Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Perfect Noir? TNR pitches Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past as exemplary of its genre. Interstingly, this was on Terry Teachout's CCI list -- see my post here for links. (Teachout offered Double Indemnity as a comparison point, though Indemnity is really the Citizen Kane of noir: so frequently called the best that the appellation lacks any meaning.) Here's Chris Orr on Past:
If this latter portion of the film follows the noir formula to the letter--the night, the city, the convoluted plot full of double and triple crosses--it only underscores the ways in which Out of the Past has already left the formula behind. Rather than allow the urban nightscape to suggest the ubiquitous decay and inescapable corruption of the modern world, Tourneur has by now shown us other places, alternative realities. The most obvious is Bridgeport, where the film opens and closes, a bucolic paradise of sunshine, mountain vistas, and tender, uncomplicated love. (Imagine Jim Thompson in Walden Pond.) But there is also Acapulco, where the early encounters between Mitchum and Greer capture nighttime at its most seductive: the tropical rain shower that catches the new lovers outside; the bungalow set among jungle foliage and lit by "one little light"; the glowing beach, where the two ensnare one another against a backdrop of fishing nets. Both visions--the mountains at daytime, the ocean at night--may turn out to be nothing more than dreams for Mitchum, but their very existence as dreams lends Out of the Past a wistful air, a sense of loss absent from most hard-boiled noir.
I'll second that. As a big fan of these films, I've always loved, for example, Bogart's Big Sleep performance; but Bogie's Marlowe is, by comparison, a pretty cleaned-up tough guy. He's got the patter and the tough, but not the mournfulness. To some extent, that's a reflection of Chandler's stories, but even in The Maltese Falcon, it's hard to believe that he's really in love with Brigid O'Shaunessy, even as he sends her up the river and says, "I'll be waiting." On the other hand, a palpable sense of doom hangs in the air in Out of the Past, showing us more than a cynically jocular anti-hero like Phillip Marlowe, showing us the fateful choices, the ruined lives, and the haunting memories.

Orr makes a tacit point by neglecting to mention Taylor Hackford's Against All Odds, which remade part of Out of the Past with Jeff Bridges as the Mitchum character and Rachel Ward as the Greer character (with Greer playing Ward's mother). Odds is a fashionable piece to despise, though it's not as bad as some would have it; and, as a remake of a classic, it is an immediate dead letter for the professional nostalgists in film criticism. But Hackford knew what he was doing, and the electric charge of foreboding translates well into the later movie. Of course, there's no touching Mitchum for laconic style, and Bridges wisely doesn't even try, but Ward is every bit the seductress that Greer was back when, and James Woods is reasonably menacing. Try both, but definitely see Out of the Past.

As a side note, and rather heretically, I think Chinatown beats out both Indemnity and Past as the top of the noir heap. Polanski's use of color, particularly the dry browns and tans of the parched land and the lush greens of the irrigated citrus farms, is every bit as artistically rendered and pregnant with meaning as the classic use of shadow and light in the old B&W noirs.


Razor said...

Oooh, I'm Enobarbus! I don't watch pop drivel based on comic books, I'm only into film noir and black and white films (unless it's Polanski). Ooooh, look at me!

Seriously though, I agree that Bogie was never one of those characters that offered a lot of depth to his roles. He was the perfect caricature of a private dick, or a shady tough guy, but he didn't have that underlying believability. He really excelled in roles like "The River Queen" when he was able to throw off some humor while mocking the up-tight K-Hep (doesn't work as well with the old time stars, does it?)and her fancy dress in the middle of a jungle river.

He can still do the un-polished roustabout, but more by virtue of playing it honest, as opposed to being some out-and-out bad guy who has to sell his toughness. To wit: "The Desperate Hours", which Eno and I both read a long time ago as an example of bad pulp noir. Many say Bogie plays a great villain. I'm not convinced.

For hit-or-miss noir, see Mitchum. For a hit, see the original "Cape Fear" which did more than the re-make, with less. If you don't buy that as true "noir", then see "Macao" which is fun, dark and full of what they call "atmosphere". For a miss, see "Where Danger Lives". It's quite awful.

enobarbus said...

Wait a minute! I stood in line on opening night to see Batman, dammit, so you can come off your high horse.

Of course, I wouldn't have bothered to see Batman if you hadn't dragged me. Still, with a bit of creative lying, I now count myself among the cognoscenti -- "Yas, I was at the Batman premiere. Huge hit, of course. Keaton smokes like a chimney, you know."