by Ida Grujić
|Drawing based on "Kansas City Confidential"|
In the previous article I highlighted narrative as something which significantly determines the space in film noir by adopting Vogler's scheme. The attempt was to investigate the extent to which the narrative character relies on myth and its symbolic space. In this piece I will move slightly from this general interpreting tendency to enter the real noir space, not of noir as filmic genre, but in the sense of what I described in the last article as a “special world” and its relation with ordinary world, which, in this case is closest to the daily space of reality. This is a move into relations between contextual and ephemeral space; mystical space of night, where everything takes place according to its own rhythm, and is insufficiently visible and clear. Nevertheless, this space is fundamental in the film, as well as for the story's elan (impulse), which aims to tell a story and connect disparate factors.
Day vs. Night. (The difference between day and night) Does the realism of the story penetrate into the realms of twilight? From which perspective can we examine this relation? In noir, it is clearly the domestic space which corresponds most closely to realism. It is the part which represents the rest, and it is mostly well-lit. In daylight the world looks familiar, whereas in night-time even previously known spaces can appear profoundly unreal or different. This characteristic is structural to film noir.
Roland Barthes claims that exactly realism determines the level of empathy in a film (which maybe does not apply to all genres). The realistic part of noir, the one which is completely clear in terms of content, evidently carries this specific function in terms of inducing empathy.
But realism of the narrative seems to shift from one zone to another. Sequence of events (actions) exists in a common system in which the story moves through day and night. Along this sequence, passage into night carries high suspense, and when it happens we rely on realism of previous scenes to be able to hold onto the story. In the same way, when realistic scenes give way to hues of darkness creating critical situations, noir protagonists will resort to the indicators from the brighter parts of the film. Thus we could affirm that the story is more realistic in day conditions, whereas we move through the night in a more instinctive way, following indicators from the film's earlier sequences.
But even if in the “special” space of the night, realism comes to the surface only feebly, suspense is not created only in that space. It only erupts in the night but its field of action is definitely day as well. How does this building up work?
Fundamentally, noir is almost always a narrative structure, therefore we can use Barthes' analysis of the levels of meaning in the story. Namely, any common sentence can be linguistically described on multiple levels (phonetic, phonological, grammatical, contextual). These levels are hierarchically inter-related, and they can shape meaning only with upper levels, whereas each of them singularly does not mean anything by itself. They can be grouped in two basic sets – the ones which create meaning within its own level and the ones which create meaning with other levels, integrational. “Levels are operations. It is then normal that, by progressing, linguistics tends to multiply them. Therefore, discourse analysis cannot but work only on rudimental levels.” (Elements of Semiology) Independently of the real number of these levels and how they are grouped, in noir story is evident some sort of hierarchy.
In this context, analysis and properties of the individual levels, their inter-relatedness or grouping and flexibility are secondary. What is more relevant is Barthes' claim that their nature can be divided in functions and indicators and that on any of the levels prevails one of the two tendencies. In the same way, the line of noir story can be divided in functional elements – what we see, thus, that for which we have a confirmation, what is and what isn't multi-signifying; and indicators – that which is visually displayed but directs in a specific direction, what is active in more than ephemeral sense.
For example, in Phil Carlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952), when John Payne enters a gambling room with the taxi driver and encounters the man for whom he thinks must be involved in the story, even though there are not too many indicators, we know that something is going to happen in that sense. The scene is atmospherically dense and transpires tension. Smoke which fills the room, the body language, gestures, the voice of the man who dictates the rule of the game, camera angle and its movements, everything serves to indicate to the following scene in the street which plays out in total darkness. Visually speaking, the second scene does not feature innovative elements and the camera angle is again classical. But the first scene has already built up the second, it introduced us into it step by step and on the level of content they form a unity (a curious structuring of grouping and specification of the levels of meaning).
In many crime stories, the literary basis of noir, grouping of levels is carried through intrigue. Exact indicators are extraordinarily important because they are the ones which connect the wholes of the intrigue and eventually build up suspense. In noir, they lead the story through day and night, and thus in some ways the properties of day and night overlap in this process.
The realism of police genre is present in the attention dedicated to the methods of investigation, in the attempts of policemen to connect various factors and in the strategy not to be revealed. With this emphasis on information, our attention is led towards semantic indicators, which appear in more or less predictable sequence. This is where the theme of the story condenses into a mental map which puts together all the dots, and this result depends on fluidity of the indicators and their connections with other levels of meaning. We can recognise this mental map through the tone. Eventually, in noir, tone separates itself from socio-political context and from collective psychology and achieves autonomy. Many noir protagonist are imbued with nostalgia after his/her origins, the source from which the romanticism of his/her struggle with society derives from. This original note can be perceived precisely from the tone. Tone does not posses narrative properties, it adheres to the narrative in a linear fashion, it develops from group action and combination of different structures. Following Barthes' statement about the realism of the story, we can say that one of the main elements which upkeeps the level of realism in noir is precisely tone (tonality).
When adopting the concept of tonality in this context, the question which arises is whether it is positioned more on the side of functional or indicator tendency, or can it be understood outside of these two categories? In its linguistic meaning, tonality (or intonation) brings difference and different functions into the meaning by indicating speaker's emotional state. By highlighting important parts of the content, tonality directs a conversation. Even if it is primarily local, it is important to note that it almost always adds to other aspects of narrative content, thus it can be examined autonomously in relation to the whole. Crystal says that “[..] intonation is not a single system of contours and levels, but the product of the interaction of features from different prosodic systems – tone, pitch-range, loudness, rhythmicality and tempo in particular.” [Crystal, D. (1975) 'Prosodic features and lingustic theory', in Edward Arnold, The English Tone of Voice] According to this theory, tonality can be subsumed both in the functional and indicator categories. In the context of noir, tonality can be understood as not belonging to these two categories but as a connector among them.
A different example from the first one but also of extraordinary tonality, can be found in the sequence of house scenes in Robert Siodmak's Cry of the City (1948). This ambience is fundamental in the construction of the noir tonality of this film. In the film house is the carrier of the realism of a system of signs. From the details of the interior can be read, like from a picture, the historical circumstances, habits and beliefs of the protagonist's family. At the same time, this space integrates with what comes before and after this state of things, and this happens especially when protagonists enter this space. Victor Mature in the role of Lt. Candelle, even if not a negative character, by the act of entering brings a disquiet of another space (even time) and atmosphere into this domestic environment, highlighted by the fact that his appearance takes place during a family lunch. A change comes upon, a tone of unease and caution insinuates itself. But this seems a natural continuation of events and we feel as we knew this tone already from another series of scenes. The very same change happens when Martin Rome comes back to his home, this time looking for hideaway from the law.
In the scene when Rome is eventually discovered by his mother in one of the rooms, the only light on screen comes from the street lamps. The door is opened and a stronger light penetrates the room. In the frame of the door, an undistinguishable silhouette stands outlined by backlight. Only in the following shot we get to realise that the silhouette is his mother. This gradation, from dark to light, carries on over the couple of shots that follow, changing the atmosphere of the sequence, and impregnating the house space with ever increasing level of suspense.
In day spaces the stage set is realistic whereas in the night we have an impression that it is the emotional tension (fear) that is more realistic. Moreover, the night tone does not necessarily withdraw with the change in lighting, and in most occasions the protagonist does not resolve the problems simply by going back home. His/her troubles make their way into domestic space with him/her. The consequences of a criminal act are still tangibly present in the otherwise relaxing environment of a living room. Tone's fluidity allows for this overlapping, it merges into a whole beyond what narrative reveals and contributes to the extension of night space.
In both cited films the creation of spaces relies on introduction of night into day, and vice versa, not by adding but by overlapping the images, resulting in the emergence of a universal imagery space, in which the narrative thread is always present but to different degrees. Relationship between realism and tonality in the construction of noir spatiality are fundamental for the comprehension of film noir's ambivalent effect.
This is consonant to Hemingway's method of “writing like an iceberg”, if we were to understand the visible part of the iceberg as the realistic part of the story. About this part above the surface we do not nurture doubts, but the submerged part, even if far from transparent, it gives the rhythm, weight, texture to the whole iceberg, and in this way supports the story's realism.
Ida is a set designer, active in fields of film, theatre and fashion, and working between Paris and Milano. She holds a strong interest for theory and history of cinema, and she graduated with a thesis on spatiality in film noir and Roman Polanski's cinema.