As 2011 inexorably wound down to its final days and notifications of notable deaths pinged up on Twitter on an almost daily basis, at some point after Harry Morgan and before Bert Schneider, we collectively learned of the loss of writer and journalist Gilbert Adair. I have to admit that I had never been a huge fan of Adair's writing but, prompted by a lovely obituary in the latest issue of Sight & Sound magazine, I rooted around for my copy of Adair's book Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema. I'm glad that I did.
But Adair's writing is imbued with a love of film. As he writes in his introduction, film is "flickering like a great fire in the grate of the cinema screen, around which millions of us have warmed ourselves, gazed dreamily into the flames and occasionally got burnt".
I mentioned in my last post that I had watched 290 movies last year. The last one I watched was Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Riffling the pages of Adair's book, I serendipitously discovered that he had selected that very film to represent the year 1956. It was a fine way to cap the end of 2011. This is what he had to say about it. Thank you, Gilbert Adair, and take it away. The floor is yours...
The film in question is Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and the two men are Sidney Blackmer and Dana Andrews. Its plot is exactly that - a plot - hatched by the newspaper publisher played by Blackmer and the journalist played by Andrews, a plot whereby the latter will deliberately implicate himself in an unsolved murder in order to demonstrate the ease with which circumstantial evidence can lead to wrongful conviction. There is, I should add, an eleventh-hour twist; but it's a twist only until the instant it's revealed; in the very next instant one realizes that the film could not have ended any other way. Jacques Rivette called it a theorem, a tabula rasa. It is, in any event, the rigorous purification of a genre to which Lang and certain of his fellow émigrés, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Edgar Ulmer, had given of their best: the film noir.
There is, though, a most curious paradox in the film noir. I yield to no one, as they say, in my love of the genre and I recognize the pertinence of much that has been written about its inherent pessimism. Yet I must confess to never having found that pessimism very convincing. No one in the forties ever went to see a film noir with a sense that he was about to submit to a harrowing but salutary dose of existential nihilism (a nihilism that isn't just a matter of critical interpretation but is quite perceptible in both narrative detail and visual texture), just as no one ever need recoil from watching one on television now. Films noirs are great fun, for God's sake, great fun primarily because they never really do persuade one that the despair that they portray is ultimately a truth of the human condition - in the way that, at least while one is experiencing it, a film by Bergman does, or a novel by Kafka, or an opera by Berg. For most of us, I suspect, their fabled negativity is precisely that: a negative (in the photographic sense of the word) of the fundamental American positivity and optimism. The people who made them (and who were usually, as I've said, European exiles) loved America, just as did the people who watched them. Secretly, I believe, they were not even meant to convince.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, however, was meant to convince. As has seldom been the case in Hollywood's history, it's a film, a visually drab and unyielding film, about absolutely nothing else but its own subject. Two men in hats and suits sit in an automobile and hatch a plot, two men whose white faces and crisp white shirts stand out against the enveloping darkness like the white chalkings of a mathematical formula on a blackboard, a tableau noir.