Monday, August 29, 2011


Some detritus from the brainwerks:

1. I'm thinking about ways that the physicality of an actor colors the effect of his character. Quite interesting that Jules Dassin chose Hume Cronyn, who is short and not particularly imposing, to portray Captain Munsey-- and how appropriate given that Munsey's power is entirely positional and institutional and not an effect of singular personal ability. The suitably strapping Burt Lancaster counterposes the bureaucratic Munsey with his of-the-earth look-- he is a natural man, sweating, muscles in perpetual strain-- the specimen of human life inside the dehumanization machine. Other actors with striking physical presences: Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum.

2. BRUTE FORCE takes place in a world totally devoid of nature-- everything is iron, industrial, administrative. I'm wondering about the role that nature plays across the noir genre, particularly in relation to the genre's outgrowth from the Western (I think a pretty reasonable case can be made for this).

The nature-civilization dichotomy is obviously a recurring subject in the Western idiom. Nature, in all of its beauty is the godless zone, amoral, apathetic to sentiment and human endeavor. Good, bad, ugly, the sun gives not a damn and will roast them all equally. No water shall spring from any stone to help the noble cross the prairie. One wonders if the blindly hostile Native Americans that so often materialize out of the wilderness to terrorize cowpokes and pioneers may (in addition to all the racist colonial stuff) manifest the anxiety of leaving the domain of morality and divine providence-- the assailants are, after all, "heathens", "savages", "unchristian", etc. Nature is not the expression of god's grace, but its absence. Its law is primal and Darwinian.

Those who comport themselves by this rule-- hierarchy of the fittest, dominance by force-- are the villains of the genre. The great anxiety is that their way is stronger than ours, that the true order of the universe is that The Strong And Vicious Shall Rule The Meek. The heroes of the genre are those who reject the "natural order", erecting against it the institutions of civilization (Law, Justice), epitomized by the figure of The Sheriff.

The belief in these institutions has totally eroded by the noir period. Law is a scam, Justice is a sham, they're all rotted to the core. As we behold these uninstitutionalized, of-the-earth men like Burt Lancaster's character, do we sense nostalgia for the nature that has been left behind?

3. The signification of noir-- headlights on the road at night, high speed. Engagement with mystery and the ecstasy of the sensorium. I am gripped by this image no matter how many times I see it. BRUTE FORCE has a good one. THE LOST HIGHWAY employs this imagery to a more metaphorical end. The greatest example I have encountered is probably in the opening sequence of Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY. Magnificent.

1 comment:

  1. Does noir embody a more Jewish/old Testament conception of Wilderness as hostile environment set over and against the petty kingdoms of the pharoahs? Is wilderness a place of testing, a place of law-giving, and the "detective" is a kind of displaced prophet, crying in the city landscape?