Rogue’s Gallery: The Last Noir

ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

ERIC:
Here’s what I want to know this week – What is the last noir? I know there are several decades now of neo-noir, but what film do you think is the final bow of the classic period. I know my answer so I will let you guys weigh in first . . . and then I’ll give the right answer.

JAKE:
The last noir…I’m not sure. You know, I’m in the middle of writing a noir book and I’m still wrestling with this very question. I suppose most people say that Touch of Evil (1958) is the last noir of the classic period. As an avowed Wellesian, I’m tempted to cast my lot with Orson. Certainly, I think that film is some kind of fevered culmination of the cinematic pulp form. It’s difficult to go beyond that film in terms of sex and violence without wandering into neo-noir territory.

Pressed for an answer, though, I think I’ll nominate Fuller’s 1964 The Naked Kiss. I feel like noir officially slips over into neo-noir the moment Constance Towers finds out the truth about Michael Dante. For anyone reading this who has not seen the film, do yourself a favor and make haste to a copy immediately.

What do you guys think?

ERIC:
Naked Kiss is an interesting choice, albeit a film I don’t particularly like. I know, I know. It’s heresy to not like a Sam Fuller film but there you have it.
I also think it is a good example of the start of Neo-Noir rather than a last salvo at classic noir. A lot of that is style. Fuller was so obviously influenced by the Europeans and working with a smaller budget than the big studio productions of the 40s and 50s, as well as new technology that made the hand held camera in the opening fight scene possible. All that newness crosses Naked Kiss over into a new territory for me.
And Touch of Evil is as good a guess as any. You’ll get no argument on my love of that film.
Of course, both those choices are wrong. The correct answer is Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).


You’ve got a director who worked wonders within the classic period, Robert Wise. (Born To Kill, The Set-Up) You’ve got source material from an author with Noir bona fides in William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, Shield For Murder). You’ve got a cast with Noir heavyweights like Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. Even a screenwriter of Noir renown in Abe Polonsky (Force of Evil).

Even more than that you get such a deep sense of fate closing in like dark storm clouds. Start with the title. Sheesh! What a downer. A beautiful downer. It confronts race relations which is fairly new territory for Noir, not unheard of though.

For me, the thing that sends it over the top is the ending. (SPOILER ALERT) The whole world of the film and the characters in it explode in a fire ball. Nothing left. Not only does the main character die, or the bad guy gets it. Nope. How about everyone dies? The last shot of a chain link fence with a charred sign reading “Stop. Dead End.” signals quite the epitaph on classic noir. But what a way to go out!

 

CULLEN:
I’m reluctant to try and pin down a final film noir. Partly because I feel that noir is such a slippery term that it is difficult to fully define. How many different definitions are there for it? It is, in someways, a hindsight genre – a series of films that are linked by a similar mood, feelings, aesthetic, and worldview. If there is no firm beginning, can there be a firm ending? I guess the dividing point for me might be when filmmakers started to self-consciously make “noir” movies – ones that are deliberately derivative of the past. But even that way of defining different eras doesn’t work for me, because you can find instances of spoofs, satires, and other self-consciously stylized “noirs” from the classic era of noir. Kiss Me Deadly is very much post-noir. The Lady From Shanghai, as well, strikes me as a movie that takes a particular style to an insane extreme.

I seem to be avoiding the prompt, it seems. I’m a big fan of Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as Cape Fear, and I think they both qualify as great late-era noirs.

Another way of approaching this question might be to ask what the difference between “noir” and “neo-noir” is? Is it purely a periodic consideration? Can pure “noir” still be created? I think it can. Would y’all consider Winter’s Bone to be “neo-noir” just because it was made in 2010? I wouldn’t. It certainly plays with certain private eye motifs, but not in the same revisionist way as something like Brick.

ERIC:

I used to be very against defining Noir, but I’ve come around to it a lot because so much stuff is being conveniently labeled as Noir by fly-by-night DVD distributors and film school drop outs that I like to draw some boundaries.

Plus it gives up topics to discuss in this column.

I’d put Cape Fear much more in the thriller camp. Great film. Peck and his family are too innocent though. Noir, to me, has very few (if any) innocents.

Cullen you draw an interesting distinction between neo-noir and straight noir as an extension of the classic period. I do think we need to put the classic period in a box a little bit. You are very right, though, that a film like Brick is obviously doing a revisionist take on an established style while Winter’s Bone is more of a noir writ modern and rural. Winter’s Bone doesn’t draw on any of Noir’s visual ticks though.

This gives me a great opportunity to talk about The Bloody Olive. It is an homage (almost a parody if it weren’t done with so much obvious love). Have you guys seen this? It’s on YouTube now so everyone should take the ten minutes and watch it right now. Hilarious and very well done.

And talk about going off-topic! I sure did. Mostly because I already gave you guys the right answer. To argue against it is futile. Don’t even try or I’ll have to shame you further. Odds Against Tomorrow. Deal with it.

CULLEN:

You make an interesting point about Cape Fear and the question of Peck’s innocence. I agree that is leans more towards the thriller side of things, but there are noir elements to it. I haven’t read John D. MacDonald’s original novel (two copies are currently sitting in my TBR pile), but one of the things I found most interesting about how the movie is how Peck’s character straddles the innocent/guilty divide. It isn’t in a traditional noir mode, but there is a certainly element of culpability that is undeniable. He is responsible for bringing Mitchum’s reign of terror into his world, risking his family’s life, and ultimately unleashing darker sides of himself that he never before realized existed. What is so unusual is that he brought all of this about by doing the morally right thing — and I think that is part of why the film is so unsettling. Many noir protagonists bring about their own downfall (or at least the potential for it) by flirting with danger, sex, violence, booze, criminals, etc, but here Peck remains on the right side of things, and yet he still suffers some of the same consequences as other noir protagonists.

To return to your original prompt: “What is the last noir? I know there are several decades now of neo-noir but what film do you think is the final bow of the classic period.” I wonder if we could break this into two separate questions.

To answer your second question first, I’ll agree with you, Eric, that “the final bow of the classic period” is Odds Against Tomorrow. Once you hit the 60s, with stuff like Point Blank and The Killers, it is a whole different ballgame — those are both very much “neo-noirs” that distort, pervert, and play with a past tradition.

As to “What is the last noir?” I don’t think there is one, nor will there ever be one, because there is something about the mood that exists beyond a certain time period. By way of illustration, let me briefly compare Robert Culp’s Hickey and Boggs and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. The Altman film, in my opinion, is not real noir – there’s an element of pastiche and satire that I’ve never been comfortable with. Culp’s film, on the other hand, is one of those examples of how noir can exist outside of the classic period without any prefix attached. It doesn’t have the visual hallmarks of the classic period, but it has the same bleak heart that defines the mood.

ERIC:

All good points. I wonder when it becomes time to further split down the periods of Neo-Noir. Do films like Point Blank get put into the same category as Red Rock West from the 90s or brand new stuff like The Square?

Regardless, I’m still right. Odds Against Tomorrow is the last classic noir. Textbook writers and University professors take note.

“Hey, hey, fellas. No more fighting. Eric is right. Odds Against Tomorrow is the last noir.”

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com/
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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4 Replies to “Rogue’s Gallery: The Last Noir”

  1. I’d argue for A Touch Of Evil — though I wouldn’t have until I got to see the version that was cut by Wells hmself. The versions I’ve seen in the past never made a lot of sense to me mainly because ( as I now know) the last half hour of the film was butchered by the studio’s editor. Wells’ cut tied up everything neatly and restored the missing scenes to the last half of the film that made the ending make sense.
    I havent seen Odds Against Tomorrow yet. I will correct this sin, soonest. Thanks guys, you all had my rapt attention and did not disappoont a bit.

  2. I’m with Eric, Naked Kiss is more interesting than successful. Haven’t seen Odds Against Tomorrow so normally I’ve gone with Touch of Evil as the last noir.

  3. Great discussion, guys. All great films, but I would probably go with Touch of Evil. I definitely agree with Jake that it’s tough to go past Evil’s bizarre take on sex and race without wandering into neo noir territory. The scene where Janet Leigh is semi-imprisoned in the motel with the all those weird transexual bikers is just wonderful. I would add one film into the mix for consideration and that’s Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. As a white knuckle ride through the paranoia of the post McCathy America, it’s hard to beat. One of the most ‘noir’ films I have ever seen. I reviewed it on my blog a little while ago, if you want to check it out: http://www.pulpcurry.com/2011/10/eight-reasons-to-love-kiss-me-deadly/
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  4. Just watched Odds Against Tomorrow. Enjoyed it quite a bit. Far more in keeping with later sixties and beyond fare than classic era noir. The look is more realistic, the pace and mood more slow and atmospheric than quick and blunt. The fantastic location and exterior work is also markedly different from many films up until then. The storytelling and characters very sophisticated in what isn’t explained through dialogue but instead handled visually. The race issue is also well-handled for a film of the late fifties in that it’s not nearly as heavy-handed as it could have been.

    The ending is indeed pretty nuts and does serve as a nice metaphor for the end of an era, and the involvement of so many classic noir craftsmen also makes me want to agree with Eric. But the film feels “too” modern to me to be called the last noir. If you told me it was made in 1966 or so I wouldn’t bat an eye. Therefore I think something like Kiss Me Deadly or Touch of Evil still works better in that, though they are indeed more self-aware and fucked up than most films of the forties and fifties, they still are undeniably recognizable as films of their day.