Noir dreams and nightmares

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Murder, My Sweet.

One of the bonuses of the Big Noir Watch was getting to see just how many dream/nightmare/hallucination sequences there were in the listed films besides those I remembered from previous viewings. The dream sequence is almost as old as cinema itself but the often lurid and melodramatic nature of noir storylines makes dreams and nightmares another recurrent feature of the the landscape. Beleaguered, paranoid characters are liable to find the Expressionist roots of noir cinema lurking behind their closed eyelids, ready to tip them into an unstable world of blurred vortices and looming, underlit faces.

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Stranger on the Third Floor.

Production credits referred to these sequences (when they refer to them at all) as montages, a rather confusing term when montage is another word for film editing in general. The sequences were invariably the work of people other than the director, either a montage specialist or a photographer familiar with optical printing and camera effects. Before Don Siegel became a notable noir director he was a montage creator at Warner Brothers; the sequence showing the invasion of France in Casablanca is one of his. He credited his montage work with teaching him all about cinema craft.

The following examples are all the sequences I noticed during the recent noir binge. If you know of any other good ones from the 1940s or 1950s then please leave a comment.


Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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An aspiring reporter is the key witness at the murder trial of a young man accused of cutting a café owner’s throat and is soon accused of a similar crime himself.

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward mark the beginning of what they term “the noir cycle” with The Maltese Falcon in 1941. But many other writers choose Stranger on the Third Floor as the beginning of the genre that would dominate the 1940s. With good reason: the film is 60 minutes of non-stop fear and paranoia photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, one of the RKO cinematographers whose use of shadows would help define the noir style. The celebrated dream sequence is almost a film in itself, with huge, shadow-filled sets in which reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) undergoes accusation, an unwinnable trial and a slow walk to the electric chair.


Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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After being hired to find an ex-con’s former girlfriend, Philip Marlowe is drawn into a deeply complex web of mystery and deceit.

The first adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely changed the title so that viewers wouldn’t think it was another Dick Powell musical. As with The Big Sleep, the adaptation mangles the plot but it has its plus points, especially Mike Mazurki as Moose Malloy, an ex-wrestler whose performance as the overbearing ex-con is definitive. It also has this great hallucination sequence. In the novel Marlowe is blackjacked by rogue cops then wakes in a mysterious clinic with a head full of drugs. The film takes us inside Marlowe’s head during his unconscious episode, the Surrealist montage sequence being credited to Douglas Travers.


Conflict (1945)

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An engineer trapped in an unhappy marriage murders his wife in the hope of marrying her younger sister.

Humphrey Bogart plays the scheming engineer who finds himself besieged by accusatory faces following a serious car crash. The sequence was directed by Roy Davidson with camera work by HF Koenekamp. Bogart’s dream includes repeated shots of swirling water racing down a plug-hole, a cheap vortex effect that reappears in later sequences.


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The Big Noir Book, or 300 films and counting…

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Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947). Photography by Nicholas Musuraca.

“His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

1: The Big Project
This is a big post about a big subject: the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, also the “neo-noir” revival of the following decades. The project in question was my attempt to watch all the films listed in a comprehensive study of the form, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, which was published in 1979. There are many books about film noir but this one, which I often refer to as The Big Noir Book, is hard to beat, a heavyweight guide in which editors Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward construct a definition of the genre, chart its history, and compile indices for the key creators: actors, writers, directors and cinematographers. The core of the book is a detailed list of 300 films (see below), with production credits for each entry, a précis of each story and a short critical essay.

“Big” is an apposite term; many of these films involve big characters, big passions, big crimes and big predicaments, the latter invariably matters of life or death. The word “big” turns up in a number of noir titles, thanks no doubt to Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep. Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the Chandler book is one of the defining films of the genre, one that was very successful despite the plot being rendered incoherent by bowdlerisation and competing screenwriters. The studios spent the next few years offering picture-goers The Big Clock (1948), The Big Night (1951), The Big Heat (1953), The Big Combo (1955) and The Big Knife (1955). Also The Big Carnival (1951), an alternate “big” title for Ace in the Hole.

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The big book. On the cover: Joan Crawford and Jack Palance in Sudden Fear (1952).

I can’t be the only person to have encountered Silver & Ward’s list then thought about trying to watch everything on it. But unless you’re an academic or a film reviewer this would have been difficult until very recently, if not impossible when many of the titles are obscure B-pictures that you wouldn’t usually find on TV. The idea first arose in the 1980s when a friend bought a copy of the noir book shortly after I’d been reading Robert P. Kolker’s Cinema of Loneliness, a substantial analysis of five American directors which, in its first edition, includes some discussion of the noir influence on the films of the 1970s. Three of the films that Kolker examines are examples of neo-noir that make the Silver & Ward list: The Long Goodbye, Taxi Driver and Night Moves. Kolker also acknowledges Stanley Kubrick’s grounding in the noir idiom. Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both on the list, while the film that followed these, Paths of Glory, features hardboiled dialogue by Jim Thompson, and a cast filled with noir actors. My growing interest in the genre happened to coincide with the arrival on British television of Channel 4, a TV station which spent its early years filling the afternoons and late evenings with re-runs of old films. Silver & Ward’s book had the effect of making me pay closer attention to films I might otherwise have ignored or only watched if there was nothing else on. The book also contextualised these films in a way that’s never required with other genres. This period was an introduction to noir as it really is, as opposed to the clichés which still surround the genre today.

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Claire Trevor in Raw Deal (1948). Photography by John Alton.

2: The Big Definition
Everyone knows the noir clichés: private eyes, duplicitous dames, lethal hoods, nightclub singers, sardonic voiceovers, light slanting through venetian blinds, the American metropolis, rain-washed nocturnal streets, big cars, big hats, trench coats, guns, cops, more cops, etc, etc.

Hollywood films of the 1940s do, of course, feature all of these things many times over, but the genre definition offered by Silver & Ward is as much about a pessimistic world-view as it is about the aesthetics of life in the American city. The “noir” quality that French critics of the 1950s identified in post-war American cinema was a visual attribute before it was anything else, a realisation that many of the recent Hollywood films were saturated with angled shadows and endless night. But the black (or, more properly, dark) character of these films is as much a set of circumstances as it is a visual style, one where the wheel of fate is often the most important element driving the story. The visual style can contribute a great deal to the storytelling and the overall mood but noir circumstance can exist, as it does in Leave Her to Heaven, in bright Technicolor sunlight miles away from any city. Fate may manifest as blind chance—mistaken identity, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time—or a deterministic inevitability that leads a protagonist to their destruction. A doom-laden finale was frequently imposed by Hollywood’s Production Code which insisted that crime can never be shown to pay, but the Code’s moral stricture is only obtrusive in the films about criminals. Many noir situations concern ordinary people whose attempts to live decent lives are thwarted by bad decisions or unfortunate circumstance. Despite Hollywood’s reputation for happy endings a negative resolution is a noir staple, as is an atmosphere of desperation, entrapment and paranoia; a Pyrrhic victory is often as good as it gets. Meanwhile, the shadow of war hangs over all the films of the 1940s. Many of the wartime pictures refer in passing to events in Europe, while the post-war films are often informed by the recent ordeals of returned veterans. There’s even a sub-class of noir involving veterans with damaged brains whose amnesias or violent mood swings lead them into trouble.

The noir stereotype of the private eye is well-founded when Silver & Ward mark the beginning of the genre with Humphrey Bogart’s appearance as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Many films about private eyes followed Bogart but not all of them are truly noir, while the genre itself is flexible enough to depart from the detective formula. Film noir doesn’t have to involve cities at all: a number of the films on Silver & Ward’s list are entirely set in small towns or remote rural areas. The genre doesn’t have to be set in the USA either: there are London noirs, South American noirs, Caribbean noirs, European noirs and Far East noirs. The films aren’t always black-and-white or filled with shadows: several of the noirs from the 1950s are in colour, as are all the ones from the 1970s.

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Weekend links 732

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Chasing Fireflies, A Lady of the Tenmei Era, from the series Thirty-six Elegant Selections (1894) by Mizuno Toshikata.

• While working on the Herald of Ruin cover late last year I was wondering when we might get to see the BFI or Eureka releasing Louis Feuillade’s silent serials on Region B blu-ray discs. Six months later, Eureka have announced this very thing: Louis Feuillade: The Complete Crime Serials (1913–1918), a box comprising the Gaumont restorations of Fantômas, Les Vampires, Judex and Tih Minh. I’ll probably have more to say about this in September.

• At A Year In The Country: Wyrd Explorations: A Decade Of Wandering Through Spectral Fields, a book which collects revised and extended pieces from the first ten years of A Year In The Country posts.

• At The Paris Review: Eliza Barry Callahan visits and revisits Joseph Cornell’s house at 37-08 Utopia Parkway, NYC.

• New music: Jinxed By Being by Shackleton & Six Organs of Admittance.

• Browse artworks by Pablo Picasso at the Picasso Museum, Paris.

• At Unquiet Things: Victor Kalin’s Paradoxical Paperback Art.

Strange Transmissions: The World Of Experimental Radio.

• At Dennis Cooper’s it’s Satoshi Kon‘s Day.

Aaron Turner’s favourite music.

• DJ Food’s haul of Acid Badges.

Acid Head (1966) by The Velvet Illusions | Acid Heart Mother (2000) by Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. | Acid Death Picnic (2013) by Cavern Of Anti-Matter

Félix Vallotton woodcuts

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La Paresse (1896).

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) was a Swiss/French artist often classed among the Symbolists although few of his paintings really suit the label. The closest he comes to Symbolism is in his membership of the Nabis, a small group of artists whose approach to painting was as much concerned with the surface of the picture as with the image that surface represented, something they pursued throughout the 1890s with a revolutionary fervour. Japanese prints were popular among the Nabis, an influence which is evident in Vallotton’s woodcuts although you don’t always seen many of these in Symbolist studies. Vallotton’s paintings are of such a high standard that most of my books favour his canvases over his woodcuts, with the latter appearing, if at all, in the form of the small portraits he made of notable writers. The examples here are from a substantial collection at Wikimedia Commons which include many I haven’t seen before, including the complete set of Intimités (Intimacies), a series which shows encounters between men and women in darkened rooms.

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Le Poker (1896).

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Le Piston (1896).

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Le Piano (1896).

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La Flûte (1896).

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Oz: The Tin Woodsman’s Dream, a film by Harry Smith

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Ubuweb slipped into archival stasis earlier this year, which means that everything uploaded there will remain as it is but we won’t be seeing anything new. I don’t know when this Harry Smith short was posted there but it’s one I haven’t seen before. (There’s also a copy at Rarefilmm where I evidently missed it.) Oz, The Tin Woodsman’s Dream was made in 1967, and is one of the fragments of a much longer film that would have adapted L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz using a similar cutout animation technique to that deployed by Smith for Heaven and Earth Magic. The adaptation remained unfinished after Smith’s backer died but the extant pieces (including another self-contained short, The Magic Mushroom People of Oz) show him working in widescreen 35mm for the first time.

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All of Smith’s films were given opus-style numbers: Heaven and Earth Magic is no. 12, The Magic Mushroom People of Oz is no. 13, and The Tin Woodsman’s Dream is no. 16. As with the films of Len Lye and other animation pioneers, Smith’s early shorts are often given a “psychedelic” label even when they predate the popular use of the term. The Tin Woodsman’s Dream is one of those where the psychedelic quotient becomes overt, comprising a few minutes of animated play with the title character and a small dog, followed by many minutes of kaleidoscoped film footage that’s more redolent of its period than Smith’s other films. I’m happy to watch the kaleidoscopics but this is the kind of thing that any number of film-makers might easily do. The Woodsman, the dog and the other characters are inhabitants of Smith’s inner landscape, as are the fly agaric mushrooms that appear here and in his other films. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of them. There’s no soundtrack for this film so you can either watch the gesticulations in a Stan Brakhage silence or find 15 minutes of music to match the visuals.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Number 10: Mirror Animations, a film by Harry Smith
Number 11: Mirror Animations, a film by Harry Smith
Meeting Harry Smith by Drew Christie
Heaven and Earth Magic by Harry Smith
Harry Smith revisited
The art of Harry Smith, 1923–1991