Film Noir

Brick (2005)

Made on a budget of less than half a million dollars, writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick doesn’t bother restricting itself, spinning out a thickly plotted high school detective story. Hard-boiled and fast-talking, Brick enthusiastically embraces the style of its noir influences. Johnson and his cast – especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead – are wholly committed to the material, resulting in an original and fully realized crime film.


Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch film that takes place in Los Angeles, which instantly makes it interesting. Lynch is not your typical Hollywood director, but here his characters are, getting into accidents on Mulholland Drive and running around Sunset Blvd. But the real life industrial relationship behind the film is far from the only thing that makes it interesting. Mulholland Drive is one of the most complexing and ambiguous films in popular cinema, and luckily its complicated story is made into an enjoyment through incredible filmmaking.

After some 50s dancing by colorfully backlit silhouettes and a shot of a bed prefacing the very dreamlike film ahead, we begin with a car crash that leaves Laura Harring stranded and walking through Los Angeles. She eventually teams up with Naomi Watts, a naive newcomer to the city hoping to become a movie star. The two try to figure out what happened to Harring, who has amnesia, while a director played by Justin Theroux struggles with control over his picture.

That description makes the film sound as though it has a normal narrative. In reality, the movie includes several seemingly disconnected episodes that either follow one of the two storylines, or something entirely unrelated. One memorable scene early on helps establish the tone of the film and nothing else. Patrick Fischler tells a story of a recurring nightmare that is subsequently slowly realized. An instance of terror that he experiences behind a restaurant by the dumpster is intense, with Lynch masterfully manipulating the audio to make us experience Fischler’s shocked and muffled perception.

Lynch just knows how to make a film evokes the feelings he wants. This movie is suspenseful and mysterious, with a foreboding sense of danger always surrounding the characters. Lynch accomplishes this sometimes using simple devices – like switching between a character’s subjective point of view and a very restricted look at them as they walk, giving us only the narrowest sense of their surrounding and the fear of it being penetrated at any second. Other times he uses unsettlingly fast trucking shots that whip us from a more complete view of what’s going on back to that same limited vision. In the same name of ambiguity, some shot fall out of focus, giving our eyes the difficulty that the plot gives our brains.

Many elements of the story accompany the filmmaking technique to make this movie dreary. Justin Theroux’s storyline shows the oppressive influence of mysterious powerful figures. It plays out somewhat as an attack on the Hollywood system, where creativity and directorial control can be overtaken by business deals or nepotism. Michael J. Anderson is appropriately eerie as a dwarf at the top of the line of power, and Lafayette Montgomery puts in one of the most memorable (and one of my personal favorite) roles of all time as the Cowboy, a very mysterious figure who commands conversations with ease and appreciates good manners.

The best performances are the leads, however. Naomi Watts is especially impressive. She initially plays Betty, a saccharine sweetheart who has come to watch over her (very bizarre) aunt’s house in Hollywood. Betty is creepily wholesome and cheery, evocative of a naive optimism that probably constituted many a young girl’s outlook in the days of the studio era. At first you may be believe that this is all Watts is capable of, but she destroys that notion during a scene where she auditions for a role. It’s powerfully erotic and a mind-blowing turn from a character that you thought you knew entirely.

After most of the movie follows the convincingly amnesic Harring and Watts as “Rita” and Betty respectively, it takes a surreal turn and seemingly pops the audience out in another universe, one where Watts now plays a disillusioned victim of the Hollywood system named Diane Selwyn, and Harring plays her rising star girlfriend who is manipulative and cruel. It’s in this alternative dimension that Justin Theroux finally connects with Harring and Watts’ storyline, as his seemingly unchanged director character becomes a source of ultimate tension between Harring and Watts’ new characters.

The fact that both of these actresses can take on two different roles in one film is praiseworthy enough, but again, Watts is stand-out since her second role is a polar opposite of her first. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s the same actress in both of these commanding presences.

One of the last scenes in the original storyline is when Watts and Harring visit a late-night show at Club Silencio. An opera singer is allowed to dominate the film for a considerable amount of time, long enough for us to forget the surrounding narrative and become entranced by her performance. Just when it’s been so long, she faints and her singing continues without her. It’s only one of the many interesting and surreal ways that Lynch plays with reality in this film.

Lynch has actually declined to ever fully explain the meaning of this film and its seemingly at-odds storylines. The general consensus among viewers is that the original story is a dream that Watts’ character Diane concocts as a way to escape her miserable and (soon enough) guilt-ridden life. Betty represents who she once was, or maybe who she never was but wants to be, a wide-eyed delight who is a ridiculously talented actress. Harring plays who she wishes her lover would be, a fun and trustworthy companion who is dependent on Watts because of her amnesia.

In this sense, the film is ultimately tragic, and it’s only appropriate for the dark and sinister tone that pervades it throughout. It’s a film that will give you an opportunity to think and could be discussed for hours with intelligent and interested fans. Even though it’s difficult to make sense of, it’s entertaining and driven by great performances, from the lead actresses to the minor characters who all play in unison in the same off-key way. It’s an unmatchable foray into surrealism, and deals with delightfully Lynchian themes of power, industry, and diving into the unconsciousness that makes up dreams. Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece that all but matches the perfection that Lynch gave us in Eraserhead.

Final rating: 9.5/10

–James A. Janisse




Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest films ever made. I say this as a fact, not an opinion, and it’s not hard to see why. A striking film noir, a harsh and biting look at the Hollywood business, and writing so good that it still retains much of its humor, Sunset Boulevard is the best at many things. Anyone who considers themselves a movie fan is doing a disservice if they don’t watch this film.

Sunset Boulevard begins with a corpse, that of small-time Hollywood writer Joe Gillis. Gillis is played by William Holden, and in an interesting stylistic decision, narrates the entire movie even though we first see him dead. Thus, the film is a flashback, as he recounts his tale of how he came to be a corpse – through an entangled life with former silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson.

I’ll get the praise for the acting out of the way first, because it’s impossible to watch the movie without noting the first-class performances. Gloria Swanson gives one of the greatest acting performances of all time. Swanson was a silent movie star herself, so that surely helped her in her depiction of the unforgettable Norma Desmond. Desmond is an ex-star, in an era that has moved on and left her behind. She has grown slightly insane from her isolation and narcissism, believing herself to be adored and loved because of fake fan letters she receives.

Swanson as Norma acts exactly like you’d expect an old silent movie star to act. She’s over-the-top and melodramatic, emoting every last bit of her feelings through exaggerated faces and wild hand gestures. It’s what the silent stars were trained to do, and her strong gesticulating also helps to contrast with Norma’s inability to realize what her life has really come to. As expressive as she is, she’s never able to really express her fears and insecurities, until she’s swallowed up by them and succumbs to her dream world.

William Holden, who would later star in Bridge on the River Kwai, is perfectly suited for the role of Joe Gillis. Holden’s narration wonderfully brings the noir style to the forefront. His dialogue is sharp and acerbic. He’s cynical and pragmatic, and does what he needs to in order to survive in a time where his talents aren’t being asked for. Holden’s narration drives the film, and he brings much of the humor with his witticisms, both internally and externally.

Erich von Stroheim, a former silent film director, plays Norma’s butler Max. He is at the same time the prototypical butler and a smart, knowing, original character. Max protects Norma from the reality of the world behind her, sending her fan letters and keeping her happy. At the same time, by the end of the film when she’s slipped into total dissociation, he is fully aware, and uses her trust in him to get her to cooperate. von Stroheim is excellent and plays his role with a very subdued and knowing edge. Cecille B. DeMille also shows up in a cameo as himself, and he is more than fantastic. Maybe it’s just because he is being himself, but he really comes through as a caring but strong director.

This movie is one that will be more enjoyable the more you know about films. Norma name drops plenty of old silent film stars, and even plays cards with them – seeing Buster Keaton as an old “Waxworth” whose only line is to pass is one of the many highlights of the movie. It’s also interesting to note that this was all filmed where it purports to be filmed – on Sunset Blvd. itself, in Paramount’s studios, and on its backlots. The movie is engrossing even with just a little bit of Hollywood historical knowledge, and I can only imagine how great it would be when it was released and all of these facts were still fresh and newly irrelevant.

Billy Wilder made a near-perfect film with Sunset Boulevard. Its dark humor is modern enough to persist, and its surreal scenes like that of a monkey funeral or when Norma is recognized by an old light technician bring a unique and interesting side to a film made so long ago. Best of all, the stakes and intensity build consistently throughout, as we see the pitfalls and problems in Norma and Joe’s relationship develop. Before long, she has fallen in love with him, something he surely cannot reciprocate. This unrequited desire is just the straw that finally breaks down Norma Desmond, and her descent into murderous madness is at the same time frightening and sad. And so is the entire movie: a combination of interesting darkness, revolting disgust, and pity sympathy for the victims of the Hollywood machine.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse