SemiNoir: 'Pickup on South Street'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

If we take a look at the noirs we have seen so far and especially focus in the role of the women it is pretty obvious that film noir tends to be misogyny. They are called femme fatales, not a really flattering term for a woman but definitely an appropriate one for this kind of woman. It is the women who alaways seduce the man to do things he normally would not do that easily if he had not a woman offering him 'love' as reward. The femme fatale is aware of her sexual power and therefore uses it to achieve her goals – which are mostly of criminal nature. The recipient sees and knows what the women are planning and doing in these movies and therefore at least the male recipient probably develops some anti-female attitude towards film noir. The women use the men for their intentions – a motif which seems to be pretty much uncommen in today's cinema. On the contrary, the male beat/slap their women in most of the noirs at least once – and that shapes the picture of the women in film noir even more (since most of the recipients think that the women deserved no better treatmant like this one [furthermore I find it interesting how the mondo/cannibal film in the 80's – of which I immediately was reminded of – this 'female slapping' on]). In fact, the roles have changed and the male protagonist is mostly the one who 'uses' the female. However, film noir proofed itself that it is aware of the motifs and stigmata it uses, because in Ride the Pink Horse we can hear: "I'm afraid Mr. Gagin can't be seduced", which clearly indicates some kind of self-referntial satire. Furthermore, this motif always seems to end in the death of the male and female protagonist – and altough both of them are guilty, it is the female protagonist who started the whole thing …

On the other hand, however, Pickup on South Street shows that film noir can reverse the motiv of the 'deadly female'. Just have a look at the female protagonist's character. Her name is Candy (Jean Peters), a name which, at first, would imply that she is definitely a femme fatale. She is sweet, knows who to use her sweetness and therefore can use it for her purposes. But no, she is a good girl, a woman who loves a man that much that she is willing to not only get harmed but also get arrested for him. She risks her life for her beloved, and simultaneously she is that fragile little girl who is in search for a mother figure. She gets beaten several times, bleed from the nose and still she focusses on her 'mission'. In conclusion, Candy almost seems like a new archetyp of women in film noir, because she is strong, self-confident and simultaneously she is this woman who does not question the man's position (at least if he is honest and on the right side of the law). She will, however, use Skip (Richard Widmark) for her uses – but he will really profit from this use: "You wanna bet!?"

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SemiNoir: 'The Asphalt Jungle'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

I really liked your reading of the film as being a study about character, honor, masculinity and motifs. Especially the protgaonist’s character, Dix (Sterling Hayden), is very complex – and simultaneously he is not. The whole time his character feels like a young boy who is trapped in a man's body. I am not really sure, but Sterling Hayden either acts like a total amateur or he is this total genious actor who impersonates this boy in a man's body ingeniously. I think it has to be the latter, because he proved so many times that he is a genious actor (just think of Dr. Strangelove or Kubrick's noir The Killing). Whatever it is, it certainly goes with Dix's character which, on the outside, seems to be invincible but on the inside is just vulnerable. He is cold, he cannot rejoin his 'dame's' feelings and innuendos – no matter if he does not want to or if he simply does not understand them. He is just a boy. A boy who's keen of horses and action and not interested in women at all. He seeks the adventurous, and that is why he is helping 'Doc' (Sam Jaffe) and does not care about money or a reward (or the heart of a woman). And that is also the reason why the ending seems so touching. The whole time we were dealing with a dumb 'bully' who cannot do anything else than making use of his physical superiority. However, he is just a little boy who does not understand what he is really dealing with, and therefore we cannot blame him for acting the way he does, because we are aware of this fact – probably in contrast to himself. In the end, when he finally reaches the farm, is 'home', we cannot help but feel compassionate with this poo boy who did not get anything except the love of a woman he could not return.

And although the final passing of the hero seems to be a common motif of film noir, in this case it is not. He did not deserve to die, because he did not really do anything seriously wrong or bad. While we did not have that much sympathies for the deceased 'heroes' in the other noirs, we have in The Asphalt Jungle. It really is astonishing how little this noir has in common with the others we discussed so far (no femme fatale, no voiceover, no flashback). On the other hand, there are a lot of noirs which feature the heist motif, most of all the best film noir I have seen so far Du rififi chez les hommes (which has a lot in common with The Asphalt Jungle). Not to forget other motifs like the otherness ('Doc', the German taxi dirver), the question of identity and space, and this makes The Asphalt Jungle a pretty ambivalent noir in terms of affiliation.

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SemiNoir: 'Gun Crazy' a.k.a. 'Deadly Is the Female'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

The movie starts. We only see the dark setting: a street, some houses, a shop window, some street lights and a lot of rain coming down from above. And altough the music plays in the background it is a very calm scene(ry), one with no persons around, no public life and therefore no living at all. The whole setting looks a little bit odd, altough the rain does not make it only some kind of 'epic', but also there are no signs of a b-movie production (otherwise the streets would be foggy and the whole setting smaller). I really liked this beginning, because it draws suspension only from its scenery and its music – considering the other noirs we always had to wait a few minutes in order to get the first real 'action' (in addition, most of our noirs played with shadows in the opening credits – only Out of the Past gave us this bright and endless seeming landscape/mountains). But then, they little boy enters the scenery, and suddenly makes the whole setting look like it was a prop mainly used in theaters. Nothing seemed to work anymore as soon as the young protagonist entered: the sclae of the whole setting now seemed to be unproportional, because at first you are of the opinion that this is a huge city (and, of course, the rain plays a big role, too) and then, after the boy enters, you recognize that this is a cheesy setting of a city street. On the other hand, it almost seems like some kind of comic relief (which would fit your premise that Gun Crazy is all about mocking the noir). It is even a doubled comic relief, because the first comic relief would be the boy entering and the setting suddenly becoming 'unreal'. The second one would be the whole scene itself when the boy breaks the window, takes the gun and falls just in front of the officer's feet. However, the darkness to some extent remains – the rain, the music, the boy falling (hints to the term 'the fall guy'?), these are all underlining the darkness of film noir. Or they just mock this fact …

Furthermore the whole premise of the noir is some kind of comic relief. A boy, who loves guns, has a trauma and becomes a gangster? This clearly does not sound as 'serious' as the premises of the other noirs. Well, it could be considered a mockumentary of the American dream, especially since the boy – and the girl – are dressed like cowboys while being introduced. We all know that this is one of the most common exemplifications of the American dream/the American itself. Altough for most noir filmmakers the American dream became true, they did not like the way the government portrayed it (even in today's movies it is portrayed as being pretty cheesy and clichéd). So why not simply make fun of it? Furthermore, most of the American intellectuals respectively Hollywood are left-wing, so they do not appreciate guns in the way right-wing people do …

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SemiNoir: 'Double Indemnity'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

To be quite honest: Until this moment I did not really know which aspect of the movie to take and focus on. I do not know what this means for the movie or my reception of it, however, I think this noir is a little bit overrated in its general reception. On the one hand it shows not only very good performances, but also Wilder's talent of directing. After having seen this one would probably not believe that Wilder did some of the funniest (!) movies ever, in particular One, Two, Three. If you keep this in mind and take a look at Double Indemnity, at first one would think that the noir has no sign of comedic elements, however, if one takes a closer look at it, there is a lot of comic relief (e.g. the scene with Keyes and the foreign truck driver) – even the way Keyes (E.G. Robinson) is behaving one can find comic relief in it. On the other hand Double Indemnity is not as interesting and versatile than, for example, my favorite noir so far, Out of the Past (whose dialogue is simply brilliant). I think it is the most 'comprehensible' noir, and maybe this is the reason why it is so well-known and well-received. However, it is still a very good noir, indeed (and there is a lot of 'meta' to it – e.g. as we discussed the father-son conflict, the father figure, the insurance business, the sexuality, Nino, …).

Furthermore, the aspcet I am most interested in now is the title and how it is connected to the movie. To be quite honest again: I did not know what these two words meant until I looked it up. In addition, it is also mentioned in the movie itself, when Neff (Fred MacMurray) tells Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) that their planned 'assasination' would be "A double indemnity. The insurance would pay twice the amaount insured." So the title indicates the central motif for our two protagonists – in other words this means: doubled money (for the murder). Yet, 'double indemnity' does mean something else for Neff and Phyllis. For Phyllis it is a double 'insurance'. She has nothing to fear, because she is double insured: firstly, she can blame Neff for the murder any time (although she is a complice), and secondly, she gets rid of her husband. In other words: she does not only get a double indemnity, but a double double indemnity – she gets rid of her husband, she can blame Jeff for his murder and gets not only the single amount of (insurance) money but the double amount. It is almost the same for Jeff: he can show that he is intelectually superior to his 'father', Keyes, gets the girl (Phyllis) and finally the money. In the end, however, they would have to share the money so that it is no double but a single indemnity for each one of them …

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SemiNoir: 'Where the Sidewalk Ends'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

What first came to my mind after having seen this movie was disappointment. Was this movie really financed by 20th Century Fox, one of the biggest and most traditional studios in Hollywood? In terms of fund raising and production qualities, RKO – the production company of the previous films – is probably nothing compared to Fox (although RKO is one of the most traditional production companies in Hollywood until today). Yes, you can see that Where the Sidewalk Ends was way more expensive than, for example, Detour. Just think of the portrayal of the city of New York. In Detour it is a cloudy something and the recipient can only guess which city is being portrayed (if he does not know it in the first place). Yes, there are also signs which indicate that the protagonists are currently staying in New York City, however, it never gets rid of the apparentness of a b-movie. In contrast to that, if you take a look at Where the Sidewalk Ends you are not in need of eagle eyes to recognize that this movie was more expensive than Detour. You can see the Brooklyn Bridge, bright illuminated panels, cars, in short: this has to be the real New York, there is no doubt (and indeed, it is the real NYC). I always like it when studios use authentic filming locations (although nowadays they expand to Eastern Europe beacuse it is way cheaper), and I pretty much appreciated it in Preminger's film. On the other hand, however, the movie was not as sophisticated as the locations made it look like. Indeed, there were noirish elements (crime doesn't pay, WWII references, etc.) and the acting was really good, too, yet, the whole thing seemed a little bit too 'trivial' to mee (and yes, it was the 'worst' noir so far).

The story has not much to offer, the homoerotic tendencies were something new, yes, but we did not really come up with a proper interpretation of the whole context in our group discussion. Why did Scalise and his gang members escape all of a sudden (without really caring about Dixon) when they told Dixon that they had all the time in the world and did not have to care about anything a few minutes before the police arrive? To a certain degree it all seemed a little bit callowed to us, because the motifs of the protagonists – or at least of Scalise and his guys – were not that clear. Generally, I was disappointed because of this fact, because it was not any studio, it was Fox, which also means that they had the money … On the other hand, money does not always stand for quality, at least not for cinematic quality. Maybe it is just like nowadays, where the really good movies are mostly the cheap and independently produced movies, because here people care about what they are doing. If you have not got the money, you care twice as much about what the final result will look like. Where the Sidewalk Ends is no bad movie, not at all, it is just a perfect example for the unwritten fact that big budget does not necessarily mean 'big' movie …

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SemiNoir: 'Detour'

SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

After having seen the two noirs (and some others which we did and will not cover in the seminar [e.g. The Maltese Falcon, Du rififi chez les hommes]) I recognized how 'dark' (in terms of light) these films are. Of course, they are shot in black and white, but even in a black and white movie you can easily differentiate between blonde women – like Sue (Claudia Drake) – and brunette ones like the film's femme fatale, Vera (Ann Savage). Interestingly enough, when Sue first appeared, I thought that she will be the film's femme fatale since she is blonde. However, this seems to indicate that the film noir clischés are not always true, no. Detour's femme fatale is a brunette, altough she perfectly fits the archetypical strong woman who knows how to deal with the opposite sex. In this particular case she is even a leader, someone who knows exactly what she wants – just like Sterling Hayden's character in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Once again it is interesting to mention that she physically is not of superior size; more like the contrary (remember Peter Lorre in Stranger on the Third Floor!).

But let us return to the literal darkness of film noir, especially the lighting in Detour. The low budget of the movie explains the darkness of most of the settings. New York is very foggy and it is night when the protagonists take a walk on the city’s streets (by the way, the scene extremeley reminded me of Casablanca and its final scene at the airfield). It is night most of the film anyway, so this does not seem to surprise one overly. Yet even in the scenes where Al (Tom Neal) and Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) drive along the street (at night), the car's headlights are not as bright as they should be. The only source of light are the other cars on the street which are, however, very rare. The darkness of these scenes in particular shows that the relationship between Al and Haskell is a very 'weird' one. We know from Al's inner monologue that he is careful about the whole situation, yet the recipient cannot help but think of a very dangerous and suspensful situation in which Al finds himself. And the lighting is the sylistic device that amplifies this certain effect. This can even be spotted in the beginning when the whole diner (?) seems to be dark except for Al's eyes which are the only thing exposed. Furthermore, all of the scenes which take place in the hotel room are dark. 'Dark' not only in the sense of tone and mood, but also in the sense of environment. Whenever Al and Vera discuss things in the hotel room it is dark outside. The only thing we hear through that darkness is the saxophone being played – which bothers Al pretty heavily. In addition, everything bad which happens to Al takes place in the darknes respectively during the night: Haskell's death, Vera's death, and Al's arrest…

In conclusion, even in films called 'noirs' one can distinguish between 'natural' darkness and 'intended' darkness. It is not so much a technical accomplishment, but rather one in form and content. What suggests itself better than a dark movie done with dark formalities?

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SemiNoir: 'Stranger on the Third Floor'

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SemiNoir is a continuing series of short academic essays dealing with film noirs watched and reviewed in the seminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' at the University of Tuebingen.

I am pretty sure that nobody has ever seen Fritz Lang's M and was not amazed by Peter Lorre's performance. He has a very strong presence, and although he has only a few scenes in Stranger on the Thrid Floor, he certainly dominates each of these scenes. It is not only his unconventional appearence, but rather his acting which is very impressive (altough at times it is to some degree pretty corny). The crux about him and his character is the fact that he is not only a cold-blooded serial killer who cuts throats but also a man, a foreigner, who has fears. Lorre's character is not physically superior to his victims he is rather inferior in terms of body measures as one can see during the final scene when he is walking next to Jane (Margaret Tallichet) who is mostly portrayed as the woman who alsways needs (male) protection and care-taking , which makes him an even more untypical murderer. However, if one thinks about Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) one can easily recognize that he was not a typical killer, too. Briggs is also more like a lanky character who is screeming and whining about his conviction. These three people, Briggs, the stranger and Jane, are the only persons who are actually showing their feelings and emotions in public. And although Michael (John McGuire) also has scenens in which he whines and shows a lot of emtions (flashbacks, nightmare), those are not shown in public but rather in his apartment (with nobody being present) or, of course, in his own mind/conscience.

But there is even more to physicalness. If you take a look at the scenes Meng (Charles Halton) and Michael share, you can see that he is way less strong than Michael. In one scene Michael even 'attacks' Meng, who is surprised that Michael has the courage to do so but he also recognizes that he cannot do anything against this much younger and trained male. But why is he the dreaded Nazi then? He is tall and skinny and therefore does not represent the Nazi villain at least not on a physical basis. But does he need to be physically superior in order to spy on Michael and his girlfriend in a fascist way? No, not necessarily, because he represents a whole system, which has its own ways… Furthermore, if one thinks of film noir, especially in terms of women, one mostly thinks of the femme fatale, a woman who is untypically strong and emancipated. However, in Stranger on the Third Floor, we have the conventional woman of this time period: inferior, depending on males, and with a suppressive sexuality. But maybe this just works fine with the mockumentary of classic Hollywood cinema (and all of its stereotypes and clichés). Or is it just the fact that we are dealing with the first American film noir (along with The Maltese Falcon) which thus just got the ball rolling?

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Kurz mal abgehakt # 29

Ich weiß, es gab schon seit schier unendlich langer Zeit kein(e) Review(s) mehr, was ich hiermit auch ändern will. Zugegeben, es hat sich auch nicht so viel angesammelt über die letzten Wochen, denn außer den PVs scheine ich derzeit nicht viel auf DVD oder im TV zu schauen – warum auch immer. Jedenfalls darf man sich in den nächsten Tagen noch auf ausführliche Reviews u.a. zu Speed Racer, Funny Games U.S. und Cassandra's Dream freuen. Bis dahin gibt es aber erst einmal einige Kurzreviews zu nicht allzu aktuellen Filmen.

La double vie de Véronique – ich traue es mich als großer Fan Kieslowskis ja eigentlich kaum zu sagen, aber hier war ich doch etwas enttäuscht. Kieslowski scheint hier vielmehr auf das unbekleidete Äußere Irène Jacobs abzuzuielen als auf ihr emotionales Äußeres (das noch deutlich bezaubernder ist). Die Geschichte, die Kieslowski hier erzählt ist bisweilen schwer zu greifen – er philosophiert über Seelenverwandschaft, Freundschaft und, natürlich, die Liebe. Gewohnt setzt er dabei alles faszinierend in Szene und lässt Jacob den Film mal eben nahezu allein tragen, was angesichts ihrer Präsenz aber auch nur allzu verständlich ist. La double vie de Véronique ist großes emotionales Kino, das wollte ich mit dem einführenden Satz nicht verneinen, nur kommt er nicht an Dekalog oder Trois couleurs: Rouge heran. (8.5/10)

The Killing – ja, langsam aber sicher bereite ich mich mal auf mein Film-Noir-Seminar vor, das, wie ich jetzt erfahren habe, aber keinen Kubrick auf dem Plan hat. Egal, Kubricks The Killing ist jedenfalls ziemlich spannend, in seiner Erzählstruktur recht intelligent gesponnen und mit einem tollen Sterling Hayden, von dem ich in Zukunft definitiv mehr sehen will. Erstaunlich, wie roh und brutal Kubricks Film bisweilen daherkommt. Das alles wird dann nur noch von der grandiosen Schlusseinstellung getoppt, die dem Zuschauer, also dem potenziellen Verbrecher (?), direkt vor die Nase tritt. Crime doesn't pay, wer's immer noch nicht geschnallt hat, der weiß es spätestens jetzt. (8/10)

El Topo – ja, hier war die Vorfreude nicht minder groß – ebenso wie die Verwirrung. Um mit einem Brainstorming zu beginnen und zu schließen: Ureinwohner vs. Amerikaner, Sklaverei, Polygamie, Gewalt, Kolonialmentalität, Religion und ihr Einfluss, Herrschaftswahn, Vater-Sohn-Beziehung, … (5/10)

House of the Dead – machen wir's kurz: Zusammen mit zwei Freunden geschaut, die das ganze Boll-Gebashe ebenfalls verfolgt haben. Geschaut wurde das Bollwerk natürlich mit Audiokommentar (wir sind ja schließlich nicht lebensmüde!), und was soll man sagen? Es hat mindestens so viel Spaß gemacht wie noch beim ersten Mal.

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Film Noir and American Culture

Film Noir, Andrew SpicerJa, ja, ja, ich wurde aufgenommen (dennoch sind die Online-Prioritätsanmeldungen Käse, nicht dass jemand denkt, die Verteilung der Plätze ginge nach Kompetenz o.ä.)! Mein letztes Seminar in englischer Literaturwissenschaft wird also das Hauptseminar 'Film Noir and American Culture' werden:

"When people hear the term 'film noir,' they may think of dark, rainy streets, detectives in hats, and corny dialogue. But beyond these superficial features, these grim movies from the 1940s and 1950s explore a host of World War 2 and Cold War anxieties in the US centering on crime, corruption, and dispossession. We will examine these themes through the lens of a dozen films, from Double Indemnity (1944) to Touch of Evil (1958)." (Universität Tübingen)

Als literarische Grundlage wird uns Film Noir von Andrew Spicer dienen. Wenn das jemand kennt oder jemand schon ein ähnliches Seminar belegt hat, wäre ich über Feedback erfreut. Ich freue mich jetzt jedenfalls erstmal noch bis zur Vorbesprechung, denn was kann es besseres geben, als Hobby und 'Beruf' miteinander zu verbinden?

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