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The darker, the better

movie-reviews Updated: Jan 31, 2012 12:10 IST

Hindustan Times
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Film Noir Box-set
Enlighten, Rs 1,499 (5 DVDs: The Lady from Shanghai, Scarface, Out of the Past, The Spiral Staircase, Call Northside 777)
Rating: *****

There's a theory that much of the Hollywood action dramas made during 1960s-80s came out of film noir, the genre of dark crime films that riveted filmgoers in the years following the Second World War. As far as theories go, this one has as much ballast in it as the saying that much of popular western music has come out of the blues.

Bernardo Bertolucci acknowledges the influence in a scene from his 2003 film Dreamers, which is about three young film buffs caught in the revolutionary fervour sweeping Paris in 1968. One of the three dares the others to identify a film from which he is enacting a scene: as he falls to the imaginary rat-tat-tat of a gun, his back is covered with the shadow of a cross. It's an iconic scene from gangster epic Scarface - not the one made famous by Al Pacino, but the 1932 version by Howard Hawks starring Paul Muni.

The reference to the black-and-white film underlined to a zeitgeist among Parisian filmmakers of the era, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard among them, that made them idolise the gritty storytelling of the noir genre. (The term was given coinage by French film critics in the mid-1940s.) In the post-War years, they - as well as some of their 'New Wave' counterparts in Italy - were moved by the fact that the goody-good hero need not be at the centre; rather, the flawed anti-hero could tell a more gripping story. That the common man could be the hero, that the criminal could be shown to have a tender side, that you could move a plotline much faster than the earlier forms of cinematic storytelling. In time, those French and Italian maestros went on to influence a generation of filmmakers around the world. And a wilderness sprouted from that drip irrigation. Later-day filmmakers who acknowledged the inspiration included Roman Polanski, Martin Scorcesse, Sam Mendes and our own Vishal Bhardwaj, to name just a few.

So when Enlighten brought out a set of five early, black-and-white noir films, there was more than one reason to rejoice. The box-set promised not just enthralling tales, but a variety of styles that jostle under the noir umbrella. Let's see whether we can untangle the strains without dipping too far into the tar.

One style was of the reporting-from-the-streets documentary. In this set it's represented by Call Northside 777. In this 1948 film, James Stewart, everyman of the era, plays a Chicago reporter who unearths a police cover-up of a young boy's conviction on killing a cop. It's directed by Henry Hathaway, who pioneered the style.

There are some who believe a film wouldn't be noir if it didn't have a femme fatale, an alluring woman of dubious motives who manipulates the men. Such roles usually came with an unapologetic misogyny in early noir: more often that not, the femme would be 'slapped around'. It's an anachronism that has carried on even in later noir classics - Evelyn Mulwray in Polanski's Chinatown and Nancy Callahan Frank Miller's Sin City. In this set, Jane Greer's portrayal of Kathie, a double-crossing moll in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, fills that space. As does Rita Hayworth's Elsa, wife of the wealthy suited coot, in Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai.

Yet another hallmark of noir - a fascination for the morbid of the sort Jack the Ripper would have approved - comes out in Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, in which a serial killer targets only women with disabilities. And typical, lengthening shadows stretch Hitchcockian moments towards denouement.

If there's an essence of the noir tale that we can glean from the box-set, it's the tagline of Tourneur's Out of the Past: 'A man trying to run away from his past, a woman trying to escape her future.' I don't know about you, but it had me hooked for good.