Adding Color to the Darkness: 70s Noir

Despite its washed-out color, Chinatown could be the greatest expression of noir in film history.

Last week, Terry Rea wrote a great column about my favorite film genre, noir. It goes without saying that no one who loves movies or film noir in particular would completely agree with his list of five favorites (though they’re all fantastic movies) just as no one agrees on any list. But it got me to wondering about the history of noir, and how its last great gasp was in the tumultuous decade of the 1970s.

You could write any number of books as to why the 70s were so great cinematically, and of course the freedom directors were given, coupled with a moviegoing public that hadn’t yet been force-fed the Jaws-style summer blockbuster, are factors. David Thomson once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that 70s movies are so effective because directors and writers actually had faith in this country and its people–that the negative or ambiguous endings of so many were a belief that the public would take the lessons to heart and actually do something. A tidy, happy ending doesn’t urge you to protest, to yearn, to affect change, now does it? It does not.

The following five films are my favorite detective movies of that august decade, but are they noir? They’re not in black and white, don’t have the crazy camera angles and sharply contrasted light and shadow, but they’re noir in attitude, in that they seek to lift up the dirty rug in America’s living room and look for bloodstains on the floorboards. They could be called neo-noir I guess, except that I’m very hesitant to use neo- in anything. So we’ll just leave it at noir. Noir, except in color.

All arguments about great 70s noir begin and end with Chinatown (1974). As I get older, I come to see Chinatown as one of the greatest films ever made, much less the best of the 70s, which is saying a lot. Personally, it means a lot to me because I love Los Angeles. My mother is from L. A.,  her father having abandoned the frigid temperatures of Detroit (not to mention an abusive, tugboat driving father) for the murderously sunny skies of Southern California. Because of this, and my favorite writer Raymond Chandler, L.A. has always intrigued me, and Chinatown lends itself to that intrigue.

Chinatown is the perfect combination of brilliantly-researched script (by Robert Towne) that was improved dramatically by a director at the very top of his game (Roman Polanski), brought together by an ambitious and powerful producer (Robert Evans) who had a good hand at calming powerful personalities. It was cast with the finest actors and character actors, from Jack Nicholson to Faye Dunaway to John Huston, but also John Hillerman, Diane Ladd, and Joe Mantell, the man who grabs Jake’s shoulder and says “Forget it–It’s Chinatown.” (Let’s not forget Polanski’s little man who slits Jake’s nose–has there ever been a better cameo by a director? And I’m including Hitchcock…) Like The Third Man, Chinatown both rejects and augments the auteur theory. Clearly it’s Polanski’s movie, definitely his most personal, but as great as he is, nothing he’s ever done matches this one. It’s as much Robert Towne’s movie (he didn’t even remotely come close to matching this one), and the same goes for just about everyone involved, perhaps excepting Evans, since he also brought together the disparate talents that made The Godfather a pretty decent picture.

Chinatown so ingeniously ties in Los Angeles history and the mood of Raymond Chandler’s novels that I would argue that it’s the only film that has ever captured the genuine, thoroughly dour mood of that writer’s novels. Jake Gittes is very much like Chandler’s Marlowe, but his impotence reveals an existential angst coupled with a deeply cynical view of politics and history. You can’t watch Chinatown and drink L. A. water the same way. A masterpiece.

My next three choices are crazy little pictures, part comedy, part drama, and take the detective picture and turn it inside out. The Long Goodbye (1973) is a film I’ve always been conflicted about, in part because it’s based on one of Chandler’s best novels, but completely changed by Robert Altman (I still maintain the ending is terrible–totally different from the book, the most ambiguous of Chandler’s work, and strangely neat and tidy for an Altman picture.) Casting Elliot Gould as Marlowe is clearly meant to show that this is not your father’s gumshoe flick. No, this Marlowe is going be a shaggy guy, just like all of Altman’s characters. I enjoy this film because it really captures that 70s feel–a lot of rambling conversation, pot smoking, great actors and weird ones batting about plot and dialogue. Tell me: what other movie has crazy Sterling Hayden and baseball player/pariah Jim Bouton? None, but you knew that. An intriguing noir that seems less interested in solving a mystery, or commenting on corruption, and more about examining the nature of detective movies. It’s fun, and that goes a long way.

Night Moves (1975) is an even better examination of the detective genre, and a more convoluted, bizarre, and interesting film. Yeah, it was a huge flop, and director Arthur Penn, notable for Bonnie and Clyde (among many others) never directed a great movie again. (Or even a good one.) Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a former football pro on his own as a private dick. Hired to find a trust fund girl hiding in the Florida Keys, Harry’s world falls utterly apart–his marriage is disintegrating, his business is in trouble, and the case, as in all noir films, is not what it seems. Like Chinatown, this detective will not solve anything, left literally adrift, going nowhere.

I love Night Moves, even as it is deeply frustrating. At least Chinatown gives you a sense of L.A.’s wickedness–there’s a certain charm to that. This time, Penn hauls us out of L.A. and to the Keys, that vacation paradise. But everything under the sun is corrupted, and there’s not even the sense that Harry has learned anything. Everyone, powerful and poor, are despairing.

Again, the cast is spectacular, with Hackman at his best, and a young James Woods and Melanie Griffith adding some spice. A great movie, worth hunting down.

One of my Dad’s favorites was The Late Show (1977), a really quirky little noir from Robert Benton, who wrote Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Oddly enough, it’s a romance, with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin(!) Art plays an aging detective, Ira Wells, renting a room from an elderly woman. One night, his partner stumbles in with a gaping bullet wound in his stomach. While Carney’s trying to get to the bottom of this mystery, a seemingly unrelated case emerges: Marlo Sperling (Tomlin) wants Harry to find her missing cat. Ira (a great name, and one that spells out the age difference) spurns this request, but because they’re linked somehow (I can’t remember how, even just a year after seeing it again), the kooky new-age Marlo and tough-as-nails Ira fall for one another and solve the case.

Benton goes a bit overboard in making Marlo a granola bird, but Ira is a wonderful character, an older guy who isn’t a jerk, though he can be a bit judgmental at times. In the 70s, Carney starred in a trio of great movies about aging, the most honest films about the elderly in American movie history (and, yes, I include Make Way for Tomorrow, which is horribly overrated.) Those pictures are The Late Show, Going in Style, and Harry and Tonto. All three show us that aging is not a terrible thing, but can be filled with great dignity, adventure, and wisdom. Like most films of the 70s, The Late Show is gritty and strange, and its ending, despite being a comedy, is melancholy.

Finally, I leave you with The Drowning Pool (1975). I like The Drowning Pool. Virtually no one agrees with me. Pool is the sequel to Harper, a nice little, peppy noir from the 60s, with Paul Newman grinning his way through a mystery. Here, Paul looks great, as he would through the 70s (the guy was in his 50s! Wish I looked that good when I’m… oh, hell, any time in my life.) Pool is very conventional, has a twisted plot, based on the book by Ross Macdonald, one of the great pulp noir novelists. (The character’s actually called Archer, but Newman changed it to Harper, because in the 60s he was superstitious about his characters’ names–most all of them had to start with an ‘h’. Thus, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, Hud, Hombre…)

Director Stuart Rosenberg worked a lot with Newman, most famously on Cool Hand Luke, and they have a good rapport. This was pretty feel-good, some grit simply because everything in the 70s looks so worn out or just plain ugly, and like the other great noirs, this one has a stellar cast that includes Joanne Woodward, Murray Hamilton (one of my favorites–most famously the mayor in Jaws) and, what do you know, Melanie Griffith. Like Night Moves, from the same year, this one involves a detective trying to find a runaway daughter, again played by Griffith. Nothing goes as planned. There’s a larger mystery. And there you go. I personally urge you to rent The Drowning Pool… but don’t hold it against me if you hate it. I mean, it’s Paul Newman, right? How bad can that be?

You have to go here to look at the great trailer. Sorry. (Also, both Harper trailers… they’re a bit weird.)

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3 Responses to Adding Color to the Darkness: 70s Noir

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    One of many things I love about “Chinatown” is that much of its running time the screen is filled with beautiful pastels. Southern California never looked better. Its brightness seems rather anti-noir. But it’s a trick. The story itself is about utter corruption — a darkness of the soul that trumps most of the film noir classics. “Chinatown” is filled with tricks and foreshadowing clues.

    Best feature of the 1970s? Why not? Don’t know of a film I would rank over it.

  2. Pingback: Five Film Favorites: The 1930s |

  3. GJ says:

    Really good list that captures the moment. Long Goodbye is one of my all-time favorites and I had totally forgotten about The Late Show.

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