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Dr. Rich Edwards

Into the Darkness Video Lecture #4: The Motives (Noir Themes and Characters)

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This is the official thread for discussing the lecture and related study materials for Week 6 of the course, Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir. 

 

Let the discussions begin!

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Our lectures are delving deeper into cultural and intellectual influences on film noir. I'm very excited to discover the many movements that inspired the filmmakers of the period! As a post-graduate of philosophy and psychology, I hope to offer some insights into these vast and complex studies.

 

To begin, I want to point out that the very term "existentialism" has often been eschewed by professors of philosophy. The reason for this is that, in a manner similar to film noir, existential philosophy grew out of various mediums, such as art and literature, as well as metaphysical doxologies, like theology and nihilism. Existential philosophy is, by its very nature, then, an "anti-system"; that is, it favors individual experience over universal categories. It is a movement, a "genre," if you will, and a style, espoused by various writers, artists and thinkers, from Miguel de Unamuno and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus. This notion of "existence over essence" challenged former modalities like Platonism, which supports forms as the foundation of all things, or even Materialism, which recognizes external reality, or matter, as the fundamental substance of being. Existentialist thinkers, in their emphasis of individual freedom, dread and, sometimes, faith, were as renegade as our beloved film noir filmmakers! Thus, an existentialist might say, "To purport existential philosophy as a system would, by its very nature and definition, create a contradiction in terms that would cause it to collapse into itself." I prefer, then, to use the phrase existential philosophy. And don't even get me started on phenomenology ;-)

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One of the topics mentioned in this module concerns how skillfully many films noir make use of character actors. That is a topic that has really struck me as I've watched the films so far in this course. Kudos to Howard da Silva. I never even knew this actor's name before, but it seems like I've seen him in dozens of films, noir or otherwise. I enjoyed his performances in Border Incident and They Live by Night, and I'm looking forward to The Blue Dahlia.

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Agreed. Here's a picture of Howard da Silva. I hope others share some of their favorite character actors in film noir, so we can assemble a gallery of the great character actors that populate the film noir universe and give it so much of its mood and attitude. Even when we don't know their names, we know these actors and have seen them, in some cases, in dozens of film noir. da Silva's credits included Blues in the Night, The Blue Dahlia, They Live by Night, Border Incident, and M (1951 version, directed by Joseph Losey).

 

howard-da-silva-1-sized.jpg

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Two of my favorite noir character actors, in one shot

 

the-killing-w1280.jpg

 

 

 

Marie Windsor and Elisha Cooke, Jr.

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Not a major character actor, but --as pointed out by Eddie Muller in his post movie comments on the High Wall --Frank Jenks played an (uncredited) supporting character who was an essential character serving to move the plot along at a point where the writers had painted themselves into a corner in the development of the story.

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Regarding the characterisation of the Gloria Graeme character in In a Lonely Pkace as a femme-fatale in the final part of the lecture. In more than a few noirs female protagonists are not femme-fatales but more femmes-noir - women enmeshed as male protagonists are. The Graeme character can in no way be seen as a femme-fatale. You could say that Bogart is the homme-fatale to Graeme.

 

I may be jumping the gun :) regarding Existentialism, in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, you have more than one femme-noir - philosophy majors not but they act by their refusal to accept their fate without a fight. As I wrote on elsewhere a few years back, look at Debbie Marsh, the murdered barfly, and the caryard clerk, and you see each takes responsbility and acts. Acts as Sartre talks about in Being and Nothingness:

 

"I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.

 

– Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Being and Nothingness’ (1943)

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The ideal film noir to me should have a theme of danger and wrong decisions with misfit characters... the tough guy, preferably a private dick and his love interest the femme fatale. Locations would include a jazz club with the secret back room leading out to the alley. On set we'd need dark climbing stairs leading to the dame who lives above the bar. She's hired the P.I., her life's in danger. She sets in the dark smoking, waiting and peeping out those old venetian blinds. Enter the character actor who owns the bar and can solve all her problems with a promise and a bourbon because he knows people but it'll take money. Her man never comes. Someone got to him first. Now they're coming after her because she knows too much. I want Ida Lupino to direct my film.

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Agreed. Here's a picture of Howard da Silva. I hope others share some of their favorite character actors in film noir, so we can assemble a gallery of the great character actors that populate the film noir universe and give it so much of its mood and attitude. Even when we don't know their names, we know these actors and have seen them, in some cases, in dozens of film noir. da Silva's credits included Blues in the Night, The Blue Dahlia, They Live by Night, Border Incident, and M (1951 version, directed by Joseph Losey).

 

howard-da-silva-1-sized.jpg

Don't forget that he portrayed Benjamin Franklin and as for me, ruined the role for anyone to come.  He was fabulous and it was so nice to see him not playing a creep for a change.  He had been in "Unconquered" and played such a louse.  He was usually nasty in his movies and played the roles so well.

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Regarding the characterisation of the Gloria Graeme character in In a Lonely Pkace as a femme-fatale in the final part of the lecture. In more than a few noirs female protagonists are not femme-fatales but more femmes-noir - women enmeshed as male protagonists are. The Graeme character can in no way be seen as a femme-fatale. You could say that Bogart is the homme-fatale to Graeme.

 

I may be jumping the gun :) regarding Existentialism, in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, you have more than one femme-noir - philosophy majors not but they act by their refusal to accept their fate without a fight. As I wrote on elsewhere a few years back, look at Debbie Marsh, the murdered barfly, and the caryard clerk, and you see each takes responsbility and acts. Acts as Sartre talks about in Being and Nothingness:

 

"I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.

 

– Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Being and Nothingness’ (1943)

 

I agree that Gloria's character in the movie In a Lonely Place isn't a femme fatale.   Either is the character Debby she plays in The Big Heat.    (instead the cop's wife is the femme fatale since it is her actions that lead to the death of so many people and bring on The Big Heat).       Too often we try to force-fit the lead female character into the femme fatale role.    e.g.  While Liz Scott played some iconic femme fatale character in over half of her noir films she isn't the femme fatale.   I assume the reason is because evil acting characters get more press.    

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Our lectures are delving deeper into cultural and intellectual influences on film noir. I'm very excited to discover the many movements that inspired the filmmakers of the period! As a post-graduate of philosophy and psychology, I hope to offer some insights into these vast and complex studies.

 

To begin, I want to point out that the very term "existentialism" has often been eschewed by professors of philosophy. The reason for this is that, in a manner similar to film noir, existential philosophy grew out of various mediums, such as art and literature, as well as metaphysical doxologies, like theology and nihilism. Existential philosophy is, by its very nature, then, an "anti-system"; that is, it favors individual experience over universal categories. It is a movement, a "genre," if you will, and a style, espoused by various writers, artists and thinkers, from Miguel de Unamuno and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus. This notion of "existence over essence" challenged former modalities like Platonism, which supports forms as the foundation of all things, or even Materialism, which recognizes external reality, or matter, as the fundamental substance of being. Existentialist thinkers, in their emphasis of individual freedom, dread and, sometimes, faith, were as renegade as our beloved film noir filmmakers! Thus, an existentialist might say, "To purport existential philosophy as a system would, by its very nature and definition, create a contradiction in terms that would cause it to collapse into itself." I prefer, then, to use the phrase existential philosophy. And don't even get me started on phenomenology ;-)

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One of the topics mentioned in this module concerns how skillfully many films noir make use of character actors. That is a topic that has really struck me as I've watched the films so far in this course. Kudos to Howard da Silva. I never even knew this actor's name before, but it seems like I've seen him in dozens of films, noir or otherwise. I enjoyed his performances in Border Incident and They Live by Night, and I'm looking forward to The Blue Dahlia.

Love "The Blue Dahlia!" Howard da Silva is great. William Bendix is my favorite character actor :)

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Mike Mazurki was terrific in Nightmare Alley and Murder My Sweet. What is interesting is that some character actors are widely known for playing a particular type. In Mazurki's case, he's the big lug with not a lot going on upstairs. But his filmography reveals that he acted in a variety of film types, not just noir--Biblical epics, westerns, musicals even.

 

Aside from character actors, films noir seem to be a place where second-tier actors can really shine. I suppose the term for these actors is "supporting players." The Gloria Grahames and Claire Trevors get some screen time and make the most of it. I knew Van Heflin was an Oscar winner, but I'd never seen Johnny Eager until this class. He was superb, stealing the show in my opinion as the philosophical alcoholic pal of Robert Taylor's. Glad I got to see this film.

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For a great noir character actor look no further than Kiss Me Deadly and the brilliant Percy Helton.

Yes indeed. He was excellent in The Set-Up also.

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I really enjoyed the article "No Way Out: Existential Motifs in Film Noir." I majored in philosophy, so I was curious to see how existential themes are represented in film noir.

I've noticed that in this (and other) articles, they often mention that one of the hallmarks of film noir is the absence of hope, purpose, and justice. I'm not sure I agree with this. To me, most films noir end on something of a hopeful note, where the guy gets the girl (The Big Sleep; Dark Passage; Murder, My Sweet; Laura; Gilda; etc.) and/or justice is served (Double Indemnity; The Postman Always Rings Twice; Out of the Past; Sunset Blvd, etc.). Instead of an absence of logic or justice, I usually find a sense of order in film noir. The guilty might temporarily get away with a crime, but eventually, something will trip them up and justice/karma will be served. To me, that is what has made films noir so enduring, there is hope and justice in a chaotic world.

It's a very interesting topic. I haven't had a chance to watch this week's lecture, but I'm looking forward to it.

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Another great lecture. As in previous weeks I'll be going over the reading material at a later time. This is tough, juggling message boards, readings, daily doses, film watching, and work schedules.

 

I've mentioned this once or twice in passing on other threads, but I'll get into it a bit more here, because it seems the right place and time, but I've been reading a lot of the films I've watched over the last couple weeks as coded body horror films. For those a bit unfamiliar, body horror tends to be based around our fears of disease or decay, and concern medical mutations of our body that we cannot control, and often represent hidden desires or fears in the characters going through the process. Clive Barker, Brian Yuzna, and David Cronenberg are three of the more prominent names who frequently utilize the idea(especially Cronenberg in his early years).

 

In films noir, the world can be seen as the body of the film. The characters are various microbes or cells or even germs within that body, and the body is sick. It's interesting that noir flourished at a time when America was experiencing unprecedented wealth, power, and optimism. But then these films were made by refugees fleeing the ravages of war, or people who had actually been there. Or, even, people who couldn't see a bright future when they had just read about 6 million innocent people slaughtered. The world projected health, while at the same time it was rotting away.

 

You can see the body horror elements most clearly in a film like Desperate, in which our hero is entirely innocent, yet gets dragged out of the domestic comedy of his life and into a harrowing film noir when one of his customers turn out to be a gangster planning a heist. This film highlights the creeping unease of mutation or disease like no other I've yet seen. Our hero begins in domestic bliss, and then comes into contact with a contagion(the gangster played by Raymond Burr), and he spends the entire movie running from this contagion while it secretly eats away at him. Every time he runs he finds a new form of domestic bliss, but it never lasts because the infection finds him, it grows until he leaves again and repeats the pattern. And the infection has its hold on him, as well; he compromises his morals and actually changes as a character the longer the film goes on. The cancer is eating away at him, leaving him marked. This may be too dark a read for a film that ends happily, but I believe it's valid.

 

With this reading you begin to see the use of travel as something more sinister. The roads that crisscross America are like veins, and the veins carry the sickness of noir with them from town to town. View the scenes of travel in this light, and they become like those terrifying montages in other medical dramas, where Patient Zero unknowingly spreads the sickness wherever he or she goes.

 

In noir there is an underlying corruption that hides in the shadows, but is slowly creeping into the daylight. Or should I say overcoming the daylight.

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Especially prevalent in the commentaries accompanying this week’s material are the abundant praises given to Orson Wells, all of which I think should have been more correctly paid to Gregg Toland. The one area of universal praise for Citizen Kane is the cinematography, Mr. Toland’s contribution. As to who suggested what and in which scenes, we will likely never really know, just as we don’t really know who suggested what in the films of D.W. Griffith shot by Billy Bitzer. But it is a certainty that as a novice film maker Wells would not have called for “deep focus” in this scene and not in that one, unless, of course he had seen The Grapes of Wrath or The Long Voyage Home several times over. The habit of citing only Wells illustrates how completely movies are identified by their “movie stars”. And when those who write about films are so equally “starry eyed” it diminishes the importance of what they have to say.


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Especially prevalent in the commentaries accompanying this week’s material are the abundant praises given to Orson Wells, all of which I think should have been more correctly paid to Gregg Toland. The one area of universal praise for Citizen Kane is the cinematography, Mr. Toland’s contribution. As to who suggested what and in which scenes, we will likely never really know, just as we don’t really know who suggested what in the films of D.W. Griffith shot by Billy Bitzer. But it is a certainty that as a novice film maker Wells would not have called for “deep focus” in this scene and not in that one, unless, of course he had seen The Grapes of Wrath or The Long Voyage Home several times over. The habit of citing only Wells illustrates how completely movies are identified by their “movie stars”. And when those who write about films are so equally “starry eyed” it diminishes the importance of what they have to say.

Welles shared direction credit Toland in the film's credits:

 

http://filmsnoir.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/ckane_credits.jpg

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Agreed. Here's a picture of Howard da Silva. I hope others share some of their favorite character actors in film noir, so we can assemble a gallery of the great character actors that populate the film noir universe and give it so much of its mood and attitude. Even when we don't know their names, we know these actors and have seen them, in some cases, in dozens of film noir. da Silva's credits included Blues in the Night, The Blue Dahlia, They Live by Night, Border Incident, and M (1951 version, directed by Joseph Losey).

 

howard-da-silva-1-sized.jpg

Don't forget that he portrayed Benjamin Franklin and as for me, ruined the role for anyone to come.  He was fabulous and it was so nice to see him not playing a creep for a change.  He had been in "Unconquered" and played such a louse.  He was usually nasty in his movies and played the roles so well.

 

When you hear his baritone voice, you know the "smooth" heavy is now in the story !!

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Maybe it's worth a word about the influence of psychology, in addition to philosophy.  Shadow on the Wall was an excellent film that showed a major influence from psychology, including several sessions of "play therapy" between the young girl character and the psychiatrist (played by Nancy Davis).  It's worth noting that all the major characters; victim, murderer, would be victim, and doctor are all female characters.  The made character (played by Zach Scott) is in control of nothing, but is hostage to the actions of the females in his life.  It's also a great story, where the fear and suspense keep coming back.  It gives away nothing to mention the shock of Ann Southern as the heavy, and she does a terrific job of expressing the inner torment of her character.  

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...Instead of an absence of logic or justice, I usually find a sense of order in film noir. The guilty might temporarily get away with a crime, but eventually, something will trip them up and justice/karma will be served. To me, that is what has made films noir so enduring, there is hope and justice in a chaotic world.

 

I like to think of film noir as the main characters making a quilt that looks perfect to them, but a single thread is loose and starts to unravel....

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I've been thinking about the philosophical angle, and I'm not sure existentialism is the only--or maybe even the most prevalent--philosophy found in film noir. Actually, I think stoicism is more in line with film noir philosophy. Stoicism believes you can't control your fate, you can only control your reaction to it. I think the Swede from The Killers would demonstrate the stoic approach of accepting his fate (maybe even to a fatalistic extreme). Also, the Stoics place a lot of emphasis on virtue and discipline, and I think Chandler's Philip Marlowe would be an example of Stoic virtue.

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I want to touch not on the video lecture at the moment but rather on the porfirio article...one point in particular. In the article he states (paraphrasing for consistency) that the choices that the fugitive anti-heroes have to make seem more mundane than metaphysical and that their acts are less clearly rebellious against the established conventions. But I question this... I think that in order to become fugitives in the first place don't they have to be legally challenging the status quo? Aren't they already being rebellious from the get-go? Maybe it's more literal than metaphysical but it seems to me that they've already set themselves up against the world by simple virtue of deciding to be a part from it. 

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I've been thinking about the philosophical angle, and I'm not sure existentialism is the only--or maybe even the most prevalent--philosophy found in film noir. Actually, I think stoicism is more in line with film noir philosophy. Stoicism believes you can't control your fate, you can only control your reaction to it. I think the Swede from The Killers would demonstrate the stoic approach of accepting his fate (maybe even to a fatalistic extreme). Also, the Stoics place a lot of emphasis on virtue and discipline, and I think Chandler's Philip Marlowe would be an example of Stoic virtue.

I think you definitely have a point...but it's more superficial lip-serve to stoicism. They SAY they don't control their fate but film noir anti-heroes prove time and again that it was their bad decisions at a crucial moment, that time they went left instead of right or trusted the wrong girl that controlled their fate not the simple unchanging nature of fate itself. 

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