Friday, February 18, 2011


I love film.

Though my favorite art is poetry, and while literature and music are vital, too, I immerse myself in film more than anything else. Not sure I really approve of this choice I make—the easy choice, really, isn't it?—but it has been so since my sleep became troubled. I sleep with films on, most nights. Can't be just any film, either, but one of my certified sleeping-movies. Had the same ones for a long time. Seldom are there any additions, and never are the films contemporary—by that, I mean nothing created in the past 40 years or so. Not sure what the overarching theme is connecting them (perhaps a subject for a later post), but I imagine them to be an alternative to ordinary (sub)consciousness, which I find to be pretty wretched, usually, left to my own devices. Therefore, while in one sense I deplore the laziness facilitating this easy surrender to cinema's easy immersion, in a larger sense I thank God for it.

Another strange attribute of my obsession with cinema is my preference for seeing many of the same films over and over. For instance, I've seen each of Bogart's Big Six (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, To Have and Have Not, and Across the Pacific—the Bogart films I enjoy most) literally hundreds of times each. On average, I'm sure I see each of them between 5 and 20 times each year, sometimes even more (I'm sure I've seen The Maltese Falcon, probably my favorite film, 500 times). I've often said that I view this predilection as being consistent with the idea of film being important art, but I recognize the evasion beneath that centimeter of glibness. Whatever the actual motivation, the behavior I have described is testament, certainly, to the power of the medium. It is no exaggeration to describe it as being narcotic.

Some of the most powerful of cinema's drugs certainly are what the French named Film Noir, describing (black and white) American crime films of the 40's and early 50's. That, at least, is the simple definition—I apply it a little more freely, though, seeing it as a mood, a look, and an attitude. Noir is dark, obviously, and cynical. The dialogue ranges from the realistic (The Asphalt Jungle, for example) to the stylized (any of the Hammett and Chandler-based vehicles) to the allegorical (i.e., The Seventh Victim). There is goodness in these films, to be sure, and light, but it is assailed, from every direction. The darkness does not always win, but always takes its toll. The good don't always make it—sometimes, even succumb to their enemies—and sometimes, right and wrong get all twisted up, and it becomes difficult to identify one from the other. Heroism is often defined as being able to tell the difference, somehow, and act on the conviction that it's right.

Thanks to Netflix, a number of these great films are available for instant streaming. This week, alone, I've seen Kansas City Confidential, Union Station, Cry Danger, 99 River Street, Down Three Dark Streets, The Naked City, The Street With No Name, The Dark Corner, and Appointment with Danger. Each of these is a first-rate example of the genre, and a hell of a lot of fun, besides.

Black and white films made by master film-makers near the middle of the last century have a power subsequent films just rarely accomplish. If you've not approached them with an open mind, I encourage you to do so, immediately. You are missing something of startling quality.

Three videos. First, the incredible bar scene from Hitch's Shadow of a Doubt, where Joseph Cotton explains his special world-view to Teresa Wright; next, a random scene from a genuinely great and rarely scene picture, The Mask of Dimitrios, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet; and last, a prime example of the genre, from a movie some say is the first true noir picture, Lorre's The Stranger on the Third Floor.

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