New Column: Shades Of Grey

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).

You could call me a film noir junkie, but you’d be wrong.  Sure, I’ve seen a few, and read a bit about what makes them work, but the simple fact is, I’m behind.  In my reading, in my watching, in my understanding of just what makes noir tick.  So, being that I’d like to get a better grip on the idea, I’ve elected to explore the subject in a new column for the Journal called Shades Of Grey.

For as long as I can remember, the idea of noir has impressed me.  When confronted with a filmwatching choice, I’ll most always gravitate towards the tale of the luckless loser, the hymn of the hopeless dreamer, the conflicted character caught between nothing and less than nothing.  Could be, it’s that I’m endlessly fascinated by the lengths to which people will go to survive, and, for me, films noir explore the will to survive better than a dying man in the final moments of his life.  Perhaps what I’m really interested in is the nuance of survival – if there is such a thing – as expressed by our noir anti-heros.  What is it they’re so passionate about, they’ll do anything to see it through?  Do they love someone enough to kill for them?  Is the survival of that love worth a life?

If you can’t already tell, I’m still trying to figure out just what it is I love about watching, reading about, thinking about, and planning to watch, read, and think about noir.  I do know that lighting and shadows have a lot to do with it.  I get an eye boner just thinking about certain shots, wondering how it all came to be.

For instance, take the film I watched last night.  (I’ll be writing about it in a few weeks, so I’ll save the details for then.)  There’s a climactic footchase near the end of the picture, and our anti-hero’s running from someone.  In one sense, I’m caught up emotionally in this man’s struggle.  Will he get away?  Will he survive?  At what cost?  And yet, in another sense, I’m so blown away by the compositions that I nearly forget the manhunt and revel in the imagery.  How many setups did they have to go through?  How timed were the shots?  Was anything left to chance?

I don’t know that I’ll get to a noir a week this year, but I’m shooting for that target.  And I know at least one point of reference I’ll be referring to along the ride – writer/director Paul Schrader’s 1971 article Notes On Film Noir.  In the article, Schrader looks at some of the common elements running through many of the noir films and offers a loose frame with which to date the period known for “black film” – beginning around 1941 and continuing on into the mid-1950s.  While I do want to explore more recent examples of noir – the work of David Lynch and William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A. come to mind – I’ll be sticking primarily to films made within this time frame.

Shades Of Grey’s inaugural post drops this Thursday.  I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Updated:  Shades Of Grey will launch tomorrow and appear on Wednesdays thereafter.


About Ward Howarth

Ward Howarth is a TV producer and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. He's generally gearing up for what they call "getting down."
This entry was posted in Film, film studies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to New Column: Shades Of Grey

  1. Good way to kick off 2011, announcing Shades of Grey. I look forward to your first post later this week. Thought I’d offer another link, to Paul Schrader’s website: — if you click on “Writings” and then scroll down to 1971 you can see a scanned version “The Film Noir.” Not sure if this is the same piece you mention in your piece, but thought you and others would enjoy the links. FYI, the link to download the PDF of that article appears to be broken.

  2. Mark Elliott says:

    Can I guess? “The Third Man” has an antihero in a climactic foot race with stunning compositions…

  3. Ward Howarth says:

    Thanks James! And yes, that is the Schrader article to which I was referring – check it out, it’s a great essay. And Mark, while The Third Man is a fantastic movie and an excellent guess, I have another title in mind. Look for that post next Wednesday.

  4. Pingback: Shades Of Grey: Night & The City | James River Film Journal

  5. Pingback: Shades Of Grey: Bullet Holes | James River Film Journal

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