Cinema: It’s A Bitter Little World
By Ryder W. Miller
Film Noir is usually described as having begun in America during the post war 1940’s. These were tales about crime, danger, and people fighting with wits and guns for money. Exposed in these films was the underbelly of a failed Capitalism and the anxiety that was widely felt during the 1940s. Things might have been bad here, but we should remember that we were the victors.
NOIR CITY 12: The International Edition attempted to set the record strait by pointing out the Film Noir was an international phenomena. Over ten nights at The Castro movie theater in San Francisco this winter, films were shown from all over the world. There were films from England, Argentina, Japan, France, Norway, Spain, South America, Germany, Mexico, and American Films shot elsewhere. The slogan for the film festival was: It’s A Bitter Little World with films to show it.
It is hard to know exactly what Noir is, it being sometimes a nebulous phenomena. John Grant in his encyclopedia of Film Noir describes over 3000 films in that category. People have different opinions and the now we also have newer tales about transgressors, and criminal procedurals about police officers which are different in sentiment and attitude.
Many associate the Noir films with the detective trying to solve a crime. They are in black and white being produced before color films. The protagonists are usually well dressed and wear hats. They don’t always finish their drinks at bars, but they are there for different reasons. Some don’t turn down drinks elsewhere though and it is a ritual for those who plan to talk about business. There are the cabaret performers, singers, heroines, bars, mobsters, and gamblers. There are family attachments that are not always working. There is usually amazing black and white cinematography and period music.
In America names like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain stick out with them having also achieved literary fame. There turns out to have been an enormous amount of Noir produced on film, enough for people and film festivals to be choosy. Some showed at NOIR CITY 12 included works by Akira Kurosawa with psychological films like Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. There was The Third Man and Journey Into Fear by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater Group. There was The Wages of Fear, Pepe Le’ Moko, Riptide and others from the French. There were also many lesser known films, and some that had not been seen for decades. No Sterling Hayden, Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart this year, instead Fred McMurray, Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Victor Mature, and others in the Orient.
These Noir films do seem to have their own perspective or attitude. They sometimes seem like pieces of the puzzle to map out an ideology. There are the crooked people in these works who seem to know the score. There are the innocents. There are the beautiful dames who make the works more entertaining. There is also the stray dialogue which provides comic relief and atmosphere. There is also usually a compelling and suspenseful story about a crime. There is danger or money at stake. The legal officials usually play a small part, but provide a context which show sometimes how crooked the world can be. Cinematic tales as shown here can be collected from all over the world.
What sometimes make them more appealing are their sense of justice, ie. the real criminals usually get caught or punished in the end. It is comforting to know that they are not still out there committing crime. We have now probably seen more films about criminals who don’t fit in and are usually surrounded by big societal crimes. There is a crooked sense about the milieu presented, but the bad guys do usually get there punishment.
These tales are can also be international with criminals going elsewhere to commit their crimes. Some still go to other countries where they can get away with things that are not allowed in the states. We might have thought we had it bad after the war, but we should remember we were the winners. Things were much bleaker elsewhere as shown here. We had not been bombed in the Continental United States. We were not overrun by German forces. We did not represent a failed Fascism that lost the war.
One could argue that FILM NOIR were tales about a failed capitalist system that required a rugged individualism which not everybody could live up to. These films are still being made. They are still remembered by enthusiastic fans, some who wade through the dark. They can be modern morality tales, maybe even a kind of a religion.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.