Thursday, December 29, 2016

Noir Reviews: Double Indemnity, April 1944

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
After the good but uneven Phantom Lady, we proceed directly to the murky, guilty heart of noir, to Double Indemnity, directed by the great Billy Wilder, whose work we'll be reviewing several times in this series.

If you don't know (and really, you should; if you haven't seen this movie, go watch it right now), Double Indemnity is a murder story told from the point of view of the murderer. He's a likeable insurance salesman named Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, who one day grabs hold of a red-hot poker and isn't able to let go. (Let those who think film noir is all about private detectives take note!) The supporting role of Neff's coworker and mentor, claims manager Barton Keyes, is played by the immortal Edward G. Robinson, who handily steals every scene he's in.
To me, a claims man is a surgeon. That desk is an operating table and those pencils are scalpels and bone-chisels. And those papers are not just forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive. They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claims man, Walter, is a, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a – [Phone rings.] Who? Okay, hold on a minute. A claims man is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one.
He delivers a couple of monologues that make me want to stand up and cheer every time, while his final assessment of the case is grimly, delightfully terse: "Walter, you're all washed up." The tableau he and Walter Neff form in the last shot is an icon of of noir tough love.

The femme fatale, on the other hand, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, who can chill you to the bone with a single look. She wears a hideous George Washington wig, a directing mistake retroactively explained as a deliberate artistic decision, and hilariously spoofed by Steve Martin in drag in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. But what a role!

Walter narrates his story into a dictaphone while nursing a cigarette and a bullet wound. His guilt and doom are predetermined from the first moment we see him. That's typical of film noir. There's no emotional hook, no what's-going-to-happen-to-these-characters-I-care-about??? You know from the outset that everyone is damned. In a strange way, that takes the pressure off, allowing the viewer to be engrossed by the mechanics of how, precisely, this damnation occurs. Wilder, who I think understood this very well, later topped himself in having Sunset Boulevard narrated by a dead guy floating face-down in a swimming pool. Your average melodrama, on the other hand, keeps you interested by making you fret about what's going to happen to the people. Its watchability depends on getting your emotions involved, a game that cloys pretty quickly. No one buys a melodrama to watch over and over again. (At least no one I know.)

Double Indemnity is certainly no melodrama. It's not a cautionary tale, either, despite the fact that it's about a crime that doesn't pay. On the contrary, it compels you to connive at a man's murder. You like Walter Neff. The very real love that exists between him and Keyes only makes this all the more poignant. Horribly, you want his plot to succeed and fear his exposure, even though you know it won't succeed and he will be exposed. When he starts befriending the victim's daughter to keep her quiet, you're acutely conscious of what a heel he is, yet you're anxious to keep her quiet, too. Nevertheless, you're aware at each moment of the impossibility of his position and know that an evasion of justice would be intolerable. A lesser movie would either make Walter an out-and-out bad guy or else try to exculpate him in some manner.

Apart from the wig, everything about Double Indemnity is perfect. Though based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was cowritten by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Chandler's influence is felt at every turn. The dialogue is a delight to listen to, abounding in witty repartee and colorful metaphor.
They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there's a death mixed up in it, you haven't got a prayer. They'll hang you just as sure as ten dimes will buy a dollar.
Chandler makes a cameo appearance sitting outside Keyes' office, looking very much the sourpuss he was. The score, composed by the legendary Miklós Rózsa, perfectly captures the feeling of an exciting, relentless drive toward some predetermined destination. It supports the plot, instead of attempting to comment on it or accentuate it, or (worse still) merely providing background noise, as many of the thundering scores of the period do. (Rózsa, incidentally, also scored Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, one of his final films.)

Wilder's direction eschews studio sets in favor of filming on location. There's a wonderful long take right at the beginning, in a midnight elevator ride from a lobby to a big, empty insurance office inhabited by nocturnal workers. Numerous night-for-night scenes make Double Indemnity a true black film, the most memorable being when the body is placed on the tracks, for which each telephone pole had to be individually illuminated by spotlights. The indoor scenes tend to be barred with light falling through half-open blinds.

For me, Double Indemnity is the quintessential film noir.

* * *

I give Double Indemnity a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Double Indemnity include the opening, Walter Neff's practiced "sales pitch," the body-placement scene, and pretty much every scene with Edward G. Robinson, especially the suicide statistics monologue. Takeaway quote:

"How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"

Friday, December 23, 2016

Noir Reviews: Phantom Lady, January 1944

After touching on The Maltese Falcon in our first episode, we proceed to Phantom Lady, directed by noir veteran Robert Siodmak, whose films The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948) we'll look at later in this series.

[Films that come between The Maltese Falcon and Phantom Lady that I might return to include The Glass Key (which I personally dislike), This Gun for Hire, and Shadow of a Doubt (which, being a Hitchcock film, I don't regard as truly noir, just because).]

Though it comes at the beginning of the period, Phantom Lady features some of the most beautiful and most expressive photography in film noir. The mildly incoherent plot follows a strange dream-logic, but the film as a whole is a visual poem of urban alienation and societal subversion, with long passages shot in stark blacks and whites and an almost nonexistent score.

The story revolves around a funny hat. The lady who wears it can provide a "perfect" alibi for a civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) whose wife is strangled, but she has vanished without a trace. All vestiges of her are wiped even from the memories of the tradesmen and performers who saw them out together that night. He doesn't know her name and, apart from the hat, can't remember what she looks like. The nuttiness of his story lands him on death row.

The film's first stand-out moment is the quiet, chilling scene in which Henderson returns home to find three detectives and a dead wife. The sense of claustrophobia mounts as the sneering, insufferably smug, gum-smacking cops slowly invade his personal space, until they're fingering his tie and their smirking mugs are right in his sweaty, frightened face, which now fills the screen. "Your wife was strangled with one of your ties," they taunt him. "Yeah, knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife."

The real protagonist is Henderson's tenacious assistant, Carole Richman (Ella Rains), who, convinced of her boss's innocence (and secretly in love with him), sets out to clear his name. The contrast between the two is sharp. While Henderson is laid prostrate by circumstances – weeping when his estranged wife is killed (while remarking that men aren't supposed to cry), scared and irritable under investigation, shrill on trial, petulant on death row, confident and self-absorbed when his position in society is regained – Carole always rises above circumstances. Gender stereotypes are inverted: Henderson's personality is weak, "womanish," while Carole's is strong and manly.

It's pretty plain that Carole is the one who really runs the office from the first moment we see her, striding in to begin a day's work, greeting the mousy secretary, mastering her emotions when she learns of Henderson's plight, and dictating a letter as she smokes a cigarette. This is underscored by an obtuse crack Henderson later makes about keeping bobby pins off the floor and the seams on her stockings straight. He really has no idea.

After her boss's conviction, Carole sets about pursuing the forgetful witnesses. Here film noir takes on almost mythic dimensions as she hounds a barman to death like an avenging Fury. The scene in which she pursues him through the immense, night-black, rain-soaked city might well stand as the epitome of the style.

It's followed by a scene in which she transforms herself into a gum-chewing "hep kitten" to seduce Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a sleazy little jazz drummer. It's hard to convey in words how utterly bizarre, abrupt, and awesome this transition is. She goes from urban professional to strumpet, flashy, vapid, and wanton, complete with painted-on mole, seemingly without effort. After she catches Cliff's eye during a performance, he takes her to a backroom jive session, where she visually mounts him during a crazy orgasmic drum solo. They retire to his squalid rat-hole of an apartment lit intermittently by a flashing sign outside.

This middle act is one of the great passages of film noir. It's almost as though Carole is trying on female archetypes; given the deaths of the two witnesses she goes after, we might wonder what became of the poor cabby, whose fate isn't treated on screen. The film transitions to the final act with Carole's visit to Henderson in prison. The image of Carole talking to Henderson across the bars, both bathed and blackened by light streaming down through smoky darkness, is a noir icon.

But the third act is more like a Hitchcock thriller than a true noir. For me this knocks the film out of the top tier. It keeps up its subversive probing of female roles as the murderer (Franchot Tone), a narcissistic sculptor with undertones of the stereotypical homosexual woman-hater, takes center stage. He despises Carole, the police, and most of all Henderson, whose community-planning projects he derides as an obsession with drainpipes. Much of his screen time is spent in contemplation of his large, expressive hands, which are frequently lit with bright white light, in an almost masturbatory way.

The film closes with what I take to be intentional (though understated) irony. Henderson, back in the office, busy and self-confident, leaves Carole some dictaphone instructions that end by informing her that she's having dinner with him that night, and the next night, and the next night… The film actually concludes with this phrase "next night" repeated over and over again on the skipping belt. Are we getting a glimpse of Carole's future?

Like many noirs, Phantom Lady seems to operate on two levels. On the surface we have a seemingly happy ending with everything restored to the way it should be. But underneath that, we see a resourceful, masterful woman sent back to the prison of her traditional role, happily submitting to a man who will always take her for granted. What's true of the ending is true of the movie as a whole. The more you pick up on subtleties, the more twisted it gets.

* * *

I give Phantom Lady a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
High points in Phantom Lady include the tie scene, the platform scene, the jive orgy scene, and the visitation scene. Takeaway quote:

"What a place! I can feel the rats in the walls."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Noir Reviews: An Introduction

This post marks the beginning of a series about my favorite films noir from the forties and fifties. I'm an enthusiast, not an expert, but I have about a zillion titles on DVD that I watch over and over and over again. I've actually thought about making a separate blog for noir reflections, but then, knowing me, I'd just stop posting here, so I'll just dump these with the rest. Keeps me out of trouble, at any rate.

So, what is film noir? That itself is a matter of controversy. Is it a genre? A style? A period? Or some combination of the three? My approach will be to take it as a fuzzy set, defined by a few films that I regard as definitively noir, and measured by proximity to those. Some of the elements commonly regarded as central, e.g., private detectives, voice-overs, and femmes fatale, I regard as inessential, though such things do often appear in the films I intend to cover. Speaking a posteriori, I would say that films noir tend to involve detached or alienated elements of a fragmented society chained by the relentless logic of guilt and futility, using low-key lighting and visual abstraction to create an atmosphere of moral and emotional detachment. The settings are generally seedy, the scale is small, and the characters are bit players on the world stage. Films noir sometimes stray into this or that genre, such as that of science fiction (Kiss Me Deadly), the police procedural (The Big Combo), the spy film (Pickup on South Street), the western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the heist film (The Asphalt Jungle), and the prison film (Brute Force). What binds them together is not subject matter but approach.

I plan to proceed in chronological order, more or less, unless my whims direct otherwise. However, I intend to skip the seminal entry, given how famous and well-known it is. Of course I'm referring to The Maltese Falcon, that is, the 1941 version directed by John Huston, which was the third (!) time Hammett's novel had been filmed. There's not much I can add to what's been said about it. But let's at least list some key elements:
  • use of low-key lighting
  • odd, often low camera angles
  • a weird assortment of colorful characters who inhabit a perverse world outside the boundaries of normal life
  • a mean, hard protagonist whose only moral ethic is a strict professional code that he follows for reasons he doesn't understand, whose every act is calculated, even the outbreaks of his violent temper, his sneering, casual beat-down of a homosexual, and his prolonged humiliation of a "gunsel" (catamite)
  • a plot-mover that's ultimately a nonentity and, indeed, a metaphor for the futility of all things human
  • an ending that's both as satisfying and as utterly unsentimental as they come
It seems fair to call this a watershed moment in Hollywood. The Maltese Falcon ushered in the film noir era.

What appeals most to me about film noir is the detachment referred to above. There's never a sense that you have to like or empathize with the protagonist; you identify with him or her without becoming emotionally involved or hoping that it will come out all right in the end. The focus is objective rather than subjective. Somehow, because of this, I find films noir oddly satisfying, or even comforting; there's nothing better after a tough day at work than coming home, plopping down in a musty old armchair, and watching Double Indemnity or The Asphalt Jungle.

Strangely enough, though, despite the restrictions of the Hays code, I also find film noir much bolder and edgier than most anything you see coming out today. With rare exceptions, you won't see a movie about a thief or an adulterer nowadays that doesn't make some attempt to exculpate the protagonist in the viewer's eyes and give them some kind of happy ending. But true film noir takes the approach of portraying a culprit with all their good points and bad points rolled into one, and slowly but inexorably leading them to their doom. Visually, the film may make use of stark contrasts, but, morally speaking, there are no white hats or black hats. That makes the modern viewer queasy. Aside from the occasional farce, biopic, or gangster film, modern movies about "black hats" tend to reassure the viewer that, deep down inside, the protagonists are really white hats.

Because I have a tendency to be long-winded, I'm going to limit myself to 1000 words per review. Like I said, I'll go in chronological order, limiting myself to DVDs I own and films that I don't own but like well enough to include. If I ever get done with my list, I'll go on to neo-noirs and tech-noirs that approach the style with varying degrees of success. But it's my contention that a self-knowing noir is probably not really a noir at all.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keftu Dissected

The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.
— Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life
Being halfway completed, my Enoch novels are undergoing their midlife crisis. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Should they shave their head and get a sports car?

Since my blog is the place where I write about things I want to think about, my lucky readers get to glimpse some writerly musings in the next few posts. Today let's begin with Keftu, my protagonist.

Keftu is of a sanguine temperament. He would never write a post like this, unlike melancholic-phlegmatic me! He's also a bit of a fool, as my other characters remind him from time to time. He owes a lot to Percival, the bumpkin-turned-quest-knight whose innocence and stupidity allow him to be used by God. Whether Keftu is useful to the abscondent gods of Enoch remains to be seen, of course.

Like Daedalus, he makes his own wings, but he really has more in common with Icarus. My depiction of him with only one wing on the back cover of Dragonfly is meant to suggest Paul Klee's The Hero with the Wing, which depicts a tragicomic figure who has injured himself in his idiotic attempts to fly.

Quite a few other figures from fable, myth, history, and romance are present in Keftu's DNA, both positively and negatively. He is Gilgamesh (seeker after immortality), Cain (wanderer) and Abel (sacrifice-offerer), Noah (ark pilot), Nimrod (mighty hunter), Abraham (visionary) and Jacob (dream-traveler), Moses (seer of the burning bush), Tobias (vanquisher of demons), and Christ (harrower of hell). He is Prometheus (fire-giver), Hermes (argus-slayer), Theseus (maze-runner), Perseus (gorgon's head-bearer), Bellerophon (steed-tamer and chimera-slayer), Heracles (monster fighter), Orpheus (singer of the dead), and Odysseus (trickster). He is Solon the Lawgiver and Pompey the Great. He is Beowulf and Siegfried. He is the Continental Op and Gilbert Gosseyn. He is Batman, Superman, and Luke Skywalker.

In addition to all of this, I consider Keftu an ironic antitype of Frodo Baggins. Frodo's quest is more or less handed to him. You know where he's going from the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The drama lies in the spiritual cost of his continued adherence to this goal. But what if he'd been driven out of the Shire – driven into the arms of the quest, so to speak – without ever having heard of Gandalf, Sauron, or the One Ring? Gandalf is busy elsewhere, with no time to spare for Hobbits; Sauron himself couldn't care less about them; there never was a Ring to wrap incarnate evil up in a neat little package. Frodo has no high destiny but, cut off from his past, finds himself unable to live without one, and therefore invents it for himself. Nevertheless, not a day goes by in which he doesn't look into the abyss and think: what if I'm only deluding myself?

Who in our time hasn't experienced this anxiety? I've gone through phases when I imagined myself acting on a divine mandate. I'll bet that just about everyone, even thoroughgoing materialists, try to see some kind of pattern or logic in the events of their lives. It's part of being human. But, for me, it's always been undercut by a nagging doubt that I'm just talking to myself. After many colorful disappointments, I've come to decide that, if there is a divine agency guiding us to some appointed end, then its action is dark and mysterious, not a voice booming on a mountaintop. It's something that acts from outside time, and therefore in a way that's not really comprehensible to us, and is much less concerned with "geography" than we are.

I attempt to capture some of this in my description of Keftu's songlines, which I adapt from the worldview of the Indigenous Australians, combining it with the mnemonic palace of Sephaura inspired by the method of loci developed by Simonides of Ceos. Keftu's greatness, if he has any greatness, lies in that he knows that he does not know. But his world is littered with grand failures, with persons, human and otherwise, who think they know but do not.

One such is Vaustus, whose character is a composite of several pastors and missionaries I encountered back in my wild college days. The episode that lost him his leg actually happened to someone I knew, except that my friend was unsuccessful in his amputation, which he attempted, naked, with a handsaw in a stranger's open garage. (There, doesn't that make you want to read my book?) But we were all a bit like that.

You'd think that a person, when faced with the cosmic contradiction to the divine mandate they've claimed as a guide for their personal actions, would be forced to admit that they've been acting under a delusion. But you'd be wrong. Their entire ego and worldview are wrapped up in a particular vision of themselves. So, instead, they go a little bit crazy. They revise the past, reinterpret the prophecy, attempt to see what isn't there. Every time this happens, they go a little bit crazier. Deliberately short-circuiting your ability to see reality isn't good for your psychic integrity.

My point is, life is a frightening, painful, messed-up experience ending in death. We all desperately want it to have some kind of meaning. A quest fantasy is comforting because it seems to present life as a logical progression of events with a clear and definite end. But real life isn't like that. Attempts to live like it is only result in madness and despair, or else boundless fatuity and narcissism. Sword-and-sorcery, as opposed to epic fantasy, seems to take what we might call the cynical view. At any rate, it's not particularly concerned with overarching narratives. That's what I like about it.

Still, we are all on a kind of journey, aren't we? It's just that we're making the quest up as we go along. We're more like Don Quixote than the Redcrosse Knight. The joke's on us. Perhaps there is a path, but, if so, it's not like the road to Rivendell. We go blindly, trustingly or not, choosing as seems best at each moment, never quite knowing whether we do well or ill. The climax of our journey is otherwise than we imagine it, and what we regard as most insignificant is possibly quite the contrary.

Come to think of it, though, that could be applied to Frodo's journey. At no point is he altogether certain of his means. The goal is never really in question, but all responsibility is laid on his shoulders. Even Gandalf and Elrond refuse to advise him. And, in the end, he fails! Or would have failed, had not Gollum intervened. In fact, you could argue that, far from being Winnie-the-Pooh for adults, The Lord of the Rings is way more cynical (or mature) than the Elric Saga. So I find that my characterization of Frodo's quest doesn't do justice to the text, though it does describe your cookie-cutter mass market quest fantasy.
Still, it's true that Keftu has no Gandalf, as is pointed out in the passage quoted at the top of Fletcher Vredenburgh's kind review of my most recent novel. He's on his own in a way that Frodo never was. He has no goal but what he sets himself.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Of Hippogriffs and Cocadrill-Serpents

The world didn't ask for it, but it's coming anyway: a new wrap-around book cover for The Worm Ouroboros. Here's the progress I've made so far:

It's a stylized landscape showing Koshtra Pivrarcha, Koshtra Belorn, and the Lake of Ravary. In the distance we glimpse the Bhavinan and Morna Moruna. The Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha stand before Sophonisba; poor Mivarsh Faz is about to become dinner for a cocadrill-serpent. I've purposefully incorporated images from Keith Henderson's illustrations, including this hippogriff:

The style is somewhat inspired by Persian miniatures. I don't do justice to the tradition, of course, but I'd like to try my hand at adapting it again in the near future. At any rate, the Iliad and Icelandic sagas are often mentioned in connection with The Worm Ouroboros, but I've always detected something distinctly Oriental in it as well.

Mivarsh's legs echo Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus, which I've always found humorous:

A giant landscape, with the purported subject represented by two tiny legs kicking in the corner. Poor Icarus! And poor Mivarsh! Who told us that he was destined to be devoured by a crocodile, and then was devoured by a crocodile.