Friday, June 29, 2018

Black & White

Stefan Kanfer begins his fine essay about B&W films,"In Living Black-and-White," with this:
The civics teacher had an inspired idea: bring American jurisprudence to life by showing the class an award-winning 1957 film. Twelve Angry Men had all the requisites of instructive high drama: suspense, as one juror tries to change the minds of 11 others hell-bent on sending the accused to death row; crackling dialogue, written by Reginald Rose, a luminary of television’s Golden Age; a scintillating cast, led by Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet. The title flashed on-screen—immediately followed by a chorus of groans. One 15-year-old wailed for all his disappointed colleagues: “You didn’t tell us it was going to be in black-and-white!”
The essay proceeds to argue that viewers who eschew black and white films are missing out. The lengthy essay describes worthy films in every genre that were just better without the hues of the rainbow. One of the genres of course was film noir:
Film noir got its name from French cineastes. The term refers to hard-edged, downbeat movies, with iconic heroes and antiheroes, “bad girl” temptresses, and a brooding, dangerous atmosphere. More than 60 years after it was made, the quintessential noir movie remains Double Indemnity, director Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s thriller of betrayal. The story concerns an insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), bedazzled by a steamy adulterous wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Together they conspire to get rid of her husband. The lethal romance begins with crackling, double-entendre intensity:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.
Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Neff: Yeah, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff, 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, Officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Neff: That tears it. Tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.
Neff: You’ll be here, too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Neff: I wonder if you wonder.
Dietrichson’s killing is made to look like an accident. Neff’s buddy, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), is an insurance investigator in the same office. He believes that the mishap was actually murder and spends the rest of the film vainly attempting to identify the killer. ....

As the name implies, film noirs have usually come in shades of black. True, there have been Technicolor imitations—Body Heat, L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, dramas in which the protagonist, in classic style, winds up lured by a conniving woman into a maelstrom of greed and corruption. But these films would have been impossible to make without their B&W predecessors: Lady from Shanghai, with Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale and Orson Welles as her prey; The Blue Dahlia, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake as victim and victimizer; Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and any one of a dozen Humphrey Bogart movies. No one can truly understand American cinema without seeing The Maltese Falcon, with Bogie as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as the villainess; The Big Sleep—the first meeting of Bogart and the future Mrs. B., Lauren Bacall; and their second pairing, To Have and Have Not. (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”)
I've enjoyed every one of those films again and again over the years.