Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Life...Replaced by Fresh Corpse

Thomson's “Have You Seen...” Reviewed

A noir report of “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films by David Thomson (Alfred Knopf, 2008) from Noir City Sentinel, Summer 2010.

“The suspense is tender, mocking, ironic, the violence is performed, and the outbursts of passion are like phrases of music, nearly.” With these line on The Woman in the Window (1944), David Thomson leaps into the world of film noir in his colossal “Have you seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Though he doesn’t enjoy using the term “noir” regularly, he relies on the themes that stake out the territory. 

Thomson resuscitates noir’s elusive moments by depicting shots, moods, sequences, seductions — even smells. (“You can smell the sweat, the greasepaint, and the cheap perfume” in Quai des Orfevres (1947), or in The Killing (1956), “You smell Marie Windsor’s lipstick and Elisha Cook’s flop sweat.”) In his notes on William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), Thomson alludes to the theme which can open the main door to the world of noir nightmares and doubts: “desire(s) can wreck every civilized system,” and later, he suggests “we should recognize at the outset that this is chiefly because [it's] a medium that releases pent-up or taboo longings. Nowhere has it been more persuasive or insidious than in affecting out attitudes to crime and love.”

Though Thomson's book covers 112 years of movies—and whereas the classic noir era only lasted for two decades—almost 10 percent of the book is dedicated to the urban nightmares of noir. The list begins with The Letter (not counting pre-1940 films such as You Only Live Once, 1937, and other noir “godfathers”), ends with Robert Wise’s Odd Against Tomorrow (1959), and covers 93 films noir in all. 

Thomson's noir preferences may seems obvious for a hardcore noir fan, but Thomson also gives consideration to lesser known films like The Hard Way (1943), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Chase (1946), They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), and Baby Face Nelson (1957).

When it comes to noir, Thomson's usual sexual alludes become wilder and confessional, in his expertise in recreating the underlying sexual tensions of these movies in words seems supreme. He doesn't shy away from forthright appraisal of the sexual appeal of Jean Wallace, Barbara Stanwyck, and Janet Leigh — even giving more credit to certain films because of their allure. He reaches the point of declaring “the women are to die for” in his stunning Kiss Me Deadly entry — after all, the author has termed the work a “personal introduction,” filled with “oddities and guilty pleasures.” He is one of those writers who appreciates the figurative being and impact of the film,  and the sheer power of physical appearance on the screen, especially women’s. He stays unique in elevating this desire as an apparatus for evaluation. Only Thomson, among today's writers in print, can get away with ascribing to The Maltese Falcon’s Mary Astor a “ deepening sincerity and fuckability.”

There are luminous passages in his prose, as when he discusses The Big Combo’s (1955) odious world and its pretentious style. He even suggests the film was “made by a hoodlum who had who read some books in prison and was insufferable because of it.” Or when he hurrays for Criss Cross (1949): “the craft can bring
tears to your eyes. Siodmak gets the masochistic fatalism and somehow he got bustlingly robust Burt Lancaster to see it, too, and to settle for living in the sad sigh that always lurked in Burt’s voice and his hurt eyes.”

His most “personal” comments come in the entries for films like Out of the Past (1947), on which statements like “these two sleepwalkers are more in love with death than each other,” echoes Sadegh Hedayat. He is suspicious of Detour’s (1945) place in the film noir pantheon, but still suggests that the picture be commended for opening so many doors for the re-evaluation of cheaply made B-movies. In Thomson’s words “it only shows that there may be plenty of films as good, as ugly, and as disreputable waiting to be found in the gutter.”

He describes the movies in such way that provokes the reader to rush to her or his collection and re-watch the DVD one more time—only to discover that sometimes his descriptions are better than the original. In  two cases I'm going to quote, metaphors, more or less like what Whitney Balliett did in jazz literature, compete with the films' visual power:

"In discovering the charm of villainy Hitchcock is charting out the ambiguity that will mean so much to him in the 1950s. So think of it as Bruno, on a train and making his way to a provincial fairground as dusk falls. It ends, properly, with his demon driving a carousel mad, and with his hand opening to reveal one of Hitchcock’s great burning objects. (Strangers on a Train, 1951)

and again on The Killing:

"Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor as humanly interesting as chop bones left overnight on a plate. There was always a way Kubrick had of snapping human vitality just at the instant where you felt life was going to be replaced by a fresh corpse, still warm and fragrant."

Space is granted on Thomson’s list for noir from countries other than America. Excellent Brit-noir’s like Brighton Rock (1947) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and also essential works of Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Jules Dassin in his murky French period. “One thing that unites noir in all its contributing countries," says Thomson, with his trademark acrid humor, "is the way in which men marry women they’re going to want to murder.”

He celebrates style, more than the content of films, so when he gets to D.O.A. (1950)—in which Edmund O’Brien frantically tries to learn why he has to die— Thomson reckons, “in truth the answer to that puzzle (why?) is a lot less satisfactory than the mystery itself, but that’s a weakness with plenty of film noirs.”

His comments on recurring noir themes in contemporary cinema also stem from the same stylistic point of view: “Now [noir] only seemed fanciful and implausible, because there was no grasp of the atmosphere or the hectic style that noir needed if we were to suspend disbelief. Once that disbelief goes, not a lot is left—noir was always a genre poised on the brink of style without content.” Given this attitude, it’s not surprising that some of his most passionate entries discuss the films of Fritz Lang, perhaps the greatest of noir stylists. According to Thomson, Lang’s method was to stage every event as if he were quoting from a scrapbook of dream images —“the brilliant compositions always underline themselves; they are in italic, and thus a touch suspect, more haunting than reliable. And the dream structure places The Woman in the Window in that precious category of films that define cinema.”

Also, very typical of a Thomson book, few unjust judgments can make you glower that usually stem from Thomson’s favoring certain actor-stars to directors. It’s disappointing that he never mention Raoul Walsh in The White Heat (1949) entry, giving all the credit to James Cagney. The only comfort comes from remembering how brilliantly he paid his dues to Walsh in an entry on Biographical Dictionary of Film.

For the list of film noirs included in the book, go here.

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