FILM NOIR // 2 TAKES FRAKES

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The USA was not yet industrialized during the 1800s and the ownership
of property was what equality was based on, pretty much. Thus began
the taming of the Wild West. And as industrialization began in the
early 1900s, most people suddenly found themselves living in cities.
World War II, especially, unified America on the basis of national
pride. Men 45 and younger not in the military were expected to
contribute towards the war effort. And most young Men over the age of
17 were stuffed into a uniform and shipped overseas. Women, as a
result, were becoming increasingly employed in jobs that were formerly
male-only. As the war started winding down, in the
mid-forties, American Men started losing some of their exclusive
control over culture. Men became disillusioned with all of this new
consumerism, and more, as Peace Time ensued and Life began to settle
down to a changing sense of “normalcy.” And just because the war was
ending, or over, doesn’t mean that all of those Men sent to it were
back to normal, once they were back home. Corner bars started popping
up, in every neighborhood, as wartime veterans tried to drown their
experiences at the local watering hole. Others began to immerse
themselves into the culture’s new materialism. So began the
hard-boiled cynicism expressed in Film Noir.

Novels and short stories were already a source of much of Hollywood’s
output. And what authors were writing about in 1944 was darkness and
despair. Stories about a world where there were no heroes. The only
real difference between the good and the bad guys was which side of
the Law they were on. Cops took bribes and looked the other way, when
it suited them. Criminal organizations were providing entertainment
and services that were against the Law. So out of that world,
hard-boiled pulp fiction emerged. At the same time, movies were still
using black and white because all color film stock was being used by
the government and what remained was way overpriced. Because of this,
Hollywood got really good at shooting in black and white and how to
use shading to convey a mood and, in sense, become its own character.
The use of light is often very significant. Between this, the crime
stories and the public’s cynicism, a style of motion picture was
forming. It was never labeled as such, by Hollywood. It was just the
way to approach the material and that’s how they shot it. But the
French have a way of coining a phrase like no other nation and as they
started noticing this tendency in Hollywood, they termed it “Film
Noir” – black film. Not so much because of the darkness (of which
there was much use of deep black), but because of the darkness of the
stories.

Stories about Private Investigators who were struggling, rather than
just getting by. Men who couldn’t cope with their lot in life and
drank too much. Men who were very street and people wise, except when
it came to a hot dame. And it wasn’t uncommon for many of them to play
sap to these sexy (and usually dangerous) women that the French, once
again, had a novel name for: Femme Fatales. In part, there does seem
to be some kind of resentment fueling these types of characterizations
of women in Film Noir. But this wasn’t exactly a new view on women,
even in the 1940’s. Indeed, even the Book of Genesis attributes the
betrayal of Mankind … to a woman. But it was relatively new in film,
having women as the “bad guy,” if you will. During this time, it was
still customary for women to basically “save” any and practically all
expression of sexuality for their husbands, alone and in private. So,
publicly, they usually dressed in ways that seem conservative, in an
almost severe way. And here’s a genre of movies showing women as not
only flaunting their wares, but using their feminine wiles as a weapon
on any Man they wanted to use. Of course, this meant that these women
were usually on the edge of society and would’ve been ostracized,
altogether, except for their usually exceptional attractiveness. Women
and feminists can cry “misogyny” all they want, but the Femme Fetale
is no victim – helpless, or otherwise. In most Film Noir stories, the
Femme Fetale would eventually bring down – almost completely destroy –
the protagonist. And it was not uncommon, at all, for her to be the
instrument of her own destruction, trying to do so.

The world these characters is just as bent and twisted as the people
inhabiting it. People living in unfashionable, low-rent dives trying
not to draw attention to themselves on foggy, rain-soaked, streets.
Even inside, everywhere the camera takes us, there are deep, dark
shadows comprised of complete blackness, signifying the existence of
absolute nothingness – like the cold blackness of outer space. The
kind of world where making a mistake once is enough to get you killed.
And that world, like the real world, did change as the Post War
forties gave way to the Red Scare Fifties. The protagonist, too, he
changed as well. Still a loner, but more of a maverick on the side of
the angels in a world where no one can be trusted. Even the images
became less stark than before. There are still shadows and dark alley
ways, but … the audience’s fear of what lay concealed in darkness is
not so great anymore, as the fear that those who do good deeds in
broad daylight could be a very real enemy and terrible enemy. At least
the Femme Fatale’s no pinko commie. She’s just bad news.

Today, most audiences, young and old alike – but young, especially –
really do not enjoy looking at, much less sitting down for, any show
that’s in black and white. This has always kind of surprised me,
because those very same people will enjoy a cartoon, which – to me –
seems much harder to get a handle on, visually. These drawings that
move around on their own, often of exaggerated animals talking and
behaving like Human beings, exhibiting our collectively worst traits
and tendencies. But … there it is. They hate watching Live Action
movies in black and white. It’s just one of “those” things. Besides
which, there are often references to the times which are long
forgotten, which seem to beg explanation, but are never given such.
Every guy has his hair slicked down and to the side, wears a suit,
constantly and their relationships with women are often based on
gender roles which no longer operate in modern society. Old movies,
even Film Noir, have a lot going against them, unfortunately.

And yet …

Film Noir’s influence has not only survived, but has, in fact,
never truly gone away. There are various reasons for that. Some have
to do with the attitude of it, others have to do with the look of it.
Fashion has always operated on a kind of a cycle, that’s another thing.
But more than any of that, so much of Film Noir has become classic.
And what’s that mean, “classic”? True yesterday. True today. True
tomorrow. Over the decades, many films have been at least inspired by
Film Noir. But the more recent films are usually in color and tend to
cherry pick the aspects of the genre they like, rather than being
purists about it. And there are reasons for that. One being that they
want to appeal to women, more, especially as a period piece. Another,
because the conditions that gave rise to what eventually became Film
Noir are alien, when even “women’s lib” and civil rights are
decades-old news. Still, there are many examples of Film Noir and/or
its influence, as its spanned the ages and here are but a very few:

40s
The Maltese Falcon (1941), Detour (1945), Out of the Past (1947)
50s
In a Lonely Place (1950), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), The Wrong Man (1956)
60s
The Manchurian Candidate (1962),  Cape Fear (1962), Shock Corridor (1962)
70s
The Getaway (1972), Chinatown (1974), Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
80s
Blade Runner (1982), Blood Simple (1984),  Blue Velvet (1986)
90s
Basic Instinct (1992), L.A. Confidential (1997), Following (1998)
2000’s
Mulholland Drive (2001), Sin City (2005), Harsh Times (2006)

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