CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Fighting in the shadows with honour
, November 8, 2014
Symeon J. Thompson looks at the genre of cinema known as film noir.
Film noir conjures up images of men in fedoras and trench coats, dames with smouldering eyes, a constant night, constant smoking and an atmosphere of uncertainty.
It brings to mind Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon; Ava Gardner in The Killers; Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep; Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai; Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.
Noir is an expression of the shadows. It’s a re-presenting of the corruptions that lurk around the corner of “civilised” society, showing both the temptations of the Everyman, as well as his striving against them.
Unlike the superheroes of the comic books, say Batman or Superman, or the radio’s “noir-ish” The Shadow, proper noir tends to feature folk who are not particularly wealthy, or super smart, or have special powers, as the leads. They are little people.
Film noir flourished just before, during and just after World War II. It took its cue from the German refugees who had pioneered cinematic Expressionism, and had escaped to work in Hollywood. They brought with them the idea that the character’s inner state of mind could be shown to the audience through specific sound and visual design.
This was used in a country that was dealing with the conflicts within its own psyche, conflicts presented through the pulp fiction so loved by the masses, the concerns over crime and drugs and the power of money. In a time of instability and uncertainty, stories that touched on such issues were bound to be popular. As the economy stabilised into the 1950s and the Red Menace loomed, domestic dramas became less of a concern and so noir became the style of another era.
Its concerns did not, however, go away. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and the stunning Lew Archer stories of Ross Macdonald are a testament to that. The themes in noir — the issues of temptation, corruption and honour — are too timeless to disappear.
There has been a resurgence in noir-ish cinema of late.
The Sin City films, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, are an example. The films self-consciously reference noir, with their black-and-white computer-generated imagery (CGI); but their mentality seems too much like the outrageous over-the-top-ness of the Jacobean-era blood-and-revenge dramas, of which Hamlet is the most restrained example.
In recent releases, there are three contenders for a noir mantle: The Equalizer, A Walk Among the Tombstones and Gone Girl.
The Equalizer with Denzel Washington as Robert McCall, inspired by the 1980s drama starring Edward Woodward (of Breaker Morant and The Wicker Man fame), is the most fantastical. McCall is the ultimate good guy, and seemingly an ordinary decent guy, who decides to play hero. Except that he has a skill set that makes him very much the hero.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s acclaimed novel about a recovering alcoholic, unlicensed private investigator who does favours in exchange for gifts. Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson, being, well, Liam Neeson) is a man haunted by his past failures and seeking to atone for them. The story seems inspired by serial-killer and kidnapping scares from the 1980s. And the approach involves a bit of obvious homage to films of the past.
Gone Girl is the most interesting, provocative and disturbing of the three. While most noirs aimed to have a detective/reporter/lawyer protagonist, some opted for a more complex approach where uncertainty ruled. Gone Girl is a modern take on this. Adapted from a novel by Gillian Flynn, and directed by the auteur of “dread”, David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc), this can be a difficult film.
Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a slobbish but charming everyman, goes home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared. As the search continues, the questions mount, and the only thing the audience is sure of is that there are a lot of folks not telling the truth.
[Here be spoilers]
The film deals with the scariest thing of all — the breakdown of a relationship. It shows how men can get lazy and complacent and caught up in themselves, and how women can be amongst the most terrifying forces in nature in response. It depicts a woman who has genius and drive, and a complete lack of conscience, and the unique weapons she has at her disposal.
[End of spoilers]
These noir films still deal with the same essential theme — that of taking responsibility, and seeking to do the right thing in the circumstances. The world they present is a fractured one, where the shadows dominate, but it is a world where the light can break through if individuals so choose.
Good noir shows the crafting of a makeshift code of honour, in a world that thinks honour is for sale.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).