A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Martin Scorsese calls Val Lewton’s noir horror films, like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, “beautifully poetic and deeply unsettling...some of the greatest treasures we have.” But Lewton also wrote novels. Published in 1932 by Vanguard Press, reprinted in 1950, and back in circulation thanks to Scottish publishers, Kingly Reprieve, No Bed of Her Own is the best of his nine novels, and served as his Hollywood calling card. According to Russian-born Lewton, “When RKO was looking for producers, someone told them I had written horrible novels. They misunderstood the word ‘horrible’ for ‘horror’ and I got the job.” Of course, Lewton’s novel is very good. A dark tale, it follows Rose Mahoney as she descends the ladder of degradation, ending up on the mean streets of Manhattan, doing whatever it takes to survive, including prostitution. This story of greed and desire might have been adapted for the screen if not for the Production Code. Snapping the rights without reading the novel, Paramount saw it as a vehicle for their star Miriam Hopkins. They quickly realised the book was unfilmable, and turned it into a gambling story, entitled No Man of Her Own, starring Gable and Carole Lombard. Like his films, Lewton’s novels were knocked off quickly, some within forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, No Bed of Her Own would suggest themes Lewton later explored in his films, such as, how life can suddenly throw a person into worlds they never expected to inhabit. This is as much a Depression classic as Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. Get it while you can.
Rian Johnson’s Brick utilises a variety of noir templates: the femme fatale and protagonist from a film like Out of the Past, the investigating cop and strongman from Farewell, My Lovely, the claustrophobia of The Big Clock, the geographical exactness of The Maltese Falcon, and the convoluted plot like that found in The Big Sleep. Aware of of its antecedents, Brick avoids descending into pastiche, preferring to update the genre unlike any recent film. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising how well the noir view of the world can be inserted into the context of a southern California high school. But high school is probably the last stronghold of the noir ethic. It’s where the various qualities of noir exist side by side: a self-enclosed world, replete with femmes fatales, paranoia, an alienated population and a healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism. At their best, high school films have always been critical of the culture, while depicting teenagers as existing on the knife edge of a consumer society. But this is less like a John Hughes film, or, for that matter, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than something like Blood Simple. Indeed, the Coen brothers might well have directed Brick. For Johnson’s narrative contains a dark humour, as well as a great hook and a straight ahead, if complicated, story line. What’s more, it puts a new spin on the language one associates with film noir. But unlike Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Brick’s dialogue refers to past film noir, deploying such words as "kaplooey', "bulls", "yegs", "burg", and "take a powder." The audience I saw it with was, on average, in their early twenties. I doubt few, if any, had seen Kiss Me Deadly or even The Big Sleep, yet they were engrossed in the story, and understood the film’s ambience and humour; for example the scene with Brendan and the vice principal, a stand-in for the ubiquitous chief of police or investigating officer of past film noir. With Lukas Haas (the kid in Witness) as a post-teenage Sidney Greenstreet, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from Third Rock From the Sun) in the role normally associated with the likes of Bogart or Mitchum, Brick is a middle class affair, with, one suspects, Columbine only a bitch slap away. In the end I’m not sure how good Brick really is, but it kept me entertained, and, just when I thought the genre might have become redundant, made me think about how film noir might be reinvigorated. For once again film noir has reinvented itself, while retaining its usual subject matter- sex, greed, loss of innocence, violence, paranoia- and suspects- femme fatale, vulnerable male victim, an investigator burdened with his own code of honour. Eschewing the shadows and lighting associated with noir, Brick concentrates on lingering shots of playing fields, the ocean, long stretches of suburban highways, used to great effect. Still, the elements of film noir remain- its cynicism, distrust of authority, and issues of race, gender and politics.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.