KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS: ON CLASSIC FILM NOIR
Edited by Robert Miklitsch
University of Illinois Press. 264 pages. $28. ISBN 978-0-252-08018-0 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Having spent half of my young life in the local cinemas (sixteen of them) in the late-1940s and early 1950s, up until I went into the army in 1954, I must have seen dozens of the sort of films that are now classified as “film noir,” a term introduced by critics in Paris. They claimed to find certain tendencies in American cinema that pointed to “ambiguity,” “contradiction,” “ambivalence,” and “equivocation.”
Was I aware of all that as I watched what were, in many cases, “B” films, often made with limited budgets and little-known actors? Probably not in any obvious way, though something in them did, perhaps subconsciously, cause me to think that the mood they established had more to do with my growing awareness of the world around me than did the kinds of films too often turned out by British studios. There were occasional surprises, such as It Always Rains on Sunday, or Odd Man Out, but most British films, as I recall them, seemed designed for someone other than a sixteen-year old from a back streets of an industrial town. The American films, though clearly located in a different country, seemed to make sense in terms of the feelings they aroused in me.
Looking through a book like Arthur Lyons’s Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir (Da Capo Press, 2000) makes me realise how many of the films I watched have disappeared. And I wonder whether or not seeing them again would touch me in the same way? I’d self-consciously look for obvious signs of what, over the years, I’ve been told are key elements of film noir. Lighting, camera angles, dialogue, the way background locations and music are used. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise, but not an emotional one in the way that it was all those years ago. I think I was aware then that something different was happening, but I doubt that I could have defined what it was. I just knew that it appealed to me.
As I remarked earlier, the term film noir wasn’t something I was familiar with, and it’s true, even now when so much has been written about it, that it isn’t easy to arrive at an exact definition of what it means. Or to accurately pinpoint the beginning and end of the genre, if it can be classed as one. Several of the contributors to Kiss the Blood Off My Hands seem to struggle with such questions. And they attempt to say which film marks the start of film noir and which its end. I suppose these are legitimate academic concerns, but my own inclinations are that things just don’t work in that way. There will be indications of stylistic changes in certain films before a movement or genre can be defined, and even when one appears to exist not everything that forms it will necessarily fit to a pattern that some would like to see. It’s interesting that the term “melodrama” is sometimes used in connection with film noir, but that not everyone is happy with it. And if we move to a point where a genre or movement is coming to an end, then aspects of it can still be found in what comes later. There are references to “neo noir” that suggest this.
I can understand why people like to classify things, place them in categories, put labels on them, and so forth, but personally I’ve always been happy with what might be called fluidity in the arts, with things flowing into each other. I’m reminded of the situation in the 1940s as bebop appeared on the jazz scene. It didn’t just suddenly come into existence as a pure form. There had been intimations of a new style in the work of various soloists and arrangers for several years. At some point key musicians came together and played what might be seen as a compact form which included all the specific characteristics of the labelled style. But other people were including aspects of it in what they did, and when, according to critics, the style declined, it could still be heard in the work of bands and musicians, albeit often with modifications. Everything eventually adds to the mainstream, and this, I’d suggest, is true of films as well as jazz.
It’s not as irrelevant as it may seem to some for me to bring jazz into the discussion because one of the best essays in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is by Krin Gabbard who writes about “The Vanishing Love Song in Film Noir.” It isn’t strictly about jazz, though Gabbard, as I realise from other reading, does know about the music. And that’s not something you can say about many academics, especially younger ones brought up on a diet of post-1960 rock music. What Gabbard does is investigate how a song such as “Laura” was used in the film of that name to underscore a relationship. He also looks at songs in The Blue Gardenia and Out of the Past. His analyses are fairly long and detailed, and I can’t do much more than mention them here, but essentially he demonstrates how the songs, or the way they’re employed, follow the decline in the affairs that the principal characters are involved with in the last two films referred to.
I was reminded of an occasion years ago when I attended a showing of a film noir classic and, during the subsequent discussion, pointed out that it wasn’t a coincidence that a particular song could be heard in one scene. The female lead has had a brittle relationship with the male lead, but, much to his surprise, she suddenly becomes all friendly and approachable. It seemed relevant to me that the pianist in the restaurant where they meet was playing, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change my Plan.” I wasn’t taken too seriously, and I could have been wrong, of course, but I also doubt that anyone else in the audience recognised the song, so its use meant nothing to them.
It’s the sort of exploration that Gabbard does that appeals to me more than long-winded and almost abstract theorising about the nature of film noir. Better to deal with what’s there than get bogged down with what we think is there. In another essay about Detour, a minor but quite significant film noir, the use of back projection, and how, even if it’s quite apparent, it can be almost part of the action, is well investigated. Many film noir productions were limited in their use of locations by budget restrictions, so imagination and improvisation had to be employed. What we sometimes define as “aesthetic vision” had more to do with economy (what was available) than with a director’s desire to create something special, even if he did manager to do that, anyway.
When looking at examples of film noir I suspect that many of us will think of the actors, though it might be difficult to remember the names of those in a lot of the “B” films, and we may recall the directors, and possibly even the writers, those “schmucks with Underwoods,” as a studio boss once referred to them. But how many producers will come to mind? And, it might be asked, just what do producers do? The essay by Andrew Spicer about three producers (Jerry Wald, Adrian Scott, Mark Hellinger) involved with film noir is informative and shows why their individual visions often shaped how the films they worked on turned out. Wald was something of a hustler (the ambitious central character of Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run, was said to have been based on him) and is described as an “energetic opportunist,” who “was also instrumental in shifting Warners’ crime films towards a postwar mood of disenchantment, as in Key Largo (1948) and The Breaking Point (1950).” Adrian Scott was one of the Hollywood Ten, the communists who refused to co-operate with HUAC and went to prison. Prior to that he’d been involved with films such as Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire. Scott wanted to make films that covered social concerns, but he was aware of the necessity to also make them appeal to a wide audience and achieve good box-office returns. Crossfire dealt with anti-semitism in America, though the novel it was based on, The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brookes, had homophobia at its centre. But that was never likely to get past the censors in 1940s Hollywood. As for Mark Hellinger, he believed that “a good script was the key to a succesful film,” and was the producer for such films as High Sierra (an early film noir), The Killers, Brute Force, and something close to his heart, The Naked City, which was filmed in a semi-documentary fashion. Hellinger died young. I’ve only sketched in their careers, and Andrew Spicer gives a more detailed account of how they influenced the films they produced.
Quite a few of the writers and directors who worked on film noir were left-wingers and became victims of the HUAC hearings in Hollywood. Albert Maltz, Abraham Polonsky, Robert Rossen, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey, and Edward Dymtryk were among them. They didn’t all go to prison, but they were blacklisted, and as a consequence many moved to other countries, including the United Kingdom. Their influence was beneficial in various ways, especially when it came to giving some British films a more downbeat tone. Night and the City, Blind Date, The Intimate Stranger, Obsession, and Time Without Pity are just a few of the films that Robert Murphy mentions in his informative survey of the activities in Britain of several blacklisted Americans. The names of the writers and directors were usually changed so that circulation of the films in America wouldn’t be affected by distributors refusing to handle any with the names of alleged communists displayed. I know I couldn’t have been aware at the time that some of the films I went to see were actually directed by Joseph Losey or written by Ben Barzman, though I wouldn’t have minded one bit if I had known.
And I wouldn’t have recognised, when I watched a Donald Duck cartoon, that it could have been influenced by film noir. Or so J.P. Telotte tells us in an engaging essay about “Disney Noir.” The idea of subversion coming from the Disney studios is enlightening.
One of the essays looks at “50s Noir Heist” films, and draws parallels with the worlds of work and big business as people get involved with joint enterprises that often fall apart when individuals within the organisations buckle under pressure. The pressure may come from the authorities, particularly the police, and the person concerned will name names, just as one-time Communist Party members named names when HUAC leant on them.
Another essay considers the role of women in film noir where they were often either a femme fatale or a mild-mannered homebody. Pulp fiction of the period held to the same formula. Sometimes the domesticated women were made of sterner stuff and would turn detective to save their man from the clutches of the femme fatales, or to prove them innocent of crimes they’d been wrongly accused of committing. I have to confess that I often found the femme fatales more alluring than the kitchen-and-curtains ladies, which might explain some of my later experiences. I lost it (my innocence) at the movies, as the saying goes.
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is an excellent collection of provocative essays on the theme of film noir. I’m still not convinced that the films can easily be rolled up and stored away under an appropriate label. And I hold to my view that movements or genres in art rarely, if ever, have fixed dates when they start and stop. Any specific dates on Impressionism, for example? Still, scholars will continue to debate whether or not Stranger on the Third Floor marks the start of film noir and Odds against Tomorrow the end, so there will be more books to come. I hope they’re as informative and entertaining as this one. It has excellent notes, a good bibliography, and other useful information. And the various contributors seem to genuinely love their subject.