoked already with Joe's arrival - the shot of the sign atop of the gas station. Now the link with Joe is better understood: the sign links Joe with Jeff in a possible murderous scenario. Or, in specific reference to The Killers, Jeff is already a dead man (metaphorically speaking) belonging to another place and time; now hiding, waiting, maybe calling out (with his "big sign") for the angel of death to deliver her sentence.
I would argue that dialogue - both what is written and how it is delivered - is one of the most distinctive (but not determining) aspects of film noir and, perhaps, one of the most critically neglected. In Out of the Past the central characters do not appear to talk about things so much as around things. The couple return to Bridgeport and Jeff meets with Joe. The dialogue exchanges between them are still full of uncertain allusions of dread:
Joe: Long time!
Jeff: Hello, Joe. Wish it was nicer to see you.
Joe: Everyone sure missed you, Jeff ... But not as much as I have.
Jeff: How's that?
Joe: Whit used to look at me, shake his head, wish I had brains like you.
Jeff: What's the other reason?
Joe: I had to find you.
Jeff: I owe you something?
Joe: Not me.
Joe: How far can that kid read lips?
Jeff: I don't know. I'll have to ask him sometime.
Joe: This far?
Jeff: You don't like to make mistakes, do you, Joe?
Joe: They don't let me have many.
Surprisingly, although they move out of the kid's line of vision, the dialogue continues in this mostly rhetorical manner of questions answered by questionable responses. The restraint in how they speak underlines again the shifting credibility of verbal language in this film: cordial but antagonistic, vague but coldly calculated, condensed but rich with associations. Their speech is an almost metaphorical way of talking, hardly ever stating anything specific, yet alluding to so many meanings. 18
Rather than characterize such dialogue as 'throwaway', the kind of complementary relations established between it and the visuals form tenuous links that run away with each other, end up with other symbolically fugitive elements. These elements, perhaps not structural, are necessarily formal and certainly pertain to the expression of a noir sensibility. The name in the cloud motif, for instance, is invoked one last time at the film's end when, the day after Jeff's death, the deaf-mute gives a brief, sad, sweet salute to Jeff's name atop of the building set against the clouds. Jeff has definitely gone to a place he has not been to before.
The first flashback sequence affords a better opportunity at examining the dialogue as well as Gledhill's comments on the devices of flashback and voice-over narration. This sequence is also significant for the changes in mise en scene, as if a whole new set of codes is coming into effect. Night has fallen and Jeff has arrived at Ann's home to tell her of his past while they drive to Lake Tahoe. The first discernible change is in Jeff's appearance. With dark hat and long overcoat he begins to resemble Joe. His clothes now take on associations of other times, places and events, and not only those belonging to this story, for his new appearance is an iconographical element culturally encoded through history as the garb of the urban detective. A fault line begins to emerge between character and actor - Bailey/Mitchum - a disturbance in what we have seen so far (he is now, like Joe, out of place), and the clothes suggest what he has done in the past and what he may do in the future. The Bailey/Mitchum split points to another person, a different 'performance'.
Indeed, the first thing Jeff gets off his chest is his real name, Jeff Markham; and when he begins to narrate the events of his past, disturbances in the dialogue are also effected:
Jeff: Well, our friend Markham lived in New York. He worked with a sort of stupid, oily gent by the name of Jack Fisher. We called ourselves detectives. That was about three years ago, maybe more. Winter time. One of the coldest days I remember at the time. And we got a call to come over and see a big op ...
Ann: A what?
Jeff: An operator! A gambler! He didn't come to see us because he was too high-powered a character ...
With a two-shot inside the car, the couple in an closed frame, one take with Jeff in the foreground, the effect is to highlight the speaker. But that Jeff's first person narration begins by referring to himself in the third person is the first mark of a disturbance. He effects a separation between himself as speaker (Bailey) and himself as the addressee (Markham).
Ann's question isolates a second disturbance. Jeff now has a distinctive way of talking; it is not naturalistic dialogue, for it is peppered with neologisms ("big op", "high-powered") belonging to the vernacular of an urban environment. The dialogue is a sensitive element of the mise en scene in this case: urban, poetic, non-realistic, momentarily out of place and hence in question. But sensitive also because the changes in dialogue originate from a diegetically placed author. In this respect, it is the noir hero who is creating the mise en scene, an aural and visual language out of the past. It is his world, his consciousness, his sensibility, his 'performance', his encoding, with a voice issuing both from within and without the images that follow.
Because in most films which feature the devices of flashback and voice-over there is a temporal separation between the time of the telling of a story and the time of the story told, these devices function together. A voice, whose source is on screen, initiates a flashback, suspends the images of the present, and carries itself over the images which follow. This does not occur in Klute, there is only the voice-over device. Moreover, Gledhill argues, the absence of the flashback diminishes the controlling distance of the voice-over. But it is interesting to note that the voice-overs of Klute are tied in with authority figures. The first image the audience sees of Bree is in a line up with models. The shot pans left to right of frame twice: once in long shot, the other in close-up (which duplicate the panning shots of Gruneman's dinner party). The next scene is in Tuscarora, almost two years after Gruneman's disappearance, where Klute has taken it upon himself to investigate the case. Gathered around are FBI men, Gruneman's wife and business associate. This is followed by an exterior long shot of Bree exiting a building (presumably where she earlier made a bid for a modelling job) after which she makes a call for a "quick fifty" from an "out-of-towner". The first voice-over heard at this point is not Bree's; it's actually that of an FBI man. From the scene in Tuscarora the voice of the FBI man, commencing with a shot-reverse-shot pattern and explaining to John Klute the number of clients a good call girl could have in a week, extends itself over to New York. As well as isolating Bree as the call girl, the voice-over establishes disparate events in two separate locations as occurring in the present. The effect is of calling up the image of Bree by pulling her out of the line up. Thus, the voice-over produces a sense of the FBI man's control over the images.
The same effect is produced with Bree's voice-over extending itself to other images from her sessions with a psychotherapist (another authority figure). This is significant in relation to the way Klute summarizes relevant parts of Bree's life through images whose links are not immediately established: (1) her home life, alone, disrupted by anonymous, silent phone calls (2) making a bid for an acting job (or 'acceptable' employment) (3) working as a call girl, and (4) in session with her therapist. These events are not seen in succession; scenes with John Klute intervene and together are taken to be causally linked only in relation to the Gruneman case. There is another link, however, established through the sessions with her therapist that duplicate the similar shot-reverse-shot pattern between John Klute and the FBI man in Tuscarora. Her voice-over, carried onto other images from this space, explains these connections: because she is both alone and unsuccessful at obtaining 'acceptable' work, she works as a call girl; because she works as a call girl, she sees a psychotherapist. As explanation of causal links rather than narration of events, her voice-over functions as commentary.
This is an important distinction because in Klute there are no tense inflections within the voice-over other than the present time of speaking (nor are there any initial visual cues like a dissolve or a zoom into the subject's eyes) which determine the images we see as past (or future for that matter). Whether an image accompanied by the voice-over is in the past (or future) is hardly an issue in Klute. What is essential is establishing the omnipresence of a voice that can explain, a voice of knowledge that (as with the voice-over of the FBI man) seeks to control disparate types of images. Thus, in this way, the play between image and voice-over functions within the tradition of the documentary, where the temporal separation between image and voice-over is often masked in order for voice-over to function more authoritatively. The affinity with documentary is further enhanced by the grain of the first images of the film, the static camera positions, the shot-reverse-shot pattern between speaking subjects, the improvisational style of dialogue with the first client, and the frontal, talking-head type shots between Bree and therapist.
But my main disagreement with Gledhill concerns the recurring motif of Bree's voice heard playing on a tape - "Don't be ashamed, nothing is wrong, let it all hang out" - first featured in the credit sequence. The tape is in the possession of Cable (Charles Ciotti), the killer, and he replays it several times. On one occasion, after he has invaded her apartment, he plays her voice back to her over the telephone; on the other, significantly, they are face to face and he is intent on her destruction. Gledhill identifies this as a voice-over device, but it is neither voice-over nor voice-off. No doubt the voice is disembodied, but since it issues from within the frame, it is voice-on. This suggests a problem in the way Gledhill has schematised her argument, in particular around the struggle for primacy between voice and image.
... the female voice that speaks of a struggle for control, for independence, for refusal of involvement and its ensuing roles of dependency and domesticity - a voice that falteringly speaks some of the themes of feminism - is undermined and contradicted by the image.
For example, an explicit contradiction between voice and image occurs for Gledhill when:
... Fonda's voice to the psychotherapist declares her anger at Klute's intrusion into her life and her consequent manipulation of him. What the image shows is Bree melting under the power of his gaze and touch, and subdued by her emotion, kissing his hand. 19
Gledhill inaccurately describes the import of the voice-over on this occasion. Not only is it a voice which declares anger, it is the voice of a woman in two states of mind: anger expressed over the intrusion in her life; dismay over a man who loves and cares for her, even though he knows and has seen her life as a prostitute. "He has seen me cheap, he has seen me ugly ... and he still wants me", is included in Bree's declaration to her therapist at this point.
More revealing is an earlier scene when she expresses her anger at having discovered that Klute has secretly taped her telephone conversations. She subsequently attempts to seduce him in exchange for the tapes, but is unsuccessful. Only when the tapes do not reveal any information about Gruneman's disappearance are they returned to her. Especially significant is that she simply throws the tapes into a public litter bin soon after Klute hands them over. Thus, the issue is one of who has - or should have - possession of her voice. Cable certainly does have possession and utilises it against her. But the question is also: which voice does Cable possess? The voice-on or the voice-over?
By not distinguishing between the two, Gledhill disregards the question of competing voices and, consequently, who will have control over the image. The difference is not only technical. The voices are textually and meaningfully different: one belongs to Bree the prostitute, the other belongs to Bree in session with her therapist. In a scene very early on, Bree explains to the therapist that as a prostitute she can be the best actress in the world. With this realization the gap is even greater; it is a voice which is 'on' in the sense that it is 'put on'. Not so much a struggle between the voice of Bree and the images presented of her, as between the voice-on and voice-over: a voice that is fake, turned against her, out of her control, and one that is genuine, falters, and eventually gains greater control. The film's project in this sense is to chart the powerful growth of Bree's new voice. In this account, what Gledhill reads as the final confrontation between image and voice disappears. Rather than the image undermining the power of her voice, it is her voice-over which makes the final image questionable, leaves it open to the possibility of either "setting up housekeeping in Tuscarora" or returning to New York to resume her life as a prostitute. Whether, from the audience's point of view, the possibility of the latter choice is morally right or wrong is not at issue; what is important is that she has the choice. This is confirmed when, in the last scene, with the apartment empty, suitcases packed, as Klute and Bree are about to leave for Tuscarora, the phone rings and she resumes her call girl voice.
Having arrived at the question of choice, it is difficult integrating Klute into the film noir tradition as conventionally construed. The dark sensibility of the noir is tied up with the overpowering sense of social, sometimes political, but predominantly psychological, interpersonal forces which diminish the choices or alternatives open to the noir heroes. They will have to extricate themselves from a condition which essentially leaves them tying a rope around their necks. Furthermore, the difficulty of fitting films into a neat tradition is intensified when their structural features are read in such a way as to produce meanings and values which obliterate the delicate play of mise en scene elements. In respect of film style, and film noir particularly, the uses of formal devices are discarded if loaded down with the weight of the same structural function, not to mention pre-determined, critically valorized judgements. Not all film noirs employ the flashback and voice-over narration, for example, and not all that do necessarily employ the devices for the same ends.
Of the filmmakers that emerged in the cusp of Hollywood studio divestiture and the arrival of television, Robert Aldrich has a formidable reputation as a maverick, in large part because of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The type of world Aldrich creates in Deadly has the subtlety of a jack-hammer and, if not already swallowed up whole, the principal hope for any of the characters is to at least be left breathing at the end. The detail of the mise en scene, in so much graphic and aural harshness, plus the kind of cut-bang editing with dialogue often employed by Aldrich, elicit an emotional energy and mood comparable to the after-effect of having had one's face slammed against a concrete wall. The logic of things - the sense of what is what and who is who - gets jangled. Kiss Me Deadly typifies the height of the grit-worn, on-the-edge style of film noir in its late phase, and comes up equal with two other late, great noirs, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
For many, the overall body of Aldrich's work stands on the sensationalist nature of his story material and the blunt, sadistic forms of physical, verbal and psychological violence his characters either inflict or are subjected to. But along with this bitter pill, what goes on in an Aldrich film also creeps up on its audience. Hand in hand with the apparent slam-bang, harsh statement of the Aldrich world is a keen, distant, deadly wit that belies an even darker mood. One of the best examples is Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), made over twenty years after Kiss Me Deadly, and certainly without the same critical reputation or box-office success.
Stylistically, Twilight's Last Gleaming does not contain the kind of visual and structural elements that place it immediately within the noir 'tradition', nor within the ambit of a contemporary reconstitution of those elements. But there is a sense, at least, that the film points to a tradition. For example, with the exception of Melvyn Douglas, the first notable feature of Twilight's Last Gleaming is a strong league of actors, most of whom emerged in post-World War II American cinema, who in either major or minor ways made a niche for themselves in a host of film noir titles. There is Burt Lancaster who, like Robert Mitchum, made a substantial appearance throughout the latter half of the 1940s and became a staple embodiment of the noir hero, beginning with The Killers and continuing with films including Brute Force (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and Crisscross (1949). Richard Widmark is another awesome presence in film noir, with titles such as Kiss of Death, Street with No Name (1948), Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) and Samuel Fuller's Pick Up on South Street (1953). In the role of Arthur Renfrew, Secretary of State, is Joseph Cotten, a brooding equivalent to Lancaster and Widmark, who staggered between downbeat emotions and psychological disturbance, acting beside and directed by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941) and again in Journey into Fear (1942), then appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, (1946), The Third Man (1949) and (unforgettably) Niagara (1953). The unmistakable heavy-set figure of Charles McGraw who plays Air Force General Peter Crane made not inconsequential contributions to The Killers and The Narrow Margin, and then under Fleischer's direction once more in Armored Car Robbery (1950) as well as John Farrow's His Kind of Woman (1951). To be included in the Twilight's Last Gleaming line up are minor leaguers Leif Erickson (in the role of CIA Director Ralph Whittaker) also from Sorry, Wrong Number and later in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954); and Richard Jaeckel (one of the two-man missile crew), who appeared in low-budget, borderline noir titles like The Violent Men (1955) and Robert Aldrich's Attack! (1955), but with a more dependable role in Don Siegel's The Lineup (1958).
A very convincing argument can be made for seeing Twilight's Last Gleaming as a film noir. The film sets a number of characters barrelling down at each other in a no win situation, men with no other alternative but to sacrifice themselves; and a whole nation diseased by a style of government based on secrecy. Like Kiss Me Deadly, all that is left is the terrible image and force of the bomb. However, it is with the peculiar shot in the final scene of Mr Willard, gloriously emblazoned against the sky, still standing at the plane's entrance in that fatal moment, that I wish to begin. In one respect, a familiar and stifling argument can be made that what we have - in the image of Mr Willard's saddened expression as the President dies - is indicative of the conservative elements of American cinema which re-invoke racial stereotypes (the noble savage) and support the ideological requirements of American racial imperialism (a master-slave relationship). But such notions fail to come to grips with a sense of the culture's deep, virtually invisible, schizophrenic impulses which plague the characters of Twilight's Last Gleaming.
The close-up is deliberately anachronistic, a symbolically fugitive element which creeps back as the film's enzyme and, as in the eyes of Nick Bianco, within it is condensed the whole logic of the film. It is the only time that we see Mr Willard in close-up; he was only ever previously caught by the camera in long shot or in the background of a scene. This close-up indeed duplicates his mirror image at the beginning of the film: only his face just visible in the hand mirror, although part of a mid-shot of the President is nonetheless in the background. But now it has been brought up to the extreme foreground. What does this close-up do and where does it point? There are certainly tenuous links between Mr Willard and some of the other characters (with Professor Foster, for instance) by the fact of race, enhanced further by the similarity in names (Willard and Willis), establishing further links between Mr Willard's relationship with the President and Willis Powell's relationship with Lawrence Dell.
The spatial articulations within the frame at the opening of the film, with the President duplicated by his own reflection, certainly gather significance in the next scene with Professor Foster. David Stevens (although more humanly compassionate in comparison with his advisers) is duplicitous, the pressing concerns and pleas of America's black citizenry are secondary, kept in the background, hidden by other concerns. But it is crucial to note, unlike Willis and Dell's relationship, the President has a special rapport with both Professor Foster and Mr Willard; thus his death can also be seen to result from the same ambiguous and mendacious relationship he puts into practice with these men.
With the revelation of hijackers at the Maelstrom base, however, Twilight's Last Gleaming tends to take another direction, leaving the racial issue seemingly without a place in this potentially explosive situation. When, once securely inside the silo, Lawrence Dell demands to speak to the President, what comes across is the eloquence of his idealism. Twice Dell produces a speech inciting the need to restore the values which made America great and are now corrupted by a "treacherous doctrine of credibility", as well as the need to restore to the people belief in the nation's leaders. And twice, President Stevens is left speechless, swallowing his own words, seduced by those of Dell. At one point he comments, "with that kind of rhetoric, he could be elected governor in twelve states". It is Lawrence Dell's show, he is calling all the shots. In many respects, the two men mirror one another: both control terrible forces of destruction; Dell is disillusioned by his country, Stevens is disillusioned by his advisers; Dell puts his life on the line for a cause just as Stevens sacrifices himself for the safety of the nation.
But it is also worth noting that, from the outset, there are subtle antagonistic factors in the relationship between Dell and Powell which increase substantially as the film progresses. For example, Willis Powell is sometimes referred to as "Willy" or "Willy Boy" by both Dell and Augie Garvas, names he earlier made clear he does not want to be called. Their relationship reaches a zenith when Powell senses further trickery. When Dell questions Powell's disbelief that Stevens will not honour his words and personalises the situation by bringing it down to the belief that MacKenzie will try anything, Powell rebukes, "Forget MacKenzie, he is nothing! Man, don't you understand you are messing with the real brains of this country. They don't give a damn about the President of the United States, they will kill us all ... They will never let you blow their gig". Here again is the illusive 'they' or 'great whatsit' of Velda (Maxine Cooper), Mike Hammer's secretary in Kiss Me Deadly. For Powell, as with Velda, the 'they' is neither Stevens nor MacKenzie but a condition which imposes its own dark force upon the people who seem to control it. Still later, when Dell wishes to launch the missiles, Powell brings into focus Dell pathetic view of the world: "Grow up, General, nobody honours nothin', but that's no reason to blow up the whole world". Dell is a man blinded by the innocence of his own idealism.
In contrast to Dell's earlier eloquence is the imagination of Powell's pragmatism, and his real understanding of what is at stake. Dell slumps into a chair resigned to defeat; Powell, however, actually takes charge of the situation and convinces Dell of a new cause with characteristic street-sense: "We got a dog's chance of walking out of here, getting on number one with a pot full of money ... who's to say us dogs never get lucky?" As they escort the President outside, they have come to an understanding and common ground, and (similarly with the President and Mr Willard) their special rapport is strongly marked. With Stevens ahead, they are framed in a two-shot, shoulder to shoulder, for the first time Dell calls Powell by his first name Willis, and both express their respect at having known and dealt with each other.
In the face of Mr Willard, brought to the foreground, is a kind of double vision. If Stevens and Dell are mirrors of one another, then so too are Willis and Mr Willard: he sees the immediate scene of a President's death (and the death of their rapport, such as it was); by the same token he sees beyond it, with the forlorn hope of a dog still to get lucky. If, by the time they take their first steps outside the silo, Dell is still caught up in a debilitating belief for his country, he also understands and respects the import of Powell's comic dictum: "Well, like the old gal said, 'Get off sonny, cause you got all you gonna get'". Willard's forlorn hope in extreme close-up is indicative of the forces which keeps the potential understanding between two men of different creed at a distance, but also destroys a common ground at the moment it is reached. Twilight's Last Gleaming is a film noir in this sense of multi-inflectional, symbolically fundamental levels of style tuned to the sensibility of a diseased society.
I have endeavoured to show how the almost ineffable mannerisms of style work extensively around and effectively produce a particular sense of the world. To reduce film noir to a limited, immutable number of stylistic elements deprives the powerful allusiveness of style, empties the poetic nature of how an attitude, situation or philosophy can be dealt with. By extension, to argue for noir's poetic circumstances is to see itnot locked into one particular moment in history. There certainly is something one can point to called film noir, which starts and stops at certain points in time, which has been written about and tabled in the history of cinema, and which has been the focus of much critical debate. Equally, however, there tends to exist another film noir whose style seemingly departs from that tradition, locked away in a kind of time capsule, but which forms it own delicate lines of tradition, continuing to creep around. Finally, I feel the best way to proceed in the reading of film noir is along a path suggested by another line from Out of the Past: "All I can see is the frame ... I'm going inside to look at the picture".
1. Christine Gledhill, "Klute Part 1: A Contemporary Film Noir and Feminist Criticism" and "Klute Part 2: Feminism and Klute", in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir (London: British Film Institute, 1981).
2. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1966).
3. Kaplan, "Introduction", in Kaplan (ed.), p. 3.
4. Raymond Durgnat, "Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir", Cinema (UK), August 1970; Paul Schrader, "Notes on Film Noir", Film Comment, vol. 8 no. 1, January-February 1972, reprinted in Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings (London: Faber & Faber, 1990); Janey A. Place and L. S. Petersen, "Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir", Film Comment, vol. 10 n. 1, January-February 1974, reprinted in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
5. Janey Place, "Women in Film Noir", in Kaplan (ed.), p. 39.
6. Richard T. Jameson, "Son of Noir", Film Comment, vol. 10 no. 6, November-December 1974.
7. Gledhill, "Klute: Part 1", p. 13.
8. Robert Warshow, "The Gangster as Tragic Hero", Partisan Review, February 1948, and "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner", Partisan Review, March-April 1954, reprinted in The Immediate Experience (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1964); André Bazin, "The Western: or the American Film par excellence" and "The Evolution of the Western", What is Cinema? vol. II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).
9. See, for example the chapter "Authorship and Genre" in Jim Kitses, Horizons West (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969).
10. Gledhill, "Klute: Part 1", p. 19.
12. Durgnat, "Paint it Black", p. 49.
13. This article was written before the appearance of Frank Krutnik's In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre and Masculinity (London: Routledge, 1991), which pursues a similar argument down different paths.
14. Robert Mitchum interviewed by Derek Malcolm in Andrew Britton (ed.), Talking Film: The Best of the Guardian Film Lectures (London: Fourth Estate, 1991), p. 156.
15. Durgnat, "Paint it Black", p. 49.
16. On the general topic of the insistent foregrounding of signification processes in this director's work, see Paul Willemen (ed.), Jacques Tourneur (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1975).
17. See the entry on Out of the Past in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (New York: The Overlook Press, 1979).
18. The French film historian and director Bertrand Tavernier recently remarked of Tourneur: "His direction, his style, consists of a very mysterious mixing between a very elaborate lighting and a soundtrack very different from the average American film. Tourneur was always making the actors speak very low, in a subdued way". Patrick McGilligan (interviewer), "Journey Into Light", Film Comment, March-April 1992, p. 9.
19. Gledhill, "Klute: Part 2", p. 123.
New: 6 December, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015
Essay on Chinatown as Film Noir
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'Chinatown' as Film Noir
Films that are classified as being in the film noir genre all share some basic characteristics. There is generally a voice-over throughout the film in order to guide the audience's perceptions. These movies also involve a crime and a detective who is trying to figure out the truth in the situation. This detective usually encounters a femme fatale who seduces him. However, the most distinctive feature of the film noir genre is the abundance of darkness. Roman Polanski's 1974 film, 'Chinatown', revolutionized the film noir genre. Aside from the absense of voice-over, the film shares all the same characteristics with earlier noirs. That is, of course, except for the fact that ?Chinatown? is…show more content…
They take up the entire screen, so for the first minute or so of the film, the audience does not realize that they are, in fact, photographs that detectives are examining. The darkness of the photographs also references the genre. It is as if Polanski is immediately trying to convey to the audience that regardless of the fact that it is a color film, it is still a film noir.
While the film is in color, sometimes it appears to be in black and white. There are no bright colors in the film. Most of the colors are either browns, beiges, whites, blacks, and grays, so that even when the characters are outside or in daylight, there are contrasts between lights and darks. For example, at the beginning Mr. Gettes is seated in a somewhat dark office, yet he is wearing an all-white suit. Later, when he goes to examine the dried up river bed, his black suit contrasts with the bright sunlight and light colored sand.
Also, the makeup used on the women in the film is not bright or colorful. One might expect for the femme fatale to wear red lipstick or some type of makeup that makes her look more michevious. However, Mrs. Mulwray does not appear to be wearing much makeup throughout the film. Her lips are a brownish color and the same for her eyes. Her hair is brown as well. This makes it more difficult to realize that Mrs. Mulwray is the femme fatale. In fact, in the first half hour of the film the viewer is unsure to whether or not Mrs.