Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How Film Noir Influenced The Check Out.

If you are a film fan, Film Noir is a genre that you've most likely heard of, and perhaps, are a fan of. For those that aren't familiar with it, Film Noir was a style that was popular in motion pictures during the 1940's and 50's. After rigid codes were enacted to curb "questionable" material from appearing in major studio films, the industry adopted this new style. Moviegoers, despite the vocal minority, wanted sex and violence on the big screen. Hollywood couldn't be as blatant as they had been, so they had to get crafty.

Film Noir typically dealt with rough characters and edgier plots. Rather than relying on the stalwart hero, Noir centered around a man with obvious character flaws. The lead actor was usually joined by a mysterious woman, who had her own failings. The two would ignite a sensuous affair, perhaps get mixed up in some illegal activities, and, ultimately, pay the price for their selfishness.

Because of the Hollywood codes, filmmakers had to figure out how to convey the ideas of sex and violence to the audience, without explicitly showing it. The violence part wasn't very difficult. There was usually no blood shown back in those days, anyway. To further mask the brutality, directors relied on Noir's hallmark: shadows.

The cinematography of Noir is its most telling feature. Most characters appear with their features obscured; most sets are lit with only slivers of light. Directors relied on the lighting to enhance their meager production value, as well as to convey the dark undertones of the story.

As for showing sex on the screen, filmmakers came up with very clever substitutes. Cigarettes were shared between lovers; brief kisses were followed with fades to black. Audiences knew exactly what was going on on the screen, and ate it up.

I have referred to my novel, The Check Out, as "noir expressed as exploitation." I believe that the plot, at its heart, is a noir tale. The way the action unfolds, however, is heavily influenced by exploitation cinema of the 1970's.

In the first chapter, store manager Larry Prescott stares out of his office through his blinded windows. As you can see from the picture above, any noir film would have taken advantage of this scene. Window blinds are favored by noir directors, and writers, for their lighting abilities, and their metaphorical uses. In these tales, characters view pieces of the world; they rarely ever see the whole truth until it's too late.  Larry Prescott is a man caught up in his own universe. His is a very skewed perspective; one that continues to spiral throughout the book.

Larry's assistant manger, Terrence, also has stereotypical noir characteristics. Terrence is a man who, we find out, has a very troubling past. He has trouble sleeping at night, as he allows fear and anxiety to consume him. Many of the men in Noir films share this type of back story. A perfect example would be Robert Mitchum's character in Out of the Past. A former private detective, Mitchum lives under an assumed identity while he hides from a mob boss that once hired him to find a woman.

Maxine Watkins, a character in The Check Out, is definitely more exploitation than noir, but she has definite features of the genre. Having escaped an abusive marriage, Maxine lives in near destitution. She resorts to unsavory activities to make ends meet. Though not above committing crimes, she prefers to lead her willing lover into performing the deed.

Other characters from the novel exemplify noir, as well. Brad is a stocker with an addiction to drugs who attempts to clean up and win his wife back. She has left him for another man, and he has an emotional breakdown on a darkened street with a bottle of vodka.

Roland Tillman is an escaped criminal who is out for revenge against a former friend. He prowls the streets, planning to rob the grocery store in the book. He has no compunctions about killing people, and does what he has to survive.

The characters in the novel, and their acts, are described in more graphic detail than noir fiction, to be sure. However, the ideas are very much what writers and filmmakers were going for at the time.

Even many of the settings and descriptions in the novel conform to noir standards. There are shadowy streets, in which criminals lurk around the corners. There are seedy clubs in which the men conduct shady business transactions. There are all night diners which hold an air of danger, and the promise of misfortune.

Above all, however, the actual plot of the book, a heist gone wrong, is taken straight from the genre. In most movies, the good guy would prevent the villain from stealing the treasure. In noir, there are no good guys- just broken characters whose own actions cause their downfall.

One of the greatest examples of this type of movie is The Asphalt Jungle. In this film, a legendary crime planner is released from a long prison stint. While inside, he has planned the grand finale of robberies; one that will allow him to retire to another country. All he needs is an advance, and a team to help him carry it all off. He recruits a number of unlucky men, all of whom suffer for their crime.

The Check Out follows the employees of The MegaSaver supermarket as they plan their own heist. The difference here is that none of them know about the other characters' schemes. As with The Asphalt Jungle, their own imperfections bring about their ruin.

Film Noir is an interesting genre filled with hard boiled characters, and intriguing stories. It is one of my favorite types of movie, and I am glad that I was able to work some of it into my novel. Next time, I'll explore the exploitation roots of The Check Out. Though they may sound like an odd combination, I believe that the two styles can go hand in hand.


Post a Comment