By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore
[Photo: “Fargo,” Gramercy Pictures, 1996]
Kansas City might not be an obvious place to set a heist film, but Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” makes atmospheric use of the wide spaces at its outskirts and surrounding farms to tell a compellingly neo-noir tale of an unusual recruit in a bank robbery. Film noir may have been born in an urban world (Los Angeles, perhaps, with a few childhood visits to San Francisco and New York) and defined by the look of a labyrinth of seedy bars, dark alleys, mansions in the hills, crowded lunch counters and broad sidewalks, but modern noir is just as likely to be found in Midwestern suburbs as in your pick of America’s big, bad cities. There may in fact be more punch in seeing the less expected suspects of a small town get pulled in to dark intrigues. In “Out of the Past,” Robert Mitchum’s Jeff fled to far away Bridgeport, CA to escape his misdeeds and lead a quiet life, only to have the city find him. These days, small town life is no more benign than downtown New York here’s a look at films noir both old and new that venture further along down the highway.
“Blood Simple” (1984)
Directed by Joel Coen
There are no blind alleys or rain-soaked trenchcoats, and the private detective isn’t a dashing, square-jawed matinee idol, he’s doughy, sweat-stained M. Emmet Walsh. To be sure, “Blood Simple” does not look like film noir. Much of the action takes place on a run-of-the-mill suburban street; there’s even a gag at the expense of one of the characters when he peels out dramatically without realizing he’s headed down into a cul-de-sac and has to turn around and drive back. But even plucked out of the genre’s requisite surroundings, there’s no denying the noir that seeps through the characters’ heinous acts of adultery, deception, jealousy and violence. In true noir everyone, including the nominal hero, is flawed or crooked. True to that ethos, there is no innocence by the end of “Blood Simple,” just varying degrees of villainy. Either you’ve cheated on your husband, or you’ve betrayed your boss, or you’ve assaulted your wife, or you’ve been hired to kill someone, or actually killed someone. No one’s hands are clean, not even Frances McDormand’s, who may be the sweetest femme fatale in history, and also one of the most efficient. She looks nice, but think about this: how many of the men in her life are alive by movie’s end?
Directed by Joel Coen
It’s hard to get over the accents the joke is so ubiquitous (and more than a little cheap) that on first viewing, it’s all you remember: “You betcha!” The Coen brothers grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, which makes them as entitled as anyone to poke fun of the area they’re certainly well-versed in the quotidian details of midwinter Minnesota life. There are no great masterminds behind “Fargo”‘s central kidnapping crime; everyone involved, from William H. Macy’s amusingly discontented car salesman turned instigator Jerry Lundegaard to Steve Buscemi’s weaselly low-rent hood Carl Showalter, is deeply incompetent. Then again, no one in the Brainerd area seems suited to crime or criminality Lundegaard’s plan may have started crumbling before he ever set it in action, but witnesses can’t even manage to describe Showalter as more than “funny looking.” Into this mix comes Frances McDormand’s infinitely sensible police chief Marge Gunderson, who, seven months pregnant, relentlessly cheery and equipped with a hat with ear flaps, is in all ways the opposite of a noir hero. All ways except in her competence an awkward figure padding out into the snow, she patiently unwinds the events that led to a set of roadside murders. The film’s famous reveal the woodchipper! is both funny and shockingly violent, but it’s Marge’s chiding talk with an apprehended criminal afterward that sticks in your gullet, as she greets his actions not with cynicism or jaded curiosity but with genuine incomprehension: “And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.”
“Gun Crazy” (1950)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Before it succumbs to many of the trappings of traditional film noir, including big city bank heists and getaways (albeit ones spectacularly filmed in unforgettably long takes, courtesy of director Joseph
H. Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan), “Gun Crazy,” one for any all-star film noir list, is rich with small-town details. The story concerns the “thrill crazy” relationship between loves-on-the-lam
Annie (Peggy Cummins) and Bart (John Dall) who have one of the wildest and most suggestive meetings in all of the movies. She’s a trick shooter in a carnival and when they meet she’s shooting blanks but not for long. He’s in the audience when she calls for a challenger and the two battle back and forth with their pistols, matching each other bullet for bullet. By the time they’ve each lit crowns of matches off each other’s head with their guns, the impending intercourse is pretty much a formality. “What else do you do besides shoot?” she asks when the contest is over, and it’s pretty clear she’s not talking about crochet. The seamy, smelly, elephant-poop-laden world of the traveling carnival has never been so sexy.
“The Ice Harvest” (2005)
Directed by Harold Ramis
“As Wichita falls… so falls Wichita Falls,” or so reads the enigmatic graffiti that greets John Cusack’s crooked lawyer Charlie several times over the course of the wretched Christmas Eve charted in Harold Ramis’ pitch black comedy noir. Wichita, KS, battened down in the grip of an alarming ice storm, has never looked so terrible not that there are many instances of it appearing on film with which to make a comparison. “The Ice Harvest” isn’t really about Wichita anyway, at least not in the sense that there’s any local flavor. Wichita hardly, in real life, a small town stands in for any out-of-the-way nook someone doesn’t want to be trapped in. Most of the film’s characters, including Connie Nielsen’s femme fatale Renata, who appears to have been dropped into Kansas straight from the embrace of a 40s noir film, are so eager to cut ties with the town that they double-cross and messily murder each other without hesitation or much experience. The film is remarkable for its misanthropy Charlie and his untrustworthy partner Vic (a very funny Billy Bob Thornton) are dislikable people, but then so is everyone else, including Charlie’s ex-wife, now married to his best friend Pete (Oliver Platt). In her fixed smile during an agonizing holiday dinner scene, we catch a glimpse of a whole other world of respectable misery the film only brushes by on its way to a violent end.
“Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
With its closely cropped lawns, sun-drenched streets and its very own traffic directing cop (who is apparently on duty all day, every day), the town of Santa Rosa, California, the picturesque setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s familial film noir “Shadow of a Doubt,” could legally change its name to Mayberry and pull it off. And of course, that’s the point (with Hitchcock, everything has a point; the setting, the clothes, even the catered lunch for the crew). “Shadow of a Doubt” is perhaps the prototype of the now endlessly mimicked and frequently parodied set-up where the seemingly idyllic suburbs hide darkness beneath their chlorophyllous exteriors. The film often cited by Hitchcock as his personal favorite amongst his work follows Joseph Cotton’s mysterious Uncle Charlie, who rides into Santa Rosa (on one of the most ominous pollution-spewing trains in cinema history; the symbolic exhaust from its chimney practically obliterates the midday sun) to stay with his sister’s family, but soon his behavior draws the suspicion of his beloved teenaged niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). Everything from then on is about surfaces and secrets, double meanings and duplicates from the two Charlies to the elder one’s murderous moniker (the seemingly oxymoronic “Merry Widow Murderer”). And the setting is critical; we assume people from the big city are conniving kleptomaniacs, but places like Santa Rosa are supposed to protect honesty and goodness like they were endangered species in a national park. Like he did so many times, Hitchcock shatters our hard-fought illusions with a wrecking ball.
“A Simple Plan” (1998)
Directed by Sam Raimi
No small town noir is as devastating as Sam Raimi’s first foray into serious cinema, because no other one is as determined to show fundamentally good people crumble under the weight of moral compromises. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his blundering brother and his brother’s unpredictable, heavy-drinking friend stumble onto a downed plane containing a corpse and four million dollars, and, after some bickering, come up with a plan to keep the cash. Naturally, things go wrong, and soon, very wrong the film would seem ludicrously gothic were it not for the convincing progression of its terrible events, and the sometimes amusing bumblings of the would-be criminals. Living in the snow-covered Minnesota town in which they grew up, the characters manage to discover in themselves dissatisfactions that would never have occurred to them were the possibility of something else not dangled tantalizingly in front of their faces. Even Bridget Fonda, as Mitchell’s sweetly pregnant wife, reveals, in a memorable turn, an inner, steely Lady Macbeth.