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Old film noir flickers ironically through new noir


In 1972, then film critic Paul Schrader wrote a seminal essay on the dark and mesmerizing post-war American cinema of deceit, murder and betrayal known as film noir. He broke it down into three phases, the last of which, the "manic," had just ended -- or so he thought. He didn't know, of course, that he himself would write the last great film noir of the "manic" phase, "Taxi Driver," in 1976.

He also didn't know that there was a fourth stage yet to come, one that has blossomed of late into full, gnarled bloom. It might be called the "ironic" stage, or as some have christened it, "nouveau noir." It took root in 1981 and has now reached maturity in the works of John Dahl, the latest of whose films, "The Last Seduction," has just opened.

Ironic noir is the antithesis of manic noir. Manic noir, whose two highest accomplishments were "Taxi Driver" and, before that, "Kiss Me Deadly," Robert Aldrich's jazzy spin on the Mickey Spillane novel, celebrated the last pure product of America: craziness. They were by definition over the top, and took as their protagonists men who lost control. In "Taxi Driver," Robert De Niro's Travis Bickel shot his way into the American subconscious as a twisted version of Arthur Bremer, who would inspire an equally twisted John Hinkley. The movie ended in the excess of massacre as Bickel, under a Mohawk haircut and spattered with blood, blew away everything that moved in a New York brothel, convinced it was his messianic role to cleanse the world.

Nothing so impolite would happen in ironic noir. It's not about screwballs, psychos, gun people or anything. It doesn't celebrate craziness, but rather another pure product of America: movies. In fact, it has the cool detached humor of a good movie review, which in a sense it is. It's sublimely self-aware -- as opposed to the genuine spontaneity of the original noir works -- as directed by young men who are completely conscious of everything they do. Their primary goal is to do a film that both celebrates and parodies the genre. They lack the reflexively pyrotechnic drive of such noir greats as Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity," 1944), Joseph Lewis ("Gun Crazy," 1950) or Rudolf Mate ("D.O.A.," 1950), and, of course, they've seen too much film noir.

If you asked Wilder, Lewis or Mate or any of the others about film noir they'd say, "Huh?" Then they'd have the unit publicist kick you off the set. Ask John Dahl about film noir (I did), and he says, "Well, the three greatest influences on my work were . . ." and then proceeds to discuss with clinical detail three films -- "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard" by Wilder, and "A Place in the Sun" by George Stevens (not exactly a film noir but, courtesy of Theodore Dreiser, about a murder) -- and how he set about to re-create their impulses.

That's not necessarily bad; it is necessarily inescapable. One of the real changes in film culture over the past, say, 30 years, is the sense in which it's turned in upon itself. The first few generations of sound movies were made by men who were pioneers as much as they were artists. They were flying by the seat of their pants. Most came from stage or newspaper backgrounds, most worked under intense studio pressure (the studios being literal factories that turned out 200 "units" a year), and most just did what worked without thinking about larger meanings until later. They were eminently practical men, and if you read their interviews they tended to make fun of the earnest young intellectuals who asked Big Questions.

Why did you shoot the concluding sequence from "Hell on Four Wheels" through the reflection of the broken mirror? Was it to indicate Bill's advanced state of psychosis?

Er, no. I saved about 8,000 bucks that way. We had a whale of a cast party with that money.

That sort of thing.

Yet given the helter-skelter nature of its inventors, film noir nevertheless has such a coherence to it you wonder if it was engineered by a single brilliant mind, or at the very least a learned committee.

Post-war dominance

There are many explanations for its emergence as the dominant film mode at the end of World War II. The most common is that it somehow reflected post-war exhaustion and pessimism. We had just won a giant victory and what did we win? Yet another war with yet another ominous super enemy, this time made all the more potentially lethal by the possibility of nuclear extinction.

Add to this the infusion of refugee technicians (cinematographers, lighting technicians, makeup artists) who had no homeland to return to -- the emergence of a proto-counterculture in the rigidly conformist '50s -- and you get a cinema with a dark streak, satiny, existential, full of doomed suckers and smart ladies.

I favor a more literary explanation: that film noir was a decade-late cinematic extension of the literary movement called "hard-boiled." That genre had reached its full flower in the '30s with the diamond-hard prose of such geniuses as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain (both of whom hailed from Maryland) and the great Raymond Chandler. They all but reinvented American prose before the war by somehow desentimentalizing it. They refused to see the city as a world of glittery possibility, but instead as a neon-lighted sewer where death was hiding in an alley. When that sensibility eventually reached the movies, it took the form of film noir, with its concentration on squalid little tales of death without redemption.

Contradiction in color

Why did noir die, or at least go into eclipse, sometime in the late '50s? One reason may have been utterly stylistic, reflecting the ancient question scholars of the genre argue: Is noir a philosophy or a look, a content or a style?

If it's a style, then the death of black and white filmmaking in the late '50s pretty much explains things. Somehow, noir didn't work in color. It lost its meanings. Just look, say, at Robert Siodmak's brilliant "The Killers" of 1946. The vivid cascade of blue-gray shadings, the exquisite placement of shadow on faces, the use of lighting (as in the gun flashes that illuminate the dark as Swede's hand slips off the bedpost, signifying his surrender to death) -- all give the movie a visual distinction that exactly communicates its view of a fate-haunted, doomed universe.

In 1964, Don Siegel, a great director, remade (and reinvented) the movie with an especially hip cast that included Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as the killers, John Cassavetes as the betrayed quarry (played by the young Burt Lancaster in the original), and as ace bad guy, in his last film, Ronald Reagan. Subtract the weirdness that attends any movie with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy, and the movie still doesn't work. It's shot in almost pastel colors against generic studio backgrounds, and it feels feather-light and silly. It needed a much darker palette to give its weighty themes density.

Done in by TV

Another reason for the demise of film noir was television. The ubiquitous made-for-TV movie came along halfway through the pTC '60s to take over the economic stratum -- that is, the B-movie niche -- that had been the exclusive province of film noir. By the mid-'70s, there were no B-movies any more; they had moved entirely to television, and the studio product tended to be big budget and demographically driven. A film like "Taxi Driver" (1977) was something of a fluke, ramrodded home by a tough producer (Julia Phillips), a brilliant young director and star (Martin Scorsese and De Niro), and Paul Shrader's exceptional script. That "Taxi Driver" exists at all says more about the unique momentum talent develops (in this case Scorsese's) than anything about the systemic acceptance of the genre.

So noir was dead, or at least exiled to television. Then, in 1981, Lawrence Kasdan all but reinvented it with "Body Heat," making stars out of William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in the process. "Body Heat" was the first ironic noir, and it established the pattern to come. It was both a film noir and a parody of a film noir. Immensely assured, it took place in two zones: the literal, where it was really happening, and the ironic, where it was echoing in our mind with associations to other films.

Of classic noir themes, it was a reiteration of the "black widow" or "femme fatale" variant -- the frightened male fantasy about the sexually voracious and predatory female who uses men to advance her ends, then spits them out and moves on. Turner, tawny as a leopard and just as fierce, wrapped Hurt around a Popsicle stick and seemed to enjoy every second of it. But the lines were so campy with double entendre and cynicism they could never have been uttered in a literal noir. "You're stupid," she purrs to him. "I like that in a man."

The sum of its parts

The noirs that have followed are almost all in that film-savvy tradition.

Quentin Tarantino, in particular, is a moviemaker so arch you can see each of the 5,000 movies he's seen spinning behind his eyes as he works. "Reservoir Dogs" is a treasure trove of noir tough-guy conventions, but for true devotion to the cult, consider the even denser "Pulp Fiction" in terms of the movies that invented it and the classic noir themes it plays with: There's the couple on the run (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) from "Gun Crazy" and "They Live by Night"; there's the hit-man couple (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) from "The Killers" I and II; there's Bruce Willis as the boxer getting even with the fixer (John Garfield in "Body and Soul"); there's Uma Thurman as the femme fatale ("Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice") almost luring poor Travolta into Big Trouble; there's Ving Rhames as the Big Boss

(Richard Conte in "The Big Combo," Louis Calhern in "Alphalt Jungle"). Is this a movie or a film-school class?

Of course, Tarantino dumps all this into the Cuisinart of his own sick imagination, pushes the 10 button, and the whole thing comes out sliced, diced, mulched and crushed into something that's entirely old but feels entirely new.

Of the '80s and '90s noirs, only one feels utterly isolated from the ironic mode: Carl Franklin's brilliant "One False Move," which could be called "country noir." This film feels so fresh and powerful it seems to be made by a director who's seen no other movies, though it too cleaves to classic themes (couple on the run, plus one; small-town sheriff against big time criminals).

Another look at noir

The Dahl films fall somewhere between Tarantino and Franklin. They're not so playful and allusive that they become catalogs. They do, however, pay genuine homage to what's come before and in some way comment ironically on that work. They're also not nearly so violent as either Franklin or Tarantino. Dahl is attracted to the menace and the plot twists of noir but not the gut-wrenching, modern violence of either Tarantino or Franklin.

"Kill Me Again" was a private-eye caper, somewhat undone by the fact that the private eye who should have been played by a Bogart clone was played by a 22-year-old kid (Val Kilmer). "Red Rock Cafe" was a classic innocent-man-in-the-wrong-place tale, where a drifter (Nicolas Cage) is taken to be a hit man, and people keep giving him money to kill other people, until the real hit man shows up. Complications follow.

"The Last Seduction" is by far Dahl's most accomplished film, and it, too, is built around a classic theme, the femme fatale. In fact, the movie feels in some sense like a remake of "Body Heat," though moved to a cold-weather clime (a small western New York town). Linda Fiorentino plays a wife who's stolen $750,000 from her mildly abusive husband (Bill Pullman), which the couple had earned by selling stolen hospital cocaine to street dealers.

What kind of a woman is she? Let's put it this way: She'd give Medea the willies. She takes off for Chicago, but instead lays up in Beston, N.Y., and begins a casual affair with a somewhat defenseless claims adjuster (Peter Berg). Berg is the sucker, the Hurt analog. She jerks him this way and that until she finally sees a use for him and sends him on his way, even as she's being stalked by her husband who, mildly and surprisingly, only wants half the money back.

The great kick in the movie isn't the plotting or the surprises (not as well done as "Body Heat's") but the guilty pleasure of sharing Fiorentino's manipulations. She's the point-of-view character (in "Body Heat" it was Hurt). The true seduction in the film isn't hers of him, but its of us -- it makes us feel the subversive joy of using and destroying another human being. And it mandates that we smile while we do it.

That would have been impossible in the old noirs, where evil was eventually punished. But in the fourth-stage world of irony and metaphor, there's no room for such outdated concepts as good and evil.

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