This summer, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a free, online summer school course on the history and themes of film noir. Your film editor is taking it, because why on earth wouldn’t I, and I encouraged you to do the same, for the purpose of this bi-weekly discussion.
So we come to the conclusion of our “Into the Darkness” course, and though I’ve been out of school for a while now, it ends pretty much like I remember most classes ending — with scrambling through old notes and trying like hell to remember the names and facts that we learned. But this class also ended with more gorgeous clips from black and white movies, which gives it a definite leg-up from, say, my junior Intro to Oceanography course.
And, appropriately enough, our readings these two weeks (no lectures, sadly) are very much about wrapping things up — about the end of film noir proper, a moment just as difficult to define as its beginning, though the Touch of Evil bookend works for me. (And good gravy, its exclusion from the TCM slate, though presumably the results of a rights issue or something, is unfortunate; by all means, seek it out it you haven’t seen it, and the Amazon rental will be the best $3-4 you’ll spend all month.)
A word, by the way, about the neo-noir reading: there is apparently some controversy over Altman’s Long Goodbye (“many of you aren’t fans,” Edwards writes). For what it’s worth, I deeply love that movie — here’s the nerdiest confession you’ll ever get out of me: I have a Long Goodbye poster adorning my iPhone case—for one key reason: it is both noir and ‘70s New Hollywood, and a reminder that though the parameters of classic noir confine it to that specific period, the ideas, characters, and most importantly attitude are flexible, compatible with many different periods and styles (other recent examples: The Limey, Brick, The Underneath, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Out of Time, etc.).
But that’s what’s great about noir: its flexibility, and, consequently, its flexibility. In the week 8 module, Dr. Edwards asks us to “define film noir in one sentence,” and I’ve given it a lot of thought — from the beginning, we’ve wrestled with the difficulty of defining something so elusive. But after giving it a lot of thought, I’ve come up with this: “Down here, you’re on your own.”
It’s not mine; it’s the last line of the monologue that opens the Coen Brothers’ seminal neo-noir Blood Simple — a film I saw when barely a teenager, perhaps before I saw any of the movies it was paying homage to, but a line that’s stuck with me since as an efficient encapsulation of the noir ethos. At its root, it captures the grim cynicism of the best of film noir: You can work out a foolproof plan, you can think you have the love of a good woman or a tough man, you can see your escape route. But at the end of the day, you can’t rely on anyone: the lover who’ll double-cross you, the partners who’ll sell you out, the rain that’ll make that patrol cop cruise by three minutes later than usual and catch you red-handed. You can’t rely on anyone but yourself — and we all know what a mess you are.
To the question of “closing arguments,” Edwards asks, “what pieces of evidence have carried the ‘most weight’ for you in this course. In your own case-files, what are some of the clues that resonate with you the most? What are some of the new things you have learned? In what ways have you gained ‘fresh eyes’ in which to see films noir? What are some of your remaining questions that this investigation has opened up for you?”
I’ve gone on and on in these posts about the valuable context this course has provided, so I won’t rehash those points; suffice it to say that the manner in which the (especially) the war and post-war mindsets, B-movie business arrangements, and the contrasting sunniness of studio product affected noir filmmakers has proven rather eye-opening.
And in terms of the “new things I have learned” — well, I learned what I learn pretty much every time I read a good biography or film study, or take a course like this, or watch a top-notch movie documentary. I learned that I still have so many movies to watch. This is the inevitable result of writing about and loving an art form as endlessly replenished as this one: no matter how many you see, no matter how many of your friends might say, “Oh, man, you’ve seen everything,” at the end of the day, you’ve seen nothing. So here’s the (incomplete) list of all the stuff that’s gone into my Netflix queue/DVR/bought-but-not-yet-watched DVD stack, etc,: The Letter, Dark Passage, Ministry of Fear, Border Incident, The Hitch-Hiker, Too Late for Tears, 99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential, Martha Ivers, Desperate, The Narrow Margin, and Criss Cross.
So that’s where I landed, at the end of this course: with a little more history, a little more insight, and an even longer list of movies I absolutely have to see, as soon as possible.
Your turn. Take to the comments, tell me your one-sentence definition, what your main takeaway was, and, of course, the movies you’ll be seeking out now.