Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Shadows, Cigarettes and Hats

Newish article on the recent surge in popularity of film noir, as evidenced by the DVD best-seller status of movies like Out of the Past and, of course, the increased number of people you see on the street, standing in the shadows, smoking cigarettes and wearing hats.

I'd try to give a cultural explanation for the current fascination with film noir -- as in, these are dark and ambiguous times that make these dark and ambiguous movies relevant. But I can't really say with any confidence that the current era is darker or more ambiguous than previous ones. (The tendency to think that things are getting worse, when the opposite is probably true, was nicely parodied in a line from King of the Hill: "It's tough being a kid these days, Hank. All we had to worry about was Vietnam, Charles Manson, swine flu.") My own suspicion is that people just love the coolness of the film noir world, a world where a bad-ass like Robert Mitchum gets to smoke a lot, toss off snappy one-liners, and punch people out without changing his expression, and where women get to be sultry, dangerous, or just plain evil. Whatever you may say for or against current movies, blockbusters and indies alike, they tend to be seriously deficient in cool. Even the stars don't seem to be cool, given that the current ideal of a movie star is to inspire US Magazine to gush about how they're just regular folks like us. The extent to which movies have lost their cool in just a decade can be guaged by comparing Get Shorty to the inappropriately titled Be Cool. So, desperately searching for movies with cool people doing cool things and acting tough in the face of danger, viewers pick up on film noir as the emblem of movie cool.

The other thing about film noir is that now that it's a mainstream term, its actual definition is more elusive than ever. Fox has started its film noir DVD series with three movies: Laura, Panic in the Streets and Call Northside 777. You could make a very strong argument that none of these three movies are "true" noir. By this argument, Laura is a chic murder mystery, not gritty enough to be noir, Panic in the Streets is a naturalistic melodrama, and Call Northside 777 is a neorealist-influenced crime procedural. Personally I think of Laura as noir but not the other two. Others would have different opinions. Does The Big Sleep qualify as a noir? Most people would say so, but, being a Howard Hawks movie, it's pretty upbeat and chipper despite the lurid subject-matter; maybe it's just too happy a movie to be noir. And so on, and so on. A real nit-picker could probably disqualify every movie ever made from being classified as a film noir. Well, except Out of the Past.

Clearly film noir is like pornography. We know it when we see it. But I think we can agree that to be a film noir, a movie must at the minimum contain those three magic elements:
a) Shadows
b) Cigarettes
c) Hats.

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