More Than Night: Film Noir In It’s Contexts
by James Naremore
University of California Press, 1998
In my neighborhood the best local video store is aimed at the twenty-something college-educated hipsters who set the local tone, and it’s eerily deficient in ‘Classic Hollywood’. Japanimation and blaxploitation and concert documentaries rule these shelves; Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Greta Garbo might not have ten vehicles between them in the whole place. The perfunctory ‘directors section’ forms an inverted auteurist pyramid that would make Andrew Sarris nauseous with vertigo: Cronenberg, Lynch, Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Jarmusch and Hartley resting on Altman, Penn and Kubrick, who in turn rest on Hitchcock, Welles and Nicholas Ray, who rest on — nothing. No sections for Ford, Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Sturges or Cukor. No Lang, no Huston, no Wilder. Whenever I rent there I recall the title of George Trow’s classic ’70’s essay on the ahistorical diffuseness of post-television culture: Within the Context of No Context.
The exception is the store’s Film Noir shelf, which proudly overflows with titles good, bad, indifferent and camp. Here’s where Lang, Wilder, Hawks and Huston sneak into the shop — just so long as they play by the rules, working in black and white and casting Bogart or Edward G. Robinson in a story with guns, trenchcoats and plenty of shadows. Here are dozens of ’40’s and ’50’s titles which would be forgotten without the consecrating force of Film Noir’s permanent vogue. Here too, otherwise jaded clerks lean forward, eager to offer the consolation that if ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is already rented, Gloria Grahame and Robert Ryan also appear together in CROSSFIRE. I once pointed out to one such clerk that IN A LONELY PLACE should be moved from ‘Film Noir’ to ‘Nicholas Ray’ and he seemed crushed that a perfectly good black-and-white Bogart movie should have to go sit beside the squarely technicolor REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and JOHNNY GUITAR.
This isn’t exactly a depthless view of film history, but the depths it suggests aren’t auteurish or historical, they’re stylistic and iconographic — fiercely so. Such fetishization surrounded Noir from its inception, suggests James Naremore in his brilliantly grounded MORE THAN NIGHT: Film Noir In Its Contexts. His argument is nicely paradoxical, since Naremore begins by convincingly disrupting cherished myths about when and how that inception took place. Sure, it was French critics who teased out of certain Hollywood products the tendrils of Noir style, but Naremore shows that it was Surrealists, as much or more than usual-suspect Existentialists, who set the terms. And Noir may have been erected on a platform of the American crime novel, but the key writers were themselves not primitives. Rather, Cain, Hammett and Chandler were Europeanized aesthetes, responsive to High Modernism, with strong resemblances to their Nobel Prize-winning contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway, as well as to a Brit whose noirish ‘Entertainments’ may have cost him the Nobel — Graham Greene. Naremore’s restoration of Greene’s place among Noir progenitors is one of the book’s virtuoso sequences.
Naremore’s program is to insistently complicate the long-standing debate over the boundaries and characteristics of Hollywood’s most infiltrative and self-conscious genre. His book works, though, because this program is anything but nakedly theoretical. In fact, it’s often barely visible for being subsumed in the pleasures of original, thorough and unprogrammatic research into the making and makers of films. Some of the Noirs he scrutinizes so fondly are legends residing at the center of the canon, others pleasingly widen that canon’s margins, which by the time Naremore is finished can seem to embrace anything from CITIZEN KANE and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN to, yes, blaxploitation.
MORE THAN NIGHT is structured like Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, as a series of views onto aspects of an impossible, elusive story — as Naremore is quick to point out, each chapter might have been worked up into an entire book. The structure invites and rewards browsing: allowing oneself to be allured by a still (the book is generous with stills) from a favorite neglected film like Irving Lerner’s MURDER BY CONTRACT or an unexpected reference to contemporary videographer Mark Rappaport, or to Welles’ unmade first-person-camera HEART OF DARKNESS results in immersion in a stirring discussions of the influence of censorship and McCarthyism on key Noirs, or a welcome refutation of the myth of the ‘B’ movie (a majority of the essential Noirs were anything but). Only a chapter entitled “The Other Side of the Street”, which gestures towards Noir’s love/hate compulsion towards the racial Other, seems too brisk. ‘Asia’ and ‘Latin America’ are cursory, and ‘Africa’ — up to and including Charles Burnett’s THE GLASS SHIELD and Carl Franklin’s DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS — is only a little more than cursory. Here I wished for that entire book on the subject Naremore didn’t manage to write. Maybe next time.
Elsewhere Naremore dissects the lighting tricks, camera-angles and costuming styles which became the common denominator of Noir image, parodied by Fred Astaire and Bob Hope a decade before French critics had made their identification widely known. Our culture seems to have recognized that Noir was both silly and crucial, even threatening, without any help from Surrealists or Existentialists. “The Noir Mediascape”, NIGHT’s final chapter, gracefully extends Naremore’s argument to celebrated contemporary films. In a few deft pages he shows how PULP FICTION’s strengths work within an almost suffocatingly narrow range, demolishes L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and proposes a reconsideration of the overlooked LOST HIGHWAY — in each case persuasively. That persuasiveness is a side-benefit of Naremore’s generosity with his historical research, and the contextualizing force it lends.
In his updated reissue of WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT George Trow suggests that the cure for the cultural amnesia induced by the mediascape is individual and specific. “Perhaps you will need a motto,” he says. “I suggest this one: Wounded by the Million; Healed — One by One.” MORE THAN NIGHT is a splendid offer of such healing. Naremore permits us to understand that Film Noir’s iconographies and stylistics exist to be be appropriated endlessly (and too often hollowly) by advertising and ‘high art’ alike because they continually and energetically issue not from a single center of real meaning, but a whole host of them.
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