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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—6 November 2009

Glenn Kenny


The Hitman As Existential Hero: A Film Noir Invention?: Why is it that even the most unpretentious, not to say dumb, film noir is so easy to intellectualize? One could blame Sartre, Camus, or any number of French guys and/or whoever it was who coined the phrase "radical will." Or is it because way back in the day D.H. Lawrence wrote "the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer?"

Among the many delights of the Sony Film Noir Classics I set released on DVD this week are two discrete portraits of hitmen as existential sort-of heroes, and then as dupes. Of fate, or of themselves. The screen caps above and below kind of exemplify the respective modes of the characters. Above, that's Vince Edwards playing Claude, the hired killer of Irving Lerner's offbeat, stylishly low-key 1958 Murder By Contract. The first 20 minutes of the picture establish Claude's cold-bloodedness, but once he flies out to the coast for a job, we get to see his free and easy side. He drives his minders, a couple of low-level mobsters played by Phillip Pine and an especially droll Herschel Bernardi, completely nuts with his seeming lack of interest about the job. He upbraids a hotel waiter for indifferent service and then throws him a fin for a tip anyway. He spends afternoons soaking up the sun, whacking balls at the driving range. He's his own vision of a free man.

Eli Wallach's Dancer in Don Siegel's The Lineup, also 1958, represents a different but certainly related proposition. No matter what the environment, Dancer knocks stuff off the shelves as if he owns the particular place. He doesn't care what you think of it. And if you've got something he wants, he's gonna take it. In this film's scenario it's not what he wants, but what the syndicate and "The Man" are paying him to retrieve for them wants, and some might argue that his beholden position here makes him a slave rather than free. Which leads to the question of whether freedom is merely a question of attitude.

But it gets a little more complicated, because at the film's climax Dancer does commit what is inarguably the act of a free man, and it is this act which dooms him—or was he doomed to begin with? As for Murder By Contract's Claude, his blithe attitude is replaced by a bout of professional impotence just when he needs it least (ain't it always that way?). And so both pictures end in ways bound to pass muster with the Production Code. But has the demise of the Production Code, and the ability of such characters to Get Away With It in latter-day noir simulacurms really done anything to solve the conundrums posed in the earlier pictures? I think not.

Stuff White People Are Afraid To Admit They Didn't Like, Intentional Fallacy Edition, Merged With Armond White-ism Of The Week: Hmm, this might turn out to be a loaded category, no?

Well, let's get on with it. White person Jeffrey Wells rejoices, sort of, in African-American Armond White's angrily negative review of Precious: Based On The Novel 'Humboldt's Gift' By Saul Bellow, or whatever it's called. Which leads us to ask, does the disdain of African-American critic White somehow free heretofore timorous lighter-skinned Precious sceptics to loose the chains of their liberal guilt and judge the release as a movie rather than a sociological phenom, and possibly find it wanting in the former category? Actually, as most of the critical copy was filed well before the appearance of White's review, the point might be moot. (Last time I looked, the picture was at a very good 86% "Fresh" rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.)

As for White's notice, it stacks up one or two thoroughly valid points—his analysis of Lee Daniels's work as being almost morbidly obsessed with what we'll call aberrant behavior is worth mulling over—and then drowns them in about a gallon of angry syrup. Who's White angry with? Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, mostly, for apppending their names to the films as executive producers after the fact. Mostly he is angry with Oprah. He sneeringly calls her Lady Bountiful. He derides her "Abuse fetish and self-help notsrums." I'll bet he's mad at her for consenting to appear in Ocean's 13, starring his bete noir George Clooney, too. But then there's the Beloved problem. Jonathan Demme's 1998 adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel—which, I agree, is pretty much criminally underappreciated—was, as it happened, also produced by Oprah. She starred in it, too. I imagine this makes White's head hurt. Note how he half-acknowledges these facts before shoving them under the bed: "Excellent recent films with black themes—Next Day AirCadillac RecordsMeet DaveNorbitLittle ManAkeelah and the BeeFirst SundayThe LadykillersMarci XPalindromesMr. 3000 [italics not in the original], even back to the great Beloved (also produced by Oprah)—have been ignored by the mainstream media and serious film culture while this carnival of black degradation gets celebrated. It’s a strange combination of liberal guilt and condescension."

(The Ladykillers, you ask? Yeah, I know—but as it happens, I, too, rather like it, actually. I don't know that I'd call it "black-themed," but, okay. Also, the combination of liberal guilt and condescension isn't exactly strange; like the saying goes, it's a feature, not a bug.)

Later on, White seems to decide, oh, to hell with it and appears to exclude Winfrey from any participation in/credit for the Demme film: "Sadly, Mike Leigh’s emotionally exact and socially perceptive films (Secrets and Lies, All or Nothing, Happy Go Lucky) that answer contemporary miserablism with genuine social and spiritual insight have not penetrated Daniels, Winfrey, Perry’s consciousness—nor of the Oscarheads now championing Precious. They’ve also ignored Jonathan Demme’s moving treatment of the lingering personal and communal tragedy of slavery in Beloved. [italics in original]" I guess it depends on how far you think that "they've" extends.

In the meantime, I think it's time to start a campaign to get Beloved on Blu-ray.


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