Why I chose…Naked City and More Than Night

My matriculation at Yale must have been even more formative than I realized because I have referenced my time there in four consecutive posts—five counting this one.

One reason my college years have been so front-of-mind is that my 30-year reunion was held this past weekend (May 24-27, 2018). I put off deciding whether to go until last Wednesday night (May 23), when I looked at reunion website and realized that it was feasible (if not inexpensive) to attend only one day; New Haven, CT is a relatively easy two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from our home. Our youngest daughter was over the moon at the prospect of joining me, while our older daughter was more ambivalent.

On Thursday, we decided that both girls would skip school on Friday and accompany me.

This proved an excellent decision as, despite the heat and swarms of mosquitos (youngest daughter woke up Saturday morning, looked at her legs and thought she had chicken pox), all three of us had a great time. Both girls quickly made friends with other attendees’ children, while I joyfully caught up with friends I may “talk to” on Facebook, but have not actually seen in 30 years.

Another reason my college years are on my mind is how crucial, I am realizing, they were to my long-time love of film noir, my impetus for writing this book.

One element of this influence was that when I attended Yale in the mid-1980s, there were six film societies showing a total of something like two dozen films every Thursday to Sunday. Naturally, I watched a lot of old movies (particularly ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock) during my four years there.

One film society was housed in my residential college, Ezra Stiles. I still have the wall poster from the first semester of my freshman year (Fall 1984).

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This poster has been living in a battered filing cabinet for years. When I pulled it out for book research four or five months ago, the first thing I noticed was the black-and-white photograph of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, presumably a publicity still from The Big Sleep.

Examining the poster more closely, I saw this written under the October 4 entry for Ruthless:

“The ESFS kicks off its 1984 Film Noir Festival with this lurid saga of a total sleazeball and his ugly struggle to doublecross all of his associates and climb to the top of the dung heap we call life. Bring a date.” (italics added)

Unless I had seen them in the context of films I had previously watched on HBO (e.g., The Postman Always Rings Twice [bad 1981 remake], Body Heat), that could easily have been the first time I ever read the words “film noir.”

I did not actually see Ruthless in October 1984, so I found a copy somewhere on-line and watched it in January 2018. It was mildly entertaining, with the best scenes being part of a flashback to the three main characters as children. A nearly unrecognizable Raymond Burr portrayed the main character’s father: a well-meaning gambling ne’er-do-well alienated from the main character’s imperious mother; Burr’s character reminded me more than a little of my late father.

The two-film “festival” concluded on October 6 with The Big Sleep.

I noted another way Yale impacted my love of film noir in this post, in which I began to explain why I chose the titles I did for the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), describing two detective fiction courses I took there.

One course was a “residential college seminar” (housed in Branford, the central locus for the Class of 1988 this past weekend); the other course, which I took my senior year, was taught within the American Studies department.

Besides the terrific works of fiction, Professor Lowry had us read and discuss two decades-old volumes of black-and-white photographs. More than 30 years later, why we read these works is fuzzy, though I think it had something to do with the movement toward “realism” in the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In many ways, both books are effectively Fodor’s guides to the places (be they in Paris, London, Los Angeles or any other large city) where most of the action in hard-boiled or police procedural fiction takes place.

Pulling out my copy of the first volume—Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30s—I see that it has far more text than I had remembered, making this masterful photographer’s book an illustrated memoir (mem-noir?) of night-time Paris between 1931 and 1934. A sampling of chapter titles tells the story: Lovers, A Night with the Cesspool Cleaners, Ladies of the Evening, In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere, Sodom and Gomorrah, An Opium Den.

As brilliant as Secret Paris was, though, it did not change my life the way this book did:

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Arthur (born “Usher”) Fellig, born in what is now Ukraine in June 1899, emigrated to New York City in 1910. In 1923, he landed his first job as a photographer; 12 years later he became a full-time freelance photographer, selling his dramatic shots of murders, fires…and even teenaged “BobbySoxers” screaming at a Frank Sinatra concert to that city’s tabloid newspapers.

Between 1935 and 1945, Fellig would prowl New York City at night in his sedan, which was equipped with police scanner and portable darkroom (in the capacious trunk), allowing him to take and develop his photographs faster than his competitors. His uncanny ability to anticipate a worthy photographic subject is likely what earned him the name “Weegee,” a variant on the Ouija board used to communicate with…the dead, or something.

In 1945, after years spent collating selected photographs, Naked City was published by Essential Books. Weegee suggests the reason for the title in a two-page introductory chapter called “A Book Is Born”:

“For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off…not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them. […] The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask ‘What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,’ the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”[1]

The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci as The Great Bernzini, is an underrated, albeit highly fictionalized, account of Weegee’s career that faithfully captures his modus operandi.

Still, as compelling as the photographs’ subject matter was, it was their look that riveted me. Working at night with an infrared camera and flash powder, Weegee’s photographs are textbook examples of high-contrast, almost washed-out, chiaroscuro—intensely bright white in a sea of black.

To many film noir aficianados, including me, this look is what makes film noir; it is no coincidence that Naked City was quickly turned into this iconic 1948 film noir. In fact, I could easily define film noir as “black-and-white films whose characters are anything but.” And while valid arguments can be made for the primacy of thematic (world-weary cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity, obsession), character (wise-cracking detectives, femmes fatales, ordinary people buffeted by fate and/or who make poor choices) or plot (crime, pursuit) elements, there is no getting around film being a visual medium, one that did not even require sound for nearly four decades. This is why I zero in on cinematography as central to the definition.

Indeed, another (only partly facetious) definition of film noir is a “Cornell Woolrich story, directed by Robert Siodmak for RKO, and filmed by John Alton to look like a Weegee photograph.”

As to why this look—impossibly-dark blacks punctuated by improbably-light whites—so appeals to me, I say, “I have no idea.”

There is, of course, the sense that black-and-white is artistically sophisticated, with the added advantage of being “classic.” A more prosaic explanation is that it is less garish and distracting, and allows you more easily to focus on the subject matter. Finally, there is the fact that my 20-10 vision for most of my life (that accuresed doctoral thesis) conditioned me to prefer more basic color schemes, which created less visual overlaid.

Any (or none) of these explanations may be true, and it would still be beside the point—which is that after reading Naked City, I never looked at the world in the same way again.

**********

I have already written (and contine to write) thousands of words about my love of film noir, so I will only briefly discuss Naremore’s seminal analysis.

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There are many terrific introductions to film noir, from comprehensive almanacs (Ballinger’s and Graydon’s Rough Guide, Hogan’s Film Noir FAQ) to encyclopedic treaments (Grant, Silver et al., Mayer and McDonnell, Keaney, Selby, Spicer, Lyons) to informal, thematically-grouped overviews (Mueller’s Dark City, Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen) to quasi-academic yet highly-readable analyses (Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Osteen’s Nightmare Alley) to, finally, the Film Noir Reader series.

But Naremore, to me, does the best job of weaving these strands together while also casting a wide thematic net (international films, neo-noir, technology, censorship, inter alia). In fact, of the 373 films discussed as “noir,”more than half (53.6%) were released outside the “classic” period of 1940-59,[2] nearly half (45.8%) were made entirely in color, and 19.0% were primarily produced outside the United States. Overall, Naremore combines the rigor of an academic with the passion of a fan, producing an introduction to film noir that is both erudite and readable.

Honorable mentions:

New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive by William Hannigan

Weegee was not the only tabloid photographer working her/his magic in nocturnal New York, as this well-annotated and gritty collection reveals, though, I actually sought out this book (i.e., asked for it as a birthday gift) a few years back because it included one particular photograph. On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison (along with her lover Judd Grey) for the murder of her husband Albert, making her the first woman to be electrocuted there since 1899; James M. Cain would fictionalize the story in his 1935 novella Double Indemnity. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter named Tom Howard, covering the execution in cooperation with the New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a hand-held toggle attached to a wire running down his pant leg. As the switch was thrown on Snyder, Howard was able to snap a photograph, the first ever of an electrocution; this, along with its infamous one word banner headline (“DEAD!”), was what I sought.

A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton

The term “film noir” most likely orginated with French film critics in the late 1930s, in the context of reviewing “poetic realist” films like La Jour Se Leve (Daybreak) and Pepe Le Moko. However, it was first used in its more familiar context in July 1946, when Parisian film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Paul Chartier (who, thanks to World War II, had not seen any American films since 1941) each wrote an article discussing a new wave of dark American crime films; they were actually piggybacking on  a 1945 New York Times analysis by Lloyd Shearer[3]. But the first truly comprehesive discussion of these films came in 1955, when two French film critics wrote Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 1941-1953. They depicted interlinking cycles of films with a common style, though in their “Chronological index of the main series” they only list 21 as “Film noirs,”with another 58 titles listed as either “Criminal psychology,” “Crime films in period costume,” “Gangsters,” “Police Documentaries” and “Social tendencies.[4]” But while their nomenclature is remarkably confusing, their analysis is incisive and, for many critics, conclusive. As Naremore, who wrote the Introduction to the 2002 City Lights Books edition of Paul Hammond’s English translation, noted in Contexts, “The best way to define film noir, Peter Wollen once remarked to me, is to say that it’s any film listed in…Panorama.”[5] I do not agree with that definition, but Panorama is still the place to start.

To be continued…

[1] Weegee. 1945. Naked City (unabridged republication of original Essential Books edition). New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., pp. 11-12.

[2] Overall, 2.9% were released between 1931 and 1939, 46.4% between 1940 and 1959, 5.1% between 1960 and 1966, and 45.6% between 1967 and 2006.

[3] All three seminal articles may be found in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. pp. 161-63. Overall, Borde and Chaumeton discuss 255 films as “noir.”

[5] Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. pg. 283.

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