What do classic films such as "Double Indemnity" and "The Big Sleep", as well as more contemporary fare such as "Blade Runner", and "L.A. Confidential" have in common? They are all examples of film noir, a genre of crime film that had its heyday in Hollywood between 1941's "The Maltese Falcon" and 1958's "Touch of Evil", and is still being explored by filmmakers to this very day.
The prototypical film noir was constructed around a wounded hero who held a cynical perspective of the world around them, and was subject to the vices that come with such a fatalistic viewpoint. In many cases, the film noir protagonist was a detective, but not the classical detective of Hollywood films up this point in time. Instead of an honorable and upstanding man, such as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who investigated the crimes committed in sedate European hamlets, film noir presented the private eye who saw solving crimes as merely a job, pursuing the seedy criminals through bleak American cityscapes, often in opposition to the police. The hero would cross paths and fall under the spell of the femme fatale, a seductive and morally-bankrupt woman who would use her sexuality to manipulate and destroy the protagonist as a means of acquiring independence, money, and power. The protagonist, blinded by his own lust, becomes increasingly trapped in a web of deceit that ultimately ends in murder, often his own.
In addition to the standard character archetypes outlined above, film noir cinema was characterized by a visual representation and narrative style that helped create the necessary atmosphere of foreboding. Reflective voice-over narration and the use of flashbacks were common elements, setting the tone of impending doom, with the hero hurtling towards an eventuality that, from the hero's perspective, has already occurred. Adding to the ominous ambience were several distinguishing visual techniques, as outlined by Jeremy Butler: "low key (high contrast) lighting; imbalanced lighting; night-for-night; deep focus; wide angle focal length; dissymetrical mise-en-scène; extremely low and high angles; foreground obstructions".
Part of the reason for film noir's popularity during the Forties and Fifties was that these films reflected the social changes that were occurring in postwar America. According to social theorists, film noir cinema, with its cynical view of the world and the corruptibility of human existence, arose from the general mood of post-war nihilism, fueled by the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war, and McCarthy-fueled paranoia. For example, some have viewed the portrayal of the femme fatale as a misogynistic take on the evolving role of women in society, preying at first on the fears of female independence from women entering the workforce in the Second World War, and eventually evolving into the threat posed by women seeking an increasing share of the booming post-war economy.
To this day, film noir continues to make its presence known in modern cinema, serving as an ongoing reflection of societal concerns and fears. "Blade Runner" and "Dark City" have employed film noir iconography in dramatizing the corrupting influence of technology, while this year's "Memento" twists the traditional film noir narrative in a fresh new direction through the use of an amnesia-afflicted protagonist. This past weekend, another 'neo-noir' film, "Original Sin", finally bowed into theaters, after having been pushed back at least twice from last fall and earlier this year. Good, but not great, your predilection towards "Original Sin" will depend on how you interpret the film's ending, and whom you view as the film noir protagonist.
Based on the novel "Waltz into Darkness" by Cornell Woolrich, "Original Sin" does not immediately conjure up the image of classic film noir with its sun-soaked 19th century Cuban setting and fetching leads, Angelina Jolie ("Tomb Raider") and Antonio Banderas ("Spy Kids"). The film opens with Jolie's character, Julia Russell, imprisoned and about to be executed. She tells a priest (James Haven) the story of how she came to be in such a position, which introduces us to Luis Durand (Banderas), the wealthy owner of a Cuban coffee plantation who is about to marry a woman he has never met-- Julia. Their union is courtesy of an advertisement that Luis placed in a Baltimore newspaper for a woman who is 'kind, true, and young enough to bear children'-- like his perfunctory manner for finding a wife, Luis is a pragmatist who neither has the time nor believes in love.
However, upon their first meeting dockside, Luis learns that he has been deceived. Instead of the homely woman in the pictures he was sent, he finds an attractive young woman waiting for him-- it seems that Julia deliberately sent the wrong picture to avoid suitors who would only be attracted to her beauty. Luis then makes an admission of his own-- he misrepresented himself as a lowly clerk on the coffee plantation in order to avoid a woman only interested in his money.
Despite the initial deception, Luis and Julia are married the same night, and it doesn't take much longer before they fall madly in love with each other and Luis gives his new bride equal access to all his bank accounts. Unfortunately, Luis' happiness ends up being fleeting when Julia cleans out his bank accounts and disappears. Determined to get his revenge, Luis sets off to Havana to hunt her down. Along the way, he crosses paths with a private detective (Thomas Jane of "The Deep Blue Sea") who is also looking for his runaway bride, who is actually a con artist that may have murdered the 'real' Julia Russell.
A story framed by a flashback, a cynical hero, a sultry femme fatale, and the protagonist's descent into crime and depravity as a result of some misguided emotions-- all the elements are in place for a film noir potboiler. However, critics have derided the film's mawkish melodrama, overwrought plot mechanics, and soap opera-quality script for sabotaging the credibility of the story's various (and sometimes unexpected) twists and turns. True, some of the transgressions that writer/director Michael Cristofer ("Body Shots") makes are inexcusable, such as some laughably-inane dialogue and dreadful overacting.
However, the script makes an admission in the last few minutes, which can color one's perception on what has elapsed over the last two hours. On the one hand, it can be taken as an impossibly happy ending that makes little sense in the context of what came before it. On the other hand, Cristofer may have pulled a "Usual Suspects", casting doubt on the veracity of the narrator and the events described. Viewed in this context, the script's exaggerated melodrama and suspect logic seems appropriate, the priest becomes the film noir protagonist, and Luis may have actually played a different 'role' in Julia's 'account'.
For fans of film noir, "Original Sin" is a passable entry in the genre, and even rivals the previous cinematic incarnation of Woolrich's novel, François Truffaut's "La Sirène du Mississippi" from 1969. Even if one has little interest in film noir, "Original Sin" benefits from the pleasant pairing of Banderas and Jolie in a guilty pleasure thriller that just might be hiding an added layer of complexity, depending on how you interpret the film's last few minutes.