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 Shadows ● An A to Z of Classic American Film Noir 
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 Shadows ● An A to Z of Classic American Film Noir

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Of all the attempts to define film noir since its inception, that of writer and noir scholar Eddie Muller is perhaps the most poetic: "People who know they're doing the wrong thing and do it anyway." While this maxim can be applied to many films from each end of noir's shady spectrum and beyond, it still doesn't bring us much closer to a concrete definition. In Panorama du Film Noir Américain, written by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in 1955 when the flame of noir still meekly burned, the approach taken is much more scientific. We study the typical characteristics of such films that have been deemed "noir" by those with a valid opinion on the matter, and then seek out a common denominator. Crime, as the first of these put forward by Borde and Chaumeton, is however something of a misleading common trait, in that it can perhaps more conveniently be applied to the police documentary or police procedural films that were also popular during this period. Rather than crime, one could argue that it is the product of crime that ties all noir films together. Be it theft, blackmail, drug dealing or assault, the ultimate product of criminal exertion within these generic stories is always, unswervingly and unavoidably, death.

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Aesthetically, film noir is many things. It is deep, accentuated shadows and dim lighting, captured using compositions that are often jaunty or uneven - a feature instantly recognisable as belonging to one of the genre's more distant ancestors, German Expressionism. The gritty visual landscape of film noir, with its rain-swept streets and boarded up back-alleys, acts as the perfect complement to the tales we are presented with. The tales of those who reside in these shadows; conduct business in these shadows; scrape and scratch as a means to exist in these shadows. Indeed, they are shadows that seem almost perennial. It is a world in which dark rarely turns to light - night rarely to day - full of creatures that roam nocturnally, and over all of which the oppressive presence of a breaking dawn looms, large and threatening. Protagonists are often framed protruding from the shadows, with some segment of their body awkwardly isolated, illuminated by the glow of a nearby table lamp, street light or neon sign. This is the case with the unforgettable appearance of Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in Carol Reed's (non-American production) The Third Man, and is a technique that suggests a dark side to each of us.

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To borrow an analogy from David Sterritt and John Anderson's informative but ultimately unimaginative book The B List, film noir came out of the shadows: "Shadows of the Depression, creeping fascism and thirties pulp fiction." The cinematic traits listed above, then, were born out of the material constraints of the time. Low lighting on commercial Hollywood sets and the intermittent blackouts of wartime forced filmmakers underground, if you will. The expressionist leaning of such European émigré directors as Fritz Lang gave early noir films an uncertain, unstable look, and the personal experience of he and others like him - Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk and Max Ophüls, all of whom were forced to leave their home countries - helped to inspire a pervading feeling of pessimism and suspicion among noir's early productions. In this thread I will attempt to cover all of those who helped to define noir as a genre, from writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett whose pulpy fiction so influenced its quick-witted dialogue, to cinematographers such as John Alton and Burnett Guffey whose oblique angles and close framing lent its scenes such a paranoid, at times almost overwhelmingly claustrophobic quality.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:23 am
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I've been meaning to watch more Noirs so I'll be watching this thread closely.


Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:28 am
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You impress me, Jedi. After all these years.


Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:30 am
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I approve

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:32 am
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Epistemophobia wrote:
You impress me, Jedi. After all these years.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:33 am
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It's too painful to say it directly.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:33 am
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If you haven't read it, I personally suggest Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir", in my opinion the best overview there is.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:35 am
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Aw, neatsies.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:35 am
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Blevo wrote:
It's too painful to say it directly.

Why not shout it from an upstairs window, through a pesto-smeared mouth?

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:35 am
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JediMoonShyne wrote:
Why not shout it from an upstairs window, through a pesto-smeared mouth?

I'm not one of those, ewwww.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:36 am
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Philosophe rouge wrote:
If you haven't read it, I personally suggest Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir", in my opinion the best overview there is.

Will seek it out, thanks.

Also, thanks for your Noir Guidance. :heart:

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:39 am
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JediMoonShyne wrote:
Will seek it out, thanks.

Also, thanks for your Noir Guidance. :heart:

Happy to help :D I will be watching a lot of noir over the next couple of months as well, so it will be fun for me to be following this thread :D

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:40 am
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Sweet. My fav genre.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:41 am
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Mmmmm


Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:50 am
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:fresh:


Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:50 am
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Nice icon and banner.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 4:59 am
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Awesome.
Philosophe rouge wrote:
If you haven't read it, I personally suggest Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir", in my opinion the best overview there is.
This also crossed my mind while reading the first paragraph. Among other places, I believe it can be found on the Criterion DVD of the Killers.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:01 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
This also crossed my mind while reading the first paragraph. Among other places, I believe it can be found on the Criterion DVD of the Killers.

http://i.mtime.com/Noir/blog/1433838/

Is this the whole thing? I assumed it was a book of some sort.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:05 am
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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:07 am
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Looks like it.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:07 am
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Also easily accessible online.

edit: derp. Didn't see Jedi's link.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:08 am
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That's the link Jedi just posted.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:08 am
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Erotic.


Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:25 am
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Fun, I'll be watching!


Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:26 am
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Dawn in the city. A clammy mist hangs in the air, obscuring the distant high-rise tenement buildings and occasional ambling pedestrians alike. A solitary patrol car crawls its way through this landscape, under swaying telephone lines and past concrete pillars that cast long, foreboding shadows - an anonymous, De Chirico-like cityscape of indifferent urban architecture. Based on W.R. Burnett's novel of the same name, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle not only helped define the term "film noir" in the fifties, but also helped redefine mainstream cinema at the time. Never before had a film boasted such well-drawn criminals, who, rather than abnormal villains hell-bent on the murder of innocent people and ruin of justice, are mere ordinary folk in a shady, barely-sustaining line of work. They drink in cramped and dingy apartments, whisper betting tips into the crooked ears of fellow drinkers, and each inexorably harbour a fragile, ultimately unattainable dream: retirement among tanned bodies in Mexico, for example, or returning to the nostalgic setting of a family homestead in Kentucky. These are the inhabitants of Huston's "city under the city", as it was referred to in the film's tagline, who are - much to the dismay and outrage of many at the time - purposefully painted in more virtuous shades than the town's other citizens, even its most upstanding members.

The two principle characters that Burnett created for his 1949 novel, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), are clearly rooted in his earlier Roy Earle (the protagonist of his 1940 novel High Sierra, as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in Raoul Walsh's adaptation) and are both faithfully reproduced here for the screen. One of the key changes Huston and co-scripter Ben Maddow made from the book, however, was to do away with its painfully typical, police lieutenant-voiced narration. This allowed Huston to further immerse his audience in the intimate lives of these criminals, and ensure that his cops remained mere faceless apparitions - uniformed cut-outs that, as with the early diner scene in which the film's first meaningful lines of dialogue are uttered, are simply placed there to obstruct our men from achieving their goals, much to our frustration when things get critical. This approach can be likened to the way in which figures of authority were treated in the Italian films of the neorealist period, which was a movement driven by life on the margins; the hopes, fears and dreams of the everyman. This would go on to influence a whole heist-noir mini genre and countless later productions, from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery to Jules Dassin's Rififi and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:32 am
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Yes.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:56 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Awesome.
This also crossed my mind while reading the first paragraph. Among other places, I believe it can be found on the Criterion DVD of the Killers.


It's also reprinted in the first Film Noir Reader by Ursini and Silver.

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Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012) 4/10
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The Dark Past (Mate', 1948) 7/10
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Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:58 am
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dreiser wrote:

It's also reprinted in the first Film Noir Reader by Ursini and Silver.

Are those worth 25 euros or more? I just saw those in The American Book Center in Amsterdam a few days ago.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:08 am
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This thread will be good prep for my attendance at Muller's Noir City Film Festival this winter in San Francisco.

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Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012) 4/10
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012) 2/10
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Pal/Levin, 1962) 6/10
The Dark Past (Mate', 1948) 7/10
New Rose Hotel (Ferrara, 1998) 3/10


Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:10 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Are those worth 25 euros or more? I just saw those in The American Book Center in Amsterdam a few days ago.


I'd say the first one is. The others get repetitive and strained. Also, the authors give my favorite commentaries on film noir discs. Muller is pretty outstanding as well.

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Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012) 4/10
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012) 2/10
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Pal/Levin, 1962) 6/10
The Dark Past (Mate', 1948) 7/10
New Rose Hotel (Ferrara, 1998) 3/10


Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:14 am
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I hardly ever listen to commentaries, to be honest. I know some of those authors because of their "Film Noir: An Encyclopedia" though.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:22 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Are those worth 25 euros or more? I just saw those in The American Book Center in Amsterdam a few days ago.

That;s a lot of money for it :/ I think it's pretty great, but I only paid about $15 Canadian for a new copy.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:24 am
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Philosophe rouge wrote:
That;s a lot of money for it :/ I think it's pretty great, but I only paid about $15 Canadian for a new copy.
I know, it's why I let them sit in the store that day. It's not completely overpriced though, if you figure in import costs and the small niche market...

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:30 am
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Philosophe rouge wrote:
That;s a lot of money for it :/ I think it's pretty great, but I only paid about $15 Canadian for a new copy.


I'm probably not the best person to ask anyway. I once paid over $100 for Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare because it was OOP. Of course, they had a reprinting less than a year later.

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Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012) 4/10
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012) 2/10
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Pal/Levin, 1962) 6/10
The Dark Past (Mate', 1948) 7/10
New Rose Hotel (Ferrara, 1998) 3/10


Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:32 am
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Really liked that review, Jedi, but for one detail...
JediMoonShyne wrote:
Never before had a film boasted such well-drawn criminals, who, rather than abnormal villains hell-bent on the murder of innocent people and ruin of justice, are mere ordinary folk in a shady, barely-sustaining line of work.
Didn't you just mention Criss Cross and Siodmak's films in the other thread though?

Asphalt Jungle is a good choice, elementary even and an excellent way to start off the topic. Still, I'm sad this means no Angel Face or Ace in the Hole...

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:40 am
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dreiser wrote:

I'm probably not the best person to ask anyway. I once paid over $100 for Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare because it was OOP. Of course, they had a reprinting less than a year later.

There's still people wanting to give me a late birthday present. I just got an idea what I could ask... :P

Also, I'm betting Jedi's next movie is a 'big' one.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:46 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
I'm betting Jedi's next movie is a 'big' one.

Post made me sleepy.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:49 am
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Mod Hip wrote:
Post made me sleepy.

Maybe you need to turn down the heat.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:51 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Maybe you need to turn down the heat.

:fresh:

Could use some superior noir education up in my noggin. Only "Big" movies I have actually seen are of ichthyological, paternal, Leboswkian and "Hit" varieties. Oh, and I guess there is that one Tom Hanks movie. And shucks, I suppose one can't forget (though one desires to) the "Trouble" Tim Allen got himself in to, nor that pesky ol' "Momma's House".

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:56 am
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ooh. thread.


Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:00 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Also, I'm betting Jedi's next movie is a 'big' one.


Mod Hip wrote:
Post made me sleepy.


:P

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Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012) 4/10
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012) 2/10
The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Pal/Levin, 1962) 6/10
The Dark Past (Mate', 1948) 7/10
New Rose Hotel (Ferrara, 1998) 3/10


Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:01 am
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I love film noir.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:36 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Didn't you just mention Criss Cross and Siodmak's films in the other thread though?

Very similar films, yes. Though, in my defence I watched and wrote about The Asphalt Jungle a while ago, whereas Criss Cross was a recent viewing and my first Siodmak.

Huston's film was unconventional at the time in that it tends to focus on the group dynamics, rather than the plight of a single protagonist. The same can be said of Kubrick's The Killing, as I mentioned above. And as is the case in both films, the group's efforts are jeopardised by individual mistakes, rather than a collective failing. Another thing that Huston's film did differently was present its caper as a three-part narrative structure - preparation, execution, aftermath - which was new at the time but soon became typical.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:40 am
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A solid defense. ;)

Did you consider any other A's?

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:42 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
A solid defense. ;)

Did you consider any other A's?

Ha!

Act of Violence, I think, was the other one I seriously considered watching. Have you seen that?

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:45 am
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What a great thread! I've seen very little classic noir, so I'll be paying close attention. Also, the design :heart:

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:47 am
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JediMoonShyne wrote:
Act of Violence, I think, was the other one I seriously considered watching. Have you seen that?

That's a good one.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:50 am
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I know nothing about noir because I know nothing about films. It's also a Jedi thread, which means that every aspect of its presentation makes me want to die for a reason that cannot be easily identified. Yet I still feel compelled to follow.

Probably because I have a deathwish. People in noirs had deathwishes, I think.


Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:55 am
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I've been delaying The Asphalt Jungle for too long.

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Colonel Kurz wrote:
That's a good one.

Good, good. Have got that downloaded.

Also, what did you make of the end of The Asphalt Jungle? I read Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell's Encyclopedia of Film Noir, which states that the film: "... combines within its overall story line both a grittily realistic depiction of the noir city and a hyperrealist portrayal of the countryside in its almost hallucinatory conclusion." Hallucinatory, perhaps, but hyperrealist? It seems to me that Huston treats the countryside just as he does the cityscape at the beginning of the film, with medium-long shots that capture as much as possible in a single frame. The key thing for me is that he never actually allows us to see daylight until the final scene, almost as though we are witnessing the character finally reach the end of a long, dark tunnel.

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Fri Oct 21, 2011 8:27 am
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