Out of the Past

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Nobody in America identified “film noir” as a distinct genre when those dark, crime-centered movies, dense with fatalism and cynicism, were actually being turned out by Hollywood in the 1940s and’50s. But now film noir has been excavated and labeled and theorized and homaged to the point that it’s like the Museum of Modern Low Life, something you tiptoe through in a reverent hush. It has almost been forgotten that the actual film noirs, many of them marketed as B-movies, introduced some new and disreputable things into American movies, including moral ambiguity; obsessive and perverse eroticism; marginal, antiheroic heroes; and American (not foreign) women who were slinky, treacherous femmes fatales. In film noir American movies lost their innocence, or at least a large slice of it.

Some of the darkness was imported. Influenced in both its lighting and its sense of pervasive menace by German Expressionist films, film noir was nurtured by directors with European backgrounds – Fritz Lang (“Scarlet Street,” “The Big Heat”), Robert Siodmak (“The Killers,” “Criss Cross”), Billy Wilder (“Double Indemnity”), and Otto Prem- inger (“Laura”). And it was the French critics, sensing an existentialist aura in its trademark loneliness and alienation, who noticed and named it.

But film noir was also as American as apple pie, washed down with bourbon. The movie that’s usually taken as the first example of it, John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), may have introduced its unforgettable pair of cosmopolitan villains (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre), but Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade was an already familiar American archetype, the tough-guy private eye. And the dialogue of film noir – curt, sardonic, slangy, and racy – had been incubated in Hemingway’s stories and nurtured by masters of the hardboiled detective novel like Dashi- ell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Raymond Chandler, whose “The Big Sleep” and “Farewell, My Lovely” (adapted as “Murder, My Sweet”) were turned into two of the best noirs. Chan- dler also teamed up with Billy Wilder to write the seductive, menacing, wise-cracking exchanges between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.”

Nobody can write dialogue like that now, maybe because nothing like it is spoken now, as it was then on the waterfront and in the roadside diners and precinct houses. Film noir reflected a time of bitter, last-ditch individualism in American life. You could mouth off, you could see through the lies of corrupt political machines and sadistic cops, you could refuse to swallow the canned optimism of conventional American culture, but if you did, you ended up on the margins of society. You were probably doomed, or you at least got beat up for your trouble, but it was worth it because you were on your own. Today almost nobody wants to risk acting or talking like a thorny individualist. It might affect your credit rating. The FDA wouldn’t approve. The federal, state, and local sensitivity police wouldn’t like it. You apologize frequently while trying not to offend anyone, anywhere.

Two new movies set in the shadow of Hollywood of the 1940s and ’50s, “The Black Dahlia” and “Hollywood- land,” opened within a week of each other in September and seemed headed into prime film noir territory. A notorious real-life unsolved murder, and a notorious real-life suicide that just might have been an unsolved murder. Go-it-alone investigators, one an honest cop, the other a seedy but decent private eye; both getting beat up amid period-L.A. corruption and sleaze.

As it turns out, “The Black Dahlia” overshoots the mark badly, winding up somewhere along the coast of parod~ and “Hollywoodland” goes quietly off in a different direction, making it by far the better of the two movies. But neither film is going to satisfy anyone’s caffeine-fix craving for strong black neo-noir. For that you’ll have to go back to Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1976) and Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” (1997).

Brian De Palma may seem an ideal director for neo-noir. In movies like “Dressed to Kill,” “Scarface,” and “The Untouchables,” he’s known for an allusive, homage-paying style that usually involves sensational visuals and sensational violence. “The Black Dahlia” has its share of both, including a long tracking shot over a roof and into an empty lot, where the slashed, cut-in-half body of a young black-haired actress named Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered. Short, a real murder victim in 1947, was quickly dubbed “the Black Dahlia” in the papers, an allusion to Alan Ladd’s hit film, “The Blue Dahlia,” – a film noir, in fact. Adding icing to the neo-noir cake, the script, written by

Film noir was as American as apple pie, washed down with bourbon.

 

Josh Friedman, is based on the novel by James Ellro~ who also wrote “L.A. Confidential.”

“The Black Dahlia” does in fact have everything a neo-noir could possibly need, and then some, and that’s the problem. It keeps gilding the lil}j or rather the dahlia. It has a polar- opposites pair of police detectives, nicknamed Fire and Ice (Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett), who even go at each other in a boxing match set up by a publicity-hungry assistant DA. It has a blond bombshell ex-hooker with scarlet lipstick played by Scarlett Johansson. It has an elegant, sex-hungry femme fatale (Hilary Swank), first spotted in an improbably swank lesbian bar (complete with floor show), who lives in a mansion with her twisted family. And the twisted family money comes, of course, from long-ago corrupt L.A. real-estate deals.

But the movie is all style, laid on thick over a shapeless pile of stock characters and period props and a confusing plot. It’s noir atmospherics from a spray can. Yes, the original film noirs were stylized and full of melodramatic exaggeration. Yes, the plots could be hard to follow and harder to believe. (It was said that not even the director, Howard Hawks, could figure out the plot of “The Big Sleep,” and when he asked Chandler, who had written the novel, about one puzzling development, Chandler didn’t know either.) But the best noir films still had a gritty sense of reality. “The Black Dahlia” never gets near it.

Except for Kirshner, the performances are slightly off. Hartnett isn’t bad as the cool-headed cop who solves the case while fielding the come-ons of his fiery partner’s sultry girlfriend (Johansson) and sleeping with the slippery bisexual rich girl (Swank), but he’s too boyish to be a 1940s L.A. police detective. Johansson gives the same sulky performance she’s already given in several other movies. But Kirshner brings out Short’s naive desperation as she is glimpsed briefly in screen tests and a cheesy skin flick she made while trying to break into the movies.

“Hollywoodland,” instead of over-dosing on film noir, just casts a flirtatious glance in its direction. Nobody is going to mistake fragile-looking Adrien Brody (who won an Oscar in 2003 for “The Pianist”) for a noir detective like Bogart or Mitchum, but as Louis Simo he does come across as the kind of breez}j gum-chewing loser who might actually be a small-time private eye in 1950s L.A., staking out a plain middle-aged woman because her paranoid husband thinks she’s having an affair. Then Simo stumbles onto the case of George Reeves, who played Superman on TV and committed suicide in 1959 under slightly mysterious circumstances.

The movie flashes back and forth between Simo, who has to deal with an ex-wife, their young son, and a girlfriend while investigating the suicide that may be a murder, and the private life of Reeves (Ben Affleck), a handsome but bland actor who never soared beyond the flying superhero to the career he expected.

Reeves had fallen into an affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), an aging, sassy former beauty queen who’s the wife of a Neanderthal studio executive (Bob Hoskins). Did Reeves, whose only brushes with movie fame consisted of walk-on parts in “Gone with the Wind” and “From Here to Eternit}j” really kill himself out of frustration over the unshakeable Superman persona? Or was he murdered on the orders of Eddie Mannix, the ruthless studio boss who tolerated his wife’s affair but may have sought revenge when Reeves casually dumped her for a younger woman?

Or could the younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), an embittered gold digger, have pulled the trigger?

“Hollywoodland” leaves the mystery unresolved, letting the movie gravitate instead toward the desperation and disappointment that the Hollywood hothouse breeds like giant orchids. A lot depends on subtle performances by Affleck and Lane, and, along with Brody, they’re just right. It’s too bad the movie (the debut of director Al- len Coulter, written by Paul Bernbaum) didn’t get as much of an audience as it deserves. It isn’t really a neo-noir, but it works as an affecting, melancholy character study.

In the best film noirs, like “Out of the Past” (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), characters are haunted by their past, by secrets, by might-have-beens. It’s not surprising that we seem haunted by the past represented by film noir. We miss those brazen blondes and those tough-talking flatfoots and hoods. We miss their edgy individualism. But we can’t even do a good imitation of them, which is why most neo-noirs turn out to be might-have-beens.

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