Noir City DC 2015 

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir and President of the Film Noir Foundation, was on hand for the first weekend of the Noir City Festival in DC this year. Not only did he introduce movies on Saturday and Sunday (including some fantastical Argentinian ones), he headlined a special Saturday presentation, reception, and screening of the newly restored WOMAN ON THE RUN.

(This presentation and screening occurred in partnership with Smithsonian Associates, who convinced 300 people to show, a huge turnout by DC’s Noir City standards. I didn’t stick for the screening because I saw it as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness. I really hope TCM does that again next year. You hearing me, TCM?)

Okay, so what is “le film noir”? It is a term coined by the French after WWII--wow, had Yank films grown up!--to describe the only organically grown Hollywood artistic movement. 

On one hand, noir derives its story lines from the American tough guy writers like Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, all of whom were influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist and existentialist prose. (Sometimes, the great women domestic suspense writers like Vera Caspary, Patricia Highsmith, and Elizabeth Saxnay Holding.) 

On the other hand, noir derives its aesthetics, its style and look, from German directors like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, and Billy Wilder, who made UFA a great nursery of film and Berlin the hottest movie town in the world before the Nazis came to power. At that point, the German directors and actors executed the “getting the hell out maneuver”. 

(Siodmak did it twice--once from Berlin and once from Paris. The last exit was on the last boat from France to the US in 1940. Wilder left from Paris, too, but much sooner--1933. See what can show up amongst the refugees?)

Muller defines noir as the flip side of the American success story. Innocents are tormented and ass-kicked by fate. Muller gave the following example of a noir plot line:  “if a private investigator, is 

--hired by a geezer to discover if his young wife is stepping out on him;

--seduced by the young wife;

--willing to and does murder the geezer for the wife;

--double-crossed by the now-widow; and

--shot to death by his childhood friend in the local police department,

then it is NOIR. (Didn’t James Ellroy write this novel?) 

The cinemagraphic style reflects the swampy, dark place where crime ferments--dark, shadowy, rain-slicked. (Yes, BLADE RUNNER is a noir.)

1944 was a banner year for noir in Hollywood--LAURA (Otto Preminger directed, novel by Vera Caspary); DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder directed, novel by James M. Cain); WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (Fritz Lang directed, novel, ONCE OFF GUARD, by J. H. Wallis), THE PHANTOM LADY (Robert Siodmak directed, novel by Cornell Woolrich), and MURDER, MY SWEET (Edward Dmytryk directed, based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe). 

All are about murder. All made money. All used mordant humor with the darkness. All had dramatic, brooding cinematography--none more so than THE PHANTOM LADY. (Good thing, too, because that plot had more holes than a baby Swiss.)

The nadir of noir--my expression for Muller’s ‘darkness at its deepest’--was 1949 and 1950. Reality provided quite a bit of darkness--the Black Dahlia murder, Tail-Gunner Joe  and his anti-Communist crusade, and, of course, that charming little war, oops, excuse me, police action in the Korean peninsula. The first two have direct connection to noir, both in movies and books.

The Black Dahlia case of 1947 is one of L. A.’s oldest cold cases. Elizabeth Short was found murdered, her body slashed in half at the waist. The nickname Black Dahlia might’ve come from THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), a noir starring Raymond Burr and featuring a stereotypical female in jeopardy plot. (I’ve never made it through that movie for that reason.) The horror of Short’s murder riveted people to their newspapers back then, and given the number of fictional takes on the case, including by James Ellroy and Max Allan Collins, it still draws a lot of interest.

Senator Joseph Macarthy, the alcoholic senator from Wisconsin, gave his name to a witch-hunt (see Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE) that was largely conducted through the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Ostensibly seeking to out Communists, it really outed homosexuals from government service even though the really nasty ones, like J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn, weren’t exposed (see ANGELS IN AMERICA). The hypocrisy knew no bounds, directly led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and indirectly to the death of Dashiell Hammett. Edward Dymtryk, among other directors, got caught up in the witch-hunt, but after a spell in jail, grassed a number of his mates. His career was ruined, more by his snitching than anything else.

Korea, containment (see George Kennan’s article in FOREIGN AFFAIRS,1947), and the conversion to rollback against Communism all played into dark fears of real threats. Or so they thought.

Eddie Muller didn’t get into the historical details. It was a one hour presentation, after all, and most film noir buffs get the backstory. 

Muller does have a burr under his saddle. It involves the discussion of women in noir. Feminist critics tend to pan noir because they see noir as a male insecurity fantasy and a classic one at that--Eve destroying Adam. The femme fatale leads a man around by the dick to his doom. Eddie Muller’s comeback to this critique is a logical one. In noir, the femme fatale is the equivalent to the male crook. They are equals--equally tempted, equally fallen, equally damned because both want the same easy walk to Easy Street. It’s the professional woman with a good job who becomes the savior of men. These are the women--like Barbara Bel Geddes in VERTIGO or Kristine Miller in TOO LATE FOR TEARS--whom men should want, for they are strong, honest, independent.

I told him during the reception, “When you’re trained a certain way, you’ve got a hammer, and everything starts to look like a hammer.” He said, “Exactly.”

That said, if feminist critics want to attack the fem-jep plot as misogynist, then they’ve got a point. It’s a predator-prey plot line that makes the woman the prey and infantilizes her at the same time in a disgusting feedback loop. Yuck. Worse, it still plays in thriller writing today.

In noir, a character is tempted. The dramatic question becomes which way does s/he go? Toward right and salvation? Or toward wrong and damnation? Noir is about good and evil and our free will to choose to sin or not. Noir holds up a mirror, reflecting the struggle with our baser natures. Noir shows us the worst that can happen. One thoughtless, stupid, desperate choice, and you’re ass-kicked outta the game.

Copyright KG Whitehurst