Issues of Character: Noir and Neo-noir Noir and neo-noir films bring to audiences everywhere a sense of mystery, gloom, and unsettlement. Films such as The Big Sleep, Pulp Fiction, and specially The Usual Suspects are perfect examples of the how noir and neo-noir characters bring forth a disturbing part of the plot for their viewers. Film noir is actually a French term, which translated means "black film." The term itself was not created until after the so called "golden age" of noir, roughly 1941 - 1959. This genre of film is defined as ?A movie characterized by low-key lighting, a bleak urban setting, and corrupt, cynical characters.?(Dictionary.com) Noir characters are indeed corrupt and cynical, often unsettling in the stomachs of their viewers. The birth of this genre in film may have been attributed to American feelings and reactions to World War II. WWII introduced into American homes more blood, gore, and fatal realism than ever before in television and big-screen history; leading to a desensitization of the public and also topics previously off limits in film and television were now eagerly sought after by audiences throughout the country.
Neo-noir takes the basic elements of its predecessor but with modern film techniques, color, and wide screen formats. The basic element of unbalance and unrest within its characters are the same with both noir and neo-noir genres. A good example of the types of things one would see in a noir film is ?[the] Sets are often in wet and dark streets, dimly lit apartments and hotel rooms. Characters consist of anti-heroic, and cynical hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, who encountered violent crimes and corruption. A beautiful but dangerous femme fatale offers love and sexuality, but manipulates the detective and brings deception and death. These critics also recognize the low-key lighting style in film noir.?(FSUweek8) The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks, shows its audience how dark and ?Robinsonian? its characters can be in their world. At first, the characters give the impression of being very simple like the young daughter of the old, withered General Sternwood, Carmen Sternwood. This film portrays the dark side of its characters? personalities. In it, we see ?giggling killers and gruesome butlers pass through without even the courtesy of a name. A sideshow of criminality wanders in and out of The Big Sleep like so many underworld supernumeraries, crowding the film not so much with "characters," but with tiny, finely-etched, one-note portrayals of deceit and self-interest.?(Images) Characters in this film are a lot less reliable and surely less predictable than the ones we would see in other genres of film. Phillip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, plays a private detective hired by the General to settle some debts his youngest daughter had with ?Geiger, the fastidiously sleazy bookstore proprietor.?(Images) A secondary goal for the General is to have Marlowe find his missing friend and confidant, Sean Regan, who suddenly ?disappeared? a month earlier under mysterious circumstances. Phillip Marlowe is a smart and tough lone wolf with a sense of honor who is dragged into a world where nothing (and no one) is as it seems.
Throughout the movie, characters change from good to bad before the audience?s eyes. Vivian Sternwood for example at first seems to be the responsible, mature woman who lives with her family and takes care of her younger sister and does whatever she can to get her out of trouble (and she does). The point of subversion at which the audience realizes that she is more than just the responsible older sister is when she is seen in Eddie Mars? apartment with a gun, ready to do whatever it takes to get Carmen out of trouble, this includes killing (as she killed Sean Regan). Other characters in the film such as Eddie Mars, Arthur Geiger and Joe Brody are all in the blackmail business, as well as gambling, pornography, and all kinds of other illegal, noir-esque activities. Mars is the head racketeer, and Geiger and Brody aren't always informed of everything he's up to. Eddie Mars is by far the most dreadful character in the film, he is the only character who truly does not care about anyone but himself (much like Todd Hockney from The Usual Suspects) The fact that he is a noir villain becomes apparent when he sends someone to ?capture? Vivian Sternwood right outside his casino after she had ?won? a particularly large sum of cash from the house.
Some characters though, follow the classical format. In my opinion, Phillip Marlow himself (as the main protagonist) is one. From the start, we see that he is a no-nonsense kind of person, and that?s how he remains throughout the film. Marlowe can be categorized as a Bordwellian (or classic) character, ?For all of its admitted psychological ambiguity and abnormal mental states, despite its many treacherous black widows, shell-shocked war veterans, and gun crazy killers, the form?s characters, he argues, were still ?strongly motivated,? fully in line with current conceptions of realism.?(Telotte372) Even though he is put in situations that can sometimes get a bit dangerous, characters like his still remain calm, collected, and focused on the goal at hand.
In Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino, we see a number of characters that fluctuate between the classic and Robinsonian views of character. A good example of this dynamic character in this movie is Jules Whinfield. In a story of redemption, Jules' redemption is the biggest of all. A hit man (for quite a few years, we can only assume) working for Marcellus Wallace, Jules, unlike Vincent (his partner), sees his career of killing people and doing dirty work as more of a way of life, something he can't go home at night and forget about. When we first meet him, he and his partner Vincent are on their way to Brett's (who has stolen a briefcase from Marcellus). Before they barge into the apartment where Brett has the briefcase, Jules tells Vincent ?let?s get into character.? After intimidating Brett and the other men in the apartment, getting the briefcase, and killing Brett (as well as a few others), a man who was hiding in the bathroom bursts out, firing six times at point blank range at Jules and Vincent with a ?hand cannon.? He misses with every shot, and Jules' life suddenly changes, this is where his character takes a turn from the expected. Seeing the fact that the man missed with every shot from a short range as divine intervention, Jules decides that it's a sign from God telling him to quit ?the life? and go straight, thus changing the audience?s attitude toward his character. It's his opportunity for redemption, and he takes it. He quits the lifestyle of a hit man, and we can only assume he, as he says, "wanders the earth" for the rest of his life. Minding the fact that the encounter between Butch and Vincent later on in the film would have taken a different turn (perhaps him getting killed too); we can only assume that Jules changed his life for the better.
?And in Pulp Fiction we watch two hitmen, Vincent and Jules, who have to ?get in character? before each job. As a part of that character, Jules repeatedly spouts a Biblical passage whose meaning, he finally admits, was never as important as the impression of him it gave to his victims. In every instance, the narrative foregrounds our traditional, comforting sense of character, draws upon what we expect, but then mocks that notion with figures who, disconcertingly, simply ?are,? who underscore their sense of difference, and who, in their ability to move beyond the boundaries of roundness-As Jules abandons his well-rehearsed, linguistically-defined character at the end of Pulp Fiction- add a new dimension to the cultural challenge that has always marked the film noir.?(Telotte375) This film takes some dark turns at times, having a distinct neo-noir quality. Pulp Fiction has a circular narrative. ?At certain moments where the narratives intersect, the theme of the uncanny and destiny arises, for example, where Butch and Vincent pass each other at Marcellus' bar. They exchange hostile glances and comments for no apparent reason. The sequence is mysterious, and Vincent's immediate reaction of hostility toward Butch proceeds unexplained. Of course, later on, in the story concerned with Butch and his escape from the LA mob, he comes across Vincent and kills him? The film is a radical formal reworking of film noir. It is the ultimate homage to the male character riddled with anxiety, insecurity and paranoia triggered by and projected onto the figure of woman.? (Senseofcinema) As director, Tarantino pulls off several accomplishments, none more impressive than the great sequence set in a 1950s theme diner, Jack Rabbit Slim?s. The scene is decorated with self-important employees (such as Steve Buscemi as a waiter who is made up to look like Buddy Holly), out-there furniture (a 40-year-old car becomes a restaurant booth) and menu items named after important people or events in pop culture (the Douglas Sirk steak). The film becomes very obscure at times, making this the epitome of the sense a noir or neo-noir film invokes on its audience, such as the scene where Butch and Marcellus are captured in the pawn shop by the noir, out-of-the-norm Zed and the store owner. Some of the other characters are familiar to the audience, the boxer who refuses to throw a fight (Bruce Willis), an understandably obsessive war veteran (Christopher Walken), a mob boss's bored and flirtatious wife (Uma Thurman), but Tarantino's approach to their behavior constantly avoids the stereotypical Hollywood cookie-cutter shape of personality. The sense of timeline in this film makes it unique. The characters in one part of the movie may take part in another, a character that has been killed off in one story (such as Vincent being killed by Butch) may turn up alive in an episode that takes place at a different point in time (Vincent is seen ?later? in the movie in the Bonnie Situation), and Tarantino trusts the audience to figure out the chronology of events. The Usual Suspects takes a different approach to the neo-noir type of film. Both films have both the classical and Robinsonian characters existing within them, but as we can see in The Usual Suspects, some characters (such as Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze) the ?point of subversion? does not occur until it is revealed as the final ?twist? in the movie. ?For repeatedly films like The Last Seduction, Romeo is Bleeding, and Pulp Fiction, play at trying to pin characters down, to put them in an envelope, as Soze does with all five of the ?suspects? in this film, to reduce them to a series of simple marks, or like Wolf in Pulp Fiction, to clean up the ?mess? of character and render our narrative world comfortable again.?(Telotte380) Characters in this film are like a mysterious dark hole that one can?t help but want to look even further. ?Right from the start, the film is introducing a character who is unknowable, at least in the manner of classical narrative: as a figure who is marked by easily observable traits, whose motivations are readily understood, and who sets the plot in motion along a straight line.?(Telotte377) Verbal Kint, being the main Robinsonian protagonist in this film narrates for the audience what he wants the story to be, as he makes it up in the police sergeant?s office. ?However, Kujan already has a theory, one tied precisely to this-and indeed a very classical-view of character, a view that binds everything up neatly, puts it, as it were, all in one envelope. He believes that, ultimately, ?there is no mystery,? only a series of complications that lead back to one of those thieves, Dean Keaton.?(Telotte376) Special Agent Kujan is convinced that the mastermind of the whole operation was a crooked cop he had been trailing for the past 15 years. It would be safe to say that Kujan is a classical character being manipulated and lied to by an evil mastermind who doesn?t look or act the part all the way through the film until the audience is finally let in on the big secret, that Verbal Kint is actually Keyser Soze (making him Robinsonian and the prime noir element of the film).
All of the five ?suspects? of the movie Keaton, Kockney, Fenster, McManus, and Kint are all fabricated personalities of Keyser Soze, which leads me to believe that they did not even exist in that world, and therefore cannot be classified. Keaton, for example, is shown to the audience as being an ex-con/cop trying to go ?straight? in the restaurant business. He is even seen as a compassionate, honorable, friend, but not in the eyes of the ?outer? perspective of Agent Kujan. ?Kujan? tells how Keaton beat a rap by faking his own death and reappearing after the charges were dropped and all the witnesses had mysteriously died.?(Telotte376) Kujan provides the audience with a different ?version? of Keaton as Verbal?s. With these conflicting views within a story, the audience is left to wonder which of them the ?real? one is.
All of these three films show the noir genre in different lights. Be it the dark, wet streets of The Big Sleep with its keen, cool private eye and its femme-fatales. Or it could be the cynical wit of Pulp Fiction with its circular chronology and very unique characters. Or noir is seen in the light of The Usual Suspects with its final twist and conniving manipulative characters. The genre has survived throughout movie history as the dark hole that audiences can?t help but want to look deeper into.
Works Cited Online Dictionary http://dictionary.com Week 8: Film Noir, Masculinity and Femininity, Jason McKahan http://english3.fsu.edu/~kpicart/humfilm/student/lectures/Lec08-FilmNoir-Actionhi.html 10 Shades of Noir, Kevin Jack Hagopian http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/bigsleep.htm Circular Narratives: Highlights of Popular Cinema in the 90?s, Fiona A. Villella http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/3/circular.html