Thursday, September 07, 2006

"You can take Film Noir out of America, but..."

Being a recent convert to film noir fandom, and simultaneously a fan of the English-based Hammer Film Studios, the Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set seemed like a no-brainer. This is a collection of six films that were released in the 1950's, and meant to capitalize on the recent American trend of crime thrillers (the term "Film Noir" only recently been coined, and was not in widespread popular use).

The idea was to make low-budget films in Britain... import a few lesser lights from the pool of actors in the US (in order to gain an element of international appeal), apply the studio system mentality, and distribute the product to run as the B-side of a program containing a like-minded Hollywood film.

Having had the pleasure of discovering the Hammer Studio horror pictures released over the last few years, I had high expectations. They are workmanlike productions, with competent directors, screenwriters and actors. The Hammer horror series pays extra special attention to atmosphere, and this may be it's main strength. I figured that since Film Noir relies so heavily on atmospheric elements, then this collection would be a "can't miss". What I didn't realize is just how peculiarly "American" the Film Noir category is.

Film Noir is grounded in the historical context and style of post-WWII America. It's the hard-boiled underbelly of the prosperity that followed the end of the war. It's moral relativism, urban cityscapes, and quick-witted street dialogue combined to fashion a wholly distinctive counterpoint to the then prevailing self-concept of the nation. It's black-and-white, neo-chiaroscuro film-style belies the moral complexities of it's themes and storylines. It moves quickly, and is confounding to those looking for easy answers or ethical clarity.

Why did I think this would be translatable to the English? Their mannered sensibilities, while seemingly perfect for the Gothic horror of Hammer films, simply don't work in the crime-thriller genre. And the British accent certainly takes away from the tonal qualities of classic noir dialogue. Try to imagine the following spoken in a "limey" accent:

"Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver."

"When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it."

"You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle."

"Now, do you wanna talk business, or do you wanna play house...?"

I don't know about you... but I have a hard time with it. In the Hammer Noir films, the actors don't even try to deliver lines like this... maybe the scriptwriters knew better than to write them. As if this weren't enough to discount these films as Noir, many of the scenes are filmed in bright daylight, and virtually none in the obligatory gritty-urban milieu. There are none of the quintessentially slimy or thuggish bit players that make watching American Noir so much fun.

All this is not to say that the films on this Hammer collection are without merit. Terence Fisher is a damn good director, and many of these actors are better than adequate. Some of the settings are intriguing- such as an antiquarian book store (Man Bait), or plastic surgery lab (Stolen Face). But if you are expecting to find the classic elements, you need to stick with the American-made Film Noir. These are just too "proper".

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