Noir with a Twist

September 6th, 2008 § 0 comments

Fritz Lang might well be, along with other German Expressionists, the father of the dramatic noir style with its long shadows, dark streets, deserted houses, and claustrophobic buildings, but he is not a typical noir storyteller. I would argue that the essence of noir does not lie in its style, but within the stories and characters; they are predicable, yes, but timelessly captivating. While many films look like noir, most do not contain the plot or characters to bring the style to life. There are so many craggy faces and toned legs that are inseparable from genre that they stand out more than dark cityscapes and sprawled out bodies. There is a pleasure, and also an insanity, in hoping for change in a story fated from the beginning.

It is impossible, or at least unwise, to argue that Lang is not a noir director, and yet his films call into question his reputation of being a “prolific Hollywood director” of countless noirs. He breaks the rules, departing from conventional expectations, in so many ways that his films stand out as misplaced. While Lang pretends to fill the requirements of the cliché detective story, heavily foreshadowing a predicted outcome, he never delivers quite what we think we want. His films are too morally unique from the noir genre, making them difficult to place within an endless line of dead women. All this is certainly to his credit. His departures never fail to surprise, and his careful manipulations of a genre he seemingly helped to create, are extremely clever.

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The Woman in the Window (1944) is quite literally noir with a shift, and a shift so pointedly aimed at the core beliefs of a dark world it could be a neo-noir, before such a thing existed. Instead of producing the same broken affair of a dead woman and a slightly heart-broken hero, he ended up with a cautionary tale against middle-aged adultery. It was not, after all, the femme fatal who caused the trouble, but the man himself. He acted against his own better judgment—even after he was “warned”—and more importantly not because of the tricksy manners of an overly sexualized woman, but simply because he wanted to. Not only is there no femme fatal, we waited for acts of betrayal that never came, but the protagonist takes responsibility for his own actions. The film can hardly be seen as sexist, a perpetual condition of noir, though perhaps conservative. The end feels like a joke, the film suddenly shakes with mirth after a story of dark disaster. The hero runs home, literally, tail between legs, to wait for his wife and children. I must admit, if it was a noir, though I still can’t figure how it could be, I enjoyed it very much.

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