Noirvember
Noirvember is a time to celebrate all the classic elements of 1950s film. (Illustration by Amanda Morgan, Boise State University)
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Noirvember

Time to break out the fedora and a pack of cigarettes while imitating your favorite hard-boiled detectives.

Introspective detectives, femme fatales, dark shadows and ambivalent morals — these are the first things that come to mind upon mention of the word “noir.” Noir’s most popular films — “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Big Sleep” — have seeped so thoroughly into the public consciousness it’s entirely possible to know the tone and aesthetics of the genre without having seen even one. Noirvember is an attempt to delve deeper into the specifics of noir cinema.

Started in 2009 by the owner of the filmnoirandfemmefatales tumblr page, Noirvember quickly became a part of online cinephile culture, and it enjoys more popularity in 2019 than ever before. There are no real rules to celebrating Noirvember; the Noirvember Facebook page calls the tradition: “not a blogathon, just a celebration.”

One of the best things about the noir genre is its unfixed criteria; it’s possible to have a noir that bucks multiple noir visual or narrative tropes. The genre has filtered through films well after its 1942-1959 heyday. Neo-Noir, post-’50s films with a noir influence, take the basics of the style and reshape their themes and archetypes into territories that weren’t possible for their original incarnations. I don’t mean to skirt around defining noir, but it’s better to look at it as something amorphous for a more complete understanding.

It is important to understand the recurring motifs of the genre, but broad strokes don’t get at how distinct and engaging the world of a noir film can be. I’ve watched five noirs so far this Noirvember, and each film gets at a different part of what is so fascinating about finding new films in the genre. My short list of films here isn’t composed of the type of “important” films you’d see on a class syllabus; I’ve never seen any of them before, and each one is just another piece of the noir puzzle. More than any other genre, noir makes its characters and environment feel like an extension of something real — gestures and lines suggest lives lived and continued off-screen.

“The Narrow Margin” (1952)

A cop and his partner are sent to escort a mob widow who is scheduled to testify before a grand jury. After the cop’s partner is shot by a hitman, the cop and the woman get away to a train, knowing full well that the hitman and other mobsters will be taking the trip with them.

“The Narrow Margin” thrives on visual economy and unostentatious experimentation. The train’s congested halls and compact rooms both upend and heighten the film’s tensest moments. A tussle in one compartment’s bathroom briefly sees the camera sliding in and out of a fighter’s point of view, which has an actor pushing the camera away with his feet to simulate a kick to the face. The visual style also benefits from a keen eye for tangible images, like fatal gunshots leaving smoking holes in a hotel carpet.

The inventive staging is all in service of a script that utilizes every aspect of its distinctive setting. If the streets and dark corners of Los Angeles allow crime to hide and strike with impunity, the train provides an environment where propriety is a constant concern. The train’s forward trajectory mirrors the lawless fatalism endorsed by the criminals; the cop’s resistance to their bribes only serves to prolong the inevitable. The cop stays steadfast in his belief in the law, but the endless connections of the underworld threaten his faith in humanity.

The final minutes of “The Narrow Margin” turn the seemingly determinist tract on its head. The overwhelming presence of cynicism blinds the viewer and the protagonist to the potential for virtuous systems of connection, but every small character and moment along the way comes together in a graceful humanist gesture that makes it a perfect watch for Noirvember.

“The Killer Is Loose” (1956)

A police procedural about an escaped convict doesn’t sound like a typical noir, but the themes and characters reflect postwar disillusionment at almost every turn. An ex-soldier, Leon Poole, helps with an inside job at his bank, but he is quickly found. After exchanging shots with the police, Leon watches his wife become an unintended victim of the crossfire. Leon escapes jail years later to enact revenge against Sergeant Walter Brown, the man who accidentally killed his wife.

Leon Poole, played by Wendell Corey, has relatively small amount of screen-time, but his presence lingers across the entirety of “The Killer Is Loose.” Thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences with World War II, Leon finds solace in his wife, and his robbery plan is rooted in a desire to live away from everything but each other. “I wasn’t even alive before her,” he says, partially to himself. Corey’s performance establishes Leon as someone seething with a quiet rage; you get the impression that he’s someone who’s never been allowed the luxury of expressing anger. Rather than portraying the anger as histrionic or righteous, Corey lets his fury come across as both his drive and an overwhelming force that could cause him to lose sight of his obsessive need for vengeance.

Walter Brown, played by Joseph Cotten, may be responsible for setting off Leon’s killing spree, but his presence is relatively unimportant to the film. Leon’s escape and the accidental murder of his wife don’t really seem to bother Walter in any noticeable way. Lila, played by Rhonda Fleming, is both Walter’s wife and Leon’s target, and her presence in “The Killer Is Loose” has more in common with her possible assailant. Lila becomes increasingly disillusioned with her husband’s unwillingness to put her ostensibly fanciful needs ahead of larger ideas about what “needs to be done.” Procedure and rule-abiding behavior has been subtly characterized as thoughtlessly callous throughout, but the ending sees it almost all undone, which is most likely a result of the Hays Code’s need for decorum. Although a false note ending might seem like a deal breaker, old films often have devilish ways of making the happy endings feel entirely unconvincing, and “The Killer is Loose” makes even the self-righteous feel conflicted for this Noirvember moral.

“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950)

The Noirvember classic, “The Asphalt Jungle” places an almost complete focus on the exterior and interior lives of criminals. It may sound like a mundane focus today, but “The Asphalt Jungle” was an innovative approach to portraying criminals. Aligning our perspective to the criminals also helped to influence the first wave of heist films. It’s like a lot of heist films: an accomplished criminal seeks out a worthwhile crew to rip off.

The cinematography emphasizes the characters’ drives. The psychologically driven approach is characterized by a number of extended close-up shots, and these shots allow the actors to sell their characters’ current state of mind — often in a way that extends far beyond their words or preceding actions.

Sterling Hayden’s character, Dix, describes his misfortunes and dreams in one of these close-ups, and the realization of his current status cuts into the excitement of his glory days on the farm. The largest part of his Kentucky speech begins with one of the most shocking changes in expression that I’ve ever seen. Being attuned to the gestural was nothing new for cinema, but watching the inner-turmoil of knotty criminal lives provided a singularly engaging experience.

The Midwest city portrayed in the film is presented in the first scene as a dreary, almost post-apocalyptic ghost town, and the interiors make the city look beautiful in comparison. In Imogen Sara Smith’s “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City,” she points to the reoccurring desire for escape in the noir: “Noir stories are powered by the need to escape, but they are structured around the impossibility of escape: their fierce, thwarted energy turns inward. The ultimate noir landscape, immeasurable as the ocean and confining as a jail cell, is the mind — the darkest city of all.” “The Asphalt Jungle” portrays all the ways in which people can find themselves trapped and grasping at anything resembling an escape. Ambitions and desires vary across the cast, but the necessity of personal escape is paramount.

“99 River Street” (1953)

Eddie Driscoll is having the worst day: his career-ending boxing match is airing on TV; his wife is cheating; his close friend uses him to further her career. Also, he’s being framed for murder — so it’s safe to say he’s down on his luck. Each event hardens him throughout the course of the day, and his own well-being depends on whether he’ll let his rage destroy him. Eddie Driscoll’s snarling hate toward his circumstances is paralleled with his incredible boxing prowess, and “99 River Street” positions his strength as a potent force that could strike out at anything.

Like a lot of noir, the films’ labyrinthine plots are usually just a method of conveying the absolute cruelty of fate. Rather than being some victim of an unknowable plot, Eddie is just the victim of successive coincidence; however, each event feels like it could destroy him. The large majority of the film has him ready to kill or voluntarily die — anything that will keep him from being the loser he might be beginning to believe he actually is. Upon learning that a friend is responsible for murder, Eddie says the film’s famous line: “There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.” The line is funny in that it both establishes a life of pain and a self-seriousness — both of which will be either questioned or disrupted.

Eddie’s hatred feels palpable and dangerous; hitting made him a living, and it’s just a matter of why he’s going to hit the next person. He threatens his ex-wife with murder and goes on a misogynist tirade, but both are interrupted by the thoughtful questions and advice of his friends. Upon realizing his own part in furthering his misery, he chooses to unleash his rage on people who would hurt those closest to him, and the power is at both times impressive and uncomfortable in its harmful potential. “99 River Street” uses Eddie’s impressive strength to show through this Noirvember film that inhumane ambitions can make even the most impressive talents seem repellant; each person is capable of making good or bad with their gifts.

“Ride the Pink Horse” (1947)

The film opens with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Lucky Gagin, played by Robert Montgomery, as he puts gum behind a post office’s painting and purchases access to a temporary access to a locker. The purpose behind these actions are not made entirely clear for 50 minutes. Moreover, “Ride the Pink Horse” gives few clues about why Lucky, an American, is sneaking around San Pablo. The coldness of the film’s intro establishes the distance between the film’s interests and the interests of its protagonist.

Lucky is a noir cliché, perfect for Noirvember, even to the characters in the film. His disillusionment is treated like a joke, and he plays an increasingly small role in the crime he wants to commit. The American characters’ cynicism is palpable in how they refer to Lucky’s “disillusioned patriot” as a common type and try to improve upon his blackmailing skills. The lack of interest in noir’s typical trappings is also reflected in the film’s willingness to abandon the plot for sizable portions of the film. The Mexican characters’ sincerity and vitality make Lucky’s noir into almost a shaggy comedy.

Pila and Pancho, played by Wanda Hendrix and Thomas Gomez respectively, are both people that Lucky struggles to really understand. Pila seems painfully aloof to Lucky, and he often questions her credentials as a human being. Pancho’s cheerfully anti-materialistic musings are not entirely clear to Lucky — his only idea for repaying Pancho’s life-saving maneuver is to cut him in on his scheme’s payout — but Pancho’s affability is immediately appreciated. The noir’s typical dramatic trajectory is interrupted by the help Lucky receives from his new friends; their assistance is the only thing keeping him from becoming the hapless victim to people that make his pessimism seem insubstantial. “Ride the Pink Horse” finds its poignancy in the way it establishes the importance of brushing with different perspectives. Getting away from the cruel cycles of everyday life is possible through even the briefest of human connections.

Noir is a messy term. Describing it in any definite way feels like a disservice, so I usually just list off films when the term is brought up rather than attempting an explanation. Noirvember’s place as an essential part of online cinephile culture is partially dependent on the fun of making your own connections between noir. It’s a genre that allows you to make your own definitions. So on that thought: Happy Noirvember!

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