What’s the difference between the femme fatales of the 1940s and their counterparts from the ’80s and ’90s? Here are three, for starters: fluorescent lighting, low-hanging earrings, and high-waisted underwear. Visitors to the Brattle Theatre will get to study the rest of the changes this week, when the Cambridge moviehouse plays the next stage of its ambitious “History of Noir” series. This 16-film program within a program, entitled “Sex & Death & Venetian Blinds: Neo-Noir of the 1980s & 90s,” brings that history up to the era of Reagan and Clinton. And it’s not just the fashions that have changed—so has the frankness. The ’40s brought with them a code of conduct. But in these movies, we get to see the stains on the blouses.
Those stains have always been there, of course, even when we couldn’t see them. The standards and hallmarks of noir, as exhibited in these movies, have barely changed: There’s a hapless male hero walking his way through a labyrinth of conflicting ideologies and politics (usually he’s a private detective) and a dangerous woman (usually she’s rich) who leads that man down a path of self-destruction (usually she leads him penis-first). Normally there’s a second woman as well (the madonna to the other one’s whore) and a cop (corrupt or otherwise) who tries to put all the aforementioned pieces together.
That’s why the fashions are the first change that you notice. They’re the dominant images of these movies: instead of trenchcoats and shrouded alleyways, we have leopard-print apparel and lines of neon lights. The implication, of the program and of the movies themselves, is that “neon was the new shadow.” But the directors of these 16 films typically have more on their mind than updated designs. They subvert genre standards, play with gender roles, and rewrite standard cinematic depictions of race—they’re not fetishizing noir, but stealing it away like a thief in the night. The form, always so closely associated with pessimism, allows many of them to explore their bleakest concepts and darkest predilections. And the protagonists of these movies are undone, more often than not, by two of life’s necessities: finances and fucking.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
directed by Carl Franklin (screens Thu 1.14)
“Property owner, eh?” Someone is mouthing off to Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, which is nothing new, given that he’s a black man living an upwardly mobile life in the 1940s. As played by Denzel Washington in this private-eye potboiler, he’s the African-American Philip Marlowe, keeping his cool even when it’d be smarter not to. Once he gets involved in the case of a mixed-race runaway, Easy gets snuck up the bellboy’s entrance into the west coast’s swankiest hotel rooms, with high society representatives offering him relatively paltry sums (a few hundred here, another thousand there) to risk his life on their behalves. The black man’s historical status as America’s hired help sits over the movie like an ultimatum, with a quiet fury slowly builds inside Rawlins. (He’s a WWII veteran.) Franklin’s film is directed with a plain eye, but it seems to see everything—take note of the way Rawlins’ makes subtle alterations to his diction in each scene, using his “safe voice” whenever he needs to manipulate his way into controlling a conversation with a white man. It’s a reminder that noir has always been concerned with a talent that all non-white Americans are forced to learn rather quickly: social navigation. (One last note, unrelated to the rest: Devil in the Blue Dress features one of the great one-liners—“If you didn’t want him kill’t, then why did you leave him with me?”)
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (screens Mon 1.11.)
The palette of these movies, from the sports-bar future of Blade Runner to the ice-blue neon suburbia of Thief (both screen on 1.8), seems to be borrowed from Las Vegas. So it’s fitting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature—a three-hander about a Nevada gambler (Philip Baker Hall) who takes in a young runaway (John C. Reilly) and his prostitute bride (Gwyneth Paltrow)—reveals itself as the gem of the whole program. Anderson’s meticulously-controlled compositions and slowly-rhythmed editing imbues the film with a lifelong card player’s unflappable calm. But that gets shaken up by the ransom plot that rushes into the second half of the movie—it arrives with the fury of an unchained handheld camera. The games themselves are played in a minor key, but an almost Biblical tone eventually piles up on top of all the cards and cocktails, loading the film’s few violent moments with the gravity of original sin. Listen closely during a diner scene where Hall decides to risk his own well-being for the sake of this clan he’s created: That’s “Silent Night” you’re hearing.
THE HOT SPOT
directed by Dennis Hopper (screens Tue 1.12.)
The tradition of the “erotic thriller”—at this point in cinematic history, most of them featured Michael Douglas—runs across the history of film noir like an intersection. And The Hot Spot, along with Body Heat (screens 1.6), lies at the fork of that road. Don Johnson features as Harry Maddox, a drifter-slash-thief who’s sleepwalking his way through a dusty Texas town. He only bothers to wake up when he runs into one of two women: Dolly (Virginia Madsen), who’s married to his boss, or Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), who works across the street. He comes up with a bank scheme, planning to use the funds to run away with his ideal. But while he’s putting the pieces together, he plays mistress to Madsen’s blonde-haired man-eater. Hopper’s direction hews closer to coherency than you might expect—the narrative, for better and for worse, walks around the town in circles—but he finds a delirious sexual energy within the machinations of these characters. Gloria’s got unblemished skin that can’t help but shine against the rough-hewn textures of the dry desert town. But Dolly, always in a state of seductive undress, has a demeanor that befits the setting much better. Like the film itself, she’s overheated.
directed by Steven Soderbergh (screens Mon 1.11.)
“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” Maddox sputters during one of The Hot Spot’s many love scenes. That may as well be the motto for this whole program. The men in these movies seem to be damned by their very existence—doomed by the ambitions and desires they were born with. They get caught up in schemes bigger than their eyes can see. And for Soderbergh, one of our far-left commercial filmmakers, there are few schemes as scary as a day job. Michael (Peter Gallagher) is trying to leave his past as a gambling addict behind, so he takes a gig working as the driver of an armored car. Take three guesses as to how that turns out. Soderbergh, looking forward to his own later works—like The Limey and Haywire—uses color tints and twisted angles to keep his audience halfway-oriented while he swaps his way through three or four separate timelines. But it’s less affected than it looks. Soderbergh uses the ruptures (in the 40s, they would’ve come with a ripple effect) to explore a toxic relationship shared between Michael and an old flame, while it’s at various different stages. We see them furious during the throes of his addiction, melancholic through the monotony of his life in recovery, and defeated through the hell that follows the film’s central heist. And we see it all at once, like a jumbled-up crime report. It starts to get at one of the eternal truths of film noir: The protagonists are always two steps behind everyone else, no matter where they’re standing. Through decades and genres and subjects, the noir form remained a repository of masculine angst. There’s a scene where Michael visits a rock club, and we catch a glimpse of the word that gets stamped on his hand as he walks in: “Sucker.”
SEX & DEATH & VENETIAN BLINDS: NEO-NOIR OF THE 1980S & 90S. BRATTLE THEATRE. WED 1.6—THU 1.14. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR FILM LISTINGS AND SHOWTIMES.