Posted: 10/10/2001


The Element of Class, Crime and Clime

by Darren Crouse

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The crime film has been a staple of the American film industry for over a century now. Ever since The Great Train Robbery (1903) all the way to Goodfellas (1990), the American public has been shelling out money to witness a perverse interpretation of the American Dream. From the Thompson-toting Scarface (1932) to the more recent ritualistic serial killers in films such as Se7en (1995) and Hannibal (2001), it seems America’s fascination with the world of crime is something that simply refuses to go away. No genre of crime, or as one author insists, “tone and mood” (Schrader, 8) was more influential than Film Noir. It seemed to encapsulate a particular mistrust of the world that was intrinsically part of the American mentality at the time. To reflect this state of mind, cinemagoers laid witness to a darker period of American films that ranged from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1957), “the two films frequently cited as forming the outer limits of the cycle” (Hirsh, 11). So influential was the style that French critics started to recognize this theme of the “dark film” in the early Seventies. Critics and audiences alike recognized the significance that Film Noir would make in future American movies, but what about its influence on international cinema? After all, the French critics coined the term, as they were the first to acknowledge this unique oeuvre. Perhaps the greatest homage to the Film Noir was not the American response within the genre but more importantly, the international interpretation of Film Noir that marks its magnitude with greater profundity. Through the examination of films such as Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime (1984) and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia (1997), this essay will comment on the remarkable influence of the distinctly American Film Noir in terms of an international approach.

Being the most Westernized of Japanese directors, Kurosawa’s direction of High and Low seems an almost instinctual decision. Based on the book King’s Ransom by Ed McBain it follows the story of a wealthy businessman Gondo, who has to pay a ransom for his kidnapped son but when he finds out that it was his chauffeur’s son kidnapped instead, the plot takes a different turn. Though Noir had run its course in American theatres, Japan was easily ten years behind America in cinematic trends, so Kurosawa’s reaction to the genre would have been right on cue. Done in 1963, a scant six years after Touch of Evil, Noir’s stylistic highlights were evidently making its mark in the international theatres. On a purely visual level, the look of High and Low, fits well within the pedigree of Noir. Shot in black and white, employing deep focus and stark contrast, giving one the feeling of urgency throughout the movie. The foregrounding of criminal activities in the urban landscape and its down beat ending, are all characteristics of Film Noir. Style wise, the film appears to have the exact same production values as its American counterparts, barring the Japanese locales and language. Nevertheless, realizing that he is working within a specific genre Kurosawa’s self-consciousness about Noir permits him to break the mould by injecting some remarkable techniques into the film.

High and Low makes generous use of mirrors and glass to allay any intimacy on the part of the criminal, Ginji. By not permitting the viewer’s access to Ginji’s eyes, our relationship with him is one that is distant. In the end when Gondo and Ginji confront each other, both men sit across from one another, separated only by a thin sheet of glass. We get see both men occupying the same frame, at the same time, through their reflections projected onto the glass. Kurosawa cuts between the two men’s reactions and allows us the opportunity to share some emotional moments between them. Gondo’s expression is one that suggests pity while Ginji’s looks are at first apathetic, slowly giving way to his sense of guilt. While these moments are compelling to watch, they are not as noticeable as the hand-tinted sequence involving the burning of the money. When the money is burnt at a distant incinerator, viewers witness the pink plumes of smoke coming from the stack, signaling the location of the money. Kurosawa’s technique of adding color to the black and white images is as fascinating as it is rare. The only other movie that comes to mind, where this occurs is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Using this method seems to suggest a self-reflexive nature to the film as if it is trying to push the boundaries of Noir. If one were to consider it carefully, High and Low would be the first Noir, to go outside the spectrum of black and white cinematography until Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

What makes High and Low a distinctly Japanese Film Noir is its predominant use of social class to illustrate the struggles of modern day Japan. The film starts in the upper class world of Gondo, inside a spartan but obviously wealthy house overlooking an unspecified urban backdrop. Nearly a third of the movie’s narrative revolves around Gondo’s house. One gets the initial impression of watching a play because most of the early action takes place in one location. When the audience finally gets used to Gondo’s house, the action abruptly shifts to another location. The camera takes a more mobile approach as we enter the world of the middle class police detectives on their hunt to capture the kidnapper. The final third of the film takes place in less desirable surroundings, such as drug houses, seedy bars and waste disposal facilities. Succinctly put, we witness the filmic descent of the upper class world of Gondo shift from the middle class world of the detectives up until the finale, where Gondo and Ginji encounter each other one last time, in the lower class world of the holding cell. While Mifune gets top billing in the film, his role diminishes once the detectives take over, only to return near the end when asked by Ginji to see him. This may have been the director’s intent because the shifting of protagonists allows the movie to transcend all classes. By virtue of eliminating the concept of a single protagonist, the film can then focus on several points of view. This subjectivity allows High and Low to be appreciated by all. Since all classes share a degree of interconnectedness, what was once a crime-drama, now becomes a tragedy for, “the moral center, is completely skewed” (Durgnat, 25). In fact, the difference between Gondo and Ginji is minute. Through a strange twist of fate, Gondo is reduced to a penniless state like Ginji, but for Gondo there still is hope. It is interesting to note that the literal translation of the film’s title, Tengoku to Jigoku, actually means Heaven and Hell, which is a more plausible title than High and Low. However, distributors wanted the film to have a catchy American title into order to draw in larger audiences. With its Japanese setting and actors, High and Low might have seemed a tad bit exotic compared to the typical American productions of Noir.

With the advent of neo-Noir, films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Element of Crime (1984) pushed the boundaries of Film Noir further than before, “because it [neo-noir] combines conventions of more than one genre, those of film noir and science fiction” (Doll, 89). Lars von Trier, the future darling of Cannes, earned much respect for his Noir film. Capturing the technical achievement award at the Cannes Festival for that year was a remarkable enough feat but considering it was his first major film, it showed the world that a new talent was emerging from Denmark. The likes of which Carl Dreyer drummed up over fifty years ago. Upon watching the film it becomes clear why The Element of Crime won this award, for its cinematographic prowess is beyond expression. To fully appreciate the work, one does not simply watch the film so much as absorb it. The film is entirely shot with a golden-sepia tinge, giving it an otherworldly kind of feel. While the events are suggested to take place in the near post-apocalyptic future, the look is reminiscent of the age marked movie-reels that were housed inside the nickelodeons from the earlier part of the century. The cinematographer and co-writer of the film, Tom Elling went for a look that captures the mystery of the text without giving any indication of a specific period. Unfortunately, many films from the Seventies and Eighties tend to look too dated because of trends that were marked within their respective eras. However, audiences would be hard pressed to find out when this film was made. In our minds, it occupies neither past, nor future but manifests itself within a timeless, dreamlike limbo afraid to commit to any time sensing, “the over-riding noir theme: a fear for the future” (Schrader, 11). For the future (or past) is bleak and dangerous. As it defies temporal convention, it refuses to be the past or the future. It just is. Moreover, in true Trier fashion, Element is more than just a complex narrative wrapped around morose characters and a d! eep plot. There is the recognition of the authority and acknowledgment of the camera which is paramount to the texture of the work; for the camera twists, flips, rotates as much as its plot. Of course, predating Dogma-oriented works, it does signify the role that the camera will take in future Trier works. The likes of which the subjective camera is rarely static and has a mind of its own. It is not uncommon in Trier’s work to have the camera arbitrarily ‘wander’ off to catch a glimpse of the events occurring outside the frame.

The Element of Crime has many Noir tendencies such as the lead Fischer who is a detective, “of the hard boiled tradition” (Schrader, 10) on the quest to find the serial killer of young girls who sell lottery tickets. Fischer, “is a quester. He is not an outsider in the noir underworld or any equivalent of a mythic ‘other world’” (Silver, 212). Most of the events take place at night in strange, damp dwellings from underground rivers to dilapidated structures in a world that bears resemblance both to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Maybe one overlooked facet of Trier’s film is its subtle referencing and homage to the canonical world of Film Noir. The Element of Crime could be regarded as re-interpretations of such classic Noir’s as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Third Man (1949). Double Indemnity starts with the lead Walter Neff, played by MacMurray, talking into a dictaphone relating the recent events that have transpired in his life. In much the same manner, we are first introduced to Fischer under some kind of strange hypnotic trance relating to a disembodied mystical figure about his past. Walter/Fischer are characters that employ voice-over and narration to convey events that unfold before them. As they recount, we witness. However, the utterance of past actions acts as a catharsis for Fischer, and a confession for Walter. The re-emergence of the femme fatale takes its form in Kim, the duplicitous and sexually charged prostitute who is just as dangerous as Phyllis Dietrichson is. She holds back information that is vital to Fischer’s case, all the while misleading him with her drugs and sexuality. At the end of both films, Phyllis and Kim result in the downfall for Walter and Fischer.

In The Third Man, we have Holly Martins looking for the strange figure of Harry Lime who is responsible for the death of children through his irresponsible black market activities. In likeness, we have Fischer hunting for a child-killer that goes by the name of Harry Grey. Both films take place after war, in post-war ruined buildings and underground mazes, in strangely un-American locations like Vienna or northern Europe. Because of the Element’s non-epochal feel, it is feasible that these happenings could have taken place in any European country just after the Second World War. If it were not for the fact that Fischer drives an old Volkswagen Beetle, thus dating the movie, it would have been hard to define when this film really takes place. The anti-war sentiment prevalent in these films indicates the post-war disillusionment and post-war realism suggested in Schrader’s Notes on Noir (9). The world is a cold, unfeeling place hardly worth fighting for but somehow Fischer manages. Just like the world around him, Fischer is emotionless and cynical.

Stylistically speaking, the next film Insomnia differs in many ways from classic Noir and Neo-Noir form because it lacks the darkness of its many predecessors. Not only does it deviate from the dark images typical of the genre but also it neglects the urban landscape in lieu of colder, pastoral Norwegian locations. Audiences familiar with their rugged heroes chasing down the bad-guys into dark alleyways and passageways will be surprised by this movie. The exterior locations are so far removed from the statuesque and gothic constructs of past works such as The Third Man and the futuristic sets of films such as Blade Runner and the aforementioned Element of Crime. Instead, we have places that are lit by soft florescent bulbs in offices and buildings that employ pragmatic use of space; inside ultra-sanitized rooms, that definitely bears resemblance to one’s closest Ikea. While darkness plays a traditional role in Noir, in Insomnia, light is this film’s visual imperative. So much is light the focus in Insomnia that in this case, a more apropos name for the genre might have been “film blanc.” Light serves a stylistic function as well as a symbolic one, for it also represents truth. A truth that Inspector Engström tries to hide from himself. No matter how hard he tries to hide his guilt and hide from the light, it always manages to find him. Light is reserved for purity and integrity, of which our hero has very little of. A guilty soul might find fortitude and sanctuary in the dark but not in Engström’s world. The dualistic nature of light offers the audience a world that may appear to be sanitized and safe but it too, is not exempt from the same criminal actions that seem to plague cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The coastal community of Tromsø also has the propensity to be just as dangerous as any other large urban center in the world. Skjoldbjærg’s use of light challenges the way viewers interpret the genre, for Insomnia is less of a filmic exercise in plot and more of a psychologic! al study.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect to the film is the characterization of the protagonist Jonas Engström played by Stellan Skarsgård. A character that is truly multi-dimensional and complicated, he is hardly of the same heroic vein as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, “being more mature, almost old, and not too handsome” (Durgnat, 22). Barring the exclusion of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), the American film industry rarely embraces films that perpetuate the main protagonist as anti-heroic. Sure, there are detectives that break the law or cops that may beat a confession out of a suspect, but none are as real and interesting as Jonas is. He shoots his partner (by accident, of course), kills a dog, steals and plants evidence, lies, and even makes sexual advances towards a teenager, all in the course of a few days. This figure would not sit well with American audiences because of his undesirable traits.

For what its worth, Insomnia does not hide behind the pretence that its protagonist should be virtuous and honest. Engström could be considered a reworking of the heroic myth:

“Instead of bringing justice to a corrupt society, the detective’s actions leave the basic source of corruption untouched. Instead of protecting the innocent, his investigation leads to the death of one victim and the deeper moral destruction of another” (Cawelti, 125).

Beyond the characterization of detective Engström, the film adds dimension through the paralleling of Holt and Engström’s lives. Holt and Engström share many similarities since nearly everything that Holt is accused of, Engström could be accused of as well. Holt kills the girl by accident in much the same way that Engström kills his partner. Neither of them intended to murder but as circumstances would have it, they did. As a result, each used whatever skills they had at their disposal to cover up the evidence. Holt cleans the body, Engström alters the evidence. What really separates Engström from Holt is his conscience. Even though he manipulates people and facts, he is a man wracked with guilt. This is the main reason why he cannot sleep. In a typical Shakespearian approach and for that fact, nearly every Bergman film, a man that has tendencies toward guilt, usually suffers on a subconscious and spiritual level. Much like Macbeth, Engström is haunted by people from his past, figures such as Vik and Tanja. When Holt accidentally hits his head and is swept away, which nicely ties in with Schrader’s notion that, “there seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water” (11), the murder case is closed and Tanja visits Jonas one last time. This time she is calmly stretched out on a couch, wearing the dress that she was originally murdered in, with a blanket draped over her. She looks at him, blinks a few times and finally falls asleep. Jonas has redeemed himself and just like Tanja, has earned his sleep. When approached by the Inspector about the Holt/Tanja case, Engström offers both an explanation and a confession. Maybe Holt was not the killer type and maybe it really was an accident caused by panic. Between villain and hero, there is really only a fine line and Skjoldbjærg toys with this fact. Instead of rendering Holt as a typical Machiavellian villain and Engström as the proverbial do-gooder, the director knows that the real world is nothing like Film Noir for between darkness and light! , there are always patches of gray.

So influential was Noir that reputable directors such as Kurosawa, Trier and Skjoldbjærg have all worked within the genre. All these directors offered their own interpretations of Noir, in their own respective national cinemas, indicating the universality of the text. Although Noir is over sixty years old now, this does not mean its popularity has diminished. With recent films such as L.A. Confidential (1997) and Memento (2000), it appears the Noir genre is developing new momentum. As the colors, themes and characters evolve and take new forms in Noir, there is only one constant in these movies, that the world is often a lonely and dangerous place. We need the Marlowes, Hammers and Engströms, as flawed as they are, to help us keep evil at bay. Unfortunately, just like the real world, sometimes our heroes are just as powerless as we are. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail, badly. Real bad. Perhaps the only words we can console ourselves with are the very same words Walsh repeats to Gittes at the end of Chinatown. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Works Cited or Used

Cawelti, John. “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films,” Film Genre Reader 2, ed. Grant, B.K. (University of Texas Press, 1995) 227- 245.

Doll, Susan & Faller, Greg. “Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science Fiction,” Film Quarterly, Vol.14, No.2, 1986: 89-100.

Durgnat, R. “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir,” Film Noir Reader, eds Silver, A. & Ursini, J. (Limelight, 1996) 17-25.

Hirsh, Paul. “The City at Night,” Film Noir (Da Capo Press, 1981) 1-21.

Kurosawa, Akira. (Director) (1963). High and Low. [Film]. Toho Pictures.

Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Noir,” Film Comment Vol.8,No.1 (Spring 1972) 8-13.

Silver, Alain. “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style,” Film Noir Reader, eds Silver, A. & Ursini, J. (Limelight, 1996) 209-235.

Skjoldbjæ rg, Erik. (Director) (1997). Insomnia. [Film].

Trier, Lars von. (Director) (1984). The Element of Crime. [Film].

Darren Crouse is a writer and filmmaker.

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