Insomnia, dead of night, and film noir

This essay has been superseded in my thinking about film noir by my more recent critiques, especially the ones on Crossfire, Dark Passage, and especially Key Largo. I haven’t yet been able to spend the time to make a better effort of this piece, and it will remain here until I can.

Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the 'hard-boiled' genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.
Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.

Insomnia, I have discovered, can be put to good use if exploited the right way. Long hours of still darkness in which there is little to do but read, write, and … watch old films.

Some recent sleepless nights have been devoted to watching old American black and white films, each one proclaimed rather crassly as a ‘film noir classic’ on cheaply designed DVD jackets.

I became intrigued by the concept of a ‘black’ or ‘dark cinema’ and I broadened my ‘portfolio’ to include other films from the 1930s to the 1950s for which no such claims were made. Nevertheless, I came across a tangible but hard-to-describe common thread that linked a whole batch of these films by something other than genre, directors, actors or plot similarities.

One of the elements of this common thread was that many of these old films, though mostly devoid of special effects, colour or grand spectacle, were simply better than their contemporary successors. Somehow the stories seemed more meaningful, the visualisations more sophisticated, and the impact of the cinematography more powerful.

Another dynamic was that I thought I was beginning to get a somewhat deeper understanding of the psychology not only of the artists who made these films, but also of the imagined audiences they ‘spoke’ to with their art.

Underlying my thoughts on these dynamics was a deliberate search for common elements and patterns that I could apprehend as this elusive category of film noir.

That investigation was not as simple as it might have seemed, and ended up in a fairly personal survey of the films reviewed here.

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Inglorious Basterds (2009)

On finally seeing the film I felt disappointed, almost cheated, that Tarantino had managed to attract so much publicity with such a minor film. In fact, it isn’t so much a film as a series of admittedly carefully observed but ultimately quite meaningless vignettes loosely strung together (the word ‘plot’ isn’t quite appropriate) by the characters Shosanna Dreyfus (Laurent) and Lt Aldo Raine (Pitt).

The disjointed, episodic narrative is just bizarre enough to be based on truth, as is suggested in the credits of the film, but features the kind of seemingly nonsensical dialogues that are pure Tarantino.

It is the story of a young Jew, Shosanna, who escaped execution at the hands of the murderous SS Colonel Landa (Waltz) and manages to organise a far-fetched mass assassination of the entire Nazi hierarchy in her cinema in Paris. This plot-line intersects with another about an allied plan to do the same using a bunch of Jewish commandos notorious for scalping their Nazi enemies, and led by the red-neck hillbilly Lt Raine (Pitt).

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Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

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There’s something not quite tongue in cheek about Grosse Pointe Blank’s approach to satirising the excesses of the 1980s; perhaps the subject matter is too close to home for me to really get it, having lived through that era as a contemporary of its main character. Nevertheless, it is an oddly enjoyable film — odd because it’s really quite hard for me to put a finger on why it was so enjoyable.

Apparently Grosse Pointe is a ‘nice’ suburban township near Detroit, Michigan. It certainly looks pretty ‘nice’ in the film. Just the kind of place you’d expect a high school reunion to take place, but hardly the location for a four-way showdown between seriously psychotic hit men, interspersed with sentimental nostalgia, and an extended existential awakening to the truth that it’s time to move on from a romanticised past and face the existentially awkward present.

We are drawn into the almost mundane life of hit man Martin Blank and see the world of that day, the later 1990s, through his eyes. John Cusack comes across as almost naively fresh-faced, youthful and … well, blank. An illusion quickly undermined by his profession as a hit man, and by his moral vacuity.

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Fight Club (1999)

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Fight Club is slick, yet almost flippant, stylish, but brash and impolite, and gimmicky enough to be headed directly for cult status.

The story is challenging, confronting in parts, and iconoclastic in others. Its work of thumbing its nose at the unbiquitous anti-masculine, pseudo-feminism embraced so uncritically by American pop culture is almost undone by the presence of its teeny-idol stars.

The story targets millions of disaffected young men, like Jack (Edward Norton), an insurance assessor with yuppie pretensions, actualised in his catalogue-perfect domestic possessions, displayed for an absent audience in his yuppie condo apartment.  A domicile empty, though, of signs of life and affection.  Jack suffers chronic insomnia, probably as an indicator of the Nietzschean chasm he’s about to fall into, and seeks to address this manicured sickness by frequenting support groups for people with ailments he hasn’t got, meeting along the way the half-crazy Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) with whom he forms an inevitably love-hate relationship.

But the support groups are only a stop-gap remedy for the hole in Jack’s soul.  A more profound change in his life occurs after the chance encounter of the feral Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a man with an eye for the profane and a penchant for anarchy.  Left at odds by the mysterious destruction of his condo, along with all his yuppie possessions, Jack takes up residence with Durden in a falling-down derelict old house that is the antithesis of his former status ambitions.

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The English Patient (1997)

My recent video binges have left me fairly unimpressed with the calibre of acting, photography and spectacle. There were some hours of entertainment, but nothing the memory of which did not fade very quickly.

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Into this climate of indifference came two movies which made a deep impression on me: The English Patient and Mother Night (the latter film was reviewed in 1999 and is on my list to be seen again prior to revising my initial review).

Both of them aroused emotional tremors which have not yet subsided. Both of them moved me in ways so fundamental I have not yet resolved the terms of the experience or fully explained to myself the psychology which touched me so strongly.

And both films dealt with themes which I ought to be too young to care about, too naïve to internalise or too impatient to absorb: the excruciatingly painful loss of things held most dear in circumstances which relegate that pain to an insignificant aside on a much larger canvas of tragedy.

Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, turned into film, was first. Given the lavish praise it received from the art-house industry, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself actually wanting to see this film: the wankers in the industry so often gush about films which carry nothing more than pretentious style that I take their recommendations in the negative and stay away from their favourites.

What attracted me to the film were previews which showed such heartrendingly gorgeous cinematography, and such an odd assortment of players, that I grew curious.

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One of the almost surreally beatiful scenes in the film: a plane over a sea of desert sand.

I was not disappointed. From the very first scene to the very last act, it was a mesmerising experience. I was sucked into the story as if I were drugged.

What touched me was the ambiguity of the characters, the uncertainty about their motivations, the randomness of the occurrences and the depth of the unfolding tragedy in their lives.

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The Godfather (1972)

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Judged by me as a landmark film, even if not quite for the same reasons it has won high praise for decades elsewhere.

I thought Mario Puzo’s novel, which I read before I saw the film the first time, was pretty lightweight, the language adding nothing to what seemed to be a pedestrian plot. Perhaps I need to re-read it, because the story I saw in the film was far from shallow.

Keeping in mind the era, and an unusually convincing portrayal of characters by a largely unknown cast, it was the deliberate, exquisite breach of one of Hollywood’s most hypocritical and senseless conventions that makes the film so extraordinary.

This convention is the rule that ‘bad guys’ can never succeed or be more than rakishly sympathetic. The Godfather’s son and successor, Michael Corleone (the then almost unknown Al Pacino), who develops into a ruthless killer, is portrayed as more than personable: he is admirable for his strength and courage.

Another convention to be broken was to never to bring into disrepute the American legal system or its enforcers, who are deliberately portrayed as avaricious, corrupt bit players on a stage dominated by the Mafia families that interact with the Corleones.

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Crash (1996)

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David Cronenberg makes confronting, uncomfortable films which explore sexuality and the psychology of perversity; Crash is no exception, but in the manner of Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and The Naked Lunch, Crash is a cerebral narrative with no gratuitous provocation or titillation, the way some of its critics accused.

Based on JG Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same title, Crash explores jaded human sexuality diverted into the fetish of the automobile, and a macabre sexual obsession with damaged human flesh, and perhaps even the thanatos complex.

The story revolves around the tireless but unfulfilled quest by James and Catherine Ballard (Spader and Unger) for satisfying sex. After a serious car accident, James Ballard meets Vaughan (Kotias), a car crash obsessive, and Helen Remington (Hunter), the passenger in the car Ballard collided with. Together these two characters draw Ballard and his wife into a morbid fantasy world of celebrity car crash recreations and the bizarre injury fetish which is central to the film’s development of James Ballard’s quest for seaxual fulfillment.

Cronenberg uses harsh gray-blue lighting and subdued colours to create a cool atmosphere which sets the tone for the intimate but impersonal interactions between his characters. It is this impersonal nature which I found more disturbing than anything else about the film: the casual, emotionally detached coldness of people who seem to have no sentimental love for anything, not even themselves.

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