Sunday, May 27, 2012
Friday, May 18, 2012
In Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski), the cops do as little as possible. The same goes for Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a questionable private eye who makes his living following two-timing husbands and backstabbing dames. What starts as a simple affair investigation quickly turns into a conspiracy involving false identities, fraud, murder, affairs, and gangsters. Okay, so those are a lot of film noir buzzwords, so what makes this movie unique?
As viewers, we completely rely on Gittes for our information. We find the film's clues exactly when he does, never before or after. Furthermore, Gittes is in every single scene of the film, so like it or not, he is our avatar in the investigation. When he's knocked unconscious by gangsters, the shot imitates his condition by fading to black. But unlike many film noir, this movie does not include a voiceover. This keeps the film in the present, solidifying our association with Gittes. A narration would undoubtedly set the action in the past, making Gittes our guide as opposed to our avatar.
Unlike the classic detective films, this neo-noir was shot in color. Instead of highlighting the bright, saturated tones so popular in the 70's, Polanski chose a muted look for the film to emphasize the 1930's Los Angeles setting. The recurring browns and tans of furniture and clothing imitate the dryness as Gittes explores the hoarding of water during a heatwave. The brightest color to appear is red, the shade of something that's too hot. Appropriately, this color appears in two key places: lipstick and blood. In true femme fatale fashion, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) wears the perfect shade of red lipstick when talking to Gittes. Blood, of course, appears a few times in this story; the most noteworthy occurrence is during Gittes's confrontation with a gangster (played by none other than Polanski). To literalize the metaphor of being nosy, the gangster slices open one of Gittes's nostrils, threatening to cut off the rest of it if he doesn't back off. This subsequently leads to a lot of jokes about noses, including my favorite sarcastic exchange in the film (delivered with signature Nicholson smiling contempt):
Yelburton: What happened to your nose?
Jake Gittes: I cut myself shaving.
Yelburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.
Jake Gittes: Only when I breathe.
Of course, it's the film's unexpected twist that truly stuns. I won't give it away, but I think it's no exaggeration to claim it's one of the most shocking in cinematic history. This leads to a final climax that brings about a truly thrilling triangle: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and esteemed director John Huston (as Mulwray's father). It's sexy, it's sinister, and damn if it doesn't smart after you watch it.
Friday, May 11, 2012
By the mid-1950's, film noir started its decline. The genre became infiltrated by repetitive, derivative pictures that lost the tension that made film noir famous. 1955's Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) breathed a new life into the stagnant arena by incorporating two of America's hottest trends: the open road and nuclear fears.
Of course, the film centers around a detective. Unlike most film noir protagonists, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is as crooked as private eyes can come. As he's driving down a lonely highway, he encounters a woman (Christina, played by Cloris Leachman) wearing nothing but a trench coat. Hammer gives her a ride -- not so much because he's a good samaritan but because his sexual interests are aroused. This can only mean one thing: she's an escaped mental patient who's about to be murdered, and Hammer might just be along for the ride.
But the movie isn't just about sexy murdered mental patients. It's also about sexy secretaries and sexy roommates. More importantly, those sexy women are in close proximity to a briefcase containing "the great whatis", a glowing material that not-so-subtly alludes to nuclear weaponry. The person who possess the case has the power; in the hands of a crazy woman (or Russia), this is bad, but in the hands of the rational man (America), this is great protection. But there's just no reasoning with women, is there?
This dichotomy of safety and danger is also represented throughout the film with the car. It is when Hammer is alone in his car that he is truly himself, isolated with his thoughts. When Christina is murdered and Hammer knocked out cold, his car acts as a hearse. Of course, the car also transports our heroes to the beach, the location of the film's thrilling climax. Without the car, there would be no danger, but there also wouldn't be any adventure.
It's no surprise that Mr. 50's-lover himself, David Lynch, incorporates so many film noir aspects into his work. 1997's Lost Highway goes a step further, borrowing the visuals of both the opening and closing sequences of Kiss Me Deadly. While Aldrich's original has a beautiful contrast, Lynch's careful use of sparing color and grainy texture increases the isolation and tension. It truly heightens the emotions presented in the original while maintaining the integrity of film noir.
I admit that this film has 2 major things I look for in a film: 1. It's directed by David Lynch (my favorite director), and 2. Bill Pullman stars in it (see also here for more information on that weird fetish of mine). That being said, it's difficult to discuss the film in terms of narrative; in typical Lynch fashion, the story obfuscates logic and traditional concepts of plot. Lost Highway is a surreal nightmare trip into anger, obsession, personality, and murder. The extreme emotions are highlighted by the film's strong color palette. Bold red, gold, black, and white are consistently repeated -- in the road, the sets, blood, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman)'s saxophone, and the make up of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake).
Like Kiss Me Deadly, the car plays a critical role in the story. Madison is fully isolated in his car; again, this intimacy shows that character for who he truly is. Further, Pete Dalton (Balthazar Getty), Madison's double, is an auto mechanic. The film's anxiety culminates in multiple cars meeting for a classic noir-style climax. Afterward, Madison flees from the police, flying down the highway like in the beginning of the film.
And with that, I wish you a happy Friday. Drive safe!