Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
The four books reviewed here complement one another, each illuminating a different facet of Hollywood crime films, each written to appeal to a wide audience but also offering fresh insights to a more specialised academic readership. Take, for example, the way their analyses of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly fill out our understanding of an adaptation regarded by many as one of the very best of the classic films noirs.
If we look first at the poster, we see a femme fatale in a steamy clinch, swooning against a bold yellow background, surrounded by vignettes of brutal or erotic encounters and by text that links the vibrant colours themselves with sex and violence ("blood-red kisses", "white hot thrills") and that foregrounds the dangerous nature of this combination: Kiss Me Deadly is "Mickey Spillane's Latest H-Bomb!" The posters for films based on Spillane's other novels similarly emphasise the most obvious ingredients of his popular success, cycling through the full range of bright colours and the various synonyms for his "explosive" prose - I, the Jury is "The Dynamite Thriller!"; My Gun is Quick, "Mickey Spillane's Newest Bombshell of Brute Force - Bare Flesh - and Boiling Terror!" This graphic, overwrought emphasis on sexual titillation and violent action is stunningly on view in Eddie Muller's The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Period of Noir (The Overlook Press, 2002; 2004).
Our interest in Kiss Me Deadly aroused by what Muller calls this "move away from shadowy mystery into flagrant sensationalism", we might want to turn to the other books reviewed here for further insights into the creation, marketing, reception and wider meanings of the Aldrich version of Spillane's "H-Bomb". Eddie Robson's forthcoming Film Noir (due out August 2005, Virgin Books) very effectively uses the format established in the Virgin Film series (which orders information and criticism under category headings) to clarify the ways in which the scripting, production and reception of Kiss Me Deadly transformed the meaning of the original novel - the most memorable of the many changes made to the novel in A. I. Bezzerides' script being, of course, the "devilish box" containing the infamous "thing", the A-bomb. As is evident from the above poster, one way of avoiding the political implications of this alteration was to playfully appropriate the Cold War reference, attaching it not to the cataclysmic violence that threatened in the 50s but to Spillane's own reputation for producing what a Variety reviewer called "some kind of fissionable material". We also see, reading Robson's analysis, the significance of the poster's visual emphasis on Spillane's name, asserting his "ownership" of this material; we arrive at a clearer understanding of the relationship between the book and the film and of the whole process of producing what Robert Aldrich himself called "an anti-Spillane picture about Spillane."
The crucial role of Bezerides in this process is brought to the fore in Woody Haut's fascinating Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (Serpent's Tail, 2002), especially in Haut's interview with the aging but "cantankerous as ever" Bezerides, who reminisces about the moment when "that crap about nuclear devices came to me", as well as about alternative endings, quarrels with Aldrich and other key moments in creating "a hell of a picture" out of a book he didn't like ("The book was shit. So I changed it."). Illuminating the film in a quite different way, Nicole Rafter's Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society (Oxford University Press, 2000) analyses the many ways in which 'expert' understandings of crime influence and are informed by wider social anxieties, values and preoccupations. With Kiss Me Deadly as with the many other films she discusses, she leads her readers to think about the manifold connexions between the individual film and the evolving, historically conditioned tradition of crime films: viewed in this perspective, Aldrich's 1955 film takes its place as a prime mid-century example of the handling of "traditional masculinities" in cop films; exploring comparisons with the very similar male ideal represented in the second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force (1973), Rafter elucidates "the power of this particular version of masculinity", its relevance to ongoing debates about the goals and limits of "good policing", its racial subtext and (following on from this) its relationship to the subversive appropriation, two more decades on, of earlier noir conventions in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress (1995).
The last three decades have seen a proliferation of books on noir and neo-noir: seminal publications like Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference Guide (first published in 1979) and Foster Hirsch's Film Noir (1981); major studies that appeared throughout the 1990s, such as Frank Krutnik's In a Lonely Street (1991), Ian Cameron's The Movie Book of Film Noir (1992), Joan Copjec's Shades of Noir (1993), R. Barton Palmer's Hollywood's Dark Cinema (1994), Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night (1997), James Naremore's More Than Night (1998); and, of course, lavish coffee table books conveying the seductions of "the noir style". The insatiable appetite for things noir has inevitably led to some repetition - of definitions, themes, iconographic analysis and production stills. But as the books reviewed here demonstrate there is still ample scope for twenty-first century critics to add to our understanding and enjoyment.
Muller's The Art of Noir is a coffee table book of the most splendid kind, assembling over 300 posters, lobby cards and other promotional material. This is a visual treat very different to that provided by the chiaroscuro world of film noir itself, with its menacing darkness, slanting shadows and rain-swept neon-lit streets. As Muller's back cover blurb says, "film noir is all about style", and what is most immediately striking about this collection is the contrast between the style of the poster art and the style of the films it advertises. Governed by the Hays Code, classic film noir, as Muller points out, was tame in comparison to the films of our own time; the poster art, on the other hand, featured "a blatant commingling of sex and violence that would fail to meet today's standard for political correctness." Muller's dazzling collection is a strong reminder of the pulp origins of most of the great films noirs. Poster art deployed vibrantly coloured images, often the work of contemporary magazine illustrators, that very closely resembled the covers of the pulp magazines (Black Mask and its many imitators) and the lurid artwork of mid-century paperback originals.
Muller's commentary brings out the specifically cinematic ingredients incorporated into these bold advertisements, grouping his pictures to foreground recurrent thematic and iconographic elements and to draw our attention to comparisons and lines of development. There are sections, for example, on private eyes, reporters, femmes fatales, federal agents and innocent bystanders; on anti-communist hysteria, foreign intrigue heists and hot money. In a chapter called "The Usual Suspects: Noir's Most Recognized Faces," Muller illustrates the ways in which the best-known actors and actresses were packaged to sell the film, the gigantic faces guaranteed to "put asses in the seats" - amongst others, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Richard Conte, John Garfield, Dick Powell, Burt Lancaster, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame, Ida Lupino, Ann Savage, Joan Crawford. Muller also pays homage to those fiction writers and directors "who helped millions enjoy these guilty pleasures" (Hammett, Chandler and Cain, of course, but also Cornell Woolrich, W. R. Burnett, Steve Fisher and Sydney Boehm); and to some of the great directors (for example, Welles, Lang, Dassin, Hitchcock, Siodmak) and also to the cinematography of "noir's premier visual stylist" John Alton. Whilst emphasizing the "peculiarly American" nature of noir (and confining himself to films produced in the United States, roughly in the period 1940-60) Muller also includes numerous foreign posters and reflects in interesting ways on the contrasts. He provides, for instance, four examples of posters for The Lady from Shanghai - a French poster by Constantine Belinsky, which, aside from the intensely furrowed brow of Welles, could pass for a holiday brochure enticing viewers to embark on a South Seas holiday; a Swedish poster combining photomontage (foregrounding a semi-reclining Rita Hayworth) with stylized, angular shadows; an American poster designed to remind viewers of Hayworth's performance two years earlier in Gilda; and, best of all, an erotically charged Italian poster by Anselmo Ballester which, as Muller says, is "a masterpiece of noir exotica".
One of the main tensions implicit in Muller's book - between exploiting the lure of sex and violence on the one hand and the constraints of the Production Code on the other - is much more fully discussed in Eddie Robson's Film Noir, which is both an excellent introduction to a core of the most famous films noirs and, even for those long-time film noir enthusiasts who already own well-thumbed copies of earlier studies of film noir, a valuable scholarly resource, containing a host of details that in general don't find their way into the more conventionally organised studies of canonical noir. The extensive treatment given to separate topics (development, casting, production, reception and "aspects of noir") means that major issues of this kind are approached from a variety of angles. Selecting eighteen "essential noirs" from the 1940s and 1950s, Robson gradually builds up a nuanced picture of the construction of the noir canon. His "aspects of noir" sections are used to carry forward an astute analysis of the debates that have been central to film noir criticism - the ambiguity-producing effects of the Production Code; the shifting attitudes to film violence and brutality (considered, for example, in the chapter on The Big Heat); the way in which a film like Night of the Hunter calls into question our definition of film noir (Robson offers a carefully judged analysis of how far our categorisation of it depends on it having been filmed in black and white rather than colour); the recycling of plots (Sunset Boulevard, for example, as a recycling of the structure of Wilder's earlier Double Indemnity, in conformity to unwritten rule identified by Richard Maltby that "the history of Hollywood must conform to the conventions of its own narratives").
Alongside the ongoing exploration of the definitions, the contradictions and the evolution of noir, Robson allows himself a good amount of space for the consideration of many other aspects of the film-making process, giving the reader insights into the development, production, reception and afterlife of each film. Particularly engrossing is the detailed discussion of the way in which individual sequences were shot. So, say, discussion of the impact of the black and white filming in Night of the Hunter is amplified by an explanation of how some of the most famous scenes were filmed (for example, the boy's view, "like a child’s drawing", of the preacher riding across the skyline, was finally - after an unsatisfactory attempt to film the scene on location - created by means of a perspective trick, with Mitchum on a horse replaced by a midget riding a donkey, shot in a way that wouldn't have been possible were the film being made in colour). We learn that the central dream sequence in Stranger on the Third Floor involved a fog machine, ingenious methods for throwing reflections of sets on the walls, the painting of the studio floors with a new kind of paint (making the floor ‘invisible’ to the camera "so that anybody walking across the floor would appear to float"), moveable platforms employed to reposition the components of the set in the dream-sequence courtroom scene (to exaggerate distances in some shots), and huge made-to-order type for the headline 'MURDER'. We better understand the development of "the noir style" after reading about the determination to employ chiaroscuro lighting effects in The Killers on the part of the film's Director of Photography, Woody Bredell. Other key elements in the filming of The Killers are brought to the fore in Robson's explanation of how Mark Hellinger (with his background in journalism) aimed to secure a sense of reportage and realism by shooting on location: "The payroll heist sequence, achieved in a single take with 18 camera stops and around 60 changes of focus, was designed to have a ‘newsreel’ quality, with its inflectionless voice-over. One of the most impressively-staged scenes was that of the Swede’s last fight, which was staged in front of a 2,000-strong crowd and saw Lancaster play out the scene opposite a real boxer (no doubles were used)." Much else, from interactions on the set - Regis Toomey, for example, explaining to the virginal Martha Vickers how to simulate an orgasm in The Big Sleep (“'Reg,' Howard Hawks said, ‘if I ever have to explain an orgasm again, I’ll have you come and do it.'") - to the creation of final alterations and variant versions, as when the original opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard was dropped after it drew "the wrong kind of laughter" from a preview audience in Evanston, Illinois (the occasion on which Wilder, sitting dejectedly outside, encountered a woman who "looked right at me and said, 'Have you ever seen shit like this before in your life?'").
Such withering scorn is a routine part of the life of the Hollywood screenwriter. Woody Haut, in Heartbreak and Vine, focuses in on just one of Robson's categories (the writer), following the careers of those indispensable (but often dispensed-with) creators of noir, the hard-boiled novelists and scriptwriters drawn to work in Hollywood from the 1930s to the present, including the 'big names' like Hammett and Chandler and, in our own time, Ellroy and Lehane, but also telling along the way the less familiar stories of such writers as Paul Cain, Daniel Mainwaring, Jonathan Latimer and Leigh Bracket. The films to which they contributed play a part in the narrative, of course, and include many of the all-time greats - amongst others, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Little Caesar, The Postman Always Rings Twice, L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., Jackie Brown. But even titles as famous as these occupy a subsidiary place (writers and directors but not films are indexed), and our attention is instead absorbed by the experiences of the writers themselves, more often than not their humiliations, failures, dismissals and self-destruction, their prodigious drinking and the defeat of their artistic ambitions by studio interference and commercial pressures. As Haut says, "Hollywood's hostile treatment of screenwriters is legendary. Because they were in a position to disseminate ideas, screenwriters were distrusted, not allowed to control their product, and constantly fired by studios." Haut includes numerous interviews with survivors and contemporaries (for example, A. I. Bezzerides, James Crumley, Joseph Wambaugh, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Donald Westlake and Dennis Lehane), each adding his own first-hand experiences of the writer's place as (in Wambaugh's phrase) "the low man on the totem pole" and of the damage inflicted all round on those involved in the movie industry: "When asked whether it was Tinseltown's nature to destroy writers, Westlake said, 'Hollywood has a natural tendency to destroy everybody, actresses worst, then directors, then writers, then actors…'"
There is nothing particularly startling about seeing the baneful nature of the Hollywood exposed: many have attested to its contradictory capacity both to destroy and to empower. In reading Haut's book, it's not this general truth but the particular examples that capture our interest - the struggles of individual writers who submit themselves to "a dream-suburb of Los Angeles" that is "as imaginary as it is real". Depending on your preferences, Heartbreak and Vine can either be regarded as admirably free of heavy-duty academic jargon or as providing too little by way of sustained academic analysis. One can argue, as Andrew Pepper does (reviewing Haut in the online journal Scope), that Haut doesn't adequately situate the underlying debates "about the contingencies of power and commodifcation of culture" in a rigorous analytical and theoretical framework. I have to admit, however, that I find it difficult myself to regret the absence of this kind of theorization in a book that contains so many compelling stories and misadventures.
As with Robson's Film Noir, a good deal of our pleasure in reading the book is derived from the texture of lived experience, the entertaining anecdotes, the personal views, the one-liners, the conflicts and vicissitudes - in Haut's book, for example, Horace McCoy struggling to support himself as "a hack screenwriter", turning his studio work into the basis of four of the great hardboiled novels, until his death at fifty-eight left his wife to pay off his advances by selling his vast record collection and his library, including a first edition of The Great Gatsby, inscribed
"From Scott Fitzgerald
of doom a herald
For Horace McCoy
no harbinger of joy";
or James M. Cain hospitably trying to show his appreciation of Fitzgerald, who refused to speak because he "thought Cain was taking him to lunch out of pity." Might Cain's experience of Hollywood, Haut asks, suggest that the corrosive Hollywood atmosphere, its pressures and restrictions, actually suited him as a writer? "For if some writers are able to produce their best work under such conditions, perhaps there is something to be said for the exigencies of corporate power, and those tarnished enough to flourish in the mean streets of Tinseltown." Others, of course, fled. Cornell Woolrich, after sailor-suited trysts and a too-revelaing diary ended his brief, unconsummated marriage, returned to New York to live with his mother and his typewriter (""While he had a love-hate relationship with his mother, his love for his typewriter was apparently unconditional"); David Goodis, having for a few years indulged his eccentricities in Hollywood (driving his decaying Chrysler, wearing the threadbare suits that he dyed blue, taking stage dives down stairways, passing himself off at parties as a white Russian prince in his turban and bathrobe), ultimately left behind what had become the life of a "second-rate screenwriter" and returned to Philadelphia to "enter the world of pulp culture with a vengeance…a down-in-the-dirt writer of paperback fiction."
If, having savoured the stories of Heartbreak and Vine, you want to seek out a wider (and more rigorously analytic) framework within which to understand twentieth-century crime films, one of the recent studies I would most strongly recommend is Nicole Rafter's lively and incisive Shots in the Mirror. The films noirs scripted by or based on the novels and stories of the tough-guy writers can here be seen as part of a panoramic survey of over 300 Hollywood crime films, located within a broad socio-cultural context. Rafter, who has an international reputation in criminology, poses the question of what crime films have to tell us about power, rebellion and deviance, about our conceptions of punishment and the restoration of order. Attuned throughout to the way films relate to one another and to the larger society, she categorises different types of plot and protagonist and identifies shifting ideological orientations; by bringing to bear the perspective of cultural criminology, with its focus on the cultural underpinnings of judicial and disciplinary systems, Rafter illuminates the links between the representation of crime, law and punishment in popular cinema and the wider society's political preferences, belief systems, conceptions of masculinity and gender identity, assumptions about race and views about the causes and nature of crime and the possibility of justice. The book's first chapter, by Drew Todd, surveys the history of crime films, and Rafter herself then goes on to reflect on cinematic explanations of criminality (crime films providing people with "a reservoir of images and stories" that they draw on when considering the causes of crime), cop films, courtroom dramas (a chapter co-written with Charles Alexander Hahn), prison and execution films, the heroes of crime movies, and the future of crime films.
Rafter's study persuasively demonstrates the existence of a crucially important (and constantly evolving) two-way process, her examples repeatedly illustrating the ways in which crime films both reflect and influence contemporary discourses of criminality, law, and social order. The most successful crime films, Rafter argues, are often those "that are one step ahead of popular opinion", helping to accomplish major changes in criminology and "to introduce new ways of thinking about crime." Thus, during the 1930s, the release of three of the greatest gangster films, Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), coincides with the Chicago School of criminology's emphasis on "the criminogenic nature of big-city neighbourhoods"; Bonnie and Clyde (1967), on the other hand, belongs to a period during which criminologists "were normalizing criminal behaviour"; Dirty Harry (1971) was "a harbinger of conservative theories to come"; and Natural Born Killers (1994) can be seen as one of the first films to place the blame for criminal behaviour on the mass media. As criminological discourse begins to shift, these are films that play a pivotal role in shaping the views of their audiences, so helping to set criminological trends "among the general public". Debates about biological as opposed to environmental causes of crime are reflected in and influenced by films that have such questions at their core: biological explanations are seen as reaching their cinematic apogee in The Bad Seed (1956), whereas Badlands (1974), for example, is a potent demonstration of "the negative impact of unsavory environments", and most of Scorsese's best crime films (Mean Streets (1973), say, and Taxi Driver (1976)) are, Rafter suggests, dominated by environmental explanations. Anxieties about the difficulties of achieving justice (which is elusive, demanding and ambiguous) are reflected in films that depict miscarriages of justice, like Call Northside 777 (1948) or Trial by Jury (1994); a movie like 12 Angry Men (1957) aims to influence public opinion by driving home "a 1950s message about pluralism and consensus." Even though movie depictions of criminal justice are a very considerable distance from the realities of what happens during criminal trials, it unquestionably seems the case that such films "furnish raw material for public debates about justice".
In her final chapter, Rafter moves on to speculate on "the future of crime films" - the possible genre shifts and emergence of new social issues, the effects of the intertwining of crime and technology and the continuing critical function of crime films. She concludes that they are likely to continue, in the twenty-first century, to "fill our mental reservoirs with a vast supply of imagery for thinking about crime, criminals, and the role of criminal justice institutions in society. As in the past, they will guide us in defining justice, heroism and the illicit", feeding into our myths of good and evil, giving us scapegoats, and compelling our attention by providing "routes into the enticing but forbidden underworlds of crime."
Eddie Muller's website, Noir City, is at: http://www.noircity.com/home.html
Eddie Muller features in a series of noir portraits - the photographs of Jim Ferreira, whose studio is located in the San Francisco Bay Area and who specialises in 'film noir portraiture'. The series is billed as "'Partners in crime' - film noir author and historian Eddie Muller and femme fatale music artist Jill Tracy", and is at: http://www.lafterhall.com/flatironshoot.html
Copyright © 2005 by Lee Horsley