Tag Archives: Film Noir

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: FOLLOWING (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan 

FEATURING: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan

PLOT: Attempting to jump start his imagination by following random people through the city, an unemployed writer finds himself enlisted in assisting petty thefts, but soon becomes embroiled in a  more dangerous series of crimes.

Still from Following (1998)

COMMENTS: For those caught up in Barbenheimer fever, the pairing of a candy-colored meta-explosion of product placement with a sober biography of the man who shepherded the atomic bomb into existence is enjoyable precisely because it seems a strange alignment, a karmic fusion of two wildly opposed mindsets in one pop culture moment. But it’s not so crazy when you remember one thing about Oppenheimer’s auteur: Christopher Nolan is a populist. His subjects and their treatments may be high and mighty, but he really (I mean really) just wants to get butts in seats and eyes on the screen. Yes, his subjects can turn on dense physics or mind-bending twists, but it’s fair to assume that if he could have filmed Barbie with fractured narratives and looming existential dread while casting Cillian Murphy or Tom Hardy in the lead, he’d have taken the gig.

Proof of that conjecture lies in Nolan’s debut feature, which came out two years before his breakthrough with Memento. The story itself is a simple but impressively taut thriller about a foolish young man who makes bad choices, although none of us know just how bad until the very end. With grainy black-and-white photography and a core triangle of characters who have varying degrees of commitment to moral justice, it’s got all the trappings of a classic noir. The film is unusually economical for Nolan, clocking in at an hour and ten minutes, but still has room for some crackling dialogue, especially as small-time burglar-cum-criminal mastermind Cobb describes the psychology of his victims. (The small cast is solid if not flashy, with special praise for the haughty imperiousness Alex Haw embodies invests in Cobb.) There are a couple of familiar Nolan shortcomings. Only one character in the film gets a proper name, and it’s telling that even in a film essentially populated by only three characters, the female lead (Russell’s icy Blonde) is easily the least fleshed out. But all-in-all, Following succeeds because it knows what it is and sticks to that. It just works.

Of course, even this early in his career, Nolan’s gotta Nolan. We get the tale in a jumbled order that keeps us from seeing the ultimate fate of The Young Man (he calls himself Bill, but the generic credit suggests this may be a falsehood) until it’s too late. It’s not just showing off; Nolan knows that a straight linear cut of the film would make The Young Man’s arc obvious, even inevitable. By moving back and forth in the timeline, the audience can better occupy the mindset of the protagonist, making it more personal when the end comes. And Nolan is unusually interested in helping the audience navigate the plot. A simple visual code–Theobald appears in the three phases of his timeline as either scruffy, spiffy, or scarred and beaten–ensures that even as the story jumps backward and forward in time, we can keep our bearings. 

Aside from its twisty structure, Following isn’t especially weird. But there is a strange side effect of watching it retrospectively; when compared with all that has come after, Nolan’s efforts in this first film seem small. Considering the ambitious size of his Batman trilogy or his determination to destroy linear time as we know it–moving backwards through it in Memento, looping it in Interstellar, mirroring it in Tenet, nesting it in Inception, or unspooling it at varying speeds in Dunkirk–Nolan’s gambit here feels almost quaint. That’s the delicious irony in the relative obscurity of Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. In assessing the filmmaker’s career as a whole, it is inevitably a film that you have to go back into the catalog to find, that you can only experience while already in possession of the knowledge of the career to come. In other words, it is impossible to consider his output in a linear fashion. The Christopher Nolan timeline is unavoidably fractured. Which one imagines is exactly how he likes it.

Incidentally, if you want to keep the Barbenheimer vibe going, might I suggest that Following could be part of another great Barbie-Nolan double feature? After all, girl’s got some gritty indie film credits in her past, too. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Already in ‘Following’ you see Nolan’s affinity for convoluted chronological structure and the final twist, in which all the jigsaw plot pieces snap into place and you finally see the whole picture (along with the main character). You may wonder just how necessary/integral they are, but they help make the film fun to watch, even if they don’t necessarily add up to a whole lot.”–Jim Emerson, RogerEbert.com

(This movie was nominated for review by Mick Bornson, who called it “pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TO SLEEP SO AS TO DREAM (1986)

夢みるように眠りたい

Yumemiru yôni nemuritai

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kaizô Hayashi

FEATURING: Shirô Sano, Koji Otake, Fujiko Fukamizu, Yoshio Yoshida

PLOT: A retired film star hires Uotsuka and Kobayashi, a pair of down-on-their-luck detectives, to track down her daughter Bellflower, who was kidnapped by riddle-loving criminals.

Still from To Sleep so as to Dream (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The detective genre is turned on its head and spell-bound to slumber in Kaizô Hayashi’s silent film debut. This playful noir is fueled by dream logic, pantomime capering, and a nostalgia more full-throated than ‘s—as well as hundreds of hard-boiled eggs.

COMMENTS: In the market for the best P.I. in town? Then look no further than the Uotsuka Detective Agency. Sure, his schedule may be empty—so much so that his chalkboard agenda has nothing more than a doodled face on it. And he may not have the best assistant—Kobayashi idles away his time riding a pneumatic horse. But Uotsuka is as hard-boiled as they come, as proven by his in-office hen and his egg-only diet. Fine, fine, he may not be the best for everyone, but for an aging silent film star whose daughter has disappeared, his knack for riddles and protein-fueled energy fits the bill perfectly.

Kaizô Hayashi places his love of nigh-lost cinema squarely in the foreground in To Sleep So As To Dream, his directorial (and screenwriting and producing) debut. He presents the film in the Academy ratio, records in black-and-white, and, in his clever way, makes a “silent” film. Audio effects (knocked doors, clinked metal, thumped guns) are sprinkled in judiciously, but there is no spoken dialogue from the on-screen characters, who communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and often-novel intertitle cards. (As the detective obsesses over the clue “General Tower,” those words completely fill the screen.) Two circumstances break this silence: whenever a recording is played—invariably from the kidnappers, whose love of money is matched only by their love of riddling—and in the presence of a benshi.

Another throw-back to classic Japanese cinema, the benshi was the live narrator of a silent film, telling the story and interpreting the on-screen action as a film is projected. This aural eccentricity underpins the embellished performances, making for a self-aware, but never parodying, silent-style experience. The combination of off-kilter and heightened reality makes To Sleep a creditable facsimile for a dream, and Kaizô is well aware of what he’s up to. Pursuing a trio of gyroscope-peddling magicians (a “chase” sequence I can only describe as “goofily suspenseful”), Uotsoka has a nasty run-in with a handful of goons and loses two million yen. After awakening from his wallop, he meets up with his client to reassure her, “…Bellflower and the money will be found—if the whole thing isn’t just a dream.”

Kaizô Hayashi is a film nostalgist, bringing to that embryonic genre his impressive visual sense and deft sound engineering to craft an experience both innovative and sentimental. (If To Sleep So As To Dream wasn’t an inspiration to Maddin, I’d be much surprised. ) Our experience of Uotsuka’s and Kobayashi’s serpentine meanderings through theme parks, carnivals, dreamscape movie theaters—and even a memory-warping film shoot—is what movies are all about: the bending of technique to vision so as to create storytelling art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Cinema is of course a medium of dreams, and this metacinematic film about the belated, backward-looking pursuit of something as elusive as lost youth or a bygone medium certainly comes packed with elements of an oneiric nature. Not since Giulio Questi’s similarly surreal Death Laid An Egg, from 1968, had there been a film so singularly obsessed with chickens and eggs…”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CYBERSATAN APOCALYPSE NIGHTMARES (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Niko

FEATURING: Csaba Molnár, Zalán Makranczi, Diána Magdolna Kiss, Niko

PLOT: A hitman takes on a series of jobs delivered to him by a pizza courier.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Hazy dream-noir creeps into every darkened corner of this film as an unnamed hero eases slowly toward sanguine annihilation. That’s the dramatic way to phrase it. More prosaically, Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares rides along a weird alleyway of deadpan, hazy narration, zero budget, and big ideas, transporting the viewer to another world of specific details wrapped in general ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Well, that was something: and with a title like Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares, it had better be. I cannot rightly say I’m sure what this movie is—not specifically. “Nightmares” is just about right, with its dream-like haziness; “Apocalypse” is implied, with its apparent dystopian setting; the “cyber” prefix is apt, as virtual, augmented, and telephonic reality come under criticism. The “Satan” element fits, too, I suppose. We do meet him, or at least an earthly incarnation of Hellish designs. But Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares is far too light-hearted, in its roiling-boiled noir detective kind of way, for the threat of pretension suggested by its title. Of the many things this movie is, pretentious it is not.

It’s almost Christmas, and our protagonist starts out back-footed, having to justify his meat-grilling methods to his video-game entranced son. This man, referred to variously as “killer” and “cop” (Csaba Molnár), has the aged look and cynical wit of a private detective from a century prior, going about his grim business wearing a smirk and a trenchcoat. A cigarette is nearly always jammed between his lips. And he is closely associated with two other consumables: meat, which he eats at every opportunity; and milk, a jug of which he always has in-pocket to administer to each assignment’s final victim. He’s of a mind that things are getting worse, musing that after decades on the job, “we’re at the same place. Or not. Even lower.”

Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares draws on and film noir (making this exercise particularly noir-y, as much of Dick’s output was also tinged by that genre). Computers abound—and they are the enemy. Among his semi-random encounters, Cop chastises a handful of Gen Zed kids for living their lives merely staring at their phones. But Cop isn’t much better off than these drones, as he suffers from his own pointless distractions in the form of internal monologues he wishes would just shut up. It is likely we meet the titular “Cybersatan” in the form of the film’s one weak point. Whether it is the direction, the script, or the actor, something is problematic with Zalàn Makranczi’s performance as a Cyber-/Cloud-/Binary-Messiah, but that made his fate all the sweeter to witness.

In the haze of well-made-with-no-money scenes, two stand-outs make me look forward to more from this Niko guy. Cop is driving between assignments, falling asleep behind the wheel. This transitions seamlessly into a dream sequence wherein Cop is gripping a railing at an empty cabaret, passed out, as Cop dressed as a custodian Santa Claus emerges with a broom. (“What is going on?”, you may ask. I have no idea.) The second comes after the bullet-heavy climax, when Cop is absorbed by an 8-bit entity emanating from the massacred computer banks. White lights, black stetson, and our hero takes a seat to ponder the void.

You can visit the Cybersatan Apaocalypse Nightmares homepage for more information, including upcoming festival screenings and future distribution.

3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)

Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma

AKA Singapore Sling: The Man Who Loved a Corpse

“You know the feeling of something half remembered,
Of something that never happened, yet you recall it well;
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
That you’ve never met as far as you could tell…”–Johnny Mercer, “Laura”

Recommended (with caution)

DIRECTED BY: Nikos Nikolaidis

FEATURING: Meredyth Herold, Panos Thanassoulis,

PLOT: A detective is searching for a missing girl, Laura, a supposed murder victim with whom he was in love and who he believes is still alive. Suffering from an unexplained bullet wound, he follows the trail to a villa where a psychotic “Daughter” and an equally insane “Mother” live in a sick relationship, hiring servants whom they later kill. When the enfeebled detective stumbles to their door, the two women capture him, dub him “Singapore Sling” after a cocktail recipe they find in his pocket, and use him in their sadomasochistic sex games.

Still from Singapore Sling (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Much of the plot references ‘s classic thriller/film noir, Laura, including prominent use of the famous theme song.
  • Director Nikos Nikolaidis is well-known in Greece and is sometimes considered the godfather of the “Greek Weird Wave” films (best known in the work of ). Singapore Sling is his only work that is widely available outside of Greece.
  • Singapore Sling was one of the top three vote getters in 366 Weird Movies first Apocryphally Weird movie poll, making it one of the most popular weird movies left off the 366 Weird Movies canon.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Warning: there are a lot of images in Singapore Sling which you would probably like to forget, but will be unable to. Among the least objectionable (believe it or not) is Daughter’s memory (?) of losing her virginity to “Father”: he appears as a bandage-swathed mummy.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Earrings on organs; mummy incest

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine a cross between Laura and Salo, as directed by a young dabbling in pornography, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for—but it’s slightly weirder than that.


Short clip from Singapore Sling (1990) (in Greek)

COMMENTS: Singapore Sling blatantly references Otto Preminger’s Continue reading 3*. SINGAPORE SLING (1990)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ubermolch. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)