Old film noir flickers ironically through new noir

January 22, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In 1972, then film critic Paul Schrader wrote a seminal essay on the dark and mesmerizing post-war American cinema of deceit, murder and betrayal known as film noir. He broke it down into three phases, the last of which, the "manic," had just ended -- or so he thought. He didn't know, of course, that he himself would write the last great film noir of the "manic" phase, "Taxi Driver," in 1976.

He also didn't know that there was a fourth stage yet to come, one that has blossomed of late into full, gnarled bloom. It might be called the "ironic" stage, or as some have christened it, "nouveau noir." It took root in 1981 and has now reached maturity in the works of John Dahl, the latest of whose films, "The Last Seduction," has just opened.

Ironic noir is the antithesis of manic noir. Manic noir, whose two highest accomplishments were "Taxi Driver" and, before that, "Kiss Me Deadly," Robert Aldrich's jazzy spin on the Mickey Spillane novel, celebrated the last pure product of America: craziness. They were by definition over the top, and took as their protagonists men who lost control. In "Taxi Driver," Robert De Niro's Travis Bickel shot his way into the American subconscious as a twisted version of Arthur Bremer, who would inspire an equally twisted John Hinkley. The movie ended in the excess of massacre as Bickel, under a Mohawk haircut and spattered with blood, blew away everything that moved in a New York brothel, convinced it was his messianic role to cleanse the world.

Nothing so impolite would happen in ironic noir. It's not about screwballs, psychos, gun people or anything. It doesn't celebrate craziness, but rather another pure product of America: movies. In fact, it has the cool detached humor of a good movie review, which in a sense it is. It's sublimely self-aware -- as opposed to the genuine spontaneity of the original noir works -- as directed by young men who are completely conscious of everything they do. Their primary goal is to do a film that both celebrates and parodies the genre. They lack the reflexively pyrotechnic drive of such noir greats as Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity," 1944), Joseph Lewis ("Gun Crazy," 1950) or Rudolf Mate ("D.O.A.," 1950), and, of course, they've seen too much film noir.

If you asked Wilder, Lewis or Mate or any of the others about film noir they'd say, "Huh?" Then they'd have the unit publicist kick you off the set. Ask John Dahl about film noir (I did), and he says, "Well, the three greatest influences on my work were . . ." and then proceeds to discuss with clinical detail three films -- "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard" by Wilder, and "A Place in the Sun" by George Stevens (not exactly a film noir but, courtesy of Theodore Dreiser, about a murder) -- and how he set about to re-create their impulses.

That's not necessarily bad; it is necessarily inescapable. One of the real changes in film culture over the past, say, 30 years, is the sense in which it's turned in upon itself. The first few generations of sound movies were made by men who were pioneers as much as they were artists. They were flying by the seat of their pants. Most came from stage or newspaper backgrounds, most worked under intense studio pressure (the studios being literal factories that turned out 200 "units" a year), and most just did what worked without thinking about larger meanings until later. They were eminently practical men, and if you read their interviews they tended to make fun of the earnest young intellectuals who asked Big Questions.

Why did you shoot the concluding sequence from "Hell on Four Wheels" through the reflection of the broken mirror? Was it to indicate Bill's advanced state of psychosis?

Er, no. I saved about 8,000 bucks that way. We had a whale of a cast party with that money.

That sort of thing.

Yet given the helter-skelter nature of its inventors, film noir nevertheless has such a coherence to it you wonder if it was engineered by a single brilliant mind, or at the very least a learned committee.

Post-war dominance

There are many explanations for its emergence as the dominant film mode at the end of World War II. The most common is that it somehow reflected post-war exhaustion and pessimism. We had just won a giant victory and what did we win? Yet another war with yet another ominous super enemy, this time made all the more potentially lethal by the possibility of nuclear extinction.

Add to this the infusion of refugee technicians (cinematographers, lighting technicians, makeup artists) who had no homeland to return to -- the emergence of a proto-counterculture in the rigidly conformist '50s -- and you get a cinema with a dark streak, satiny, existential, full of doomed suckers and smart ladies.

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