Monday, March 27, 2006
How German Is It?
A question for film noir buffs. What do you make of frame narrative in The Killers? Frame is not quite the right term, but I hope you know what I’m talking about—that part of the movie dedicated to the effort of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) and detective Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) to unravel the central mystery behind the killing of the Swede (Burt Lancaster, in the role that made him a star). I suppose until recently I thought this part of the film’s design was clever, but relatively straightforward. Recently, however, I’ve been reading some of the criticism on noir and Robert Siodmak, and I came across two arguments that made me wonder. The fact that they make almost completely contradictory claims has only deepened my perplexity. Next thing I know I’ll be inhabiting the noir universe. Is anything straightforward?! Can anyone be trusted?! Can I please have a cigarette?!
In case you haven’t seen the flic in awhile, The Killers is the legendary adaptation and extension of Hemingway’s story. In the opening narrative, the Swede is tracked down by gunmen and despite Nick Adams’s warnings doesn’t flee his execution. The sequence is justly celebrated. Lancaster is shown lying in bed in deep shadow. (I think. All this is from memory and could be off in details.) He tells Nick, “I did something wrong . . . once.” Then, after Nick’s left, befuddled at his friend’s resignation, the Swede hears the gunmen approach and stares the camera straight on in wide-eyed anticipation. Quick cutting between the approaching killers and Swede’s staring face builds the tension. The killers burst in and fire into the darkness. C’est fini.
The rest of the movie explains the enigma of Swede’s passive readiness to die, using Reardon’s investigation as its explanatory device. The resulting narrative is extraordinarily complex. (I think there are 11 flashbacks, including inset flashbacks, if I remember right. Proustian!) But manifold though the design is, the thematic implications of the overarching narrative seem pretty straightforward. Appropriately bedazzled by Ava Gardner (as Kitty), Swede follows her into a world of deceit and seduction and ends up dead. Piecing together the story in retrospect, Reardon along with Swede’s childhood buddy Sam Lubinsky—the cop who married Swede’s devoted but unseducive ex-fiance—track down Kitty and bring her to justice. The bad guys die. Kitty’s headed for the bighouse. It looks, as Frank Krutnik points out, like a victory for patriarchy over the fatal forces of femininity and desire. Indeed, the movie nicely emphasizes the point via a classic tactic of the mystery story—making the investigator mimic the steps of the victim (as in The Vanishing). Lots of clever parallels show that Reardon only avoids Swede’s fate because, by contrast to his opposite number, he maintains his connections with a network of loyal fellows.
That’s how I saw things until I read Deborah Lazaroff Alpi’s biography/critical study of Siodmak, which views Siodmak’s American movies mainly as an extension of the styles the director developed in Berlin during the 20s. In The Killers she says, “American naturalism and German expressionism are in effect successfully wedded to convey the fatalistic ambiance of the story.” She sees that fatalism not just in the elaborate flashback structure, or in Swede’s passive demeanor, or in the multiple shots that show him supine, but in Riordan’s investigation as well—which
only heightens the existential nature of the story by conveying the sense that Swede’s fate is irrefutable. He is dead and nothing can change this fact, yet Riordan continues to search for an answer—even though his efforts result in the destruction of others. Indeed, both Riordan and Swede seem to be on steady courses to predestined and foregone conclusions.
Can this be right? Alpi wants Riordan to be Glenn Ford in The Big Heat or, worse, John Wayne in The Searchers. But is that so? Yeah, people are destroyed, but they happen to be an unsavory bunch—especially the gangster cum entrepreneur who masterminds Swede’s manipulation and, of course, Kitty. True, the Swede’s not saved, but some retrospective justice is implicitly done when his story’s told and his tormentors are brought low, no?
Maybe. Looking at things from a whole different angle is Oliver Harris--whose essay “Film Noir Fascination: Outside History, but Historically So” (in Cinema Journal ) is a fiendishly clever and, well, fascinating account of the allure of noir. Do I need to add that Zizek figures here? Also Blanchot, Benjamin, and some others. As Harris sees the movie with their help (and through it the whole noir canon), the real subject isn’t crime and justice, or sex and authority, but a confrontation with the abyss of “time’s absence.” Put differently, the subject is trauma and its unrepresentability. “As a kind of hole in knowledge or blind spot in visibility, the trauma can be represented only negatively, like Lacan’s unsymbolized ‘real of desire,’ and inferred by its repetitious effects.” Usually, movies epitomize our effort to literally screen out the real, but when Swede stares us dead in the eyes, we confront a mirror of our own desperate gaze and encounter not just our fascination (sadistic and masochistic) with Swede’s impending death but our own non-existence.
The sequence in Swede’s room lasts for only thirty seconds, but Lancaster’s extraordinary immobility makes it feel unbearably long. All he does is watch and wait, as must we. Time stops, and our own gaze is brought to a standstill; freezing the very logic of moving pictures, such an immobile image becomes intolerable . . . . Staring at Swede we see ourselves looking. Staring at the door, we are Swede; the door also takes the place of a mirror and to our horror, this mirror is empty
From this perspective, Reardon and Lubinsky’s investigation can only be as Harris describes it—a bad faith effort to reestablish normality. “Swede may be seen to have viewed history directly and, like those who look unpin the face of the Medusa, to have been turned to stone.” Reardon, on the other hand, “constructs a causal narrative that makes of history a road to salvation.” He’s an anti-Swede rather than Alpi’s Swede redux (and in this respect a version of every critic who pretends to find a historical explanation for the mysteries of noir). But, craven and complicit though Reardon is, Harris fittingly approves of his role. In fact, he thinks it’s Reardon’s reconstructive effort, demonstrating the always failed effort to reassert the apparatus that denies the real, that makes The Killers superior to Siodmak’s subsequent noir classic Criss Cross. Siodmak’s brilliance is to make us aware of both the need and the inevitable failure.
Could be. As I say, Harris’s account is disarmingly clever and full of nicely turned observations. (Lest I be seen to be waving shillelaghs at Zizek again, let me stress that his view of things seems entirely appropriate here.) But like Alpi’s, it seems to me just a little too neat. In fact, though Alpi would probably embrace the label and, I imagine, Harris would resist it, both look pretty auterist to me. Siodmak is the genius who, whether in Reardon’s failure (Alpi) or his compromised success (Harris) conveys a properly disturbing existential lesson.
Doesn’t ring true for me. The screenplay for The Killers was written by Anthony Veiller, who had just finished Welles’s anti-fascist thriller The Stranger and before that had worked on Frank Capra’s propaganda series Why We Fight. Reportedly, he got help from John Huston, who had recently done some antifascist films of his own—To Have and Have Not and Key Largo. To my mind, the Reardon/Lubinsky narrative which they cooked up looks like pretty standard Hollywood fare of the period—a version of the visions of populist fraternalism that were so prominent during the war.
I suppose Harris wouldn’t disagree, but he sees in the contrast between Edmond O’Brien’s swaggering machismo and Burt Lancaster’s doomed passivity the hand of Siodmak’s genius. I see a director who knew how to work with what he got and could milk drama out of a death scene like nobody’s business.
So, to my mind, there’s no particular greatness in the Reardon/Lubinsky narrative and, in fact—here’s the heretical payoff--Criss Cross is the far superior movie. Lancaster (Steve Thompson) is the doomed working man lover again. Yvonne DeCarlo (the future Lili Munster!) is the fatal dame who leads him to crime and destruction. But the whole story is messier, and I think therefore deeper and more moving. Give me DeCarlo any day. She’s not stunning like Gardner—though she is a great dancer, and has a wonderful dance number with Tony Curtis in his uncredited first screen role. But her ordinariness serves the story all the better. She’s no transcendent femme fatale, just a greedy soul who gets no breaks from the cops or her abusive husband. Likewise, there’s no special recuperative power or cultural authority to the law in Criss Cross. In the person of Steve’s childhood friend Pete, now Lieutenant, Ramirez, it’s just authoritarian and ineffectual. For my money, too, the death scene in the film’s final moments is one of the all time screen classics. Weird and visually arresting and incredibly poignant.
I don’t mean to deny that Alpi and still more Harris have planted some thoughts in my head--made me see The Killers in a new light and wonder whether I’d gotten things completely wrong. I’m genuinely curious to know whether either of them seem plausible to any other Siodmak fans out there. But they also deepened my appreciation for the less celebrated movie. It’s a humbler and greater film, I think.
Although I haven’t read either of the two critical texts, I’m familiar enough with the approaches you describe and with the movies. I don’t have much to offer but a vote, but you’re welcome to it: I share the sentiments of your last two paragraphs. That is, I’ve gained some enjoyment and insight from over-the-top auteur readings while disagreeing with their foundational assumptions and some of their conclusions, and I think Criss-Cross is a more interesting movie. (In fact, I might even prefer Don Siegel’s The Killers to Siodmak’s, although I’m glad the world doesn’t have to choose.)
(By the way, great job on describing/celebrating the films! You’d make a terrific witness in a dark alley.)
I will have to watch these two movies again. But I would make my usual arguments for Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” being the best noir,
using some of your themes.
1) The return of the repressed is more powerful in OotP because the protagonist is relatively successful, as opposed to the loser in “Killers”.
2) Has there ever been an uglier more boring small town than the one in OotP? Even the gas station and diner are dreary. The residents and cop we see are small-minded, shallow, insular, ignorant, ineffectual. Compare it with the small town in “Shadow of a Doubt”. Where Lancaster escapes to simply seems a place to die.
Whereas everything else in OotP from the Douglas mansion to Mexico to San Francisco to the woodland cabin and fishing scenes is lit and photographed beautifully. The contrast between the oppressive normality and the exciting but corrupt “big city” is overwhelming. All choices are horrible for Jeff.
3) And of course, Jane Greer’s Kathy is one of the great femme fatales of film history. The attractive innocence and infinite corruption of impulsive solipsism.
Wow, bob, talk about not wanting to choose! Out of the Past is a pure and perfect gem—I’ve watched it dozens of times; it’s like great music—but it hardly swaps in neatly for Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, The Reckless Moment, or, really, anything other than itself.
One of the reasons I like Criss Cross is that its L.A. is more neighborhoody and less the dark, anonymous city than is typical in noir. I suspect, but don’t know for sure because I’ve never read the novel, that this has to do with the fact that Daniel Fuchs wrote the script. Fuchs wrote three Brooklyn novels in the 30s, beginning from classic tenement naturalism in Summer in Williamsburg (1935) but moving into a darker, underworld slice of the city in Low Company (1938). Criss Cross begins with a return-to-the-old-neighborhood plot, and I recall Lancaster doing the 40s equivalent of high-fiving the local youngsters on the street as he walks up to the house he grew up in. There are streetcars, a local saloon, with the prominent local immigrant group well represented, old pals, a steady job, and of course, the sweetheart of his youth.
I wonder if Criss Cross on one level tells the story of noir supplanting naturalism for first claim on representing The City. With the exception of some Hollywood short stories, Fuchs walked away from fiction after Low Company, because (he once said) despite good reviews he wasn’t making any money. Irving Howe argued in 1949, in one of those typical epitaphs for urban realism that appeared at the time, that Fuchs’s fiction ran into the limitations of the neighborhood novel, but I think he was still trying to work it out in his film writing, and that the you-can’t-go-back-home element of Criss Cross has to do with his trajectory from Summer onwards. Fuchs’s most successful script, Love Me or Leave Me (1955), similarly takes Ruth Etting (Doris Day) and her brutal-but-likable manager (Jimmy Cagney) from a colorful Division Street Chicago beginning to a violent scene at a remote house in the Hollywood hills.
One note on Hemingway’s “The Killers” that I’m afraid doesn’t have much relevance to the film: I think the Swede, named Ole in the story, was inspired by Ole “The Terrible Swede” Anderson, a heavyweight who fought mostly in the midwest and northwest from 1917-30, finishing 13-18-8. As early as 1920, sportswriters were mocking poor Ole, as in this report from the Seattle Times: “Tiny Herman, an ordinary heavyweight and one who will never be any better until he learns to hit with both feet on the ground, gave Ole a beautiful lacing in four rounds without having the curl in his own hair turned by Ole’s gloves. It was not the beating of Ole’s life, for Harry Wills and Gene Tunney got to Ole first. But Herman gave Ole enough to cause him to ponder over the fruitlessness of trying to remain in the boxing limelight.” So Hemingway’s source for the Swede seems to have made waiting patiently for his own execution a career motif.
Jane Greer! Build my gallows high, baby.
Couldn’t agree more about the return-to-the-old nabe aspect of Criss Cross, Cannoneo. (Though I think it’s not streetcars, but the Bunker Hill inclined railway we see.) But Killers has some of the same working-class populism. I take it that the boxing ring there is (by contrast to Body and Soul, say) the virtous, if cruel expression of working class community, while the rackets are the parasitic abuse of it. I’m sure Fuchs plays a significant role in shaping the story, but the convention of the the return-to-the nabe itself seems like a pretty common one of the period. My inclination is to think that by ‘48 (Criss Cross), by contrast to ‘46 (Killers) the vigor of that convention was in decline and, more seriously maybe, that the civic fraternalism encouraged by wartime ideology looked a lot different when you focused on California and included Mexican-Americans.