Showing posts with label film noir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film noir. Show all posts

Friday, 25 April 2014

Robert Siodmak

When Robert Siodmak is discussed it is almost always said that he only made film noirs. For some this is a good thing, because they think he perfected that form and was its true master, and for others it is a sign of weakness, that he was not an artist but just a director with a lack of integrity and personal vision. This inability to look beyond noir when it comes to Siodmak does him a disservice however. For one thing he did not just make noirs so the whole argumentation is moot, and second, the two filmmakers closest to Siodmak, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, are not referred to as only makers of noir even though their careers are rather similar to Siodmak's, and as varied. There is absolutely no reason why he should be treated differently from them.

He was born in Dresden, Germany, 1900, and made films there and then in France, like Pièges (1939), a thriller about a serial killer with Maurice Chevalier and Erich von Stroheim, before ending up in the US, having to escape the Nazis. He returned to Europe in the mid-1950s where he continued to make films until the late 1960s. (He said that he left Europe to escape the Nazis and the US to escape CinemaScope.) It is the string of films he made between 1944 and 1950, most of them at Universal Studios, that are considered his major achievement, and those are indeed fine films. Siodmak was a master of the unconscious, combining the everyday with surrealism and with his camera prowling around in long takes with great depth of field, looking for that unconscious, or becoming it even. The camera as id. It is typical for Siodmak that when he made Christmas Holiday (1944), a film with Gene Kelly, usually seen singing and dancing, Kelly's character turns out to be a murderer with mother issues. But although his films are filled with dread, always staring at the uncanny and with the ability to be really frightening, they are also full of dark comedy and a certain quirkiness that is reminiscent of Don Siegel. (Siegel was involved in the making of Siodmak's most famous film, The Killers (1946), inspired by Hemingway's short story, and would make his own version, equally good and even more quirky, in 1964. As it happens Andrei Tarkovsky has also made a version of it, in 1965.)

It is particularly appropriate to compare Siodmak with Fritz Lang, and to notice the differences. Lang's style is cleaner, clearer, more geometrical, whereas Siodmak's is more baroque. In Lang's films it is usually society as a whole that is the threat, with conspiracies and dark forces at work everywhere. With Siodmak the threat does not lie out there but within ourselves. We bring ourselves down, with our homicidal tendencies and our passions, as in the excellent The Killers and Criss Cross (1949).

The world is fractured and unstable. And look at that menacing cat. (From The Killers.)

Some other highlights among his 1940s films are The Suspect (1944), a drama set in England at the turn of the century where a nice old man murders his wife, and The Spiral Staircase (1945), a gothic horror film that also takes place at the turn of the century. (There is no point in calling either of them noir.) A good but lesser film is The Dark Mirror (1946), a psychological melodrama with the interesting twist that the unconscious has become embodied, as it is about twin sisters, one good and one evil, both played by Olivia de Havilland. The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) is uneven, but part of it is among Siodmak's best work, not least the opening sequence, and Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey are great.

The Dark Mirror

I have seen very few of Siodmak's films before and after his time in Hollywood, they are not easy to come by, except People on Sunday (1930). It is a collaboration between him, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, and very good, a city symphony film and a documentary of how people in Berlin spend their weekends. But there is a lot more to discover. The bottom line though is that Siodmak was an artist with a very particular way of seeing the world, and he expressed that vision in a number of different films. 

Now, have a look at these two sequences from Phantom Lady (1944), a quintessential Siodmak and one of his most bizarre. Maybe even his best.





Thursday, 13 September 2012

On film history, and the art of studying it

I recently said that there is a difference between taught film history and actual film history. By this I meant that film history as it is presented in books, essays and lectures is more often than not a romantic effort to simplify something that is very complex and often beyond our reach. Film is not that old as an art form, but it is old enough to hold more films, movements, people and happenings than is possible for us to remember and evaluate. Most of it is forgotten, as all the unwarranted claims that has been made about Citizen Kane (1941) makes perfectly clear. Any film history book or film history course should be based on this humbleness, and acknowledge that what we think we know is not enough, and neither is it necessarily correct.

I think this is partly the reason why so much of taught film history is either wrong or at least highly questionable. Even though it is often very difficult to say what is right, it is often rather clear what is wrong, and where taught film history is problematic and when films, people, movements and eras are misunderstood, misconstrued or decontextualised. It can be the French New Wave, the Hollywood studio system, Rashomon (1951), neorealism, Citizen KaneJaws (1975), Westerns, audience demographics and so on and so forth. I want to mention some concrete examples today.

Beside the lack of awareness of the full spectrum of actual film history there are also the persistent efforts to make film history consist of clear demarcations. It is often argued that "Film noir was a genre that lasted between 1941 and 1958." or "The first film of the French New Wave was Le Beau Serge (1958)" or "The first film of the French New Wave was The 400 Blows (1959)." As if. Film history is not that neat. It is a process, with no definitive firsts and no definitive lasts. We can talk about something called the French New Wave without having to claim that one film was "the first". (Beside the two mentioned above there is also Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958).) Taught film history is often exclusive (trying to exclude what is not considered part of a movement or a genre, often for spurious reasons), when it would be more accurate to be inclusive (to show how everything is interconnected). Nothing is gained by reducing film noir to films made from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch Of Evil (1958). I would not call it a genre either.

So that is one weakness of taught film history, the problematic and unnecessary habit of tidying up things, and compartmentalising it. This is linked to the widespread idea of film history as a series of revolutions. First came "cinema of attractions", then came Griffith, then came sound, then came deep focus, then came neorealism and so on and so forth, and one leading to another, the one being an improvement upon what came before. This is film history as if based on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but this is not how cinema, or the arts, work. It is much more fluid, and simultaneous. Deep focus was almost always there, and neorealism was not new, it has been a tradition of filmmaking since the early days of cinema. There is very little that is new, and it does not matter whether something is new or not. The cult of the new, which I blogged about last year, has always seemed to me to be very shallow, as if something is not worthwhile if it is not new.

Sometimes the whole premise is wrong, or something has been simplified to such an extent that it stops having any bearing on anything real. One example would be a common argument which goes like this: "Ingmar Bergman was an auteur because he was his own man, whereas Hollywood filmmakers did work in a studio system." Only Bergman did also work in a studio system, with a producer breathing down his neck. He did not become independent until the late 1960s. Of course, he had a lot of freedom within the studio, at least after Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) won the Grand Prix in Cannes, but that is not what makes him different from Hollywood directors, it is what makes him similar to Hollywood directors, including the bit about becoming independent.

To some extent these errors are due to poor research, or complete lack of research. Instead much writing is based on myths, preconceptions and prejudices. In another earlier blog post I suggested that a concept made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, Gedankenbilder or Ideal Types, is useful in understanding our perception of film history. In that previous post I explained Gedankenbilder as "an abstract model of something, say a phenomenon that we are studying, but a model which doesn't necessarily exist in reality, it is only a reference point." In our case a model of a genre, a filmmaker, an era, a movement or whatever it might be. This model, this ideal image, is then taken to be true, even though there might not be a single film that is actually like this image. When somebody thinks of a film noir, the film in their head probably has a voice-over narration and shadowy, expressionistic lightning, and while it is true that many film noirs have these traits, many do not, whereas many films not considered film noir do have these traits. The problem is not that there are ideal types, but that it seems to be so very hard to forget that it is only that, an ideal type. (I will discuss the special case of neorealism in a later post.)

Another reason is most likely the combination of ideology and romanticism that is often involved. Many scholars seem to have a romantic vision of neorealism or the various New Waves of the 1960s and 1970s that cloud their judgements, and so they sometimes attribute things to them which are not there, or is there but is not as revolutionary as they claim. A certain elitist view of cinema also plays a part, with American cinema bad and European cinema good (or vice-versa), even though many, if not most, of the differences are more perceptual than real. Sometimes the prejudices are against "old" cinema in general (and here old can mean anything from before World War Two to anything before Quentin Tarantino).

Of course sometimes things are deliberately exaggerated to simplify for argument's sake. But too often the exaggerations and simplifications distorts reality to the point that the argument becomes baseless and often it is also the case that the scholar does not know any better, partly because there are too many films that should be watched and too little time, but perhaps also due to a lack of interest in watching films. I often get the feeling that many scholars prefer to read books by other scholars instead of watching the actual films themselves, so if one person makes a mistake or says things that are not correct, then that gets repeated over and over again. The same phenomenon as when critics only quote from press releases, without acknowledging that they are quoting from a press release, and if there was a mistake in that press release it is repeated in every newspaper and magazine. This can be down to laziness or lack of time but the outcome is still the same.

In John Ford's sad and magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) the famous quote is "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That sadly, but not magnificently, is also the unspoken truth about too much of the world of cinema studies, whether in lecture halls, books or journals.

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For those who would like to read a book which is a perfect example of all the things I have mentioned here as flawed and problematic, then this one will suffice.

There is apparently no consensus as how to write film noir in plural. Films noirs, film noirs and films noir have all been suggested.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Thoughts on cinema and radiation and the disasters in Japan

Our fear of nuclear power seems to go deep. Or rather, our fear of radiation. It is sometimes irrational, and often based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. But it is there, and even though there has been only one horrible accident, Chernobyl, the fear of another like it is often on people's minds when nuclear power is discussed. The shock of Chernobyl has perhaps forever altered our perception of nuclear power in general, at least among those that were old enough at the time to see the news flashes. (For a recent assessment of Chernobyl, see the website of UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) here.)

Films have long been expressing our fears of both the bomb and nuclear power. New York Times had an article yesterday about the Japanese films about the monster Godzilla, and the message of those films. The first of those films, Godzilla (Gojira) came out 1954, and dealt both with the atomic bomb released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the nuclear tests at the Bikini atoll that the Americans made in the 1940s and 1950s (that's where the name of the bathing costume comes from). It's a surprisingly powerful film, and much different from the American version from 1998. But all over the world, films were made about this fear. Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) has sometimes been seen as an allegory about the fear of the bomb. More directly outspoken is his later film Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna 1962). In France, Alain Renais made Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. In the US all sorts of films, but primarily horror films and film noirs, were made with an atomic subtext. Even before Godzilla came out, Gordon Douglas directed the low key and eerie horror film Them!, about ants that had been exposed to the fallout of a nuclear test in New Mexico, and grown extraordinary large. What's remarkable about it is how realistic it is, in its settings and tone, and that it has a Foucault-like view of those that society lock up as criminals and mentally unsound (or crazy).

Another example is the nihilistic noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with an apocalyptic ending. Pay particular attention to the sound effects. The radiating light in the box sounds like a monster, it's definitely something that is alive:


On the Beach (1959), set in Australia, about a group of people waiting for the nuclear cloud that has killed the rest of the world, is another example. A later example, and more fitting for the present crisis, is The China Syndrome (1979) about an accident at a nuclear power station. Here Jack Lemmon is playing the manager of the station, desperately trying to control a potential meltdown. The strange thing about the film is that it was released just days before the real accident at Three Mile Island power station, near Harrisburg, until now the world's second most dangerous nuclear accident.

But to return to Japan. In 1989, Shohei Imamura made Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), about the after effects of the bombings of Hiroshima. The following year Akira Kurosawa wrestled with his own fears of radiation, and nuclear power. In one of his 'dreams' from his late film Dreams (Yume 1990), Mount Fuji turns red, after a nuclear accident. It's yet another apocalyptic imagining of the horrible effects:


With the increasing fears of a disaster in Japan, the ghost of accidents past are back to haunt the world. Although scientists assures us that it won't be as bad as Chernobyl, even in a worst-case scenario, that is not much of a consolation since even something half as bad would be unspeakable enough. What would that do to Japan? A headline in a newspaper the other day said "Japan is fighting for its life", and even though it first sounded very much exaggerated, now I'm not so sure anymore. Japan will eventually prevail, but at what cost? Whatever happens at Fukushima now, the combination of the earthquakes, the tsunami, and the complete breakdown of so many nuclear power plants is enough to make the most resilient country go down on its knees. I hope that all of those that I have met there are safe.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

For the love of film (noir)

I was going to write about Max Weber, but then I remembered the blogathon on film noir, so Weber will just have to wait. Since film noir is an old favourite topic of mine, the temptation to write something is overpowering. But have you heard about the blogathon? It has even made it to the editorial pages of the gray lady. The initiative comes from the Film Noir Foundation with the aim of raising money to help locate and restore prints of film noir that are endangered. Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren are actively running the thing, so you can click yourself over there and learn more.

At Stockholm University I've once wrote a dissertation about film noir, covering some 50 films, and the choice was natural since I've been a fan since my mid-teens, and some of my favourite films can be classified as film noir, although some because they are film noir, and some regardless of being film noir.

Film noir is often called a genre but I would disagree with that because noir is too transgressive. You can have gangster noir, science fiction noir, western noir, detective noir and so on. If a film cannot be called a noir because it is set in space or in the wild west, than does this mean that a noir has to be set in the city? Clearly not since several noirs are set in the countryside. No, it can't be space-specific either.

And it's not a style, because if it was, plenty of films by Michael Curtiz would qualify, despite being far from noir, whereas The Big Sleep (1946) would not necessarily be called a noir, with its lack of shadows and spiderwebs. Neither has it got a flashback structure or a voice-over. It, and many other noirs, lack a lot of the stylistic and narrative devices that are often associated with noir, indeed seen as essential to it. In some ways The Big Sleep does look even less as a noir than other films directed by Howard Hawks.

It does however have a certain sensibility, which it doesn't share with other films by Hawks, a sense of dread and doom, of life hanging in the balance. And for me this is one key to film noir. This sensibility, a combination of the above and a certain detached cynicism about the ways of the world. It's an existentialism the comes out of the city and has then spread out, a sentiment saying that the end is near, nobody is innocent and nothing really matters, accept perhaps a man's honour. That is why Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang are such great makers of noir, because for them it comes naturally, those themes and sensibilities were there with them even before there was such a thing as film noir. And since it is this sensibility that makes film noir what it is, you can have film noirs set in space or at a ranch, or at a battle field. There should be some sense of a compatible visual style, compatible with the themes, but that is a given since most films try to have such compatibility any way. A question is whether film noir works in colour, and arguably it does, in such a late example as Chinatown (1974).

But although I've mentioned Siodmak and Lang, film noir isn't about authorship, it is about a time and a place in history, primarily the 1940s and early 1950s, with some distinct examples both before and after. Of course the scources are from earlier years, the hardboiled detective novels from the 1920s and 1930s, by the likes of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy, and British writers such as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.

Because it's a question of sensibilities and general atmosphere, a film is either noir or it isn't, it can't be partly noir. If a few scenes have a noir-ish look, in the conventional sense of stark contrasts between light and dark, and elaborate plays with shadows, that's not enough, or if some scenes are sinister and fatalistic, that's not enough either. For it to be a proper noir, the above mentioned ingredients must be ever present, from beginning to end. When we watch a film noir we are entering a special mindset, with its own rules (not narrative rules, but behaviour rules), and there is no escaping them. Even those noirs that end happily, can only be happy in the fleeting moment.

Film noir is not an entirely American affair, there's a whole bunch of British noirs, and some sprinkled out in other countries as well. Bergman's High Tension aka This Can't Happen Here (Sånt händer inte här) is definitely on noir territory.

But definitions are tricky, and although I took a line of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon and put it on the front page of my dissertation, I'm not 100% sure it is a noir, although arguing that it isn't will only complicate things, since it was one of the first films singled out by the French in the post-war era as being an example of the new style of American filmmaking that they had detected. But on the other hand they did also include Lost Weekend (1945), another great film, but one I would say with much more confidence that it is not a proper noir, even though the cinematography by John F. Seitz is spectacularly expressionistic. But more quintessential examples are Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950). Out of the Past (1947) is another strong example. It has a companion piece in The Big Steal (1949), with the same duo, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, in the lead, and the same scriptwriter, Daniel Mainwaring, but that is arguably not a noir, in that it is too playful and bright. That might be partly due to the different sensibilities of the directors, with Jacques Tourneur being a somber shadowmaker, whereas Don Siegel is more of an individualist and free-wheeling anarchist to really accept the sense of inevitability in proper noir. (Daniel Mainwaring on the other hand is a key noir-player, with several important screen writing credits, sometimes under the name Geoffrey Homes.)

In the end there will always be film noirs to argue over, as to whether they are or not, and it isn't important. What's important are the films, and there are plenty of them to go around. Perhaps the best definition of film noir comes towards the end of Chinatown. In the film, Chinatown is not so much a place as a state of mind, and when Jake Gittes (the main character, played by Jack Nicholson) is bewildered, angry and sad his partner says "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown". You could easily exchange "Chinatown" with the words "film noir".