Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Film noir: "chiaroscuro lighting, expressionistic staging, and hard-boiled stories set deep in the underworld"

by Linda Thornburg
The camera is low. A high, fogged light from the railroad yard pierces diagonally between two warehouses, backlighting a man with a knife. His shadowed face is not distinguishable. Trying to disappear into the darkness, the "foreigner" presses against the building but the man with the knife has the advantage. His partner comes at the foreigner from behind. Trapped, he fights valiantly. The man with the knife is on the ground. Two shots ring out from the darkness. The foreigner falls to the ground, dead. Eat your heart out X-Files and clones, with your puny flashlights beaming through dusty warehouses. Hide your longing, Christopher Nolan; for all your special effects, nothing forebodes danger more than the iconic black-and-white, film noir murder scene in Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets. Low-budget, high-imagination, starkly lit, black-and-white film perfectly matches the chill producing terror of human vulnerability in the shadows of the night and the mind.
Lupino: the perfect cocktail of hardboiled and vulnerable. No slouch as a directer, either.
Panic in the Streets, with Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, and Barbara Bel Geddes, is one of several classic film noir selections from Daedalus DVDs. Road House serves up the perfect dissolute atmosphere for Ida Lupino's smoky-throated nightclub singer, Lily, caught in a sadistic triangle with the perfectly villainous Richard Widmark and suave Cornel Wilde. The always-welcome Celeste Holm rounds out the cast. Even if the film were not worthy of Leonard Maltin's 3-star rating, Lupino's sultry version of "One for My Baby" would justify the price of admission.
The term "film noir" was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe certain American "B" movies, but it wasn’t considered a genre (like Westerns, musicals, or comedies) by the industry itself:
Film noir didn’t exist [in Hollywood] as a banner in the years it peaked as a style. As a result, many elements that have come to characterize film noir—high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting, expressionistic staging, hard-boiled stories set deep in the underworld, location shooting, themes of sexual betrayal and innocence undone—evolved in a more competitive than formulaic environment, as filmmakers outdid each other in the relatively unmonitored world of low-budget second features.
So says Gary Giddins in Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema, a perfect companion book for classic cinema fans, with an entire section dedicated to film noir.

Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker who longs to work with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ida Lupino, and Ingrid Bergman on some dark and smoky film.

Watch the Panic in the Streets trailer here!
Watch the trailer for Linda Thornburg's feature film Mrs Stevens Hears the  Mermaids Singing, an adaptation of the May Sarton novel.


  1. Fascinating fact: noir grandmasters Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain are both from Maryland. They had to move elsewhere to explore (and then chronicle) life’s gritty underbelly, of course. Another author from our neck of the woods is William Lindsay Gresham, who is remembered exclusively for the novel Nightmare Alley. The book is valiantly kept in print by New York Review Books, and it tells the sordid story of a young man who goes from being a minor carnival entertainer to a wildly prosperous fake spiritualist. The tale drips with noir, although in its ruthlessness and vivid details it truly stands alone; think of a Jim Thompson novel written with the panache of Raymond Chandler. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  2. The film rights to that book were bought by Tyrone Power, who starred in the movie version "Nightmare Alley." He played a carnival mentalist--of the sort that Patrick Jane, of the TV show, used to be before he reformed. It was an unusual role for Power, who used to play rather bland action hero types. As I recall, the film could have been done better.
    "Panic in the Streets" starred Richard Widmark (of Kiss of Death fame), as an investigator for the Public Health Service. He was chasing the plague, in the form of infected criminals. The film works as a cops-and-crooks tale. I think it was shot in New Orleans.

    1. I had heard that a film was made of Nightmare Alley. My guess is that it was a little too early in Hollywood history for such scandalous and bleak subject matter. No doubt it will be re-made someday, with a slightly-too-dashing lead and a heavy-handed script. If it points a few people back to the book, though, it would almost be worth it.

    2. The remake is definitely something to await. I wish I could afford all the NYRB reprints I want. Alternatively, I just scored an original Penguin Edition of Young Man With a Horn, which they are offering lately.

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