Monday, February 14, 2011

Spurs, Freaks, and Guns: From Lit Noir to Film Noir

This essay is for the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand and the Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon calls on donations (from readers, like you) to help preserve and restore classic films -- this year's bounty going to the Film Noir Foundation. To make a contribution, please follow the link. (Should work this time!)


"You're not a person, you're more like a vibe." So says Amelie Heinle to Peter Fonda in The Limey, Steven Soderbergh's 1999 neo-noir, never a more dead-on description of an intangible persona. Born in 1940, Fonda went almost sixty years of his eventful life successfully eluding definition. Arriving in American cinemas only a year later, film noir as we know it has evaded capture even longer. None of the earliest noir filmmakers knew that their films would one day be identified with a major cinematic movement. Still today, more than a few movies in the canon have fallen under scrutiny, with numerous persons, factions and schisms arguing in favor of some films and vehemently against others. (Are Hitchcock's suspense thrillers noir? Anthony Mann's westerns?
On the Waterfront?
The Manchurian Candidate?) Because noir is devoid of sacred cows (or should be), it's fitting that neither it would be above reproach. This healthy, if confusing, lack of complete respect targets even some widely-hailed films from the "golden age" of noir -- never mind the neo.

By now, Paul Schrader's Notes on Film Noir (1971) is quite an old-hat, go-to resource, yet the reason for its durability and appeal is because the author arguably comes closer than anyone since the late-1940s French critics to accurately defining the topic. Yes, Schrader cites familiar tropes (antiheroes and femme fatales, sewers and shadows, crime and grime). First and foremost, though, he posits that noir is not a genre, but a style determined by mood and tone. Evolving out of "four catalytic elements" -- postwar disillusionment, postwar realism, German expressionism, and hard-boiled (pulp) fiction -- the classic noir era as Schrader defines it took root during the Second World War and flourished until the deep end of the Cold War. The years 1941-1958 -- from The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil -- is considered the general timeframe.

A recent stab at revisionism -- by way of literary noir -- comes from the dauntingly voluminous anthology The Best American Noir of the Century
(2010). Thirty-nine stories covering 84 years (1923-2007) selected by co-editors James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, Best American Noir challenges Schrader's claim that true noir is confined to a narrow window of history. In the book's Foreword, Penzler makes some persuasive points against this. (Whereas Ellroy, in his subsequent Introduction, is as always amusingly content to float in the ether: "The short stories in this volume are a groove.") However, in my review, I took issue with Penzler's increasingly convoluted description, which shifts from declaring that noir "is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it," to characterizing the subject in no uncertain terms (emphasis mine):

"Allowing for the differences of the two mediums, I also believe that most film and literary critics are entirely wrong about their definition of noir, a genre which famously -- but erroneously -- has its roots in the American hard-boiled private eye novel. In fact, the two subcategories of the mystery genre, private detective stories and noir fiction, are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises."

In American fiction, Penzler argues, the private dick "retains his sense of honor in the face of.... adversity and duplicity," while noir protagonists are always motivated by "greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation (leading) them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry." Expanding and pigeonholing his premise at the same time, Penzler claims that film noir confuses the genres by employing the same visual techniques for each. No matter, though: "the discerning viewer will easily recognize the opposing life-views of a moral, even heroic, often romantic detective, and the lost characters in noir who are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own destruction...." In other words: Sorry, Bogie and Mexican Charlton Heston, but since you're both so damned honorable, your movies aren't really noir.

I'm reflexively skeptical of the idea that virtue and vice are automatically confined to mutually exclusive genres (especially when a few of the anthology's own selections contradict it). On the other hand, Penzler does pry noir from the clutches of Hammett and Chandler to broader interpretations of theme, content, and period. Best American Noir not only contemporizes the subject, it chooses a handful of examples that predate Schrader's catalytic elements. Additionally, the collection features an fascinating array of authors who wrote across a wide spectrum of genres, who cross-pollenated their characters and themes from novels to screenplays and back again.

Let's test these conflicting definitions (and intriguing overlap) with a pair of examples from Penzler and Ellroy's tome: each a short story that went on to become an initially dismissed B-movie; each movie regarded now as a significant American film. In my opinion, one of these, while not quite a lit noir, is one of the finest examples of film noir; the other qualifies as a lit noir yet is anything but a film noir.

1. "One of us": How "Spurs" became Freaks.

"Spurs," a sordid 1923 tale by Tod Robbins, and the lead-off hitter in Best American Noir of the Century, focuses for fifteen pages on the ill-advised courtship between a French circus dwarf, named Jacques, and a "tall, blond woman of the amazon type," bareback rider Jeanne Marie. Right away, the author's characterization of his protagonist is vividly in line with our editor's definition of the genre:

"The dwarf had no friends among the other freaks in Copo's Circus. They considered him ill-tempered and egotistical, and he loathed them for their acceptance of things as they were. Imagination was the armor that protected him from the curious glances of a cruel, gaping world, from the stinging lash of ridicule, from the bombardments of banana skins and orange peel. Without it, he must have shriveled up and died."

Imagination, Robbins implies, is how Jacques comes to see himself as an ideal suitor for Jeanne Marie. Riding into the arena on a "gallant charger" -- his large dog, St. Eustache -- the dwarf perceives himself as "a doughty knight of old about to do battle for his lady," a delusion that amuses Jeanne Marie ("bending down, with the smile of an ogress") until she learns that he has inherited considerable wealth and a vast estate. With her riding partner and clandestine lover, "Romeo of the circus" Simon Lafleur, Jeanne Marie conspires to marry Jacques and make off with his money.

A subsequent wedding party shows a bevy of circus performers scarcely more appealing than the principals of the story:

"There can be no genial companionship among great egotists who have drunk too much. Each one of these human oddities thought that he or she was responsible for the crowds that daily gathered at Copo's Circus; so now, heated with the good Burgundy, they were not slow in asserting themselves. Their separate egos rattled angrily together, like so many pebbles in a bag. Here was gunpowder which needed only a spark."

The spark comes when an inebriated Jeanne Marie hoists an angry and humiliated Jacques on her shoulders and gleefully rides him away. Robbins then advances a year later to Jacques's estate. Simon arrives to find a shockingly cowed and terrified Jeanne Marie, his attempt to rescue her ending in impalement at the end of Jacques' sword. The story ends with the dwarf dismounting his steed (St. Eustache, the dog) and climbing atop Jeanne Marie, urging her into the village with a pair of sharp spurs.

Approximately ten years after its publication, another Tod with one "d," last name Browning, took "Spurs" to the screen. At the time, the name Tod Browning was associated with the successful 1925 silent film The Unholy Three featuring Lon Chaney and the instantly iconic 1931 Dracula starring Bela Legosi. Adapting Robbins, however, proved to be more personal than adapting Stoker: as a teenager, Browning had fallen in love with a circus dancer and run off with the troupe, eventually meeting D.W. Griffith and turning to acting and filmmaking. Robbins had written the novel that became Browning's The Unholy Three, so turning to another of his friend's tales-o'-the-sideshow was for the director a natural impulse.

Yet Freaks (as became the movie's title, beating out the too-darkly-romantic Forbidden Love and too-Darwinian Nature's Mistakes) departs radically from the original story's grim worldview. Its central thread -- the efforts of the dwarf Hans (previously Jacques) to woo trapeze-artist Cleopatra (formerly rider Jeanne Marie) -- remains essentially the same; only this time our sympathies are vested firmly with the former, still woefully misguided (and unthinkingly cold to a new character, the kind-hearted dwarf woman Frieda), yet fundamentally decent. The other performers -- Siamese twins and bearded ladies, "living torsos" and "pinheads," sword-swallowers and "bird girls" -- are also depicted with unflinching empathy, and figure much more prominently than they do in "Spurs."

The humanistic, ensemble approach to the material (clearly admired by Robert Altman, who offered an inspired shout-out via contemporary oddball Lyle Lovett in The Player) culminates in the famous wedding banquet scene. Unlike Robbins' take, Browning's version is filled to the brim with "genial companionship," as the titular performers each sip wine from a goblet finally offered to Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) while chanting in unison, "One of us, one of us...." Repulsed by their offer to join the collective, Cleopatra humiliates Hans (Harry Earles) the same way the character does in "Spurs," riding him around the table while her trapeze-partner and paramour Hercules (formerly Simon) eggs her on.

While Cleopatra's drunken demeaning of Hans tips her hand (the latter's feelings conveyed onscreen as more justified than they are on the page), her attempt to poison him serves as the impetus for the film's unforgettable climax. Disposing of the dog, the spurs, and the equal-opportunity ugliness in "Spurs," Freaks ends with a brilliantly subversive set-piece in which our loyalties are allied with the killers instead of the victims. So appalled were preview audiences about the assault of the circus folk on the trapeze artists (and about the film's unflinchingness in general) that the studio chopped the film's running time from ninety minutes to barely over an hour, and tacked on an upbeat coda in which Hans is reunited with his one true love, Frieda (played, incidentally, by Daisy Earles, real-life sister of Harry). Tod Browning's career came to an abrupt end. It's unlikely that his original ending, revealing the fate of Hercules (who can suddenly hit those high notes), would have helped matters.

Needless to say, Freaks, with its influential, groundbreaking mix of melodrama, biopic, and horror, is considered now an essential American film. Yet despite the source material and Otto Penzler's insistence, I would argue that the film is not noir. This is not because the movie was released in 1932 (Fritz Lang's proto-noir, M, came out a year earlier), but rather due to the crucial change in attitude toward the material that occurred between Tod Robbins and Tod Browning. While a few noirish elements remain in place (an attempted crime, a potential femme fatale), Browning opts to emphasize humanity over depravity, regarding the setting as more than just a skeezy sideshow. For dabblers in the demimonde, though, the circus would remain an irresistible attraction.

2. "'Dot any duns?'": Gun Crazy.

Any author with The Best Years of Our Lives and Andersonville to his credit already earns the attribute of versatility; to be also a prominent writer of crime fiction transcends the definition of "range." Before MacKinlay Kantor became linked to a 1946 Oscar-winning postwar drama (adapted from his narrative poem published the year prior, titled Glory for Me) and an epic Civil War novel that earned the 1955 Pulitzer Prize, he was indeed a purveyor (perhaps for too long to be a "dabbler") of gangster novels, police procedurals, and literary noir.

"Gun Crazy," Kantor's oft out-of-print 1940 short story which, like Robbins' "Spurs," appears in Best American Noir of the Century, is deemed by Ellroy and/or Penzler as a classic example of the last. It's a seventeen-page first-person account that begins when the narrator (whose name is Dave) encounters another little boy around the age of five (named Nelson, or Nelly), who immediately fixates on the narrator's collection of firearms. "'Dot any duns?'" Nelly asks Dave: Got any guns? Dave shows off his own favorite, a cap gun:

"Nelson Tare's eyes pushed out a little when he saw it. He made a grab, and belted it on before I had time to protest and tell him that I wanted to play with the cap gun and he could play with the glass pistol or the broken pop rifle. He went swaggering around with the gun on, and it kind of scared me the way he did it -- all of a sudden he'd snatch the revolver out of its holster and aim it at me."

Kantor leaps forward from one episode to the next: Nelly, as an adolescent, goes hunting with Dave and their buddy Clyde and can't bring himself to shoot a jackrabbit; Nelly pulls a gun on a sadistic teacher, commits a robbery, and gets sent to reform school; Nelly, now a young man, returns from military service and hooks up with a carnival sharp-shooter named Antoinette McReady; Nelly and Antoinette hit the road, rob a bank, get captured and sent to separate prisons; Nelly escapes, returns home, and is finally apprehended for good. "When he was taken back into prison, he wore an expression of tragic perplexity," narrator Dave concludes. "It must have been hideous for him to know that he, who had loved guns his whole life long, should at last be betrayed by them."

An outline makes this tale sound rather lurid, but "Gun Crazy" is really a lovely story -- too lovely, I would suggest, to be lit noir. Nearly all the aforementioned action happens off the page as events that Dave reads or hears about. Antoinette, the sharp-shooter, gets no more than a cursory mention and vanishes. Justice is meted out to those who deserve it. Nelly is a volatile, tragic figure, but he's filtered through the perspective of the passive, stable Dave recalling the faraway past. The author creates a safe distance between the reader and Nelly; we feel sympathy for the character, but at no point are we asked to identify with him.

A filmmaker following Kantor to the letter might have made a movie bathed in sad, affectionate nostalgia -- the way Stephen King's "The Body" became Rob Reiner's Stand By Me. (That's not a putdown.) As it happened, B-director Joseph H. Lewis (nicknamed "Wagon Wheel Joe" for his cheapo westerns) and blacklisted "Hollywood Ten" screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (under the alias Millard Kaufman) had other ideas. Gun Crazy, the 1950 movie, inverts Kantor's story: Bart (formerly Nelly) becomes the main character, while Dave is pushed to the sidelines. We meet both during a moralistic prologue where a judge sentences a teenage Bart to reform school after a botched attempt to steal a gun from a shop. Oddly, while the original story renders the sentencing more than justified, here it seems a tad harsh. At the court hearing, his obsession is recounted via flashbacks by family and friends: a young Bart shoots a baby chick with a BB gun and bursts into tears when it dies; instead of threatening to shoot a teacher, Bart is caught showing off the gun to his classmates. When Dave and Clyde testify, they tell (and we see) the story of the hunt, only this time it's a mountain lion instead of a rabbit that Bart is unable to kill.

While the Nelly of the story grows understandably hard-edged following reform school and military service, the Bart of the movie retains a goofy, affable charm (conveyed by the actor John Dall). Yet the most dramatic departure taken by Lewis and Trumbo is to flesh out the carnival sharp-shooter Antoinette McReady, named Annie Laurie Starr in the film (and played by Peggy Cummins). Bart and Laurie's dangerous meet-cute during a shooting contest drives the plot forward. An alternate title to Gun Crazy was Deadly is the Female, and it isn't long before Laurie goads Bart into a life of crime. "I'll try to be good," she tells him early on, but deep-down she knows she's bad. (Very, very baaaaad.) They begin with petty stick-ups, graduate to bank robbery, then pull an ambitious heist of the payroll office of an Armour meatpacking plant. With the law hot on their trail, Bart takes Annie back home, hiding out at his sister's before fleeing together into the woods. Whereas the short story concluded with Nelly's arrest, the movie climaxes with an increasingly desperate Bart and Laurie surrounded by police in a mist-filled marsh. They kiss passionately (being cornered is such a turn-on!), then Bart shoots Laurie just as she threatens to kill Dave and Clyde as they close in. After committing the only murder of his life, of the love of his life, Bart gets shot to death as well.

How did a mournful coming-of-age story transform into a kinky, violent film noir? Paul Schrader would likely emphasize the difference in the prewar and postwar national mood. Kantor's 1940 "Gun Crazy" pines for an earlier, rural America; there's genuine anxiety in the story, a fear of the outside world, which is why we stay close to the sedentary Dave and not the vagabond Nelly. In Lewis's Gun Crazy, the anxiety is brought to the foreground; there's equal parts terror and exhilaration as Bart dashes off with Laurie, and as we become their accomplices. (It's also worth noting that Nelly is a World War I veteran in the short story -- one who never sees action -- and Bart a World War II vet in the film.) By 1950, the studio sets of early noirs like The Maltese Falcon were abandoned increasingly in favor of on-location shooting, and Lewis makes the most of the great outdoors in ingeniously unfussy ways (most famously in the long unbroken shot that puts the audience in the back-seat of Bart and Laurie's getaway car). His direction lacks the expressionistic flair that Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and other directors would bring to film noir. Nevertheless, Gun Crazy remains a prime example of the genre.

Ah, but there you have it: Is noir a genre, as Otto Penzler, the Internet Movie Database, and so many others assert? For the sake of convenience I'm willing to go with it. Yet the fact that I often disagree with about half the titles on any random list -- along with the additional fact that I often can't explain why -- suggests that whatever noir is, it's not unlike that aging hippie villain from The Limey, too intangible to be contained or defined. Of course I could be wrong. But I think Schrader is right: You're not a genre, noir; you're more like a vibe.


Sales on Film said...

Interesting you note the nostalgia for rural life in pre-WII lit noir, while in Gun Crazy, like The Night of the Hunter five years later, escaping into the swamp provides no relief for our fugitive couple. I'm thinking specifically of the final scene, with the camera closing in on Bart & Laurie's faces, dirty, sweaty and grotesquely close up. The film is a precursor to many later works including Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands, especially the way in which it suggests the closing of the frontier as a means of outrunning urban crime. Bart's fascination with guns takes hold in town but the repercussions of his neurotic fixation follow him from the city to the country, with no release.

Ed Howard said...

It's fascinating that you and Greg Ferrara both lead off the blogathon by tackling Schrader's noir definition, from totally different angles. In the end, I think I'm with Greg on this one, that noir is a genre because genre means more than just a type of story, it can in fact encompass the stylistic and tonal elements that mostly define noir. On the other hand, I feel like noir might just be one of those "I know it when I see it" kind of things, where everyone instinctively feels which films they experience as noir, and which they don't, though no one seems to quite agree on the particulars. As I said over at Greg's place, if film noir is a genre, it's an interesting type of genre that was identified and codified only after the fact, as opposed to something like Westerns or musicals, which were defined genres before the films started being made. Maybe this just means that film noir was the first genre to be developed specifically for the cinema. Other genres came from theater or literature and were transplanted into film, whereas noir developed out of cinematic language, out of the possibilities of cinematography for capturing the specific visual style that the noir demands.

And Gun Crazy is fantastic.

Craig said...

Thanks for commenting, Sales. That final scene in Gun Crazy is amazing, isn't it? I hadn't thought of it the way you did, but that's a terrific observation about the frontier providing no escape, especially considering it's urbanity that usually gets all the attention in noir.

I find Bart's fixation with guns interesting particularly due to the fact that he found no outlet for it in the military. It's not clear whether or not he saw combat, but he does express boredom at training other GIs how to shoot (which, on the surface, would seem like something he would enjoy). I'm not sure everything with the character tracks, but it's a good picture all the same.

And, yes, Gun Crazy definitely foreshadows Bonnie and Clyde, though it's less romantic than that picture.

Craig said...


I chuckled when I saw Greg's post, he and I having been eerily in-tune for the Spielberg blogathon as well. I don't disagree all that strongly with him or you about film noir being a genre. As you said, the complication comes from the fact that the subject's been identified retroactively, that the directors of many noirs from the 40s and 50s weren't consciously trying to make film noirs. (They would have called them simply "B-movies.") Bringing lit noir into the debate muddles it further (in hopefully a fun way), because there we lose the visual component and have to rely more on content. That made it more of an interesting challenge to evaluate the screen versions of Gun Crazy (which is unmistakably noir) and Freaks (which goes right past noir straight into horror) with each's original source material.

If noir is a genre, as you also indicated, it's a highly relativist one. Would "Hitchcock" be a genre too? It's a serious question. When I see Strangers on a Train I don't think of film noir, even though many of its elements would apply. The Hitchcockian stamp is too strong to fit into any other category. Other people's movies, like The Manchurian Candidate, I don't consider to be even remotely noir, but many disagree. Neo-noir is easier to define, I think, because it's self-conscious. (Maybe that's why Hitchcock stands out too.) Movies like Brick and Blood Simple (which I enjoy) are paying homage to the classic tropes, or playing with them in unconventional ways, whereas the original noirs felt spontaneous, combustible, and malleable.

Adam Zanzie said...

You've asked here one of the most important of all questions: is Hitchcock noir? Maybe some of his earlier British films... I'm thinking of Blackmail or The Secret Agent. After all, noir relies heavily on suspense. But the Master had a special love for injecting his suspense stories with a heavy dose of comedy, too. Maybe that's why Hitchcock isn't considered noir? Because he's too funny? Too colorful?

Schrader is correct that the finest noir periods occured between the 30's and 50's. Oh sure, we still got some exceptional ones after that: in this decade, I'd say De Palma and Spielberg made the two best ones, with Femme Fatale and Minority Report both aging rather nicely. But the problem with some of the other "modern" noirs made in recent years is that they emulate the older movies so much that they forget to tell resonating stories on their own.

A lot of people, for example, are hugs fans of Brick--which I just plain don't dig. Rian Johnson had a nice concept of setting noir in a high school backyard, but speaking as someone who was in high school when the film came out, the film was hardly a revelation. It didn't make at all for a very compelling narrative. I'd be interested if there was another film noir renaissance in our cinematic future, but in order for it to be successful we'll have to bring back strong characters and themes. Maybe that's the prime problem with a movie like Brick: as far as memorable emotional filmmaking tactics are concerned, it's got a Falcon, but not a Sam Spade.

Craig said...

But the Master had a special love for injecting his suspense stories with a heavy dose of comedy, too. Maybe that's why Hitchcock isn't considered noir? Because he's too funny? Too colorful?

I'm glad you addressed the Hitchcock question, Adam. Personally, I don't consider Hitch noir because he tends to have standard heroes and villains and happy endings. There are exceptions in a few of his movies, of course, but for the most part he pulls away from the nihilism of noir. To put it another way: If Rear Window had been from Raymond Burr's vantage point, then it would be film noir.

But the problem with some of the other "modern" noirs made in recent years is that they emulate the older movies so much that they forget to tell resonating stories on their own.

That's a superb point. Many modern noirs are laborious where the originals were spry, and overly emulative toward filmmakers who'd have been bewildered to know somebody thought them worth copying. I enjoy Brick as an exercise -- and I think its own Sam Spade, Mr. Gordon-Leavitt, shows impressive verve -- but you're right that there's not much there beyond a clever update/homage.

That's another reason why I like the Coens: they clearly love genre, but they're not above tinkering with it either. Also, if you've never seen them, I highly recommend John Dahl's noir double-whammy from the early-90s: Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. The first is a fine example of contemporary western noir, the second has a femme fatale to die for.

Adam Zanzie said...

I've definitely heard a lot about The Last Seduction... it's been in my Queue for awhile and I plan to order it any day now. I must confess that I'm always getting John Dahl and Eddie Muller confused. They're both film noir aficionados, and yet, apparently, only one of them actually directs film noirs himself!

Craig said...

Eddie's a writer - James Ellroy calls him "The Czar of Noir." Dahl's largely faded from feature filmmaking, but I think he still directs a lot of TV work. That's how Linda Fiorentino got rooked out of a best actress nomination for Last Seduction, incidentally: the movie had premiered once on cable TV before leaping to theaters and doing fairly well. Ebert and Siskel plugged it hard, as I recall.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting thoughts on Hitchcock, noir and genre, guys. I agree that Hitch, in general, was not making noirs - the standard category of thrillers fits him much better. That said, I'd probably tag Shadow of a Doubt, with its emphasis on the loss of innocence, as a noir, and Suspicion might've worked as one as well without the studio-mandated ending. Otherwise, though, Hitchcock almost is his own genre, like late Godard is a genre: some directors define their style so completely that it very nearly does become a genre.