Sunday, May 4, 2008

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 2 (Film-Noir Dialogue)

I was aware of the parodies of film noir before I ever heard of the genre that owes its origins to the hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I first heard of them in a review for "Pulp Fiction" that said the movie was tinted by their echoes. Given how much I loved it, I simply had to find out more about these two guys. Now I have a collection of books on detectives tracking down dames with eyes the colour of "shadows on polished silver" (grey, in case you were wondering), and men "neither tarnished nor afraid", who walk the "mean streets".

Crackling with wit and dripping with atmosphere, their tales were of world-weary men who brought their own strange code of ethics to a dark world of unforgettable characters. The stories were vicious, bloody and ironic - where lines got so blurred that villains were sometimes more sympathetic than heroes; where, in fact, such labels often had no meaning (maybe this is more true for Hammett than Chandler). In "Red Harvest", for instance, it is the "villains" who display more heart and more humanity than the cold-blooded killing machine that is the detective, the nameless Continental Op. These were no morality plays.

For all that, they were also very affecting, for here were characters, on both sides of the divide, I actually cared for. (As Chandler put it, "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.") Then there are those encounters, those passages, that are such perfect mood pieces that long after I've forgotten who was murdered, or who the culprit was, the flavour lingers. These were no puzzles dressed up as stories, or a meticulous collection of mysteries and clues, all building up to a huge pay-off in the last page. Hell, sometimes even the author had no idea who did what (Chandler, more than Hammett). A world apart from the antiseptic whodunnits that I'd read previously.

Which brings me to my movie turn-on. Sure, black-and-white photography of Humphrey Bogart walking down dark, rain-drenched streets alone, in trench coat and hat, is a thrill like no other. But some other time, maybe. For now, it's noir dialogue. Snappy, double-entendre-laced exchanges at the pace of machine-gun fire. So outrageously over-the-top that they're more often cringe-worthy than anything else. But when they do get it right, there's nothing quite like it.

"Double Indemnity", co-written by Chandler, was made at a time when the Hays Code was in effect. I suppose the right thing to do is tut-tut at this censorship that must've neutered so many great movies. But it's hard not to take some perverse pleasure that Hollywood, too, had to go through a variation of the hypocrisy that the Indian establishment practises. So what if generations of Indians had to put up with gushing fountains and blooming flowers after a trying 3 hours of aggravatingly-idealistic boy wooing irritatingly-pious girl? Why, even the great Hitchcock had to be happy with trains speeding into tunnels! And what's more? The fact that the code was there, adds to the fun of seeing this oh-so-innocent insurance sales pitch, for instance, dance circles around it. Of course, reading it here is only half the thing. Watching it, elevates it to a whole new plane.

She: You handle just automobile insurance or all kinds?
He : All kinds: fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial stuff and so on, right on down the line.
She: (She sits back down and crosses her legs) Accident insurance?
He : Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson. (Pause) Wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
She: Just my name.
He : As for instance?
She: Phyllis.
He : Phyllis, huh? I think I like that.
She: But you're not sure?
He : Oh, have to drive it around the block a coupla times...
She: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30. He'll be in then.
He : Who?
She: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
He : Yeah, I was, but... I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
She: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr Neff. 45 miles an hour.
He : How fast was I going, officer?
She: I'd say around 90.
He : Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
She: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
He : Suppose it doesn't take.
She: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
He : Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
She: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
He : That tears it. (Pause) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
She: That's what I suggested.
He : Will you be here, too?
She: I guess so, I usually am.
He : Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
She: I wonder if I know what you mean.
He : I wonder if you wonder.

That was just a sample. From the evocative narration of our hero (a man confessing to murdering for... well... two very special reasons), to how the little man in the stomach is indispensable when it comes to detecting insurance fraud and dodgy brides, to how converting husbands to a little hard cash can smell like honeysuckle and how your footsteps sound afterward, to how you can mistake people for being smarter than the rest when all they are is a little bit taller, to some startling insight on suicide statistics (did you know that not one person has ever attempted suicide by jumping off the back of a moving train?), the dialogue is witty, cynical, nasty, touching too at times, totally unrealistic (it seems so, at least; however, if this is how people really talk in Los Angeles, my places-to-visit list needs updating), has more outrageous similes than you can count... and is eminently quotable.

In fact, you could just switch off the TV (if you were blind, that is, and extraordinary photography - or Barbara Stanwyck, for the matter - does nothing for you), and just listen to the movie. Ah, that's my cue. I just contradicted myself. My post's going downhill. I'm all washed up. You bet I'll get out of here, baby. I'll get out of here but quick.


Dan said...

I think Chandler's LA was more a wannabe self-fulfilling prophecy on his part. Big words to say: he probably wished that such dialogue were possible, and through his scripts and stories perhaps he did create a few wayward broads who really talked like that.

All about filmic style - pitching a black and white Bogart against a colourful script and greyscale morals - and reading him is always inextricably linked to what the Big Sleep and even The Maltese Falcon did.

"They say all native Californians come from Iowa."

Rohan said...

Yeah, expecting people to really talk like that would be hoping for too much, I guess. :)

Maybe I misunderstand you, but, in my case, I first read Hammett and Chandler before I watched any noir. It was them that lead me to the film genre. I haven't watched any film versions of Marlowe (except Elliott Gould - if that counts), so the image of Marlowe in my head is one mostly of my own making. Despite not having the imagery in my head beforehand, I enjoyed Chandler from the start.

Having said that, I prefer Hammett to Chandler, as he's less sentimental. Maybe watching "The Big Sleep", and having a film reference point, like you do, would change that.