It's sometimes noted, quite correctly, that the artists who made what we now think of as the classic films noirs were entirely unfamiliar with the term, and indeed had no conception that they were working in a distinct tradition.  They thought of the movies they were making as crime thrillers.

This is occasionally cited in support of the idea that the term film noir is a category created by cinéastes after the fact, and therefore inauthentic, misleading.  It certainly was created (or at least popularized) by cinéastes after the fact, but that doesn't mean it's inauthentic or misleading.  Such a view fails to take into account how genres and traditions arise, which is a complex process — a combination of historical and cultural trends, influence and imitation among artists, and simple commercial calculation.  All these factors can combine to create distinct new forms, and in the case of film noir I think they did.

Two early films, which I would not call films noirs, nevertheless set the tone for the new form — The Maltese Falcon and Double IndemnityThe Maltese Falcon was a fairly standard work of hardboiled detective fiction but it had a twist.  In hardboiled detective fiction, the world might be a dark and messy place, but the detective had a code of honor which made a kind of grim moral sense amidst the darkness and the mess.

Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon had such a code and he stuck by it — but Huston allowed him more than a trace of doubt as to whether the code had any ultimate meaning, any ultimate value.  This was something new in the crime thriller, in hardboiled detective fiction — this hint of existential uncertainty.

In Double Indemnity, essentially a domestic murder melodrama, Billy Wilder offered a portrait of middle-class American life that was unremitting in its bleakness, its moral vacuousness.  I'm not sure that Wilder had any particular message to convey by this — he just sensed that in the midst of the global horror of WWII audiences were looking for sterner stuff in their melodramas, a darker vision of ordinary life that would accord with the experience of civilization as a whole gone suddenly mad.

Both films were commercially successful — proof that audiences were at the very least receptive to darker visions, to stories that raised the most disturbing (and unresolved) questions about morality and society.  Both films were also well-received critically.  This gave other film artists a kind of permission to experiment with similar themes — within the confines of the crime thriller.  They got very creative within those confines after WWII, when a generation of men scarred by war came home, and when the specter of nuclear annihilation became a reality for everyone.

They didn't think, “We're going to create a new kind of existentially challenging crime thriller.”  They just inflected the crime thriller with a new mood.  Audiences responded, and formulas began to solidify.  Film artists imitated each other, got turned on by each other's work.  Elements that worked in one film got incorporated into other films, given new twists.  It was a combination of playing it safe commercially but also pushing things as far as they could go within familiar territory — testing how much darkness the public really wanted.

It turned out to be quite a lot — so much so that that during the Fifties filmmakers began to realize that the darker themes could be incorporated into other genres besides the crime thriller, as they were, for example, in the domestic melodramas of Sirk, in the Westerns of Ford and Mann.  When that happened, the classic film noir more or less played itself out.  Its usefulness as a cultural escape valve had ended.  Any kind of film in the Sixties could deal with existential angst, with moral bewilderment, with political or social criticism, in more direct terms.  America had internalized the darkness of the film noir — the resulting culture wars were just a matter of time.

Film noir had a beginning in the global dislocations and moral derangement of WWII, and an end in the open social and political critiques of the Sixties.  There had never been anything quite like film noir before WWII, and there has never been anything quite like it since the Sixties.  It was, and remains, a distinct tradition.

[With thanks to Tony D'Ambra at films noir for some thoughts that provoked the above meditation . . .]


On the face of it, the total collapse of Barack Obama's momentum in his race for the Presidency seems puzzling — but any poker player will find the phenomenon all too familiar.

Obama doesn't know how to play a big stack in a no-limit tournament.  He ran up an enormous lead in chips early on by taking chances — positioning himself as a new kind of Democrat, one who'd risk it all to live up to his principles.  Then, when he had the Democratic nomination locked up, coffers filled with contributions from millions of small-time donors energized by his boldness and courage, he changed his style of play — cow-towed to the wicked Clintons, picked a safe running mate, started breaking his promises to his Progressive base.

It happens every day at the poker table.  A guy sits down, plays aggressively, builds a big stack — then suddenly gets afraid of losing what he has and tightens up.  Other players realize he's lost his nerve and begin bluffing him, stealing his blinds — and his chips start dribbling away.  When you play poker trying not to lose — you lose.

John McCain, who's holding 7-2 off-suit, just pushed all his chips into the pot with the Sarah Palin stunt — one of the most daring bluffs in the history of American politics.  “Don't call me,” McCain says, “or I'll accuse you of hating motherhood, small-town America and ordinary folks everywhere.”  Obama's holding a pair of Jacks.  If he calls McCain, if he just states the plain truth that Sarah Palin is a religious extremist (when she's talking in church, if not on national television) and a compulsive liar, he wins.  But, as I say, he's lost his nerve.  He thinks that if he lays down his Jacks, he might get an even better hand on the next deal.

He might, but that's not the point.  You can't play poker when you've lost your nerve — when you aren't willing to risk it all, especially against an obvious bluff.  It's a lesson Democrats never seem to learn.

Look for John McCain to win this particular tournament.

[After writing the above I happened to read an old report in The New Yorker from the campaign trail in Mondale's race against Reagan in 1984.  Polls showed that voters agreed with Mondale on the issues, when they were listed one by one, but that they liked Reagan better as a man.  The Mondale camp decided that they had to just keep hammering away at the issues and not attack Reagan, for fear of offending those who liked him so much — and because Mondale wasn't “comfortable” in the attack mode.  In the election, Mondale carried his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.]


I've posted some harsh things here about Sarah Palin, but much as I fear — and think everyone should fear — what she might do if she ever got control of America's nuclear arsenal, I must confess that there's a part of me that loves her.  Camille Paglia (pictured above), in the extraordinary article from Salon below, made me realize why I love her:

New Blood For the Vampire

You won't read anything like this article anywhere else in the national media — it's an exhilarating exercise in free thought, a celebration of Sarah Palin by a liberal, atheist, dissident-feminist lesbian who hates John McCain, supports Barack Obama and is a passionate advocate of choice on the abortion issue.

Paglia is dead wrong about many things but she's right about what Palin represents, at least in part — America's frontier past, its real frontier past, in which women hauled their fair share of the freight, and then some.

I especially commend this article to my fellow progressives, who need to understand its profound insights if they're ever going to have a chance of electing politicians who represent their views . . . something I fear is not going to happen this time around.

Sarah Palin may not be a good woman, or an honorable woman — she may even be a very bad and a very dangerous woman . . . but she's the kind of woman who got the crops in before the hailstorm hit while her husband was passed out drunk in the barn, the kind of woman who saved America's sorry ass more times than America cares to remember.  As Paglia argues, she represents a kind of frontier feminism that was getting its hands dirty with the hard work of the nation before feminism was an ideology you could subscribe to — when it was something you had to live.

Credit where credit is due, folks.  This is powerful stuff.  There are, I suspect, millions of women who would be willing to endure four more years of economic catastrophe and international disgrace, indeed to sacrifice this nation's welfare for many decades to come, just to see that kind of feminism honored and respected.  The impulse might be, in the larger context of things, irrational, self-destructive, borderline insane, but it's there and it's not going away.  The chickens are coming home to roost.


I've written before about the painting above by Arnold Böcklin, The Isle Of the Dead, which reportedly inspired some of the compositions in Hitchcock's Vertigo.  It was an image that was important to Val Lewton, as well.  A reproduction of it hangs on the wall of one of the interior sets in Lewton's I Walked With A Zombie, and of course Lewton made a film called Isle Of the Dead, which references the image more powerfully, in the film's setting.

Lewton and Hitchcock had crossed paths before they made any of these films.  Lewton was working as a story editor and assistant to David O. Selznick at the time Hitchcock made Rebecca for Selznick.  I think Lewton learned a lot from Hitchcock on that film — specifically how to create a mood of supernatural dread using only lighting and suggestion.

Hitchcock learned from Lewton in return.  Lewton's The 7th Victim has a very creepy scene (below) in which the heroine, home alone, is taking a shower behind a translucent curtain when suddenly the silhouette of an older woman materializes on the other side of the curtain, delivering an ominous warning.

The moment doesn't escalate into violence, as it does in Psycho, but the sense of surprise, of violation, of vulnerability is exactly the same.  The similarity of the two scenes is too great to be coincidental — and I think we can see Lewton's influence on another important Hitchcock film.  The whole tone of Vertigo — quiet, dreamlike, subtly, ambiguously ominous — is far closer to the tone of Lewton's RKO horror films than it is to Rebecca, which is essentially a very classy and delicate rendition of the spooky atmosphere found in old-fashioned Gothic fiction.

The house, with its ghost, haunts the heroine of Rebecca.  In Lewton's films, and in Vertigo, the whole world is haunted, unhinged — it has become a spooky maze with no exits.  Hitchcock's innovation was to create Lewton's deranged dream world in color, in California sunshine — which is ultimately much more unsettling.



For almost five years I rented a small studio apartment behind a garage in Ventura, California, half a block from the beach. My principle residence was still New York City, but I needed to spend part of the year in California, for professional reasons. I ended up in Ventura because I wanted to be near the ocean, I wanted to be within striking distance of Los Angeles, for business meetings and visits to friends and to my sister and her family there, and I wanted to be near Ojai, where a few other close friends lived. I triangulated those geographical objectives on a map and Ventura was the only logical choice.

 I sent out irregular reports to friends about Ventura — mostly meditations on place, a record of my exploration of the town and an attempt to create a myth about it for myself, as we always create myths about the places we live.

 Here’s the first of those reports, from 9 August 1998:

The beach at the end of my street isn’t wide. At high tide the waves lap up against the embankment of rocks designed to keep them from the houses lined up like books on a shelf, facing the ocean.

Sitting on one of these rocks at sunset I can look south and see the breakwater and the masts of Ventura Harbor, basically a man-made marina. North I can see the coastline for a few miles, curving inland in front of the city of Ventura then back out again to a headland of tall hills.

There is often a lot of coastal mist at sunset. Sometimes the tops of the hills at the headland are covered in it. Sometimes the whole beach is shrouded and it’s hard to make out a surf-fisher fifty yards away. All the permutations of the mist make for strange and shifting effects of the light when the sun goes down.

The water I look out at is the Santa Barbara Channel, running between the mainland and the Channel Islands, which so far have always been hidden by the mist.

The waves at the beach are not large or long but there are always surfers here. They wait out beyond the breakers, sitting still on their boards, sometimes for twenty minutes at a time, hoping for a good wave. They remind me of ducks then. Usually when a wave comes they are up and down in seconds. I think this must be an amateur or novice surfer’s beach.

Still, for those few seconds, riding upright on their boards, the surfers look bitchin’, tuned into something awesome.

The ocean.


Alaska is a very rich state — its coffers are overflowing . . . to the tune of a five billion-dollar surplus, mostly from oil-related revenues.  It still somehow manages to get more money per capita from the federal government than any other state.  (When Sarah Palin canceled the “bridge to nowhere”, she didn't send the money back to Washington — she just used it for other things in Alaska.)

I doubt if Palin has ever visited the meaner streets of South Chicago, where Barack Obama did the community service she finds so laughable.  It's possible that she's never met any truly, desperately poor people, unemployed, without health care, and no jobs, no hope in sight.

She should take a few moments and listen to Stephen Foster's beautiful song “Hard Times”, wonderfully sung by many people through the years but never better than by Bob Dylan on his album Good As I Been To You.  It might touch her heart, and the hearts of all the soi-disant Christians who laughed along with her at an example of actual Christian charity.


The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

                                                             — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Honorable behavior in uniform doesn't necessarily translate into honorable (much less competent) behavior in public office.  Look at Ulysses S. Grant, who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in American history.  It also doesn't translate into honorable behavior in one's personal life.  Look at the way John McCain treated his first wife, the truly honorable American woman who waited for him and raised their children alone during his ordeal of captivity in North Viet Nam.

If he's going to ask us to judge him on the basis of his honorable acts many decades ago, shouldn't we also take into account his dishonorable acts from the same era?  Do we have any way of knowing which John McCain will show up to work at the Oval Office, especially given his record of inconsistency where political expediency is concerned?

McCain opposed the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy which he now supports.  He opposed the off-shore drilling he now supports.  He supported immigration reform which he now disowns.  More importantly he once opposed the influence of the nutty wing of the religious right and now asks us to place a right-wing religious nut a heartbeat away from control of America's nuclear arsenal.

Obama doesn't have a lot more political courage than McCain, and has made a disgraceful retreat from his support of the U. S. Constitution, but he also isn't selling himself as paragon of transcendent honor, and he doesn't have a running mate who sees the war in Iraq as “God's task”.  (End of debate for Sarah Palin, folks — you can't argue with God.)

Have you counted your spoons recently?


loved the way Sarah Palin mocked and derided Obama for his community
service on the streets of Chicago, devoting himself to “the least of these” when he could have been making big
money on Wall Street, or, if he wanted to be really noble, serving as
the mayor of a suburb in the oil-rich state of Alaska.

Palin, a
self-described pit-bull with lipstick, must find Jesus's example of
“community service” to the least of men downright hilarious, compared to the serious
responsibility (and true charity) involved in getting streets paved for
upwardly mobile Alaskans.

In her speech she also said, “Hope is
not a strategy.”  But isn't this the strategy that Jesus asked his
followers explicitly to embrace?  Wasn't it Saint Paul who said, “
. . . for we are saved by hope“?  Wasn't it Saint Peter who said, “Be prepared to give witness to the hope that is in you”?  Isn't hope the very condition and ground of life for Christian believers — not just a strategy but the strategy?

It makes you wonder just what it is Sarah Palin likes about the Christianity she professes.  Saint Paul also said, “And now abideth faith, hope,
charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”  Having
mocked hope and charity, what is Palin left with?  Faith, I guess
— pinned like a cheap plastic crucifix to the pit-bull collar.


Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Take a moment to rejoice that New Orleans has been delivered so far this year and hope for the best from storms to come . . .


Tom Sutpen, over at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, has recently posted a delightful recording of a talk, with a question-and-answer session, that Pauline Kael gave at UC Berkeley in 1968.  Kael had just been hired as the film critic for The New Yorker and had just published her second book of collected criticism, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and she was full of beans.

The talk is a useful reminder of what good criticism is all about — not being right, or consistent, or even terribly logical, but stimulating, challenging, and sometimes downright infuriating.

Kael is remarkably honest about her ambitions as a critic.  She wants to deflate pretension, shake up the common wisdom and promote the films she likes with polemical verve.  She admits to withholding any negative reactions she might have to films she likes, lest this interfere with her promotion of them.  She makes her critical biases perfectly clear — she is interested in the sociology of the film audience and in the literary qualities of film content, and astonishingly unsympathetic to the visual aspect of cinema.

In the course of a thorough demolition of avant-garde and “underground” films (like Andy Warhol's Empire, above), she remarks that longer films “without synchronous sound” are basically unwatchable — a direct contradiction of her love for many silent films.  She says she has lost interest in Westerns because she's seen too many of them and their plots have become overly familiar.  This is an odd sort of nonsense — rather like an art critic saying she's lost interest in still-lifes because she's seen too many painted apples.  (It must be noted, though, that in passing Kael aims a well-deserved shot at the “socially conscious” Western, which was already a tiresome cliché in 1968.)

At a certain point in the talk you begin to realize that she's trying to make you angry, trying to shake you out of your complacency — demanding that you create higher standards for movies and for your reactions to them.  Even when she's talking nonsense, she gets your blood racing.


popular literature has a long grotesque tradition, stretching back to
Washington Irving, our first literary celebrity. It achieved its
apotheosis, in terms of both sensationalism and art, in the work of
Edgar Allen Poe — and it migrated naturally into the exaggerated
conventions of Victorian theater, and from there into movies.

WWI, and perhaps in part owing to the unprecedented horrors of that
conflict, grotesque melodrama became a distinct genre in cinema, much
film noir became a distinct genre after the collective nightmare of
WWII. Its power and prestige is best illustrated by the extraordinary
popularity of Lon Chaney. One of the most celebrated stars of the
silent era, he specialized almost exclusively in the genre of the
grotesque.  (He's seen above in and out of make-up for
The Miracle Man.)

tracing the rise of the modern horror film from its roots in silent
cinema, we can easily misconstrue the grotesque genre as it was
experienced by early audiences.
The Phantom Of the Opera and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
, proto-horror films starring Chaney, actually
have more in common with a grotesque contemporary melodrama like
, also starring Chaney as a legless underworld crime boss —
and the three have more in common with each other than any of them has
Dracula, for example, with its supernatural elements, or even Frankenstein, with its elements of mad-science fiction.

Phantom, the Hunchback, and the legless Blizzard from
The Penalty are
all disfigured men whose afflictions have rendered them terrifying,
while not quite extinguishing the romantic souls within. It's hard not
to see in this an echo of the many thousands of mutilated survivors of
WWI, and a metaphor for the psyche of a world scarred by previously
unimaginable battlefield carnage.

word grotesque does not quite describe the dramatic tone of
or the world it creates. Demented is closer to the mark. It
does not present us with a vision of normality penetrated by grotesque
elements — it is set in a universe which has become unhinged at the
core, and this nightmare universe is delineated matter-of-factly, as
though its logic were the logic of the world as it is.

creates a wonderful, dreamy kind of surrealism, with great poetic
force, and a delightful atmosphere of
frisson — but it is finally very
disturbing. One is tempted for this very reason to dismiss it as lurid
pulp, but one cannot — mostly because of the authority of Chaney . . .
the physical authority of his shockingly convincing impersonation of a
legless man, and the artistic authority of his performance as the
paradoxical Blizzard.

We are
given to drawing a distinction between silent film performers who
“over-acted” and those who played in a more restrained and “modern”
style. Chaney is usually considered more modern in this sense. But in
truth, Chaney overacts in every frame of
The Penalty, by modern
standards. It's just that the broad strokes of his expressions and
gestures are so grounded in psychological truth, so complex in their
suggestiveness, so graceful and sublime in their execution, that we are
swept beyond our modern expectations of what acting should be. We are
experiencing screen performance as audiences of the time experienced

intimacy of the camera certainly did require a technical toning down of
physical expression and gesture for actors coming from the stage —
much as a smaller theatrical venue would have for actors accustomed to
playing huge auditoriums — and there were certainly lunkheaded actors
who couldn't pull this off. But most of the time, when we talk about
the difference between over-acting and more naturalistic acting in
silent films, we are simply noting the difference between bad acting
and good acting.

One of
Cocteau's great maxims was “You have to know when it's all right to go
too far.” Great silent film actors knew this — and great modern actors
know it, too. James Cagney and Jack Palance — and Jack Nicholson, for that
matter — habitually overact by so-called modern standards, yet their
performances still seem fresh and convincing, perfectly
au courant.
Daniel Day Lewis's performance in
The Gangs Of New York, one of the
very greatest performances ever committed to film, is as wild and
over-the-top as any silent film performance ever was, and yet it is a
work of complicated and compelling genius.

camera did allow a new breed of actors to step to the fore — the
minimalists, of whom Robert de Niro is probably the most astonishing.
But Lon Chaney was no minimalist. He was an actor in the grand style —
and, quite simply, a supreme master of that style, consistently
pitch-perfect, and consistently breathtaking.

delirious tale of
The Penalty begins with a boy injured in a traffic
accident, treated by an incompetent doctor who unnecessarily amputates
both his legs. An older doctor covers for the younger physician's
mistake, and the chastened bumbler goes on to an exemplary career in
medicine. But the boy never forgets.

He grows up to be the crippled criminal mastermind Blizzard, played by Chaney, who amasses power, covets more, and plans
his revenge — on the doctor and on the world.

the first front, he insinuates himself into the life of the doctor's
daughter — a sculptor torn between her ambitions as an artist and
society's expectations of exemplary womanhood (domestic and submissive)
— by posing for her portrait of Satan. On the second front he is
plotting a takeover of the city of San Francisco by means of a lunatic
scheme involving ten thousand “foreign malcontents”, armed to the
teeth, and uniformed in silly matching straw hats, cunningly woven in
advance by harlots conscripted from the ranks of Blizzard's working

It's all quite mad, but presented as an authentic threat to the civil order.

subplot involves a plucky undercover female police operative who
infiltrates the crucial straw hat operation and quickly learns more
than it's safe for her to know. Principally she discovers the
underground lair where Blizzard stores the munitions for his planned
insurrection — a subterranean world, reached through a trick
fireplace, that's right out of the wildest Gothic fiction, and vaguely
reminiscent of Erik the Phantom's underground kingdom beneath the

Blizzard is a beast, with the soul of a poet. He is a fine critic of art, and fires the sculptor with the courage she
needs to break free of her bourgeois shackles and strike out on her own for glory. Villain indeed!

also wins the heart of the undercover operative by his soulful piano
paying — and she wins his by her skillful operation of the pedals
while he plays. She comes to her senses only when she discovers that
his grand plan involves amputating the legs of a certain . . . but you
get the idea.

Female independence is presented as possibly sexy and possibly admirable but, in the end, a very bad idea, for which a
woman will inevitably pay a dreadful price.

preposterous villainy resembles the harebrained villainy of Feuillade's
serials — at once innocent and unsettling, mundane and surreal.
Possibly both reflect a post-war malaise informed by a sense that the
ordinary world has gone subtly but irrevocably insane.

performance, as usual, gives it all an unlikely interior coherence and
logic. The filmmaking is aptly described by Michael Blake, Chaney's
biographer, as craftsmanlike — the shots are handsomely framed and
lit, and the narrative moves along at a lively clip. Chaney alone
elevates the film to greatness.

time he moves himself around with his crutches or with his hands alone,
we watch a ballet on stumps unfold — the aesthetic determination and
commitment of the actor become the villainous determination and
commitment of the character he's playing. We admire him and recoil from
him at the same time.

is the thrill of the grotesque drama. We are allowed to engage and
embrace our deepest fears and discontents subconsciously, while
retaining our outward allegiance to conventional virtues. The film
dangles the possibility of Blizzard's redemption before us — then
snatches it away at the last moment . . . as it snatches away the
possibility of new horizons for the women.

ultimate effect, however, is one of ambiguity, a suspension of faith in
the old certainties — an intriguing discombobulation of the moral

edition of the film on DVD features a splendid print and some wonderful
extras. They include the surviving footage from
The Miracle Man
which is painful to watch, because this lost film looks as though it
might have been marvelous. Included also is one of the few surviving
one-reelers from Chaney's early years at Universal —
By the Sun's
. It's not much of a film, but it's fascinating to see Chaney at
work at the beginning of his movie career. His physical grace commands
attention, even when his choices as an actor are obvious or even crude.
Chaney was born for the screen, as Chaplin and Pickford were — with an
instinctive insight into the movies's mysterious expressive power.

is, perhaps most delightfully of all, a brief short in which Michael
Blake shows us some of the Chaney artifacts held by the Los Angeles
Museum of Natural History. We see the suit and the stumps Chaney wore
in the movie, his make-up case — the mirror he looked into while
working his magic. Blake handles them all with the delicate hands of a
make-up artist, which he is — and the awed respect of someone who
genuinely admires the craft of a master.