Monday, 30 June 2014


Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret.” - DianeAckerman

For Movie Monday today I’ll deal with a classic movie that I watched again at the weekend for after many years since I saw it first. It is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown of 1974. It is the story of Los Angeles detective Jake Gittes who is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to spy on her husband, whom she suspects of infidelity. Shortly after Gittes is hired, a second woman, who proves to be the real Mrs. Mulwray appears in his office threatening to sue if he doesn’t drop the case immediately. Gittes pursues the case and discovers a trail leading to corruption, murder and terrible family secrets.

This is a wonderful movie of the “film noir” type set in Los Angeles of the 1940s. It is full of atmosphere, boasts excellent acting and masterful direction. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are perfect in their roles and the director John Huston who plays Mrs Mulwray’s father proves he can act as well as he directs. The setting and prop details in this movie are painstakingly recreated and the whole effect is that of a classy homage to the famous film noir films of the 1940s. If you haven’t seen this movie, it is well worth seeing, especially if you like thrillers and intelligent, well-made, film noir.

Film Noir (literally ‘black film or cinema’) was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how ‘dark’, downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following the war, such as The MalteseFalcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), Laura (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1948) and D.O.A. (1950). A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident in noir, reflecting the ‘chilly’ Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present.

The criminal, violent, misogynistic, hard-boiled, or greedy perspectives of anti-heroes in film noir were a metaphoric symptom of society’s evils, with a strong undercurrent of moral conflict, purposelessness and sense of injustice. There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs. Classic film noir developed during and after World War II, taking advantage of the post-war ambience of anxiety, pessimism, and suspicion. It was a style of black and white American films that first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic ‘Golden Age’ period until about 1960 (marked by the last film of the classic film noir era, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

Strictly speaking, film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. It is also helpful to realise that film noir usually refers to a distinct historical period of film history (the decade of film-making after World War II), similar to the German Expressionism or the French New Wave periods. However, it was labelled as such only after the classic period - early noir film-makers didn't even use the film designation (as they would the labels ‘western’ or ‘musical’), and were not conscious that their films would be labelled noirs.

Very often, a film noir story was developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [e.g., Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray, or Humphrey Bogart] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [e.g., Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, or Lana Turner]. She would use her feminine wiles and come-hither sexuality to manipulate him into becoming the fall guy - often following a murder. After a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero’s life. As women during the war period were given new-found independence and better job-earning power in the homeland during the war, they would suffer, on the screen, in these films of the 1940s.

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