Rewriting the Noir Canon: Step 1, Toss It Out
A part of The Midnite Drive-in’s “Film Noir Blogathon”
By Patrick McInerney
If we can’t get this goddamn image of fedoras, trench coats and street lamps out of our heads, if we can’t accept that far more (and often, far better) noirs were made outside the confines of the detective stories in the early-mid 1940’s, if we insist on running in circles about whether noir is a genre or a style or a cycle or a movement or a…, then why bother with it at all? We’re obviously talking and reading more and more about ourselves, and our tastes, and our definitions, and me, I, my. Why define our collective tastes, even in part, by attempting to settle on where noir ends, instead of discovering where it begins? Christ, how many friends have you not told about a new discovery, just because unpacking its location in the noir canon requires more sentences than a normal flow of conversation allows?
To kick us off, let’s break a pretty big rule with Dementia (1953, Parker), or as it’s sometimes known, Daughter of Horror (1955, Parker). We’re going to strip it of its original score and watch it alongside a band that accompanied a live screening of it a few years back.
It’s worth noting why we’re not going with the original soundtrack. It’s unbearable, and Ed MacMahon narrates the whole damn thing (there’s no dialogue in the movie). Watching the version that was originally released is pretty tough; it has an almost laughably “spooky” (by 50’s standards) “horror” soundtrack, whose overall gimmick is, “Hey, no words!” And of course, the lack of faith in having no dialogue shows when the whole gimmick is ruined with — you guessed it because I just told you — someone describing what’s happening on screen! There really is almost no redeeming quality to Dementia when viewed the way it was originally.
This is not the case with the new soundtrack. For 57 minutes, an electronic pulse throbs under the radar, which gives the exact necessary confidence to Dementia. It shows trust in the audience’s ability to, you know, pay attention and figure things out for themselves. This sonic restraint is exactly what the movie needed, and the timing could not be any better for us, as a culture of noir fanatics watching this for the first time or not, to see it with fresh eyes.
John Parker, whoever the hell he was, made a movie that’s been thought of for sixty years as the work of an idiot. But clearing the foliage that was the original soundtrack allows to see a lineage of high standards going back to expressionism’s cousin, strassenfilm. The claustrophobic, penetrative shot of a food line ostensibly from a cop’s flood light in G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street:
looks suspiciously similar to this image of being trapped in Dementia:
Just as this opening:
seems heavily influenced by this opening, which I’m sure will be familiar to you all:
…which was aped by this:
The critique that Dementia is an obvious first-timer effort, or really any critique of the movie, needs to be taken with the largest grain of salt possible; when an element of a movie is so offending that it primes the audience to laugh at the whole, they’ll find reasons to support their initial instinct. Likewise, if they’re primed from the get-go to take a work seriously, they’ll find excuses to confirm that initial bias. And every critique you’ll read of the movie (both of them) was written from people who were practically instructed by the sound to think Parker had made a mess. The reality is that he made something between Meshes of the Afternoon and The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra; an ostensibly experimental effort steeped in multiple generic traditions.
If you’re still on the fence about giving it a shot, check out our video essay on it, linked below, for a quick taste. Nino Frank unwittingly did us no favors when he applied “film noir,” a play on “series noir,” to U.S. melodramas; we’ve spent the last seventy years riffing off of Schraeder’s riff on Chaumeton’s riff on Frank’s riff on French crime movies’ riffs on French crime novels’ riffs on American crime novels’ riffs on British crime novels’ riffs. Is it that unfounded to humor the possibility that Frank’s take on just five movies (out of seven screened) shouldn’t be the only movies against which other hundreds or thousands of movies should be compared? What about Crepusculo? A Cottage on Dartmoor? Dementia?
We’re breaking a big rule by ripping half of what makes a modern movie a movie; it’s sound. I give no shits about whatever a studio did to Dementia two years after the movie was already finished in the eyes of its director. What’s the difference, really, with what Psychic Teens did to it? And, even if you side on the studio’s side and say that what the band did made it something completely different, it’s worth noting that it made a bad movie great. But there’s a trend right now, in the U.S. at least, of doing exactly what Psychic Teens did, to many silent movies: screen a classic with a band playing live right next to it. And it’s not sacrilege. It gets eyeballs on movies that would otherwise not get them, and the results are often fantastic. This is no exception; the only difference is that the cool music isn’t played on top of long-established classics like Caligari and Nosferatu. This time, it’s played on top of a movie thought to be on the level of Plan 9, but which turns out to rival Detour. I hope you’ll join us in reshaping the noir canon, first by tossing it out and starting fresh. What’s sticking to wall is far more exciting than what simply can no longer hold its own weight.