The term film noir was first used by Nino Frank in his 1946 article “A New Kind of Detective Genre: the Criminal Adventure”, in which the French film critic cites John Houston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1945), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944).
According to Mark Vernet, one of the reasons behind the interest in film noir was the Communist Party getting 25% of the vote in France’s first post-World War II election—because intellectuals who believed in communism at the time saw these films as criticizing capitalist America.
If there were German expressionists fleeing Nazi oppression in the aesthetic background of the first wave of noir films in American cinema, its thematic background had Italian mobsters emigrating from the squalor of fascism to a new continent. In those years, America had the prohibition law, street wars, corrupt police, and the struggle for survival of European immigrants in such an environment began to find reflection in art, which was manifested in gangster films, one of the most important steps towards film noir. According to experts, gangster films were the equivalent of World War I in American cinema, and noir films were the manifestations of World War II. The gangster trend began to decline in cinema in the mid-1930s, with the adopted Hays Code (Motion Pictures Production Code) censoring the portrayal of criminals and illegal actions in films. The reasoning behind the censorship was that these films showed crime and criminals as popular and emphasized that criminals had their own morals, so young people chose gangsters as role models, and the audience identified with such people.
There is an important point about this identification. In noir films, which emerged after the decline of gangster films, the identification mechanism is questioned, and the “hero” to be taken as a role model is problematic. Unlike partisan artists, who tend to create saviors, heroes, and brave Americans who are always at one with the interests of the state, independent cinema heralds the era of anti-heroes.
Although there are many similarities between the first wave, or classic film noir (1940-50), and the second wave, or neo-noir (1970s), there are also differences: films of the first period emphasized the social, whereas in the second period, the individual, the psychological took the centerstage. Some experts describe the noir films of the 1980s, when the Coen brothers began their career, as post-noir. Behind the classic film noir are the two world wars, behind neo-noir are the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, and the background of post-noir are the changes that began in the Reagan era, radical paradigm shifts.
Let me try to sum up the connection between expressionism, which requires a separate article, and film noir: play of light and shadow, accentuated tones, claustrophobic spaces, fictional objects, the echoes of outside world phenomena in a person’s inner world, and, finally, deformed depiction of reality as an aesthetic method. Roughly speaking, expressionists say: it’s not “What’s going on there?”, if something is there, it’s “What’s going on inside a person?”
In Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, both the screaming person and the world around that person are deformed. One morning, Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis wakes up and sees that he has been deformed—transformed into an insect, and when he looks through its eyes, he begins to see the deformation that has already infected the world…
From their first films, Blood Simple, to their latest The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers explored crime, violence, or, in other words, the nature of evil that goes through time, mutating. All their anti-heroes (detectives, sheriffs, etc.) often have to get involved in the events by accident, unintentionally, and at the heart of all these bloody events is greed, self-interest. As the pregnant sheriff says to the cold-blooded criminal in the final scene of Fargo: “And for what? For a little bit of money.”
The Cohen brothers’ films are often set in rented houses, hotel rooms, and offices, as an expression of evanescence, temporariness. Riding a car, traveling through deserted, uninhabited spaces with no houses that create a sense of endless emptiness play a central role in them. In these films, the traditional female character is turned upside down, the image of a steady life partner disappears: we see far from idealized “femme fatales” who join the race for power, who want to realize their big and small dreams using their charms.
One of the main devices in the Cohen brothers’ arsenal is dark humor. Dark humor is a device born of absurdity, hopelessness, or misunderstanding, and is not intended to make you laugh, but rather to create a shock effect.
Although I watched all of the Cohen brothers’ films while on quarantine, I want to focus on two: Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men.
The former is about an idealistic playwright named Barton Fink, whose play, staged in New York in 1941, was received quite well. After the lauded performance, the author reluctantly attends the celebratory party, but he considers the praise heaped on him to be exaggerated. Following the success of his play, Barton Fink gets an offer from Capitol Pictures in Hollywood to write film scripts. He accepts the lucrative contract and settles into a hotel in Los Angeles. The director of the company asks Barton to write a script for a wrestling film, but he finds it difficult to write for the unfamiliar subject, and his producer recommends that he consult another writer for assistance. Barton accidentally meets W.P. Mayhew, a novelist whom he admires, and decided to seek his advice. Barton Fink struggles with writer’s block, undergoes a creative crisis, tries to cope with situations that prevent him from writing, talks to his next-door neighbor in the hotel about everyday life and theater. In his essay about the film, critic Ryan P. Doom writes: “On an initial viewing, accessible won’t be a word often affiliated with Barton Fink due to slow pacing and an unsociable, inactive central character such as Barton. He does little; he attends meetings where he barely utters a phrase, he sits in his smoldering hotel room staring at a painting of a bathing beauty on a beach, he obsesses over buzzing mosquitoes and peeling wallpaper while avoiding his typewriter. Yet Barton Fink captivates anyone who enters into its violent mind.”
In the second part of the film, we enter the bloody world of the Coen brothers that greets us with a dark smile: an unbelievable crime happens, and police detectives join the plot, in short, worlds collide. In this film, the Cohen brothers for the first time tell a story that focuses on one character, while in their other films, as a rule, the events that happen to several characters either intersect or run parallel to each other, and there is no single central character. By the way, John Turturro gives an unforgettable performance in the role of Barton Fink.
No Country for Old Men begins with Llewelyn Moss finding a bag full of money left over from a drug deal that ended in the accidental death of the parties. There is a wounded Mexican man on the scene, who unsuccessfully begs him for water. When Moss comes home, he feels guilty and goes back with water for the man, but gets shot and wounded by the men who followed him there. In the next scene of the film, a psychopathic hitman named Chigurh, hired to find Moss, who fled with the money that didn’t belong to him, enters the picture. Although this was one of Javier Bardem’s most memorable performances, when he learned that he would play a such an ugly, unsympathetic character with such a strange haircut, he told the Coen brothers that no one would want to have sex with him in the coming months.
The rest of the film is from the point of view of each of the three characters we never see in the same frame: the fleeing Moss, the chasing Chigurh and the old sheriff tracking them. From the dialogues between the sheriff and his friend, it is clear that they are helpless in the face of growing violence in society and they struggle to understand it all. There are many clear references in the film to bloody drug trafficking on the Mexican border, and this is the context of the phrase “No country for old men” borrowed from a poem by William Butler Yeats: this new game full of bloody, unimaginable violence is not for the old. But there is another social message that comes out of a character’s mouth: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country is hard on people.”
The film is about the evolution of evil, about the confusion over its mutation. A bag full of money is enough to rekindle the violence of the Wild West variety, seemingly long over, gone and forgotten.
Going back to the beginning of the article… Nâzım Hikmet once wrote, “Send me books with happy endings.” I think hope is present even in the most pessimistic works of art, for example, in the bleak world of the anti-utopian novel 1984, there is a “utopian” area where Winston Smith and Julia can meet. I think art surrenders to despair only when it refuses to express itself, that is, when poetry, novels are not being written, films are not being made, music is not being composed. The twentieth century has taught us that one of the ways to show good is to describe evil in detail. As they say, you have to take good with the bad. I for one believe in the light—in the kind eyes of children.
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