The Noir Protagonist With Reference to Neo-Noir and Gone Baby Gone (2007)


Traditionally, New York and Los Angeles have formed (and informed, with their distinctive architectural sensibilities) the environmental backbones for any number of films noir. Chicago, too, has had at least a little exposure in its time, on account of the masses of gangster lore directly associated with the Windy City. Boston, however?

Not so much. That is, not, at least, until 2003 (with the release of Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-nominated and -winning Mystic River, based in turn on a book by Boston crime writer Dennis Lehane). Before that, the last certified noir effort ostensibly set in Boston was 1950’s Mystery Street, starring Ricardo Montalban and directed by John Sturges, who went on to direct The Great Escape and also incidentally produce The Magnificent Seven. The writer of Mystery Street, Sydney Boehm, penned roughly ten certifiable classic-period films noir (including several that starred the ever-reliable Edward G. Robinson) in his time, many of them A-listed (Sylvia, Hell on Frisco Bay, Black Tuesday, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat, Second Chance, Union Station, The Undercover Man).

With the success of Mystic River, Boston (a city sorely in need of cinematic attention) suddenly became of interest to Hollywood, and within four years, we were gifted with Scorcese’s The Departed and Ben Affleck’s Lehane-optioned Gone Baby Gone. Lacking the cosmopolitan nuance of New York, the plain-to-the-eye vice of Las Vegas, or even the colourful reputation for ethnically-diverse casual violence commonly associated with South Central Los Angeles, this working-class Irish-Catholic town has become the new center of a seemingly conscious movement, an emergent school of ‘Boston Noir’ (Lehane’s words) interested in questioning the kind of workaday existences played upon in, for instance, Paul Schrader’s Detroit-based 1978 directorial debut and subtly noir-influenced ensemble piece Blue Collar.

For all that the ever-ephemeral noir owes to early Weimar expressionism and the tastes of French cineastes, it’s what J.P. Telotte calls above all a “distinctly American creative form” (p. 3), and can be (indeed, often is) used as a way to parse the social undercurrents of America without coming to necessarily feel the appropriate amount of societal guilt.

The seminal American noir text, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, while being in no way as comprehensive as one might still like, opens on a cracking high when it concurs, and subsequently notes that film noir is “literally ‘black film’, not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting a dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to relieve them”. (p. 1)

James Naremore, the last of the critical big guns in the everlasting war to justify and/or discredit the validity of the much-vaunted auteur theory, argues in “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea” that, since “nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style or simply a phenomenon,” (p. 12), then “a plausible case could indeed be made that, far from dying out with the old studio system, noir is almost entirely a creation of postmodern culture–a belated reading of classic Hollywood that was popularized by cineastes of the French New Wave, appropriated by reviewers, academics, and film-makers, and then recycled on TV.” (p. 14) Naremore  seems to be arguing for a loosening of restrictions, greater fluidity between genres and the lessening of categorical requirements: that is, he’s indirectly making an argument for the existence of so-called ‘neo-noir’, the postmodern re-imagining of noir through a modern lens and sans the monochrome, a category into which a film like Gone Baby Gone must surely fall.

Casey Affleck’s baby-faced private detective is quite clearly another in a proud line of bitter, defeated, streetsmart gumshoes that extends all the way back to Rick Blaine and Mike Hammer, living on the edge of criminality and at the edge of their means, though his quick temper leaves him more surely in the company of Hammer than Bogart. Robert Lang suggests, in an analysis of the homosexual and homophobic overtones of violent early film noir titled Looking for the Great Whatzit, that the “steady weakening of the professional identity of the detective–observable, for example, in such noir films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944) and Out of the Past (1947)–ends in the figure of Mike Hammer who, as neither cop nor crook, appears in both the film and the novel to have lost all traces of a professional code by which he operates as a detective.” (p.35.)

It isn’t simply Casey Affleck, however, who finds himself tarred with the necessarily black brush of noir disaffection. The entire cast, with their machinations and intrigue, violent appetites and misanthropy, are torn straight from the same kind of cloth from which Chandler, Hammett and Cain once wrought their own Machiavellian agents. Tolette again, in “Rounding up “The Usual Suspects”: The Comforts of Character and Neo-Noir”, finds that “film noir has always provided us with a host of characters who seem to challenge our expectations, whose motivations are far from transparent, whose desires seem to cut across the grain of the status quo” (p. 14), a judgement he subsequently uses to justify the character-driven sensibilities of early neo-noir’s self-appointed poster child: Christopher McQuarrie’s The Usual Suspects.

But what of the aesthetic? What of the deep golden tones and the blue shadows, the fantastic oranges, the sunsets and the dingy, bronzed backstreets of Gone Baby Gone‘s Boston? Arguably, the film’s strangely varied palette makes for a film just as tonally dark as anything David Fincher ever burned into a piece of celluloid. Gone Baby Gone is optically noir in the same way that subversive serial-killer-killer show Dexter is: a sunbleached Miami coastline and Alan Ball-esque suburban fantasy imagery working hand-in-hand (coexisting happily, in fact) with blood and grit on a fairly colossal scale.

Rian Johnson’s 2005 indie-film Brick, also, is set in ever-sunny early ’90s California, and thus bears almost none of the traditional visual cues and hallmarks associated with classical noir, with its cast composed entirely of disaffected SoCal teenagers. Still, it imbues its very firmament with the correct noir sensibility we have all come to know and love, exhorting vicious nihilism from every unblocked pore and topping it off by tearing wholesale huge chunks of Dashiel Hammett from the Jungian ether in the name of postmodernism.

The film seems to penetrate the need (indeed, seeming prerequisite) for a black-and-white aesthetic, for “oblique camera angles, low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions, reflective surfaces [that] logically suit its dark subjects (crime, corruption, the eruption of desire)” (p. 4, J.P. Tolette’s “Self Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir”), and come out the other side with its attitude still well intact, as is the nature of ‘neo-noir’. We can see from these examples and, notably, Gone Baby Gone, that film Noir is here to stay. Like the proverbial return of the dark past we cannot escape the dark interior of the world we inhabit, nor the creative works of those who seek to draw it out.

Works Cited:

Gone Baby Gone. Dir. Ben Affleck. Perf. Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris. 2007.

Lang, Robert. “Looking for the “Great Whatzit”: “Kiss Me Deadly” and Film Noir.” Cinema Journal 27 (1988): 32-44. University of Texas Press.

Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” Film Quarterly 49 (1996): 12-28. University of California Press.

Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook P, 1979.

Telotte, J. P. “Rounding up “The Usual Suspects”: The Comforts of Character and Neo-Noir.” Film Quarterly 51 (1998): 12-20. University of California Press.

Telotte, J. P. “Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3 (1989): 3-17. University of Chicago Press.


~ by Martin Kingsley on July 11, 2009.

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