Thursday, August 02, 2007

Two film noirs

Film forum has put together a series of classic hollywood noirs set in the new york city. This weekend I managed to see three of them. Sweet Smell of Success, The Woman in the Window and Laura. I had seen Laura before but I saw the other two for the first time. Just a few brief notes... (an article from the new york times here)


Sweet Smell of Success on the surface looks an atypical film-noir. There are no guns and no murders in the film, no detective in the raincoat and hat walking down the dark city streets. But that's not to say the film is not violent. Just that its violence moral and emotional. Presumably based on some real-life character, it tells the story of a powerful new york columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, who uses his influence and popularity to make and break careers, and his poodle a publicity manager played by Tony Curtis who would descend to any depth to get a good deal for his client from J.J. The best part of the film is its writing. It is full of crackling dialogues, most of it sounds unreal and strange because both the characters speak the bombastic language of newspaper columns. Though at places I felt the writing was a little too extreme, not justifiable by the information we have about the characters. It is hard to understand how only ambition and desire for success and careerism can drive someone to such depths of moral self-degradation as the Tony Curtis sinks down to. I have no problems with misanthropy but at places it just felt like shrill, raging and completely irrational. The film, specially the Curtis character reminded me of Billy Wilder's The Apartment which has a (kind-of) similar story. Their the misanthropy feels more natural, even though it has a happy ending (though I think it is happy only in name.) I was thinking what Wilder could have done to the story. It certainly fails to reach that level of general social criticism and the way we live now as The Apartment succeeds in doing. Still a very impressive film overall.



Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window has the same cast as Scarlet Street which Lang made a year after, in almost similar roles too. Edward G. Robinson, the wonderful character actor, plays the hapless, pitiful, lonely middle aged man yearning for some youthful adventure. Joan Bennett is the standard femme fatale, at least that's what it appears initially though in the end it is much more complex. There is even the sleazy smooth-talking villain Dan Dureya (who reminded me of our very own Prem Chopra!). One day just after he has dropped off his family at the grand central station for a long holiday, the middle aged professor finds himself transfixed by a portrait of a female figure in the shop window. He meets some of his fellow middle-aged friends and discuss the dangers of transgression and the inevitability of old age. In the night he again stops at the window to stare at the painting and what does he see? Well, the woman herself. Soon he gets himself invited to her house and even sooner finds himself involved in murder and blackmail.

I won't reveal the ending but it is absolutely delicious. It in a way reminded me of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh. A happy ending which can be seen in purely ambiguous terms and which only increases the irony. The original script had a darker and brutal ending and Lang had to change it to fit some censor guidelines. I read somewhere that he was quite happy with the change and it shows too. It keeps the comic underpinning of the rest of the story intact and in no way diminishes the theme of an all-powerful malignant fate plotting the downfall of the tragic hero that Lang and other film noir experts so excelled at portraying on screen. It was loved by the audiences at the film forum too. It received a big applause in the end. A great classic!

2 comments:

Henry S said...

Great article on two Noir classics...

I have one probably pedantic quibble...

Film Noir is a french term and in french grammar a descriptive adjective like colour is never given plural just as in english but unlike English the adjective is placed after the noun. That is Film is noun, Noir is adjective meaning as you probably know black.

So the plural of Film Noir is Films Noir with the plural coming to Film. It's a major headache for me since if we are going to import a word from another language might as well as respect the grammar.

Alok said...

wow, i had never thought about that. makes perfect sense to me. thanks for pointing out. I will let it remain as it is this time and will be careful in future...