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Film Noir Fascination

It was one of those horrid days in Melbourne when the summer heat rises to 40C and one is left with little to do except stay in the shade and keep cool. Lounging on the couch and watching the television are on the agenda, but since I am not too enthralled with the shows on TV, I checked out some old films on Youtube instead. I searched for any of Fritz Lang’s movies and I came upon his 1944 film, ‘The Woman in the Window’.  And thus began my affair with  some classic Film Noir movies. This Fritz Lang movie was followed by Journey into Fear, Guest in the House, The Blue Dahlia, The Strange Woman, The Stranger, Blonde ice, The Third Man, Too Late for Tears, DOA, The File on Thelma Jordan, Witness to Murder and a host of others.

Film noir is nothing as fancy as it sounds. It is just a term to describe a genre of black and white crime dramas which became a Hollywood pheno-menon from the 1930s to the 1950s. At its most basic, the plot revolves around a central character who is drawn into a crime which is not of his own doing.  Central in the story too  is a femme fatale intertwined in the mystery. Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window’ has these two elements.  There is a middle-aged professor whose dalliance with the woman who posed for the portrait he admired unwittingly involved him in murder. It was an accidental killing that led to a motivated murder. When both crimes became too much to bear, he decides to take his own life. There is a twist at the end of the story  which prevents the central character from realising his aim.

The movie, The File on Thelma Jordan, has a similar plot. A married assistant DA falls in love with a scheming femme fatale who only uses him so that she and her lover can get away with murder. The two succeed in this plan until the female protagonist falls in love with the DA. She then tries to foil her lover’s plan to move away and the scuffle involves them both in a car accident. Before dying, she is able to confess to the murder.

If the plot of film noir seems complicated, I guess  it is meant to be so. The stories which are often  a rigmarole of compli-cation after complication simply reflect  the temper of the times. WWII took up the first part of the  40s, and after it came the tension and uncertainty of the Cold War. Detective and spy stories of betrayal, crime and passion provided some of the context for film noirs. Some of these stories are based on best selling books by authors like Graham Greene (The Third Man); James Cain (Double Indemnity), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) to name a few.

The Third Man, one of my favoufrite film noirs, is set in postwar Europe when the blackmarket thrived. The protagonist is an American novelist who upon arriving in Vienna learns about his best friend’s death. The mystery surrounding his friend’s death puzzles him and he is bent on finding out the identity of the third man who figured in his death.

The predominant mode in presenting  film noir is the narrative approach.  Dozens of film noirs I have seen utilise the voice-over technique to narrate the story. The movie D.O.A. for example has the voice-over of the central character introducing himself and recounting  how he ended up at the police station reporting his own death by murder.  Voice-overs are inserted between flashbacks to present this story. In watching film noirs, therefore, it is vital for moviegoers to listen to the narrative voice as well as the dialogue. This is how characters and even the plot are unveiled in this kind of films.

Needless to say, film noir is as much an auditory experience as it is visual; in contrast to most films nowadays which are decidedly a visual experience. Special effects are one reason why moviegoers see a movie these days.  Films which capitalise on special effects  like realistic car chase or 3D characters of the Golem or Hulk type make money because they are a magnet to the  visually-dazzled movie going public. These movies, unlike  film noir, do not have lengthy dialogues or monologues to keep one’s ears alert.

Good camera angles, set design and good acting in current movies would convey much even by itself without  the need for much talk, e.g. panning a camera to focus on an actor’s facial expression may be enough to deliver a dramatic effect. Not so with film noir. The actors mostly have limited range. An arched eyebrow or a sly look is the greatest acting challenge they face. Or sometimes just  a blood-curdling scream.  How-ever, what film noir lacks in the acting and technical sophistication, it makes up with a good script and memorable dialogue.

If you are an inveterate fan of current Hollywood movies with sophisticated technical effects and camera tricks, there is not much to moon over in film noir. But if you love to listen to a good yarn as well as see it on film, film noir might be to your liking. I am of the latter.

Somewhere in the nexus of simplicity and complexity lies the attraction of film noir for me.  I hark back to the days when fewer visual stimuli or jolting moments grabbed my attention; when stylistic shots in black and white were enough to awaken the senses and trigger the imagination; when complex stories could be made less complicated by clear story-telling. Reasons enough for me to look forward to the scorching days ahead.