Noirvember at the movies: on the pleasures of personal curation


Watching the Samuel Fuller film House of Bamboo (1955), a Tokyo-set noir made in the unlikely combination of CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color, I saw a great version of one of my favourite cinematic treats: a tense chase scene in a carnival setting. Two weeks later, watching Fuller’s black and white noir Pickup on South Street (1953) for about the sixth time, I sensed Manhattan come to life through evocative cinematography and visual storytelling, even though it was filmed almost entirely on soundstages. Fuller is a fantastic chronicler of cities.

But like the very best noir detective, or the smartest noir villain, Samuel Fuller kept tailing me, popping up in places I didn’t expect. Watching The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967)—a portrait of America as a melting pot of racial and classist tensions—I thought to myself, I bet Fuller wished he made this movie first. Later that same night, the director himself showed up attending a soiree in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), adlibbing about the nature of cinema.

Next on my Noirvember list, the opening scene of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) is contained inside a crowded trolley, the camera focused on homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune). All of a sudden, Murakami realises the pistol has been lifted from his pocket. I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene from Pickup on South Street, when an unsuspecting Jean Peters is pickpocketed by the handsome, flirtatious Richard Widmark. There is a scene in Stray Dog set at a baseball game, the culprit hidden in the crowd somewhere; a similar setting in San Francisco provides the tense climax of Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962).

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Amongst a certain group of cinephiles and enthusiasts, November is more commonly referred to by the portmanteau ‘Noirvember’. Across social media platforms, most visibly on the now-waning Twitter, classic film fans all over the world have looked forward to each November for some years now as an excuse to watch a whole lot of film noir. In 2010, Marya E Gates started using the hashtag #Noirvember as a way to build and support an online community with a shared love of all things dark, criminal, and usually very sexy.

As a recent participant, I’m nearing the end of my third Noirvember now. Watching noir all month, in its many transcontinental variants from the past eighty-odd years, really is a fantastic thing to do. I’m finding connections between films that aren’t obvious, or that might not appear to me without the benefit of such programming and framing. I like the way this happens, as it often does with double features programmed by screening organisations interested in such things.

But there is another pleasure in these viewing projects, whether done personally or collectively, because there are threads and connections everywhere, supported by genre, tone, and even by happenstance. It reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote in her criticism of auteur theory in the 1960s: that in order to continue to praise a supposedly bad or unworthy film by a director you love, you would either consider it an outlier or find only a few moments to praise. In film criticism, that may require dishonesty; in this scenario of collection and celebration, it’s a pleasure and a benefit. A few films will come along that don’t really belong to the genre at all, but in this context, considering them noir can bring out something unique.

For instance, Ivans xtc. (Bernard Rose, 2000), reads in plot like a noir but it isn’t, really. Still, I was struck by its use of flashback and its ground-level scoping of the city of Los Angeles. Two films made in Brazil in 1962—Roberto Farias’ Assault on the Pay Train (Roberto Farias) and Roberto Pires’ Tocaia no Asfalto (‘Ambush on the Asphalt’, although to my knowledge this does not have an officially translated title)—are influenced by the thematic hardness and the distinctly stark shadows of noir, with some memorable paranoid criminals. Tocaia no Asfalto has an opening scene with the same simplicity, violence, and lack of hope as the opening of The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). Maybe I’ll watch that again before the end of the month.

Watching Park Chan-Wook’s new release Decision to Leave (2022) in a cinema, I noticed that the protagonist—Detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il)—blamed himself for the death of two people because he chose to bury evidence that a woman committed an earlier murder. The protagonist of Stray Dog, Murakami, blamed himself for the deaths of people killed by his stolen pistol. This level of internal blame is a very noir element: turning guilt inwards, becoming a tortured male whose foibles are deemed failures. Such threads are fascinating to connect in this way, because they highlight the very clever ways in which a genre can stick to its subversive core, even decades apart. In Stray Dog, Murakami’s advisor, Satō (Takashi Shimura), talks to him about murderers: ‘Once does not a habit make, but the second time, a stray becomes a rabid dog.’ In Decision to Leave, a young detective tells his senior, Hae-Jun, ‘Murder is like smoking—it’s only hard the first time.’ Genuine noir—that gritty, visually and psychologically wounded melodrama—might be contained to its time period of wartime and postwar recovery. But there remain solid neo-noirs that follow all the steps. They exist even in Australia with a film like The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008), that has a pathetic everyman protagonist who leads himself astray chasing after a femme fatale.

Importantly, noir is not concentrated only on the masculine. After watching the new bluray of Repeat Performance (Alfred L Werker, 1949)—restored by the Film Noir Foundation and released by Flicker Alley—I was intrigued to read that in its adaption from the novel the main character switched genders. In the film, Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) is a Broadway actress married to a male drunkard who can’t handle a successful wife; in its focus and Joan Leslie’s striking performance, it shows insight into unreachable standards often expected of women. The Technicolor Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) stars Jean Peters, again, but focuses on Marilyn Monroe as a woman unhappy in her marriage. While she is not a faultless victim—she pursues a lustful affair and plans to murder her husband—there is sympathy for her circumstances as a wife trapped in an emotionally stunted union. The Secret (1979), a fascinating debut feature by director Ann Hui, focuses on a variety of women’s lives and experiences across different generations. This film was long lost in its original format—an all-too-common fate of films helmed by women—available only on faded rips and VHS tapes, but was recently restored by the Hong Kong Film Archive and Magyar Nemzeti in Hungary.

My Samuel Fuller thread this month makes sense: he directed so many noirs, and he also wrote them for other people. Even films outside of the genre, like the Western Forty Guns (1957), had a noir-like psychology that manifested in violence. (After working with her on this film, Fuller said that Barbara Stanwyck—my favourite actress—was his favourite actress.)

Noir is not only where you look for it: there is no single way to make a film noir, and its variety is its beauty. In the booklet published with the blu-ray release, researcher Sam Ho notes that The Secret is somewhere between a thriller and a human drama, and that ‘in that ambiguity lies the film’s brilliance.’ I find that to be true of many films. In my curation of my own Noirvember screenings, and in other fans’ curation alike, we are creating our own connections and meaning. In our own way, we are in fact contributing to the writing of film history. Peter von Bach wrote a similar thing, albeit with much more breadth and urgency, about the work and the repertory programming done by film festivals. What is given focus, gains new focus. To quote von Bach, ‘a good film archive program reads like a piece of music.’ A curated personal special, like my Noirvember, makes music in its connections and its similarities, often in ways that are unexpected.

Image: a still from House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955)

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross writes and teaches in Melbourne, and holds a PhD in cinema studies. She is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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