Noir City: Day 4

Day 4 was kind of a grab bag, with films from multiple countries. We chose two films that featured very famous stars in early roles.

A Woman’s Face: From 1938, this film features Ingrid Bergman before she went to Hollywood. Already a star in Sweden, she wanted the opportunity to play a less-glamorous role and stretch her skills. This mesh of noir ideas with a romantic drama was the result, and it seems to have achieved what she was after—well enough that Hollywood remade the film a few years later with Joan Crawford.

Bergman plays a woman left disfigured by a childhood tragedy. With her options limited by her disfigured face, she has become hard and bitter, driven to taking part in blackmail schemes to get by, with the hope that wealth might ease the emptiness she feels. On a mission to squeeze as much money as possible out of one target, she ends up getting caught; but the person who catches her makes a choice to offer her kindness, and a path towards changing her life. This one choice provides her a new identity, new opportunities, and the discovery of what warmth and love can mean. But the ties to her old life are still there and threaten what she’s built.

Eddie Muller argued that this film isn’t really a noir—“too much redemption for my taste,” he said, citing the happy-life and romance elements it contains. But the setup for this story isn’t all that different from noir classic Kiss of Death: a criminal is given a second chance and finds the happiness they crave, but it’s threatened by their criminal past. The only thing we’re really debating is the framing, and I feel like saying this isn’t really noir because the framing is more about a realm of stereotypically female-focused elements is, well, not the most thoughtful position in this context.

American noir tends to be hard-boiled, sure. But that’s not a requirement, particularly when working with conventions of another culture. The redemptive elements in this film (particularly Anna’s final choices) are very Scandinavian, reflecting a utilitarian viewpoint that looks at a broader view of a person’s life and the impact one has on others. A Swedish noir isn’t going to look like the American version no matter what. And I appreciated seeing a noir story that came from this cultural viewpoint, and that centered a woman’s choices.

As to the draw of Ingrid Bergman, she’s fine in this movie, but she was only 22 and it’s clear she wasn’t yet fully in control of her craft. Too much of her characterization as the bitter disfigured version of Anna revolves around spitting her lines and smoking furiously, using markers rather than a sense of personality. In other parts of the film she’s over the top in strong emotion, not yet fully confident in commanding her voice and her abilities. It’s astonishing that Casablanca was only four years after this one; her abilities grew enormously in such a short time.

Never Let Go: This 1960 British film builds a noir story on the conventions of the kitchen-sink drama. The owner (played by Peter Sellers in an early and very rare dramatic role) of a garage runs a chop shop on the side, hiring young bikers to steal cars that are given new tags and papers to be resold. They steal a car belonging to a cosmetics salesman (Richard Todd), who is distraught at the loss; living on the edge of solvency, he made an expensive investment in the car as a bid to improve life for himself and his family. He becomes obsessed with recovering his stolen car, which puts him up against the garage owner, who is equally invested in hiding his side hustle and maintaining his own appearance of respectability. These conflicting goals cascade into increasingly violent circumstances that ripple beyond just the two men.

This is a really well-structured noir thriller. Todd’s character’s obsession with the car and his recklessness in pursuing it have drastic consequences for his life, but he’s so focused on the car as an icon of improving his situation that he can’t see beyond that…which means that he doesn’t grasp how dangerous Sellers’ character is. He also can’t understand that the interest of the police investigating the case is to break the car-theft ring, not merely get his individual car back; this leads him to undercut their efforts for his own specific goal. He won’t listen to his wife and he makes unbelievably foolish choices at work while trying to manage the stress of the search for the car. (One of the most shocking moments isn’t an act of violence, but when he insults a salon manager who refuses to grant him an appointment because he was an hour late.) And he also endangers others in his overwhelming obsession.

The cast is all good, but Sellers is extraordinary. His public face is sharp clothes and careful details, unction with a toothy tight smile, surface-level accommodating to the police and insisting that he runs a “legitimate business,” a phrase he returns to with increasing urgency as the plot unfolds. Behind the public face is a dangerous predator, ferociously controlling every tiny detail around him (including things like scolding his young mistress for not using a coaster on the expensive console table) and just enough violence (as much emotional as physical) to keep people cowering and in thrall. As Todd’s character continues to press on the stolen car, Sellers’ control of his world starts to come apart: his exquisitely detailed apartment becomes messy, he doesn’t shave, he stops paying attention to his careful wardrobe. And as his control comes apart, his violence increases. It’s a fantastic, terrifying performance, and while certainly unexpected for the time (when he was entirely known as a comedian), it captures the sense of emotional violence that often lurked under his comedy (and was, by all accounts, present in his private life).

But the thing that made me truly love this film, the reason I’m going into so much detail, is that it is a feast of class issues in the rapidly-changing culture of late 1950s/early 1960s Britain, which is what cements the noir feel of it. This isn’t merely a clash of law-abiding vs. criminal; it’s a clash of regional cultures and stereotypes that inform everyone’s behavior.

Todd’s character and his wife are ostensibly middle-class Londoners and should be living comfortably; but they’re hanging on by a thread and his choices are compounding the problem. His issues at work are embodied by a younger colleague who is dressed more sharply, has a more posh accent, and is adopting new sales methods that rely on data rather than personal connection. The social upheaval of this era stranded many people who thought they had a comfortable place in the world.

Sellers’ character is a Northerner (the accent dances weirdly between Merseyside and Yorkshire, but is definitely from the northwestern part of England), a demographic that is typically derided by middle and upper class London as thick, uncultured, and suitable only for rough labor; this means he has to work extra hard to overcome the stereotype. Thus the public image of expensive clothes and trappings and the carefully controlled details, along with the insistence that he runs a “legitimate business,” even as he’s leveraging the benefits of criminal activity to support his lifestyle and image. His resentment at being treated as a criminal (even though he is one) arises in part because of the way he is boxed in by where he came from.

His employees are mostly East Enders, locked out of the good life by their upbringing and accents, yet ubiquitous in manual trade in London, their value to the day to day operation of life made invisible by their class. The mistress of Sellers’ character is also from this demographic and dialogue indicates that she was an orphan who ran away from care; she’s the definition of someone discarded by society, unwanted because of her class, her family status, and her gender. She’s attached herself to Sellers’ character because she has little to offer aside from her beauty and her willingness to give up her body; he accepts her despite her drawbacks because her youth and beauty support the image he seeks, and he offers her a measure of physical comfort, which she pays for by surrendering much of her autonomy. She naturally gravitates towards one of the young thieves, because they have more in common due to both age and background, and because he offers her respite from the garage owner’s violence; and when the salesman and his wife show her kindness and treat her with dignity, it changes her approach to the world.

Finally, the kids in the bike gang, clearly intended to evoke the Teddy Boys and Mods, are presented as rowdy, undisciplined, and threatening to “good” people (like the protagonist), even though part of their behavior arises from the limited options available to them as lower-class kids. They are trying to find their space in a world that has made decisions about their vale solely because of where they came from; their rejection of who they are supposed to be based on their class is part of what makes them threatening.

A good noir story will work even without a rich context like this. But this foundation of class conflicts and challenges provides an additional level of story that makes everyone’s choices more understandable and more sympathetic—even Sellers’ monstrous criminal. I spent this film feeling like I was chewing on the most satisfying meal, reveling in the sociology used to underpin this tense story. This was a real discovery for me and I’m thrilled to have seen it.

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Noir City: Day 3

Day 3 was all Japanese 1960s gangster films that also crossed over into noir. I have a long-standing love for Japanese gangster/detective films generally; there is something about the style of these, the way they break the conventions of Japanese propriety while still exploring Japanese mores, that I find extremely compelling. So three of these films, of wildly different tone and style, was really a feast.

A Colt is My Passport: This film is fairly famous in the U.S. but somehow I’d never encountered it before. It’s a moody, atmospheric story of a hitman’s existential challenges that also contains a couple of the most wildly-imagined shootouts I’ve seen. A hitman (the legendary chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido, a.k.a. “Joe the Ace”) is commissioned to take out the boss of a rival gang, but the way he chooses to do it angers his own gang as well as the rivals. When their escape plan falls apart, he and his apprentice are sent to a small seaside town to hide out until things cool off, unaware that agreements are underway that will make them collateral losses in a larger plan. They find unexpected allies in the truckers and ship workers, as well as a young woman with a story of her own.

The story here is fairly straightforward; the joy is all in the telling. The film synthesizes a number of other film elements of the time, including nouvelle vague camerawork and story structure, spaghetti western blocking and closeups as well as music (love the flamenco-flavored jazz on the soundtrack), and the “doomed protagonist running out of time” conventions of American noir, all expressed with uniquely Japanese style. The way all of the gang members show up everywhere in sharp suits, no matter the setting, emphasizes Japanese propriety and the importance of role and status. The use of many natural elements like birds, insects, and the waves and wind in the hitman’s decisions call to mind aspects of classical Japanese poetry and Shinto. And the final confrontation, rightly notorious, is over the top, absurd, and yet perfectly in tune with the rest of the film.

Is it noir? It’s noir enough for my purposes. The overall tone is right, and the sense of racing to beat impending doom along with betrayal certainly fits. Even Mina, the woman who brings her own backstory to her interactions with the gangsters, is well in line with the tradition of complex noir dames, including holding on to her agency and refusing to be intimidated. I might not have considered this a noir film if I’d seen it outside this context. But in this context, it’s a great fit.

Branded to Kill: This was the film that made be bounce and clap my hands in glee when I saw it in the listing for this year’s Noir City. I’m an unabashed fan of the deliberate chaotic weirdness of Seijun Suzuki’s films, and my introduction to his work was Tokyo Drifter, so seeing another gangster pic from him, in this context, was a joy. And it also meant introducing my spouse to Suzuki, on a big screen, which couldn’t be better.

There is theoretically a plot to this but it’s not all that important. Joe Shishido is our star again, and again playing a hitman, though this time far more dramatically than in the previous film. There’s a framework of a legendary “ranking” of hitmen with everyone desiring to be No. 1. And there’s an instigating incident when our protagonist encounters a mysterious woman who hires him to carry out a highly specific, absurdly difficult hit. But everything around that is just surreal, delightful weirdness.

There’s a hugely dramatic story surrounding the existence of this film, built on the notion that Suzuki didn’t have the resources to make a coherent, saleable movie, and ended up being fired for his inability to deliver. But c’mon. There’s nothing unintentional in this film, and Suzuki always did just what he wanted to do. There’s a lot of deliberate surrealism, timelines broken out of all coherence, avant garde camera work, and over the top performances. It’s highly (almost comically at points) symbolist, and it includes elements I’ve seen in other Suzuki films referring to the conventions of traditional Japanese theater styles. And sometimes it’s just funny and dumb, because it can be. All films about hitmen are fundamentally existentialist and wrangling with the presence of mortality, which is something they have in common with many typical noir concepts. Very few such films are as deliberately outlandish as this one, though.

Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. I find Suzuki’s films exhilarating in their weirdness, even when they don’t totally work (which is often, and which this one doesn’t in several points). There is real joy in watching an artist throw out all expectations and make something weird; and while you might not like or agree with Suzuki’s choices, he was always very good at what he was doing even if the result was chaos. He’s one of the best examples of an artist who understands his form well enough to break the hell out of it. You should finish a Suzuki film alternately laughing manically and with a headache from the bizarreness.

Oh yeah, and it was a successful introduction for my spouse. At multiple points I caught him grinning and giggling gleefully. So there will be a trip to Scarecrow Video for Tokyo Drifter and Pistol Opera, at minimum, in the near future.

Pale Flower: Going from Suzuki’s chaotic existential carnival ride to the quiet, measured melancholy of this film was a big shift; but it was also an excellent demonstration that the genre can contain so many styles. Another hitman story, another mysterious woman, another reckoning with mortality, this time in a way that asks the viewer to travel into the loneliness of this life.

This time our hitman is recently out of prison for a previous killing. In the time he’s been away his gang has formed an alliance with the gang he killed a member of, which leaves him uncertain of where he fits in. Drifting into a gambling session, he encounters a young woman who bets recklessly and intrigues him with her sensation-seeking approach to her existence, even as he struggles to figure out the meaning of his own life.

There’s an unexpected delicacy to this film, even though there’s nothing delicate in the story or characters. Every moment feels achingly evanescent, framed in gorgeous use of light and shadow and camerawork that emulates the way people look at each other and around them. The soundtrack builds the music on the sounds of the actions onscreen, like the clicking of gambling tiles and the betting call of the dealer, the rhythm of city trains and cars on city streets, the actions of people eating and drinking. The performances are measured and slightly opaque; we aren’t meant to know exactly what the characters are thinking, and it contributes to the sense of loneliness that suffuses the film. Despite this, I didn’t find it depressing or nihilistic; it’s more of a meditation on how we find meaning in our existence, and how we deal with the consequences of our choices. This is a genuinely lovely expression of this eternal search, and an essential noir concept.

This was an unreservedly excellent day of screenings, and gave me new ways of thinking about the idea of noir.

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Noir City: Day 2

Day 2 of this year’s festival brought a slate of French films. As it was a weekend day, that meant four screenings. Because of logistical issues and the sheer physical challenge of watching four films in a day, we ultimately decided to go with just the last two.

Le doulos: As co-host for the day Rosemary Keenan noted, you can’t do a slate of French noir without including Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville’s obsessions with American crime pictures and the trappings of them are a crucial piece of the story of noir in Europe. And this film, fundamentally noir and also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, is pretty much a hall-of-famer for Euro noir.

The film’s title is explained at the beginning as French crime slang for a type of hat and the kind of person who would wear such a hat, which is ultimately a reference to a police informant. The plot of the film is built around a major heist and a series of interlocking crimes relating to that, as well as suspicion about who in the circle of criminals involved is the informer. It’s beautifully made, with gorgeous use of light and shadow, circular camera pans and POV shots that feel like surveillance cameras or the urgent fearful glances of frightened people. The storyline works well and the way information is withheld from both individual characters and the audience builds to some unexpected plot points.

But I ultimately found it long and kind of tiresome. It sometimes seems infatuated with its own sense of clockwork plotting, and the final 20 minutes feel unnecessary after what came across like a natural conclusion to the story. I was impressed by the high level of skill (particularly Serge Reggiani as the burglar whose actions center the plot), but I can’t say I have any particular liking for it.

There’s one other major problem. Recall my thoughts from day 1 on the surprising presence and agency of the women in those two films. The women in this film are quite literally tools and nothing more. Their characters exist for the men to make use of in furthering their own ends. They are given little in the way of personality or differentiation, and their fates are brushed off as not vital to the plot. This in itself is a major difference from American noir, where women may be constrained by the good girl/bad girl archetypes but still express complexity of character and play active roles in the plot. The treatment of the women in this film left me cold and disimpressed.

Any Number Can Win: This is not really a noir film under my definition; it’s a caper/heist story with a lot of humor. But there are noir-ish points in the framing of its characters’ circumstances and how they are motivated to participate in the heist, which are reminiscent of influences in late 1940s/early 1950s American noir about the challenge of making an honest living.

The story begins with a classic “one last job” scenario, in which an aging thief wants to get the final big score that will allow him to retire comfortably. He needs help to pull it off and calls on a young former cellmate to assist, who brings in his struggling brother-in-law. And the three of them take off to the Riviera with their elaborate setup for the heist. It’s absolutely charming and a lot of fun, and I enjoyed watching it for what it is.

Jean Gabin is amazing as the aging thief, doing all of his acting with the most subtle shifts of expression and body language and still communicating every feeling he’s dealing with. Alain Delon, “stupid-handsome” as Rosemary Keenan described him, is the opposite: a whirlwind of intensity and emotion and rash behavior, always on the edge of being despicable but not quite falling over. The heist itself is an elaborate Rube Goldberg construction with multiple possible angles of disaster; my spouse (both experienced in undercover operations and an aficionado of heist films) was cringing and stuffing his fist in his mouth as we watched to prevent himself from yelling about everything they were doing wrong. The outcome of the film is both hilarious and poignant. On the whole I enjoyed this, and can see its influence in other modern heist films.

But the woman problem exists here too. The two major female characters are there for the men to act at and to give responses to the men rather than having purpose of their own. The wife of Gabin’s character is essentially a call-and-response mechanism for his desire to take on the final heist. The brother-in-law speaks about the toll of his financial struggle on his wife and children but they’re never given voices or faces of their own. Delon’s character initiates a relationship with a woman as part of the heist setup and then ends up falling for her, which complicates his mission; this story thread shows the promise of becoming something else, and yet she ends up shoved into a good/bad box and removed from the story without any real resolution. I’d have loved to tease out her story further, since the hints of her story we’re given are fascinating and it could have fit well with more of the story. But ultimately, she was just another tool for a male character, not all that different from the women in Le doulos.

In the end, neither film felt like something I would come to cherish the way I do many other noirs, nor delightful discoveries the way the day 1 films were for me. And the problem of the women characters is a part of that. I’m setting myself a task of watching some Agnes Varda films after Noir City is done to make up for this.

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