WEIRDLAND: "The Noir Thriller": pessimism epitomised in The Waste Land

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"The Noir Thriller": pessimism epitomised in The Waste Land

"Murder. Lust. Greed. Despair . . . And Literary Criticism. No wonder they called it the Waste Land" -Martin Rowson, "The Waste Land"

"The noir thriller is one of the most durable popular expressions of the kind of modernist pessimism epitomised in The Waste Land. This relationship is wittily suggested by Martin Rowson’s comic-book version of the poem, conflating Eliot’s vision of modern life with the quest of a hard-boiled detective".

Lizabeth Scott appeared in 21 films between 1945 and 1957, mostly for Hal B. Wallis and Paramount, and was promoted by the studio as a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake-type.

The underlying ‘message’ of dangerous woman films is often that ‘the male ideal of self-sufficiency is not only impossible to achieve but in many ways self-destructive’: women are ‘merely catalysts, and in the end it is often the men who are destructive to themselves’.

Between 1942 and 1949, there were 11 Woolrich novels or stories made into films, the protagonists of which include a man hypnotised into thinking he is a murderer (Fear in the Night) and a mind-reader who predicts his own death (Night Has a Thousand Eyes), as well as alcoholics, amnesiacs, hunted men and fall guys.

Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott in "Dead Reckoning" (1947) by John Cromwell

Private eye films continued, of course, to be made, but if investigative figures were included, they tended to become increasingly vulnerable and flawed –for example, Bogart’s confused, hunted Rip Murdoch in John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), Robert Mitchum as the traumatised Jeff Markham in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Edmund O’Brien as the dying protagonist hunting his own killers in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950)

Gene Tierney in "Laura" by Otto Preminger (1944)

In 1946, echoing the Gallimard label, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American ‘film noir’. Although they were not thought of in the United States as films noirs (the French label did not become widely known there until the 1970s), numerous postwar Hollywood movies seemed to confirm the French judgement that a new type of American film had emerged, very different from the usual studio product and capable of conveying an impression ‘of certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist’.

The Hollywood releases of 1945 included Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce and three films noirs directed by Fritz Lang – Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. In 1946 David Goodis published the first of his crime novels, Dark Passage, and Delmer Daves began filming it; in the spring and summer months of 1946 alone, Hollywood released Blue Dahlia (George Marshall), Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett), Gilda (Charles Vidor), The Killers (Robert Siodmak) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks). In the same year Gallimard brought out French translations of two of Horace McCoy’s novels, the first American novels to be included in the Série Noire.


Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston in "Dark City" (1950)

"Hollywood, however, constrained not only by the Hays Code but by conventional expectations about the ultimate repression of the sexual, aggressive woman, tended to package the femme fatale narrative in ways that limited the ‘progressiveness’ of the cycle and confirmed popular prejudices by figuring the defeat of the independent female and the reassertion of male control.

Novelists were free to play much more extensively against stereotype, often setting up plots that initially lead us to judge according to stereotype and then reversing our expectations" -"The Noir Thriller" (Crime Files) by Lee Horsley (2009)

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