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Jeff Netto

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Posts posted by Jeff Netto

  1. Both Hitchhiker and Kiss Me Deadly open with the sudden interruption of nighttime drives, and both put a similar spin on the automobile-at-night motif. At night on dark deserted roads, the car seems like a safely enclosing space, a place where travelers are sheltered against whatever might be lurking out  in the inky blackness on the other side of the glass. Inside the car: the lights from the dashboard reveal the recognizable features of human faces. Outside the car: the abyss mocks the feeble presumption of our headlights. As long as we stay inside the car and as long as the darkness stays outside, things seem at least relatively safe. But once we stop and open the door -- even if it's only to invite a stranded traveler into the safety of our car -- the darkness can seize the opportunity and slip inside with us.


    In Hitchhiker, this sense is especially well spelled out by way of the incredibly scarce lighting in the composition of each shot in the opening. Our hitchhiker is at first little more than a silhouette, a shade blacker than the blackness that surrounds him. Once inside the car, he almost seems to morph into a human as he leans forward into the illumination that appears to be provided by the dashboard. Darkness person-ified has just invaded the precarious safety of our protagonists.

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  2. When Brigid O'Shaunessy played her best damsel-in-distress for Sam Spade, she laid it on a bit too thick. Spade didn't buy it, but he let her run through her act anyway. He sat back and assumed the role of an appreciative audience, applauding her acting talents at the end of her scene: "You're good. You're very good."


    The opening of Kiss Me Deadly parallels that scene in The Maltese Falcon. Hammer doesn't say much to Christina after she gets into the car. He just listens to Christina's very provocative pants, gasps, and wimpers -- and then turns on the radio to give her a sultry jazz accompaniment. Hammer drives on in silence several moments, apparently enjoying this impromptu audio program. Like Spade, he seems to maintain a detached appreciation of vulnerable women while remaining somewhat impervious to their alluring charm. But also like Spade, he winds up helping the women who come to him, even if he is a little rough on them at times.


    One thing seems especially different in this later noir situation situation, though. In 1941, our detective is artfully lured into the seamy world of brutal violence and illicit sex. In 1955, our detective is more or less blown off the road by a gust from that seamy world. We no longer need to look for traces of noir. By 1955, we're caught in a storm of it.

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  3. I love the way Lorre and Greenstreet are so cavalier and almost graceful as they wave guns and have guns waved at them. They effortlessly exude a heavy dose of European charm, even as they engage in a deadly game of cat & mouse. They seem like they are worlds away from the gritty, hardboiled streets where Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe prowl in the night. The collision of these two worlds is usually a bit humorous, especially when a hardboiled detective like Spade gives these dapper gents a puzzled smirk. But the lighting, low-angle camerawork, and ominous score usually invite us to look beneath the charming surface of these Europeans and seek out the meanness and grit hidden in there somewhere.

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  4. The scene in the cantina looks sort of like a photographic negative of Nighthawks. Here, there's an oppressive light outside and the figures huddle together in the dim twilight of the cantina. Jeff Bailey (our detective) feels more at ease in the shadowy cantina, listening to the movie soundtrack coming from the cinema next door (where it's also dark). Like Bailey, Kathy Moffat (our femme fatale) is a creature of darkness. As Professor Edwards points out in his intro to the clip, the two figures are both most themselves, most legibly visible in the frame, in this dim half-light of the cantina. But, as our Prof points out, there's a brief moment when Kathy crosses the threshold where she's back-lit and appears mostly in silhouette. Here we get a sense that she's darker and harder to read than Bailey. There's something inscrutable about her brand of darkness. And even if it's true that nobody is completely evil, 'she comes the closest.'

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  5. At first glance, Bogart's Marlowe and his Spade seem to have very similar characters. But by going back to the novels, the difference between Hammett's Spade and Chandler's Marlowe is easier to see. And it also becomes a little easier to see how Bogart picks up on a distinctive trait of each detective's character and elaborates on that trait when he steps into the corresponding gumshoes of each man. When he plays Spade, Bogart seems more like a powder keg that might blow at any moment. He is fairly self-hating, and  he's constantly reminded of his own flaws and shortcomings when he sees them reflected in all the characters that surround him. Bogart's Spade is always ready to dish out and/or swallow a big bowl of punishment. He lives in a world where everyone has it coming to them. Chandler's Marlowe tones this inner violence down a bit. The detective seems less furious regarding his flaws and shortcomings and those of the other characters. Rather, he seems simultaneously disgusted and amused by them, and Bogart captures this with his signature facial tics that precede some of his most biting wisecracks. I think this is a very subtle distinction, but one that Bogart seems to have picked up on and built his characters around. Spade and Marlowe have slightly different attitudes towards the corruption in the world that is mirrored in the corruption of their own souls.

  6. It took me a little by surprise when the tone shifted so completely over the course of the voice-over prologue. We move so quickly from an upbeat expository introduction to the lay of the land and the hard working people who bring food to our tables. From that opening gesture we cut abruptly to a particular "case" of violence and corruption about to unfold in this upbeat setting. The documentary elements of this exposition (overhead aerial pans over the landscape and the journalistic voice-over) situate us very concretely in the real world of Californian agriculture. But as the sequence moves in on human figures framed by barbed wire, chain link fences, and legal prohibitions printed on signposts, the camera gets lower and lower. From high overhead in a god's-eye view of things, we see the spectacle of social and economic forces shaping the landscape. But from closer and lower down, we see other forces at work -- malevolent forces of darkness that the lens of German expressionism taught us to watch out for. Connecting the two perspectives over the course of this opening sequence suggests that the forces of darkness are lurking everywhere in our everyday world, and that spotting them is just a matter of looking at the same old things from a different angle and at a different distance.

  7. For me, it's the handling of lighting in Hopper's painting that gives it the creepy feel. It seems as if the people in the diner are huddled together in the light, perhaps seeking shelter from whatever terrors lurk in the night outside. This scene from The Killers uses light similarly to depict anxiety. But the scene in the diner is followed by the shot of the Swede, who is markedly not anxious. He's resigned, lying in a pool of shadows and already for the most part swallowed up by the darkness that's winging its way toward him outside in the night.

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  8. There's something almost apocalyptic about this strip tease number. Gilda is more than willing to degrade and even destroy herself if she can hurt Johnny as much as has hurt her. She'll smilingly submit herself to the fumbling hands of nightclub revelers who fight for the chance to unzip her body-hugging gown. She appears to embrace her shame, knowing Johnny is writhing in it every bit as much as she writhes in her seductive song and dance.

  9. Up till this point, I think Mildred has kept herself from seeing Veda clearly. Why? Because there's something in Mildred herself that Mildred doesn't want to see -- a murderous rage she would like to unleash on her daughter. It's been there all along, brewing. But Mildred can't allow herself to acknowledge it, so she allows Veda to express her contempt for her mother. When Veda slaps Mildred, Mildred's mask of repression is knocked off for a moment and we see her for the first time -- just as she sees herself for the first time. She is indeed ready to kill Veda. At least a part of her is  ready. This makes Mildred into the kind of partially-tainted protagonist we get with our more garden varieties of noir. 

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  10. The pendulum seems unusually big, giving the clock an ominous, Edgar Allan Poe sense.  Reminds me of the set design in a creepy Sternberg film. One of the things that Lang and Sternberg brought to Hollywood with them is an expressionist idea that we can glimpse the occult forces at work behind the everyday surface of things by assuming the perspective of people on the fringes of modern society: madmen, criminals, believers in old-world folklore and superstitions. From such a perspective, the terrifying dimensions of time's passage might be glimpsed in the mechanism of an ordinary clock or the singing of nursery rhymes.

  11. This scene recalls some of the scenes in The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade was pretty rough with the women in the film (Effie, Ida, and Brigid). These new detectives seem instinctively hostile towards women, as if they are afraid of their own susceptibility to feminine charms and need to defend themselves from their own desires. This roughness with women, I think, pertains more  to Hammett's fiction than to Chandler's. But it helps to toughen up Dick Powell here. He seems a little on  the polished and gentle side to pull off the role of a hardboiled gumshoe. 

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  12. I get a sense that the deceased woman served, and still continues to serve as a femme fatale -- an agent of darkness, an embodiment of evil. Oddly enough, she seems to function in this role after her death, as a sort of disembodied embodiment of evil. It seems as if Lydecker is somewhat feminine (and not just gay). It's as if he, too, if fatale-ishly feminized. These are just impressions I get from the clip.  I haven't seen this movie in a long time. I'm looking forward to refreshing my memory of it on Friday.

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  13. The POV in the opening sequence is a pretty cool way to establish a properly noir-ish perspective. By way of this character, we're going to look at San Francisco from a different angle and in a different light. We're going to see things that ordinary people tend to gloss over because theses things are too dark and disturbing. From this noir perspective, the police seem threatening and the good Samaritan who picks up hitch-hikers seems a little too aggressively inquisitive. These darker and more disturbing aspects of police officers and good Samaritans are suddenly visible when we look through the eyes of an escaped convict. Lots of other familiar elements of our ordinary lives may come to look oddly dangerous as well.

  14. Calm, poised, and inscrutable, Bette Davis fires shot after shot into the body of a man who staggers to get away from her. As we try to read what's going on behind those famous eyes, a cloud passes over the moon, flooding the scene with shadows. The cloud passes and for a moment, Davis herself seems surprised by the sudden return of light and visibility. But the mask of calm, poised, inscrutability snaps back into place  almost immediately. What was it that might have been there to read in that moment of cloud-shrouded darkness? We almost caught a glimpse of something, of some motive or emotional response. But as soon as the light returned, so did the mask.

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  15. I like the way that Lorre's shadow arrives at the scene or our reading just after we do. It's like the belated arrival of my own shadow on the surface of the 'Wanted" poster that I'm reading as the little girl bounces the ball. This reminds me of the scene in Psycho where Norman Bates is peeping-in on Janet Leigh as she undresses. Just as Hitchcock made me feel as creepy as Bates, so too does Lang make me feel creepy for standing next to Elsie. 

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  16. Who knew that operating a locomotive was so complicated and so physically demanding? I enjoyed watching these men drive the train, and I wonder if an irony isn't in the works here. I haven't seen this film yet, but I've read quite a few of these posts so I have some idea where it's heading. I'm wondering if the film won't go on to compare the way Gabin's character is similarly "driven" by dark compulsions (shades of M). Is there a mechanical destiny-machine that will drive him -- independently of his own best interests -- toward his doom? Is he in some sense being "railroaded" by fate?

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