Monday, September 13, 2010

Claude Chabrol and the Evolution of the Thriller

Claude Chabrol (1930 - 2010)

Two weeks after honoring Claude Chabrol in my column at Film Monthly (titled The truth is a Guillotine – Chabrol at his 80), he is gone. During last couple of months I watched and rewatched many of his films, especially his lesser known 1970s works. For me, his childhood village, Sardent, which is the setting of some of his films, became a perfect landscape for reflecting the frenzy and macabre in human nature despite the beauty and calmness of his surroundings.

First Chabrol film I saw, around 10 years ago, was his first feature Le beau Serge (1958), the first film out of the Cahiers circle and the winner of Prix Jean-Vigo, a stunning debut. My favorite Chabrol films? Anything with Stéphane Audran and that includes Les Biches (1968), La Femme infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1970) and La Rupture (1970), especially
Rupture that is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen, a story of a simple divorce which turns into a web of crime, political corruption, child molesting and paranoia.

In his oeuvre the biggest enemy, the most vicious bad guy and the elusive killer is nothing but bourgeoisie itself, the thing that Chabrol admires and hates with all his heart. I don’t remember any other director – maybe with exception of Bunuel in his latter days – so obsessed with the subject and so profound in juxtaposing this very theme with some of the most popular narrative forms in motion picture history.

Back to Chabrol the film critic, I’m going to share segments of one of my recent reads, Chabrol’s 1955 Christmas article for Cahiers du Cinema about the Thriller films: Evolution du film policier. It is translated by Liz Heron.

* * *
Evolution of the Thriller
Claude Chabrol

"Success creates the fashion, which in turn shapes the genre. What corresponded to the vogue for the detective story between the two wars, in American cinema - with many poor imitations elsewhere - was the creation of a genre which rapidly gave way, predictably, to mediocrity and slovenly formulae.

The attempts at adapting the novels of Dashiell Hammett only succeeded in reducing the hero of The Thin Man to the proportions of a series detective who persisted, tireder, sadder, and more monotonous, until around the end of the war. Thus the state of the thriller genre - of all the thriller genres - was far from brilliant in 1940. The mystery story either visibly stood still or became impossible to transfer to the screen. Prohibition had long since been forgiven by whiskey lovers, and the crime syndicate had not yet reached the public eye. The films were turning into baleful police stories, definitively condemned to tiny budgets and even smaller talents.

It was then that an unexpected rediscovery of Dashiell Hammett, the appearance of the first Chandlers and a favorable climate, suddenly gave the tough guy genre its aristocratic credentials, and opened the doors of the studios to it once and for all. The trend in these films, from Raoul Walsh's High Sierra and John Huston's Maltese Falcon onwards, continued to grow until 1948. The notion of the series underwent important modifications: if it was still a matter of exploiting a lucrative vein according to pre-established recipes, nevertheless each work was distinguishable from the others, in the best cases, by its tone or style. And if the same character appeared in several films one had to put it down to chance, or locate it in identical literary sources: no idiocy made it obligatory to identify the Marlowe of Murder My Sweet with the Marlowe of The Lady in the Lake. Many of these films were of high quality and often exceeded one's expectations of their directors. There are two reasons for this: the subjects of these films were the work of talented writers, all of them specialists in the genre, like Chandler, Burnett, Jay Dratler or Leo Rosten; and the filmmakers had settled for a standard mise en scene that worked extremely well and was rich in visual effects, perfectly suited to a genre in which refinement seemed inappropriate.

The Lady in the Lake

Misfortune willed that the genre in question should carry within it the seeds of its own destruction. Built as it was on the elements of shock and surprise, it could only offer even the most imaginative of scriptwriters and the most conscientious of directors a very limited number of dramatic situations which, by force of repetition, ended up no longer producing either shock or surprise. If the film noir thriller - and with it the novel - managed to last eight years, it was thanks to the precise combination of two elements that were at first external: suspense and reportage. There, too, the dice were loaded. Suspense, in introducing a new and infinitely dangerous instrument - anticipation - could only ring the changes on a very small number of situations, and covered up the problem without resolving it. As for reportage, its multiple possibilities were stifled by the very nature of the genre, which could only preserve its most superficial features and quickly let it become dull and boring. Thus locked in the prison of its own construction, the thriller could only go round in circles, like a trapped bird unable to find a way out of its cage. Robert Montgomery's gratuitous attempts at subjective camera shots in The Lady in the Lake, the time-disorientation in Sam Wood's Ivy, Robert Florey's childish and grotesque avant-gardism in his amnesiac's story, The Beast with Five Fingers, all sounded the death knell. One day Ben Hecht gave it the finishing touch, producing, from a tenth-rate novel by Eleazar Lipsky, an admirable script which was a supreme example of all the features of the detective story genre combined. As if to illustrate perfectly both the strength and the weakness of such a conception, it was Henry Hathaway, a skilled technician without an ounce of personality (author of the highest expression of the genre: the first half of Dark Corner), who made Kiss of Death, swansong of a formula, end of a recipe and the bottom of a gold mine, which at once blew up in the faces of the tycoons who had made their money but were now in trouble.

There's no question in these films of renovating a genre, either by extending its boundaries or intellectualizing it in some way. In fact there's no question of renovation at all, simply of expression, through the telling of a not too confusing tale. Aren't the best criteria of an authentic work most often its complete lack of self-consciousness and its unquestionable necessity? So there's nothing to restrict a preference for the freshness and intelligence of that almost impenetrable imbroglio, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur and scripted clumsily, and utterly sincerely, by Geoffrey Homes, rather than for Dark Passage, with its skillful construction, its judicious use of the camera in its first half, and its amusing surreal ending. But what makes the first of the two films more sincere than the other, you may ask. The very fact of its clumsiness! A film's total assimilation within a genre often means nothing more than its complete submission to it; to make a thriller, the essential and only prerequisite is that it be conceived as such and, by corollary, that it be constituted exclusively of the elements of the thriller. It is the genre that reigns over inspiration, which it holds back and locks into strict rules. Therefore it clearly takes exceptional talent to remain oneself in such a strange enterprise (that's the miracle of The Big Sleep), or else it takes inspiration, aspirations, and a vision of the world which are naturally in accordance with the laws of the genre (Laura is yet another miracle; and in a certain sense Lang and Hitchcock too).

There is no doubt that the superiority of The Big Sleep derives in part from the quite functional perfection achieved by director and scriptwriters; the plot of the film is a model of the thriller equation, with three unknowns (the blackmailer, the murderer, the avenger), so simple and so subtle that at first all is beyond comprehension; in fact, on a second viewing there is nothing easier than the unraveling of this film. The only difference between the viewer and the Marlowe-Bogart character is that the latter works it all out and understands the first time round. And so it seems this film only resembles the others in so far as it towers above them; but deep roots and firm connections link it to the body of Hawks's work. It is not just accidental that here the private eye is more intelligent and sharper than we are, and more directly than anywhere else confronted with the brutal strength of his adversaries. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, The Big Sleep is closer to Scarface, The Thing and even Monkey Business than to Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake. It is no less true that here the function subordinates the creation, surpassed by it of course, but definitively, since the Hawksian treatment of the tough guy theme cannot be repeated without in its turn creating a dull and sterile cliché.

Things take a rather different shape in Otto Preminger's Laura. In this film the pure thriller element is entirely subordinate to a predetermined narrative style which in some way transmutes it. The film's inspiration, a Vera Caspary novel, is a classic detective story, or rather neo-classic – in other words based on a less stereotyped kind of realism. At any rate it is a flawless testimony to the inadequacies of a thoroughly worn-out formula.
It is at the level of the characters that the displacement operates: the authors (Preminger and Jay Dratler) push them to their inevitable paroxysm, thus creating characters who are intrinsically fascinating, for whom the course they follow becomes the only possible one. Everything happens as if the characters had been created before the plot (it usually happens the other way round, of course), as if they themselves were constructing the plot, transposing it on to a level to which it never aspired.
To accentuate this impression, Preminger thought up a new narrative technique (which moreover gave his film great historical importance): long sequences shot from a crane, following the key characters in each scene in their every move, so that these characters, immutably fixed in the frame (usually in close-up or in two-shot), see the world around them evolving and changing in accordance with their actions. Here was the proof that a thriller can also be beautiful and profound, that it is a question of style and conviction. Vera Caspary had written a detective story. Preminger filmed a story of characters who meant something to him. None the less Laura’s still far from exemplary, since its success postulates a pre-existing detective story plot that fits in with the film-maker's purpose, or, more exactly, demands of the film-maker a vision that can be integrated into a given thriller theme. There again it is the director who takes the initiative and adapts to the genre. And the result, which one cannot deny is admirable, is worth infinitely more than the principle, which is no more than a half-measure.

There is clearly an objection possible here: all the films I've mentioned - and I've made a deliberate selection - are outstanding primarily because they set themselves miles apart from the genre, attached to it only by tenuous links that have nothing to do with their qualities. Isn't it then a little dishonest to see the future of the thriller only in the dilution of the detective story element within the films, since you only have to take things to their paradoxical conclusion to conceive of an ideal future in the suppression of this element altogether?

In reality what seems like a dilution is in fact nothing less than enrichment. All these auteurs have one thing in common: they no longer regard crime or any other thriller element as simply a dramatic situation that can lend itself to a range of more or less skillful variations, but see it in ontological (as with Ray, Losey or Dassin) or metaphysical (Welles, Lang or Hitchcock) terms.
It is really a matter of valorizing a theme, just as Proust tried to do with time. In the realm of the cinema this can be done at the level of mise en scene, as with Preminger, or at the level of work done on the script with a certain kind of mise en scene (Hitchcock or Welles). It can also be done, dare I say it, independently, in the working out of the script.

Be that as it may, through the successes and the failures, evolution cannot be denied. Nobody, I think, would lament the passing of films like After the Thin Man, or more recent films like Murder My Sweet, on seeing new films like In a Lonely Place or The Prowler. For those who remain unconvinced of the rigour of my argument I have kept an ace up my sleeve. Better than pages of analysis, there is one film that can testify to the new truth. Enter the thriller of tomorrow, freed from everything and especially from itself, illuminating with its overpowering sunlights the depths of the unspeakable. It has chosen to create itself out of the worst material to be found, the most deplorable, the most nauseous product of a genre in a state of putrefaction: a Mickey Spillane story. Robert Aldrich and A. I. Bezzerides have taken this threadbare and lacklustre fabric and splendidly rewoven it into rich patterns of the most enigmatic arabesques.

Kiss Me Deadly

In Kiss Me Deadly the usual theme of the detective series of old is handled off-screen, and only taken up again in a whisper for the sake of the foolish: what it's really about is something more serious - images of Death, Fear, Love and Terror pass by in succession. Yet nothing is left out: the tough detective whose name we know so well, the diminutive and worthless gangsters, the cops, the pretty girls in bathing suits, the platinum blonde murderess. Who would recognize them, and without embarrassment, these sinister friends of former times, now unmasked and cut down to size?"

No comments:

Post a Comment