Nathaniel Rich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

San Francisco in Film Noir: Conversation with Nathaniel Rich, Associate Editor, Paris Review, June 23, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Film Noir

Let's move to the subset of films that you're looking at in this book, San Francisco Noir. The first important thing about this universe is that they're film noir. When were film noirs made and what are their defining features? You hinted at it earlier, but let's be more explicit about what they are.

Sure. The genre (some people would dispute using the term "genre," but I think it's easier to use it) is often said to have begun in 1941 movie posterwith the The Maltese Falcon, and the classic period of noir is defined as 1941 to 1958, roughly. These are all films that are shot in stark black and white, have expressionistic style, very clear stylistic aesthetic with oblique camera angles, a style that creates a sense of uneasiness and even paranoia at times. A very uncomfortable expressionistic style. Some people would define film noir simply as films that are made from this period, 1941 to 1958, in this style.

Another argument argues for content. The content of a film noir, the basic plot line, tends to be an anti-hero down on his luck in an American city after the war who gets drawn into some kind of elaborate mystery or conspiracy by a seductive woman, usually the femme fatale, and is caught up in this conspiracy and must try to figure out how to get out of it and who's trapped him. There's usually a murder involved, almost always a murder involved, and there's a sense that no matter what he does, by the end he'll be doomed and taken up by this monster.

I don't think either [definition] is exactly the full picture. Most of all, and this is a more broad definition, I think film noir is more about tone. The tone that I think all of these films share is a tone of dread. It's the sense that everything is going to go badly, no matter what happens, and it's usually going to end with a bullet.

Using that definition, you can move to the next era, which is from 1958 to the present. Films made during that time are considered "neo-noir." These are films that are often shot in color but try to stylistically approximate the same kind of effect that was achieved in black and white but using color, and this takes on many different forms, often using lots of shadow or often using strange colors, things like that. Many of these films stray from the typical noir formula, especially the typical noir plot and conventions, and often focus on one element or one theme. For instance, a film like The Conversation focuses on paranoia, and it takes that theme to an exaggerated level.

Often, neo-noirs resemble film noirs in one aspect but then ignore the rest of it and take that one theme to an obsessive level. There are other films, more recent films, that are similar to classic noirs in the sense that they are nostalgic for them and they're almost like homages to these earlier films. So, it's a broad genre. Everybody has their own definition. Many books on film noir don't actually give any kind of clear definition of the genre but simply list all the films that they consider to be film noir, and that's their definition. I try to define it as this tone of dread, and I think most of the films that I've included, or all of them, have that in common.

You pointed out that some of the directors and the writers had European origins, and the films reflect the influence of German expressionism in movies like M with Peter Lorre and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which [are older], but I'm curious about how this foreign influence -- that is, this cosmopolitanism, these people who came from Europe and brought those styles -- interfaces with what there is in the American ethos that makes these films popular here in the United States. Was it that the U.S. reached a certain level of development and urbanization and uncertainty? movie posterAre we talking about the war years? What enabled this mingling of the cosmopolitan with elements of the national ethos to make this click for an American market?

Well, it came out of the war, World War II. Noir is about the American city. In those years, the big American cities where most of these films were shot -- L.A., New York, and San Francisco -- were symbols of progress and expansion and success, and the post-war boom. Noir came along to say, "Maybe everything isn't quite so great as we all think it is, maybe not everyone's doing so well, maybe there's something more sinister going on, at least underneath the surface." Noir is very much about what's underneath the surface, the underground, the underbelly. It may very well be that it took foreign filmmakers to be able to see that and to have a criticism of the country that they had moved to. Maybe they were a little more skeptical of the excitement and the boosterism of those years. The classic noir [film] is subverting that kind of American triumphalism and saying that something isn't quite right after all.

Now in this mix you point out that the genre -- let's call it a genre for the sake of discussion -- that you can see an evolution in these films, not just from black and white to color and the [broadening] of a focus which we discussed earlier, but historical themes that were emerging. You talk about the influence of the detective film and writing, moving on to the fear of Communism.

There are many strands of noir and sub-genres. One was certainly the Red Scare noirs which is a hilarious subset of about a half-dozen films where the enemy becomes not the hoodlum, or the gangster, movie posteror the tough guy, but the Commie, and the good guy is the American FBI agent. There are a couple of films, like I Married a Communist, Walk a Crooked Mile, that use that model. But really, the way I think about how noir evolved had a lot to do with how the American city itself evolved in those years.

By the time you get, movie posterfor instance, to the seventies, many of these cities were becoming decrepit and the underworld was the world of these cities, and in films like Dirty Harry, or Bullittt, or Point Blank, which are all late sixties or early seventies, the city is now decayed. It doesn't make sense anymore to talk about an underworld or to have this contrast between the surface and the underbelly: the violence is out in the street. So the films reflect that in interesting ways and become very different.

The most famous scene in Dirty Harry is where he's eating -- the Clint Eastwood character, Detective Harry Callahan -- is eating a hot dog in this seedy restaurant in basically downtown San Francisco, and he detects that a bank robbery's going on in the middle of the day across the street and there's an explosion. It's the scene where he asks the punk if he feels lucky. But it's interesting, because it's in the middle of the day, it's a business day, there are hundreds of people all around, cars are driving by, but the violence is part of everyday reality. The grittiness that was once sought in the underground is now everywhere. The pedestrians aren't too surprised by it. They're screaming, but the cars just keep driving by, and so on.

I think oftentimes the changes that came about in the genre came about because of changes in the American urban situation. There are a couple of books that are more scholarly that are focused exactly on this question.

That's interesting that you mention [Dirty Harry], because it was one of the film [lines] that the American Film Institute [chose in its 100] most famous quotes.

That's probably one of them, yeah.

I can see very much what you're describing because I just saw the scene. But your justification for [expanding the definition] from the black and white to color films such as The Conversation, and Dirty Harry, and Final Analysis, and the others -- your point is well taken, because the terror or anxiety is not in a closet anymore, it's come out and...

Yeah, and it's assaulting you. A good example of the ways that movie posterdirectors used colors in interesting ways, trying to approximate the black and white, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Phil Kaufman, which many people consider a science fiction or a horror film. But Kaufman was very much working within the noir tradition. The plot itself is like any noir, where a down-on-his-luck hero becomes aware or suspicious that there's some kind of conspiracy underfoot, tries to figure it out, senses that he's going to become destroyed by it. The way Kaufman uses the color is very interesting, because he uses lots of very strange greens and purples, and lots of shots surrounded by shadow. So, there's a sense that everything is a little bit off and that in the shadows, outside the frame, there's something lurking. And it's true -- there are pod-people there.

This was actually a remake of an earlier film which can't be included in your collection because in the older film, Kevin McCarthy was running to the streets of L.A.

Right. They moved it up to San Francisco.

Next page: Location: San Francisco

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