Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]




Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City
By Nicholas Christopher
The Free Press, 1998

Reviewed by John Lehman, a.k.a.The Angry Critic


Nicholas Christopher throws a bunch of shit against the wall. A bit of it sticks, most of it falls to the floor. The problem: what can you write about film noir that has meaning for contemporary readers? We've all heard about light and shadow, the emerging anti-hero, cold war paranoia and the city as moral labyrinth. But so what? Why should this, or any other historic gloss, explain film noir's considerable appeal to viewers today?

Christopher has written two novels and five books of poetry, most with noir sounding titles (Veronica, Desperate Characters). This book reads as if, with 5 x 8 cards in hand, he saw all the movies in the formidable appendix-listing and read everything remotely relating to the subject, then rearranged these notes into chapters. Ho, hum. I felt like Harry Lime in The Third Man wading, not in the sewers of Vienna, but through an endless bibliography of this sinister genre. Yet occasionally there is a glimpse (through the grating) of something beyond, an insight into why we can never get enough of these movies:
The film noir often allows the hero to think he is rescuing a woman who in truth is not only in control of the situation, but is imperiling his life. As the film critic Richard Dyer writes, this hero has a double quest -- to solve the mystery of the villain and of the woman.

It seems to me this is a "coming of age" puzzle, but what if that's why we go back to these films? For many of us (whether they were in theaters or on early television) these are the films of our adolescence. Roger Ebert and other critics bemoan the fact that so many movies today are directed at adolescent males. Perhaps that has always been movies' audience. We are blind to it in the case of our own adolescence, yet we revert back to these films for our symbols of struggle with life's ambiguities. This is not an idea Christopher pursues, but the suggestion itself is intriguing because film noir is not only a uniquely American art form, it is also the one dealing most directly with morals.

Here's another keeper. The author cites Jung's description of dreams as a spontaneous, self-portrayal of the unconscious, at the same time both concealing and revealing. "A film is a dream," said Orson Welles. Christopher quotes critic Deborah Thomas:
In the film noir hero there is a desire to recall countered by the desire to forget, the frequency of flashback structures in the genre is suggestive of the neurotic's compulsion to repeat, as the noir protagonist, too, reworks the past to try to master it through his narration.

Besides the past and the present there is a dichotomy between violence and vulnerability. The book draws the timeworn conclusion that this reflects WWII GI's returning to urbanization and to women who, in their absence, have appropriated masculine roles in the workplace. Perhaps, but in the 1990s who cares?

When Christopher takes a quasi-academic posture, my interest gauge reads "let's get popcorn out in the lobby." While talking about Night and the City having a London location, he writes:
In his essay on Shakespeare and Seneca (whose five-act dramatic structure Shakespeare appropriated and refined), T.S. Eliot makes two salient points: that the Elizabethan period was one of dissolution and chaos, and that for the first time, the greater part of English literature emanated from a large, rapidly commercializing wildly diversified city in London.

Who's he talking to? And about what? This is a half-crazed Richard Widmark playing the weasel Harry Fabian, for Christ's sake, in the genre of Philip Marlowe, not Christopher Marlowe. It's junk food and that's what we crave.

Somewhere in the Night is often at its best when summarizing the movies. And if you love the films, maybe that's where it really counts. Here the poet/novelist forgets his academic pretension and loses himself, like you or I would, in the films he obviously loves:
The downtown San Francisco in which our hero finds himself could not be more claustrophobic. It is a collapsing, involuted landscape, architecturally and emotionally. The walls that have not already closed in seem to be in the process of doing so before his (and our) eyes. The maze confronting him consists of rain-slicked streets and sidewalks canopied by iron trees; of caged catwalks, rattling fire escapes, dank basements, and twisting corridors; of after-hours office buildings, swank forbidding apartments cluttered with objets d'art, and a barren apartment containing only a corpse. Everywhere he goes, shadows are elongated, stairwells steep and winding, and elevators dimly lit; terraces are overhung with thick vines and vacant lots are surrounded by impenetrable foliage. And all the alleys are blind alleys. Our hero in his dark night of the soul has many stations through which he must pass.

The book ends with a provocative comparison between Out of the Past, Christopher's favorite noir classic, and The Usual Suspects, his pick (and mine) for best neo-noir. It then concludes with a stunning seven page re-telling of The Usual Suspects. I've seen that movie five or six times but this sent me back to rent it again. In fact that's my advice about Somewhere in the Night. Find it in the library and Xerox the filmography (pp 273-280) in the back. Then start watching the films, many of which can be ordered from the library. Screw the book, screw intellectualizing, experience the fucking movies! See them as they are meant to be seen, in a dark room (isolated in that darkness from anyone else), involved in the story, yet aware of your involvement -- as if you are caught gazing into a mirror reflecting the dark underside of your past and present life.


Order Somewhere in the Night from Amazon.com.
Other titles by Nicholas Christopher.

______________________________

John Lehman, a.k.a. The Angry Critic, is fifty-eight, in debt and overweight. Rather than take responsibility for his life he is content to lash out at others. He says, "If art isn't for getting even, what is it good for? Now get outta here!"

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