|THE BIG CHAT|
|Interview, October 22, 2002|
|Andrews Dickos has authored an important contribution to film literature with his recently published book,|
|'THE STREET WITH NO NAME: A History of the Classic American Film Noir'.|
|Published by (ISBN 0-81312243-0)|
|University Press of Kentucky|
|'STREET' bridges a gap in film noir literature. There are several recent excellent books that focus on the entertainment value of noir, and a group of highly intellectual writings that almost require a couple years of college level psychology to understand. All of these have their place, but in "Street" the author challenge us to dig a little deeper below the surface without being overwhelmed. At some point one has to smile at the dark poetry of Dickos' writing style. It's easy to see that he loves this subject.|
|This session was led by film reviewer and writer Alan 'A.K.' Rode. After a short interview Alan opened up the board for a question and answer session with the guest. This event is presented here in it's entirety.|
K. RODE: I would like to welcome tonight's special guest,
Andrew Dickos. Andrew has graced us with his presence to discuss his
latest book, "Street with No Name, A History of the Classic
American Film Noir" published by University of Kentucky Press. I
would like to start tonight's discussion by posing several questions to
Andrew about his book. After he has responded to these initial queries,
I will immediately open the forum for a Q&A from all of my fellow
ANDREW DICKOS: Alan, thank you for having me in your weekly discussion forum. It's a privilege to be in the company of some of your previously interviewed authors.
AKR: Andrew, welcome again and here we go:
AKR: 1. How did film noir capture your passion to the degree of writing a book about it?
AD: I knew that this was a special kind of cinema, a compelling one that I had to explore in some way. As I grew older, I thought I'd write about it some day, originally, perhaps as a doctoral dissertation
AKR: 2. In Street with No Name, you approach film noir as a collection of films starting in 1940 which "continue to be produced in the present." Does this mean that you are not an adherent of the notion that film noir is a period-based genre (circa 1940-1958) with post or so-called "neo-noir" films representing mere genre revival attempts or, as put by Alain Silver, "a diminishment"?
AD: I do not believe that the film noir has attained the historical range to allow us to historicize it properly. Therefore, I hesitate to refer to film noir as a cycle of films that has exhausted itself. I do think that the noir is period-based to the extent that the stories are, as I've said, current (i.e. from the post-depression era onward) and urban-set.
AKR: 3. Your book stitches together many of the disparate root elements of American film noir: German expressionism, French cinema, and pulp fiction writing. What is your view on the influence of what I'll call "post-World War II realism/cynicism" on film noir?
AD: I think that the realism--with what I take it you include an attendant cynicism--is that product of a postwar film technique that very much emerged as a visual artifact of the harshness revealed in the aftermath of a devastating world war. What it did to the film noir is to inject it with this documentary quality. But realism has a way of being modified by lighting and setting to acquire any one of several tones, moods, and other imaginative projections (hallucinations, dreams, nightmares, etc.). The cynicism achieved here--or rather, the degree of cynicism displayed--depends on the story and its filmmaker . . . and said filmmaker is of course a product of his time.
AKR: 4. A common thread running through your book is the noir director as auteur. Any opinions on which director made the most definitive impact on the genre and why?
AD: Abraham Polonsky, because of the moral anguish of his protagonists and his love of New York City (in Force of Evil). Robert Siodmak, because of the expressionistic despondency aroused in combination with a destructive romanticism in his Universal films. Fritz Lang for the formal entrapment of his characters, Otto Preminger for the moral ambiguity of his, and Anthony Mann because of the intoxicating and rather painterly use of light and shadow (thanks an awful lot to John Alton!) to delineate the fear and desperation of this noir characters. Siodmak, of course, does this too
AKR: 5. Everyone has their favorite films noirs. I noticed a particular admiration on your part for Night and the City (1950). Could you elaborate on why you think so highly of this film and talk about some other seminal noirs that may be near and dear to your heart?
AD: Alan, in answer to your fifth question: Yes. You're correct. Night and the City is one of my all-time favorite noirs because it so lucidly shows man entrapped in a hard and unforgiving world of his own making. The great courage of Harry Fabian lies, finally, in his acceptance that death is the only way he can vindicate himself of a sad and often misspent life. Of course, it isn't, in reality. But it is consistent with the poetic vision of Dassin here, whose protagonist runs until he can run no more. In like manner, but to a different end, I find Polonsky's Force of Evil to be equally great in its moral reckoning and resonance, and how these are represented through an extraordinary use of poetic dialogue, compelling music, and superb camerawork. I'm fond of the John Garfield/Joe Morse character in his representation of the anguish of an increasingly morally-troubled urban man who recognizes the need to redefine himself through his actions. I also love Siodmak's Criss Cross and Christmas Holiday; Hawks's The Big Sleep; Lang's The Big Heat; Preminger's Laura, Fallen Angel, and Where the Sidewalk Ends; and Wilder's Double Indemnity. Also, Phil Karlson's 99 River Street. All present interesting expressions of the greatest noir formal achievements and existential concerns . . . And I know that there are other films that at different moments I'd swear I couldn't live without having access to in my life!
AKR: Andrew, thanks so much for your insightful responses and the board is now open for other questions.
AD: Thank you, Alan, for your astute questions. It's a pleasure to answer such smart and fun questions!
LAURA: Welcome to DFD, Mr. Dickos! I love your book, and love how you categorize different elements of noir around certain directors. In doing your research, did you come across any rare noirs that you highly regard and feel are due for rediscovery? Also, echoing one of Alan's questions, could you list several directors whose noir work deserves reevaluation in particular?
AD: Thank you for the compliment, Laura. I'd have to say the Phil Karlson films were a rediscovery for me simply because they've been out of circulation for so long. You rarely see them on the old-movie networks; some were originally released on video (back in the late 80s/early 90s) and then disappeared; and they aren't always shown at the rep houses in noir series. It would be nice to see Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor acknowledged more often--more often that even I acknowledged it! (LOL) And the same for, oh, say, the 1944 When Strangers Marry . . .
LAURA: I have seen those two films, and think they're great! Of Karlson's films, "99 River Street" was my #1 noir find a year ago - That film really does need to be rediscovered. In my opinion, John Payne's best performance. Thanks!
MIKE: I can't sling the trivia and name drop as easily as my illustrious cohorts, and I have not read your book--not for lack of interest, merely opportunity. I have to fall back on philosophical questions. Mostly repeats: bear with me. What's the best example of amnesia in film noir in your opinion? Why do you think the "femme fatale" first emerged in film noir, although temptresses and manipulative sexpots have been with us since time immemorial? Some say that noir "happened" here because of a conglomerate of individual factors--like budget constraints, the B movie mills, post-war malaise, coupled with the fodder of a noir body of fiction already present and expatriate directorial talent fleeing fascist repression. Why then are some countries so poorly represented? We have to scratch hard for Japanese noir. Where are the Russian and Spanish products? The home-grown German stuff? Is it a societal thing that only haunted the West? How much more angst-ridden and fatalistic can you get than after seeing a whole city full of your relatives, friends and countrypeople vaporized? Who's more fascist than Stalin and Franco? Last and maybe most difficult: Angels in 6? Thanks for your time.
AD: Mike, here they are! The best example of amnesia in the noir is in Roy William Neill's 1946 Black Angel. Femmes fatales have always existed since David and Bathsheba (not the movie, the Bible story). The film noir simply took her as an agent of malevolence and invested her with an independence--certainly as an agent of action--that brought her closer to the individualism of the modern American woman. Angels in the 6th, yes. As for the multifaceted concerns that gave growth to the noir in this country over others with similar concerns: Why Mike, that's a whole new book to write! (LOL)
MIKE: Here's hoping I have time to read that new book, and you have fun writing it.
mac: Good evening and welcome to Dark Films Discussion. I have not yet read your book, so please excuse the ignorance of my questions. After briefly researching your work on the Web, I discovered that you have also written a book about Preston Sturges ("Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies"). In the estimable and essential tome Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, there is a fascinating appendix about noir hybrids (gangster-noir, western-noir, period-noir). Several Sturges comedies (Sullivan's Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero, Unfaithfully Yours) are proposed as being noir comedies. First of all, do you accept the proposition of the noir hybrid or is film noir incompatible on the prairie and with screwball comedy? And do you agree with the unknown writer in the Film Noir encyclopedia that Sturges comedies evince a noir sensibility?
AD: Thank you for your question. In my book I address the question of what is not noir, and any film with a comic structure cannot lay claim to a noir sensibility: films noirs may have humor, but they cannot have a comic structure. Sturges, particularly with a film such as Unfaithfully Yours--and even Hail, the Conquering Hero--evinces a black humor within a formal comic structure that defies the despondent, and often terror-stricken, world of the noir protagonist. The hybridization of genres doesn't always apply. Mostly, it's a matter of tone. You can have a western comedy, even a war comedy, because there are aspects of the frontier west and of, say, army life that are comic. The film noir makes no such appeal. Despair may be bitterly funny, but it's not comic. mac: What literature on film noir would we find in the Dickos library? That is, what books and magazine articles - including fiction - do you consider mandatory or worthwhile reading for the noir enthusiast? AD: I love this question. J.P. Telotte wrote Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir in 1989. I found it to be the single-most cogent study of the film noir in English. Naturally, Silver, Ward & Ursini have done a wonderful job of simply bringing together all sorts of data and documents that are now at everyone's fingertips. Eddie Muller, Lee Server, and Nicholas Christopher are all instructive writers.
LAURA: Hi again, Andrew! Of particular interest to me in your book is the "Noir Iconography" section. Of nightclubs/bars/lounges, you write, "It is not that lounges in themselves are iniquitous, but that they have gained cinematic currency as the sophisticated and often sleek images of modern excitement...an appropriate setting for those who seek/escape...danger and violence..." Do you feel there is a modern equivalent in current, neo-noir films? Any suggestions of iconography in today's noirs?
AD: I can't think of anything, Laura. As I said in my book, the neo-noir has to find its own distinguishing markers, so to speak, and I can't discern what they are yet. mac: Again, forgive the ignorance of my question, since you have addressed the subject of noir and comedy in your book. So, you do not consider even parodies such as My Favorite Brunette (starring Bob Hope), The Cheap Detective (starring Peter Falk) and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (starring Steve Martin) as comedy-noir?
AD: Correct. Harry Fabian, Hank Quinlan, and Tommy Udo would not approve. (LOL) The day the Passion Play can be parodied will be the day film noir can be parodied.
mac: Final question (from me) for the evening, and I thank you for honoring this forum with your distinguished presence. You might have written about this subject in your book . . . do you buy the accepted theory that film noir began with either Stranger on the Third Floor or The Maltese Falcon or do you think that earlier films - even silent films - could be classified as film noir? I happen to regard Greed (based on McTeague by Frank Norris and directed by Erich von Stroheim) as being a precursor to film noir. Again, thank you for your time, generosity, patience, and above all, your scholarly knowledge.
AD: mac, I agree. A precursor could well be found in the Stroheim. I, myself, locate a strong precursor in the Lang's 1922 Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler. True, it is German; however, I wouldn't argue with any of a number of preferences here. And thank you, mac. Your participation made me think.
AD: Alan and company, thank you all for making this a pleasure for me. I thank you all for investing in my book and am happy that your enjoyed it. On occasion, please allow me to drop a comment or two on some of the very interesting topics your participants promise to raise.
Andrew Dickos interview was copied and transcribed by mac. A.K. Rode led
the interview before the board was opened to a question and answer
session. October 22nd, 2002.
A.K.Rode's movie reviews can be found at FilmMonthly.com
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