Memories and desire: how time and narrative affect our understanding of film noir

19 February 2011

MP here

So Ferdy on Films have been hosting "For the Love of Film (Noir)", a fundraising blogathon, this past week. You can read about their fundraising efforts in full here. This is what they say in introducing their blogathon: "This year, the Film Noir Foundation is our special valentine, and they’ve honored us by earmarking our funds for a very special film: The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me (1950), with blacklisted director Cy Endfield at the helm, and starring Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done."

When I read about it, I thought I might post this piece I wrote in March 2008 for a university assessment. I've omitted a section from the original in which I not only misunderstood Nietszche, but which I now find quite embarrassing to have included in the first place. I could have expanded upon certain elements that warrant it, but I thought it best to get on with it, having qualified any glaring errors or misjudgments by noting how long ago it was written...

Past and future (apart from the consequences of their content) are as empty and unreal as any dream; but present is only the boundary between the two, having neither extension nor duration. - Arthur Schopenhauer, 1819, The World as Will and Representation: Volume 1.

[T]here is no feeling, no idea, no volition which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow. Let us take the most stable of internal states, the visual perception of a motionless external object. The object may remain the same, I may look at it from the same side, at the same angle, in the same light; nevertheless the vision I now have of it differs from that which I have just had, even if only because the one is an instant older than the other. My memory is there, which conveys something of the past into the present. - Henri Bergson, 1907, 'Creative Evolution'.

The terms Story and Narrative are often used interchangeably. But I agree with Todorov and the Russian formalists: "[story] corresponds to the reality evoked, to events similar to those which take place in our lives; [narrative] to the book itself, to the literary devices the author employs". The distinction is necessary: a story can be told in innumerable ways; these ways are all narratives. An unobtrusive narrative such as a newspaper headline truncates many details and leaves the bare skeleton of events; a novel, in its control of dramatic singular scenes, tells the story in more detail, at a different pace, with additions and omissions of its own; a review of the same novel synopsises the story in a different narrative altogether, consumable in one sitting for the sake of brevity.

Stories in film noir are hardly groundbreaking. [1] Tragedy has existed for as long as drama itself, as have themes of death and deceit. But in terms of how these stories are told - recalling the internal fluidity and extreme subjectivity of modernist writers such as Woolf and Joyce [2] - the recurring narrative patterns in noir are telling.

Think of the fades in and out of black in Edward Dmytryk's Farewell, My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet, 1944), and the surreal, dreamish quality they conjure alongside its sleazy mise-en-scene; or the disparate, episodic fragments through which Bogart walks dizzingly in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946); or the duplicity found in both story and femme fatale in films such as Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) and Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), both of which involve men falling in love with the same woman twice - when she's alive and when she's dead; or how, in Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window (1944), Professor Wanley's nightmarish spiral into the depths of guilt-ridden suicide turns out to be a fantasy from which he escapes - or wakes up - unscatched, running from this lonely would-be death into a family life that begs such fantasy in the first place; or the desperate, climactic tone sustained through Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which borders on increasing ridiculousness as Ralph Meeker slaps his way to the apocalypse.

Even on the edges of classical noir and beyond it into the films it influenced, the narrative is the key factor in shaping the story's meaning: in Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), for instance, the flashback narrative makes the story significant - even epic - but in essence it is merely a search, in the end, for the meaning of life, taking as its only cue one man's dying words. In Godard's Breathless (1959), meanwhile, we jump across Europe with cuts in the actual film reel, rendering an otherwise momentous journey from Rome to Paris into mere triviality - thereafter and throughout, conversations are unashamedly cut up so as to embody the "in the moment" existentialism of the film's two young protagonists.

The big clock

Classical film noir emerges with conflict, under the censory production code. In the dark, wet streets of noir, the lonely protagonist - often our narrator, reliable or not - embodies all things ambiguous: sexually, politically, morally, philosophically. Central to these conflicts is the notion of time. Time orientates our understanding of many things. Western thought operates via a cause-and-effect logic: we understand an event in terms of its cause, and we see in an event the capacity to affect another. This extends to history itself: we simplify our explanations of wars (in the hope of learning from them) by seeking the catalysts that sparked them.

This same logic is how we understand stories too, and the narrative shape in which a story is told governs what meaning we may extract from it.

Time, then, is central to our understanding of film noir, in the way it is taken apart, skewed, stitched together; its narrative presentation to us reflects the story's grip on the protagonist in the film. In noir, time is barely linear; it is circular and elliptical, trapped in its own circumference of self-reference. In noir, the diegesis relates only to itself; protagonists are trapped and caught up in the a world whose meaning is constantly shifting. In the films discussed further here - Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) - the narrative invokes a certain fatalism in which the protagonist dwells with a resigned determinism.

The man who wasn't there

Take, for example, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in Reed's The Third Man. He is our narrator of sorts; not only is he a writer of pulp novels in his home country, but his is the perspective through which we view the film. A North American [3] with post-war ideals of morality and honour, Martins finds a war-torn Europe drenched in absurdity and deceit. Director Reed articulates this world-gone-askew with canting camera angles and tight framing, with low-key lighting and shadows that dwarf the people who cause them.

The Vienna of The Third Man is in a state of inert existential horror, moving in cycles without purpose. Three key scenes invite such interpretation - the Ferris wheel scene; the climactic sewer chase; the final shot. The first is obvious in its reference to circularity: not only does Holly Martins meet his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) on a ride which elevates them in a circumference to their original starting point, but at the very top, both look down with god-like points-of-view at a forever-moving carousel; Harry questions Holly's moral integrity by suggesting little would change if any of the children on the ride ("those dots") were to die.

In the chase sequence, the sewers resemble an Escher illustration, with tunnels upon tunnels leading into one another without beginning or end. In the final shot of the film, the road by which Holly stands continues long beyond the camera's gaze, and its horizon cannot be seen.

In all of these scenes, the visual motifs have no origin or conclusion; they lead back into one another (a Ferris wheel, a carousel, a sewer system, an infinite stretch of road) so that Vienna too has no moral or narrative conclusion. Indeed, every character in the film ends as he or she begun: Holly is lost, without his friend or the woman he's chased after; the woman is without her lover; the lover is dead (again). Meanwhile, that Ferris wheel rotates and rotates, like the broken record at the end of the Boulting brothers' Brighton Rock (1947). [4]

That Holly Martins is a writer gives him a metaphorically plausible responsibility to construct the story for us: in essence, we can (and will) only discover the mystery surrounding Harry Lime when Holly himself does. But, like Holly, we're at the mercy of others, the mercy of the knowledge they possess and the indifference with which they treat foreigners. In each scene Holly seems to make no further progress; he lacks the assertive aggressiveness to delve any further, and he also falls for Lime's lover, whose presence alone (the fondness isn't mutual) helps soothe Holly's frustration over time.

If time heals all wounds, however, so does war itself: Harry Lime has prospered from it, while Martins visits from a continent so geographically distant from Europe that it was able to lift itself out of the Depression through its efforts in World War II. But from this emerges a paradox: is war even a wound? And does time heal it? Lime, at the core of the film's moral complexity, preaches to Martins at one point that "in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, 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 they produce? The cuckoo clock."

This final reference, to an instrument that measures time, seems coincidental if nonetheless fitting, while the defence of (timeless) art as a necessary by-product of war is convincing in the charm with which Welles delivers it. Switzerland, for its part, has helped the world keep track of time. The victims of imperialism, meanwhile, have offered the world a great artistic output. (In a self-reflexive turn, the film too exploits its devastated setting to commercially and artistically positive effect.)

Out of the past

The Third Man opens with a voice-over that carries with it a sense of retrospect: what we are about to see has already happened. And because the narrator ends the film on that infinite stretch of road as confused and alone as he began the film, we have every reason to believe that nothing significant has changed in the time between that shot and this voice-over - no doubt, also, due to the visual motifs already discussed. Indeed, the film seems destined to come full circle: the title itself refers to an unknown suspect in the cover-up of a death, who eventually turns out to be dead himself; how else must the film end but with his second funeral (the film begins with his first)?

Wilder's Double Indemnity follows the same pattern, but makes a more obvious distinction between the action of the past and the inertia of the present. It begins in the present: a car screeches down a Los Angeles boulevard late at night, halts to an abrupt stop, its driver enters a building, ascends an elevator, makes his way towards an office and finally settles there to talk into a Dictaphone. It becomes apparent in this short introduction that he hasn't long to live. In short, the story told in the film has actually happened prior to it. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) narrates events leading up to the start of the narrative, but the narrative itself progresses no further than this starting point; it ends having only established what has happened before it.

In beginning with disequilibrium, Double Indemnity subverts narrative convention. In entering the past, it enters a state of stability, of temporary equilibrium. But in bringing us up to date, up to the present state in which it began, the film must inevitably end once more without resolve. The only resolution with which one may satisfactorily end a story like this is by killing off the person telling it, not due to any moral reasoning, but because the narrative framework calls for it.

To imagine Double Indemnity without this framework is to imagine that it begins with Neff meeting his femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), with no retrospective voice-over to remind us of the shift in time. With the climax as it is, the story alone remains fatalistic; in reality, the narrative in which this story is told takes on a crippling dramatic irony that emerges from our knowledge that, essentially and eventually, our protagonist is to die. [5]

There is also a symbolic irony in this. If we are to take the entire voice-over in Double Indemnity as Neff's dying words, with his future forecast, Neff is left with nothing but the desire to recall his past; he is trapped in a circle without a core, a circumference which comprises at once his memories and desires, the past and the future. What, then, of the present itself?

The present is happening elsewhere. We watch the illustrated memoirs of a man while the man himself dies; our only window into the present is Neff's intermittent voice-over. It is an illusion; the present is only the moment between the one before it and the one after it, and thus itself is in constant transition. From this perpetual shifting, how can one distinguish, in the aftermath of a world war such as that during which film noir emerged, what is moral and what is not moral? How might we sort the bad guys from the good? Why is Harry Lime so appealing?


[1] We may extend this to stories in general - the pleasure in a story rests on how it is told.
[2] Noir is more commonly associated with the hard-boiled crime fiction of US writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler; but I would argue these themselves wrote in a modernist vein, with their limited point-of-view, their convoluted sense of action time, and their ambivalence towards to the city, which is at once celebratory and anxious.
[3] It is convenient and easy to note the symbolism of an American famous for his westerns, but for this we owe producer David Selznick, who changed Martins's nationality in order to make the film more marketable in the US; in Graham Greene's original script, Martins is Canadian.
[4] Incidentally, Graham Greene, adapting from his own novel, also scripted Brighton Rock, but the film's notorious final moment is not in the original.
[5] This is taken to an even further extreme in Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950), which is narrated from beyond the grave, its protagonist and storyteller having already died; his initial voice-over is told to images of his own corpse floating in a swimming pool.