Monday, June 13, 2005

a double dose of noir [june 11, 2005]

While the weather decided to take a dip from humid, sticky, bright and cloudy to grey, wet, windy, with thin sheets of raindrops, I settled down to catch the delights on a five-disc set called "Film Noir Killer Classics" (so much for subtle marketing! -- aha! some irony there!) I had picked up from the Public Library (Oh! life would be so miserable without you!). Although the jacket proclaims the existence of a sixth disc chockfull of special features and trailers, I don't see it! Pity.

Killer Bait (aka Too Late for Tears) is the tale of a wife funnelled down the fatalistic chute of the genre, driven to murder, deception and death by her unflinching greed. A bag of money is tossed into the car of the Palmers leading to a conflict of morals. While the husband is all for informing the police (although his footing is clearly unsteady and he is easily swayed), the wife is all for spending it as their own. Toss into the mix some strange visitors and a sister, and while the screw begins to turn, things begin spiralling out of control (predictably so, given the genre). This is a decent film to watch, if only for the complete lack of spectacle. If you love noir as I do, you won't be too disappointed (but make sure your notions of noir are not as rigid as mainstream descriptions define them to be -- try Paul Schrader's classic essay on the subject for a much better view of the genre). My favourite bit of dialogue occurs between the mysterious Don Blake and the vixen Jane Palmer:

Don : looking for something?
Jane: my lipstick.
Don : Colt or Smith and Wesson?

Scarlet Street is something more special -- if only because it's a Fritz Lang film. The film is based on the novel and play La Chiene, previously adapted by Renoir into a film of the same name. The rich narrative affords the film more than its genre showpieces. Lang is a master at atmosphere and pace and Christopher Cross (the pun "criss cross" is definitely intentional) is one of the more fascinating protagonists in such films of spiralling doom. Christopher (Edward G Robinson turning in another study in wretched despair) is a simple cashier with J J Hogwarth and is married to a noisy crude woman called Adele who doesn't regard him as much for snuff. In short, his life is boring, defeatist and average. After a late party with the rest of the executive office, and a gift for his honesty and diligence (both of which will obviously be put to the test later) from JJ, Christopher, saves a young girl from being beaten up by a mugger and ends up falling for her. In a Blue Angel-esque way, chain of events ensues that culminates in a strange form of justice. Remember the "knife" scene in Blackmail)? There's a similar example of the use of diegetic sound to underscore the unsaid and unseen: the record player gets stuck on the phrase "in love" at two points in the movie (once when Johnny reads Chris's letter to Kitty and the second time at the studio that Katherine rents with Chris's money). Then there's the starkness (no music, no flashy editing) of the murder scene. Note also the lighting and staging for the montage of witness testimonies. And then there's the last time we see Johnny, as he is taken to the electric chair: the camera watches the door from a distance (long shot?), we see him struggling, we hear him screaming his innocence in protest, and then the door is shut, denying us (and the camera) any further viewership. Looks like it's time to attempt a Fritz Lang revue.

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