Dr. Rich Edwards

Out of the Past Podcast: Official Discussion Topic

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Out of the Past: Podcast for It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra)

 

’Tis the season for Edwards’s and Clute’s podcast of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) at Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir podcast (Episode 13, December 15, 2005). You can listen to it at

http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/e/9/9/e9987f05aea1641b/OOTP_2005_12_15_IAWL.mp3?c_id=2059979&expiration=1448931596&hwt=fc08c7301d48ab610ee5dcb0499f3c70

If the link is deleted, do an online search for Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, and scroll down to Episode 13.

 

Is It’s a Wonderful Life really a Christmas film? I’ve always thought it was such a dark film with its central theme of suicide.

 

Clute and Edwards point out that the film addresses the central philosophical question: Is life worth living? It’s an existential dilemma, as presented in Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s the same theme as The Killers, another film noir, in which the Swede figures that it’s no use fighting any longer against his past.

 

(I have to agree with them here. Jimmy Stewart convinces me every time that George Bailey had it with his life in Bedford Falls. The despair he feels on that bridge is a great bit of acting from Jimmy Stewart: It’s convincing, believable.)

 

From Clute and Edwards: Capra’s war experience during World War II making film documentaries, the Why We Fight series, influenced the making of It’s a Wonderful Life. This is Capra’s first film after making these war documentaries, and documentary realism played a role in Capra’s approach to this film. Jimmy Stewart is also back from his recent war experience, which he can draw on to depict a character suffering through an existential crisis.

 

Edwards: The critical sequence that qualifies this as a film noir: flashback sequence* when George Bailey sees what his life would be like if he had never been born. But the film is actually bleak for most of its duration.

 

*Not really a flashback; more like a fantasy sequence, with Clarence and George the only ones knowing about the change (that George had never been born). A lot of George's life is explained to Clarence via flashback, but that's not true of the sequence showing what would have happened if George had never been born.

 

Clute: The noir segment actually starts sooner: when George Bailey realizes that Uncle Billy has lost the bank deposit. He is despairing before he gets to the bridge and he treats his wife, children, and Uncle Billy pretty badly.

 

(Again, I agree, but I would go a step further: after years of covering for Uncle Billy, I thought George deserved to feel a little put out. Maybe he didn’t have to rough up his uncle, but then we would have a little less noir in this film.)

 

More points from Clute and Edwards:

• Pottersville: a noir city, with pool halls, strip clubs, dance halls, and bars.

• Gloria Grahame is a noir star in the making. She is vicious in the flashback. She’s a femme fatale with a limited role.

• Some details in It’s a Wonderful Life are similar to Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But before World War II, Capra’s films show the power of the people. After World War II, Capra’s themes revolve around the family, not the community. The family is rebuilt in response to trauma.

 

I know It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be on television this December, and I am really looking forward to seeing it—one more time—with “a noir eye” thanks to this podcast.

Edited by Marianne
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Out of the Past: Podcast for Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan)

 

I listened to Edwards’s and Clute’s podcast of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) at Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir podcast (Episode 3, July 15, 2005). You can listen to it at

http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/a/a/b/aab75b4126fb2f1b/OOTP_2005_07_15_BB.mp3?c_id=2059924&expiration=1447896336&hwt=2094d1264c60d8bef5a2c93021733ed4. If the link is deleted, do an online search for Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, and scroll down to Episode 3.

 

I particularly like the discussion of the literary origins of film noir, and character-driven noir versus visually driven noir. Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards make several great points about the noir features of Batman Begins:

• Christian Bale is one of the best “Batmen.” He is a noir character that is driven by his past, something that he cannot let go.

• Nolan respects his literary source and doesn’t turn the film into a bubblegum blockbuster.

He turned to John Huston (noir) and David Lean (action epic) for inspiration. Batman Begins is combination of the two.

• A post-9/11 Batman: One who lives in a society whose people live with fear; he is something to be feared, and he has his own fears; if you instill fear in a populace, it will destroy itself. (Given the recent news about the November 2015 attacks in Paris, France, and the December 2015 attacks in San Bernardino, California, this discussion is again pertinent, sad to say.)

• The lead is a noir character in the person of Batman. The film is centered on a conflicted hero and does not emphasize the villains.

• Gotham is a German expressionist city: could have been a setting from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

• Falcone’s speech to Bruce Wayne about corruption and his control of power is straight out of Raymond Chandler or straight out of Force of Evil (1949).

 

They also point out the following not-so-noir details about Batman Begins:

• No femme fatale (a wholesome love interest instead).

• Protagonist starts out ambiguous but is redeemed before the end of the film.

 

I just can’t imagine a film noir or a neo-noir with a main character who dresses up in a costume to fight crime. It’s too far out of the realm of film noir for me. The setting looked mostly like crumbling tenements, and the subway/monorail looked too futuristic for me to think of it as noir. The interior of the subway cars looked shabby and were covered with graffiti, but that’s not terribly noir either as far as I can tell. In fact, the film’s urban settings seemed to be making more of a political statement in showing the differences between haves and have-nots.

 

So, yes, Batman Begins has a lot of noir characteristics, but the Batman suit and the futuristic setting, plus the science-fiction gadgets and machines, just didn’t add up to neo-noir for me. I enjoyed Batman Begins, and it has plenty of noir characteristics, just as Clute and Edwards describe, but it still has a main character fighting crime in a costume.

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+1 on the idea that Batman Begins has noirish elements but at its core is still a comic book hero crime fighting vehicle.  It has the past/future mix of art direction like Blade Runner, and of course a lot of the pre-Robin style found in Detective Comics 27-37.  In these issues, Batman is human, vulnerable, capable of being wounded type superhero.  He's a wealthy vigilante of sorts, carries a gun and isn't put in the position of having to save Robin.  In some respects, similar to The Shadow pulps.  Noir's roots are more with detective pulps than detective superhero comics.  In terms of the Clute and Edwards podcasts, it smartly pays for them to have a broad definition of "neo-noir" as, along with more content, it prompts more discussion.

 

-Mark 

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Out of the Past:

Podcast for I Wake up Screaming (dir. H. Bruce Humberstone)

 

This film wasn’t on the Summer of Darkness list and we didn’t see it for the Dr. Edwards’s course, but I decided to listen to Edwards’s and Clute’s podcast of I Wake up Screaming (1941) because I love the movie and the book (and I especially love the title). You can find the podcast at Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir podcast (Episode 38, August 3, 2007). You can listen to it at

http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/9/6/0/960c8b0ad706f771/OOTP_2007_08_01_IWUS.mp3?c_id=2060248&expiration=1453329686&hwt=027bbe2b80b6fbf4f582ba5663ebed59

If the link is deleted, do an online search for Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, and scroll down to Episode 38.

 

I’m going to focus on Clute and Edwards’s use of the term proto-noir to describe I Wake up Screaming because I would call this film a bona fide film noir.

 

*****Spoilers*****

 

Edwards points out the noir characteristics of the film, such as low-key expressive lighting, the authentic New York City milieu, the presence of Elisha Cook Jr. and his particular role in the film. Edwards also says, however, that the world of this film is still fundamentally intact, so it cannot be a true film noir, but I disagree with that assertion:

• Jill’s sister Vicky is dead, so it’s not quite true that the world of the film is intact.

• The detective Ed Cornell is dead by the end of the film. He might not be a sympathetic character, but viewers don’t have to root for him to understand what he represented in the film: corruption, sexual obsession, stalking. And the world of the film is, again, not intact.

• I’m not so sure that the effects of the Great Depression are lifting, as represented in this film. My favorite scene in the film comes when Jill Lynn and Frankie Christopher have just arrived on the sidewalk outside the Pegasus Club. Frankie meets an ex-boxer, an acquaintance of his, who is not doing so well: He still has “that ringing” in his head. Frankie is sympathetic and gives him some money for “a big dinner.” After the ex-boxer walks off, Jill asks Frankie about him.

• Jill: “He seemed to know you were going to give him that money.”

• Frankie: “Always do. I may be a has-been myself someday.”

I thought the scene showed Frankie’s generosity and caring for other people—and his recognition that poverty and need could happen to him at any moment.

• The shot of Frankie Christopher in shadow on the stairs in the Lynns’ apartment building doesn’t take the viewer out of the narrative thread (much like a throwaway shot or dance sequence would in a musical, as Dr. Edwards maintains). That shot is meant to show that Frankie is eavesdropping on Harry Williams and waiting for him to incriminate himself. That’s an important noir detail, an important part of Frankie’s own civilian investigation. (In the podcast, Shannon Clute includes other points that support the use of this shot in the film.)

 

*****

 

So back to the idea of proto-noir: A Greater Boston area repertory theater is running a year-long program in celebration of the unofficial seventy-fifth anniversary of noir. Here’s an excerpt from their website (bold emphasis mine):

 

In the original French articles that identify film noir, The Maltese Falcon is the earliest film cited, but it has since become clear that the genre really came together slightly earlier. It is now widely considered that the first true film noir is The Stranger on the Third Floor from 1940 and so we base our timeline around that film. In fact, the roots of noir go back even further—to some of the earliest feature films. In this proto-noir series we highlight some of the titles that have noir elements but predate the definition of the genre. Here you’ll find the chiaroscuro 1930s horror films of Universal . . . ; films by German directors like Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg, who emigrated to Hollywood and infused it with their unique style; the almost unbearable suspense and frightening violence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage; breezy private detective films starring William Powell; and even an appearance by one of film noir’s favorite sons, Humphrey Bogart. . . .

 

So the definitions of proto-noir, film noir, and neo-noir remain somewhat fluid, depending on who is doing the defining.

 

*****

 

The podcast about I Wake up Screaming offers many more points, and it’s worth listening to after watching the film for all the observations that Clute and Edwards make about it.

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I listened to a dozen+ episodes and finally bailed.

 

I enjoyed hearing them discuss some of the canonical noir titles (like Out of the Past), but a number of the episodes are downright maddening.

 

Whoever said they run wild on Touch of Evil is correct. The hyperbolic-breathless-academic tone of that one was awful. They act as if no noir had previously done the kind of deconstruction that Welles performs. (Kiss Me Deadly and The Killing being two prominent examples.)

 

I wholeheartedly disagree with their take on The Glass Key, the episode that finally led me to unsubscribe. They completely overlook the amount of violence heaped on Ladd's character. It is one of the more obvious ways that the film anticipates the non-heroic hero (in Porfirio's words) of later titles. For 1942, it's a remarkable thing to see. It sounds like they similarly miss the mark on I Wake Up Screaming, a film I would absolutely characterize as full-blown noir.

 

In the case of The Glass Key, they drone on about how "cleaned up" the film is from its source material. And yet they give The Big Sleep a pass and treat it as a "darker" noir than The Glass Key! If anything, the latter is visually more expressionistic and thematically more subversive (check out Ladd making out with the wife of the stuffed shirt moments before he commits suicide). Both have Hollywood endings, but to act like The Glass Key isn't an important film given its violence, sadism, and vulnerable protagonist is laughable.

 

I love the idea of a noir podcast, but this one misses the mark on too many occasions.

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