While I crank out one last post for Noirvember, I’m going to cheat and link to prior recaps of neo-noir films.
Le Samourai: This parallel focus on procedure, for both Costello and the cops, sets the two on equal ground. This illustrates the second theme: Le Samourai is about war. Costello displays such care in establishing an alibi and concealing his identity, yet he does not discard his most distinguishing feature: the tan trenchcoat he wears when he leaves the nightclub. In fact he wears it fully buttoned up the entire time the police have him in custody, removing it only when he gets home. Why? …
To Live and Die in L.A.: When Chance goes undercover to lure Masters in, there’s some artful ambiguity as to whether or not Masters knows Chance is for real (“love your work”). That question hangs over every interaction in To Live and Die in L.A.: between Chance and Vukovich, or his jailhouse snitch (John Turturro), or the C.I. he’s sleeping with, or Masters himself. Is this other person the genuine article? If not, can I make use of them anyway?
(Part of the ongoing Noirvember series. Click on the tag to see more)
While Memento gets more plaudits for its inventive storytelling, and the Batman series earned him his chops, I think Insomnia is Christopher Nolan’s best entry into the noir genre. It proves that, even without the framing device of Memento, Nolan can still tell stories of tension, uncertainty, and redemption in a gray world. Add to that an unorthodox setting and a phenomenal cast and you have a story that embodies one of the classic tropes of noir: a man struggling with a moral dilemma, alone in a sea of friendly faces.
Pacino makes a return to the restrained intensity of his Godfather days, saving the occasional raspy yell for emotional climaxes. He plays Will Dormer, a legendary Los Angeles police detective who’s out of his element, investigating a murder in an Alaskan town during a season where the sun stays up for 24 hours. His dislocation and his fatigue cause him to make a tragic mistake very early on in the assignment – a mistake that the murderer witnesses and exploits. And Dormer’s helpless against it, because he knows that the truth in a case like this isn’t as important as the perception of the truth. The perception can take on a life of its own, an image that detaches from the object it reflects until it becomes a hallucination. In this way, Dormer becomes a prisoner of everyone’s perception of him: the fellow officer, the suffering insomnia victim, the exemplary investigator.
Robin Williams – who should honestly give up on comic roles – astounded me as the murderer. Given his background, the temptation must have been strong to play Finch like a megalomaniac or an unhinged lunatic. But it’s the smarmy calm that makes him a perfect villain. He’s spent his whole life constructing neat little murder narratives, and now one’s been handed to him like a present. He shares observation after observation about the nature of death, killing, and crime. His benign pedantry sounds harmless, almost profound, until you remind yourself that he’s talking about something he’s actually done. It helps that he has the rasping, businesslike Pacino to play off of. “You’re my job,” Pacino observes. “You’re what I’m paid to do. You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber.”
Hillary Swank walks a line that’s tough for younger actors to manage: coming off as enthusiastic without being cloying. She clearly has a spine to her, and Nolan does a good job setting her up as a woman apart, isolated from her colleagues by the devotion she applies to the most mundane tasks. She worships Dormer, but as a source of wisdom, not with the infatuation of a child.
Given the wordiness of Nolan’s later films, it’s amazing how much of Insomnia gets by with wordless shots, especially considering that it’s a police procedural where everyone acts alone. Dormer has to cover up his crime by himself; Burr (Swank) has to investigate the one unresolved detail by herself. Yet there are no voice-overs, no self-narration to bring the audience along. We reach every conclusion at the same time our protagonists do, or perhaps a second afterward. Like them, we have no one to bounce ideas off of. We can’t comfort ourselves with the sound of our voice, or another’s voice, and so we’re left with an icy riverbed, an apartment hallway, a dead dog in an alley.
Taking part in Noirvember, a retrospective on noir films that have influenced me. Click the Noirvember tag to see more.
Watching this movie in 2007, with Eric and Hannah Pope and Matt Tucker, resulted in one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life: a packed theater simultaneously holding its breath. It happened in the scene where Lew Moss (Josh Brolin) wakes up in a hotel on the Mexican border and realizes that his nemeses must have some help in tracking him. He sifts through the satchel of money under his bed and finds an electronic tracking device. Then he hears something downstairs.
It’s so rare to find a room full of strangers who are as caught up in the movie watching experience as you are – who don’t defuse their anxiety with nervous giggles or cheap attempts at humor, but who let raw terror wash over them. This had a lot to do with the audience, no doubt: the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA, as snooty of an art house crowd as you’ll find in America. But it also owed a lot to the genius of the Coen Brothers in crafting a scene of such perfect, fragile tension.
Why does it work as well as it does? Four reasons.
(1) The reliance on auditory cues over visual. There’s the silenced gunshot from downstairs (not replayed here) that gets Moss’s attention. There’s the soft creak of footsteps. The lack of any musical score. Sound tends to be scarier than vision: it’s harder to focus on and there’s so much room for ambiguity. If you see something weird in the closet, you can always get closer and verify whether or not it’s your shirt. If you hear something scraping outside your bedroom, getting closer won’t help you figure it out.
(3) Also, unlike some anonymous Mexican gangsters, we like Lew Moss. He’s got a loving relationship. He’s generous enough to go back and give a dying man a drink of water. He’s demonstrated cleverness and pluck, two traits that audiences admire in underdogs. We want him to triumph over adversity.
(4) Reversal of expectations. The shadows of Chigurh’s feet pause outside Moss’s door, forming two columns. Here comes the blast – except not. Chigurh steps away, walks down the hall, and unscrews the light bulb. Now we’ve backed down from a climax, stepped up the stakes, and returned.
In addition to its superb construction of tension, there’s also the essence of noir – existentialist philosophy played out through action. In No Country for Old Men, this is personified through Anton Chigurh, an unstoppable hit man who contemptuously rejects the human attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” he asks of a man he’s about to kill, “of what use was the rule?”
Of course, in a notable and excellent deviation from the novel, it takes another character, Carla Jean Moss, to point out Chigurh’s own hypocrisy in this. By tying the fate of his victims to something like a coin toss, he’s making his own rules and thereby engaging in the deckchair shuffling that he declaims. “The coin don’t have no say!” Chigurh, heretofore unflappable in his deadly pursuit, pauses in reflection after hearing this. He then, as if to drive the point home, gets hit by a car.
(Retconning this post to be part of Noirvember. Click the tag to see more)
I’ve been catching up on film noir over the last few weeks, with Sunset Boulevard first and, just last night, the Humphrey Bogart 1950 classic In a Lonely Place. Sunset Boulevard deserves all the plaudits it receives, but I don’t think enough people know about In a Lonely Place as well. It’s just as melodramatic, if on a more intimate scale, and a rare heel turn from the 20th century’s least likely leading man.
Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a passionate, cynical screenwriter who’s accused of murdering a hat-check girl. Though he can provide explanations for everything – why, I was just asking her to read me the plot of a book I was adapting, Detective – he’s still the prime suspect until his lovely neighbor, Laurel Ray (Gloria Grahame), gives him an alibi. Recognizing her fascination with him, Steele pursues her and they begin a relationship. He begins writing again at an inspired pace, and she falls in love with his genius. But unanswered questions keep cropping up, and Steele’s occasional flashes of possessive temper set Laurel to wondering.
The movie romanticizes Steele’s emotional instability. It’s easy to get away with, especially in the hands of Bogart, a man whose eyes can flash from tortured to enraged in a hot second. And the cynical lines he delivers with such a lazy drawl convince you he’s a world-weary genius instead of an asshole. “Why didn’t you call for a cab? Isn’t that what a gentleman usually does under the circumstances?” the police captain asks of the murdered girl. “I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” Bogart replies, “I said I was tired.” You see such a flame, on the verge of being snuffed out by the soot of Hollywood, and you want to protect it. You can almost excuse his agent defending his temper to his terrified lover: “You knew he was dynamite – he has to explode sometimes!”
And yet the movie only works because Bogart is, in fact, terrifying. While the audience knows from the beginning he didn’t kill the girl he’s accused of murdering, there are other mysterious incidents in his past, and other flare-ups that Laurel witnesses as well. The movie paints her as a woman in an impossible situation, when in fact her response is the only rational one. Dixon Steele is a violent man who can’t forgive a slight. His friends keep things from him for fear of setting him off, but he’s smart enough to see through them and then immediately suspects the worst. When she trembles at his knock on the door, or feigns a smile to ease his nerves, how else should we expect her to react?