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Neo-Noir

November 9, 2011

Neo-Noir

There is something to be said about human nature, and the almost obsessive need to classify and sort every little part of its culture.  Clothes, music, television shows, even children’s toys are examined and placed into neat little boxes.  One of the industries most affected by this trend is the film industry.  Throughout the years, films have been examined and pushed together into their various genres to the point where many filmmakers tend to build a film around a genre rather than creating a movie that then is placed into the genre.  When this is done singularly in an attempt to make money, whether by following current fads or choosing an easy market, the result tends to be rather low quality and often lack luster in its appeal.  However, when this is done in an attempt to examine or experiment with a genre, the end result is often much more sporadic.  Film Noir is a perfect example of a genre that never had a huge commercial following, but left such an impact that those in the industry have created tributes and re-creations of the genre.  Chinatown, The Driver, and Body Heat were all films that examined and recreated this genre to different degrees of success, but it is important to look at them and distinguish how much of they take from the Noir genre and what this means for the films personal definitions.

Generally speaking, of the three films listed above, Chinatown is the most quintessentially noir, although that may not always be a good thing.  Chinatown is a film that does not so much as borrow from the predecessors as continue the genre in the exact same manner.  The plot is certainly intriguing, and sometimes confusing, but it is also relatively simple as a re-creation of the genre.  A somewhat scummy protagonist who works separate from the cops for personal reason who gets involved with both a case and a girl that are both over his head and twisted together.  There are, of course, a couple of key details in the plot that further defines the film as noir.  A noir film is supposed to look beyond the glam of Hollywood film to reveal the truth of society, even when – especially when – it is at its most unappealing.  The characters in a noir film, both the villains and the heroes, have real human flaws.  They are lustful and greedy, willing to sink to new lows to get what they want however they can.  These films revel is the scum of the earth and set out to portray realistically a corrupt society that seldom ends happily.

Chinatown’s protagonist, J.J. Gittes, makes a living exposing cheating in marriages, and there is even evidence in the beginning of the film that he finds it more tolerable to expose a cheating wife than husband as he tries to send away the false Mrs. Mulwray with platitudes.  He is certainly not a clear cut hero, as he constantly makes mistakes in the case and does whatever necessary, such as breaking and entering and lying to cops, to help his own investigation.  Not to mention how okay he is with quickly becoming involved with his client who is also a very recent widow.  The character of Noah Cross is even worse.  From raping and impregnating his daughter to scheming many people out of land and money, murdering an old friend was probably small change to him.  Even the departed Mr. Mulwray, who rescued his wife and was investigating the water problems on his own, was shown kissing the daughter of his wife, which is a little incestuous in its own right but also clearly adultery with a girl much, much younger than him.  Just when the audience starts to hope for a happy ending, everything falls apart.  The police, considered the good guys, kill a fleeing Mrs. Mulwray, leaving her daughter and her sister in Noah Cross’ care, and Gittes slinks away, drenched in his own failure.  Even with all the added details, the plot, though interesting, is a straightforward noir film on every level, and Polanski certainly does his best to stylistically make the film noir as well.

While the film is done in modern color, it first opens up on a grainy black and white picture, and introduction to just one of the many noir motifs included in the film to solidify its place as a neo-noir film.  Whether by steam shooting out of his shot car or dark shadows in the night, this film is also good with making the situation foggy and distorted.  Gittes looks through the window and sees Mrs. Mulwray with the mysterious girl she claimed to know nothing about, and slowly backs up as shadow devours his angry face.  The use of shadows are a gesture towards the older films, showing the stark black and whites in a world that is constantly working in shades of gray, and the use of mirrors, whether in windows or on the tires of cars, is fantastic. Between the venetian blinds lining Gittes’ office, his fedora, and the liberal amount of smoking, the noir elements are on full display.  Even the soundtrack, mostly quiet in attempted realism but jumping to life at key moments, gives a strong noir feel.

Yet the film also makes sure not to completely hide in its roots. That first picture after the credits may have brought back fond memories of older noirs, but it also shows how different it could be.  The couple is very clearly engaging in sex acts, the girl partially stripped and the guy’s bare buttocks on display, when the films of the past, no matter the genre, had to adhere to strict guidelines that meant the sex and debauchery could really only be implied by camera movement and innuendo. Unlike many noir films, Chinatown also has quite a few daylight scenes and scenes in fancy establishments.  Gittes house and office might be perfect examples of noir, but most of his time is spent investigating at places above his level.  This may seem like a big difference in a genre that looks at the lives of the dark underbelly of society, but it is an excellent way of portraying how this dark side, the nastiness in human nature, is just as prevalent in high society, perhaps in a more dangerous manner.   The film is an excellent example of what it means to be noir film and could very easily have been a classic noir.  It is possible that it works so well because of the time the film is presented in the past, displaying it to be what Richard Gilmore helps identify as a nostalgia noir film.  Of the examined films, Chinatown is easily the most true to the noir setting and ideals, while still allowing a freedom of movement and progress within the genre.  Not all films are able to walk this line between the past and the future so well.

Body Heat is a film that captures all the key elements of noir but is unable to do so with the natural grace of some other films.  The film, like most noirs, examines people at their worst and sees the dirty side of them.  Yet, when looked at more closely, the film does not do a very good job of portraying the worst in people.  Ned Racine is a suitably sleazy lawyer and is often yielding to his own greed and lust whose only redeeming factor is that he is doing it for love, although that aspect only comes later.  The film starts by showing his failure in his profession and him skeeving after a married women, to the point where he stalks her and breaks into her house.  The femme fatale of the film, Matty, meanwhile has absolutely no redeeming characteristics, much like her incredibly one-note husband.  The two scheme together to get rid of her husband, not really for love – because they could just get a divorce- but so they could be in love and be rich.  The rest of the characters, however, are not bad people in the slightest.  Peter, his best friend, eventually offers his support and legal council to his friend, being compassionate and loyal in a legal way, and Oscar does his best to reconcile his friendship with Ned and his pursuit of justice.  Even the criminal character, Lewis, is shown to be a decent person and friend, even though he struggles with the law.  The film really ends up showing that most people are just decent with a few down-right evil people and a few saps that are easily manipulated, and it just does not seem to be what they intended to portray.

It is interesting that the film, recalling a scene in Chinatown as Gittes and his barber notice and comment on an overheated car, cites the heat as a partial cause to the ensuing calamity.  Oscar, the cop, says the heat shows the worst, saying it brings out a “crisis atmosphere” that leads people “think the old rules are not in effect,” yet the two main characters and their actions are never portrayed that way.  Matty is shown to have thought this whole thing through very carefully and skillfully manipulated Ned the entire time, and Ned himself is often shown to think carefully about the plan.  He, in one scene, makes sure to tell Matty that what they are doing is selfish and wrong, that they cannot hide between any false assumptions and that they are villains for the murder.  In another, he dismisses Matty’s plan to bring in more money from the will because it will further implicate him.  He does not believe that he is exempt from moral or mortal rules, but is knowingly going against him and just doing his best not to get caught.  It is not enough, however, as the ending is absolutely the worst case scenario.  Not only does he get caught, but the women he loves was using him, planned to kill him, and then escapes.  Yet, possibly because of the rather unlikable nature of the main protagonists, it could be seen as at least a partly happy ending.  The police, who are not corrupt, capture the murderer, and the conspirer could technically be found now that Ned has possible proof of his theory.  Either way, the film ends on a note that suggests that there are bad people out there and some do escape, but there are also good people and many times crime does get punished.

What the film lacks in thematic noir elements, it tries to make up for in stylistic and visual appeal, to the point where some critics, such as Pauline Kael, see it as “a catalogue of noir clichés.”  Some points work very well in the film, such as Ned’s job as a sleazy lawyer.  It works classically as a position that allows him the freedom to have leisure time to move the plot along, but also connects him to the seedy underbelly he eventually becomes a part of.  It is a position that allows him a certain amount of knowledge of crime and is perfectly on par with of classic noir positions that allow the same privileges, like private eyes or reporters.  At the same time, it pushes him to a uniform suit at times, likening him to classic noirs, and gifts him the ability to have an office and a secretary that lends itself to many noir moments, such as when he walks to his office and sees, through venetian blinds of course, Matty staring forlornly out the window.  The moment where Matty walks into the darkness to her supposed death while Ned watches and also a beautiful callback to classic noir black and white.  It is unfortunate that not all the noir moments are as clever or well done.

The film often pushes the classical noir elements, small little things that have no surface value, to the point where it seems shoe-horned into the film.  Matty buys Ned a hat to wear and it is, of course, a fedora for no other reason than to have Ned wear a fedora in the film.  The soundtrack is very classically noir, Jazzy and mysterious, but often shows up at weird moments and hangs out unnecessarily and then abruptly disappears.  There are numerous unnecessary driving shots, just to show Ned driving in a car, at one point to the effect of a small snapshot of him driving.  Even the venetian blinds are careless in their use.  It is somewhat subtle how the gazebo creates a similar effect, not so much them draping some, but not all, the windows in his office.  The most terrible element, though, is the use of cigarettes, a cornerstone in film noirs but also most films of the time period.  It was smart to have Peter not be a smoker, declining cigarettes several times throughout the film in a way to show that he is somewhat separate from the genre, but it also had them use Peter to actually make fun of their own overabundance of cigarettes in the film.  When they all sit down to read over the will, and all light up, Peter declines a smoke, saying he’ll “just breathe the air.”  It could have been a humorous moment, and undoubtedly was to some, but between the simultaneous reaching from their smokes to both Matty and Peter’s actors smiling in the background, it seemed a little ridiculous and over the top.  The point was clearly to show Ned and Matty smoking the same cigarettes, but they definitely could have gone about it in a less heavy-handed manner.

All in all, Body Heat is definitely a neo-noir film, although not really the greatest example of one.  It is a wonderful film, but often seems to try too hard to push the noir aspect while simultaneously missing some of the finer points.  Noir is more than just a depressing atmosphere, venetian blinds, fedoras, and cigarette smoke and sometimes it did not seem as if the film realized this.

The Driver, on the other hand, tends to work in the exact opposite manner.  The film takes place with the dredge of society; a mixture of smarmy detectives, a serial get-away driver in it for the thrill, a gang of dirty thieves, and a gambler who easily joins the crime spree for a chance at some easy money.  Throughout the film, the characters are shown to be a bunch of shady characters and really pushes the idea of noir realism showing that there life is made out of slimeballs.  The cops are dirty, the thief has fickle morals, and there is no hero.  At the same time, despite a similar thematic resonance, it is difficult to really define this film as noir.  In truth, while it definitely has some noir elements, it seems more thriller than anything else.

The film, it is true, has a sort of mystery to it.  The Detective’s plot to set-up The Driver is fun to watch, but it does not fool and play around with the audience the way film noirs tend to.  The audience sees just about every plan and play from both sides, and there is no real element of surprise.  Part of the appeal of noir is the protagonist and the audience finding and putting the clues together.  In Chinatown it was the mystery of Mulwray’s death and the mysterious water issue that expanded and complicated throughout the film, and in Body Heat it was a little bit figuring out how they would murder the husband but mostly the truth about Matty.  The Driver has no such mystery, except maybe what happened to the money but that does not really count as it is more of a surprise twist and open to interpretation than anything.

On that same line, The Driver is more about action and excitement than the sort of philosophical thinking that film noir sometimes inspires.  Noir films should work on multiple levels, using shadows and mirrors to invite secrets and discourse.  This film worked at a different angle.  The characters are all more than human.  They don’t have names, just purposes and are all upfront and clear with their intent and motivation.  For the detectives, it is a game and a prideful challenge (and inversely a paycheck with the newbie detective).  For The Driver, it is a thrill, the only thing that gives him pleasure.  The Player is sort of similar, but with more sensibility.  The audience never sees any deeper meaning, any reason why they are the way they are.  It is not the point of the film.

That does not mean it was not smartly put together or that it held no deeper meaning.  As mentioned before, there are some noir elements, but it does not strive to insert them into the film like others have.  Instead of subtle moments of black and white, the film places green and red throughout the film.  It is not about black and white, good and evil, the morals do not really matter too much in the film, but rather it is about contrasting forces.  The Detective and The Driver share some similarities.  Neither of them are in it for the money, but rather they enjoy what they do.  But The Driver is quiet and careful while The Detective is always talking and reckless with his resources.  Neither of them is particularly good, The Driver robs banks and did kill more than one person in the film and The Detective care little about a bank robberies and allowed negligence in his job that led to death, but it is important that neither of them are complete villains either.

When The Detective first interrogates The Driver, they are in a bar, a classic noir setting.  The Detective asks if he is planning on looking for work soon and the light plays his shadow behind him, taller than him, bigger, but shallow.  He is all ego and bluster, but with littler depth.  The Driver responds that his work is hard to come by and turns to face The Detective.  “It depends on who you are,” he says, as a strong, dark shadow covers half his face.  The audience my see his actions and his plans, but they will never truly know who he is.  The film even had a femme fatale figure in The Player.  A mysterious character, the audience only receives a small nugget from her past, that some friend usually pays for her needs but he’s been late, and it is enough to identify her as one of the members of the underbelly of society.  She gambles, lies to cops, and agrees to participate further in a crime despite her recent payload.  And, though it subtle, there does seem to be a growing relationship between her and The Driver.  But it never evolves.  She does not have some mysterious past or a hidden agenda.  Like most all of the characters, she is exactly what she appears to be.

In the end, it would be very difficult to truly classify this as neo-noir film.  It definitely has some noir elements, but less because they tried to insert them in there and more as an organic development in a brilliant film.  Some directors would watch film noir and decide to use certain elements, but it is easy to suspect that Hill saw these same film and then, later, while making his own film remembered and drew inspiration from the past.  The Driver may have had some noir moments, but it would be hard to believe that Hill set out to make a noir film.

When looking at the films it is clear that neo-noir does not mean noir-copy.  The films all inherited some of the magic from the original film noirs, whether in style, spirit, or both.  Yet, quality and personal opinions aside, it is safe to say that Chinatown helped define the genre, Body Heat was defined by the genre, and The Driver escaped the genre all together.

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