Friday, August 19, 2016

New York Noir

“Cities are made of desires and fears.”
Italo Calvino

In that not so distant era of mean streets, dangerous dames  and post-war angst, New York was known as the noir capital of the world, containing all the  ingredients- neon lights, gangsters, corrupt city officials, fast-talking newspapermen, lost souls and an avaricious skyline- associated with the genre.  Though the period in which classic film noir flourished lasted only  some fifteen years, it was enough time for the Golem to turn into the flaneur, and for the Thin Man to exist alongside Mike Hammer, Dutch Schultz and The Shadow. This in an era  when New York was still considered the most, rather than the least, American of cities, and when the country, moving from the  politics of the Depression to that of the Cold War, had assumed a position of unprecedented power, accompanied by fears of reds under the bed, the atomic bomb and economic insecurity.  

                No other city has been as noir as New York. And no other city in film noir is like New York.  It was not only where  the Old World met the New World, but where German Expressionism met hardboiled Hollywood melodrama. Romanticised it might have been, but it’s depiction drew on reality. With its cultural mix and nightlife centered in hotspots like Times Square, 42nd Street and Harlem, Gotham  would be associated with an assortment of conditions specific to the genre, whether paranoia (Phantom Lady), claustrophobia (The Window), agoraphobia (Nightfall),  vertigo (Side Street),  alienation (The Gangster), or despair (Edge of Doom). 


So evocative is New York of that era that it was able to push film’s narrative to disastrous conclusions, and even, as in The Naked City,  assume the role of  protagonist. At the same time,  New York noir, for all its features and faults, has never been overly reliant on an all-knowing detective or tough-guy perspective; it’s noir atmosphere has been enough, relating less to a wise-guy  behind the wheel of a car than to the pedestrian left in the hands of fate. Since, in New York the ambler is king, something unfortunate is more than likely to befall that person set in their belief that their assigned role comes with an automatic right-of-way.  No wonder Albert Camus, visiting the Big Apple for th"e first  time  in 1946,  said, “Everybody looks like they’ve stepped out of a B-film.” True,  all New Yorkers appear to be  part of their own low-budget noir narrative, if not guilty of crimes they perhaps have yet to commit. As Jerome Charyn, author of novels featuring New York Jewish cop Issac Siddel, writes in Maria’s Girls (1994), “Psychosis is everywhere, in your armpit, under your shoe...How do you measure a man’s rage? Either we behave like robots, or we kill.”

As Charyn would maintain, noir New York has long been an immigrant’s city.  Protagonists like John Garfield in Force of Evil, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Farley Granger in Edge of Doom and Richard Conte in Cry of the City  come from specific communities, while petty crook Richard Widmark in Pick Up on South Street and enforcer Robert‡ Ryan in On Dangerous Ground deal with these communities on a daily basis. Yet immigrants were often cosmeticised for the sake of mass consumption. Abe Polansky, a native New Yorker and blacklist victim, would alter the Jewish names in Ira Wolfert’s capitalist-indicting novel, Tucker’s People, on which  Force of Evil is based. While in Gordon Wiles’s 1947 The Gangster, any outward sign of the Jewishness permeating Daniel Fuchs’s Brooklyn-set novel Low Company, from which that film derived, was conveniently exorcised. Blacks were even more peripheral, a rare exception being Wise’s 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow in which Harry Belafonte, the most acceptable African-American in show business, plays a Manhattan nightclub singer who takes part in a small-town bank robbery.  

Yet it was through multicultural New York that European noir directors  Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Premminger, Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer  travelled  on their way to Hollywood, carrying with them ideas aÂbout old world montage and mise-en-scéne. In turn, New York would  leave  its mark, leading to Big Apple films like  Wilder’s Lost Weekend,  Lang’s Woman in the Window, Siodmak’s Cry of the City and Premminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  And it was during a visit to Manhattan  that Ulmer decamped in Harlem to make  low-budget films about Yiddish and African American life. There he learned enough about American culture to become a Poverty Row pro, directing Detour and Ruthless, both of them partly set in New York. While Lang, after visiting the city for the first time in 1924, was so affected by its skyline that he decided to make Metropolis. A decade later, Jean-Paul Sartre gazed at the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building¥ “pointing vainly toward the sky,” and concluded that “New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins.”

These ruins seem like they have always figured in noir images of the melting pot known as New York, the seeds of which were present in narratives like Stephen Crane’s  “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1896),  Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925),  Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), as well as in Weegee’s 1940s street photographs.  Weegee’s work roughly parallels the history of film noir, influencing The Naked City, whose title derives from his 1945 book of New York photographs. Illustrating his relationship to the genre, Weegee would appear in Wise’s The Set Up (1949), a boxing tale in which he plays a ringside timekeeper, and a film that would inspire former Look  photographer Stanley Kubrick when it came to making The Killer’s Kiss (1955). As for the ruins suggested by Weegee and others, their extent and historical significance  would not be  realized for some  years to come. 

In fact, film noir might never have existed without New York.  After all, film, much less film noir, was born in New York City, where it thrived until World War One. Though New York studio pioneers Zukor, Fox,  Goldwyn, Laemmle, and Mayer, had vacated the city by the late 1940s, the financial backbone of the industry remained in Manhattan. Hollywood backlots might have been three-thousand miles away, but New York noir was still in fashion, which meant studios had to send photographers and production designers across the continent to record sites vso they  could be replicated in Tinseltown. In Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the interior shots of Gotham watering holes like Toots Shor and The Elysian Room were recreated on Stage 8 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. This, along with the film’s location shots, added to the ambience of Alexander MacKendrick’s savage critique of the world of tabloid journalism. With a script by Clifford Odets which pretty much deconstructs Ernest Lehman’s novella, the film presents a different side of the city from the tenements and working-class neighborhoods depicted in Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949) or John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951).  

As suburbanisation became the 1950s norm, the Big Apple pedestrian was  eclipsed by the Sunbelt car owner, quickening the pace if not the pulse of the  narrative. Essential to, but separate from, the rest of the country, New York would become the city middle-America loves to hate, its streets portrayed as darker and more dangerous than they might actually be.  While some believed New York to have  held the promise that was once America, others saw it as a vertical dystopia, not quite American, its height indicating its vulnerability,  and, with citizens living on top of, rather than alongside, one-another, a sign that profits will invariably precede people. 

All this feeds into the city’s noir character, revised in the 1990s by Andrew Vacchs, whose  over-the-top  crime fiction seems to  imply that New York is mostly populated by criminals, muggers, hustlers, psychos, perverts, and, by now, terrorists. But New York noir, particularly since the early 1970s, has long sought to exploit pathology and fear of the other. This is the case in neo-noir films, from Seigel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Winner’s Death Wish (1974) to Scorssese’s After Hours (1985), and derives partly from social classes rubbing shoulders with one another,  not to mention the failure of trickle-down economics, and animosities created as one group replaces another in a given neighborhood. Of course, this also makes New York an ideal setting for narratives regarding disparities, unease, chance encounters  and the vagaries of fate.  


As the years progressed, New York noir would be depicted in ever more paranoid terms. And why not? For its recent past includes not only terrorist attacks, but riots, racial antagonisms, zero tolerance, bankruptcy, gentrification and extreme urban-planning. Consequently, one  can track the fate of New York noir, and New York itself, by following the circumstances of protagonists from the classic era to later  films like The Warriors, Taxi Driver, King of New York, New Jack City or 25th Hour. Or noir fiction, from Cornell Woolrich, author of  narratives like Phantom Lady, The Window and Deadline at Dawn, to Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels; from Wolfert’s Tucker’s People  to Nick Tosches’s Cut Numbers, Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. The classic era may be over, but New York’s relationship to noir remains no less pertinent. With the post-9-11 era assuming ever nastier  proportions, it’s understandable that, in this era of perpetual fear, some will opt  for a more romanticised, if not innocent, view of the city. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

At the End of the Road: Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

It could be argued that Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge (NYRB) is one of the most modernist of spy novels. What can't be argued is that there could possibly be another spy novel so saturated in paranoia. Serge was born in poverty in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians after fleeing the Czar. He became a political activist and was jailed before arriving  in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. Climbing the hierarchy of the Comintern, he fell foul of Stalin, went to prison, followed by exile from the Soviet Union. Unforgiving Years would be Serge's final novel, destined, as far as he was concerned, for the bottom drawer. And you can see why. It's a dark- perhaps his darkest-  and most extreme book. Paranoid, unrelenting, brutal, poetic, surreal, hallucinatory, the book moves from pre-war Paris to Leningrad under siege to Berlin during the last days of the war to Mexico (this last part reads like a B. Traven story). Serge's translator, Richard Greeman, in his  introduction, suggests that D, the main character, is based not only on Serge himself, but on two others: a defector- in fact, the head of Stalin’s apparatus- Walter Krivitsky, who met with Serge in Paris; and Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss, whose Trotskyism led to his murder by Stalinist agents was he was about to meet  Serge in Switzerland.  Krivitsky would later die in Washington hotel room  under mysterious circumstances.

One might also view  Serge's novel as an antidote to Celine's Long Day's Journey...,  particularly when it comes to the horrors of war. But, of course, Serge's novel delves even further into the shape-shifting psychology of that period.  Translated into English for the first time, Unforgiving Years tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. It's a world in which no one can trust anyone, and circumstances alter personalities and allegiances. No wonder there's so much paranoia. But what's surprising is how much Serge's writing changed over the years. One can only suppose that the war altered the way he viewed the world, and so had to find a form to fit that view. I would also recommend his earlier work, such as  The Case of Comrade Tulayev (reprinted by NYRB as well), about the reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Like Unforgiving Years, it was one of his last books, and another one that Serge never sought  to publish during lifetime. Though, for me, Unforgiving Years is the more impressive of the two. It's the sort of novel that contemporary writers in the genre would die for. After all, Unforgiving Years is the real thing, a view of a world in ruins derived from lived experience. Anyone after a post-apocalyptic novel should start here.