by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
May 16, 2007
LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Our movie fare in this country went from the madcap comedies of the '30s, those comedies designed to get our minds lifted out of the Great Depression, to gangster films usually set in 1937.
We didn't call them "old black and white" movies then - we couldn't envision the splash of color coming in our futures until Dorothy landed in Oz. We just called them "the movies" and we watched whatever came along.
A French film critic, Frank Nino, felt that American motion pictures released in Paris after World War II were crime-ridden detective stories. He coined the term "film noir" as an easy reference to the genre. Today, it almost seems that a film has to be black and white and shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center to be considered art.
The movies being featured by the Film Society at Manhattan's Walter Reade Theater on W. 65th Street include a lifetime of Lee Marvin's work on the bill. We learned to appreciate Marvin more at the end of his career than during his early years. Viewers seeing the entire span of his work now have the advantage of watching the neophyte grow into the seasoned star.
Whether we enjoy movies at special showings that illustrate motion pictures as a 20th Century art form, or as DVDs from Blockbuster or Netflix, simply being shot in black and white does not make a film good, nor is it necessarily "film noir."
To Parisian critic Nino, our gangsters and shoot-'em-ups were what he called noir. Noir means "black" in French. As a movie-goer in that colorless era I saw every movie that came along. Admission was 10 cents, or 30 cents on Sunday, for two pictures and a newsreel. That system meant we saw everything that came out, because the new films appeared every time the features changed.
We just went to pass a couple of hours, meet friends and go for a Coke afterwards; we left the drama or laughter and the music behind us.
If we left the theater feeling uneasy, we'd know something touched`a nerve. We saw the soul of the protagonist struggling between good and evil. That to us was really film noir, not Edward G. Robinson as "Little Caesar."
Filmmakers didn't start out to make film noir, but there was a time when directors were learning what their cameramen could do - for instance, create long shadows, or film around the corner with clever editing, and film in the dark if evening shadows normally meant ending the shoot for the day.
Film noir is a mood more than a genre. If the featured actress is waiting by the window, staring through sheer curtains, smoking a cigarette, slowly and deeply dragging on it while her other arm, folded across her chest just so, is tightened, we sense she is waiting to learn`if this will be the worst night of her life.
We wait with her. We watch the smoke coming out of her nostrils in a steady stream and know her teeth are clenched. We continue to wait as the mood grows somber. There is no world except that of the gray smoke flowing around her head.
This kind of film came out after the second World War. We knew what stress was (but called it tension) and we knew what it meant to be insecure. Movies could be gripping and fun at the same time. Conversation on-screen was more important than action, at least when it came to serious drama.
Moviegoers learned about our changing world watching character unfold on the screen. We hadn't yet heard the word "macho," but we learned all about sexual attraction when we were drawn to brawny Robert Mitchum first and later to boyishly handsome Montgomery Clift. We learned on-screen how women can use their feminine wiles to get what they want. (In films noir, the woman usually wanted someone to kill her husband.)
I was recently given Humphrey Bogart's filmography collection. Perhaps the earliest of those movies I remember seeing was "They Drive by Night." I still remember waitress Ann Sheridan's retort when customer Bogart said: "You got quite a chassis," and she said: "you couldn't even afford the headlights." That was the day of the snappy comeback.
Dialog, camera angles, moods, attitudes, and a certain glimpse of life as it really is - that's film noir. Today, they try to reproduce an era by taking a somber scene - two women sitting at a kitchen table whining, or a lonely man crossing a field with worry on his mind and a furrowed brow - but it takes more to reach the darkness, the depth, that film noir must go to qualify as art.
But don't ask me to define it. I feel like the judge who had to set community standards regarding pornography. Many felt their rights to view anything they wanted to were being infringed upon, since there was no definition of pornography. However, the judge set standards and explained to those opposing him that while he may not know what it is, he knows it when he sees it.
I know "Citizen Kane" is film noir, and the "Maltese Falcon" is, too. "The Manchurian Candidate" borders between psychological thriller and film noir, but my final word on the subject is to suggest that anything Charles Boyer appeared in was film noir - from "love affair" (1939) (remade as "An Affair to Remember") to "Algiers," where he played Pepe Le Moko hiding out in the Casbah.
Charles Boyer set the standard with somber looks, smoky eyes and a downward slouch. You never knew what he was thinking but you knew his thoughts were black - or, as they say in French: noir.