TCM’s Film Noir “Into the Darkness” Course Study Group: Week 1

In the course materials for “TCM Presents ‘Into the Darkness,’” we’re told to “think of this is as a ‘welcome week,’ your chance to settle into your new surroundings,” so it seems appropriate to approach this first “Study Group” post in the same spirit: as a hello, an introduction, and a first-day-of-school getting-one’s-bearings sort of situation. If you’re not sure what the hell I’m talking about, let’s backtrack: this summer, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a free, online summer school course on the history and themes of film noir. Your film editor is taking it, because why on earth wouldn’t I, and a couple of weeks back, I encouraged you to do the same, so we can meet and discuss every other week. (If you haven’t enrolled yet, it’s not too late.) So here we are; I’ve got on a new school outfit, and my Trapper Keeper has that first-day-of-school smell. How’re we doing so far?

As with any new semester, there’s much to do, and I’ve carefully gone down my “punchlist” to make sure I’m fully prepared. (You’re already starting to get an idea of the kind of student I was/am, huh?) Syllabus perused? Check. Poll question answered? Check. Course introduction read? Check. Some exciting stuff in there, and many a fine turn of phrase; my favorite is, “A course like this assembles a large community all invested in a common pursuit — a desire to learn more about film noir and a shared appreciation for the classic films of noir. In that sense, this course is bringing together many separate threads of communication and community into a new blended tapestry.”

Within that introduction, I also filled out the “getting to know you survey,” where I rated myself as “somewhat familiar with film noir.” I’ll admit to underplaying my hand a bit here, as I took the two practice quizzes and (pardon my Tracy Flick-ing) scored 10/10 on the first, movie basics-heavy quiz, and a 9/10 on the second, the tougher quiz with more specific questions about noir and its history. But if we’re being honest, I guessed at a couple of those and did miss one; embarrassingly, I did not know the French critic cited as coining the term (Nino Frank). But hey, I’m learning things already, eh?

More importantly, I know enough cinephiles and #TCMParty-goers and the like in real life and on social media to know that I’m no noir expert, and should’t attempt to masquerade as such. I’ve got the basics down — your Detours, your Double Indemnitys, your Kiss Me Deadlys — but I’ve got a lot to learn, which a big part of why I wanted to take the class. Wow me with your obscurities, instructor Richard L. Edwards, PhD!

As this first week doesn’t yet include a lecture or a major viewing, our primary material comes in the form of the “Daily Dose of Darkness,” those under-five-minute YouTube clips that appear in our inbox Monday through Thursday morning, with some discussion points. As with the introduction essay, the subject this week, appropriately enough, is beginnings; the four clips are all from early in the films in question, and prompt some interesting notions on how to start your noir film.

The first clip is the oldest — from Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece M, grouped in the course literature with Renoir’s La Bete Humaine as “important precursors of the noir style.” M’s opening is downright chilling, full of creepy kid-singing (not a device occurring solely in contemporary movie trailers, turns out) and foreshadowing like, “As long as we can hear ‘em singing, at least we know they’re still there,” and that incredible composition of the clip’s closing image, in which Lang frames up the poster, shows the child’s ball bouncing up against it, and then introduces Peter Lorre via a creepy silhouette. In his emailed notes, Edwards writes, “while film noir is considered a very visual cinematic style, pay attention to M‘s sound design.” He (correctly) points out the effectiveness of the sound effects; I mostly noticed, this time around, the ghostly quiet that pervades the sequence, reminding us how modern moviemakers inexplicably insist that tension and music are inseparable.

Next up is the aforementioned La Bete Humaine (Renoir, 1938), which opens with a remarkable sequence of a train on the go. Shot on board the locomotive rather than faked in a studio, Renoir’s sharp angles, crisp movement, and overpowering effects give the scene a real energy, as the train charges towards an uncertain destination — literally and figuratively.

Film schools should sit screenwriters and directors down and show them the opening of The Letter (Wyler, 1940), because man, this is how you start a movie. We’re always a bit uncertain as a film gets underway — even if we know what it’s about, we’re still not sure how it’ll get there — and Wyler takes full advantage of that uncertainty, by giving us an atmospheric tracking shot, followed by a gunshot, and then a brutal front porch murder. He parachutes us in to the action in progress, and already, we have so many questions: Who is that gun-wielding woman (aside from, y’know, Bette Davis)? Who is her victim? What did he do to her? And like that, your movie has momentum and interest — because now you need to answer those questions.

Which brings us to Dark Passage (Daves, 1947), which combines several iconic elements of film noir: hard-boiled voiceover, Humphrey Bogart, a man-on-the-run narrative, and point-of-view photography. In this case, we’ve got a stunning, extended piece of first-person camerawork that makes the movie look like Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake or Welles’ abandoned Heart of Darkness adaptation. It sort of knocked the wind outta me, because you see (gulp) I’ve never seen Dark Passage. And now I’m going to. I’m already glad I’m taking this class.

Your turn. Let’s talk in the comments: Are you coming in to the course as a novice, an expert, or (like me) somewhere in between? What did you make of the Daily Dose clips? How would you open your perfect film noir?