[1944] Double Indemnity

Here is a short rundown of film noir:

…[b]ut the vivid co-mingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism, desperate desire, and shadowy sexuality that was unleashed in those immediate post-war years proved hugely influential, both among industry peers in the original era, and to future generation of storytellers, both literary and cinematic.

This site continues to cite Double Indemnity as patient zero for the revolution of “black film” and it definitely doesn’t matter. That Double Indemnity sought but a visual vehicle for James M. Cain’s novella of the same name (this movie is probably on the list of movies that tremendously surpass their book equivalents i.e. The Godfather) is not significant. This “movement,” depicting seediness with sexuality and anger without avarice, wasn’t a Hollywood plant. The closest film noir came, and can be backed up by contemporary evidence is as a natural counter to the propaganda optimism bought and funneled through a government machine. For every Going My Way there was room for another Big Sleep.

Eventually noir contracted in the United States as audiences rejected the bleak for the bulbous (see: Marty, a rightful anti-noir, which won in 1955). Europe’s studios, surely replete with their own hot-take Humanism, sought to redefine art as it predicts reality, and branded their films “new wave” and “realism,” but really were noir reincarnate, but with better sound editing and sometimes, C O L O U R. Every few decades noir pops up as a counter-culture movement. Smart filmmakers understand that for every The Blind Side warm-heart there is room for a Winter’s Bone non-casual grit and grimace. Recently counter-epochal film has sprung up as “neo-noir,” whose best take, LA Confidential is as embedded in its own phone booth legacy as Double Indemnity is in its paper trail. Postmodern noir will comment on the fight against Twitter and Facebook. 2018’s Searching tried this concept, smartly showing setting its audience inside a computer. The film itself was a called strike three. Last comment on film noir: brand it however, what the “genre” is is much more anti-modernism than it is pro-anything.  Continue reading

[1945] Mildred Pierce

This post is my first in two months and I’m sorry if the language is hyper-academic and proseworthy for the Journal of the American Filmbloggers Association. 

Medium is essential. I talk about how we know what we know in the same breath as what we know. The ontological argument distinguishing book from movie is in how we as humans learn or retain information.  Literary novelists were awarded more (not much more) freedom in their written word under the assumption that many more people would see a film rather than read a book. For example, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce, is a bleak roman noir, set in 1930s Southern California and Michael Curitz’s screen adaptation à la film noir might be the watered-down version offered but not necessarily deserved.That said, The Hays code that stifled filmmaking for nearly four decades hung its lowly rules on the head of Mildred Pierce‘s pièce, somewhat dramatically altering the tone and motifs from the book to the screen. It circumstantially and unnecessarily took a censorship beat to the film that would see Joan Crawford as a star and painted Ann Blyth as a different character between mediums. Does it matter that the medium, so essential, produced wildly different works of art based on the same basic information?

First, the case against: no it does not matter. Broad strokes paint the same picture, and though at different resolutions, we can understand the basic assumptions and arguments of a story regardless of the medium. It is impossible and boring, anyway, to include the same level of detail from a 400 page book to a 2 hour film. The book’s Mildred has the same basic relationships as the films: there exists her ex-husband, daughters, lovers, friends, business partners. That Hays dramatically altered Mildred’s daughter, Veda, is inconsequential to the outcome in both scenarios. That Hays altered how the story moved from exposition to dénouement produces a different story does not change the basic framework of Mildred Pierce, the movie and the book, but the woman, Mildred Pierce. We are required as viewers to determine, after having imbibed all the relevant information whether we care about. If, at the end of each medium, we leave with the same sense of understanding of the story, does it matter? Continue reading

[1997] L.A. Confidential

God, if we could only track the lives of the characters we love through the lens of the actors who play them.

The narrative appeal is endless, if not ludicrous, for the thought that Marlon Brando’s actual life led him from the ‘coulda-been’ Terry Malone in On The Waterfront to boss-extraodinaire Veto Corleone in The Godfather; imagine that Jimmy Stewart kept playing self-flagellating characters throughout his actual life.

It’s a fun thought: we – as movie goers – would like to think that the piece we’re viewing picks up at a certain point, gives us a poignant glimpse and simply continues after the main conflict fades to end. We can then disengage from the surreality of the screen and return to our lives, whose experiences do build upon one another.

This is not how noir film works. Instead of a slice of the big fictional pie, noir rips through an entirety of a story in wildly emotional acts, leaving every stone unturned and not a single character the same, often not alive and occasionally better off dead. L.A. Confidential is no exception to this high concept and pays grand homage to noir film of decades past. As the apotheosis of the highly stylized neo-noir genre, L.A. Confidential is, in 2013, darkly comical in its treatment of actors-as-characters. I can’t hardly see James Cromwell, affable farmer in Babe, as a twisted captain or even more so Guy Pearce, pointillist in his proceedings as a lieutenant, as a man lost and never found in Memento. 

This is both a function of the genre and an externality of brash originality of this movie. These characters – Cromwell’s Dudley Smith, Russell Crowe’s Bud White, Pearce’s Ed Exley, Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes….Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens – are dynamic, interwoven foils of their also highly stylized city. Curtis Hanson directs his cast as he would paint a puzzle. He recognizes the central and peripheral themes of James Ellroy novel as the ridged pieces and the actors as the box from which the puzzle can be finished. Continue reading