[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]
Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City
By Nicholas Christopher
The Free Press, 1998
Reviewed by John Lehman, a.k.a.The Angry Critic
Nicholas Christopher throws a bunch of shit against the wall. A bit of it
sticks, most of it falls to the floor. The problem: what can you write about
film noir that has meaning for contemporary readers? We've all heard about
light and shadow, the emerging anti-hero, cold war paranoia and the city
as moral labyrinth. But so what? Why should this, or any other historic
gloss, explain film noir's considerable appeal to viewers today?
Christopher has written two novels and five books of poetry, most with noir
sounding titles (Veronica, Desperate Characters). This book reads
as if, with 5 x 8 cards in hand, he saw all the movies in the formidable
appendix-listing and read everything remotely relating to the subject, then
rearranged these notes into chapters. Ho, hum. I felt like Harry Lime in
The Third Man wading, not in the sewers of Vienna, but through an
endless bibliography of this sinister genre. Yet occasionally there is a
glimpse (through the grating) of something beyond, an insight into why we
can never get enough of these movies:
The film noir often allows the hero to think he is rescuing
a woman who in truth is not only in control of the situation, but is imperiling
his life. As the film critic Richard Dyer writes, this hero has a double
quest -- to solve the mystery of the villain and of the woman.
It seems to me this is a "coming of age" puzzle, but what if that's
why we go back to these films? For many of us (whether they were in theaters
or on early television) these are the films of our adolescence. Roger Ebert
and other critics bemoan the fact that so many movies today are directed
at adolescent males. Perhaps that has always been movies' audience. We are
blind to it in the case of our own adolescence, yet we revert back to these
films for our symbols of struggle with life's ambiguities. This is not an
idea Christopher pursues, but the suggestion itself is intriguing because
film noir is not only a uniquely American art form, it is also the one dealing
most directly with morals.
Here's another keeper. The author cites Jung's description of dreams as
a spontaneous, self-portrayal of the unconscious, at the same time both
concealing and revealing. "A film is a dream," said Orson Welles.
Christopher quotes critic Deborah Thomas:
In the film noir hero there is a desire to recall countered
by the desire to forget, the frequency of flashback structures in the genre
is suggestive of the neurotic's compulsion to repeat, as the noir protagonist,
too, reworks the past to try to master it through his narration.
Besides the past and the present there is a dichotomy between violence and
vulnerability. The book draws the timeworn conclusion that this reflects
WWII GI's returning to urbanization and to women who, in their absence,
have appropriated masculine roles in the workplace. Perhaps, but in the
1990s who cares?
When Christopher takes a quasi-academic posture, my interest gauge reads
"let's get popcorn out in the lobby." While talking about Night
and the City having a London location, he writes:
In his essay on Shakespeare and Seneca (whose five-act dramatic
structure Shakespeare appropriated and refined), T.S. Eliot makes two salient
points: that the Elizabethan period was one of dissolution and chaos, and
that for the first time, the greater part of English literature emanated
from a large, rapidly commercializing wildly diversified city in London.
Who's he talking to? And about what? This is a half-crazed Richard Widmark
playing the weasel Harry Fabian, for Christ's sake, in the genre of Philip
Marlowe, not Christopher Marlowe. It's junk food and that's what we crave.
Somewhere in the Night is often at its best when summarizing the
movies. And if you love the films, maybe that's where it really counts.
Here the poet/novelist forgets his academic pretension and loses himself,
like you or I would, in the films he obviously loves:
The downtown San Francisco in which our hero finds himself
could not be more claustrophobic. It is a collapsing, involuted landscape,
architecturally and emotionally. The walls that have not already closed
in seem to be in the process of doing so before his (and our) eyes. The
maze confronting him consists of rain-slicked streets and sidewalks canopied
by iron trees; of caged catwalks, rattling fire escapes, dank basements,
and twisting corridors; of after-hours office buildings, swank forbidding
apartments cluttered with objets d'art, and a barren apartment containing
only a corpse. Everywhere he goes, shadows are elongated, stairwells steep
and winding, and elevators dimly lit; terraces are overhung with thick vines
and vacant lots are surrounded by impenetrable foliage. And all the alleys
are blind alleys. Our hero in his dark night of the soul has many stations
through which he must pass.
The book ends with a provocative comparison between Out of the Past,
Christopher's favorite noir classic, and The Usual Suspects, his
pick (and mine) for best neo-noir. It then concludes with a stunning seven
page re-telling of The Usual Suspects. I've seen that movie five
or six times but this sent me back to rent it again. In fact that's my advice
about Somewhere in the Night. Find it in the library and Xerox the
filmography (pp 273-280) in the back. Then start watching the films, many
of which can be ordered from the library. Screw the book, screw intellectualizing,
experience the fucking movies! See them as they are meant to be seen,
in a dark room (isolated in that darkness from anyone else), involved in
the story, yet aware of your involvement -- as if you are caught gazing
into a mirror reflecting the dark underside of your past and present life.
in the Night from Amazon.com.
titles by Nicholas Christopher.
John Lehman, a.k.a. The Angry Critic, is fifty-eight, in debt and
overweight. Rather than take responsibility for his life he is content to
lash out at others. He says, "If art isn't for getting even, what is
it good for? Now get outta here!"
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