Hard-Boiled, or Weeping?
The Curious, Enduring Phenomenon of Film Noir
Shadowlands: The Film Noir Cycle
curated by Greg Olsen
At SAM, Thursdays at 8 pm, through Dec 10.
YOUNG FILMBRATS from the '60s on have been able to reconstruct a film noir scene as if the rules of the genre were encoded in their DNA: Keep the actors grim, the talk hard-boiled, shine a light through the venetian blinds, and you're set. Even the current, dismal Way of the Gun, which can barely rise above its own cynical disgust enough to come up with one believable line of dialogue, doesn't fail to hit every spot on the film noir map: deception; double-cross; elegant, darkly lit room that serves as seat of power; blond femme fatale. But ask the same filmbrats to fashion a similarly iconic moment from a glossy melodrama--a mother tending to her children with the bearing of willing martyrdom, or a young girl shyly spying upon the dashing, self-absorbed dandy she will love her entire life--and they prove incompetent. Just compare the strained, tepid effort of Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, with its muddled restraint and ultimate conformity, to the fireworks the director generated restructuring noir conventions in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. Film noir is practically hardwired into the brains of young filmmakers; the women's film has all but vanished.
It was not always so. Once upon a time the studio system churned out dozens of films a year, in all manner of genre, all with the same offhand efficiency born of years of practice. There was never a sense then that the noirs of Lang or Fuller were the great films of the day; they were profitable quickies churned out to make a buck--as were the melodramas of such directors as Stahl, Sirk, and Ophuls. They just relied on a different set of story variables: lonely widows, guilty playboys, desperate searches for love unending. When they were made, the noir and the weepie were equally disreputable.
The critics managed to rehabilitate noir; they latched on to its angst and anxiety, and saw how concerns that most studio films would only glance at in passing were picked at like an itching scab in noir. Yet the women's weepie, the three-handkerchief film, the soap--whatever you call it, this genre was mostly overlooked. Critics, then as now mostly men, didn't have an interest in the conflicting desires of romance and familial obligation that was the heart of the women's film; they preferred the fatalistic lure of the open road, the existentialist terror at the heart of noir, and as a result one genre has now become lionized while the other still barely manages to be treated with respect. (Tellingly, the one vaguely female-oriented genre that has never completely gone out of favor with male critics and directors is the musical--which is all about escaping the drudgery of domestic responsibility.)
Manny Farber has as good a claim as any to the title of our greatest film critic, and his prescient analyses of Hawks and Fuller went bravely against the tide of mainstream criticism; yet for him, Ophuls' films are overdecorated and Sirk's guilty of needless excess. The French critics who started the whole reevaluation of Hollywood genres in the first place (they named film noir, after all) were more generous with their praise, but the major articles and monographs they wrote still tended to revolve around names like Hitchcock and Ray. It wasn't until Sirk's great champions of the '70s came forward--Jon Halliday, Molly Haskell, Fassbinder--that the women's film received any notice, let alone respect. There could and should have been a middle ground in the discussion, one that realized the women's film could be a portrait of American malaise as sweeping and Technicolored as noir was cramped and shadowy.
SAM film curator Greg Olson agrees, and points as example to a selection from the museum's current film noir series, Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love. There are the requisite small-time hoods and seedy nightclubs of noir, but there's also Ida Lupino struggling to put her love life together, talking her way into Robert Alda's office as a first step on the road to showbiz (foreshadowing Lana Turner in Imitation of Life) and singing a Gershwin tune (George and Ida!) while she lets cigarette smoke curl lazily out of her mouth. Love, self-sacrifice, family ties that bind, a strong woman character at the center of events (all of which seldom matter in noir)--and gangsters, tough-as-nails dialogue, and a sultry whisper of life experiences far from the suburbs of the women's film. The best of both worlds? Actually, most commentaries (I've not seen The Man I Love) dismiss it as harmless hokum. Which is exactly what they used to say about each of the genres it splices together.
The current film noir series at SAM is sold out for all screenings. However, there are generally a few no-shows each night, so the patient and persistent may wish to arrive early just in case.