Monday, February 21, 2011

For The Last Day Of The Film Preservation Blogathon: A Recipe For Film Noir And Musings On Its Predecessors by Paul F. Etcheverry

(Note: there are general, if not specific, spoilers in this post, if you have not seen all the films referenced)

Today is the last day of the For The Love Of Film (Noir) blogathon, in support of the Film Noir Foundation. Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog tips the Jimmie Hatlo top hat to hostesses with the mostest Marilyn Ferdinand of
Ferdy On Films and the Self-Styled Siren, Farran Smith Nehme. And Greg Ferrara, who designed the Maltese Falcon logo and cool promotional trailer.

The blogathon's extended wave of scholarly and thoughtful writing has me pondering how the heck one defines the genre, once establishing that the 1970 Florence Henderson vehicle
The Song Of Norway

. . . is definitely not a film noir.

While positively reeking of that distinctive dark, foreboding sensibility, the genre's stylistic predecessors, German Expressionism (usual suspects: Lang, Murnau, Pabst and von Sternberg) and gritty American pre-code movies lack that 1941-1956 period flavor and hovering influence of pulp fiction icons James Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and thus, aren't quite film noir.

Noir predecessors include both the silent-era futurist/surreal brand of Expressionism (Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis) and tough early talkies (The Threepenny Opera and the still disturbing M) from Ufa Studios and, also from the mean streets, various European and American melodramas involving obsession/sexual addiction that propels beautiful babes, dirty young men and dirty old men on what punk rocker Iggy Pop termed a "Death Trip". The symbiotic relationship between entrapment and wanton self-destruction seen in film noir are fully evident in both the Weimar Republic and Hollywood takes on this scenario.

Among these racy and often corrosive films that blasted a searing light on sexual politics and social mores: G.W. Pabst's now iconic Pandora's Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich humiliating the crap out of perennial "poor sap" Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel and fever-pitched American pre-codes Three On A Match, Baby Face and The Story Of Temple Drake.

Film noir is also a direct outgrowth of cynical urban crime stories, fast-talking newsroom tales and provocative social dramas, many from WB-Vitaphone-First National: The Public Enemy, Two Seconds, Five Star Final, The Mouthpiece, I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Heat Lightning, Blessed Event, The Front Page, Heroes For Sale and the aforementioned Baby Face are uncompromising dispatches from the cheatin' heart of The Great Depression.

What are some essential ingredients in the recipe for a well-prepared film noir?

  • City, preferably naked, dirty and tawdry

  • Handsome but messed-up anti-hero

  • Not-so-handsome but dogged protagonist

  • Hard-boiled private dick

  • Wiseguy who knows all the angles

  • Femme fatale

  • Adultery, followed by murder of oafish "lousy lay" spouse

  • Alcoholism (private dick, wiseguy and screenwriter)

  • Escaped convicts and/or killers on the lam

  • Fedoras, preferably battered (not beer-battered)

  • Struggling men, down on their luck, preferably battered

  • Out-of-left-field plot twists

  • Lethal accidents

  • Kidnappings

  • Sleazy hoodlums

  • Sleazier cops

  • Handguns

  • Greasy diner food, washed down with crappy coffee

  • Bicarbonate of soda for chronic indigestion

Directions: Hire an ambitious director, creative cinematographer who adores shooting fast black and white film with dramatic lighting and (preferably) a blacklisted screenwriter. Bake all actors, extras and production staff with a short, brutal, taxing shooting schedule. Mix well but don't take too long. Do not exceed limited budget or use moralism, sweet butter or cheese!

The blogathon extends through today, so there's still time to make a donation. Need motivation? Imagine sitting in your favorite movie palace seeing
The Sound Of Fury in restored 35mm glory! Then envision seeing Cy Endfield's 1950 noir on the big screen again, at the late show!


Tinky said...

As a food writer, I OF COURSE adored your recipe. If we ever do this again, maybe I can cheat and sneak a little beer batter into the fedora.....

paul etcheverry said...

Tinky - My intrepid partner in life is the wordsmith behind the Annie's New York Eats blog (now on hiatus).

Should you find yourself in the beautiful Hudson Valley sometime, don't miss the wonderful Red Devon restaurant in Bangall (near the NY/CT border)!

paul etcheverry said...

And. . . my brother-in-law published Epicurean a few years back.