Out of the Past and Into the Fire

Five good reasons why Hollywood does bad film noir.

A man crawls a mile with his brains blown out. A woman calls the police after she's shot through the heart. A man is hanged and poisoned and shot and he goes right on living." That's how the late, hard-boiled thriller writer Jim Thompson once described the naked hunger--for sex, money, kicks, power, whatever--that fuels a broad genre of cinema known as film noir.

Ever since the '40s, when snarly, doom-laden, black and white melodramas like Double Indemnity, Gilda, Laura, Out of the Past and Murder, and My Sweet got made, film noir has cast a seductive spell over Hollywood. Fraught with angst, frame-ups, heists and murders, the noir classics were psychodramas played out in chiaroscuro against alleyways, boxing rings and cheap hotels. They featured smoky, snappy-talking femmes fatales (played by such gorgeous spiderwomen as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott and Ava Gardner) and cynical, willing chumps (Glenn Ford, John Garfield, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster). And they went straight to the unconscious of '40s and '50s moviegoers with their erotic gunplay, suggestive dialogue, shadowy motivations and obsessive romantic fatalism. Even the publicity slogans for these flicks crackled: "From the moment they met it was murder," snapped the ads for Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. "Hate is like a loaded gun," growled posters for Crossfire.

The strange thing is, moviemakers these days appear to be as hopelessly hooked on the genre as anybody ever was. Check out Final Analysis, Rush, Bugsy, Shattered, Miller's Crossing, The Hot Spot, Narrow Margin, D.O.A., No Way Out, Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs, and The Big Easy. All were made within the last few years. Go a little further back and you have Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Chinatown, Body Heat, Blade Runner, Murder by Death, The American Friend, The Cheap Detective, The Long Goodbye, Pulp, and Point Blank. These movies, and dozens more made within the last few decades, genuflect to noir. Some spoof it. Some castrate it on the butter knife of nostalgia. The smart ones--_Rush_, The Grifters, Internal Affairs, for example--breathe with a nasty, malicious, contemporary life of their own as they recall classic noir. Smarter ones--_Bugsy_, Miller's Crossing, Body Heat, Who'll Stop the Rain, Chinatown, The American Friend, Taxi Driver, and Blue Velvet--play head games with genre expectations and point toward a postmodern neo-noir.

"At their best, noir movies stand as conscience to many filmmakers, reminding them of what film can be," asserts Henry Bean, screenwriter of Internal Affairs and co-writer of Deep Cover, an upcoming noir thriller starring Jeff Goldblum and Larry Fishburne.

"Noir's vision explains the world we live in: the profound sense of malaise, powerlessness, the sense of an infernal machine working against us all. The things that form the experience we now have of our lives. If these movies weren't art, they were pretty close to it."

We know, of course, that art doesn't always pay the rent. And film noir has almost never paid the rent. Aficionados may groove to the nuances of Nicholas Ray's young-crooks-on-the-run melodrama They Live by Night (1949), but RKO lost nearly half a million dollars on it. Don't even ask how much in the red Paramount is on Chinatown _and The Two fakes combined, or what The Ladd Company lost on Blade Runner. In fact, in the last 50 years of moviemaking, no other noir but _Taxi Driver (1976) has made a killing at the box office.

But that isn't stopping Martin Scorsese from plotting a film of Richard Price's inner-city murder novel, Clockers, while Irwin Winkler shoots Robert De Niro in Night and the City, an update of the 1950 nail-biter. Stanley Kubrick's old producer James B. Harris sniffs movie potential in modern noir-master James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia. Reversal of Fortune screenwriter Nicholas Kazan may direct his own dark romance called Dream Lover. Bruce Willis was mentioned for a remake of the acrid 1950 Humphrey Bogart movie In a Lonely Place but dropped out, to be replaced by Martin Sheen. Columbia reputedly remains hot for Cold as Ice, a script for which Peter Guber and Jon Peters paid over $250,000. Melinda Jason and Marilyn Vance are producing Nocturne, a remake of a 1946 George Raft murder flick. Rumors have swirled since the mid-'80s about a possible movie version of Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs. And over the years, such directors as Bernardo Bertolucci, James Bridges, Walter Hill and Stephen Frears have all considered filming Dashiell Hammett's bloody Red Harvest.

Do these guys actually think they've figured out how to beat the odds and make a killing at the box office with noir? Must be. But this begs the real question: Why, if Hollywood insists on remaining obsessed with noir, a genre that isn't making everybody rich, can't it make movies that rival the gritty masterpieces of old? For all the fascination noir holds for contemporary filmmakers, most present-day noir pieces come out utterly lacking in crackle. For every Internal Affairs, a flawed but at least tightly coiled and lurid film, there are 10 or 20 Hot Spots, movies that retro you to death with their fixation on style at the cost of everything else.

I've been revisiting noir lately, trying to smoke out what it is the old flicks had that contemporary movies can't seem to get a line on. First, better start with some basics. What exactly is noir? Literally, the words mean "black film," or "dark film." French critic Nino Frank coined the term in 1946 when, in a single, post-WWII month, tout Paris saw for the first time The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Woman in the Window and Murder, and My Sweet. Generally shot on the cheap (back then, studio heads knew they weren't crowd-pleasers), these movies stung like strong, lived-in stuff. Of the directors behind the films just mentioned--John Huston, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang and Edward Dmytryk respectively--only Huston wasn't an Eastern European expatriate or the child of one. Their up-close experiences with want and tragedy had left them tough-minded, wary and burning for attention. The Maltese Falcon was screenwriter Huston's first shot at directing. Dmytryk, Wilder and Preminger had done only workmanlike assignments for years before getting a crack at noir. Their hunger comes across in a jazzy Expressionism--cockeyed camera angles, velvety shadows and Freudian symbolism. These movies rock. Which brings us to a good reason why modern moviemakers tend to make lousy noir:

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