Monthly Archives: February 2012

Darkness and Corruption

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Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Kiss Me Deadly references Christina Rosetti’s sonnet “Remember” multiple times. I don’t know if this is an element adapted from the Mickey Spillane novel, but either way it was included, and thus has an importance to what takes place in the film. The poem is beautiful; it consists of a speaker addressing a lover, telling him/her how to deal with the speaker’s eventual death. It is sad, but also hopeful. It is not immediately clear how this poem interacts with the events in the film. Kiss Me Deadly is concerned with the universal decay of the American society, as seen in the sprawling, dangerous city, the nihilism and decadence displayed by all of the characters, and the unleashing of the nuclear destruction at the end of the film. How can a personal poem about love survive in such a world?

Remember me when no more, day by day,

You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Of course, the irony that the world presented in the poem is not the world presented in the film–and that this irony is lost on all of the characters–is probably the point. It is a sign that the world that Hammer inhabits is devoid of poetry. In the scene when Carver reads the poem aloud, Hammer treats it only as a tool. The poem is just another clue for him, one that leads him to a new act of violence. Any beauty or aesthetic value is non-existent; function is all that matters.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

The poem’s treatment of death provides another criticism of the world of Kiss Me Deadly. The body count is gigantic. In the first ten minutes the first character we meet is killed, and Hammer unravels the mystery through violence, moving from corpse to corpse until the audience is numb to death. Eventually death seems a non-event; when Gabrielle kills the main villain at the end of the film, it barely registers to the audience, because they just saw the main villain’s face for the first time. I don’t even remember his name. Only the unleashing of nuclear holocaust can rouse these characters and get them to consider their own mortality, and Hammer and Velda do in the surf. The poem’s careful, sweet consideration of death has no place in a world where violence is almost always the first course of action.

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

Much as the the poem’s view on death is unable to exist in the world of Kiss Me Deadly, it’s idea of love, too, is stifled. Sexuality is used as either a tool or a plaything; women come on to Hammer within seconds of meeting him, and he receives them with open arms. Hammer and Velda’s relationship is the closest the film comes to portraying any sort of love, whether romantic or humanistic, and it is characterized as a business partnership, in which they use their bodies for gain. Again, it appears that a nuclear event is the only thing that allows Hammer and Velda to consider their relationship as something more than a sexual and monetary practicality. The emotions in Rossetti’s poem are unthinkable in this version of Los Angeles. The poem acts as a window into another, happier world, but it is a window the characters are unable to look through.

Why The Third Man Made Me Happy

     Although Wikipedia is not a credible source for any sort of research, it does give a good sense of general opinions, especially on culture. What the Wikipedia masses have determined, then, is that The Third Man is a “1949 British Film Noir” that “many critics rank as a masterpiece.” I do not dispute the masterpiece claim; the movie is brilliant, from its sharp camera angles to its powerful performances. The claim that can be disputed is that it is a film noir. It is a film noir in style; the obligatory ciaro-scuro lighting, labyrinthine city and subjective cinematography are all present. In themes, however, the movie fails the noir label.

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Hide your nieces; Joseph Cotton's back!

 

     Spicer lists several thematic elements that Noir films usually follow. The first one, one that has appeared in each film we have watched, is the theme of “Existentialism,” or, as Spicer qualifies, of “Alienation and Paranoia” (Spicer 64). Spicer defines Noir’s existentialism as its “sense that life is absurd and meaningless,” which really is more Nihilistic than Existential (Sartre, theExistential, finds meaning in the world, so I don’t like Spicer’s use of the term) (Spicer 64). This is a trait that has shown up in every film we have watched so far. Both Phyllis and Uncle Charlie displayed this sort of nihilism, and both Neff and Young Charlie face down this lack of meaning, and are at least partly ruined by it. Now, there is a sense of Nihilism in The Third Man; Lime extols the philosophy on the ferris wheel. Yet, it is not allowed to triumph in the film as much as it is in Double Indemnity and Shadow of A Doubt.

     There are two examples that show this. The first is Holly’s decision to turn on Lime. Initially resistant, Holly finally bends upon seeing the children in the hospital, the victims of Lime’s penicillin racket. By accepting that these children are more important than his friendship, Holly is choosing an absolute morality over the Existential Nihilism represented by Lime. Killing children is something that can be ignored to make a profit; it is morally wrong. To be fair, Gilda and Farrell had a similar triumph over a nihilistic character; unlike The Third Man, however, that ending was more of a product of the production code than a deliberate directorial choice. Holly’s choice to turn Lime in is a vital and integral part of the movie which cannot be written off.

 

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This, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of Nihilism.

     Spicer disagrees; he states the film has a “refusal to endorse conventional morality,” made apparent in the final scene (Spicer 190). Anna’s refusal to stop for Holly proves, Spicer says, that his victory over Lime is “hollow” (Spicer 189). First, calling the victory “hollow” because of this scene implies that everything Holly did was to win Anna over. However, his decision because of the children’s hospital comes after he made the decision to fly home and forget about Anna—she was not a factor in his final choice. The ending, then, is not about morality, or Nihilism, but instead about love. Holly wants one more chance to talk to talk to Anna, even at the expense of missing his flight. Even his final line–”I haven’t got a sensible name”–is a comment on the senselessness of someone in love as opposed to anything about the unfairness of the world in general. One gets the sense that after smoking his cigarette, Holly will pick up his bag and follow Anna off the camera—in a continuation of the story that the camera cannot, or will not, capture.

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I hope there's not a body in that cart he's leaning against.

 

     Of course, failing to contain one theme does not make this film not a noir. However, it is a major factor to miss. I left Double Indemnity and Shadow of a Doubt feeling dirty, as if the world is a darker place than before the film started. I left The Third Man with a hope that even if the world is shadowy and askew, that there are some moral choices that are easy to make, and that even being forced to kill a friend doesn’t keep him from falling deeply in love.

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Or maybe it's just the romantic in me.

 

 

Hello, is it Me You’re Looking For?

The scene in which the titular character is introduced in Charles Vidal’s Gilda is vital to the film. Gilda is revealed to both Johnny Farrell and the audience at the same time, and as much of the movies revolves around their relationship, this scene is invested with importance, even before it happens. The scene’s dialog, mise-en-scene, and cinematography all reveal both the character’s interiors and the plot that follow in the film, making it an impressive piece of filmaking.

The dialog in this scene is packed with meaning. Before Johnny and Ballin even enter, Gilda is singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” a song both meaningful in its lyrics—it is about a woman who’s actions lead to an earthquake—and in its foreshadowing—Gilda later sings it in the casino to get back at a possessive Johnny. Also, the first lines spoken by Gilda, “Me? Sure, I’m decent,” delivered with a glare at Johnny, reveal to the audience a past history between Farrell and Gilda. It also conveys a sense of irony on repeat viewing; Gilda ends up being indecent, both to Ballin and to Johnny, and she is met with much indecency in turn. In addition, Gilda cannot stop saying Johnny’s name. She uses it almost as punctuation, ending every sentence with a “Johnny Farrell” or a “Mr. Farrell.” This provides a nice piece of dissonance for the audience when she comments that Johnny is “such an easy name to forget.”

But how could you forget that face?

The mise-en-scene, too, makes this scene a premonition of the events to follow. There is a mirror placed behind Gilda, so when the camera switches to a wide angle view of her, the audience can see both her front and back, a nice hint at the power she finds in her sexuality. The lighting, too, adds to the importance of the scene. Johnny’s face is covered in shadow until he steps into the bedroom and sees Gilda. Then his face is hit with light, a metaphor for both Gilda’s beauty and Johnny’s feelings for her—he sees her and is reminded of both. In addition, the blocking hints at the conflict yet to come. Ballin crosses between Gilda and Johnny, but turns his back to Johnny to kiss Gilda. Gilda and Johnny do not break eye contact, so the audience is clued in to the eventual love triangle.

Fun Fact: The original title for the Shawshank Redemption was going to be "Gilda 2: Jailbreak!"

Finally, the cinematography reinforces the importance of Gilda’s introduction. Johnny and Gilda’s conversation is shown through a typical shot/reverse shot, but excludes Ballin entirely. Even when he speaks, the camera remains on either Gilda or Johnny, focusing on their reactions. Ballin has to physically enter the frame of the camera in order to get some screen time, and even then the camera still holds Johnny and Gilda in the center. It is a well crafted scene, and it sets a standard that the rest of the film, with its cheese ending and its convoluted plot, fails to live up to.

 

Murder on the Hitchcock Express

Herbie Hawkins is an odd character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. He is kind, but seems socially inept, wandering into the Newton’s house during dinner. He enjoys talking to Mr. Newton, but only on the subject of the perfect murder. The only real affect he has on the story is his alerting the Newton’s to female Charlie’s screams in the garage. However, Herbie is very important to one particular agenda of the movie: re-writing the script of the detective story.

Outlandish theory: Herb is actually trying to come up with a plan to murder his mother.

Early in the film, after Uncle Charlie has arrived but before any talk of dead widows, Herb and Mr. Newton discuss detective fiction on the Newton’s front porch. Herb points to an unseen story and says “That little Frenchman beats them all. You can talk all you like about Sherlock Holmes.” This conversation, though seemingly unimportant, actually puts the film in a very specific context. The “little frenchmen” is, presumably, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous detective featured in dozens in novels and short stories. The stories of both Sherlock Holmes and Poirot were whodunits—formulaic mystery stories in which the killer was revealed at the end of the story after the astute detective unravels a series of clues. Usually the killer is then arrested or dies, and justice is served. These stories were massively popular in the time period leading up to Shadow of a Doubt, with the first movie adaptation of a Christie story coming in 1928 (IMDb). Following is a typical ending to one of these stories, from the BBC version of Christie’s Death in the Clouds, with David Suchet as Poirot:

In alluding to these concurrent stories, Hitchcock is not trying to mimic these whodunits, but instead subvert them. In the Christie’s stories, the killer is never revealed until the end; in Shadow of a Doubt, the killer is revealed in the middle, with definitive evidence coming when Charlie finds the newspaper article with the names of the widows and matching them to the inscription on the ring. In addition, most of the whodunits end with justice being served, whether through imprisonment or death of the murderer. Shadow of a Doubt, however, while killing off Uncle Charlie, does not feature the final revelation. Young Charlie keeps the murder between herself and detective Jack, a shade-of-gray moral choice that goes beyond the simple “the villain goes to jail” ethics of most mysteries. In addition, the film even goes so far as to mock these simple tales; Herb, who is constantly discussing the perfect murder, is entirely oblivious to Uncle Charlies attempted garage murder of Young Charlie.

This subverting—and mockery—of the typical mystery plot is one way in which Shadow of a Doubt is a film noir. Many of the later noir films are also liberated from the traditional detective plot. Double Indemnity, released the next year, begins with the revelation of the murderer. This movement away from the entertaining, Scooby-Doo unmasking allows the filmmakers to focus less on plot and more on character. Indeed, in Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie’s internal dilemma over whether to reveal her Uncle is far more thought provoking than the detective’s attempts to solve the crime. It allows for the complex psychological character studies that appear in many film noirs, and usually makes for a more engaging film.

A children's show, or a brilliant satire of its own genre?