Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

Typically, I like to start these out with a personal story of some sort, a way of connecting my own experience to the subject matter of the issue I’m introducing. But, after starting and stopping several different drafts, I realized something that probably should have been obvious to me from the start: my life has literally no connection to film noir. I’ve never been a morally complicated man caught up in a labyrinthine mystery, never bantered with a femme fatale, never worn a fedora. The voiceover that runs in my head is far more neurotic than it ever is suave, sophisticated, or knowing. I smoked once, but that was long ago, and five cigarettes a day was enough to make me feel sickly.

And to be fair, I’m not alone. Most of us don’t live out our lives in black and white; we’re intrigued by the shadows but we mostly stick to the light. Perhaps that’s why noir fascinates and compels us. Maybe we like immersing ourselves in its complex worlds, its double-crossing narratives and staccato rhythms, its beautiful, smoke-filled scenes because it offers us a chance to play out various, tougher versions of ourselves. To imagine our tiny little boring lives as part of some hard-boiled, world-weary tapestry. Or maybe noir intrigues because of its slippery slopes, the sense that any of us is just one step or one fatal chance encounter away from falling into a darker abyss, from finding ourselves caught up in a maze of mystery we barely understand, struggling to keep up with its twists and turns, its life and death stakes. Maybe we like to believe that, should this moment ever come to pass, our inner Marlowe would arise, the lone wolf chain-smoking tough guy, the sad sack anti-hero called into active duty

In this issue, we’re focusing our attention on the world of noir, immersing ourselves in its dark waters. Doing the dirty work in this issue is our most diverse group of writers yet: a talented mix of young newcomers, seasoned BW/DR staff writers, and award-winning poet Michael Ryan, nominated for the National Book Award before most of us were even born.

We’re looking mostly at older films (The Big Sleep, Sudden Fear, Night of the Hunter, Shadow of a Doubt, Out of the Past) as is only appropriate for a true noir issue, but we’re also turning an eye toward Rian Johnson’s Brick (2006)—a film that takes noir’s stylistic trappings and conventions and places them smack dab in the middle of a high school murder mystery—and Dennis Potter’s 1986 television masterpiece, The Singing Detective, which mixes up noir, nostalgia, trauma, hospitals, and musicals. And just to stretch the definition out slightly further, we’ve also included an essay on Southland Tales, an “apocalyptic science fiction film noir,” whose roots somewhat lie in the classic Kiss Me Deadly, but whose story quickly grows in a hundred different messy directions. Finally, we tie things up with a look at the evolution of the femme fatale, from Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944’s Double Indemnity all the way through to Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in last month’s Gone Girl.

Paul Schrader, in his “Notes on Film Noir,” once noted that “almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up… Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s.” And we’d agree—what does and doesn’t constitute true film noir is a sticky business. Still, as the old adage goes, we know it when we see it. Consider this issue, then, our attempt to capture its essence.

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief

Confidence Men

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When Alexander Korda approached Graham Greene to write a film about post-war Vienna, Greene sold the producer on a single line from a stalled story he had attempted to write twenty years earlier:

"I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand."

This beginning, which became the catalyst for The Third Man, might be interpreted variously as a false funeral, or a visit from the dead, or a hallucination—Greene understood that a post-war tale was a tale of the uncanny. After 1945, Europe was a place of undetermined reparations and unclaimed debts, of living souls haunted by the trauma of war and by the memory of earlier, more pristine versions of themselves. With its postwar devastation and redrawn boundaries, The Third Man's setting makes a perfect geographic metaphor for its characters: they are all palimpsests, written, and written over.

The British cut of the film begins with director Carol Reed's voiceover. Vienna is presented in b-roll footage: the skeletons of buildings, an international Allied team of soldiers attempting to restore order. Unlike the newsreel narration at the start of Casablanca, which glamorizes wartime corruption as a matter of life or death, Reed’s voice is matter-of-fact. "I only got to know [Vienna] in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay..." In the aftermath of war, everything has a price, but what of it?

Amid this bombed out landscape arrives Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), pulp novelist, Yankee blunderer. Holly is the prototype of a certain kind of noir hero, whom we meet in films such as Double Indemnity, Chinatown and The Big Lebowski: he is the hapless or unintentional investigator. From the start, Holly doesn't understand a thing: not the language, nor the local politics, the nature of his closest friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who brought him to Vienna with the promise of work, or of his best friend's friends—toothy grinned, jaundiced men who manage to thrive in a city that isn't quite alive. The military police, led by Trevor Howard, insist Lime was the worst kind of warmonger, but Holly won't believe it.

The Third Man moves with a torque that seems both instinctual and skilled. Reed's mise-en-scene—the odd camera positions, the nimble manner of characterization, the richly drawn secondary characters and background faces that populate this film—show a director devoted not just to thrilling an audience but to revealing something to them. 

The novelist decides he will solve the mystery of Harry's demise and restore his friend's good name. He discovers that, in addition to the doctor who certified Lime's death and a shifty-eyed Baron, there was a third witness to Lime's end. Here we have the film's mystery and Holly's quest: he is certain that this third man will straighten out the sordid world in which he has landed.

Holly knows the presence of Maria (Alida Valli) at Lime's funeral is noteworthy: she's the only woman and the only genuine mourner. She is also curious: Valli's eyes are too closely set; her face is long as a Modigliani subject; her eyes, glowing and vulpine. Hers is the attraction of approximate beauty. Orson Welles once said there were no great performances in color, and Peter Bogdanovich interprets this remark to mean that in black and white you get the emotion without the prettifying distraction of color. In glorious monochrome, Valli requires multiple looks. Her Maria is changeable and unknowable even while she suggests somber self-awareness. When Holly tracks her down, she's on stage, performing in what looks to be a kind of 18th century farce. "I only play comedy," Maria explains when Holly surprises her backstage. This is the straight-faced irony that suffuses The Third Man: the compromises and the corruption can only be approached sideways, and lightly.

In a New York Times article about the film, Greene proposes that "reality, in fact, was only a background to a fairy tale" — that his project for the film was entertainment, and not reportage or propaganda. Even so, his dialogue is as elegant and the morality as graded as in any of Greene's novels. "Human nature is not black and white but black and grey," Greene wrote. In work and in life, he grappled with grace and compromise – he was a Catholic who retained his faith while regularly transgressing most of its strictures.

Greene makes The Third Man a morally ambiguous place – the best intentioned fools are as deleterious as the warmongers. Holly's is a story of misunderstandings and malapropisms, of Holly's blithe incomprehension of what he's walked into, along with other characters' misperceptions of him. These incongruities subvert meaning, as when an Austrian concierge explains Lime's death, gesturing toward the sky and saying "Hell," and then toward the earth for "Heaven." Anton Karas' powerful soundtrack works according to a similar dissonance. The solo instrument, the zither, is odd counterpoint to the sinister narrative, and makes The Third Man into a zithering world: concentric, nonlinear, romantic and nostalgic.

Indeed, the movie moves with a torque that seems both instinctual and skilled. Reed's mise-en-scene—the odd camera positions, the nimble manner of characterization, the richly drawn secondary characters and background faces that populate this film—show a director devoted not just to thrilling an audience but to revealing something to them. What's remarkable about the picture is how his sequences work upon your attention. It takes some time to understand that the hero is a dupe, that the most cherished character in the piece is a villain, that the bureaucratic militia might be the most ethically balanced population there, that the third man is the elusive Harry Lime.

Somewhere along the way—maybe from the start, when Orson Welles manufactured a storied Broadway theatrical career to establish his stage and screen bona fides—Welles became the ultimate trickster. It is apt that, late in his career, he made the documentary F is for Fake: he was a figure of obfuscation and distraction, of excess without self-imposed limits. About half of Welles' eight minutes in the movie— the scenes that aren’t close ups—were doubled by assistant director Guy Hamilton or by Carol Reed himself, because the producers couldn't wrangle Welles to return to the set.

After the release of the film, Welles supported the idea that he'd had a hand in Reed's direction. That's unlikely, but what is certain is that he improvised his great speech in which Lime challenges Holly about the relative value of law and order:

"You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

His Harry Lime (perhaps a kind of author surrogate—the playfully named Lime created by novelist Greene) is the kind of amoral friend who’s the life of the party. He's the guy you miss without knowing that you don’t know him at all, and that he has only trifling regard for you. What is it about a con artist that makes them so appealing? Everyone is looking for the lift that magic promises, even if we intuit the promises are too good to be true.

Steven Soderbergh has said that everything you'd need to know in order to make a film can be found in The Third Man. If you haven’t already, you should watch it as immediately as possible, for the film is so embedded in the minds of modern filmmakers that you will likely see many of The Third Man's images recycled in other's work before you ever encounter the film itself. Nolan's and Burton'sBatman movies, among others, have drawn from its waterlogged subterrane and its misty exteriors. But perhaps Soderbergh meant that when you want to show a world that is corrupted—a world on a moral grayscale—then storytellers should look to The Third Man.

Valli's Maria is a most complex woman in cinema—pragmatic but romantic, betrayed but stalwart, besotted but aware of her own blindness. What comprises this love for Lime? Even when confronted with his crookedness—the self-interest that has led to the deaths and illnesses of countless children—she can’t reject him. She holds in her mind and heart all the versions of her lover. The one that forged papers so she wouldn’t be deported to Russia where, by virtue of post-war boundaries she’d find herself a citizen; the one who remembers her on his death bed; the one who jettisons her when her interests no longer align with his own. The contradiction that novelist Holly cannot encompass is a thing that Maria understands best of all. And in her understanding, there is transcendence.

In his treatment and novelization of the film, Greene wrote in a hint that Holly and Maria end up together—a pragmatic move for Maria's character. Reed, on the other hand, lets Maria remain principled at the finish. Holly jumps out of a car to wait for her to walk out of Lime's second, and actual, funeral. He presumably misses his plane to America believing he can help her, but Maria snubs him. She won't forgive Holly's betrayal of his friend Lime. This inelegant American, who thinks he's finally found the right side of things, hasn't learned much at all.

Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.

Venetian Blinds and Gleaming Silver Pistols

by Sheila O'Malley

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In Sudden Fear, the 1952 film which brought Joan Crawford her third (and final) Oscar nomination, love is synonymous with neurosis. Love is filled with pleasure, surprise, and comfort, but experiencing it is akin to stepping into a dark maze. Most importantly, love de-activates one's emotional radar, the radar that would normally pick up on all of the obvious red flags dotting the landscape.

Watching Joan Crawford's Myra Hudson fall in love, and then, shatteringly, out of love, only to discover that she is literally surrounded by red flags, is one of the deep pleasures of Sudden Fear. The emotional journey Myra goes on is epic in scope. The film starts out as a "woman's picture," a melodrama, a romance. Once the deliciously nasty Gloria Grahame enters the action, there's a clear mood-shift. Grahame brings with her a grubby and vicious reality, and the film careens into a thrilling noir. It's a "woman in distress" picture (akin to Hitchcock's Suspicion), with Myra Hudson at its precarious center. Crawford's performance is so visceral, so immediate, so intelligent, that director David Miller didn't need to do anything artificial to "up" the stakes (although the film has a couple of wonderful hallucinatory sequences). All he needs to do is point the camera at Crawford's face. In a career of great performances, Crawford's Myra Hudson is at the top of the list.

Gorgeously shot by master cinematographer Charles Lang, Sudden Fear is a bi-coastal film, starting out in New York, crossing the country by train, and ending in the dark glamorous tilting streets of San Francisco.

Watching Joan Crawford's Myra Hudson fall in love, and then, shatteringly, out of love, only to discover that she is literally surrounded by red flags, is one of the deep pleasures of Sudden Fear

Myra Hudson is a famous playwright, as well as a San Francisco heiress. In the opening scene, she is seen sitting in the seats of an empty Broadway house, watching a run-through of a scene in her upcoming play, "Halfway to Heaven." A young actor named Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) has been cast in the lead role. With a chiseled face like a medieval woodcut, he quivers with a kind of coiled sexy intensity, as he performs a monologue (which may suggest that Myra needs an editor):

When I wake up in the morning, when I go to sleep at night … I think of you. You are all the women in my life: the sister I never had, the mother I've almost forgotten, the wife I have always dreamed of. There isn't a relationship you can name which exists between a man and a woman of which I wouldn't want to say let it be you.

In real-life it is usually a mistake to infer biographical details about writers from their fictional works, but here it is appropriate. Myra has never married. She has a busy life with many good friends. That monologue, however, is the expression of a dream of all-encompassing love, a dream almost disturbing in its totality. It is love as neurotic need, a need to be "all" to someone else, a through-the-looking-glass vision of disorienting symbiosis. We end up hearing that monologue three times over the course of the film, in different contexts. The words echo. (They echo in Crawford's performance as well. When Myra falls in love, Crawford shows how long-delayed and long-deferred that dream has been for her. There is not just happiness in Myra's love. There is relief.)

Myra is not happy with Lester's performance. In discussing it with her producer and director, she says, "He's not my idea of a romantic leading man." Palance was early in his career at the time of Sudden Fear, a relatively new face, and it's interesting to see Crawford consider him, sizing him up. No, he's not a typical "romantic leading man." He's got something much more interesting going on, and that is part of the beautiful tension of the opening sequences of Sudden Fear, before Lester reveals his evil nature. Myra has Lester fired in a public way, although she feels sorry about having to do it. Lester throws a tantrum, storming off the stage. The show must go on. "Halfway to Heaven" is an enormous hit, sans Lester Blaine, garnering rave reviews.

Giddy with triumph, Myra boards the train to San Francisco. I have a soft spot for train scenes in cinema (especially considering train travel in its current iteration is so anti-glamourous). Films like North by Northwest, Twentieth Century, Brief Encounter, Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Shanghai Express (and, in a more modern vein, The Darjeeling Limited) are a testament to the romance of trains, their poetic possibilities, their no-man's-land atmosphere. The passengers are unmoored from the everyday world whizzing by their windows. And that happens in Sudden Fear. Coincidentally, Lester Blaine is also on the train to San Francisco. Myra invites him to her private cabin for a drink, and they end up playing cards, quoting Shakespeare, having dinner, laughing, getting to know one another, all the way across the country. By the time they disembark in San Francisco, they are in love. The early love scenes take place in dazzling daylight, with sweeping orchestral music: dizzying shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the two of them strolling through a cathedral-like redwood forest, Myra taking him to her summer house (complete with crumbling treacherous path down to the dock.)

Palance puts strange-ness into the role from the beginning. It is difficult to tell what he might be up to. All is revealed, awfully, in the scene where he fails to show up at a party Myra throws in his honor. Myra abandons her guests and calls and calls his line. Nobody picks up. Miller gives us our first real mood-shift, ominous in its stark contrast to all that has come before. Lester's room is shot from a low-angle, an iron bedstead looming in the frame. Lester's legs are shown pacing back and forth in front of the camera. He smokes a cigarette, letting the phone ring and ring. When Myra shows up at his apartment, frantic, he meets her on the stairway, complete with packed suitcase, telling her he's not good enough for her, she has so much, he has so little to give her!

Seeing Lester refuse to answer the phone clues us in that he is working on some horrible end-game, that every bit of what we have seen has been calculated and planned, and we now know that Myra is in terrible danger.

The entrance of Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) into the film makes clear what has only been insinuated thus far. Lester is in cahoots with Irene, an old flame from back in New York. Irene struts into Myra's house-party, having weaseled her way into an invitation, looking around her with the cold calculating gaze of an estate assessor. She is the serpent in the garden. Lester meets up with Irene secretly, and their dynamic is rough, nasty, scrappy. In one famous moment, he pushes her down on the couch, pushes her hard, and she barely blinks an eye. Lights a cigarette coolly and says up to him, "Thanks a lot." "Thanks for what?" "For still loving me."

Against the advice of her friends, Myra decides to change her will, leaving her estate to Lester. It is a gesture showing her love for him, for all he has given her. Part of Lester's "job" was to make Myra fall for him that hard, and it brings the passionate sexual side of their relationship into a degrading clarity. Love (and, it is implied, sex) has damaged Myra's radar. At one point, Irene asks Lester, "You don't think she suspects, do you?" Lester sneers, "Not the way I make love to her."

An important prop in Sudden Fear is Myra's dictaphone. She has placed speakers all over her study, making it possible for her to pace and speak freely. On one terrible day she discovers the dictaphone had been left on and recorded a conversation between Lester and Irene, huddled in the study during a party. It is Myra's moment of discovery. The room fills with the plotting urgent voices of Lester and Irene, the camera staying close on Crawford's face. Myra goes from confusion, to dawning horror, to moments of sharp denial, to the deepest hurt as she realizes just how deeply Lester has fooled her, to sheer terror for her own life. It is a tour de force of acting.

To give some perspective, Myra listens to that dictaphone tape for almost three minutes.Three minutes in which she goes from a happy peaceful woman to a shattered broken wreck. By the end, Myra is so overwrought that she runs to the bathroom to throw up. Students of acting should study Crawford's work in this scene. John Wayne always used to say that he did not consider his job to be that of "actor," he was more of a "RE-actor". Crawford's work in the dictaphone scene is a shining example of what Wayne was talking about.

There is another scene where, drenched in sweat, wearing a black fur coat and a white head scarf, Myra hides in Irene's closet, terrified that she will be discovered. Miller puts Crawford in almost total darkness, showing her face only partially with a beam of narrow light. Crawford shows us more through that one narrow beam than most actors could show utilizing their entire bodies. It is deeply specific work from her, harrowing in its sense of truth and fear: at one point she becomes so frightened that she claps her hand over her mouth, she doesn't trust herself to stay silent. The high-strung terror and panic vibrate off of her body.

There are eloquent sequences involving Myra's nightmares about being murdered, falling through the empty air, screaming, and there is one gorgeous and relentless scene where Myra is shown fantasizing out her plan of how to get Lester and Irene before they get her. She sits at her desk, and a clock pendulum swings across the screen, ticking by the passage of time, as her plan unfolds before her eyes, her eyes shown in an afterimage on the screen throughout. It's a beautiful and creepy device: it shows us how the plan should go, so that when things start to go wrong, we know.

Joan Crawford had a long career. She was always in it for the long haul. She worked, and she worked smart. 

The final scene is a chase through the night streets of San Francisco, the city becoming as important to the film as the dictaphone. The streets are gleaming and steep, empty and scary, shadows thrown out against the opposite walls like phantoms with a life of their own, ghosts of the dreams that have died. Myra flees up and down the alleyways, along the vertical sidewalks, running for her life, her black fur coat making her a part of the shadows, a part of the night.

Joan Crawford had a long career. She was always in it for the long haul. She worked, and she worked smart. She knew the material that would be good for her, and she lobbied hard for parts she thought she deserved. She knew her strengths, she played to them. In an interview with Roy Newquist, years after Sudden Fear , Crawford summed up her memory of the film: "Melodramatic as hell, but the story and script were strong, not too original but strong, and the casting couldn't have been better, and the director, David Miller, not only knew what hewas doing but took cues from all of us." Unfortunately, Christina Crawford's poison-pen memoir about her mother, "Mommie Dearest", has taken up a lot of the oxygen around Joan Crawford's reputation, and it does the actress a great disservice. She may not have been the best mother, but she is one of our greatest movie stars.

Along those lines, when the same Roy Newquist told her he wanted to put some of their interviews into a big profile piece in McCall's magazine, Crawford balked, and said, "The only important parts of me are on film." Watching Sudden Fear is a poignant reminder of the truth of those words.

Sheila O'Malley writes film reviews and essays for RogerEbert.com, Capital New York, Fandor, Press Play, Noir of the Week, and The House Next Door. She has performed her one-woman show “74 Facts and One Lie” all over Manhattan, and her first play—July and Half of August—recently had public readings at Theatre Wit in Chicago, and The Vineyard Theatre in New York. She is currently working on her second play, as well as a book about Elvis Presley in Hollywood.

Shadows of a Doubt

by Michael Ryan

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

On at least four different occasions, Alfred Hitchcock said that Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his favorite film, but never why. His daughter, Patricia, said it was “because he loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town.” For Hitchcock, part of the game in making his first movie set in America was to make it absolutely American, with a sweet comic surface and a heart as dark as the noirest of the noir. This was his donnée for the film, its generative spark, the “thought” he “loved.” Noir gave Hitchcock a set of conventions to play with—and against. Its thoroughly American origin, atmosphere, and elements he certainly knew thoroughly, its derivation from paint-by-numbers pulp murder mysteries, its hard-boiled loner super-masculine detective and femme fatale and plot that will only end in tears (or a cynical laugh). Hitchcock loved to take such conventions and audience expectations and spin them backwards, to pile irony upon delicious irony, sometimes hilariously, sometimes deeply layered by his singular compositional expertise as a kind of in-joke he enjoyed making for himself and his closest initiates.

To write the script for Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock hired Thornton Wilder, recent Pulitzer Prize winner for Our Town, a play famous for its quintessentially American small-town setting. Instead of the noir city, with its black nights and chiaroscuro lighting, we get a sunlit Santa Rosa with its tree-lined streets and “typical” family, benign comic characters, eccentric neighbors, and even a jolly roly-poly policeman who knows everyone by name and wouldn’t recognize a criminal if he came up and bit him on the nose. The “detective” in Shadow of a Doubt is about as opposite as one could be from Sam Spade (or a femme fatale): she’s a teenage girl-next-door just graduated from high school and still living at home. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) solves the crime, dispatches the villain, and restores the social order—a social order that enables her villainous Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton) to strangle rich widows and steal their money and never be unmasked. Lest we miss the stark contrast between public appearance and private reality, and the sentimental preservation of the former, Hitchcock drums the irony loudly by ending his movie with Charlie sitting outside the church during Charles’s funeral hearing him lavishly eulogized by a congregation who has no idea who he really was. She sits on the steps with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), the actual detective, who now shares her secret. “I'm glad you were able to come, Jack,” she says. “I couldn't have faced it without someone who knew.” But until the last five minutes of the film, she was alone in her knowledge of the (very) dark truth. Her idolized uncle, whom she was named after, was a brutal psychopathic serial killer, the menace that literally came not only to her small town but into her family’s home. What she has gained in experience, she has lost in innocence, and when the film is over we don’t feel so very warm and fuzzy. Santa Rosa (and small town America) hides nasty stories behind its unlocked but tightly-closed doors.

But the darkest shadow in Shadow of a Doubt is the creepy incestuous molestation subtext that haunts the atmosphere from the first scene of Charles and Charlie alone together after his welcome dinner with the family. He follows her into her dimly-lit kitchen and stands very close to her. She says:

We're not just an uncle and a niece. It's something else. I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have the feeling that inside you somewhere, there's something nobody knows about.

She’s certainly right about that. We know she’s right in a way she can’t possibly guess at this moment. Her naïve ardent appeal for intimacy is deflected by Uncle Charles. He says, “It's not good to find out too much, Charlie.” But she insists, “But we're sort of like twins, don't you see? We have to know.” Then he says, “Give me your hand, Charlie.” And puts an emerald ring on her finger.

Do we need to guess what happens next? But that’s not what happens. In 2014 maybe it would—not in a 1943 Hollywood movie. Not even a hug or peck on the cheek. That’s not Uncle Charles’s thing. He uses his sex appeal for power and power alone. Not even for money—which he acquires from his serial murders only to dismiss it. What he wants is to be superior to the human race and control everyone, especially women. He is absolutely isolated. He seduces only to conquer—and destroy. His misogynistic dinner-table rant is so over-the top it’s almost funny:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.

At this point, Charlie knows Uncle Charles is “the Merry Widow murderer,” and he knows she knows, but he controls her by convincing her that the truth “would destroy her [mother].” So, back to one typical aftermath of incestuous molestation: Charlie keeps their dark secret because to reveal it would destroy the family. Her love of her family and need to protect them puts her life at risk. She doesn’t want Charles to get caught—which also puts her at odds with Jack Graham. If Jack Graham arrests Uncle Charles, the family will find out. All Charlie wants is to get Charles out of town and away from her family forever. (Too bad for the next rich widow he’ll strangle.) But Charles, who doesn’t trust anyone, doesn’t trust her to keep their secret, and tries to cause various fatal “accidents,” the final one—throwing her off the train taking him away from Santa Rosa—ends up killing him instead.

By the time the script was finished, Hitchcock always had his film fully constructed in his mind. In Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film (2000), Teresa Wright said,

"I did not read the script. They said, "He wants to tell you the script." So I went and I sat down opposite him at a desk and he proceeded to tell the story. And he told the story like no one else has ever told a story. He used anything on his desk as a prop, whether it was a glass or a pencil or a book, to make a sound, do sound effects. He'd do steps. He'd do anything he could as a storyteller to lure you into his story. And he told that story so beautifully that I was just absolutely mesmerized. And when I finally saw the film, I said, "I've seen this film. I saw it in his office."

Maybe this explains how Hitchcock meant his infamously outrageous “actors are cattle” remark (which he later jokingly amended to “actors should be treated like cattle”). When an actor questioned Hitchcock’s direction, he’d say, “It’s in the script.” When an actor schooled in the Stanislavski Method wanted to know his motivation, Hitchcock would answer, “Your salary.” For Hitchcock, the film was finished when it was written. “To make a great film you need three things - the script, the script and the script.” He claimed the shooting of it didn’t interest him. The shooting consisted only of mechanical solutions to technical problems—of which, of course, he was the master. And of course he’d do anything to get the right shot, spending seven days on the forty-five second and seventy-eight-spliced-pieces-of-film shower scene in Psycho and constructing cranes and dollies and elaborate tracking shots for the most precise visual effect, including shots never done before or since. Actors were like pieces of furniture that could move and talk, and were no more important to him than how a scene was framed and lit.

That Hitchcock claimed not to value his singular technical expertise clearly doesn’t make it any less essential to the experience and quality of his films. In fact, if you only read the script, the plot-machinery of Shadow of a Doubt creaks pretty loudly. The pallid love-story between Charlie and Jack Graham is a shameless plot-function and utterly implausible, not to mention how Jack is able to track Charles to Santa Rosa in the first place when we’re told he has no idea what Charles looks like or who he is— which is itself implausible sincesomebodymust have seen him with one of the many rich widows strangled to death by a suave handsome gentleman who suddenly disappears with their money. But while the movie is playing on the screen, we don’t care and may not even notice. Hitchcock knew all the differences between writing and film, verbal language and visual language, credibility and immediacy. We believe what happens because we see it, because of the way it’s filmed—the composition, the pacing, the camera angles, the soundtrack: the whole experience (especially on the big screen Hitchcock composed for). What matters is what’s on the screen moment to moment. Movies do our imagining for us, and Hitchcock, “the master of suspense,” knew how to focus our attention, to restrict information as well as to present it vividly, and to suspend our disbelief to draw us in completely.

Hitchcock’s characteristic handling of suspense is to withhold information from characters but not the viewer (unlike, say, Agatha Christie): will his main character find out what she needs to know to avert disaster before disaster strikes? We know what she needs to know, but not how and when she will find it out. And this keeps us on the edge of our seats. Or as Hitchcock put it (with his usual mordant wit): “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”

Our “suffering” in watching Shadow of a Doubt is Charlie’s suffering. The uncle she feels so close to is a monster. She discovers this early in the movie, but she can’t reveal it to anyone, even the handsome young detective who wants to marry her. She is alone with a very smart and highly accomplished murderer trying to kill her. The sweet friendly world of Santa Rosa is itself a threat to her life because its sweetness and friendliness is predicated on not admitting the unsayable truth—the dark shadows of the psyche and human behavior that are the currency of noir and the America that produced (and produces) it.

These shadows are all cast powerfully and dramatically by Uncle Charles. His shadow falls over Charlie wherever she goes. He is a man of the lie. His soul is lost in the lie. Were he not insulated by his compulsion and his self-justifying belief in his superiority, he’d suffer the unremitting isolation of protecting a secret that needs to be hidden from everyone on earth, even the people who love him. But he is insulated, and he’s too arrogant to suffer from his evil crimes. He loves no one, nor can he feel loved because he knows no one knows him. And he is right. Charlie hates him when she finds out who he is. But he doesn’t care. He sees her only as a threat that must be eliminated. He is one of cinema’s great psychopaths. The only person who suffers in the film is Charlie.

That she is Charles’s collaborator in keeping his murderous secret is the ultimate excruciating twist Hitchcock and his collaborators layered into the script. What a brilliant piece of screenwriting it is. After Wilder enlisted and left for the war, Hitchcock hired Sally Benson, a New Yorker writer of humorous small town nostalgia, to help him and his wife Alma polish up the jokes. They made Charlie’s father a crime magazine buff who competes with his friend Herb in making up perfect murders of the most grisly variety. (They are noir script writers, too.) They ironically mirror not only Charles in the movie but also Hitchcock and his collaborators writing the movie. And, Hitchcock’s opinion of actors notwithstanding, Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright gave their career performances in Shadow of a Doubt. Cotton was 38 and Wright was 25 (and not the teenage girl-next-door). They were later cast as husband-and-wife in The Steel Trap, a 1952 film noir, so at least one director after Hitchcock madeexplicitly conjugal what in Hitchcock’s film is forbidden and repugnant.

When asked by critics to name the overarching theme for Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock responded: "Love and good order is no defense against evil.” Brutally accurate, except that’s not quite the film he made. It would be the film he made if Charles had successfully pushed Charlie off the train and had not slipped and fallen himself. And away the train would chuff, into the distance, spuming black smoke. Hitchcock would have made a film noir. As it is, he gets it both ways: the heart of darkness and the uplifting human capacity to bear the unbearable when it’s shared with another human being. In other words, what art can do andShadow of a Doubt does: it makes a shape for isolating pain that does not make the pain less painful but allows it to be communicated. Even if we don’t know how it feels to be a teenage girl hunted by a psychopath living in her own room in her own house while being unable to tell anyone else about it, we know what it’s like to be alone, and we hope for love and connection to others that not only admits but invites the truth.

Michael Ryan is Director of the MFA Program in Poetry at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is This Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Sorry About the Blood in Your Mouth. I Wish it Was Mine.

by Tarra Martin

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I watched Brick during the height of my intellectual dirtbag youth, the summer a bunch of my friends and I stuck around our tiny college campus over vacation. During the day we worked for museums, professors, and shabby theatre companies, and at night we would bust into empty classrooms and sprawl around on the desks watching movies on the A/V equipment. I don’t know why, but most often we would end up in the psychology building, with its exposed pipes and brick walls and big black windows that flickered back at the projection screen. That summer we were all living our best lazy smart-ass lives, and we were profoundly into Brick.

He wears a shapeless jacket in trenchcoat-tan. He is a rogue agent, but valuable to the vice principal’s office. He is every grim detective on the shelf and in your DVR, only this one has a locker.

She wears red and steps neatly over glass-cupped flames in her high heels. She is our homeroom femme fatale. “Keep up with me now,” she dares, sweetly. She’s cooler than you, this movie is cooler than you, but she believes you can keep up.

Keep up, now.

“What is the audience for this movie?” Roger Ebert once asked. “Are teenage moviegoers familiar with movies like The Maltese Falcon? Do they know who Humphrey Bogart was? It is carrying on in its own lifetime a style of film that was dead before it was born.”

Not dead, Mr. Ebert; cool does not die. Everyone knows noir. It’s inherited, instinctive, the same way we know that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Had I known that Jean-Luc Godard line back then, I definitely would have dropped it in that nighttime classroom. A reference like that would have killed.


Director Rian Johnson originally planned to make a classic hard-boiled American detective movie, but didn’t want his film to be a forgettable copy of the Dashiell Hammett stories he loved. Fresh out of film school, Johnson stripped away the genre’s usual fedoras and dark city streets, and when he layered conventional noir archetypes over contemporary high school characters, everything slid right into place. “Alienation is at the heart of the noir condition,” wrote Imogen Sara Smith, “people can’t be trusted; all relationships are vulnerable to be betrayed”. Well, if that isn’t just like high school. A social maze of alliances and shifting loyalties, of teenagers trying on tropes, forging their identities within the canon of characters, establishing patterns of belonging through stylized and coded speech.

It's a noir, but don't worry — if you've been to high school, you can keep up. We learned noir before we even learned algebra.

In college, they taught us how to deconstruct. We learned to unpack and analyze. We learned how to mark a reference from fifty paces under a high sun. In short, we learned how to be insufferable to watch movies with. But if you want a pack of over-educated, sun-drunk (and actually-drunk) 20-year-olds to really enjoy a film, give them a study in genres. Injecting an old classic story structure with some contemporary settings and fixations will appeal to their sense of themselves as very smart, as well as their desire to break stuff. As author Angela Carter worded it: "I'm all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode”.

The young like smashing things up and watching them shatter, becoming something sharp-edged and new.


Brendan drags down the front of his jacket with his balled up fists. Brendan hunches his shoulders against the world. Brendan slings himself sudden and fierce onto his enemies. Brendan pulls himself up to take another hit. Brendan bleeds here. Brendan bleeds there. Brendan runs pell-mell into blackness without so much as a by-your-leave, without a flinch.

Brendan only shakes once the speeding car has screamed past his fingertips.

Brick is interesting in that it’s mostly played straight. The genres of noir and high school align so neatly that it’s as if the tension has to manifest itself somewhere else: in the body of our teenage detective, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His body is what is flung. His body is what cracks into pretty pieces.

I read several profiles of Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking for a line I was sure existed: “Gordon-Levitt is sought out by directors for his willingness to literally throw himself into his roles.” I found iterations of that thought everywhere. I also found him doing back-flips for an interviewer on a playing field, and the time he hosted Saturday Night Live and did an entire routine to “Make ‘Em Laugh,” running up walls and taking fall after fall.

Gordon-Levitt acts with his whole frame, his physicality utter and fearless. He has a willingness to get knocked about in order to put on a good show. There is something old-fashioned about it, coming through clearest in the Classic Hollywood showmanship of that Donald O’Connor homage. It’s a quality I’ve always respected in actors, and Gordon-Levitt has it in spades — this deep understanding of how his body works, of what his body looks like.

Brendan has a bone structure you could cut yourself on, and a lot of people try.

He turns it on, quick and sharp. Grins, tilts his chin up. Brendan learned early on how to turn disadvantage to advantage. He is slim, sloe-eyed, his throat long and pretty. Epicene, threatening. Dial it up, make men snap at him, with their teeth. That fault-line, that’s the opening he needs. Then he leaps.


Brendan needs to see The Pin, the drug lord kingpin of his town, and has paid his way with his bruises. A thug named Tug takes him there in his trunk, into the heart of suburbia — into the house that Lynch built.

Brick owes a lot to David Lynch, almost as much as it owes to every hard-boiled noir and every teen drama played out among linoleum hallways. Something you learn to do well as a young dirtbag intellectual is talk about things you don’t actually know much about. (“Ask everyone to show their hands, and you got a crowd full of pockets.”) Watching Brick for the first time that summer, I hadn’t seen any of Lynch’s work before, and his particular brand of weirdness was something I didn’t even know how to posture an opinion on. I didn’t yet have a name for this surreal unease creeping along the edges of an American living room.

Johnson’s film is noir, and it’s high school, and it’s Lynchian—and the strain of holding all these genres in harmony eventually starts to match the strain in Brendan’s shoulders. He is not doing well. Somewhere between his fourth fight and the hit man with a knife, he develops a hacking cough, a terrible gasping thing that rips through him head to toe. His breathing labors alongside the increasingly bogged-down plot.

This is that point in a murder mystery where the web of manipulations and betrayals and secret accords has thickened to the point of near opacity, and you think you might have lost the thread. Your attention scales down to closer, more immediate problems -- like getting this boy some medical attention. It is unclear if Brendan, or Brick, can keep going at this pace for very much longer.

Juttering edits fracture the scene.

Brendan is breaking, collapsing in the parking lot. Frames drop, skip, jolt. Our grasp of narrative and time is slipping, slipping with Brendan’s leather shoes on the curb.


It shouldn’t have been surprising that today’s youth still identify with film noir. There’s the timeless cool, sure, the allure of the dangerous dames and whip-smart P.I.s — but that’s the melody on top of a more resonant hum: the alienation, the loneliness, the dark side of the American dream of self-reliance. During my sophomore year, my college brought in a speaker to talk to us about the cult of “effortless perfection,” that insidious pressure to present yourself as someone who has it all together, who isn’t struggling, who isn’t vulnerable. We’re so used to the performance, to the mask. Don’t let anyone see the cracks.

In Brick Brendan, like a good young Bogart, presents a steely front. He is daring and passionate, but he carefully maintains his unflappable edge. He keeps his tone dry and level, his smooth face still. His mask is very good. We can see an ideal in him.

Maybe that’s why my friends and I found something so affecting about how visible his injuries become. Cathartic, even. It’s one thing to acquire limps and cuts after fights, but the cough’s origins are more mysterious. It’s unclear what might have caused it, and in some ways it seems just a painfully physical representation of how much stress Brendan is under. He is dealing with so much—drug ring politics and Accelerated English and ex-girlfriends and murders—and he’s doing it alone, and yeah, it fucking hurts.

Brendan is bent double, coughs rattling out of his ribs, but with long shaky steps he keeps pushing forward, no matter how much is slung on his shoulders.

He sleeps briefly in a borrowed bed, and the relief feels stolen.

As the film nears its end, Brendan stands almost steadily on a football field, shadows hollowing his eyes like the bruise on his cheek, but mask in place as he tells us what has happened. Storytelling can be a mask too, if you use it right. He stands and tells it, the whole tale, and then still he stands as the few remaining characters walk away, to follow their own fates off-screen.

There are crimson cracks across his nose and lip, and we watch, hoping, for the mask to slip.

He goes to leave, he turns his back —

Would you end a noir with anything else than a cut to black?

Tarra Martin has worked as a cooking show producer, podcast host, theater management assistant, barista, and writer. She is currently in the process of moving from NYC to Portland, OR, to pursue her interest in trees.

L.A. Story

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Before I got into grad school a few years back, I spent a year living in Los Angeles without any real, steady job. My daily schedule went something like: sit at my desk while listening to the blues, especially Billie Holiday; stare out the window of my Koreatown apartment building at the crazy old WWII vet who wore a full military outfit and “smoked” a pipe which never appeared to be actually functional; attempt to write poems while consuming large amounts of coffee; sleep. About six months of that, and I was well on my way to at least half-crazy.

So I started taking afternoon trips to the Beverly Hills Public Library, where I’d station myself in a comfortable chair on the second level, armed with a notebook and whatever volume I happened to pick up on my way upstairs. One week in the summer (I remember it being very hot), I stumbled across the Raymond Chandler shelf. I’d never read Chandler. I realized there would never be a better time. And I instantly fell in love. With his characters, his wit, his timing, his dark strain of near-fatalism.

The Big Sleep is certainly one of Chandler’s most iconic novels, and the 1946 film, directed by Howard Hawks, is likewise championed as a classic film noir. The producers had the perfect formula: cast Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as the leads, use the King of Noir Detective Writing’s novel as a source, and let William Faulkner lead the screenwriting team. So, watching this movie, the question bouncing around in my head was not is this a good film, but rather, why is this a good film, and how?

Discussions of The Big Sleep’s charm often revolve around the film’s notoriously confusing (and even opaque) plot. Chandler’s plots are often convoluted to begin with, and the film underwent a serious re-write and re-shoot (there are actually two cuts of the movie) that eliminated a few key exposition scenes. There’s a famous story that in the middle of filming, Bogart asked Hawks who pushed Owen Taylor—the chauffeur who meets an untimely death—off the pier; no one knew, and a telegram was immediately sent to Chandler, who responded with frustration that he realized he didn’t know either.

Roger Ebert’s write-up of The Big Sleep comes to the (not unsurprising) conclusion that these confusions don’t matter. After all, you don’t watch this movie for the plot. You watch it for the thrill and the atmosphere and the acting and, in the end, the love story.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Watching The Big Sleep, I found myself amazed and entranced by the way the film translates Chandler’s words into images. I don’t love Chandler for his stories, even the love story parts of his stories—I love Chandler for the way he manipulates words. His stunning, weird analogies and metaphors. The way he sees the world—through a lens of contradictions, juxtapositions, and death. Take, for example, a description from the beginning of the novel of the greenhouse in which Philip Marlowe first encounters the old Mr. Sternwood:

"The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket."

Stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. Now that’s an image. And somehow, Hawks and Faulkner and the others working on this film manage to convey that. As Marlowe (Bogart) walks out of the Sternwood’s greenhouse in the opening scene, we see a large patch of sweat soaking through his shirt. Sure, this may be a quick film, a rapid film (it feels almost like shotgunning Chandler at times), but it’s not a clean film at all. Marlowe lives in a dirty world. And we feel that right from the start.

In fact, I’d say that this isn’t so much a love story at all, but a death story. A story of mortality, of the ways passion can end up in a pool of blood on an oriental carpet. A story of decay. Decline. An L.A. story. The Sternwood family (the center of Marlowe’s investigations) is dying out—the patriarch is confined to a wheelchair and can experience pleasure only vicariously; his two daughters have both become entangled in an underworld of gambling, alcohol, and prostitution; and he has no male heirs. We are witnessing the end of a family line. Even Marlowe himself is not immune; if we believe him to have truly fallen for Vivian Sternwood (Bacall), then his entire image and personality are on the verge of becoming obscure. Who would Marlowe be if he wasn’t free to sweet-talk a bookstore owner into drinking whiskey with him, temporarily closing up shop, drawing the blinds, letting her hair down—if he instead had to go home to his wife and child and maybe pick up some milk on the way home?

It’s this threat of obscurity, of everything fading to black, that really drives the film for me. It rushes, sinister but quiet, beneath every scene: an undertow. In that sense, Faulkner’s the perfect man to adapt this novel. His own obsessions with the death and decay of families and communities come through loud and clear; a line Mr. Sternwood speaks about his daughters struck me as particularly, beautifully Faulknerian:

“They’re only alike in having the same corrupt blood.”

It’s that corrupt blood—running through the veins of every shot in this film—that thrills, that terrifies, that intoxicates, that makes us keep watching. The decay of the organism is inevitable. How long will it be before we, too, are sleeping “the big sleep”? And who will be there after us to clean up the mess?

Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.

The Loveliest Word in the English Language

by Patrick Vickers

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Imagine a typical episode of a television hospital drama. A new patient is admitted at the start, and by its conclusion they are discharged either into the outside world or into the heavens. Their personal history and the various elements of their character will be expressed through their condition and how it is managed by the various appendages of the hospital. If the drama has any ambition, the patient might be permitted to stick around for a few episodes more, but whatever the duration of the character arc, they will always be part of the emotional landscape of the show rather than its centrepiece.

The Singing Detective is different. It’s set in a hospital, but it is not a product of the hospital. Everything we experience in this series is filtered through the consciousness of its protagonist in a way that is unusual for anything on television. In terms of classic noir drama, the lead character is often a disruptive, reactive entity amidst a web of complex interrelating systems; but here the systems of the hospital world, both human and bureaucratic, are modeled only in terms of their relationship to him. These days we have a plethora of dramas which are built around one or two strong characters, but very few of them go as far as this in mediating the whole thing within the mindset of a fictional creation.

This wasn’t always the way for Dennis Potter. By the time The Singing Detective was broadcast in the UK, he was a well-established author of serious television drama. Occasionally controversial for its sexual and political content, his work had always toyed with the conventions of the medium in playful, accessible ways; but prior to this, there had always been a base level of realism against which to judge the more unusual elements. The closest comparison remains Pennies From Heaven, the 1976 serial which established Bob Hoskins as a household name, and which first demonstrated Potter’s unique blend of musical theatrics and drama.

By the time we get to The Singing Detective, it isn’t always clear what’s real and what is dream. 

There too, the characters would burst into song in elaborate sequences that were blended seamlessly into otherwise realistic moments of drama. But these musical breakdowns had a very specific purpose: they were intended as a way of expressing to the audience the inner lives of these people. Imagine a thought bubble come to life, but with no discernible boundary between the bubble and immediate reality. They sing to us what they cannot say to one another. But by the time we get to The Singing Detective, it isn’t always clear what’s real and what is dream. The only thing we can safely relate back to is the psychology of its lead character.

The Singing Detective follows in the vein of other great works in depicting convalescence as a realm of mental reflection as well as physical suffering, but this series is less about the actual experience of being ill in hospital than it is about being locked inside oneself. The exact nature of the condition which confines our protagonist to his bed is not the point; it may be shocking, but in narrative terms it is arguably more effective as an effective plot device which forces an otherwise fiercely independent and proud man to be entirely reliant on others for a given period of time.

Michael Gambon plays Philip Marlowe, a writer of pulpy crime fiction who is effectively trapped in a hospital while suffering from a crippling bout of psoriasis that leaves his skin peeling and his body stiffly convulsed with agonising joint pains. Michael Gambon also plays Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of his own novels; his alter-ego is a detective who moonlights as a jazz singer, stalking the shadows beneath a lamplit Hammersmith Bridge while his creator is unable to so much as unclench his fists.

Marlowe’s name ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of noir fiction. But Potter’s drama relies less on the actual work of Raymond Chandler and more on the generic associations that his work (and its many adaptations) so often suggest. Mystery, duplicity, treachery, and profound moral ambiguity are the dominant textures in this detective’s world. The actual mucky business of who-killed-who ends up fading into irrelevance, and while the audience is fed one mystery, the overarching suggestion is always that what we are watching is only another truthful delusion; another rendition of something which is too difficult or painful for our protagonist to express any other way.

Gambon’s performance is consistently stunning in several different ways. As Marlowe (hospital patient, author, dreamer) our first sight of him is a shock, but what’s shocking is not so much the condition of his body as it his tense, overwrought demeanour; in constant pain, he’s barely able to move his lips, and so his voice comes out a bitter, harsh squeal that sounds as if it were being wrung out of him. He is harsh and coarse and rude, almost without exception. For a man as bitter as Marlowe to arouse our sympathies, he’s got to be funny as well as cruel, and when it comes to cracking wise, he is merciless. Asked what he believes in, he snarls:

‘Malthusianism...Malthus, but mandatory. Compulsory depopulation by infanticide, suicide, genocide or whatever other means suggest themselves. AIDS, for example, that'll do. Why should queers be so special?...I also believe in cigarettes, cholesterol, alcohol, carbon monoxide, masturbation, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the Daily Telegraph, and not properly labeling fatal poisons, but above all else, most of all, I believe in the one thing that can come out of people's mouths: vomit.’

But in his dreams, the other Marlowe is cool. He’d never fall back on anything so crude – his verbal transactions are briskly economical even as they are poetic. His movements have an easy grace, his voice is a rich mid-Atlantic drawl. We take him for one of the good guys, but this detective’s taste for a Chandleresque observation marks him out, like his creator, as one who prefers to observe and cast judgment from a distance. ‘The doorman of a nightclub can always pretend it’s lipstick and not blood on his hands,’ he purrs over the opening sequence of the very first episode: ‘But how’d it get there?...If he smacked some dame across her shiny mouth, then he’s got both answers in one.’

He shares his author’s own overriding self-interest, his casual contempt for the clumsy, emotive idiocy which surrounds him:

‘There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can't do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you're not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.’

The link between Gambon’s two characters is in the third Marlowe: a boy we see in flashbacks, living in wartime Britain with his impeccably middle-class mother and his rough, working-class dad. We first glimpse the kid in a stunning crane shot that drifts —quite free from narrative context — very high up in the branches of a very tall tree, all sunshine and light as Duke Ellington swings through the background. Like the man he will become, the boy chooses to isolate himself from the world, from his friends and his parents. ‘When I grow up,’he says, ‘I’m gonna be a detective. I’ll find out things. I’ll find out who done it.’

Who done what? Questions pile upon questions. The connection isn’t clear between these men and this boy with a thick Forest of Dean accent. The temptation is to see the scenes of young Philip as being a core of realism which sustains the fantasies which are to come, but this is misguided: both the boy and the detective have things to teach Marlowe the patient above and beyond the basic answer to the question of why he became what he is.

Marlowe’s recollections of his childhood repeatedly become lost in the narrative dead-ends of a number of peculiarly haunting incidents: here is young Philip sitting in a railway carriage with his mother, anxious under the glare of a pack of demobbed soldiers; there he is back in school, suffering under the glare of a nightmarish schoolmistress; here he is wandering through a forest, surrounded by the mocking chants of other children, moving towards a clearing which might hold the key to everything he doesn’t understand.

There’s a mystery here, but its solution becomes apparent to the audience long before Marlowe begins to remember. And when the revelation comes it turns out to be only one of a number of potential influences on the man in the hospital; it might give a hint to why he came to be such a misanthrope, but it sure as hell won’t make him feel any better about himself.

A further problem is that in the hospital ward he’s surrounded by other men who are just like him in the sense of being essentially disconnected from the world. One old man is a poor gibbering wreck, barely able to talk or move for himself except to twitch uncontrollably. Another, Reginald, unresponsive to his ever-whining neighbour, is quietly wrapped up in a novel which turns out to be titled ‘The Singing Detective’ by none other than Philip Marlowe.

But that whining neighbour is more significant a character than he first appears. Mr Hall is the kind of man frequently satirised in Britain as a ‘Little Englander’. He’s a small-minded, proud, sanctimonious racist, and he has nothing but contempt for the staff and patients around him. Privately, he takes every opportunity to express his resentment for the nurses, but when he’s forced to confront the objects of his ire, he resorts to a shit-eating grin and a ludicrously theatrical politeness. Trapped by his own absurd mannerisms, Hall’s character underlines the fact that there is nothing big or clever about the kind of misogynistic abuse Marlowe the patient regularly expresses against all those who care for him. Hall is like a grotesque right-wing parody of Marlowe without the wit, the imagination or the talent, and he proves that without those points in his favour, our hero would simply be an irritating, deluded fantasist.

Conversely, Marlowe the detective is immensely appealing. Just as everything ugly about Marlowe the patient can be encapsulated in the things that make him British, the American-ness of the detective is central to his appeal. America must have never seemed more wonderful than it did during the war and in its immediate aftermath, and it’s American jazz music which becomes the link between all three versions of Marlowe. Music is the lynchpin, the thing about which revolves every different possible version of our lonely detective.

By modern standards, the unusual thing about Potter’s musical method is that the characters aren’t really singing – they’re miming. And miming obviously, too. There’s no attempt made to convince the audience that these characters could really sing in this way. So on one level, the musical sequences represent a basic exercise in wish fulfillment. Hasn’t anyone who loves music wished they could perform it to the level at which they find it most pleasurable?

One cannot remain embedded in fantasy forever. The palace of memory may be a pleasant place to visit, but it’s not a place we can stay for long. 

But there’s something else going on here too. As we later see, Marlowe the detective is based – at least in part – on the young Philip’s memories of his father singing in pubs, accompanied by his mother on the piano. For Marlowe, his father sang exactly as well as those records which defined his life, and so that music takes on new meanings; it doesn’t matter to him what those songs were really about or who really sang them because what’s important is what they made him feel. And how much finer it is to remember anyone that way; a benefit, if you will, of being trapped in this introspective and intensely subjective experience of reality.

One cannot remain embedded in fantasy forever. The palace of memory may be a pleasant place to visit, but it’s not a place we can stay for long. In the end, Marlowe finds comfort in setting aside his past and (literally) putting down the creations of his deluded imagination. As his illness recedes, his manner becomes more sensitive to those around him, and he starts to find an elemental thrill in words again:

‘What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in your mouth, in the shape it makes on the page? What do you think? Well now, I’ll tell you: E-L-B-O-W. Elbow.’

On one level the conclusion seems almost too tidy, too convenient after what has come before. Certainly it places a remarkable amount of faith in the psychiatric talking therapies that the series otherwise does a great deal to ridicule when, having apparently recovered from his condition, our hero departs the hospital arm in arm with his loving wife. Is that all there is to it? Now that Marlowe has found ‘closure’ in the personal origins of his grief, can we all sleep soundly in the knowledge that pretty much anything in life can be explained by a combination of psychoanalysis and the attention of a loving woman?

Not really. Even after writing all of this I still feel like I’ve barely expressed even the tiniest part of what this series has to offer. The show itself has the same problem: too much is left up in the air, and nothing is really resolved by the end of The Singing Detective. There are whole plot points brought up and then forgotten about: what about the bit with the Russians and the Nazi spies, and the dead man in the cupboard in the first episode? And what about the sub-plot involving a stolen screenplay for a film adaptation of the titular novel?

‘All clues, no solutions,’ thinks Marlowe, but then ‘that’s the way things are.’ Maybe Marlowe’s healing comes through not rejecting his necessary isolation, but in learning to live with his own necessary delusions. If his experience in hospital can be said to mean anything to him, it’s not about coming to understand his condition, but more about learning to accept it with all its messy contradictions and uncertainties.

Patrick Vickers is an editor of the kind of stuff nobody would willingly read. Occasionally, he is a writer. He blogs on video games, books, and his life with his partner in West London.

Kiss Me Apocalyptically

by Brad Nelson

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 1989, Susan Sontag wrote in AIDS and its Metaphors, “Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse from Now On’.” Noir is in many ways an attempt to address the symptoms of apocalypse; the protagonists of noir are trying to put together a rapidly unraveling world. The ambient menace of apocalypse resonates throughout Richard Kelly’s 2006 opus Southland Tales. All of its characters are drawn unconsciously toward the end of the world. They act erratically, without motivation, as if their movements are determined by a distant, vacant source. In any other film this would be recognized as a flaw in the script or the direction of the material. It’s a flaw inSouthland Tales, but the movie is a woven mosaic of flaws; it’s a movie about its own irregularities and distortions. Failure is the entire fractured cosmos of the film.

The apocalyptic engine Kelly embeds in the film revolves around the deceleration of the earth and a corresponding imbalance in the human psyche. There is also a dimensional fissure in the Nevada desert which is causing time to blend and drift. Characters, when injected with a substance harnessed from the depth of the ocean, can literally “bleed” through time like watercolors. Late in the film, Justin Timberlake, playing a disfigured Iraq War veteran who surveils Venice Beach, injects himself and re-materializes in an empty arcade, lip-synching The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” and drowsily navigating the legs of USO dancers in nurse uniforms.

Southland Tales is unable to explain scenes like this, unable to coherently assemble its rapidly unraveling world, despite exhaustive attempts. In 2007, Kelly described the film as working simultaneously in the traditions of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, identifying the genre of Southland Tales as “apocalyptic, science fiction, film noir.” Exposition in the movie is often entirely regulated by hybridized television channels, over which Timberlake narrates the Book of Revelation or lifelessly delivers lines like, “The war machine was running out of gas, and there was no alternative...alternative fuel, that is.” Some of it is lately resonant; after two nuclear attacks in Texas a national surveillance program called USIdent is formed to regulate the flow of information on the Internet.

When Kelly is able to unpack his ideas, his ideas are revealed to be ponderous, linear, and mundane; both Darko and Tales are gently disturbed metaphysical constructions with central messiahs, comic books consumed by their origins.

Southland Tales was selected to be in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It premiered there in unfinished form. “I wanted to be able to announce, 'This is a work in progress!'” Kelly said in an interview last year with Motherboard. “But then everyone around me was like, 'No. Do not say that’.” It was booed; critics who attended the screening roundly disliked the film. After seeing it John Solomons wrote in The Observer that Southland Tales made him “wonder if [Kelly] had ever met a human being.”

Watching it, I can’t tell either. That is part of what fascinates. Dialogue is labored and unnatural. Continuity is mutable; there is little narrative sense of how characters get from point A to point B, and the movie doesn’t seem to care anyway. Characters will be where they will be. In one scene, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson walks across Venice Beach conveying a six-pack of Bud Light. He lifts the entire six-pack to his mouth to drink ineffectively from the flood of one opened can.

When Southland Tales is remotely coherent, it fails. Kelly’s director’s cut of his previous filmDonnie Darko makes everything that was implicit in that film—all of its subtext and the unresolving edges of its narrative—explicit. He overlays the text of a manual explaining the mechanism of time travel in the movie, rendering the film tediously intelligible and disrupting its rhythms. When Kelly is able to unpack his ideas, his ideas are revealed to be ponderous, linear, and mundane; both Darko and Tales are gently disturbed metaphysical constructions with central messiahs, comic books consumed by their origins. The Cannes cut of Southland Tales meanders around importantly and dwells on needless subplots, one of which centers around Janeane Garofolo playing an army general stationed in Venice Beach. After the bewildered reception at Cannes, Kelly spent a year recutting Southland Tales into a more dynamic and enigmatic digest of the original. Garofolo’s role was entirely deleted from the theatrical release of the movie. Her absence from the final cut would resonate if all the distinct plots that compose Southland Tales weren’t in some way needless and easily disconnected from the film.

In this way the specific movements of Southland Tales begin to resemble the curious logic of dreams: hurried, recursive, dissolving into itself. Full of familiar objects acting in uncharacteristic, alien ways. Innumerable glowing orbs. Most of its plot movements are not empirical but peripheral. It is a textural movie in that it is nothing but texture. Ideas disappear into the length of its perspective. It could just as easily be a movie about the muted and sourceless way light and dark fall on Venice Beach. It is, in a way. “If you go to [Los Angeles], you’re surrounded by pop culture faces and products and billboards,” Kelly said in 2007. “LA is a collage. It’s like a gigantic messy collage with everything flowing together. And I wanted it to feel like LA.”

Los Angeles is a center of noir; the characters in Raymond Chandler novels uncoil in its dark and abstract corners. To make this connection even more obvious and intertextual, Kelly projects the 1955 LA noir film Kiss Me Deadly repeatedly within Southland Tales. The protagonist of Kiss Me Deadly, detective Mike Hammer, is deliberately inhabited in The Rock’s performance, and both characters serve the same functions in their respective films: They’re ciphers, muscular blanks around which the incidents of apocalypse turn. In oneSouthland Tales scene, we see The Rock driving from the perspective of a camera mounted in his car, which absorbs the rhythms and echoes of the engine. This technique is reproduced directly from the driving scenes in Kiss Me Deadly, which have a nervous and dreadful energy moving through them, as if they might at any point explode. The force that animates the competing agendas of Kiss Me Deadly turns out to be an apocalyptic device, a box containing the demon core, which in reality was critical plutonium that irradiated two scientists in Los Alamos in 1945 and 1946. It was later incorporated into the structure of the atomic bomb.

In many ways Kiss Me Deadly seems to be the film Kelly actually wants to make, not only withSouthland Tales but with his 2009 feature The Box, which considerably expands a Richard Matheson short story about unintended consequences into a meditation on government conspiracy and extraterrestrial life. It’s as if Kelly is always trying to construct noirs whose endgames are located in a simultaneously plausible and apocryphal form of physics, stories where atomic innovations slowly and fantastically destabilize the rhythms of human life.

So far I have avoided describing the plot of Southland Tales, which not even contemporary reviews were able to summarize. It’s not that the plot is especially complex; it’s just full of stuff. The Rock plays amnesiac Hollywood actor Boxer Santeros. He is manipulated by porn star and aspiring multi-hyphenate Krysta Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. She’s described by Kelly as a kind of “femme fatale” but her ambitions are neutralized by the apocalypse and she becomes occupied by a residual tenderness for Boxer. Gellar is among two femme fatales Kelly constructed for the movie; the other is played by Bai Ling, whose character, Serpentine, distantly manipulates every character into her preferred end-of-the-world scenario. (I’m only certain of this because I’ve read the comic book prequel, which, like the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, clarifies the ambiguities of the story with agonizing prose and skeletal art.) Kelly writes this role and Ling performs it as a self-consciously racist Asian caricature; unfortunately the character of Serpentine drifts through a movie that exhibits no self-consciousness.

What else happens? So much of Southland Tales is held together by the deeply reflexive face of The Rock. His performance is incredible—he glides seamlessly from his characteristic, almost disembodied bravado (meant here to mimic the senseless and brutal masculinity ofKiss Me Deadly’s Ralph Meeker) to a nervous and rhythmic introversion. Seann William Scott appears to have been hired to look bewildered for two hours but he does not quite represent the bewilderment of the audience. The viewer can probably be discovered somewhere on the continuum between Scott’s performance and Mandy Moore’s, who spends most of her screentime projecting exasperation. At the end of the film, Scott shakes hands with his doppelgänger in a floating ice cream truck and unknits the world.

In its manic compression of war, surveillance, apocalypse, alternative energy, bowel movements, and improv comedy Southland Tales becomes finally a movie about whatever. Characters in the film tediously recite the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but slightly recalibrated: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a whimper but a bang.” This obvious inversion of high art is mercilessly juxtaposed with litanies like “Nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now,” destabilizing both phrases into neutral baths of words. Everything is empty and refers to its own emptiness, which is a kind of apocalypse.

I discovered Sontag’s quote about apocalypse in Eula Biss’ On Immunity, where it’s rendered in close proximity to a quote from Jean Paul Sartre: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” The recut of Southland Tales is a manic exhibition of this freedom, how to transform a negatively received draft into a whirling vortex. The writings of Sartre incidentally govern the rhythms ofThe Box, in which Frank Langella plays an enigmatic, disfigured man who conducts the fates of everyone else in the film. In a scene that seems to compress the impulses animating all of Kelly’s films into one gesture, one of Langella’s employees asks, “Your employers remain a mystery to us all.” Langella replies, “I like mystery. Don’t you?”

Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice.

Singing With the Wolf

by Helen McClory

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Leanin’ on the everlastin’ arm

There’s a scene close to the end of The Night of the Hunter that drops the temperature of my blood just as surely as dropping me in a cold river would. Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sits bathed in moonlight, shotgun in her lap, while outside a man lies in wait, singing a wistful hymn. He’s doing it to let the woman know he’s there, and that he’s going to get her and what she’s guarding as soon as he can.

The Night of the Hunter is a fairy tale of the Great Depression, of violence, misogyny, drinking, sex, twisted faith, and a grand, drifting river under a heavy sky. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), one of cinema’s most charming monsters, stands out at the gate with the lights behind him, low hat covering his face, crooning so sweetly and so terribly, his knuckles tattooed with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E. He’s looking for a pile of banknotes so he can continue God’s work. Standing between him and that money are two little children, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and John (Billy Chapin), who, after Powell murdered their mother, find their way into Rachel Cooper’s care.

Leaning on Jesus
Leaning on Jesus
Leaning on the everlasting arm.

Rachel sings back to the lurking Powell, in dare or kinship. Either way, the duet shows there are doubles at work, that good and evil are not so far apart. In fact, they are close enough to trouble one another. On the one hand, Reverend Powell rages with self-righteousness against women, murdering them out of faith. “There are things you do hate, Lord. Perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair,” he prays to a misogynist God while he grimaces in a burlesque joint. What is there of L-O-V-E about Harry Powell? Harry uses both hands, so neither love nor hate can win.

You’d think that since this is 1955, the movie has to have a powerful counter-argument: God-as-love, some big arrow pointing out how hollow Powell’s take on faith is. But that’s whereThe Night of the Hunter secures its status in the noir genre: It subtly undermines mid twentieth-century America’s “secure” territories – the kindness and sexual neutrality of women and the welcoming, wholesome nature of the real American town.

When Powell rides into the small river township where Pearl and John live, we get a sense of this sort of community: there are neat arrays of modest homes, and there are gatherings under the trees at an outdoor church potluck. Yet underneath this idyllic surface the town is a small place, full of gossip, hypocrisy, and petty-mindedness.

Throughout The Night of the Hunter, we see the way this community fosters silence, allowing abuse to flourish. It’s there in Ben Harper, the man who entrusts his stolen money to his son, casually dismissing his wife’s capacity to judge what should be done with it. It’s there in the boatkeeper, talking back to the photograph of his dead wife. It’s especially there in Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), the improbably named co-owner of Spoon’s Ice Cream Parlour. She dishes out sweets with one hand and entrenched opinions with the other, especially to Willa (a haunted, wide-eyed Shelley Winters), John and Pearl’s mother, condemning her for raising her children without a father, for not taking a husband.

At Reverend Powell’s appearance, Icey is immediately taken, and forces the hesitant Willa into his presence.

Icey and Reverend Powell’s understanding of Christianity are not so very different; both of them ultimately serve a coded misogyny. It is Icey’s moralising which twists Willa’s mind to Powell’s advantage.

What Icey says is law. Just as Rachel Cooper acts as the moral authority of the narrative, Icey is the moral centre of the town. We are shown quite clearly that the opinions of less assertive women than Icey Spoon are steamrolled. If sex is something to be bored by, then that is so. “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there and think about my canning,” she says loudly. Willa caves in to pressure and marries Powell. Immediately the reverend exposes the deep, monstrous coldness in his heart. On their wedding night Powell makes quite clear there will be no sexual contact between him and his new wife – he cannot abide the sight, never mind the sinful touch of one of these ‘things’ so hated by God. Worst perhaps is Willa’s response, to read godly righteousness in this. She prays to God to make her good, clean. She prays hard, in the long shadows of the room, to Powell’s and Icey’s misogynist God to strip her of desires and leave her floating in the numb comfort of their Christianity. It’s an inverse of Lady Macbeth’s prayer to the dark forces to strip her of her womanliness so she can be callous and strong.

We know what Powell is and so, dimly, does young John. John immediately takes a dislike to Reverend Powell, but his concerns are – ironically – read as rude. John shouldn’t have to be good, or clean. He’s a child, vulnerable, innocent and representative of the instinct to live, to carry on regardless of the odds life holds gleaming against our throats. This is the beating heart of the fairy tale – one force against another, a small, still person up against a figure of authority who has a switchblade in his pocket and rage in his heart. Mitchum’s acting is heavily theatrical, all magnificent enunciations and gesture, but it builds tension, and we wonder how soon and how murderously he’ll react when John tests him. Ultimately it’s Willa who ends up receiving judgment first. Powell slits her open “like a second mouth.”

After the opening scene, it’s the spectacle of this murdered woman in a car at the bottom of a river that haunts me, and my writing. I love how she is framed so beautifully, hair streaming around her, but without the precision of modern cinema graphics. We cannot see in great sharpness the cut in her throat, or any blood. The camera does not pan smoothly down the scene. Still, it’s a heightened vision, a tableau of horror slightly removed from reality. When I write fiction, I find myself trying to imitate the creation of small, unreal scenes like this again and again, as if the attempt will solidify what is impossible to capture, the mingling point of intense existential and fairy tale dread.

To save themselves, the children take to the river. They slip across the dark water as Powell chases them making the most grotesque inhuman sounds – but the boat glides true, and the children are cast into a liminal place: night. I want to paint this part of the story in black celluloid and humid vapours. I want to write it in moonlight and silhouette. There’s Pearl, singing the lullaby "Pretty Fly", the eeriness of the moment only enhanced by the fact that it’s not her voice singing, but another, dubbed over. There are the small animals watching from the banks. There is the night they spend in the barn, before having to run at dawn, sighting Powell on a rise, coming inexorably closer, a silhouette that is, like the murdered mother floating in the river, a horror that is just hazy and unreal enough to lurk at the back of your subconscious long after the film is over. But there’s something to be said about the point where analysis works to crumble its subject rather than reveal. Eventually, the children make it to Rachel Cooper’s house.

Superficially, we have the good, right Christian in the form of the woman on the porch. Rachel Cooper, like Harry, talks to God. She opens The Night of the Hunter speaking to the floating heads of children, telling them “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them”. She is the storyteller, the bringer of good news against the endlessness of the void. The message is apparently clear: we are supposed to take her as the grounding figure, the one that will win out against all villainy, the false faith, the man dueling with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E.

Having failed to see the fruits of his labours, Powell has turned violent, murderous, and animalistic. However, the re-introduction of Rachel complicates this theme. Rachel may be a storyteller and a kind old lady, but she is also a protagonist who has complex motivations beyond functioning as a sanctuary for John and Pearl. Her first gesture towards the children is to order them out of the boat and when they walk too slowly, to pick a switch and start beating them with it. In her garden, a small task force of children work at picking crops to sell in town. Her own son has abandoned her, for reasons unknown. How, then, is she different from Icey Spoon, a tyrant of self-assured moralising?

When she speaks to “wayward” bad girl Ruby who confesses, after giving John and Pearl’s location away to a sweet-talking Reverend, that she has “been with men,” Rachel simply hugs her and says, “Child… you were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how.”

Rachel allows that love is a difficult thing to get, far removed from the notions of ‘cleanness’ that Willa or Icey believed in. Even the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent can be muddied: a bank-robber who gets the chair can still have been a loving father. The executioner has daughters whose blissful sleep contrasts with his angst and wakefulness. A woman who has lost her own child’s affections can still provide a home and hope for those children who wander out of the starving land. When Powell comes calling, first at the front door, then in the night, it’s Rachel’s love mixed with grit that keeps him back. She will not be pushed aside like Willa, nor will she be taken in like Icey. She sees right through his Brother-love and Brother-hate act, and later, rather than let the children cower in the house, she tells them Bible stories salted with her own language. She might whip lost children, she might scowl and blunder, she might not be clean, well-mannered, or highly-regarded, but while the role of Rachel might have conceivably settled into an more familiar mold – the crone, the moral hypocrite, victim, the wicked stepmother – she is instead a fighter for the little ones.

And thanks to her, Harry Powell gets caught. But the film still won’t let us tie it up under a neat bow. John’s unexpected wails, the way he rushes over to Powell with the money he can no longer stand the weight of, jar us. Is John a victim of the reverend’s murderous charisma, or was the trauma too much for him? Or does John, in a way, find love even for Powell? Villain and father blur, past suffering—and the present desire for justice—get muddled.

In true noir, mystery, and fairy tale fashion, the film asks us to doubt the simplistic line drawn between wicked and good. Its scenes need shadows; shine your light too hard and the dark landscape becomes a battered old stage, and you discover that the eyes bugling wildly in the dark belong to a man just as human as the next. Above its dark, dreamy visuals, it’s this ambiguity that I take from The Night of the Hunter: the ambiguity of love, hate, and faith. A song sung low in a dark place.

Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first collection, On the Edges of Vision, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.

The Nine Lives of the Femme Fatale

by Angelica Jade Bastién

© New Regency Pictures/20th Century Fox

© New Regency Pictures/20th Century Fox

When I walked into the cool Chicago night after seeing Gone Girl I couldn’t shake the feeling that noir and arguably its most powerful archetype, the femme fatale, have atrophied. The femme fatale and noir occupy a large space in my heart. In my teens still trapped by the reverberations of the divorce between my abusive father and controlling albeit caring mother, my mind at war with itself thanks to schizoaffective disorder, the femme fatales of classic Hollywood offered me an alternate sense of being. They showed me there is worth in transgressing social boundaries in search of autonomy as a woman. They told me my anger and creative fire was valid. But the femme fatale has always been a contentious creation. Many see her as simply an embodiment of post-WWII American male neuroses. Male fear turned flesh. Overripe sexuality operating for the male gaze, dressed in silk with a cigarette in one hand and a loaded gun in the other. But this definition simplifies her because, like all the best things from the studio era in classic Hollywood, she is a wonderful, confounding contradiction.

The femme fatale is as much a reaction to male fear as women’s feelings that progress has left them behind. That they’re stuck in the amber of rigid gender conformity. The femme fatale isn’t obsessed with the destruction of men that is a byproduct of her true aims: to find a sense of autonomy in a culture that wants to keep her powerless. But I noticed a change in the femme fatale beginning in the 1980s that watching Gone Girl crystallized for me, she has lost her soul. She may lead her films, survive (or even win) but she lacks the contradictions that made her so dynamic in the 1940s and 1950s. Ultimately, the modern femme fatale can be boiled down to two simple words: Crazy Bitch.

We can’t understand the dramatic change in the archetype without exploring her foremother in the noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. And you can’t talk about thefemme fatale without talking about Barbara Stanwyck. Throughout the early history of noir, Stanwyck played a variety of mercurial dames with murder and vengeance on their minds. She excelled by giving these women various shades of emotional intelligence and vulnerability. Stanwyck is most well known for one such role—Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s noir gold standard Double Indemnity (1944).

Double Indemnity has all the major markers of noir including strong shadows, psychosexual thematics, an interest in giving villainy a voice, and the desire to frame the American Dream as a tragedy. In the film, insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls in lust with the quicksilver cool Phyllis, who wants to kill her maybe/maybe not abusive husband and run off with the insurance money. It’s easy to see the film as the story of a smarter, sexually realized woman engineering the downfall of a man to suit her own ends. But it can also be seen as Phyllis exploiting a darkness that was in Walter all along, just waiting to find its purpose.

Phyllis’ darkness manifests in a sense of falsehood, which bleeds into her own physical appearance. In Double Indemnity, Stanwyck is fitted with an appalling blonde wig that underscores her unnaturalness. To quote Billy Wilder, the wig reminds the audience of her “sleazy phoniness”. Because of the production code during the studio era, filmmakers relied on smuggling in sex, death, and the lurid aspects of life through clever subtext. This gives the films an odd doubling effect—what the film says loudly and what it whispers, what is seen in the film and what is felt. Lola (Jean Heather), who is the Madonna to Phyllis’ whore, tells Walter that Phyllis is a nurse responsible for her mother’s death, which she then exploited to marry the grieving Mr. Dietrichson. But another story can also be true: that her mother’s death had nothing to do with Phyllis. Stanwyck gives Phyllis’ rage layers. I always imagined her as a woman beaten down by life who finally decided to get hers. So the very same rage that Lola confuses for psychopathy can also be justified by the cold way Mr. Dietrichson treats her.

I am still in high school when I first see Double Indemnity. It is only as an adult that I fully understand the texture of Phyllis’ emotions. She carries herself with a sort of mid-century trashiness, caked with “sleazy phoniness”, but her emotions are all real. One of the most recognizable images from the film is simply Phyllis’ face as she watches Walter kill her husband. The violence is off screen, which makes the play of emotions on her face (fear, power, lust, relief) all the more memorable. She may die at the end of the film but it is her hungers we remember long after the credits roll.

Classic femme fatales weren’t perfect. We witness them engaging in dangerous affairs (Niagara), lusting for violence (Gun Crazy), getting burned and burning back (The Big Heat), and even allowing a man to die without lifting a finger to help (Leave Her to Heaven, The Little Foxes). But they feel like real women I could pass on the street, simply reacting to the particular ways in which they were policed. Two years after Double Indemnity, Stanwyck played the titular femme fatale in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. As the lead character, Martha is many things–– shrewd, orphaned, intelligent, sexual, yearning, and mercurial. These aren’t just window-dressings; they inform her character a great deal. Watching the film as an adult I connected deeply with her yearning and how it informs both her lust and violence. By privileging Martha’s emotional narrative the film gives her villainy a grayness and humanity, rather than making her a stew of cultural fears about smart sexual women. Even though she dies at the end she welcomes death on her own terms. And there’s something to be said about seeing a woman rattle the cage society has locked her into. If films back in the 1940s and 1950s were able to make the femme fatale human, what is holding back her modern incarnation?

Modern noir isn’t as interested in the psychology behind the femme fatale’s destruction but rather the way her destruction wrecks those in her orbit. This is starkly apparent in two Michael Douglas noirs that exist at the cross section of trashy and horrifying—Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992).

In Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays an everyman figure as father and husband, Dan Gallagher. As Alex Forrest, Glenn Close inhabits the role of femme fatale as madwoman, with her hungry gaze and venomous machinations. She embodies the late 1980s fear of the single woman and feminist advancement. Unlike a lot of other femme fatales, Alex doesn’t wear her villainy like a hot pink neon sign. She begins as a successful single woman whose tryst with family man Dan seems fun with a faint whiff of something that will be compartmentalized soon after. But soon enough, when she sees how easy it is for Dan to throw her away, her desire gains the pitch of a scream. It is as if the narrative replaced the Alex of the beginning of the film with a monster who shares her face. She slits her wrists, slyly meets Dan’s perfect wife (Anne Archer), and threatens the sanctity of their marriage (though he does the very same thing by having the affair, which the film conveniently forgets). Worse yet, her biological clock starts ticking so loudly she hears the voice of reason and decides to go through with the pregnancy, even though it seems wildly out of character. The narrative is more interested in blaming her, turning her madness into an inevitability of her singleness, than honestly exploring her contradictions. The film turns her into a monster because a single woman who works and fucks “like a man” has to have something wrong with her. Society makes the femme fatale a monster because we can’t see a woman skirting the edges of decency, going after what she wants by brutal means, and out fucking every man around her as anything but.

If Alex embodies the femme fatale’s madness, Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) embodies her lust. On the surface, Catherine is fascinating: strong willed, well-educated, successful, and utterly bold as a bisexual woman. But a leering male gaze rules Basic Instinct. The film has an utter disinterest for Catherine beyond who she fucks or who she kills, meaning the character loses any semblance of emotional reality. If either Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct ended with Michael Douglas waking up from a fuck-fantasy-turned-nightmare, the films might have made more sense. Their femme fatales are hard to imagine existing beyond the confines of a man’s mind. Can you imagine either of these women running errands or having friends or even existing before the start of the film?

Sometimes, I like to imagine what women watching from the audience felt about the films in this hothouse genre during their original release. In the 1940s, they probably felt an odd brew of fear, revulsion, and awe. Maybe this mix of housewives, bohemians, and professional women felt the same thrill that I do. Maybe they asked themselves: Can I get what I want? What’s holding me back? How can I be like that woman up there? The women of the 1980s-90s got afemme fatale that was a feminist’s nightmare, operating at an operatic tenor whose desires felt unlike a real woman’s, but came across like a man’s fantasy woman turned nightmarish. Maybe every generation gets the femme fatale they deserve. In 2014, we get Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in the David Fincher directed, Gillian Flynn scripted Gone Girl.

One morning, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home after receiving a neighborly phone call at the Missouri bar he owns with his snarky, warm twin sister Go (Carrie Coon). The front door to the hollow suburban splendor of their home is wide open, the cat is on the lawn, and the living room shows the ominous signs of a struggle. Most frighteningly, Amy is gone. As the police get involved, more and more damning evidence pops up. Between the present day scenes are flashbacks from Amy’s diary, her voice guiding our way. Then the film turns the usual story, in which the husband kills his wife, on its head. The Amy we’ve been bonding with through her diary entries—detailing her courtship with Nick that shifts from wonderful, powdered sugar framed kisses to abuse—is a lie. As Amanda Hess said in a recent Slate article, “here, instead of the psycho bitch ruining the perfect wife’s life, the perfect wife is the psycho bitch.”

Amazing Amy. Cool Girl Amy. Perfect Wife Amy. Psycho Bitch Amy. Pike embodies all these masks with the faint chill of a Hitchcock blonde. She understands that under the surface of all these masks is simply the husk of a woman. While Flynn’s book, with its strange backhanded remarks about feminism, is far from perfect, it gives Amy complications that explain the underpinnings of her madness. The film privileges Nick’s narrative of the former golden boy rotting away in Midwestern decay who just can’t catch a break because of the women in his life. When Nick slams Amy brutally against a wall after she reveals another plot twist, the audience can shrug off his violence because she’s a crazy bitch and crazy bitches deserve to suffer.

The novel’s cultural legacy is perhaps the ‘Cool Girl’ speech that comes just after the Amy we’ve gotten to know is revealed to be a lie: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex […]Men actually think this girl exists. […] Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. […]There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”

Reading the monologue again I realized how important the Cool Girl archetype is to the formation of the femme fatale in modern noir. Without it she doesn’t exist. From Alex Forrest right on down to Amy Elliott Dunne they pretend to be someone else to lure the man in and place him in shackles he confuses for a prize. This perhaps illustrates the biggest difference between the modern fatale and her foremother. Women like Phyllis Dietrichson didn’t pretend they were someone else. Their ambitions, sexuality, and machinations were always on full display. If anything it was the men around them who had to rise to the occasion, who had to give into their internal darkness to be worthy to stand next to them.

There are echoes of previous femme fatales in Amy; she’s a clever catalogue of the roles available for women. She’s the Cool Girl in Alex Forrest before she goes mad in Fatal Attraction: all sexy come-ons, smiles, and hungry sexuality. When Amy seduces Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) we can see Pike clearly understands the physicality of the femme fatale. She brings to mind Lauren Bacall, a woman full of feline grace and a voice that’s like good whiskey. Her particular brand of villainy can be traced to the women of The Last Seduction(1994) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Her ability to shape-shift resembles the outline of Theresa Russell’s fatale in the overlooked 1987 gem Black Widow.

Amy’s a lot of women and, ultimately no one at all. Even though she technically wins this sick game of cat and mouse by entrapping Nick, she seems rather pathetic because she’s trapped herself too. Is that all she’s in it for—a narcissistic, psychotic need for control given no explanation? It becomes clear that Fincher’s film understands the social architecture of being a woman—the roles you play to get by, the particular brand of anger that blooms in intelligent women when you realize how hard it is to live by your own definition of being a woman—but it just doesn’t care enough to truly explore them. Watching the way Amy’s villainy develops — through fake rapes and domestic violence accusations—is troubling. Her villainy is rooted in hysterical societal fears and ignores the reality of what happens to women who have been raped and abused in our cultural landscape, even the pretty blonde ones. For the femme fatale’s foremothers these tactics were a necessity of escape not a real source of power.

So, is the femme fatale feminist? Sexist? Misandrist? Taking her as a whole, from Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity right on down to Amy Elliott Dunne inGone Girl, that becomes a hard question to answer. The femme fatale has become a cultural shorthand for women who fuck and fuck up with abandon—think 1990s and early aughts Angelina Jolie or, further back, someone like 1960s-1970s era Elizabeth Taylor. Like the archetype, their transgressions led her to be identified as something animalistic. A viper, a spider woman. Something to want and fear in equal measure. All too often women who are selfish, complex, mercenary, or emotional firestorms get branded as femme fatales. The femme fatale can have all of these traits, but a female character has to have an air of doom about her. She potently mixes the mores of sex and death. She either consciously or unconsciously destroys people around her in seeking to gain power. In many ways she’s a modernization of the combined myths of Medusa and Lilith. Two mythic figures whose stories of anger, monstrousness, and lust have been reclaimed and deconstructed in feminist circles. So, why not thefemme fatale?

Women in American film are so often defined by absence. Absence of self. Absence of voice. Absence of purpose. There are so many compromises women make in the course of even one day. You smile when men are crude. You lie and say you have a boyfriend when a man won’t leave you alone. You take up as little space as possible. The femme fatale takes a different approach. She’s tired of fucking compromising. She’s tired of playing your perfect little wife, your prodigal daughter, your 2AM fuck. She wants more. And if she has to carve a bloody road to get to the promise of brighter days and a sense of autonomy than so be it.

As noir has continued the femme fatale feels less and less like a real person. Let me be clear: I don’t turn to any form of art looking for realism. What I am talking about is emotional realism, an internal life. The modern femme fatalefeels like an automaton powered by lust and male fear. She has become a reaction, however unconscious, to feminist advancement and the shifting gender politics at play. Watching Gone Girl I started to wonder if there is any hope for the femme fatale. Can we expect more from her? What does it say about our cultural imagination that the femme fatale's strength is still rooted in the fleeting sexual power that comes with being a beautiful woman? Still I can’t give up on the archetype quite yet because of the ways women like Audrey Totter, Barbara Stanwcyk, and Gloria Grahame portrayed her in the 1940s-1950s. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that the modern fatale tells us the options of being a woman and getting power remain just as limited as they were back in 1944, when Barbara Stanwyck came down the stairs with that honey of an anklet and murder on her mind.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She writes about film, television, pop culture, and mental illness. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Movie Mezzanine. She currently writes for Vulture. She can be found at her website,Madwomen and Muses.

You Sure Are a Secret Man

by Arielle Greenberg

(Out of the Past, d. Jacques Tourneur)

Homicidal girlfriends happen even in the ambient glow of day,
        or in the bright juke light of a breakfast joint,
        or a sleepy cantina too easily found,
        or by lake light, tackle box open.

When they screw, which is the thing we cannot see, it knocks over the
        and blows the door open on the bungalow.

I don’t know what we were waiting for.

A car ride to Lake Tahoe is a good time to tell a backwards story,
        and we are always behind the man’s angled hat as he drives.
        Riding behind him again later as he kisses her oddly precise

Much can be gleaned by sitting out the afternoon drinking beer
        next door to a movie house.

He never stops smoking. He’s offered a cigarette from a pack
        when he’s already smoking a cigarette,
        and has to point out that he’s already smoking.

Everyone’s being followed. Everyone shows up on the veranda for
        in a crystal bowl when you least expect it. Everyone’s fishing.

A deaf boy can hook a gangster. Can lie to even the pretty girl
        who lives at home with her parents in a Victorian house
        held off from the desert by a barbed wire fence.

Let’s find a way to lose more slowly.

Arielle Greenberg is Bright Wall/Dark Room's Resident Poet. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.