The Film Noir Reader 3is really excellent, highly recommended. This volume comprises interviews with the film-makers who made the classic noir movies.The Film Noir Reader 3is really excellent, highly recommended. This volume comprises interviews with the film-makers who made the classic noir movies.
The editors take a swipe at the auteur theory by including interviews with writers, producers, cinematographers and actresses as well as directors, emphasising the very important point that film noir was generally not the product of lone visionaries or individual geniuses. The great noir films were all collaborative efforts. They were very much a product of the studio system, and that system’s genius for nurturing talent and bringing together the right talents. That film noir exists as a distinctive type of movie is largely due to the studio system - the fact that studios developed a house style and that house style was, in the case of Warner Brothers and RKO in particular, peculiarly conducive to the noir feel.
Interestingly most of the directors also have little use for the auteur theory and most of them are very generous in acknowledging the contributions of others, especially the contributions of great cinematographers like John Alton, Nick Musuraca and James Wong Howe (who is one of the people interviewed in the book).
And many of the directors, even in retrospect, have little use for the idea of film noir. Otto Preminger (whose interview is the most interesting of all) is very dubious about film noir and is even very dubious about the idea of directors having an individual style. He, and several of the other directors, emphasise the point that the style of a movie is dictated more by the material than by a director’s individual style.
That’s what I find most interesting about this book - the lack of interest that the film-makers of that era had in any of the theories that film academics love so much.
I’ve been reading Peter Bogdanovich’s book on John Ford, called simply John Ford. I’ve never thought much of Bogdanovich’s own movies but I like him aI’ve been reading Peter Bogdanovich’s book on John Ford, called simply John Ford. I’ve never thought much of Bogdanovich’s own movies but I like him as a film writer. He doesn’t make the mistake of over-analysing movies and his genuine enthusiasm is infectious.
It’s a good approach to take with Ford. Much of the book is based on a lengthy interview Bogdanovich did with him and Ford was notorious was disliking over-analysis of his movies.
One thing that comes through strongly was Ford’s desire for spontaneity. He believed that action scenes should never be rehearsed. He felt that the more you planned and rehearsed such scenes the less real they would seem. If an actor fell over when he wasn’t supposed to he’d just keep the camera rolling. In one of his westerns Sal Mineo was supposed to jump on his horse and ride off in anger. Mineo lost his footing trying to mount the horse, lost his temper and rode off. He then came back, apologising profusely to the director for wrecking the take. But Ford was delighted, saying, “That’s exactly what the character would do.”
Ford hated doing more than a single take. If the first take was a bit rough he didn’t care, valuing the spontaneity more than perfection.
Now I definitely need to see more John Ford movies!...more
Prior to 1934, when the Production Code started to be enforced, Hollywood indulged in an orgy of cinematic sex, sin and sleaze. This was the notoriousPrior to 1934, when the Production Code started to be enforced, Hollywood indulged in an orgy of cinematic sex, sin and sleaze. This was the notorious pre-code era. The highlights of this book are the stills (gorgeously reproduced) that capture the flavour of this notorious era of movie wickedness. Highly recommended....more
If Natacha Rambova is remembered at all today, it’s mostly for having been married to Rudolph Valentino. This is terribly unjust. She was one of the mIf Natacha Rambova is remembered at all today, it’s mostly for having been married to Rudolph Valentino. This is terribly unjust. She was one of the most talented and fascinating women in Hollywood in the 20s. She was also possibly the most unfairly reviled woman in Hollywood in that era. Michael Morris’s Madam Valentino attempts to set the record straight.
Despite the name, she was born in Utah. She trained as a dancer, and with the immense prestige and popularity of the Russian ballet at that time if you wanted to be a dancer you had no chance if your name happened to be Winifred Shaughnessy. So Winifred Shaughnessy became Natacha Rambova.
But dance was but one of many obsessions in her life. Her true genius was as a visual artist, a genius first recognised by another talented and controversial female figure in Hollywood’s early history, Alla Nazimova. Nazimova was a major star, but her entire reputation today rests on two films, Camille (1921) and Salome (1923). Their legendary status arguably has even more to do with Rambova’s vision than with Nazimova’s extraordinary acting. Rambova was responsible for the entire look of these films. She was the art director, the production designer, the set designer, the costume designer - even the hairstyles were the product of Rambova’s fertile and bizarre imagination.
When she married Valentino she more or less took over the whole management of his career. At the time she antagonised studio chiefs by being strong-willed, determined, opinionated and uncompromising. She clashed with them over budgets and over the issue of artistic control, and she really antagonised them by proving, more often than not, to be right. When Valentino died and became a legend, Rambova became the evil genius of his life. His life and death had to be interpreted as tragedy, and that interpretation required a villain. Rambova found herself cast in that role.
In fact Valentino needed someone to manage his career, and while Rambova’s plans for him were ambitious they were by no means unrealistic. She wanted to see him in big-budget quality movies, movies that would encapsulate her own passionate belief that movies could be a true popular art form, with as much emphasis on the art as on the popularity. The closest she got to realising that dream for Valentino’s career was with Monsieur Beaucaire in 1924, and the film was a huge hit with both critics and the public. The studio had predicted disaster, but Rambova proved them wrong. The real tragedy was that the studio eventually forced Valentino to choose between his career and his wife, and he chose his career. After what she saw as an unforgivable betrayal, divorce was inevitable.
Rambova’s post-Valentino life was equally extraordinary. She became a notable dress designer, and an eccentric but perceptive expert on Egyptian antiquities and their religious symbolism. She became increasingly obsessed with spiritual concerns, and with the symbolic meanings of the art of the past.
One thing that’s rather nice about Morris’s approach is that he doesn’t defend Rambova by demonising or belittling Valentino, who comes across as a very talented and cultured and basically likeable young man whose only real fault was a chronic inability to understand money and studio politics.
Overall this is an admirable and highly entertaining biography of a woman who deserves to be remembered as one of cinema’s great visionaries. I recommend this one very very highly....more
Most accounts of Hollywood in the 30s give the impression that up until 1934 movies were more or less uncensored, and that from 1934 onwards the indusMost accounts of Hollywood in the 30s give the impression that up until 1934 movies were more or less uncensored, and that from 1934 onwards the industry’s self-regulatory body, The Production Code Administration, was able to enforce a rigid censorship on movies through its power to withhold its seal of approval (without that seal a film would be effectively cut off from any hope of wide distribution). In The Wages of Sin Lea Jacobs points out that the real situation was somewhat different. Prior to 1934 self-censorship was already a reality. What changed was the way that self-censorship worked. In the early 30s it was mostly done at the level of detail – particular lines of dialogue were excised, particular events could not be directly shown – and by adding a moralising ending. This meant that film-makers could stay within the letter of the Code while flaunting its spirit. By using indirect methods and by using suggestion they could include elements that in theory were forbidden, and they could get away with forbidden material by including an ending which appeared to restore the moral status quo but which quite often was made so deliberately artificial that it was unlikely to be taken seriously. The ending of Baby Face (1933) is a case in point. It is so obviously out of place in the film that it looks like exactly what it is – a mere device to satisfy the censors. After 1934 the Production Code Administration was able to insist that the entire film should convey the moral message.
Jacobs uses as examples half a dozen movies that deal with a popular theme of the day – the fallen woman. More specifically, the movies she discusses show women who have used their sexuality to gain money and status from men. It’s a fascinating account and I highly recommend it....more
James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts is one of the best books about film that I’ve read. Naremore explores not just the style oJames Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts is one of the best books about film that I’ve read. Naremore explores not just the style of noir but also its political implications. He also offers an unusual perceptive insights on neo-noirs, and why some of the early neo-noirs, like Polanski’s Chinatown, were so good, while some of the later ones, like L. A. Confidential, were so bad (although he does have a very high opinion of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, one of my favourite films).
I was particularly interested in his remarks on French film noir of the 1930s and on British film noir of the 40s and 50s. His observations on the film noir style in areas other than film, such as radio and television, were also fascinating. Naremore goes into his subject in depth but always remains entertaining and readable. All non-fiction should be this good....more
I’ve been reading Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen which is regarded as one of the greatest books of film criticism. It’s about German cinema in theI’ve been reading Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen which is regarded as one of the greatest books of film criticism. It’s about German cinema in the 1920s, and more especially about the German films in the Expressionist style. She points out that the roots Expressionist film did not magically come into being with Robert Wiene’s great 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The roots of Expressionism can be traced back at least as far as Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague, made in 1913, and beyond that to the theatre of Max Reinhardt. Even the lighting effects, which are such a feature of Expressionism, were influenced by this theatrical pioneer.
German Expressionism was of course one of the biggest influences on American film noir of the 1940s, not surprising given that many of the best examples of film noir were made in Hollywood by German directors (Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder), writers and actors (like Peter Lorre). The biggest problem with the book is that she talks about so many films that one can never hope to see, in fact many of them probably don’t exist any longer. She does give fascinating information about the filming of some of the great movies that do survive, however, movies like M, Metropolis, Faust, Nosferatu and Pandora’s Box. She seems to regard Murnau and Lang as the greatest of the German film-makers of that era, a judgment one can’t really argue with. She also has a very high regard for Louise Brooks, the brilliant American actress whose reputation rests entirely on her two German movies, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and she believes that Brooks’ contribution to the success of those films was immense. The book contains literally hundreds of photos, including countless photos of films now lost. An interesting and provocative book which will no doubt cause me to buy lots more silent movie DVDs that I can’t afford!...more