It’s another dark, grimy day in New York City, but Cinephile Extraordinaire Mark Hay thinks it’s a good night for a few sympathetically noir films.
Alright, so Laura isn’t exactly the pinnacle of noir. Rather than taking place on the grimy streets of New York, Otto Preminger limits the film to lavish penthouses. Instead of a bunch of grizzled informants and rough thugs, the majority of the films characters are rather floppy, upper-crusted dandies. But all that gilt and sheen just serves to hide the seedy motives, the greedy, hidden pleasure, of the proactive and powerful elite. It’s a fun experiment in noir without all the darkness and grime, all the overt symbolism and stock side characters, without all the, well, noir.
The story, though, maintains all the usually convolutions and crime of the average street-smart noir. We open with Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigating the death of the powerful and seductive advertising tycoon Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). McPherson goes by the book, grilling her mentor, the aging columnist (and the film’s narrator) Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s fiancé, the pathetically blunt country-bumpkin Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), rich society Aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and a number of other equally blue-blooded and textbook individuals. But in the process of his investigations – reading her notes, smelling her perfume, sleeping in her bedroom – McPherson begins to fall in love with the deceased. Who, as it turns out, is not dead at all.
But really, one could care less about Laura or McPherson. Instead, the side characters – usually the throwaway props, the red shirts, of noir – who take center stage. Each of them presents his or herself in one way, acts another, and eventually confesses to a third character. They’re enigmatic, infuriating emblems of the convoluted storyline of the standard noir. They are, in the end, absurd, but only in the end. And it is their involvement in a murder investigation, the gentle teasing out of their nature, which builds a graceful and slow suspense into a completely unexpected and gratifying twist of natures. Unbelievable and stereotypical as any noir, but in its own unique format, Laura may not be the quintessential or the best of noir, but it certainly is amusing.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Imagine, as the author so often does, a world in which man’s body grows less and less organic, less and less his own; one in which we are all modified – better, stronger, healthier – but living out the same pathetic lives in sprawling Metropoli. This bleak and unsatisfying future, not quite dystopia, not quite utopia, is the world of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell – one of the first relatively successful animes to cross over the Pacific, and a pioneer of the computer/cell animation blends that enabled Hayao Miyazaki to dazzle the West. When compared to the whimsical and engrossing stories and playful, but dire imagery of Miyazaki, Oshii’s Ghost falls hard and flat – probably one of the reasons it never gained more than a cult following. As a neo-noir film, though, Ghost is beautiful, although one has to ignore several great flaws to strike at that beauty.
The plot of Ghost is almost utter gibberish, not just keeping pace with the meandering and winding plots of American noir, but surpassing all of that, losing itself in a jungle of jargon and philosophical musings. In extreme brevity: this is the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), a nearly completely robotic police officer (going by the aptly inhuman moniker “The Major”) who works for the secretive Section 9 – a government agency tracking crimes involving hackers manipulating the electronic aspects of other people’s bodies. The Major encounters a being known as the “Puppet Master,” or, “Project 2501” (Iemasa Kayumi), a sentient entity (a ghost) living in the informational network that connects all the cybernetic humans, but possessing no organic body (a shell) of its own. This strange ghost bounces from being to being, wrecking havoc, but enthralling The Major, whose increasingly inorganic nature has led her to question her place in the world, her reality, the integrity of her soul.
Unpalatable as the plot may be and naval-gazing and pseudo-intellectual as The Major and 2501’s musing on the nature of man are, the film holds attention for the urgency of its characters. The subtle romance between The Major, who constantly endangers her body in the quest for her soul, and her protective, gruff, and stoic partner, Batou (Akio Otsuka), is ironically human and touching for such a mechanical movie. This romance and this urgency come to a head in one scene, beautifully scored and perfectly timed, in which The Major, in deep longing and need, abandons all of her body to reach 2501. For this desperate and emotive scene alone, I would recommend the film. Good luck that it offers a little more than just that.
Before making Brick on his home computer, director Rian Johnson had one film credit to his name – an eight-minute, low-quality 1996 short filmed while Johnson was in college entitled Evil Demon Golfball from Hell!!! (yes, the three exclamation points are necessary). To go from this campy little shot of child’s play to something so distinctive and serious as Brick after a decade’s hiatus, one cannot help but be a little impressed. And a lot jealous. Brick had all the potential to be a disaster or a campy one-off – the concept of taking 1930/40s noir language, plots, and character standbys and transferring them into the world of 2000s Southern California high school students just begs for unconvincing acting, incongruous dialogue, and silliness all around. But Johnson is absolutely serious, and so are his actors, and somehow this conviction that this situation is normal and acceptable for the actors (for teenagers to act like fedora-clad gumshoes) transfers over to the audiences. Nice trick, Mr. Johnson, bravo.
In the film, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plays the gumshoe role of a clean kid on the edge of a rich and wretched high school drug ring. Upon discovering the body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) in a storm drain after she had called him screaming about a “bad brick,” Brendan dives into the underworld of his happy, sunny high school to uncover the truth of Emily’s murder. In the process, he interacts with all the old standards – thugs, informants, kingpins, femme fatals – of the noir genre, all of whom are too young to legally purchase alcohol.
A bizarre idea, indeed, but even more bizarre is how seamlessly the transference works. The only great hitch is the utter unbelievability of the script’s language, but who cares? It sounds beautiful – rhythmic and smooth. Enough credit cannot be ladled upon such young actors for handling their roles with the utmost seriousness. But here is my question: would the parallels still work in college? And if so, does Columbia have any young and aspiring gumshoes wandering about? If so, please speak to Rian Johnson; I’m sure he’d love to meet you.