Voice-over monologue in film noir

Film noir is famous for its sarcastic, metaphor-filled voice-over monologue that often shows just how cynical the protagonist is about life. I thought of this while re-reading Ruta Sepetys Out of the Easy which gets the style and ambiance of the New Orleans French Quarter just right. I appreciate this line about Willie, the bordello madam: “The voice was thick and had mileage on it.”

One of my favorite lines comes from the former TV series “Early Edition” (1996-2000) about a guy who knows stuff because he gets the newspaper a day early: “The fog was as thick as hash-house oatmeal and twice as cold.”

Two silhouetted figures in The Big Combo (1955). The film’s cinematographer, John Alton, was the creator of many of film noir’s stylized images. – Wikipedia

As “Private Eye Monologue” says, “The signature narration style in Film Noir. A bored-looking, world-weary, the utterly cynical detective (hardboiled and/or defective) with his feet on the desk meets a Femme Fatale, while the voiceover gives us his mental play-by-play:” She walked through my door like a tigress walks into a Burmese orphanage — strawberry blonde and legs for hours. No dame her age could afford a coat like that, and the kinda makeup she had on gave me a good idea how she got it. She had bad news written on her like October of ’29.

The 1946 film “The Big Sleep”(Bogart and Bacall) by Raymond Chandler/William Faulkner, and others, is one of the more enduring noir films because of the stars, author, and director, Howard Hawkes. Chandler’s lines are memorable within the genre: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights,” and “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Wikipedia describes Night and the City as “a 1950  film noir directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Googie Withers. It is based on the novel of the same name by Gerald Kersh. Shot on location in London and at Shepperton Studios, the plot revolves around an ambitious hustler who meets continuous failures.” One can’t help but notice: This is like the Greyhound station for DEATH!

From “Murder, My Sweet,” we get: “Okay Marlowe,” I said to myself, ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough—like putting your pants on.’

From the “Lady from Shanghai”: “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.”

And “Key Largo” “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

According to Wikipedia, “Farewell, My Lovely is a novel by Raymond Chandler, published in 1940, the second novel he wrote featuring the Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe. It was adapted for the screen three times and was also adapted for the stage and radio.” I like the 1975 version (classified more as neo-noir) with Robert Mitchum the best: “It was one of those transient motels, something between a fleabag and a dive” and Moose never would have hurt her. It didn’t matter to him that she hadn’t written in 6 years. It didn’t matter that she turned him in for a reward. The big lug loved her… and if he was still alive… it wouldn’t matter to him that she’d pumped 3 bullets into him… What a world.”

There’s no way to sum all this up except to say that anyone who loves noir has already gone over to the dark side.

–Malcolm

Rainy day mix

  • Bergman

    Obituary Blues: My Facebook authors page contains a mix of arts and writing news and reviews. Today there are three obits on it and that’s enough to make one feel the blues strong and steady. Michael Lang, 77, Woodstock co-creator; Director Peter Bogdanovich, 82, “The Last Picture show” and other films; Marilyn Bergman, 93, Oscar-winning lyricist of “The Way We were”; and then, too, on my main news feed, Sidney Portier (“They call me Mr. Tibbs.”)

  • Book cover for WildKristin Hannah:  While the subject of Wild was compelling for anyone interested in psychology, I was disappointed in this early novel, believing that Hannah hadn’t really come into her own in nailing down her style and voice. The feel-good ending falls into the characters’ laps without insufficient foundation and the author discounted her own childhood disabilties specialist by having her look up autism on the Internet. As I said in my Depot Cafe Blog, I think Hannah did this as a means of telling her readers about autism without thinking about the fact that a specialist wouldn’t be looking for onfo online that she would already know.
  • Our 2006 Buick: Ever since the glovebox latch broke off, our challenge has been finding ways to keep the door closed tightly enough to keep the small light inside from draining the battery.  Apparently, one must take the glovebox door off to get the lightbulb out. Had the car on the trickle charger most of yesterday and last night to re-charge the battery. This is becoming a hassle.
  • 711 Ocean Drive Poster.jpg711 Ocean Drive: My wife and I watch a lot of noir movies on TV and this one fit the bill last night. I liked the big shoot-out ending at Hoover Dam (still called Boulder Dam in the film) because I visited the dam when I was young and the scenes in the movie matched my memories of the tour. Apparently, when the film came out, Columbia Pictures said that gangsters were so angry about the film giving away their secrets that the production company had to take out special insurance politices on the primary stars (Edmond O’Brien and Joanne Dru) to keep them safe. The Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host said that notion was probably a PR stunt.
  • 2022: I’m not yet convinced this is going to be a good year. The COVID arguments continue and more and more people are saying the U.S. is on the verge of another civil war. That’s rather unsettling. I feel sorry for today’s kids growing up with that idea hanging over their heads along with worrying about whether the schools are going to be open this week.

-Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbel is the author of the mystery/thriller “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” in which a conjure woman fights the KKK in a small Florida town.

Speaking of covers again

I’m a long-time fan of film noir and had the genre in mind when I wrote my upcoming novel Special Investigative Reporter. A noir feature film is usually a fairly dark–and an often hopeless–kind of movie. It’s usually in black and white, features a lot of blunt, voice-over narration, and portrays cops and detectives trying to solve cases in foreboding environments.

Special Investigative Reporter isn’t a noir novel. It’s a mix of comedy, satire, and corruption. Yet, once I got my rights to the novel back from the publisher that released the original edition under another title, I thought we needed a stronger cover. I suggested to my publisher, Thomas-Jacob, that a big-city image might work. Melinda Clayton, who manages Thomas-Jacob and who writes darker novels than I do, designed a beautiful cover.

I like the city-scape scene, the word “bar” in the picture, and the stark, noir-film-like rendering of the title. The individual on the cover–who’s my protagonist Jock Stewart–looks like he could be a detective or newspaperman out of the film noir era. Melinda once told me that some of Jock Stewart’s lines reminded her of Humphrey Bogart. She has a good ear. I was thinking of the kind of voice-over narration he would do in such movies as “Dark Passage,” “Dead Reckoning,” and “Key Largo.” (If you like noir films and have Turner Classic Movies on your satellite or cable menu, look for Noir Alley. It features noir films–except in August–and I watch it like a religion.)

My protagonist Jock Stewart, who’s been a reporter since the days of letterpress, is old fashioned. He would despise the kind of “journalism” we see on the 24/7 news sites. This novel’s satire pokes fun at those kinds of sites and reminds us that journalism used to be about reporting the facts and not about displaying the reporter’s (or anchor’s) opinion about those facts.

I’ve been teasing you for a while about this upcoming novel, but we’re rather in a holding pattern waiting for Ingram to send us the proof copy of the hardcover edition. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying looking at Melinda’s cover.

Malcolm

 

 

Remembering the film ‘Body Heat’

“Body Heat is a 1981 American neo-noir erotic thriller film written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. It stars William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Richard Crenna, and features Ted Danson, J. A. Preston, and Mickey Rourke. The film was inspired by Double Indemnity.” – Wikipedia

My wife and I saw this film in a theater with another couple soon after it was released. Our first comments outside the theater afterwards were about the silence of the audience during the sex scenes. You could have heard a pin drop. It was like nobody dared to breathe. The mood was that intense.

Sex, nudity, body heat, the heat of a Florida summer, the music with the moaning saxophone, the pitch-perfect performances, and the very strong film noir style brought this story together as a very unforgettable film. I think every author hopes, should his work be adapted to film, that the ambience will be this overpowering.

I’m a long-time fan of film noir. I’ve seen most of it. There’s a brittle, hopeless nostalgia surrounding such films. Fate, too, I guess.

My wife and I have seen “Body Heat” on TV several times. It remains strong after all these years. But sitting in our living room, the experience is not as intense as that of a small-town movie theater.

What impresses me with such films is their intensity and the fact that the audience is dragged into them with no exit even after the final credits fade from the screen. I’m impressed by the direction, cinematography, music, and acting that come together to present such a powerful experience.

I thought of the intensity of the film as I read Temptation Rag, reviewed in my previous post, and recalled Doctorow’s novel (and feature film) Ragtime. Some films and some novels, even those not highly reviewed by the critics or remembered by prizes and awards, pull readers into their stories–with or without their consent, perhaps–and those are the books I remember.

Authors hope their audiences will lose themselves in their stories just as surely as many of those in the theater were lost in “Body Heat.”

Malcolm

Some of my favorite noir movie lines

I’ve always been a fan of noir movies (and a few neo-noir movies as well). If you like noir and have Turner Classic Movies on your Cable or Satellite, they show a lot of them, especially on Noir Alley, a program with some cool commentary before and after the film. Here are some of my favorite lines, starting out with a 1975 neo-noir film with Robert Mitchum.

  • Wikipedia Photo

    “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” ― Raymond Chandler, of course.

  • “Okay Marlowe,” I said to myself, ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough—like putting your pants on.” – Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944)
  • “I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes.” – Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter in “Laura” (1944)
  • “You know what he’ll do when he comes back? Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.” – Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946)
  • “You knew when a woman loves you like that, she can love you with every card in the deck and then pull a knife across your throat the next morning.” – Van Heflin as Jeff Hartnett in “Johnny Eager” (1941)
  • Wikipedia photo

    “What a beautiful picture. Moonlight. Sagebrush. My wife with a stranger.” Vincent Price as Lloyd Rollins in “The Las Vegas Story” (1952).

  • “With my brains and your looks, we could go places.” – John Garfield as Frank Chambers in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946).
  • “Flossie had looks, brains, and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces. But I regret to report that she also knew how to handle a gun. My gun.” John Hoyt as Spencer in Brute Force (1947).
  • “Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.” – Orson Welles and Michael O’Hara in “Lady from Shanghai” (1947).
  • “Decency and integrity are fancy words, but they never kept anybody well fed. And I’ve got quite an appetite.” Howard Duff as Jack Early in “Shakedown” (1950).
  • Wikipedia photo.

    “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.” – Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud in “Key Largo” (1948).

  • “I sell gasoline. I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it.” – Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey in “Out of the Past” (1947)

If you’re interested in film noir, one of my favorite books about it, Voices in the Dark: Narrative Patterns of Film Noir just happens to have been written by a colleague of mine, J. P. Telotte, from Berry College, Rome, GA. We saw a lot of noir films whenever we went over to his house for dinner. He’d bring a projector home from work and run one of the films he was discussing in the classroom. While we agreed on the film noir and the Federico Fellini films such as “Juliet of the Spirits” (definitely not noir), we always clashed on whether Katherine Hepburne and Meryl Steep were good actresses. I said “yes,” while he said “no.”

Some people think noir is a bit of a downer. Perhaps that’s true. But the atmosphere, the voice-over narration, and the snappy dialogue always lure me into it.

–Malcolm

You’ll find a touch of noir in Campbell’s audio book “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”

 

 

The seared images of ‘Body Heat’

bodyheatposterNed: I need someone to take care of me, someone to rub my tired muscles, smooth out my sheets.
Matty: Get married.
Ned: I just need it for tonight.

–from “Body Heat” starring William Hurt as Ned and Kathleen Turner as Matty

From the sex to the crime to the moody saxophone music to Florida’s hot summer days when small-town lawyer Ned Racine meets the married, but overtly sexual Matty Walker, “Body Heat” was, in 1981, the kind of film everyone talked about. Men wanted to be Ned even though things ended up badly. Women wanted to be Matty because she got everything she wanted.

When I watch this film today on DVD, it still plays well. I do like noir films. I did grow up in Florida in the days before air conditioning when everyone sweated when the temperature outside reached 98.6 degrees or higher. And, John Barry’s music is the kind of music I remember hearing in blues bars on those summer nights when I was hoping to meet somebody like Matty Walker who didn’t want me to kill a husband for her. But it’s more than that, though what is is, is hard to define

Movies have become more permissive since 1981. Skimpy clothing, more innuendos, racier language than Ned Racine ever used, and more body heat than most people experienced in “real life.” Think of it: The near-nudity on “Survivor” is more extravagant, the language on “Hells Kitchen” is more profane, and the urgent sexual encounters on “Grey’s Anatomy” are more frequent than in most of the films we saw thirty-two years ago.

My wife and I saw “Body Heat” in a packed theater with another married couple. Afterwards, all of us commented about the same sexual encounter when the audience was stunned into an overt hush. When Ned throws a porch chair through the front door of Matty Walker’s house while she stands inside at the foot of the stairs waiting, leading to wildly hot sex in the foyer, nobody in the audience moved, chewed popcorn, breathed, looked at anyone else, or even risked allowing a tangible thought to enter their brains.

If you saw this film thirty-two years ago or even last week, that scene may well be hard-wired into your memory of movie moments. Watching the movie now, my experience of the film is partly based on how I reacted to it with five hundred other people that night. I can still feel that stunned hush.

As an author, I look closely at what produces a stunned hush in readers and movie goers. It need not be sex. It may be a car chase, a serene moment in a beautiful setting, or a conversation in a bar while a a bluesy enchantress sings out her troubles. What exactly makes for the perfect combination of setting, action, and words to thoroughly capture (and control) the heart and soul of a reader or a viewer?

Perhaps you remember a film or a novel with a scene that has stayed with you long after you first saw it or read it. Maybe the scene is tied together in your memory with the weather, the daily news, the people you were with, and the kind of day you were having when that fictional moment stopped you in your tracks. We know it when we see it and we know it when we read it…

Ned: Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that.
Matty: This is a blouse and a skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Ned: You shouldn’t wear that body.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the recently released “The Seeker,” a story with a high degree of body heat between the covers.

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