Friday, July 29, 2016

The Complex Art of Film Noir: Winter 2007

Written at the time of the films' releases. I still find it interesting that both these movies were released on the same day.

I: "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"*

In Broad Daylight

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Just ask Andy and Hank Hanson. They both need money because they want to do right by their families: Andy, so he can get out of debt and maybe move with his depressed wife to Rio de Janeiro; Hank, because he's a few months late in child support, and he wants to do right by his daughter...oh, and his mistress, and ...well, all of Hank's dreams are short-term.

But Andy has a plan that's fool-proof: a robbery. "No one gets hurt. It's perfect." Trouble is, Hank's a fool, and he agrees before he knows all that it entails. Andrew, a real estate accountant, gives him a down-payment. "There's $2,000. See what that does for you. Imagine the rest."
They can't imagine. Because, as they say in the magazine-shows, things go "horribly, horribly wrong."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead might belong to that sub-genre of comedy films called "The Incredible Mess," where seemingly simple plans go increasingly awry, but it's no comedy, except in the perverse way perfect disasters pile upon perfect disasters. 
I would contend, however, that the movie, as written by Kelly Masterson, is a film noir, that species of film where the world maliciously has it in for an honest man, and corruption runs so deep that it's manifested in a shade of fathomless blackness--"where the world is dark with something more than night," as the saying goes. One of the laureates of the proto-noir story was Raymond Chandler, who laid out the ground-rules for his brand of detective fiction in an essay titled "The Simple Art of Murder," first published in 1944, and quoted extensively below.** In it, he railed against the "drawing room" brand of detective fiction as weak and unrealistic, and that a detective-hero must try and find Truth in a fabric of deception, obfuscation, and agendas so thick it's like wading through a cess-pool. 
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is so steeped in layers of corruption that any transgression amplifies to the worst possible conclusion, and by chain reaction drags the innocent down as well as the guilty in a tragedy of Shakespearean consequences. No one is immune from the veil of evil. The world of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is so corrupt, there is no hero. And it all happens in broadest daylight.
There have been "daylight-noirs" before, like Gun-Crazy, and, of course, Chinatown, which takes place in sun-blasted L.A. But Devil is centered in New York, and mostly gentrified New York at that. New York, because the director is Sidney Lumet, who quite rarely makes a movie anywhere else. Lumet's an odd choice for a noir film, although he's made many films in The Big Apple's squalor—SerpicoThe PawnbrokerPrince of the CityQ & A, and he's made many movies that intertwine family and crimeDog Day AfternoonMurder on the Orient Express, and Family Business. As a director, he's not very stylish, and is, in fact, pretty clunky, as in Twelve Angry Men, and Fail-Safe, or, dare I mention it, The Wiz. Lumet expends his energy on performance, rather than construction. In fact, Lumet has rarely risen above his roots as a director of live television: a master shot, the occasional close-up, and that's about it. His camera work is utilitarian at its best, sometimes inelegant, brightly lit, nothing fancy. He tends to downplay using film scores (except as punctuation, however, when he wants mood, he will overdo it, as per Murder on the Orient Express), thinking them too pervasive and detracting from a scene's manufactured reality. When he does try something different (in other films, it was crudely distorting lenses) it's always in your face. Here, it's an editing transition that flashes forward and back three to four times, similar to the "druggy" transitions in Easy Rider, but with an annoying clacking noise at each edit. The story-telling technique employed is similar to that of another noir, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, where the actual caper is viewed from one character's point of view, then rewinds back to another participant's during the same time period and beyond. The plot advances and coalesces in increments until the inevitable end-game where all stories come together. And Devil ends in the only way this noir-in-daylight could end.
Because it's Lumet, it's the performances where the movie shines: Philip Seymour Hoffman is all sweating self-pity as Andrew, Ethan Hawke is Hank, a pitiful train-wreck doing a poor job of trying to appear "together", Albert Finney goes a bit over the top as their father Charles, and Marisa Tomei shows the promise that her early Oscar win belied as Andrew's wife, caught in the middle. But the smaller performances of minor characters like Michael Shannon and Aleksa Palladino stand out as well. It's a blackly depressing film that owes whatever greatness it achieves to the writing and performances.

II: "Gone Baby Gone"

That, in All Things

Now, walk down these mean streets a little further--all the way to Boston. Here you'll find private detective Patrick Kenzie, the very definition of the term John D. MacDonald used to describe Raymond Chandler. "He writes," said MacDonald "like a slumming angel." Kenzie knows the back-alleys, the crack-dens, the gang-bangers, the dealers, the dive bars and the angles and he knows how to handle them with a cock-suredness that belies his years.*** But that street cred only takes you so far, because although he's lived in Boston his entire life, New Orleans transplant detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris--extraordinarily good) tells him "I've been here longer than you've been alive."
And Bressant has seen the long continuous story of those places Kenzie merely visits. But if Bressant knows more, nobody tops Captain Doyle (Morgan Freeman, completely dominating the three scenes he's in), whose daughter was kidnapped and killed, and has dedicated his life to making sure it doesn't happen again on his watch. 4½ year old Amanda McCready has gone missing from the neglectful eye of her good-for-nothing mother and Kenzie and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) have been hired by an aunt to find her, however reluctant they are to take the case. Within 24 hours, there's a good chance they can find her alive and unharmed. She's been gone, now, for 60.
And soon, after all the slumming and the chance-taking, the compromises with the police and the stake-outs gone bad, the case comes to a dissatisfying end, and like any good noir dick, that's just not good enough for Kenzie. He has to keep pushing for Truth, no matter how hidden, no matter the consequences. But the Truth hurts and can lead to decisions made for the best of reasons but the worst of consequences. And this "slumming angel," this noir-hero by Chandler's precise description, will suffer the consequences for his decision, both personal and professional. But because he is the hero, he must fight that corruption even if the result is not a more perfect world, but the same tainted world as when he began. And maybe, even one that's worse.
As it happens, there is no moral high ground here. There is no "right" and "wrong" for the situation is too far out of control for there to be a "right" and a "wrong" and the two step over each other's line as often as a police tape is crossed. The resolution of the story, the choices made can be argued for days, and the last shot of the movie damns even as it takes the film to a logical conclusion.
This has been a great year for Casey Affleck. First, he stepped out of the star-crush to become more than a glorified extra in Ocean's 13, carried the bulk of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and now holds his own against Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris at the height of their powers. His performance in Gone Baby Gone shows great versatility and an amazing range. 
But if Casey's potential has come to fruition, the emergence of Ben Affleck as a director is nothing short of a revelation. Here he shows a command of time and place, and a wonderful eye for faces that lend authenticity to the grime of the surroundings. An action scene at night may not be as focused and suspenseful as it should be, but the rest of the movie is assured, and negotiates moral discussions without getting bogged down in high-handedness or slowing the movie down. That fine directorial touch extends all the way to the wickedly oblique final shot that will creep on you days after the fade to black. Given this auspicious debut, one looks forward to the next film featuring Ben Affleck behind the camera.

The view from 2016: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was Sidney Lumet's last film; Gone Baby Gone was Ben Affleck's first. I still find Lumet's approach to making films limited and dispassionate. As a director, he is not subtle in how he shapes a film to get a reaction out of an audience with his invasive angles and choice of lenses. He is not so much a story-teller as a propagandist—and not in the sense of having a political leaning, although he had one, which has nothing to do with his film-making approach. Lumet makes directorial choices that does not let an audience make up its own mind...on anything. That technique approaches the dictatorial in how he presents—when Lumet makes a point, he makes it with all the subtlety of a brick through a window. In a way, I think Lumet has never trusted an audience. If he had, he might have played things a little looser, which might be why, when he's attempted a comedy, they've tended to fall flat.

Which is why the pairings of Gone Baby Gone and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is of such interesting coincidence. I'm not going to say that first-time director Ben Affleck is a better director than Sidney Lumet, but he sure does trust the audience more. He leaves you with such a complex moral dilemma that it generates more questions than answers. Lumet would never allow questions and would telegraph the answers. Lumet may generate outrage, but he doesn't generate thought (unless he's so obtuse, you wonder what his point was). Affleck, with this movie and his second film The Town**** (but not Argo, his crowd-pleasing Oscar-winner—that one's pretty cut-and-dried) did not telegraph easy answers or opinions. If anything, he left you hanging with ambiguity, wondering what came next. Starting out, at least, his movies seemed to indicate that they continued to have life after he shut off the camera. Affleck leaves you wanting more. Lumet says everything that he has to say.

Affleck has had the benefit of more hind-sight than Lumet and less time in the director's booth of TV. That's an advantage, and his movies feel less staged and less in a bubble-universe all their own than Lumet's.

I guess that this is an explanation that all these years later, that I think Affleck's first film is better than Lumet's last. Interesting.

* After the Irish toast: May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head. May you be forty years in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead.

** Raymond Chandler, perfectly describing the fetid world of "noir" in "The Simple Art of Murder:"

"The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization."

Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" again, describing the detective hero:

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."

**** Preview of Coming Attractions:  I'll post the review of The Town and Argo tomorrow.

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