You Can't Win. Film noir
Part 1: 1927–1948
March 10 to 31, 2005
In March and April of 2005, the Austrian Film Museum will present a large-scale Retrospective on the specific "culture of
failure" (and of crime) that is associated with the term Film noir. It attempts to examine noir in a wider context and to
give it a deeper grounding than has been the case so far in the German-language area. The show includes 85 works. Part One
can be seen in March, with films from the years 1927-1948.
The dark American crime melodramas created during the 1940s and 50s by filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, John Huston, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray or Jacques Tourneur, have become virtually synonymous with the classical Hollywood cinema. Works such as Double Indemnity, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, The Killers, The Lady From Shanghai and The Postman Always Rings Twice are part of this canon – a mass-cultural context in which the words "Film noir" function almost like a fashion label: they evoke stylized black-and-white cinematography (dizzy angles and chiaroscuro lighting), nighttime urban settings, and treacherous love affairs between melancholy or cynical men and beautiful but "fatal" women. Taken as a brand name, noir produces a sense of comfy nostalgia and awakens expectations of smart and hard-boiled dialogue exchanges. It also serves as shorthand for a certain hipness in movie taste.
Underneath this attractive “visual” surface, however, Film noir finds itself at the nexus of several narrative, cultural and political traditions which are as rich and virulent today as they were 50 years ago. Film noir is a flexible set of ideas; it resists any clear-cut categorization, be it genre (gangster films), style (sombre moods and a predominance of shadows), or a cinematic era confined by time or geography (such as “USA, 1945 to 1955”). This Retrospective invites viewers to comprehend Film noir in more fundamental terms – for example, as a sub-history of modernism and of the individual in modernity.
Invented by French film critics in 1946-47, the concept of Film noir was marked from the beginning by existentialist and surrealist impulses – and by the experience of the Second World War. The hardboiled school in American literature (Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Cain) was also considered to be a central element in the development of the form. Gradually, scholars and critics added other patterns and lines of influence. These include: 1) the naturalist and modernist literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (from Zola to Döblin, Faulkner and Greene), which already contributed a "noir" hue to the films of the period between the World Wars; 2) the trans-continental migration of many filmmakers and intellectuals from Central Europe into US exile (from Berlin to Hollywood via Paris), along with their biographical, stylistic and intellectual "transferrals"; 3) new forms of documentary style, partially influenced by journalism (from the photographers Atget and Weegee to Italian Neoverismo and the Newsreels’ mode of reportage); 4) traditions of the American left, which soon came to be at odds with the reactionary climate of the Cold War and the McCarthy era; 5) the sociological transformation of American cities after 1945, with the shifting of middle-class life from urban to suburban settings. James Naremore, author of what is possibly the best book on Film Noir ("More Than Night"), will reflect on some of these contexts in his lecture on March 11 in the Film Museum.
Starting from the noir classics listed above and from those archetypal figures like Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Burt Lancaster, who remain inevitably associated with these films in the public imagination, the Film Museum's show spans a wide arc describing the powerful "orbit" of Film noir: from the films of the late Weimar Republic to the poetic realism in 1930s France, continuing to the modern European and American cinema of the 1960s and 70s and contemporary filmmaking.
Thus, in Part One of the Retrospective, the noir classics of the1940s will be joined by a number of rare and unusual works from the US (including two major rediscoveries: Johnny Eager by Mervyn LeRoy and The Seventh Victim by Mark Robson), and by several forerunners and para-noir titles from Europe. These include: German “city films" from before the Nazi Era (such as Asphalt, Voruntersuchung, M); French films noir made immediately prior to, during or after the occupation (by Renoir, Carné, Clouzot and Pierre Chenal, plus Robert Siodmak's Pièges with Erich von Stroheim); Luchino Visconti's early James M. Cain adaptation Ossessione; brilliant British noir visions and versions (by Anthony Asquith, John Boulting and Alberto Cavalcanti); and even one example from Switzerland: Wilder Urlaub, shot in 1943 by Franz Schnyder in the face of serious political obstacles. A few US predecessors from the 1920s and 30s demonstrate that Film noir is not only rooted in Europe (early Hollywood films by Josef von Sternberg and Fritz Lang, as well as the original Maltese Falcon, directed by Roy del Ruth in 1931 and almost unknown today). Common to all these variations of Film noir is a representation of failure, of the need to escape or the loss of a strong male identity. They usually offer a pessimistic outlook. Sometimes this occurs in the form of quickly made, low-budget gangster films, sometimes in the garb of parables in which the "crime" or the "mystery" to be unravelled is little more than a pretext.
Film Noir translates the experience of modernity (and some essential characteristics of modernist art and literature) into the realm of popular culture. The "man in the crowd" goes to the movies and is confronted by his own image: a loser, harried by apparently overpowering forces. In Film noir, these forces are named more concretely than in other genres: war and exile; industrialization and urbanization; corrupt or Mafia-like politics; the illusionary world and very real power of the media and culture industries; alienation at one's workplace and in private life; the toxic blend of sex and money--capitalism in multiple libidinous guises.
Film noir is ruled by an atmosphere of futility, of paranoia, of existential hopelessness; needless to say, this backdrop is not exactly well-suited to implementing political change. Accordingly, the so-called "defeatism" of noir has been criticized not only by reactionary writers, but also by the left. As a school of skepticism, however, the noir tradition seems more necessary than ever – it counters and contradicts the pervasive ideology of success, of striving to be and behaving like a “winner”, which is omnipresent in the economic, political and cultural arenas. Along these lines, the title chosen for the Retrospective articulates the hard and essentially modern realisation which lies at the heart of Film noir’s popular critique of capitalism and optimism. It is taken from the autobiography of Jack Black, a hobo and thief: „You Can’t Win“.
A series of lectures on Film noir, jointly organized by SYNEMA and the Film Museum, forms an integral part of the programmes. James Naremore's lecture on March 11 is the first in the series; the remaining presentations by Elisabeth Bronfen, Thom Andersen, Monika Faber, Lutz Koepnick and Hans Scheugl will follow in April.
“You Can't Win” is also connected to other projects of the Film Museum which are undertaking a contemporary, “non-bureaucratic” re-reading of classical genres and film eras (Singing and Dancing in Film, May 2003; New Hollywood, March/April 2004). This line of programming will be continued in the future, for example with an examination of the genre of Westerns.
The retrospective takes place with the generous support of the ERSTE BANK. We would also like to express our thanks to the Austrian Film Institute (OeFI), as well as to James Naremore, Michael Omasta and Christoph Huber for their inspiration and assistance with the selection of films.