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With `The Dark Knight,’ Film Noir Still Lives

July 14, 2008

It’s a visual style. It’s a movie genre. And nearly 70 years after it first appeared, film noir is not only still with us, but has successfully moved into the worlds of science fiction, the graphic novel and comic books.

Take “The Dark Knight,” opening Friday. It’s not just the latest Batman film, but a brooding, dark story in which Bruce “Batman” Wayne must fight epic villains like The Joker, as well as deal with his own internal conflicts.

“The biggest thing about noir is moral ambiguity, characters who are not easy to pin down _ who is good, who is evil,” says “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan, referring to the genre and his own film. “In the greatest film noir there is this continuing pressure being put on the character, and I was looking back to a film like (the 1944 classic) ‘Double Indemnity.’ There is a spiraling sense of doom in these films, the characters are under pressure, and you see how they react.”

Film noir, literally “black film,” is a term coined in the 1940s by French critics to describe the dark, cynical American crime dramas of the era. The genre’s classic period, roughly 1944-1958, emerged from the horrors and cultural dislocations of World War II, and dealt with everything from the role of women in society to the ways in which returning veterans, some of them shellshocked and drug-addicted, attempted to fit into the postwar world. Noir movies often featured a private eye, a femme fatale and a sadistic hoodlum. Many were concerned with notions of identity, moral ambiguity and the search for the truth. Coupled with a high-contrast, black-and-white shooting style, noir movies seemed to capture the essence of the period.

“Noir is caught up with postwar disillusionment, and the coming of more explicit crime literature, like ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’” says Paul Meehan, author of “Tech Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir.”"It’s a study of nihilism, perversity, the darkness inside people.”

That also makes it a perfect style for the science-fiction and comic-book worlds, which, in works like “Blade Runner” and “Road to Perdition,” have been flirting with dark themes for years. “Because science fiction by its nature is allegorical, it allows you to discuss dark territory,” says David Eick, co-executive producer of the critically acclaimed TV series remake of “Battlestar Galactica,” which has explored classic noirish themes like the search for identity. “The science-fiction genre fits with the film noir style,” he adds, “because it allows for a more emotionally charged discourse.”

“The darkness alone” in science fiction makes it noir-compatible, says Ronald Schwartz, author of “Neo-Noir: The New Film Style From ‘Psycho’ to ‘Collateral.’”"In science fiction there’s some sort of evil out there. You look at a film like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ _ those pods are alien; that’s sci-fi noir.”

This sense of noirish doom also has invaded the comic book and graphic novel, which have increasingly turned to bleaker themes and visual styles, as seen in works like “Sin City” and the upcoming film version of the classic crime-fighting comics hero “The Spirit.”

“Batman was the first noir superhero,” Meehan says. “He inhabited a noir universe, the dark streets of Gotham City, filled with twisted, crazy criminals.”

“‘The Dark Knight’ is a crime story,” Nolan adds, “and not all crime stories are film noir. But I think you’re seeing a desire in storytelling to have moral ambiguity, and that’s been the basis of film noir.”

Not that noir has always been in vogue. For a while it was out of favor and the subject of parody, as in the 1982 Steve Martin comedy “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” But what Schwartz calls “neo-noir” emerged in the mid-1960s. Now shot in color, these dramas featured a more permissive sexual attitude, heightened violence and the emergence of the serial killer in movies like “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“There are good-bad detectives and good-bad cops” in these films, Schwartz says. “These people have multiple sides to them; they’re not straight as an arrow, like Philip Marlowe,” the Raymond Chandler character.

What all this means is that despite its origins in a war that ended more than 60 years ago, noir doesn’t seem to be fading. In fact, given the right stories and circumstances, it remains as vibrant, and cinematic, as it ever was.

“It continues to feel very contemporary to me,” Eick says. “The viewing public ultimately wants something that reflects the times and the condition of their times, and because of its allegorical power, film noir is a mainstay.”

“Noir will come in and out of favor,” Nolan adds, “because the desire to see these stories depends on the world outside the movie theater. When you’re in unsettled times, that’s when the genre rises to the fore. Like the concern in ‘The Dark Knight,’ the fear of anarchy invading society _ that’s a very contemporary fear.”

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DAMES, DETECTIVES AND DOOM

For those who like their stories dark, their dames hard-boiled and their cynicism undiluted, check out these prime examples of film noir.

“The Big Sleep” (1946) _ Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe takes on a rich girl wild child and some deadly blackmailers and manages to romance Lauren Bacall along the way. The plot doesn’t always make sense, but who cares when a film is this good?

“Out of the Past” (1947) _ Robert Mitchum is pulled back into his former life with gangster Kirk Douglas and hotter than hot moll Jane Greer. Filled with amazing dialogue _ “You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another,” Mitchum says to Greer _ and an amazing sense of imminent doom.

“Gun Crazy” (1949) _ Just about the original wild-youth-on-the-run flick. John Dall, already obsessed with guns, falls for carnival sharpshooter Peggy Cummins. Can a crime spree be far behind? Incredibly stylish direction by “B” movie master Joseph H. Lewis.

“Chinatown” (1974) _ Private dick Jack Nicholson stumbles into a case involving stolen water, murder, a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway) and incest. Director Roman Polanski’s noir homage is one of the great films of its era.

“L.A. Confidential” (1997) _ Corrupt cops in 1950s L.A., a mass murder and a sleazy tabloid journalist who knows way too many secrets. Detective Russell Crowe is a bull in a china shop, in love with hooker Kim Basinger, while his uptight colleague Guy Pearce thinks he can clean up the department. Noir sleaze doesn’t get any better than this.

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THE STORY SO FAR …

In “Batman Begins,” the parents of 8-year-old rich boy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) are killed in a robbery by mugger Joe Chill. Wayne vows revenge, but years later, after attending college, he discovers that Chill, who was to testify against mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), has been murdered by one of Falcone’s henchmen. After traveling the world to understand the criminal mind, and studying with the League of Shadows, an elite vigilante group, Wayne returns to Gotham City determined to rid it of corruption.

Wayne creates the Batman character as his crime-fighting alter ego, and is aided in his pursuit by childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne’s trusted manservant, Alfred (Michael Caine).

“The Dark Knight” begins as Batman, recently promoted Lt. Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) join forces to rid the city of its corrupt elements. Foremost among these is super-criminal The Joker (the late Heath Ledger), a psychopath who kills without compunction. Batman’s struggle against The Joker forces him to deal with the lengths he is willing to go to eradicate this human pest. And while all this is going on, a love triangle of sorts develops among Wayne, Dent and Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Things become further complicated when Dent is attacked by Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), who has taken over Falcone’s criminal empire. Dent survives the acid attack, but now, with half of his face disfigured, he goes insane and turns into Two-Face, a criminal mastermind.

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(c) 2008, Newsday.

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