Passing Strange


In his book More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (2008), James Naremore discusses the comparative neglect accorded the influence of Surrealism in discussing the genesis of films noir: “The importance of existentialism to the period has long been recognized; what needs to be emphasized is that existentialism was intertwined with a residual surrealism, and surrealism was crucial for the reception of any art described as ‘noir’” (Naremore 17). Though the term “film noir” dates back to reviews of certain wartime American films by French critics seeing them for the first time after the end of WWII (John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet), Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953 (1955) was the first book-length attempt to lay out the style and themes of these films according to the guiding influence of Surrealist preoccupations and concerns. While Borde and Chaumeton never claimed to exhaust their subject matter—the word “panorama” suggests a broad overview—their volume still serves as a “benchmark” introduction to films noir (Silver and Ward 372).

“We’d be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel…” (Borde and Chaumeton 2). While not every film discussed in their work contains these characteristics in equal measure, each film displays at least one of them as a dominant mood. These qualities exemplify, and are indebted to, the Surrealist background of their work. The nexus of Surrealist influence behind Panorama is apparent throughout: “Borde and Chaumeton choose a phrase from Lautréamont, the surrealist’s favorite poet, as an epigraph: ‘The bloody channels through which one pushes logic to the breaking point’” (Naremore 19). Going back to the list of qualities the authors emphasize, Naremore points out that the second adjective (the French word is insolite) occurs frequently throughout the book, calling for particular attention: “It connotes the gothic, somewhat like the Freudian unheimlich [uncanny], but with a more shocking or horrific effect” (Naremore 315). Given the Surrealists’ abiding fascination with Freudian concepts in relation to their explorations of the unconscious, this term provides an apt point of departure for Borde and Chaumeton.

Many of the films designated as noir were based on crime novels (including works by Chandler, Hammett, Jim Thompson, W.R. Burnett and Horace McCoy) published in France as part of Gallimard’s influential Série Noire imprint. The editor of this series was Marcel Duhamel, an early participant in the Surrealist movement involved in the development of “Exquisite Corpse,” a favorite pastime which featured the assemblage of words and/or images supplied at random into a collective whole. This game emphasized the forces of chance at work in the unconscious and yielded the kinds of arbitrary juxtapositions much admired by the group. Duhamel contributed a preface to the original edition of Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama, recalling the Surrealists’ early film-going days and their predilection for films he describes as “curious, nonconformist, and as noir as you could wish” (Borde and Chaumeton xxiv). He mentions by name two early gangster films: Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) and William A. Wellman’s Chinatown Nights (1929), linking these films to Louis Feuillade’s crime serial Les Vampires (1915). Crime and criminal psychology were longstanding interests of the Surrealist group, whose film-going practices can best be described as hopping randomly from theater to theater, disrupting whatever narrative cohesion these early films might have offered, allowing the Surrealists to construct “what Louis Aragon called a ‘synthetic’ or tangential criticism, which was designed to extract latent, chiefly libidinal meanings from single images or short sequences” (Naremore 18). The fact that later films noir often employed disjointed or overly complicated plotlines, frustrating the viewer’s desire for narrative coherence and resolution, doubtless drew the Surrealists’ attention as much as their often lurid content.

Throughout the 1950s Raymond Borde was a contributor to Positif, “an influential journal which maintained strong connections with surrealism” (Naremore 18). At the time, Positif served as a counterpoint to André Bazin’s Cahiers du cinéma, the theoretical mainspring of the French New Wave movement. Another frequent contributor to Positif was Ado Kyrou, author of several books on surrealism in the cinema, and who went on to direct The Monk (1972) based on a script by Luis Buñuel. Raymond Borde was also the director of a film, Pierre Molinier (1964), which featured off-screen commentary by André Breton (Naremore 19).

Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor (Anthologie de  l’humor noir), first published in 1940 and immediately banned by the Vichy government, also contributed to noir’s prominence in the minds of Parisian artists and intellectuals. In the preface to his anthology, Breton describes the hallmark of his selections—excerpted from writers as diverse as Swift, Sade, Poe, Lewis Carroll and Kafka—as a “superior revolt of the mind” against bourgeois sentimentality (quoted in Borde and Chaumeton x). These writers also embody the qualities Borde and Chaumeton use to characterize American films noir: Swift’s corrosive exposure of human folly, Sade’s cruelty, Poe’s fixation on aberrant states of mind, as well as the dreamlike, slightly off-kilter world described by Franz Kafka.

In providing a provisional “definition” of film noir, Borde and Chaumeton emphasize the films’ disruptive influence: “One gets the feeling that all the components of noir style lead to the same result: to disorient the spectators, who no longer encounter their customary frames of reference” (Borde and Chaumeton 12). “Moral fictions,” in which good invariably triumphs over evil, and the demarcation between the two is clear and unambiguous, are the foremost among these frames of reference routinely undercut by films noir. Many noir films also undermine traditional gender roles, featuring as they do wicked, purposeful women and passive, morally bankrupt men. Violence is treated with perverse fascination, emphasizing its “gratuitous cruelty” as it “oversteps the mark” (ibid 13).

“It is easy to come to a conclusion: the moral ambivalence, the criminal violence and the contradictory complexity of the situations and motives all combine to give the public the shared feeling of anguish or insecurity, which is the identifying sign of film noir at this time. All the works in this series exhibit a consistency of a moral sort: namely, the state of tension created in the spectators by the disappearance of their psychological bearings” (ibid). Aiming at disorientation and defamiliarization, a concept developed by Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky (also rendered as “estrangement,” close to the French notion of the insolite or strange), Borde and Chaumeton’s description of the qualities of film noir seems entirely in keeping with Surrealist endeavors as described by Breton, Aragon and others.

Having established affiliations between Surrealism and film noir, we can now examine two prominent films from the classic period—Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949)—adumbrating their history and content and drawing attention to the qualities, according to Borde and Chaumeton, they best exemplify.

According to James Naremore, The Woman in the Window is “situated at the margins of dreams, in a liminal area of darkness, memory, and desire” (Borde and Chaumeton xvi). It was the first of two films—the other being Scarlet Street (1945), a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (The Bitch [1931])—to feature the triangle of lead actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. It was written by Nunnally Johnson and produced by his newly founded company, International Pictures, created based on the success of films he had written for John Ford, in particular The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Tobacco Road (1941), having received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for the former.

The film opens with Professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) lecturing a class at Gotham College on “Some Psychological Aspects of Homicide,” as a brief shot of a placard helpfully informs us. The classroom is first shown in an extreme long shot. As Wanley paces back and forth behind a desk, the whole front of the room is awash in diagonal shadows, a lighting strategy that would soon become a common term in the grammar of noir visual style. Lang slowly tracks in to focus on Wanley, so that the chalkboard behind him comes into focus, emphasizing Sigmund Freud’s name written in large letters above a list of terms related to his description of the components of the human psyche.

We hear an extract from Wanley’s lecture: “The Biblical injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one that requires qualification in view of our broader knowledge of impulses behind homicide. The various legal categories such as first and second degree murder, the various degrees of homicide, manslaughter, are civilized recognitions of impulses of various degrees of culpability. The man who kills for self defense, for instance, must not be judged by the same standards applied to the man who kills for gain.” In less than two minutes of screen time, Lang has firmly established the film’s focus on psychic impulses beyond the control of the protagonist.

Professor Wanley—the name is perfect, signifying timidity and fecklessness—has a problem with women. Granted temporary release from the confines of domesticity by the departure of his wife, Wanley finds himself adrift, seeking companionship at his men’s club, where he falls into an uneasy sleep. The rest of the film enmeshes him in a nightmare of murder and blackmail. The trouble begins when he becomes transfixed by the titular woman in the window—the portrait of Alice Reed (Bennett). Going back to an old trick from his German Expressionist period (particular comparison could be made with M [1931]), Lang reveals the figure of Alice in the store window superimposed over her own portrait. The doubling in the mirror refers to the double life Alice leads, being already involved in an affair with a prominent businessman.

It also refers to the film’s “frame narrative”—even though at this point the viewer isn’t aware of the oneiric nature of these events. The final twist reveals everything that happened after Wanley fell asleep in that chair to have been a dream. Some have suggested that Lang substituted this ending for the source material’s ending, which had Wanley commit suicide out of guilt and desperation. However, the film’s ending is in keeping with its portrayal of Wanley, a dream of wish-fulfillment in which he can play out a fantasy of emancipation and then follow his actions to their logical consequences. It serves as an unconscious warning against straying from the fold of bourgeois complacency. In an ironic coda, after waking Wanley leaves his club and again encounters the painting in the window. This time the image of a tawdry streetwalker appears superimposed over the painting, offering Wanley a thinly veiled proposition. Accompanied by humorous, sprightly music, Wanley makes a hasty departure, having learned his lesson.

Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), according to Borde and Chaumeton, stands as “one of the extremely rare contemporary illustrations of an amour fou (in every sense of the word, of course) that, as André Breton put it, ‘assumes all power’ here. Gun Crazy would thus appear as a sort of L’Age d’or of American film noir” (94). L’Amour fou (or Mad Love) was the title of a novel by Breton published in 1937, but went back as a concept to the earliest writings of the Surrealist group. As the authors point out, one of its greatest expositions can be found in Luis Buñuel’s 1930 film, which pits its amorous protagonists against every conceivable obstacle modern society can throw up as a roadblock against them. And—just as in Lewis’ noir film—the final resolution of their desire for each other can only be expressed in death.

Financed by King Brothers Productions (a triumvirate of brothers who got their start making film projectors) and distributed by United Artists, Lewis’ film was written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor, based on Kantor’s original story, which had first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Trumbo’s credit was attributed to Millard Kaufman, owing to his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the Hollywood Ten. The film stars John Dall (the year after he appeared in Hitchcock’s Rope) and Peggy Cummins (who would go on to star alongside Dana Andrews in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon [1957]). Her attire in this film—in particular a rakishly titled black beret—would later feature in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which owes many other debts to Lewis’ film.

The film begins with a young Bart Tare (Dall) smashing a store window in order to steal a gun. Using a flashback-laden sequence during a juvenile delinquency hearing to establish Bart’s character (obsessed with firearms but unwilling to kill), the film then introduces us to a grown-up Bart, who meets Annie Starr (Cummins) at a carnival sideshow. Her proficiency with a gun arouses Bart and he feels compelled to compete against her in a contest of marksmanship. The film makes frequent use of the equation “gun=penis,” with Bart’s skill and accuracy undercut by his unwillingness to kill, rendering him metaphorically impotent. Annie, however, is unhesitant. Her arousal stems from the destructive aspect of their gun play, her skill with firearms a necessary but insufficient cause of her pleasure. Another way of putting this would be: Bart’s fundamental orientation is toward masochism, which finds its perfect complement in Annie’s pronounced sadism. The balance of sexual potency between them also inverts traditional gender dynamics, a frequent effect of noir’s genre subversion, as we have seen.

One of the film’s standout set pieces shows a bank holdup unfolding in a single shot that lasts approximately three minutes. According to Glenn Erickson on the DVD’s commentary track, the scene was filmed on location in Montrose, California, with no one other than the actors and the bank’s staff aware of the filming. Lewis used the interior of a stretch Cadillac to double for the couple’s sedan, mounting the camera in the back seat on a two-by-twelve alongside a jockey’s saddle for the camera operator. Lewis also encouraged the actors to improvise their dialogue to lend an air of verisimilitude.

The film ends with a remarkable sequence. The couple—on the run and cut off from family as well as society at large—take refuge in countryside Bart roamed as a boy. Awaking in the midst of a fog-shrouded landscape, reflecting both their isolation and the blindness of their love for each other, Bart and Annie discover they have been surrounded. In a tortured moment of conflicted devotion, Bart is torn between his love for Annie and his loyalty to a childhood friend, shooting and killing Annie rather than allowing her to kill Dave, moments before being killed by a hail of gunfire from all sides. The final shot of the film shows the couple’s dead bodies collapsed on top of each other, before the camera cranes up to a high-angle view of the landscape still shrouded and obscured in white.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Passing Strange

  1. Pingback: Tha Black Dahlia (2006) Surrealist Noir, & Hollywood Ritual Murder | Jay's Analysis

  2. Pingback: The Black Dahlia (2006), Surrealist Noir, & Hollywood Ritual Murder | Jay's Analysis

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