Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dark Films

Life is not a movie. Everyone lies, good guys lose, and love does not conquer all. ~ Kevin Spacey, Swimming with Sharks

Maybe life is a movie, but it's a film noire.

I like old movies. I am not one of those who can list the guy who played the third cop in the second remake of the Maltese Falcon, but I will get caught up in a 1930's or 40's potboiler much more quickly than with modern films. Now, this isn't a rant about how all new films are junk, and modern actors are all rotten, because that's not true. Well, not entirely, anyway. I just happen to prefer the style of films past, for a number of reasons.

For starters, modern films are too darn long. Any film running less than two hours is considered a short subject these days. Films seem to have a lot of trouble finding a way to end, so they just keep going. The classic in this genre was created around thirty years ago, a stinker called The Way We Were, featuring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. I won't bore you with the details other than to say that every time you think the movie is ending, it continues. I swear this movie was four hours long. It probably wasn't, but, lord, it felt that way.

At any rate, action films particularly seem to have trouble wrapping up their plots, with so many last-minute attempts on the hero's life, you're flinching as the credits roll. I'm old-fashioned; I freely admit it. Once you've built up to a climax and resolved it, don't start another. Just say, “Goodnight” , Gracie.

Secondly, there are just too many explosions. Now, I like a good action flick, replete with the requisite mayhem, high-caliber weapons, and plenty of TNT, C4, or other demolition device of choice. The trouble is that we now have wide screens with remarkable audio; even TV's do a respectable job of showing a film. In addition, film makers have so many wonderful options for creating special effects. Given the means to create and the means to view, writers and directors just have to go crazy, blowing up everything in sight in the most incendiary manner. One or two of these per film is enough for me, but most films fling the destructive forces around like a fireworks show, building and building, until you fear for the very planet.

Of course, our heroes still manage to walk away from these things with nary a scratch beyond a torn shirt and a scrape on the forehead. Everyone else is spurting blood from all sorts of places, but the hero is just fine, thanks.

But the ultimate problem with modern films is that they're in color. Don't misunderstand me; I think some films lend themselves to color. But, for pure mood, nothing beats black and white. And this brings us back to old movies.

The old films were concise and in black-and-white, probably for very pragmatic reasons. First, years of filming occurred before color was practical, so directors learned to use light and dark, shadows and shading, to convey mood, foreboding, character. You name it, they could show it using nothing but shades of gray. I think it's actually more difficult to do some of those things with color than it was with black-and-white.

As to being concise, well, the budgets weren't big in the old days. Another thing, though, is that movie directors still followed the old three-act motif of the stage, which puts a natural clamp on how long a story can take. Finally, movie people didn't think moviegoers would sit through a long film. In fact, there were many who said Gone With The Wind would never make money because it was so very long that audiences would get bored and walk out.

But the best thing about black-and-white succinct movies was film noire, the “black film”. People define film noire differently and don't even agree on whether some movies actually fall into that genre. They were typified initially by the “tough detective” movie, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Later, you have such greats as Double Indemnity, D.O.A, and one of the noire-est of the noire, Asphalt Jungle.

So what makes a film noire? Damned if I know, but that doesn't mean I won't take a stab at defining one.

  1. It's tough to tell who the good guys are. In fact, in Asphalt Jungle there aren't any good guys, although there are some bad guys with hearts of gold. At any rate, everyone ends up in jail or dead.
  2. Main characters die. In D.O.A, Edmund O'Brien has been poisoned and spends the movie trying to track down his own killer. If you're an eternal optimist, you keep expecting somehow he'll make it. He doesn't.
  3. If it's a mystery film noire, it's complicated. I don't know if The Big Sleep counts as film noire, but it has many elements, including the most complex plot of all time. It was so complex that, at one point, director Howard Hawks and writer William Faulkner (yes, that Faulkner) got into an argument over who killed the chauffeur. Finally they decided to call Raymond Chandler, who wrote the book, to settle the issue once and for all.
    Chandler paused for a moment, then said, “Actually, I don't know either.” Now THAT'S a complicated plot.
  4. Aside from being hard to tell good guys from bad guys, it's hard to tell what good and bad is. Film noire loves amoral characters. In The Third Man, Harry Lime is at once a scoundrel, a realist, and an absolute louse who, for reasons that are never clear, seems to command a lot of loyalty from people who should know better.
Yes, they're dark films, but they grab you around the throat and hold you until the end.

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