Friday, November 15, 2019

CELEBRATING SHADOW: NOIR CONFUSES, DELIGHTS


I’ve been a fan of noir suspense since I first saw Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall match wits in THE BIG SLEEP back in my college film club days. All that intrigue! All that snappy dialogue! All that creative use of light and shadow! Who knew southern California had so much rain?
Bacall and Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP--so intense!
And the hallmarks of film noir lend themselves so well to science fiction, as Ridley Scott demonstrated memorably with 1982’s BLADE RUNNER. I couldn’t resist adding my own back-alley settings, tough-guy villains and sharp banter in an homage to the genre in Fools Rush In, Interstellar Rescue Series Book 3, my space opera noir.

Part of the appeal of noir suspense, in both film and novel form, is the intricacy of the plot, the weaving of multiple subplot threads (and sometimes points of view) into a tapestry that can only be understood once its completed. I think I had to see THE BIG SLEEP two or three times before I got it. I can watch my favorite noir films over and over, because I’m almost always surprised (again!) by the Big Reveal. My brain works overtime on good mystery or romantic suspense novels—and I don’t consider myself an unintelligent person.

I recently caught Edward Norton on the Turner Classic Movie Channel, guest-hosting two films with Alicia Malone—THE BIG SLEEP and the great neo-noir movie CHINATOWN (Jack Nicholson, 1974). CHINATOWN is another film that I’ve seen numerous times and still can’t remember what’s going on until the Big (and I mean BIG) Reveal. It’s one of my favorites because both Nicholson’s character and the SoCal setting are unforgettable.

Norton has written, directed and co-starred in a new film paying tribute to the noir tradition, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (also starring Alec Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It’s a fantastic movie, with an unusual protagonist: Norton’s PI, trying to solve his partner’s murder and the bigger citywide mystery behind it, has Tourette’s syndrome and can’t help blurting out inappropriate words, phrases and sounds in the middle of his interviews. Not nearly as cool as Bogie but twice as lovable.

Norton said in his intro to the films he showcased that he loves film noir precisely because the plots are complex and hard to follow. Sometimes, he said, it’s fun just to get lost in the environment the film evokes and get carried along with the pace of what’s happening until it all, finally, makes sense.

Not surprisingly, the environment of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is its own character. The film is based on a novel set in New York in the 1990s, but Norton was convinced it felt like a film that should be set in the 1950s. So that’s when he set his film. I haven’t read the source novel, but the movie really worked for me.

In novels, authors have to rely on language to create the atmosphere central to the noir genre. The tropes we’re so familiar with—the hard-boiled PI’s, the mysterious blondes, the dark alleys, the thugs, the crooked politicians/cops, the dialogue and the jargon—are all a legacy of the detective fiction of the middle of the last century. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane (and later Elmore Leonard and others) created an indelible written universe describing the urban underbelly of (generally) post-World War II America that has served as a template for creativity as wildly varied as Quentin Tarentino’s PULP FICTION (1994)  and Alex Proyas’ DARK CITY (1998). 
 
DARK CITY (1998) may look like the past, but it's set in the future.
That universe has also served as a springboard for modern paranormal romance and romantic suspense of all shades. Author J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and Lara Adrian’s Midnight Breed vampire series owe a debt to the noir tradition. The romantic suspense that incorporates noir elements is too extensive to mention, but the work of Maggie Shayne comes to mind, especially her early novels. She’s particularly good at the snappy dialogue, always a feature of a good noir potboiler.

If atmosphere is what you’re after, I can’t recommend Tana French’s In the Woods highly enough. (This debut novel and its followup The Likeness have been adapted into a series called The Dublin Murders on the Starz network.) You can practically hear the Irish brogue singing through the pages (it’s a murder mystery set in Dublin) and the pair of investigating detectives have enough baggage (and charisma) to fill a wheezing train car. The author of this book uses language like a sushi chef uses a knife—and the result is so startlingly amazing you want to stop every few pages and admire it just for itself. Makes a writer like me feel more like a kid playing in a sandbox watching a big girl shoot hoops. Maybe one day I can do that. *sigh*

Cheers, Donna

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