TCM’s Film Noir “Into the Darkness” Course Study Group: Weeks 4-5

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 I encourage 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.)

Thanks to the holiday last weekend, week five was, as the course materials put it, “a brief intermission,” best used “to catch up on any work you may have missed or skipped for any reason.” And this is well timed, as week four was our heaviest to date — featuring not only the lecture and Daily Doses but three pieces of outside reading. But we’re really getting to the good stuff here, the nuts and bolts of how these movies were made, and the system that cranked them out.

I, for one, tend to forget how many of these films were made within the comfy confines of the Hollywood system — the tight production and low budgets of Poverty Row pictures like Detour lend themselves so well to the noir ethos that it’s easy to assign those circumstances to all of them. But, as Dr. Edwards notes, most were made within that factory-like studio system, with stars under contracts and hordes of creative personnel on the payroll. So, as he notes, “One of the reasons why many of us say that we ‘don’t make films like we used to’ is because that statement is literally true.”

This is spot-on, the kind of contextualization that I always value in discussions of film history — and that goes double for understanding the distinction between A & B pictures. After all, we’ve continued calling low-budget genre films “B movies” long past the point where most of the circumstances behind that distinction (the studio structure for budget, personnel, and even the financial arrangements with theaters) have ceased to exist. But I must confess ignorance to that percentage vs. fixed rental price arrangement, and to how it enabled a degree of experimentation and risk-taking by noir directors.

And much of this week’s material — the lecture and the Place and Peterson essay — concerns the visual motifs that trigger, even among those with only a passing knowledge or interest, our recognition of film noir. It’s not just black and white photography or light blasting in between the blinds to capture our protagonist’s furrowed brow; it’s anti-traditional lighting, camera, and mise-en-scene (hats off to Edwards for using the term without sounding pretentious or show-offy, a feat I’ve never quite achieved), as well as greater depth of field (and the wide-angle lenses that enable it) that give film noir its distinctive look and feel.

A few other random observations:

  • Standing ovation for including that amazing scene from Out of the Past in the Daily Doses, which is not only one of the great films noir, but one of the all-time great smoking movies (an element of noir we haven’t really touched on yet); Ebert wrote of it, “There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.”
  • Boy oh boy is Edwards right about the double entendres of the “Man Wanted” sign at the top of that Postman Always Rings Twice clip. Lana Turner’s entrance is still a scorcher — and that steaming, burning hamburger isn’t the subtlest metaphor I’ve seen, but it’s accurate.
  • Is there a better intro in, oh, all of cinema than Harry Lime’s? No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I can’t help but smile right along with Welles.
  • John Patterson’s “Cheap Thrills” is my favorite of the additional readings — I’m fascinated by Poverty Row — but I was a little surprised that it barely mentions what I’d always assumed to be Gun Crazy’s most famous scene. You can watch it here; the story goes that they couldn’t afford to do the complex bank robbery scene that was in the script, what with the extras and locations and multiple set-ups and so on, so Lewis just put the camera in the backseat, stayed out in the car during the robbery, and did the whole thing in one take. It’s pretty great.

OK, your turn. Thought on the house styles and the visual motifs? Recommendations and favorites from the Friday movie schedules? (Mine, obvious but earnest: Key Largo, Lady from Shanghai, The Set-Up, Out of the Past, The Third Man, and the controversial Long Goodbye.) Any humble-brags on your quiz scores? Let me know in the comments.