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FredCDobbs

Black Widow (1954), beginning of the end of the classic era

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>It had some old noir stars in the cast.

 

The operative word is 'some.' Ginger was not known for film noir. Peggy Ann Garner was not known for film noir. George Raft was known more for gangster pictures, which came before film noir. And Van Heflin did it all.

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Fred, I almost agree with you, if not exactly, then at least in principle, that there was a kind of film which represented the beginning of the end of that era. I used to think it was *Green Dolphin Street* (1947), which hearkened back to the great full-rigged films of the '30s, with an amazing cast, including four top character actors: Gladys Cooper, Edmund Gwenn, Frank Morgan, and Dame May Whitty. But now I think the beginning of the (or the actual) end of that era might be *The Last Hurrah* (1958), which on the face of it (and you know by now that I read between the lines) is about politics, but is actually, IMHO, John Ford's homage to the old Hollywood. Spencer Tracy represents the "classic" Hollywood; the other candidate (who uses television for political ads) represents the "modern" age, and the transcendence of television. The scene that furthers that theme is the wake scene -- where Ford gathers many of his old character actors together at a wake -- Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, etc. I see it as Ford's wake for the old Hollywood.

 

So we all have our beginning of the end films, and they are probably different films, but we probably agree that there was a "beginning of the end." There are films made later, which may be in the " old tradition," but they may be exceptions that prove the rule.

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>This was not the post-TV era.

 

The post-arrival-of-TV era. Surely you knew what I was talking about. Surely you know the old noir films the main people were in.

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>This photography style eventually killed the old noir style as more and more studios made murder mystery films in wide-screen and colour.

 

Disagree. The old noir style moved over to television and could be seen in weekly installments of Perry Mason and the small-screen version of The Naked City.

 

As for widescreen and color, you are once again generalizing. 20th Century Fox, the studio that made BLACK WIDOW, made MURDER INC. six years later. That is a black-and-white film in CinemaScope. It was very noir-influenced, except now this style of filmmaking was more commonly referred to as crime dramas and police detective films.

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>But you'll never convince me it's a noir.

 

Probably because Johnson is a more literate auteur and his mise-en-scene is very specific and controlled. This film also has a lot of interiors, and usually noir has exteriors that take advantage of natural settings outdoors due to smaller budgets. BLACK WIDOW has a good-sized budget and a man in charge who prefers dialogue to action.

 

It is still a noir but it is not an Otto Preminger noir or a Phil Karlson noir and that is what's throwing you off.

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>and his mise-en-scene is very specific and controlled

 

Just say "his style" or "his technique".

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Fred, It has been a long time since I have read a thread with so much false information. I think this is a careless thread and it is my hope that we can iron out the unnecessary wrinkles.

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No, Fred. It is called mise-en-scene. Others had mentioned the stagey aspects of this film, and since Johnson's background is in the theatre, he learned a type of composition involving the proscenium arch that he is imposing on to his films. The technical term is mise-en-scene. I will not get as sarcastic as you were in an earlier post and say I do not have time to tutor you, though it is something you should already know given your expertise as a film buff.

 

Start here for more information:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proscenium

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> {quote:title=TopBilled wrote:}{quote}...

>

> It is still a noir but it is not an Otto Preminger noir or a Phil Karlson noir and that is what's throwing you off.

Well, Otto Preminger directed *Laura*, which is generally accepted as a film noir, and I certainly accept it as one. And *Laura* has just about as many interior scenes, all of them elegant rich people's sitting rooms, posh restaurants, etc., as *Black Widow* does.

No, it's not the colour, not the interior settings that make it un-noirish. It's just kind of banal, it doesn't have the urgency or mysterious feeling that good film noirs have, whether they're set in gritty urban streets or someone's living room.

But, as I said, perhaps I did not give it enough of a chance. (That's to see if it's a good movie, not to see if it's a film noir. Which it's not. ]:) )

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Sorry TopBilled, you will never convince me either that it is a noir!

 

 

I think FredC said it best, "it is an example of the end of old-style film noir type b&w photography"

 

SCHINDLER'S LIST does not fall in the noir category at all.

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I have read enough of Fred's threads and posts in other threads to see that there is a pattern to what he is saying. He is usually romanticizing the past and talking about the end of an era that he has attached a nostalgic value to. He is now doing that with film noir, and I actually do not like it, because noir was never about the good old days...it is about the bad old days that are still happening.

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Okay, missw. I think you said it best when you realised that you needed to watch the whole film before rendering a more complete assessment of BLACK WIDOW.

 

By the way, speaking of this title, there is a thriller from the 1980s with the same name, starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. I wonder if folks consider that a neo-noir...?

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>He is usually romanticizing the past and talking about the end of an era that he has attached a nostalgic value to

 

Yes. :)

 

Film noir was never about "the good old days". But they were made in "the good old days". People saw them in theaters in the good old days. Specifically, mainly in the 1940s, and a little into the 1950s.

 

There is no modern movie I can see now that is a "good old days" noir film. They tried it with "The Good German", but they made two big mistakes: the dame was too old, crude, and vulgar, and the villains were all Americans, rather than Germans, Russians, or gangsters. Two big mistakes ruined an otherwise pretty good imitation noir.

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*Niagara* done in 1953 is a wonderful color movie and while watching it one can see it is really a noir movie made in color.

 

*Black Widow* being released in 1954 in color is very close to what I think is the perceived end to B&W film noir as it is generally considered today.

 

With B&W noir movies like *The Big Combo* in 1955, a year later, showing that no matter how great a movie is made in the traditional style people were not paying to see them anymore they stopping doing B&W noir. It is all about the money, if people don't pay to see it they will stop making it, and we see that happen today in movies and TV all the time.

 

 

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When BLACK WIDOW came out a few years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir series, I laughed and thought that this was the most un-noirish title they put out under that series yet. I have never thought this as a noir; it is basically a murder mystery, and one not too compelling at that. If you will, it is ALL ABOUT EVE where Eve gets snuffed by one of those she double-crossed. Some over the top performances, with Ginger Rogers especially adept at the scenery chewing. And the scenery and costumes are lovely; Travilla is the person best known for dressing Marilyn in some of her iconc outfits.

 

Again, this movie wasn't meant as a crime drama (read: Film Noir), but is more akin to a drawing room murder mystery, or an Agatha Christie style mystery. This was one of the first handful of Cinemascope features, pioneered by Fox, in an attempt to stanch the hemorraging of the movie audience defection to TV. More, it attempted to bring some of that audience back ("Movies are bigger than ever") by offering something not on the small screen: giant widescreen and color, with a wide array of stars in photogenic surroundings and clothes...in other words, the fantasy world at which the movies had always excelled.

 

For the first couple of years or so, Cinemascope features at Fox dealt mostly with this type of movie; smaller scale, intimate dramas were out; Zanuck infamously passed on ON THE WATERFRONT as not being attuned to the studio's needs at this time. Around 1956, when Cinemascope was no longer the novelty that it was at first, and therefore, no guarantee of success, the studio started producing more smaller scale pictures, sometimes in black and white, but still in Cinemascope.

 

Gene Tierney's role was small here, because as mentioned, she had recently suffered a mental breakdown after the end of her relationship with Prince Aly Khan. Zanuck had been indulging Tierney since around 1950 by giving her roles that were not too challenging, especially since she was having trouble memorizing lines. Tierney's mental illness would have her off the screen for a number of years after 1955, but 20th would continue to offer her the occasional role, some which she did, into the 60s.

 

This was Peggy Ann Garner's first role as an adult, and this film makes it obvious why she didn't transition from a child star as her contemporary Liz Taylor had. One, she wasn;t that good of an actress, and two, she was far from the beauty that Liz was.

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Something else we need to mention here is that Zanuck probably knew television would go color. So they were making more color films, even the noir, because they knew there would be a market to show these on television at some point in the future. And that is exactly what happened.

 

I think people get it wrong when they say movies were competing with the television. The studios were just trying to maintain as many markets as possible to exploit their entertainment product.

 

Zanuck was also remaking old films as episodic television. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, which is available on Netflix streaming, was redone with Macdonald Carey and Teresa Wright. They were making twice the money by pushing their product on both the widescreen and the small screen. It was a win-win.

 

Meanwhile, radio is what became the endangered species, not movies. Radio drama and comedy was out and most formats were now strictly music, sports and news.

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Something else we need to mention here is that Zanuck probably knew television would go color. So they were making more color films, even the noir, because they knew there would be a market to show these on television at some point in the future. *And that is exactly what happened.*

 

Yes that's what happened. But in 1953, Zanuck and the other studio heads viewed TV as the enemy, and they certainly weren't planning their film output on it being shown on TV eventually. Color TV would come to pass, they had to have known, but at that time, they had not leased any of their backlog to TV, nor were they going to. It was until the later 50s, when the first studio did this (RKO if I remember correctly), and the profits it made on doing so helped break down the studios' reticence to cooperate in any way with the enemy.

 

In the mid-50s, the studios used color more and more for two reasons, primarily because they wanted to differentiate their product from what was on THEN on TV as much as possible, and new color processes, such as Deluxe-, etc.broke the near monopoly Techncolor had had, and made it cheaper to film in color.

 

*Zanuck was also remaking old films as episodic television. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, which is available on Netflix streaming, was redone with Macdonald Carey and Teresa Wright. They were making twice the money by pushing their product on both the widescreen and the small screen. It was a win-win.*

 

 

In 1955, Fox decided to co-opt TV by producing new versions of some of their classic movies, as well as some original ones. The 20th Century Fox Hour ran for two years, starting in the fall of 1955. But this was a 180 degree turn from only two years before, when even big stars were warned of dire career consequences if they appeared on TV.

 

PS- FMC ran all the episodes, recently found and restored, some 8-10 years ago, with Robert Wagner doing wraparounds for them.

 

Edited by: Arturo on Dec 27, 2012 11:57 PM

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I have a film buff friend who believe the classic film era ended when sound came in. And another who thinks that film basically died once color started and widescreen!!!

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I don't think Zanuck looked at television as the enemy. By 1955 he had formed TCF Television Productions and they were in the game of producing original TV programs, some of it being retreads of earlier classic films, especially for The 20th Century Fox Hour.

 

What he was trying to do was to differentiate, as you said, film product from TV product so that it would give them two different markets to manipulate. But I think he knew these products would eventually merge.

 

Desi Arnaz had already been working on an experimental color episode of I Love Lucy and executives knew it was a matter of time before TV would go color. But for now, in the mid-1950s, movies with bigger budgets would be in color and cheaply produced television programs were being made in black-and-white.

 

One thing that Desi did was that after the half-hour series ended, he designed expanded special episodes of I Love Lucy. One of these was 75 minutes in length, so Desi really was a pioneer in the invention of the TV-movie. I am sure Zanuck and the other moguls never thought that TV could produce something that might rival a feature film. At this point, product really begins to change and the way movies can be different is not just by technology but by increasingly adult subject matter-- more sex and more violence.

 

***

I want to go back to BLACK WIDOW now. This is a different kind of noir because it is geared to the upper class movie goers. A lot of noir in the late 1940s and early 1950s probably appealed to people with high school diplomas. But now Nunnally Johnson was giving audiences a more sophisticated type of product, the kind that could be appreciated by people with advanced degrees. So this is another way movies are changing-- they are being niche marketed to people of certain economic classes and educational backgrounds.

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*A lot of noir in the late 1940s and early 1950s probably appealed to people with high school diplomas.*

 

And to Francois Truffaut and other French critics . . ..

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*I want to go back to BLACK WIDOW now. This is a different kind of noir because it is geared to the upper class movie goers. .... But now Nunnally Johnson was giving audiences a more sophisticated type of product, the kind that could be appreciated by people with advanced degrees. So this is another way movies are changing-- they are being niche marketed to people of certain economic classes and educational backgrounds.*

 

Well, this has always gone on, with movies geared for certain audiences. In the 50s, the main niche marketing was to teenagers, with many of the movies about rebels, as well as rock an roll and sci-fi, bringing kids to movie balconies and drive-ins.

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BLACK WIDOW was, IMHO, poorly scripted and acted, but I found myself getting caught up in it anyway. I was really **** off that I fell asleep before the ending, and never found out who the killer was. See my request in the "Information Please" forum.

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"Black Widow" would have been a more effective in black and white- it was nice to see all those New York locations in Cinemascope- and Ginger's clothes looked stunning in color- but story about the dark side of Broadway needed a bit more atmosphere. Studio produced films were aimed at general audiences. The classic era ends with the death of the studio system and the rise of independent producers who began to cater to specific audiences- Corman going for the teen drive in crowd ect.

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Truffaut and other critics who published in 'Cahiers du Cinema' were analysing genre-based film and putting an auteur spin on it. Genre by its very definition means for the common masses.

 

With BLACK WIDOW, Zanuck and Johnson are trying to elevate the noir genre and its product so it is not so common and more highly specialized.

 

David Selznick had set the bar back in the 1930s with polished productions like DINNER AT EIGHT and NIGHT FLIGHT. Those films were not geared towards the typical Depression-era masses, but an upper class movie-going public. And yes, not everyone alive during the Great Depression was an immigrant or poverty stricken, imagine that!

 

In the 1980s and 1990s, Merchant Ivory would be the leaders in this elite realm of filmmaking.

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