KABINET (Summer 2002)
OFF-NOIR: TWO FILMS, EAST AND WEST
by Ryan Asmussen
NOTE: A word on the coinage of my title phrase. Many critics of the cinema have decided upon the expression “neo-noir” to define that sub-genre of film that is either significantly influenced by traditional film noir or which seeks to subvert or parody the elements of noir. As I happen to associate the prefix “neo” with a great many mistakes of history, not always necessarily linguistic or artistic (see “neo-Nazi”), I have chosen “off-noir” to take the place of “neo-noir.” I am looking here for the flavor of “off-white,” coupled with the idea of the pejorative meaning of the word “off” in the sense of “off kilter,” i.e. “screwy,” or “awry,” since usually those films labeled as “neo-noir” have a postmodern irony firmly at work – in other words, they are typically aware of their
intentions to be noir-ish, and make those intentions apparent to the viewer. If we want to engage in a deeper level of analysis, we should point out that as off-white is usually a beige, a separate color, off-noir is really a category of its own, though admittedly an ephemeral one. To go to the last stop on this line of thought (where we really ought to disembark and remain), it should be said that anything categorized as off-noir is perhaps best understood as a living, breathing filmic entity of its own, and not as something belonging to a specific cinematic genus. Regardless of the hole it is forced to live in, the pigeon flies on its own wings.
NOIR IN THE FLOATING WORLD
Branded to Kill (“Koroshi No Rakuin”), Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 1967
A grotesque close-up of a bullet hole in a hoodlum’s forehead. A butterfly lands on the scope of a rifle, obscuring an assassin’s long-distance shot. Characters develop not so much along narrative lines as they do visually, in a rapid succession of fleeting, seemingly random images. Striking jump cuts deprive us of the comfort of a recognizable space/time. Mood is dominated by a marriage of mise-en-scène and music: montage, with its intrinsic pull towards dynamic linear movement, is relegated to the background. What we see when we watch the disturbing, frustrating, and fascinating Branded to Kill — a film that some have endorsed as a masterpiece while others have dismissed outright as unintelligible — is, among other things, a seriously stylized mélange of the stillness of Noh theatre, the inchoateness of surrealism, the dark detachment of Brechtian drama, and the paranoiac pessimism of film noir.” Making things is not what counts: the power that destroys them is.” This said by the director of Branded to Kill, Seijun Suzuki, the creator of over forty B-movies for Nikkatsu Studios, a comment apropos not only in relation to the film some consider his masterpiece (Tokyo Drifter would most likely be the other contender), but also to his career: After the release of Branded to Kill, Suzuki was promptly fired by Nikkatsu for “incomprehensibility” and was unable to work in film for the next ten years. According to his former studio, his pictures “made no money and they made no sense.” Joe Shishido plays the doomed Hanada, the Yakuza’s “Number 3 Killer,” a professional assassin with a passionate addiction to the smell of cooking rice who finds himself wriggling in the grip of a double-cross involving stolen diamonds. Of course, there is more to this story than this, but there is also much less. The plot, such as it is, is barely penetrable until the final reel of the movie when all becomes, if not clear, then slightly less fuzzy. But it is not in the content but in its comment on the chaos of our lives that Branded to Kill’s meaning lies. Amid a parade of “walking corpses” — those who live as if dead, those who are seconds away from death — Hanada grapples frantically with violent levels of reality as he grapples unsuccessfully, mentally and physically, with those who are trying to kill him. Graphics impose themselves on live action. Mirrors, walls, and doors routinely come in and out of frame via pans or tracking shots, either shutting out possible escape routes, or opening out onto unexplored, unexpected territories. Hanada writhes in agony in front of the projected film of his girlfriend’s torture, cursing wildly and beating with his fists the wall that harbors the horrifying images. In another scene, an optometrist delicately removes a glass eye from a patient in excruciating close-up (a possible nod to the eyeball slash of Un Chien Andalou?) and moves to the sink to wash it off; from the basement, Hanada unscrews a water-pipe, places his gun into the aperture and fires: Cut back to the optometrist being shot in the chest from a bullet that somehow has come up through the drain.
Concentrating almost solely on, in his words, “entertainment value,” Suzuki as a filmmaker was not interested in the effort of multiple takes to insure capturing the best performance of an actor, or spending endless hours in the editing room — in other words, fashioning a thoughtfully-made film. Suzuki made movies quickly, cheaply, and, above all, always with the audience’s amusement in mind. And yet when one studies Branded to Kill with a concentrated eye, one recognizes a deliberate, artful sophistication. Most of its shots are Kabuki-like in the very expressive, very Japanese restraint of their design. A powerful nihilism lurks in the chrysanthemum’s bloom. The film’s desperate characters seem to stand in shadow, even in the daylight. And, all the while, there is a static grace to the proceedings that touches upon an idea of a slow, inexorable decline towards death. Occasionally, it is reminiscent of Resnais (motionless characters talk to one another from inside individual spaces, too distanced from one another to be legitimately heard, a la Last Year at Marienbad); sometimes, when one’s attention is focused on Suzuki’s use of Cinemascope, it brings to mind the large-scale screen paintings of Japan’s Edo period.
As should be the case in film, the visual element is the most extraordinary aspect of Branded to Kill. If one were to watch the movie without subtitles, bereft of the Japanese tongue, one would be able to follow the existential angst of Hanada nearly as well as any native speaker. The dialogue, often intrusive, pseudo-philosophical, and just plain embarrassing, may be fairly dismissed to the background. What flickers across the screen, what “counts,” is a powerful interplay of pictures illustrating ideas of creation and destruction, a noir nightmare of a world that never had the chance to spin out of control, for it always was out of control; it was branded that way from the beginning.
NOIR IN THE CITY OF LIGHTS
Rififi (”Du rififi chez les hommes”), Jules Dassin, France, 1958
It is rare in cinema to find a film that, although genre-bound (and, as such, perfectly attuned, or slavishly attuned — take your pick — to the requirements of the genre), manages at once to transcend genre elements while, at the same time, creating for itself a wholly new expression of the human condition. A film such as Metropolis, for instance, or The Royal Tennenbaums, has a singular way of expressing a singular point-of-view. But how much more difficult, in some ways, would it be to take already existing, well-worn building blocks (with slightly scratched-off Ts and jagged As) and transform them into a structure one could never expect from the strictures of artistry? In 1955, Jules Dassin, a blacklisted, American exile in Paris, not only fashioned a filmic silk purse out of a sow’s ear with Rififi, but, in so doing, reclaimed a long overdue respect and admiration in the form of a Best Director Prize at Cannes.
Prior to the film that made him internationally famous, Dassin had struggled to make movies in Europe with French and Italian production companies, only to have the projects blow up in his face at the eleventh hour. Penniless, without hope and certainly without the support of his former Hollywood colleagues (some of whom actually hid from him in public, Red-scared and frantic not to be seen in his company and, therefore, to be ‘associated’ with him), Dassin was an ostracized man with a dying heart. When Dassin was approached by a French agency to make Rififi, it was as if a lifejacket had been thrown to a drowning man, even though it did not seem that way to Dassin at first: after reading the book from which the movie was ultimately made (by Auguste Le Breton), Dassin disliked its brutal violence so intensely that he planned on refusing their offer. Nevertheless, a short time later, he found himself in the producer’s office agreeing wholeheartedly. As Dassin tells it, his dire need of work overrode his artistic scruples. No one is sorry this turned out to be the case.
The story is a simple one: A gang of four thieves plan a heist of a local, but well-known jewelry store; they are successful in their attempt, but then their post-robbery plans are foiled by the intrusion of local hoods who smell a no-risk profit to be had. The slightly surrealistic ending, one of the most emotionally upsetting I have seen in a long while, is a tragically ironic comment on the nature of friendship and greed (and, if one is watching the film on VHS or DVD, should be rewound and seen again two or three times if one has a passion for superb montage). As in all film noirs, we have a shady hero with a dubious understanding of the nature of good; in this case, Tony le Stephanois, played with icy calculation and unshakable determination by a ragged-looking Jean Servais. Accompanying Tony are his young protégé, Jo, a good-looking, good-natured family man (Carl Möhner); Mario, an eccentric and fun-loving Italian with a flair for organization (Robert Manuel); and César le Milanais, the notorious safecracker par excellence, played wonderfully by, according to the credits, one Perlo Vita, but in reality by the director himself (the story has it that, due to a last-minute unsigned contract, Dassin was forced to take on the role himself: again, no one is sorry this turned out to be the case — Dassin does more than play the role, he makes his character seep into the story itself, affecting the other characters not only with his charm, but also by his fatal flaw, the one that brings the whole caper to its scraped knees).
The cinematography of the Parisian streets, particularly at nighttime (street cleaners spray luminous jets of water on either side of blackened boulevards, gaudy neon signs wink lecherously at midnight passers-by), is impressive and as much a character as any of the criminals. Georges Auric’s striking music and Alexandre Trauner’s inspired sets fit squarely into the necessities of the script, like crucial pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle (it is a continuing wonder to me how great films get made). And, of course, if you have heard anything at all about this film, you have heard of its set-piece, its flawless, central diamond (to use a more than appropriate metaphor): the utterly suspenseful robbery sequence, in which no line of dialogue nor one note of music is heard (save for the accidental sound of an occasionally nerve-jangling piano key) for thirty-three minutes. Setting: the jewelry store owner’s apartment, located over the shop itself. Action: the deliberate covering of windows, the displacement of furniture, a steady muffled drilling, the slow emergence of a tiny hole in the floor, the quick and quiet handling of tools, the gathering of dust and debris, the tripping of a sophisticated alarm, the chiaroscurist play of light on dark, the sweat on various brows, the painstaking hours of tense effort, the vast resources of patience and calm each man must draw on, the evident joy in the faces of those men, working together, living together in every ticking moment. It is safe to say that this sequence is a masterpiece of cinema, and it is a jaded viewer indeed who does not cover his mouth with his hand, or react in some anxious, nail-biting way, during that excruciating half hour.
When asked by critic Jamie Hook whether he knew Rififi was going to turn out as well as it did, Jules Dassin replied, “I didn’t know what it would become when I was making it….I was just so concentrated on working — having work to do, getting up in the morning and going to work, enjoying the company of the crew — that’s all that was on my mind, actually…” Love is what holds this film together, visible here in the hoods’ tender expressions toward one another during the doomed robbery; in the angelic smile of the kidnapped child when, after his abduction, he sees his rescuer godfather for the first time; and in the climate of a rough-and-tumble, yet strangely graceful Paris. There is love in the labor and dedication of Dassin, an active, creative love that would ultimately overcome ugly reactionism and paranoia at home, and once again find him a place in the world of film.
Copyright Ryan Asmussen 2002