Noir meets reality

Movies

Notes on: Road to Perdition (Laurie Dix)

Road To Perdition is, again, not a movie I would count as a noir, but it sits somewhere between classic ‘Gangster’ film and noir, due a combination of elements.

Whereas I would consider some of the more famous films to be considered true ‘Gangster’ films (Goodfelllas, Casino, The Godfather, etc.) I would not say that the ‘Gangster’ film is a genre in and of itself. It is a subject matter, a storyline, a plot point or a background rather than the basis for a genre. In the same respect, ‘Noir’ is not a genre. It is an atmosphere, or a style, the feel the film gives. Thus, in this respect, many films could be one and/or the other without being considered to belong to either one genre.

Road to Perdition is one of these films that does not quite fit in on either the ‘Noir’ nor the ‘Gangster’ venn diagram. It does, however, have a lot of the key elements which are associated with noir, and for these purposes, I am counting it as ‘Neo-Noir’, albeit one of the more ‘gentle’ examples (I say gentle, but I guess I mean ‘Not ultra-violent or packed full of swearing and drugs abuse’, like so many other gangster films.)

Mike Sullivan works for John Rooney, some sort of crime lord associated with bootlegging alcohol. After his son, Michael Sullivan Jr. witnesses a murder carried out by his father and Connor Rooney (son of John Rooney), things become more complicated and both Michael Sullivan and Michael Sullivan Jr. are chased across America, with a trail of bodies catching up to them as the Rooneys and other gangsters try to bump them off.

Now, as I mentioned before, this does not really fall into what I would call the camp of ‘Gangster Movies’, but there is the Gangster element there. In the same vein, it is not a noir, but it has some of the tropes.

Tropes of Noir

  • The Protagonist
    The ‘Maverick’. Whereas he stands mostly for justice and doing the right thing as far as he is concerned, his morals can be questionable and often he has to fight his own personal demons throughout the film.
    Whereas Michael Sullivan is working as a gangster, and he has killed in the past and is still willing to, he acts mostly honestly. Even when he robs banks, it is in order to injure the gangsters, not the banks or the civilians, and he even allows the tellers to keep a little bit of the money in order to make the trauma worth their while. The protagonist fits to a lot of classic ‘Noir’ stereotypes in terms of his motivation and moral ambiguity.
  • The Antagonist – (The Police Chief/ The Mob Boss/ The Husband)
    One of the less common tropes, but a trope nonetheless, it the use of the antagonist. Usually it falls into one of three categories, and in this instance, takes the form of the mob boss. The protagonist and the Mob Boss will usually be wary of one another, knowing that either would kill the other for the right price, but they can be useful to each other as well. There is almost always a double cross, and in this film, there are a few. Double crosses and power plays, people trying to sell each other out to the highest bidder and trying to rid themselves of a potential trouble by killing them, these all belong, though not exclusively, to noir.
  • A Body
    In Road To Perdition, whereas the body count isn’t especially high, there are bodies, and they are important. What kicks off the whole story is a funeral being held by the Boss for one of the underlings, and through this it sets off a chain reaction which causes more bodies to follow. In almost every Noir, there is a body at some point.
  • The Situation
    This is an unconventional one, but one I believe still suits. Normally, the protagonist would be a loner, often an alcoholic, he would have no one to turn to which is why he acts in the way that he does, not considering other people and being able to act with ambivalence when it comes to other characters. In this film, Michael Sullivan does have people, until they’re killed and he is left with his eldest son. Although not really being left on his own, he and his son are stranded with only each other, and once his wife and youngest son are dead, the situation changes dramatically, acting as a catalyst for the ‘Noir’ situation.
  • The World
    Noir films tend to be based in the 1920’s and 1940’s, even spanning as far as the early 50’s although rarely. Road to Perdition is set in 1931, which is just about in the middle of when Noir began to be popular, so the world is right. Prohibition is still in effect, and so bootlegging is still a viable way for people to make money, and America is in the throes of the depression and recovering from the Wall Street crash a couple of years previous. The timing could hardly be more perfect in terms of when to set a film which could be linked to Noir. It seems almost impossible to set a film in this time period without including some of the tropes of noir.
  • The Context
    See above for a lot of the context given, in terms of the depression post WWI. But also it is worth noting that the amount of immigrants to America rose massively during this time, although there had already been a surge of Irish and Italian immigrants in the mid 1800’s and the late 1800’s to early 1900’s respectively, so it does not seem that unfeasible that our story should follow a family of Irish Americans who work for an organised crime ring run by Irish Americans and who have ties to the Italian American organised crime circuits. Considering the timing of it all, it seems to make quite a lot of sense.

And so, even though Road to Perdition is not a true noir, it does not have the look nor the script of a ‘Traditional’ or ‘Classic’ noir, it does have a lot of the same characteristics, and simply being set in the 1930’s seems to basically cement its place in the world of noir. Although it is always difficult to put a film to a certain genre, I think it is not unfair to class this film amongst the Neo-Noir, perhaps among films such as The Untouchables; not really gangster films, but that should be considered alongside them all the same.

It is important to see what has become of this genre, and how it has changed over the years and evolved along with cinema.

It is also worth watching this film simply for the cinematography, which is by Conrad L. Hall, who worked closely with Sam Mendes on many of his films, and who was a sterling Director of Photography, which is what a lot of the ‘Noir Style’ comes down to.

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Notes On: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Laurie Dix)

‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ is a story by Brett Halliday, adapted for screen and directed by Shane Black.

It is obvious that there are noir influences at work here, and there are several throwbacks to films from the 1940’s. Although rather tongue in cheek, this is a very cleverly written and well thought out film which mirrors some of the classic tropes of noir excellently, whilst maintaining and a modern and humorous twist.

The story follows Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) as he turns from a life of crime and burglary, through the accidental death of his friend, to a life of high society as he inadvertently becomes an actor and embroiled in a murder case which gets way out of hand. With the help of his agent; ‘Gay’ Perry, and his high school sweetheart; Harmony Lane, Harry’s ‘Acting Lessons’ in how to be a detective quickly become uncovering a real murder investigation.

Why does ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ come under my list of ‘Noir Inspired films’? Again, to the list of tropes:

  • Detective stories (hardboiled), again, are at the heart of the the Noir genre, and this films is a murder mystery, which is basically the same thing.
  • There is an internal monologue throughout, explaining though processes and ideas happening in real time and in retrospect, a ‘Philip Marlowe’ trope.
  • The Protagonist is, in fact, a “Misunderstood” criminal, who we see trying to steal toys for his nephew at the top of the film. He is also a ‘detective’ (or at least, working with a detective and so working as a detective) which is one of the more common careers for Noir protagonists.
  • Although there aren’t ‘Gangsters’ as such, there are people in power with powerful friends, people who want Harry dead for various reasons, who are, for all intents and purposes, Hired Guns, which to my mind, often equates to ‘gangsters’ (provided your definition of ‘Gangster’ is not ‘Cosa Nostra’ or the like).
  • There are several suspects, which are all deployed at various times in order to lead us down various routes of suspecting who the culprits may be, and their motives.
  • There is a body, in fact there are a few (the body count rises as the film progresses, but there is a body which acts as a catalyst for this whole affair).

Although the film is very tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous, it is a well told, fun story, and holds many references to film noir. Whereas the film may not be a noir itself, it does reference a lot of the more common tropes of noir, and therefore counts, in my eyes, as a consequence of noir, and so has earned the right to have comparisons drawn.


Why Batman is Noir (Laurie Dix)

Batman comics have undergone many, many different styles and stories, from the original 1940’s comic strips, to the 1970’s ‘Adam West’ TV series, a number of darker graphic novels (Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’, Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’, etc.) a number of Animated series, computer games and films.

The basic elements always apply: Batman is the superhero guise of orphaned multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne, who supports James Gordon in the Gotham City Police Department and whose enemies include a number of colourful characters including the Joker, the Penguin, Poison Ivy and Catwoman amongst several others.

How ‘Batman’ can be considered ‘Noir’:
(see reference: Raymond Durgnat’s ‘Paint it Black’ for the list of ‘Tropes’ I will be comparing to)

  • Being created in the 1940’s by Bob Kane, this was around the same time that the ‘Noir’ style really became identified. As mentioned in earlier blog posts (Notes on Film Noir and Film Noir Tropes) America was undergoing the depression, and so the mood of the films and stories at the time often reflected this, being downbeat and focusing on ‘Real Characters’, and occasionally needed some hope. This is what Batman represented: hope in a world where there was none.
  • Noir stories are often associated with Detective Fiction or ‘Hardboiled’ fiction, which is precisely what Batman is. Batman is often referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’, and there is often call for ‘Captions’ in comics, which have a tendency to relay as internal monologue, something Noir is famous for (see Raymond Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe).
  • Noir tends to take place in dark alleyways, places where there is little light but a lot of shadow, which adds to the overall aesthetic. Gotham City is a world where every street is a place with the potential to be a crime scene. Indeed, the Bat Signal only works in a world where the sky is always cloudy, and the world is always dark. Gotham City represents a world where everything is enshrouded in darkness all the time.
  • The protagonist is a maverick, who goes by his own rules. Although he does everything in the spirit of upholding the law, he is not afraid to break the rules in order to maintain justice.
  • The Femme Fatale: This could be a number of people, although most commonly Batman is paired with Selena Kyle (Catwoman) who is a thief. Although not a true femme fatale, the relationship between Batman and Catwoman is a complicated one which could be compared to some of the relationships between the lead Male and Female in several of the Noir films.
  • Gangsters are among some of Gotham City’s villains, mostly the Falcone family and the Maroni family. One of the common themes of Noir stories is the Gangster element.
  • ‘Portraits and Doubles’/The Figure in the Mist; a common theme in Noir, which revolves around dopplegangers and switches. In the Batman universe, there are a few villains whose stories mirror that of Bruce Wayne’s (rich family, orphaned, inherited millions) but that stray where Bruce chose a life of justice and truth, they perhaps followed a different path. The character ‘Hush’ has a story which revolves around him trying to give himself Bruce Wayne’s face in order to make it appear as if Bruce was committing certain crimes, allowing him to walk away free.
  • Sexual Pathology: the relationships between many characters could be drawn against this trope: Joker and Harley Quinn have a variation on The Florence Nightingale effect, wherein Dr. Harleen Quinzel was mesmerised by her patient, The Joker, to the extent that she freed him from Arkham Asylum and became his sidekick. Batman and Catwoman, as mentioned before, have an interesting relationship which could fit here, and it may also be noted that Catwoman’s primary weapon is a whip, which may relate to the idea of the exploration of Sadism in Noir. In terms of homosexuality there have been many theories about the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and the original Robin). All of these themes link back to Noir.
  • Psychopaths: See every Batman villain, and even Batman himself.

In short, every trope identified with Noir can be read in the Batman series, and although it will change depending one whose version you are reading, there can be a number of comparisons drawn.

Although Marvel did their own series of ‘Noir’ comics, taking characters who already existed and turning their stories into the ‘Noir’ style, I believe Batman to be, at heart, a noir, and whereas it is occasionally masked, all the elements are there, and it has been obvious to several artists, writers and directors that this is at the heart of Batman.


Notes On: De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté (Laurie Dix)

De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is not really a noir, although it is a good film and there can be certain comparisons drawn.

Tom earns his money through nefarious deeds. Since the death of his mother, Tom has never quite gotten to grips with the death, and does not appreciate his father looking for love.
Tom finds respite in playing the piano, something his mother encouraged him to do, and now has a choice between the life of crime or a new life of music.

The plot unlike anything I have ever heard of before, and after the first time I watched it I was sure if I’d missed something important, because I couldn’t believe that’s all there was to it. I first watched it with my brother, and his understanding of it was: “I am a French gangster, but I just really want to play the piano.” which is basically what I understood as well.
There is more to it, involved in the relationships Tom has with various people; his colleagues, his father, his piano teacher, but all this just emphasises his choice between Piano and Piano-wire.

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, this is not really a noir, but there are certain elements which can be compared to noir.

I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that it’s French, and some French directors do Style very well (I was also going to mention ‘Three Colours Blue’, ‘Le Triplette du Belleville’ and ‘Delicatessen’ in terms of stylistic influences when it comes to my own writing and my understanding of ‘Modern noir’) there is the gangster element, but not so much as to be able to call it a Gangster movie, and there are his relationships with women.

The lighting is incredibly important throughout this film, but most important is the music. You would expect a film about a piano-playing-gangster to have a good soundtrack, and it does. One which highlights the moment and emphasises the story; a mix between electro and classical music, the score is of utmost importance in guiding the story and creating tension and emotion.

In noir films, the score follows a theme throughout which is adapted to suit the moment. In more recent films, this happens less and less, focusing instead more on individual tracks throughout, rather than following one theme. In ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’, there are a few themes, but the essence of the theme is still there: the music following a certain expression.

Again, certain noir tropes can be identified:

  • A ‘Maverick, Rule-breaking’ protagonist (who smokes)
  • A female, forbidden love interest
  • Gangsters
  • A body
  • The ‘Situation’ (the protagonist being ‘A loner’)
  • More gangsters

In conclusion, ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ is not a ‘Noir’, but certain elements are there. I think a lot of this is due to European influences; obvious in European cinema, but these came to be in American cinema due to people fleeing their native countries during WWII, and working in American cinema. If you trace back these influences, there are still flavours of this style in European cinema today; merely a different branch of the same family tree.


Notes on: Brick (Laurie Dix)

Brick is about the closest thing you will get to a modern noir, and one of my favourite films.

It takes what we recognise as tropes of noir, and makes it relevant and modern.

The story follows Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he investigates a cryptic message left for him by his ex-girlfriend Laura.
After following a few clues, it does not take Brendan long to be absorbed into a dark criminal underworld, where he comes face to face with some rather unsavoury characters.

Brick uses the traditional slow cross fades in between locations, and relies heavily on lighting and colour to express mood and atmosphere. The differences between Brick and the traditional Noir are slim, but important. Traditional noir, being made in the 40’s, adhered to the rules set out by cinema at the time. Nowadays, the rules have changed in terms of how to make a film, and so, to prevent the film from seeming to be ‘badly made’ or ‘old hat’, Brick combines some modern elements of filmmaking with some elements of 40’s cinema.

(N.B. There can be some argument that ‘Brick’ does not count as a Noir, but more similar to ‘Hard-Boiled’, but the line is so fine it counts as a noir for all intents and purposes.)

“Traditional Noir Tropes”

  • Slow cross dissolves between locations
  • A ‘Femme Fatale’ character
  • Emphasis on lighting (rather than the cinematographer using light as their main medium, the emphasis is on shadow).
  • A mystery
  • The ‘Antagonist’ being a ‘Mobster’ (who earned his power due to controlling contraband, traditionally this would have been alcohol, in this modern equivalent, it is drugs)
  • Suspects
  • A body
  • The ‘Jazz’ influence
  • An unrealistic and overly stylistic script
    (One of my favourite lines is;
    Brendan is on the verge of being attacked by some stoners. After punching one of them in the face, another begins to approach, he turns to him and says:
    “Throw one at me if you want, hash-head. I still have all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”)

Modern Elements

  • Young cast
  • Modern editing/Quick edits
  • Drugs influence
  • The American High School back drop
  • Modern cinematography (in terms of angles)
  • A lot of elements have been modernised simply due to the access to more modern equipment. In order to analyse exactly how else is ‘modernises’ aspects of film, one would have to examine how cinema has evolved over the past seventy years, which is a subject too big for this blog post.

Brick is a wonderful film, stylistic and cool, and does the ‘Noir’ genre a lot better than I could ever hope to do. It also has the benefit of being nearly two hours long, over which time you can built an intriguing story. It cannot be done quite as well over ten minutes, and in my opinion, ‘Noir’ stories need time to draw you in. They are a slow process, and one that cannot be accurately represented in a short time.


Notes On: This Gun For Hire (Laurie Dix)

A story of greed, murder and money. Classic noir.

Alan Ladd got paid off by a rich club owner in marked bills to retrieve some information wanted by an old man. The rich club owner hires Veronica Lake  to work in his club. Her boyfriend is a policeman investigating the case of the stolen bills. When Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake cross paths, she gets pulled into his world and they must protect each other.

Clever intertwining stories make this a great noir, bordering on the traditional rules of farce. People being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the audience knowing more of what’s going on than the characters and paths crossing to create incidents.

Once you learn that the film was based on a book by Graham Greene, the twists and intricate plot are not surprising. What interests me about this film particularly is the callback to the song and dance routines; particularly in this scene, which is wonderfully charming, and works in a way, but seems odd to have a moment of almost vaudevillian sketch in the middle of a film revolving around murder.

The song in that scene is also the main theme for the score for the entire film, being revisited throughout in various forms.

This is not what I would class as a classic noir, as it does not adhere to a lot of the traditional tropes of noir (expressionist lighting, voiceover, etc) but it does work as a reflection of the American state of mind in the 40’s, which is what the essence of noir really is.

Essentially it comes down to good stories, well told in a stylish and stylistic manner.


Notes on: The Glass Key (Laurie Dix)

The Glass Key, a detective story by Dashiell Hammett was adapted for screen in 1942 by Jonathan Latimer and directed by Stuart Heisler.

The story revolves around politics, relationships and murder, and features what could be called the iconic straightlaced detective as the protagonist.

Whilst watching the film I made some notes about things which occurred to me, which would hopefully come in useful while making Johnny Noir, or which might come in useful in the future if I wrote another script in this style:

 

  • A lot of the ‘Feel’ of the film comes from the lighting and camera work, and each character has their own specific lighting.
  • Men tend to be dressed in grey or black depending on their mentality at the time, and the only people we see dressed in white are women.

  • The reason women dress in white is that they are light much more strongly than the men, and casting so much light on white clothes causes a lot of bloom. This combination of soft focus, also retained almost exclusively for women, produces an almost angelic glow around the women. This is not uncommon for films from this era, but is especially noticeable in Film Noir given the reserved use of light. The women are also filmed with a much shallower depth of field, whereas everyone and everything else has a tendency to be filmed with a much deeper depth of field, enhancing the softness of the focus and the ethereal quality that the female characters have in these films.

  • When shooting important dialogue between two characters, the camera has a tendency to follow a pattern:

    Medium shot, close up, close up, medium, close up, close up, medium, etc.

    This means that we can see the faces of the two people talking as well as their relationship to each other spatially.

  • As an aside to the above point, the only time we ever see over the shoulder shots is when it is shooting a conversation between a man and a woman.

  • The lighting is incredibly reserved, using as few sources of light as possible.

  • The female characters speak their minds and have a tendency to be quite brusque, but the male characters still act incredibly misogynistically.

  • The male characters have a tendency to use violence frequently and carelessly. Whereas they may have an argument which is won by having a particularly quick tongue, other times an argument may be solved by being thrown through a window.

  • The dialogue is not naturalistic and contains a lot of unnatural exposition. People will vocally identify their emotions at the time, or the actions of other characters.

  • There is very little use of true white or true black, most of the film is represented in various shades of grey, usually tending towards the darker end of the spectrum.

  • Female characters tend to have two emotional defaults: Hysterical or deadpan.

  • Editing:
    – In-scene relies only on cuts.
    – Staying in the same location, but going to a different time relies on a fade to black.
    – Changing location relies on a cross fade.

  • None fatal wounds heal quickly, only leaving superficial marks.
    Fatal wounds act within moments; thus a bullet to the head takes the same amount of time to neutralise the character than one too many punches.

  • There is one example of a wipe transition: during a vehicle segment.

  • The credits happen at the beginning, while the orchestra plays the full score. The only credits at the end are the ‘Cast of Characters’.

 

It would be interesting to see if these same rules apply across any other films of this style.