"Men are the ostensible heroes of most films noir. They are conventionally the protagonists, but there is seldom anything 'heroic' about them... The noir protagonist is alienated from a combustible, hostile world, driven by obsessions transcending morality and causality... The obsessive noir protagonist is drawn into a destiny he cannot escape; he is impelled toward his fate by exterior forces beyond his power and interior forces beyond his control."
- Jeremy Butler, "Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir"
Film noir was a genre of crime film that dominated Hollywood moviemaking between 1941 and 1958, a period bookended by "The Maltese Falcon" and "Touch of Evil". Classical film noir cinema included "Double Indemnity", "The Postman Always Rings Twice", and "The Big Sleep". More contemporary forays into the genre, dubbed neo-noir, include "Chinatown", "Blade Runner", "Body Heat", and 1997's "L.A. Confidential".
The prototypical film noir formula was constructed around a wounded hero who sported a cynical and fatalistic perspective on the alienating world around them, and was subject to the whims of his amoral lifestyle. Most often, this 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, like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who investigated the crimes committed amidst sedate European hamlets, film noir presented the notorious private eye who saw solving crimes as just a job, pursuing the seedy criminals through bleak American cityscapes, sometimes 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 uses 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 involved in a web of deceit that ultimately ends in murder, often his own. Often, this woman spurns the traditional female societal roles of wife and mother, and seeks sexual gratification outside of the conventions of marriage. The femme fatale would often be counterpointed by what film theorist Janey Place would call 'the rejuvenating redeemer'-- a woman strongly identified with traditional family values, status quo, and stability. This rejuvenating redeemer provides the film noir hero with a chance for redemption, though it is often unattainable due to the hero's own tragic flaws.
In addition to the standard character archetypes outlined above, film noir cinema was characterized by a visual representation and narrative style that helped created 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 ambiance 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".
So what begat the seventeen-year reign of film noir? Over the past fifty years, there has been much discussion of how film noir reflected the social changes 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, threat of nuclear war, and McCarthyism. Some have seen the portrayal of the femme fatale as a misogynistic attack on the evolving role of women in society, at first playing on the fears of female independence that arose from women entering the workforce in the Second World War, eventually evolving into the threatening image of women seeking an increasing share of the booming post-war economy. On the other hand, some others, such as columnist of Lloyd Shearer of the New York Times Magazine, have dismissed the view of film noir as a 'cathartic for pent-up emotions', and instead attribute the popularity to something more mundane-- the time-honored tradition of Hollywood production, 'follow-the-leader', leading to a series of 'me-too' movies capitalizing on a successful formula.
Whatever the motivations behind the film noir genre, its far-reaching influences on popular culture are unmistakable. The latest entry into the film noir genre is "Palmetto", the latest from "The Handmaid's Tale" director Volker Schlondorff. Though this film, based on James Hadley Chase's "Just Another Sucker", exhibits many of the hallmarks of film noir cinema, it is subverted by an inconsistent tone and a banal script.
Woody Harrelson (seen most recently in "Wag the Dog") is no stranger to playing the bumbling dumb schmuck, and in "Palmetto", he plays Harry Barber, a bumbling dumb schmuck who is serving time in prison after being framed in a corruption scandal. Before his arrest, he was a reporter for a local newspaper that uncovered widespread corruption in the town's chambers. After rejecting a bribe that would have ensured his silence, Harry soon finds the funds deposited into his bank account, and he is promptly arrested. Now, two years later, he is released when an ex-cop's testimony vindicates him. Though he is bitter against the town officials, Harry wanders back to Palmetto with his 'rejuvenative redeemer' girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon of "Face/Off"), who has been patiently waiting for him.
The money's good but, in exchange, there's an element of risk.
Unable to find a job, he spends his days lounging in a local bar. In walks Rhea Malroux (Elizabeth Shue of "The Saint"), the very attractive femme fatale wife of the richest man in town, who offers him a job: help her and her daughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny of "Kids") scam the old man out of $500,000 with a bogus kidnapping scheme, in which Harry would receive a ten per cent cut. Tempted by both Rhea's seductive charms and the prospect of some quick cash, Harry goes along with the plan. But when Odette winds up dead, and all indications point to Harry as the murderer, he finds himself way over his head.
This neo-noir wannabe suffers from many afflictions, the most prominent being with its protagonist. Even though he is set up as a bitter and world-weary journalist that seeks justice for the wrongs he has suffered, Harry does too many stupid things to be taken seriously. The story is literally propelled forward by Harry's stupidity, with many plot points relying on Harry 'forgetting' to do something. Not to mention the incredulity of the situations that this clueless loser finds himself in, such as being named the press liaison for the Palmetto Police Department. Shue vamps it up as the film's resident femme fatale, but her over-the-top buffoonery ends up diminishing the maliciousness of her character. Overall, in the acting department, Sevigny probably has the most interesting character, as a Lolita-style temptress that would put Juliette Lewis to shame.
Furthermore, the atmosphere of "Palmetto" is all wrong-- instead of instilling a sense of futility about Harry's existence, the tone of "Palmetto" vacillates between jokey and serious, and the dominance of daytime settings doesn't help matters either. Maybe if "Palmetto" had been a post-modern deconstruction of film noir, with some self-reflective and tongue-in-cheek wit, it would have worked (much like how "Scream" took a new angle on the horror genre). But it seems that Schlondorff's intent was a serious film, but the messy script and inconsistent characters completely drain any suspense out of the proceedings, and even makes the most intense aspects of the story laughable, such as the absurd climax which has Harry dangling over a vat of acid (!).
"Palmetto" seems more at home on the video store racks, shelved with all those low-budget and poorly-scripted B-grade 'erotic thrillers'. This film noir misfire is certainly no "Body Heat"-- save your money and see the Oscar-nominated "L.A. Confidential" instead.