Film Noir is kind of a thing for me. I hope that you are reading this article long after I publish my film noir sci-fi masterpiece and that’s why you’re here so right now you’re all like duh, Garlington. But if not, well, dig it: I’m into noir.
I like classic black and white movies in general. I love the argent quality of the light, the lunar quality of the scenes. The starkness. The otherness.
I am more easily transported into the fictive dream through the silver screen. Probably a thing from childhood, when so much television was broadcast in black and white 1.
When you’re watching a movie, this thing I called the fictive dream2 is also known as the suspension of disbelief. It is the state of mind you fall into when you are reading a really good book or watching a really good movie. The you that is you disappears, replaced by the protagonist. Your experience stops being I am watching Jurassic Park on my couch and becomes, instead, I am running for my life from a hangry T-Rex.
Avid readers learn early on there are certain genres that are permanently closed to them and other genres that are pure opium. The bulk of what I read for fun is science fiction, though I cut my teeth on the adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and [Howard]. I might pick up a mystery now and then and I’ve got a thing for Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard. Fuck, I’m in love with most old crime writers. I occasionally will make the effort to fill my dome with lit-tra-chure but more often than not, I can’t get more than eight pages in before I throw the Goddam nook against the wall.
Bookstores are divided into genres for this very reason. Obstensibly, it’s to help people find what they want to read. You have to organize. But it’s also about where the reader finds their portal to the other side, which is where we’re all trying to go when we open a book. Or watch a movie.
My portal of choice is a really good black and white movie.
Unfortunately, there were few of them. Hollywood is a factory that makes movies and they make a lot of them. Sometimes the films are good but most of them are pure unstirred buckets of shit.
I go back in time on YouTube or Netflix to watch a movie and hopefully get transported and instead I end up staring at the screen. The acting was different. There was less verisimilitude. The speech is fast and clipped. The scenes were cheap as hell. The plots were just flat lines. So to get my fix, I sometimes watch contemporary film noir with the color dialed all the way back.
Try it. Let’s look at L.A. Confidential. This movie turns twenty-one on May 14th and it holds up incredibly well. Probably because more than any other flick, it is a relentless homage to film noir.
The incidental music
The music in noir films is called crime jazz and it’s damn good. A lot of filmmakers used jazz because all the musicians were on drugs and would throw down a composition for a song. Noir also introduced America to a stable of working jazz composers who would become the bedrock of an original musical style.
Take a listen to the soundtrack of Sweet Smell of Success. That band on stage is led by Chico Hamilton, an iconic jazz legend at the start of his career. Check out Henry Mancini’s incredible score for Touch of Evil, the last classic noir film and a flat our masterpiece (despite Charleston Heston’s work in brownface).
L.A. Confidential is scored by Jerry Goldsmith who also put together the soundtrack (they are different things). The songs from the soundtrack are classic period pieces like Ach Cen Tu Ate the Positive, and MORE but it’s the incidental music, the score, the mood music in the scenes that really captures the spirit of 1950s cinematic jazz.
There are plenty of sources for Goldsmith’s score, but I feel like he owes a lot to Alex North’s soundtrack for A Streetcar Named Desire and I won’t lie to you, I didn’t get this until I was researching this article3 and discovered this article on crime jazz by Skip Heller. I had never thought of Streetcar as a noir film but Jesus Haploid Christ, it’s dark as hell. Rough. Steamy. Tense. Fucking noir.
The Meta Movie in L.A. Confidential
While I was watching, I realized L.A. Confidential is two movies. On the surface, it is a perfectly crafted crime drama straight out of 1953, brilliantly written brilliantly cast, brilliantly executed. But beneath the surface, it’s a movie about film noir.
Though the director would disagree. The production was careful to avoid becoming an homage or a parody or a cheap imitation. They talk like people actually talked in life in 1953, not like characters. It was ahead of its time in the way it balanced form against verisimilitude to achieve cinematic time travel which is becoming the foundation of the new age of television4.
Director Curtis Hanson didn’t want to make a movie that was like a film noir. He wanted to make the best film noir ever. And he may have succeeded. But, there are elements that come directly from the narrative which demand certain shots, certain scenes, certain language from the familiar nomenclature of the genre. It feels like a callback, like an anachronism. But it isn’t. Hanson worked like it was 1953. Like he was a director working in 1953.
Watching the movie in black and white allows some of these images to leap out at the attentive viewer. Look at Exley in the shootout, how he doesn’t just hit the ground like a person would in real life. He dives. It’s exposition. It’s obvious. And it’s exactly how it would have appeared in a cheap film noir.
The use of high contrast lighting, of dutch angle framing, of shots of people in car windows, in doorways, in frames of all kinds.
The Double Lead
A great story has a protagonist with internal conflict. A man’s professional demeanor play against his savage instincts. A good guy fights against going bad. He plays by the rules in a world where everyone breaks them.
But in L.A. Confidential, it’s two men. Edmond Exley is the rule-abiding by the bookish nerd cop. He’s brilliant but he fights with his mind. Bud White is a loyal bruiser who walks in a pose of pure brutality. He’s a savage with an agenda to do the right thing. He’s terrifying. For the first part of the movie, these two are locked in conflict, like a single main character with warring oppositional spirits.
The two are rarely in the same shot, hardly in the same scene. Until they come together. Suddenly they’re in the same shots, moving in unison, like a single person. It is an extraordinary shift.
I feel like the detail of the sets was lost a little when shot in color. We’re familiar with all these items when they appear in their natural tones. But when shot in silver, they are suddenly items in a dream inventory.
Look at the offices. Look at the police station. Dig the cars. When you drop the color, the sheer perfection of the sets, especially–My God–the streets. Those cars. The mood. The speed. That’s such an important part. The cars move the same speed they would have in 1953. Someone thought about that. They lumber a little bit. They’re slower than you expect.
Better Acting Makes a Difference
Alright, I’m wrapping it up. But think about the shift in acting from the 50s to now. At some point, acting stopped following the education of the stage and began thinking about how one acts into a lens. Russel Crowe and James Cromwell are such incredible close-up actors. Their performances are almost luxurious. Check out their conversation in ACT 1 when Dudley Smith gives back Bud White’s badge. Cromwell is redolently smarmish, but with a gleam of Irish charm. Crowe is menacing but when his badge is offered back to him–his identity–he snatches it off the table.
I watch a lot of movies in black and white. I urge you to try it. Chinatown is next for me, but you should try Blade Runner on for size. It works Trust me.