Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction and Film Noir: The cultural depiction of the death of the American Dream

•July 1, 2009 • 2 Comments


When Dashiell Hammet’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, was first published in 1929 it was heralded as a revolution of the detective fiction genre. The Outlook and Independent claimed it to be “the best detective novel [they had] ever read” and The New Republic noted that it transcended the “tawdry gum-shoeing of the ten-cent magazine” (qtd. in Marling, Dashiell 87). The exclusive and “aristocratic” Town & Country magazine presented a glowing, 1,500 word review of the novel (Marling Dashiell 87). Hammett had gained the acceptance from the literary intelligentsia he had craved from the beginning of his career (Marling, Roman 105) and, more significantly, had galvanised the Hard-Boiled detective genre as a legitimate literary pursuit. Hammett, like many authors, wrote detective fiction for the pulps as a means of making money while striving for literary recognition in other areas (Marling, Roman 105). It is this low opinion of the pulps that makes the literary acceptance of Hammett’s novel so significant and presents an interesting parallel to the reception of the 1941 film adaptation of  The Maltese Falcon. While films prior to the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon exhibited the characteristics of Film Noir, these films were generally considered ‘B’ films by the studios. The critical acclaim and widespread public popularity of The Maltese Falcon, however, propelled the genre into unprecedented legitimacy and opened up the possibility of Noir films as ‘A’ films. There is far more, however, than a casual relationship between the Hard-Boiled detective fiction and the genre of Film Noir. This paper will examine the relationship between Hard-Boiled fiction and Film Noir, using Dashiell Hammet’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, and its 1941 film adaptation.

Central to the philosophy of Film Noir is a sense of “ethical unintelligibility” of its settings. This is manifested as a pervasive and pessimistic philosophy that understands the world as a senseless, brutal place in which morality is a subjective and often irrelevant cultural artifact. Krutnik (39) asserts that the Hard-Boiled mode of detective fiction deliberately sets itself apart from the “golden age” of British detective fiction, such as that of Agatha Christie. Deductive reasoning is replaced by action and mystery is replaced with suspense (Krutnik 39). Violence, sexuality and personal danger to the hero have a greater emphasis than resolution of the crime or mystery which begins the narrative (Krutnik 39). Furthermore, rather than the detective existing above the criminal milieu and restoring order to the world, he exists within the milieu and acts as an intermediary between the world of the criminals and the world of the law (Krutnik 39). We can see from this that Hard-Boiled detective fiction is a genre which strongly defines itself against the morality, sense of order and hermetically sealed room style of murder which is present in classic detective fiction. It’s response is the melancholy presentation of a corrupt world, inhabited by flawed people in which chance, murder and crime are part of the natural course of events. This deep and pervasive pessimism is laid out by Hammett in The Maltese Falcon inThe Flitcraft Parable’, which the protagonist, Sam Spade, recounts to his lover as a means of explaining his grim view of the world.

The parable tells the story of Flitcraft, an insurance agent who disappeared. Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife and, eventually, he finds him in another city. Flitcraft explains to Spade that one day, as he was passing a construction site, a heavy beam fell from above and missed him by a couple of feet. He realised that he could have died and that this meant that his honest, orderly life was meaningless. People died in a “haphazard” fashion, regardless of whether they were morally upstanding or not. He reasoned that this meant there were no consequences for what he did. He leaves his wife, travels about the country and eventually settles in a new city and starts a new family and a new life which almost perfectly mirrors his old one. As Spade puts it, “he adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell and he adjusted himself to them not falling” (Hammett 62). This parable is key into the basic philosophy of Hard-Boiled fiction, Film Noir and the moral code of Sam Spade. Marling (Dashiell 75) comments that, for Spade, “the world may not operate rationally, but rationality is the best net with which to go hunting”. This is the fundamental philosophy shared by the Hard-Boiled detective genre and Film Noir. Spicer notes that the “Noir universe is dark, malign and unstable” (4), a disordered, chaotic place in which the only way to navigate its pretence of order successfully is to acknowledge the underlying chaos (Marling Dashiell 75). While Naremore is correct in noting that “it has always been easier to recognize a Film Noir than to define the term”(9) these themes of disorder,  violence and pessimism are certainly some of the uniting characteristics of Film Noir, which it shares with the Hard-Boiled detective genre.

The Flitcraft parable is the morality of Noir distilled. It asserts that there is no reward for living a virtuous life, nor a punishment for behaving in a deviant fashion. Importantly, it is those who understand and accept this fact that have an advantage in life (as opposed to those who try to live a morally virtuous life). In effect, the potential losses and gains for Noir characters are derived from people rather than a moral compass or karmic force.  In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade succeeds because he understands that there is no reward for a particular kind of behavior and that the only way to compete with deviants is to sink to their level. In effect, the potential losses and gains for Noir characters are derived from people rather than a moral compass or karmic force. As a result, rather than a virtuous detective who works to improve the lot of others, he is a manipulator of the highest order who continually seeks to exploit others to his maximum advantage. This extreme pessimism and assumption of a corrupt, flawed world in which the detective is a part of is a crucial component of both the novel and 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, from early in the story, is aware of the involvement of Bridget, Cairo, Wilmer and Gutman in his partner’s murder but is more interested in extorting each of them for as much money as possible than avenging his partner’s death or turning them over to the police. More intriguing is Sam’s obsession with not becoming a ‘sap’ (Hammett 208). When sapped “the circulating fluid of a plant of animal runs out: what should be inside comes outside” (Marling Roman 138). Spade’s fundamental belief in the chaos of the world and his ability to manipulate it requires him to be in control of everything. He must control those around him, his personal relationships and, perhaps most importantly, his true feelings. To allow himself to fall in love with Bridget is to surrender his independence and control to her but, more importantly “to succumb is to be mortal” (Marling Dashiell 80). If Spade accepts Bridget as a permanent part of his life, he surrenders his ability to flawlessly navigate the milieu of the chaotic world and becomes just like everyone else.

The influence of Hard-Boiled detective fiction on Film Noir is clear in the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon over any of the other adaptations. The two previous adaptations painted Spade as more of a ladies man which softened the brooding pessimism and fatalistic philosophy of the novel (Mayer 9). In the 1941 adaptation, Spade is a self-serving opportunist who uses sex and violence to manipulate those around him to maximum advantage. The focus of the narrative is the psychological drama, as opposed to the solving of the mystery of the murder of Spade’s partner. It is for these reasons that the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is considered the first true Noir. It is fitting that an adaptation of Hammett’s genre defining novel should become a genre defining film, both of which continue to act as yardsticks for their respective genres today.

Works Cited

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. London: Orion Books, 2005

Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, genre, masculinity. London: Routledge, 1991

Marling, William. The American Roman Noir. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995

Marling, William. Dashiell Hammett. Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1986

Mayer, Geoff. Encyclopedia of Film Noir. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 2007

Naremore, James. More than night: Film Noir in its Contexts. London: University of California Press Ltd., 1998

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002


Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games: the hardest thing to explain ever.

•June 30, 2009 • 3 Comments

I’ve been playing pen and paper roleplaying games, of various sorts, since I was about 14 years old. By my reckoning that’s about 10 years of indulging in this particular hobby. In that entire time I’ve not found an easy way to explain what precisely a roleplaying game is to anyone who’s never participated in one themselves. The only way I’ve ever managed to explain how these games work is by inviting someone along to one and getting them to play. In short, it’s an abstract, alienating and strange pastime and every time I try to explain with my words, I done fail. So, once and for all, I’m going to try to explain what it is that roleplaying games are.

What Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games are not.

Before we start, I just want to clear up a few misconceptions about what pen and paper roleplaying games are not.

1. These are not the games played by consenting adults who like to drape themselves in vinyl and pretend to be the Archduke of Buggery while a small midget flails them with a rabid  hamster.

2. These are not (exclusively) satanic seances in which a group of numbskull satanists drop acid and invoke the devil (I can’t deny the existence of some Scandinavian morons who ruin it for the rest of us).

3. These games are not the enemy of all good Christians/Muslims/7th day Adventists.

I couldn’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with morons who believe one of the above. It’s tough, you know, because roleplaying games tend to come in the form of books. Lots and lots and lots of books. I’m a book lover. I collect books and I read books everywhere. This means that quite often I end up, in public, with a roleplaying related book. Roleplaying books tend to be large, often hardcover and look more like a text book than a casual novel. Quite often, in a workplace lunchroom for example, I am asked “what are you studying?” or “say, that’s a big book you’ve got there”. And then, the unpleasant and pathetic attempt at explaining what I’m reading begins. So often, after such conversations, I vow I will never try to explain to people what I’m reading, ever again. But I always fall for it. Take for example this book:

demon the fallen

Demon: the Fallen

Demon: the Fallen is a lovely little game by White Wolf publishing. Players take on the roles of fallen angels and plumb the philosophical depths of redemption and the nature of the human spirit. It’s also filled with hella cool artwork of towering demons and shiny pentagrams. Immediately after buying this game I found myself on a train, sitting next to an old man who looked nervously at the demonic text I was reading. The conversation went a little like this:

Old Man: That’s dangerous stuff, you know.

Me: Don’t worry, it’s just a game.

Old Man: Oh, so you think it’s a game, do you?!

Suffice to say, most conversations about roleplaying games go along these lines. Other common questions/comments I get are:

“So you think you’re a Wizard?”

“So you dress up like an Elf?”

“Would you like to join my bible reading group?”

What pen and paper roleplaying games are.

O.K. Relax for a second. Take a deep breath. Good, good. I think you’re ready. Simply put, a roleplaying session involves a bunch of friends, a mountain of snacks and (often) beer (or your chemical enhancement of choice). The group sits together, for hours on end, telling a shared story and getting progressively fuller and drunker as the session goes on. Each player in the game takes the role of a character in the story.

Now. I need to make this very clear. For 90% of people who participate in roleplaying games, the character they play is generally expressed vocally. We don’t dress up with pointy ears and capes, whilst gallivanting about the forest and hitting each other with swords. That’s Live Action Role Play (or LARP) and it is best left to isolated German weirdos. Generally, in Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games a person will simply describe what they’re character is doing and (often) speak on their behalf (sometimes in a silly voice). Rather than hitting one another with swords, each character is summarized with a series of numbers and descriptors, which are written down on a character sheet. This describes (in general terms) what the character can and can’t do. Actions with an unclear outcome (such as shooting a pistol or engaging in a car chase) are resolved with dice rolls. It should be noted that the math and random number generation aren’t the focus of the game, rather, they keep it fair and streamlined. It would pretty boring if you had to roll a dice every time you wanted your character to take a bite of a hamburger without choking.

There is one final thing you need to understand about Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games. In order for the game to run smoothly and coherently one player (generally referred to as a ‘GM’ or ‘gamemaster’) takes the responsibility of ‘running’ the game. This involves preparing a loose idea for the story and plot of the session (in which the player characters will star), acting as a mediator for the rules and playing the supporting cast of Non-Player Characters (or supporting cast) which the Player Characters will encounter.

That’s it.

Nerds, 4 to 6 of them generally, sitting around, drinking beer and telling a shared story. Nary a demon in sight. One of them takes the responsibility of running and shaping the narrative of the game and the rest take the roles of dynamic characters.

I should also mention that there are a HUGE variety of systems and genres of roleplaying games. Anything you’ve seen, read or heard in ANY media is likely to be represented or reproducible in a Pen and Paper Roleplaying game. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western and even Film Noir are represented in Roleplaying Game form.

So get to it! Get some friends, grab a roleplaying book and engage in one of the best value forms of entertainment that exists for mankind! Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, this article will be follwed with a number of reviews for roleplaying games….

Fritz Lang’s M: Sympathy For The Devil

•June 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment

“We sat two hours in front of the room where the censors were looking at the film…and finally they came out and they said, ‘Mr Lang, this film has practically everything about which we disagree and which we cannot accept but it is done with such integrity that we don’t want to make any cuts.’ — Fritz Lang, interviewed by Powers, Reed and Chase in 1973 – (“Fritz Lang: Interviews”, 171 [note that, unless otherwise indicated, all references to interviews with Lang come from this text, being as it is the authoritative compilation])

When one tracks the progress of the German Expressionist movement as it relates to the development and refinement of means of cinematic expression, the progression unearthed is undeniably one that trends towards integration and consolidation with more classical and conventional forms of aesthetic articulation as they directly related to the medium of celluloid: augmentation, rather than demonstration, discretion rather than ostentation.

Placing Paul Wegener’s The Golem: How He Came Into The World (1920), Fritz Lang’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) at one end of the scale and Lang’s undeniably masterful M (1931) at the other, we quickly come to see the evidence of a stark and blisteringly accelerated evolution, taking place over the course of a decade and moving quickly away from the conspicuous visual stylization, unashamedly overt and deliberately two-dimensional set design and manifest obsession with the painterly and the emotional that marks the image system of an early German Expressionist film.

Ever-more-concerned not with the depiction but the reproduction of a recognisable reality, over this ten year period we see the results of an inexorable swing towards total thematic and artistic consolidation within the realms of the pragmatic and the unabashedly ‘realistic’: as the understanding and implementation of geometry trends back towards the linear and the definitively Euclidean and away from the determinedly abstract, and the architecture transmutes from the monolithic and the obtusely monumental to merely the Gothic and overly prodigious, so too do the cast of characters become less like a set of hideous Caligari-esque caricatures and more like the people they purport to represent, in line with the dichotomous requirements of a self-styled ‘realist’ outlook.

The films of German Expressionists begin, then, to conceal their once-patent artistic affiliation so as to more readily allow the so-called ‘man on the street’ to identify with their content and narrative, a process that finds its eventual apogee in the American films noir Lang would direct and help to influence into perpetuity, where the real world and the world of Expressionist art blend seamlessly and overt surrealism is confined to dream sequences, most memorably in Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).

Indeed, the connection between the tropes of Expressionist and later Modernist art and the image system of the classical film noir is so strong as to have precipitated the authoring of a paper on just such a subject (“Self-Portrait: Painting and the Film Noir.”) by renowned film critic J.P. Telotte, who summarises an aesthetic of noir very close to Lang’s own: “oblique camera angles, low-key lighting, unbalanced compositions, reflective surfaces [that] logically suit its dark subjects (crime, corruption, the eruption of desire)” (4) It is unsurprising that it is Lang to whom such a style is chiefly attributed, for he was its foremost living practitioner; in his own words, speaking in 1958 to Jean Domarchi and Jacques Rivette:  “[Murnau] left very early for America, and was already dead when I arrived there…” (23)

Peter Lorre’s biographer, Stephen D. Youngkin, concurs (aptly and with great brevity restating the thesis which I have described above) in the following passage, noting “realism and expressionism set parameters that embraced light and dark, sound and silence, emotion and reason, sanity and sickness, revenge and justice. Lang was at his artistic best when searching out common ground amongst them.” (56)

And thus it is that we arrive finally at M, most probably Lang’s finest work, combining that streamlined-and-integrated Expressionist eye-for-detail (noted above and that we first begin to see seriously developing in the grandiose science-fiction aesthetic of Metropolis [1927]) with an everyman’s sensibility designed to pluck at the heartstrings of every parent and upstanding citizen in post-WW1 Deutschland and beyond, drenched as the film is in a fervent desire to plug directly into the common fears of a German populace surrounded by post-war violence and lurid tales of mass murderers operating in the Rhineland (Lang says as much to Powers, Reed and Chase, 170).

Jason Crouthamel, in a study of sexuality and violence in post-WW1 Germany, notes the presence of “…infamous serial killer, Peter Kurten…after the war Kurten became a full-fledged serial killer, murdering dozens of young women in a frenzy of sadism that terrified Dusseldorf for months in 1925.” (76) Crouthamel even goes so far as to suggest that Kurten was the model for Peter Lorre’s Beckert, a claim that originates with one of Lang’s contemporaries, critic Siegfried Kracauer, whom Lang personally found odious and whose claims he refuted with little patience or care: in his 1963 interview with Gero Gandert, his response to the suggestion of Kracauer’s potential legitimacy is a curt, “First, Kurten was not an admitted killer of children, second, the screenplay for M was finished before Kurten was apprehended.” (36)

Nevertheless, despite his protestations, Lang and his long-time collaborator, wife Thea von Harbou, were clearly aware of the zeitgeist into which their work was being born. On release (says Youngkin), “moviegoers blocked the sidewalks. Automobiles jammed the street. Insider the theatre, spectators clapped and whistled for and against capital punishment while Kurten sat on death row…Classic stature came to Lang’s favorite film overnight and stayed.” (63)

Understandably so. In every way, M is a triumph, not least in its sheer technicality, in the audacity of its presentation: Lang’s first ‘talkie’ (synchronised sound having only been employed at a commercial level since 1927, with the release of The Jazz Singer), diagetic sound is nonetheless deployed with an incredibly progressive sense and understanding of its capacities to enhance the cinematic experience (Lang to Gero Gandert in 1963: “…when the silence of the streets is sliced to shreds by the shrill police whistles, or the unmelodic, constantly recurring whistling of the child murderer, that gives mute expression to his compulsive urges.” [35]) This fact is made more amazing still by the relatively infinitesimal number of prior examples in the canon able to be considered beforehand.

There is no amateurish fumbling, no conservative treatment of the material at hand: this is an all-out assault on the senses of an audience unaccustomed to being pounded and battered with such ferocity.

Having lost (or rather, readily surrendered) the ability to ably call on the surreal and the overtly sublime, Lang instead begins to focus on the play of light and shadow, using unconventionally harsh lighting rigs that emphasise either extreme of the monochromatic palette to be found in 35mm black-and-white stock, obsessing now over the placement of every vicious line, carving up his frame as he blasts the city of Berlin and its soundstages with phosphorescent bulbs. To Andy Klein, it is as if “everything seems determined by some odious geometry, a rigorous mathematical system too complex for humans to ever comprehend.” (1)

And it is Berlin and no other: undoubtedly so. Peter Hogue, in his Film Comment article, “Fritz Lang: Our Contemporary”, argues “…the crime story is a function of, and occasion for, a wide-ranging portrait of a city…” (10) The city is as much a character in this film as any of its motley crew of grifters, pickpockets, panhandlers and policemen. They are all bit players besides the Teutonic marvel of Lang’s Berlin, which leads a dualistic existence with its long paved avenues and sunlit streets, always filled with the sounds and sights of playing children, beneath, behind and above which always lies the sordid implication of sleazy underground clubs, sprawling shadowlands and vast industrial complexes lit with much homage paid to the technique and implication of heavy-handed chiaroscuro lighting design.

To observe the comings and goings of the police and the criminal underclass is to watch the scurrying of rats; Lang at one point shoots the interception of the now-marked Beckert from above, and the resultant melee is almost comical in its absurdity, recalling some kind of warped Chaplin sketch gone horrible, horribly wrong.

Hogue warns the reader of the dangers of becoming caught up in “the technical felicities and social ironies often rehearsed by film scholars” (10), and rightly so, for there is so much more to Lang’s masterwork than simple technical competency on a grand and illustrious scale, and to Lang than simply that he was cast in the role of “geometrician of doom” (11). Lang, to Hogue and subsequently to myself, is about more than the implications of a fatalistic geometry for a city under siege from within: he notes that “the vertiginous shot of a geometrically abstracted stairwell is associated” not with more symbolic abstraction, but the very real and concrete “absence and death of a child…his films…evoke common human experience” (11).

Youngkin recounts, utilising extensive referencing of on-set accounts, how Lang abused and drove Lorre ever onwards in search of the perfect performance as they reached the penultimate scene, summarising the process thus, “Described as brutal, abusive, exacting, driven, omnipotent, imperious and autocratic…Lang was a perfectionist…” (p. 59) “…[he] had literally beaten a performance out of Lorre.” (p. 62) Though one may actively cast a shadow of doubt over Lang’s methods, their outcome cannot be denied:

“… I have no control over this. This evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment! It’s there all the time — driving me to wander the streets, following me silently, but I can feel it there — it’s me, pursuing myself — I want to escape, to escape from myself but it’s impossible… I can’t escape, I have to obey it, I have to run endless streets — I want to escape, to get away and I’m pursued by ghosts — ghosts of mothers and of those children, they never leave me, they are there, always there, always, always except when I do it — when I … then I can’t remember anything and afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done. Did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it, but who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act — how I must! — must!– don’t want to — but must — and then a voice screams — I can’t bear to hear it — I can’t go on, I can’t go on …”

In a 1964 interview with Michele Manceaux, Lang recalls, “during the silent movie era we were forced to prefer action. Now, I don’t think that action is superfluous, quite the opposite, but one can also explore character. In a film one must find everything…” (39) Where there has been until now such art and such artifice, there suddenly stands, at the trembling climax of M, a single, static shot of a bent and bowed Lorre at his theatrical best, disallowed his signature theme or the ability to remain partially shielded from the camera by the diffusing stratum of a shop window or the edge of the frame: hounded on- and off-camera to his wits’ end, besieged within and without, for long moments pausing and clutching at himself before erupting into paroxysms of guilt, fear and loathing. If ever Lang’s Expressionist urges were sublimated by the thoroughly Prussian industrialism of his chosen profession, they vent themselves here, as Lorre’s febrile and impassioned ranting threatens to warp the very nature of the cinematic reality we have faced. If ever there was a time to suddenly feel sympathy for the Devil, this is it.

Works Cited

Butler, Erik. “Dr. Mabuse: Terror and Deception of the Image.” German Quarterly 78 (2005): 481-97. Project MUSE. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Cowen, Michael. “The Heart Machine: “Rhythm” and Body in Weimar Film and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” Modernism/modernity 14 (2007): 225-48. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://0-muse.jhu.edu.alpha2.latrobe.edu.au/journals/modernism-modernity/v014/14.2cowan.html&gt;.

Crouthamel, James. “Male Sexuality and Psychological Trauma: Soldiers and Sexual Disorder in World War I and Weimar Germany.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17 (2008): 60-84. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Grant, Barry K., and Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang: interviews. Univ. P of Mississippi, 2003.

Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Hogue, Peter. “Fritz Lang Our Contemporary.” Film Comment 26 (1990): 9-13. Academic Research Library. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Kaes, Anton. “The Cold Gaze: Notes on Mobilization and Modernity.” New German Critique 59 (1993): 105-17. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Klein, Andy. “Fritz Lang.” American Film 15 (1990): 56-59. Academic Research Library. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Lungstrum, Janet W. “The Display Window: Designs and Desires of Weimar Consumerism.” New German Critique 76 (1999): 115-60. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 21 Apr. 2009.

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

M. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke,

Theodor Loos. DVD. Criterion, 1998.

Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Symons, Stephane. “Deleuze and the Various Faces of the Outside.” Theory & Event 9 (2006). Project MUSE. La Trobe Library, Bundoora. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/theory_and_event/v009/9.3symons.html&gt;.

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

Titford, John S. “Object-Subject Relationships in German Expressionist Cinema.” University of Texas Cinema Journal 13 (1973): 17-24. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Willis, Don. “Fritz Lang: Only Melodrama.” Film Quarterly 33 (1980): 2-11. JSTOR. La Trobe Library, Bundoora.

Youngkin, Stephen D. The Lost One A Life of Peter Lorre. New York: University P of Kentucky, 2005.

Technology, Illusion and Authority in the Life and Works of Georges Méliès

•June 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment


The world of early cinema is a murky and contested landscape of disputed claims to fame and innovation. The classic example of this is the continuing debate over the inventor (or inventors) who ought to be credited with the creation of cinema; Thomas Edison or the Lumière Brothers. Each invented a contraption that captured and repeated moving images in the 1890s and each saw the potential in these moving images as a future form of entertainment (though Edison’s early patents suggest that he saw a greater industrial opportunity in film than the Lumière brothers, who considered film a new sideshow novelty that would last about a year). We can see, even from this brief description, where the coming heartfelt rivalry between the Edison and Lumière camps originated, though we must always be very careful when making claims about the early days of cinema. The records and surviving films from this time are both patchy and incomplete: like the Lumière Brothers, nobody expected film to be anything more than a short-lived novelty. It is with this caveat that we will explore the creative works of Georges Méliès and what it is that he contributed to the early days of cinema.

To understand the significance of these works we will examine their birth and production by exploring Méliès fascinating personal and professional history. While it would be impossible to comprehensively cover the entire body of Méliès’ work (after all, he directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914 alone [Hammond, 134-148]), we will attempt an overview of Méliès’ career, accompanied by an in-depth examination of two of his most famous works, A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. We will attempt to identify what it is that makes Méliès’ films special and why he is such a significant contributor to the world of early cinema.

Before we can understand the professional and creative elements of Méliès’ life, we must attempt an encapsulation of his personal life and development. In his astoundingly accomplished and comprehensive work, Marvellous Méliès, Paul Hammond presents a thorough exploration of Méliès’ personal development. We present here a summary, but encourage anyone interested in Méliès to read Hammond’s work. Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born on the 8 December, 1861, at 29 Boulevard Saint-Martin Paris. The Méliès family had a long and proud history as industrial textile workers: Georges’ grandfather had been a cloth-fuller in Lavelanet and his father had travelled the country as a boot and shoemaker, before settling in Paris, where he met Georges’ mother, when the two of them were working side by side on the same factory line. Georges’ mother, Johannah-Catherine Schruering, was one of three daughters of the boot-maker to the Hague court and, in 1843 the two were married. In 1859 the couple opened their own industrial workshop, which exploited a new mechanical method for stitching the legs of boots. The couple had three sons, Henri, Gaston and, the youngest, Georges. By the time Georges was born his father was a millionaire (soon to be a multi-millionaire) and the owner of substantial property, the perfect model of a nineteenth century industrialist (Hammond, 13).

Georges attended the Lycree Louis-le-Grand boarding school from 1870 to 1880, where he was frequently scolded for devoting too much attention to sketching, which often overtook the pages of all of his exercise books, regardless of the subject they were intended for and, at age 10, he was constructing and performing Punch and Judy shows (Méliès, 1938, 173). Alas, while it is easy for us in retrospect to see that these were early signs of Méliès’ creative genius, his teachers and family did not share this view (Hammond, 14). Leaving school in 1880, Méliès worked as a supervisor of accounts in one of his father’s factories, before he was drafted into military service in 1881 as a second class private in the 113th Infantry Regiment. After his military service ended in 1886, Méliès travelled to London, where he was employed by and boarded with a friend of his father who owned a clothing emporium (Hammond, 14-15). It was here that Méliès began to examine and study the art of illusion and physical comedy. Because he spoke little English, Méliès sought entertainment in which language wasn’t a barrier, such as the magic shows that were put on at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (Hammond, 15). As we shall see later, these magic shows (along with his irrepressible creativity) would be essential in inspiring Méliès’ work in film.

When he returned to London, Méliès wanted to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and train to become a painter. His father, however, forbade it and, like his older brothers, Méliès was put to work as an overseer of the machinery in one of his father’s factories (Hammond, 17). This greatly increased Méliès’ understanding of mechanics and machinery, which, as we shall see, formed a crucial component of the aesthetic and practicalities of his films. This process of merging the mechanical with the creative arguably began when Méliès set up a workshop in his father’s factory where, assisted by the house mechanic, Eugene Calmels, he reconstructed some of the mechanical automata of Robert-Houdin, one of Méliès favorite stage magicians (Hammond, 19).

In 1888 Louis Méliès retired and left the operation of his factories to his sons, Henri, Gaston and Georges. Completely disinterested in continuing work in his father’s factories, Georges sold his share to his two brothers, earning enough money to purchase the Theatre Robert Houdin from the widow of Houdin’s son, Emile (Hammond, 19). To Méliès’ delight, he discovered that the theatre had been “planned and equipped solely for the purpose of prestidigitation” (Hammond, 21). From 1888 to 1907 Méliès created approximately 30 theatrical illusions and tricks, many of which were recreations of improvements of those he had seen during his time in London (Hammond, 22). The performances at the Theatre Robert-Houdin ended with the projection of slides onto a screen (depicting landscapes or scenery), lever slides (which consisted of mechanized slides, displayed horizontally to give the illusion of movement), chromatropes (two engraved or decorated glass discs, turned in opposite directions to create cyclic patterns) and a series of humorous images painted by Méliès himself (Hammond, 26). This is a very significant detail, because it shows, at an early stage in his creative career, that Méliès was interested in the merging of different media and forms of entertainment, specifically the merging of projected images and stage illusions.

In February of 1896 Méliès travelled again to London, this time to purchase a projector from R. W. Paul, an instrument maker who created counterfeit ‘Kinetoscopes’. Méliès took this machine, studied its workings and designed a camera/projector, which he had the mechanic Lucien Korsten construct. By March of 1896 Méliès had a functioning camera/projector, which he nicknamed “my machine gun” (Hammond, 28). In the same month he returned to London, where he purchased a crate of Kodak film. When he returned home, he discovered, to his horror, that the film was not perforated and, as such, needed a special machine created to clumsily punch holes in the film, so that he could use it in his camera (Hammond, 28). In April of 1896 Méliès presented the first film show to be screened at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, featuring a selection of Edison’s Kinetoscope films. It was during May and June, however, that Méliès would begin to create his own films (Hammond, 29).

Initially, these films took a similar style and substance to those of the Lumière Brothers and other early pioneers of film, depicting domestic scenes and “actualities”. We cannot blame these early innovators for restricting themselves to this style of film, as they were merely continuing the methods and subjects of contemporary static photographers (Hammond, 29). We cannot expect the early innovators of film to immediately begin producing amazing works of narrative and visual accomplishment, when no such thing had existed before in the world of static or moving photography. It is this fact, and perhaps this fact alone, that makes the career of Georges Méliès so remarkable and so compelling.

You may be forgiven for wondering why it is that we have spent so much time discussing the life of Méliès, leading up to his career as a film maker, with little reference to the films themselves. It is the considered opinion of this author that it is impossible to understand the significance and origins of the key components of Méliès’ films without having a detailed understanding of his long and productive life, which came before he even owned a camera. We can see from the above that it was in his formative years that Méliès developed his obsessions with illusion, industrialism and military pomp and circumstance, which would become crucial components and themes in his body of work. We will now begin to examine two key case studies to illustrate the significance and presence of these themes in Méliès’ films.

Let us begin with what is often considered to be the iconic Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon. Made in 1902, the film has a running time of twelve minutes and forty-six seconds and, in that short time, displays all of the personal obsessions of Méliès, as listed above. First and foremost, the film concerns itself with a series of technological wonders, the most prominent of which is, naturally, the rocket which the characters use to travel to and from the Moon. It is not as simple as this, however, and the astute viewer will note that Méliès’ technological obsession pervades every frame of the film. The construction of the rocket takes place in an intricate workshop, with many workmen acting in concert to produce the contraption. This type of workshop appears in many of Méliès’ films, such as The Impossible Voyage, The Forbidden Planet and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We can draw a very strong parallel between the industrial depictions of Méliès’ films and the years he spent working in his father’s factories. In films such as these, Méliès moves beyond a desire to exhibit visual illusions (as such illusions can be framed with any number of sets and window dressings) and into a display of Méliès’ personal obsession with industrialization, machinery and modes of transport (Orgeron, 32-35).

While there is a strong exhibition of these obsessions, we can still see that Méliès is preoccupied with entertaining and amazing the audience with his cinematic illusions. These range from the simple (the astronomers entering the rocket capsule on earth, in which they move into and through an apparently two dimensional set) to the complex (such as the rocket’s return to earth, in which it falls into the ocean). Furthermore, each set piece is a mechanical wonder in and of itself. From the elaborate Salenite court with smoking braziers to the elaborate underwater set at the conclusion of the film. Finally, when the heroes triumphantly return home, they are given a full military parade and welcome (note: for some reason the full version of A Trip to the Moon doesn’t seem to exist on the various internet video sites, those wishing to see the heroes welcome at the end should refer to the Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913) DVD set). As we can see from the above, A Trip to the Moon is a drawing together of many of Méliès’ obsessions, which stemmed from his life before his filmmaking career. The industrial landscape of the Astronomer’s Parisian home, the staggeringly intricate sets and illusions and the military fanfare of the heroes return. However, while A Trip to the Moon was (probably) the first of Méliès’ films to draw all of these elements together (after all, we are missing some 500 of his films [Frazer, 35]) if we want to see the ultimate product of these personal obsessions we must turn our attentions to The Impossible Voyage.

Produced in 1904, with a running time of twenty minutes, The Impossible Voyage was an ambitious project for Méliès and the longest running film he had made at that point in his career. Made in loving full colour, The Impossible Voyage is an extravagant showcase of Méliès’ talents and interests. The film focuses on a group of geologists who wish to travel around the world using a train, automobile, submarine and dirigible. After the geologists agree to embark on this ambitious adventure they are treated to a tour of the factory of Engineer Mabouloff, who is responsible for the construction of these modes of transport and is played by Méliès himself (Frazer, 146). We are then treated to a protracted tour of the factory and the influence of Méliès’ years working in his father’s factories is undeniable.  The journey then begins and we are presented with a series of classically Méliès illusions, involving multiple exposures, substitutions and automata (whose mechanical workings were based on those Méliès replicated from Robert-Houdin). Finally, when the heroes return home they are rewarded with a huge military parade, with much fanfare to reward their bravery.

These two films are by no means the only examples of these obsessions (a study of Méliès’ career would be poor if it relied merely on two films) but they are certainly two examples where these personal obsessions all crystallized together in Méliès’ films. Those seeking further proof can easily find it. Méliès’ preoccupation with technology and industrialism can be found in Panorama From Top of a Moving Train (1898), How He Missed His Train (1900), The Spiritualistic Photographer (1903),The Clockmaker’s Dream(1904), An Adventurous Automobile Trip (1905),The Chimney Sweep (1906), Tunneling the English Channel (1907) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912). It would be pointless to list all of Méliès’ films which display his obsession with illusions and automata, because these feature in nearly all of his works, but those interested in an overview would do well to investigate The Magician (1898), The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), A Fantastical Meal (1900), Extraordinary Illusions (1901 and its remake in 1903), Excelsior! Prince of Magicians (1901), Gulliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902), The Kingdom of Faeries (1903), Rogues’ Tricks (1907) and many, many more. Finally, those interested in pursuing Méliès’ preoccupation with Military and Authority figures should turn to The Surrender of Tournavos (1897), Dreyfus: Devil’s Island – Arrest of Dreyfus (1899), Dreyfus Put in Irons (1899), Dreyfus- The Suicide of Colonel Henry (1899), Dreyfus – The court martial at Rennes (1899), The Colonel’s Shower Bath (1902), The Coronation of Edward VII (1902), The Terrible Turkish Executioner (1904), A Desperate Crime (1906), The New Lord of the Village (1908), French Cops Learning English (1908) and Not Guilty (1908). It is unfortunate that we do not have the space to give each of these films the attention they deserve; perhaps this could be a thesis for an aspiring post-graduate student.

As with any director, we can see that the experiences and obsessions that Méliès encountered and developed in his life prior to becoming a filmmaker had a profound effect on the themes and ideas that he would explore in his films. We can safely say that, for Méliès, the strongest of these themes and ideas were those of Industrialism and Mechanics (drawn from his extensive experiences in the family business), Illusion and Automata (from his personal interest as a child and young man in London) and in Military and Authority figures (stemming from his military service and stern father). These three broad themes intersect and come together to create the hallmarks of what we could consider a classically ‘Méliès’ film. They create a uniquely human series of films, especially when we consider how early they appeared. Distinct from the hard industrialism of Edison’s films (see Edison: The Invention of the Movies DVD set) Méliès blends the human ingenuity of machined technology with a sense of wonder and delight. Truly, the fantastical and technical proficiency of his films was unprecedented and has had a lasting impact on all filmmakers since.    

Works Cited

  • Edison: The Invention of the Movies. DVD. Dir. Various, including Thomas Edison. Perf. Various, including Thomas Edison. Kino, 2005.
  • Frazer, John. Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979
  • Hammond, Paul. Marvellous Méliès. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1975.
  • Méliès, George. Mes Memoires. Rome: ,1938
  • Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913). DVD. Dir. Georges Méliès. Perf. Various, including George Méliès. Flicker Alley, 2008.
  • Orgeron, Devin. Road Movies: From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarastami. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2008.

Coming Attractions

•June 10, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Wonderbread is currently experiencing a shortage of regular material, due to the overwhelming academic responsibilities that must claim all university students in the middle and end of every year. Rest assured, within a few weeks, these responsibilities will be fulfilled and there will be a surplus of subsequent material to post, including pieces on Georges Melies, Fritz Lang and Orson Welles. I, for one, can’t think of anything more exciting.


“I’m Bart Simpson; who the Hell are you?”: A quick look at Bartesque philosophy

•February 17, 2009 • 4 Comments

I was having a bed-time gander through Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson the other night, and I came across his chapter on Bart as Punk Icon. Turner’s observations are astute, and more than valid (his basic contention is that Bart Simpson rekindled for the West a sense of jubuliant individualism and anarchy that had most notably been achieved in the past by the likes of Joey Ramone and Johnny Rotten), but reading his argument, I came across the quote that both spawned the conception of this jotting and gave it its title. I found the idea interesting, so I thought I’d write it down real quick, float it, see what people make of it.

The gist: no one will disagree that Bart Simpson does indeed embody individualism and anarchy. This little hypothesis assumes that it’s agreed he therefor pretty well rejects any kind of institutionalized philosophy or religion, anything that can be affiliated with authority. Key point. More later. Firstly, a few words on Punk.

Punk is singularly and extraordinarily revolutionary because it is so fucking postmodern – its a philosophy that was begotten not from an understanding about life or a dissent/extrapolation of pre-existing philosophies, but from the institutionalization of philosophy itself. Even nihilism faced the void – Punk knows nothing of the void, because it’s never looked that far. All it sees is a society that won’t let individuals “do what [they] feel like”, and that’s what it’s against. The philosophy of Punk, it’s grand comment on the human condition, is ‘fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” And that is also, essentially, the philosophy of Bart.

That’s the first half of my thought.

The second half is about trying to diffuse the cynicism of this conclusion. I don’t believe it cynical, nihilistic, misanthropic or apathetic. I believe that, despite himself, Bart’s character says something quite grand about the human condition, and all schools of philosophical thought. It is of my own personal assertion that all Philosophy is born out of a need to try to understand oneself, and the all-encompassing nature of the result is simply the reasoning that all personal crises are inherently (being, as we all are, human) of the human condition. I believe Philosophy is the long-winded answer to human uncertainty, the posited Because to the posed Why. Descartes’ famous consensus “I think, therefor I am,” is fine, but it leaves open another query: “While I’m at it, I might as well think about this, too: what am I? Who am I?”

Bart Simpson, as the quote that started all this so brazenly demonstrates, knows exactly who he is. He’s Bart Simpson. He has no need for any kind of traditional philosophy, because they are answers to a question he never asked. Unnessecary to wonder the nature of man; he knows his own nature. So in lieu of philosophy, he adopts Punk, the cultural insitution of rebellion against a society that would not allow these pioneering men and women, knowing who they were, to be themselves. In doing so, he embodies also the real threat that Punk and Punk rebellion represents to the West at large – “Who the Hell are you?” The rude question, asked simply because Bart doesn’t care for respect or manners, has more meaningful implications. Don’t you know who you are? Why aren’t you as comfortable with your own place, and your own identity, as I am?

Now, I realize, in closing, that I’ve presented a pretty rosy and idealistic visage of Punk and anti-establisment sentiments. A lot of Punk philosophy is, I admit, simply a manifestation of selfishness and irresponsibility. But Bart is not these things. He has a fundamental, almost innate sense of morality, of social responsibility, of kindness. It is submerged heavily and readily below his irrepressible anarchy, but when Bart Simpson has to do the right thing, Bart Simpson does the right thing, with ferocity and aplomb, and not because he’s told to. Because he knows what’s right, he knows who he is, and he knows what do about both.

Food for Simpsonian thought.

(For further and much better studies of this ilk, I do recommend Planet Simpson. It’s a good read, if far from legitimately academic. I also pass on Martin Kingsley’s recommendation of The Simpsons and Philosophy.)

Just Quickly:

•February 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Antidisestablishmentarianism: not wanting to rock the boat.