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      THE OUTER LIMITS OF FILM NOIR  
   

Paul Schrader: "Film noir can stretch at its outer limits from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958), and most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1958 contains some noir elements."1

Pam Cook: "The major period of noir production is usually taken to run from The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to Touch of Evil in 1958."2

Sylvia Harvey: "The film noir period can be taken to coincide approximately with the appearance of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and of Touch of Evil in 1958."3

So many critics can't be wrong. Yet The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil could be described more accurately as transitional films that mark the boundaries between true film noir and films that have few or no noir elements. The Maltese Falcon introduces elements that later became hallmarks of film noir — in particular the alienated and amoral hero, the femme fatale, and the dark and disturbed urban environment in which they live — but it stops short of a purely noir outlook and visual representation. Touch of Evil exaggerates and reworks these elements in both its narrative and visual style. Both films react against the dominant ideology

Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart established the archetypal film noir detective-hero. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
of society and the conventions of contemporary Hollywood films. The Maltese Falcon transforms the traditional detective film and signals the shift to film noir, while Touch of Evil deliberately moves beyond film noir — which by 1958 had come to dominate Hollywood films — by using its techniques and conventions in new or extreme ways.

When The Maltese Falcon first appeared on screen, Hollywood's idea of a detective meant Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, or Nick Charles. Sam Spade introduced a clear alternative to these images of the well-mannered amateur sleuth: the somewhat disreputable private eye who solved mysteries as a profession — not a hobby — and chased criminals through the dark, rain-soaked streets of American cities rather than the well-kept lawns of English country houses. With this new vision of the detective and his world, The Maltese Falcon established images that would be central to film noir.

The typical hero of film noir provides a stark contrast to the traditional Hollywood hero — he is alienated from conventional society, he works in opposition to the police or is even pursued by the police, and he is often psychologically wounded and morally ambiguous. Jeremy Butler argues that the noir hero is defined by his darker personal qualities, by the imbalanced and dangerous world around him, and by the particular fate that inevitably overtakes him:

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.4

Sam Spade fits the image of the noir protagonist to the extent that he is a tarnished hero, not bound by conventional rules of morality, with an uncompromising and fatalistic view of the world. He is unashamedly greedy, as we see early in the film by the look on his face when his client, Miss Wonderly, opens her purse to reveal a wad of hundred-dollar bills. He also has a reputation for being corrupt, and he is having an affair with his partner's wife. When he learns that his partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered, he shows no sign of shock or sadness — his initial response is to have Archer's name removed from the office doors and windows and to have his desk taken away.

Spade further reveals a lack of compassion and even a streak of cruelty in two scenes later in the movie. When Archer's widow comes to see him, Spade appears to comfort her, but when the camera reveals his face, his insincerity is unmistakable. In another scene, Spade wrestles a gun away from Joel Cairo; after gaining the upper hand, Spade prepares to knock Cairo unconscious, but first he pauses, looks down into Cairo's face, and grins. He obviously relishes the violence that he is about to inflict.

For all of his toughness and amorality, however, Sam Spade is not a true film noir hero, because he is able to control himself, his destiny, and his obsessions. Spade first demonstrates his self-control mid-way through the movie, when he pretends to lose his temper in front of Caspar Gutman, only to walk out of the room with a mischievous smile on his face. He is no Walter Neff or Jeff Markham, who allow themselves to be destroyed through their obsession with the femme fatale — a woman in almost every noir film who uses her sexual power to manipulate and finally destroy the male protagonist. Although Spade falls in love with the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaunessy/Wonderly, he is ultimately immune to her spells. When he discovers that Brigid murdered Miles Archer, he refuses to protect her and instead turns her over to the police.

Spade has imposed a crude sense of meaning on an otherwise meaningless world by remaining faithful to a personal and professional code. It is this code that saves him from Brigid and distinguishes him further from the classic noir hero, who, according to Janey Place, "has been inexplicably uprooted from those values, beliefs, and endeavours that offer him meaning and stability."5 Furthermore, Spade's willingness to give up Brigid — whom he apparently loves — involves a personal sacrifice and suggests the possibility of redemption for the hero, which is absent in film noir. He sends Brigid to prison — and possibly to the gallows — because his code does not allow him to be controlled by her and demands a certain loyalty to his profession.

Brigid, meanwhile, provides a model for the femme fatale of film noir, but in the end her inability to control Sam Spade and the manner of her defeat separate her from the classic "spider woman" of film noir. The femme fatale in such films as Out of the Past and Double Indemnity uses her sexual attractiveness to control men in order to gain independence, money, and power. She rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother and, like the men of film noir, she looks for sexual fulfillment outside of marriage. Brigid uses Floyd Thursby and attempts to use Sam Spade as protection against Gutman and Cairo, apparently with the intention of discarding them when they have served their purpose. Sex is her only weapon, and she uses it often and very effectively.

Like the "spider women" of later noir films, Brigid is defeated in the end, but — in a clear departure from film noir — she is defeated in such a way that her power is neutralized and order is restored. In film noir, the plot is generally resolved when the femme fatale is killed — she is almost never captured alive. The femme fatale dies violently at the end of Double Indemnity; Murder, My Sweet; The Postman Always Rings Twice; Out of the Past; The Lady from Shanghai; Dark Passage; Dead Reckoning; Kiss Me Deadly; and many other noir films.

The femme fatale of The Maltese Falcon meets a less violent and therefore a less disruptive fate. Like earlier, non-noir detective films, The Maltese Falcon ends with a sense of resolution that is much stronger than the ambiguous resolutions of most noir films. The film noir heroine typically dies at the height of her sexual destructiveness, so that the image that lingers is one of a powerful, unrepentant femme fatale — not a defeated, captured, and therefore neutralized woman, which clearly describes Brigid in the movie's final scene. Moreover, at the end of The Maltese Falcon, all of the "bad guys" who threatened order and civilization have been captured, and the hero remains alive with his power intact. Spade has won a victory over the dark and deviant forces that often overwhelm the hero in film noir, defeating a psychotic killer (Wilmer), a homosexual (Cairo), and — most frightening of all — an independent woman. The neutralization of the femme fatale, the affirmation of the hero's superiority, and the return to order suggest a conventional crime drama/detective film rather than a true film noir.

Perhaps the least noir-like elements of The Maltese Falcon, however, are its visual style and narration. Jeremy Butler, citing Janey Place and L.S. Peterson, provides a list of visual techniques that distinguish film noir from classical Hollywood cinema: "low key (high contrast) lighting; imbalanced lighting; night-for-night; deep focus; wide angle focal length; dissymetrical mise-en-scène; extreme low and high angles; foreground obstructions."6 The Maltese Falcon prefers balanced, low-contrast lighting to the high-contrast lighting and deep shadows of film noir. Camera angles tend to be at eye level, with the exception of the subjective camera used when Spade is drugged. Mise-en-scène is carefully consistent. The setting never shifts from a few apartments and offices in San Francisco. The characters do not change their appearances significantly, costuming and hair styles conform to the historical period depicted, and no incongruous objects or technologies upset our equilibrium.

The editing of the film is seamless, and the story is told in linear time, without the flashbacks or voice-over narration that often creates a sense of impending doom in film noir. The movie does end with a self-consciously ironic twist when the Falcon turns out to be a fake — which reminds us to focus on the body of the film as well as the ending — but the audience is not meant to be continually conscious of the filmgoing experience. This plot twist, along with Spade's decision to quote Shakespeare in the movie's final line, suggests a very limited or even unintended example of self-parody — perhaps because film noir was not sufficiently dominant to evoke this type of commentary.

While The Maltese Falcon perfects the conventional visual style and "invisible director" effect of classical Hollywood cinema, Touch of Evil overwhelms the viewer with the dark, disorienting visual techniques and mise-en-scène of film noir and forces the audience to be conscious of the camera from the very first frame. Touch of Evil also redefines the detective hero and the femme fatale, implicitly questioning the adequacy of these images after 18 years of noir production. The result is a much darker world view than The Maltese Falcon or even later film noir ever expressed, combined with a self-conscious critique of film noir itself.

Touch of Evil makes the audience aware of the camera and the director even before the opening credits have begun to roll. While viewing the famous opening sequence — where the camera glides along behind a car, roams through the streets, and slides over the tops of buildings in one long, uncut shot — our first question is not "What is going to happen?" but "How did he get the camera to do that?" To a filmgoer accustomed to scenes made up of several shots pieced together, this single, uninterrupted shot is especially disorienting.

Director Orson Welles consistently uses the camera to manipulate our interpretation of characters and events, particularly in the extreme high- and low-angle shots of Welles's character, Hank Quinlan. Quinlan is the police chief in a small town on the Mexican- American border whose perfect record for solving murders has made him a legend. When his character is introduced, and for much of the first half of the movie, Quinlan is filmed from a low-angle perspective. Because of the low-angle shot, his enormous body dominates the screen, emphasizing his power and confidence. Later, when he has been caught planting evidence and then committing murder, Quinlan is seen almost exclusively from above, often framed by oddly shaped doorways or surrounded by skeletal oil derricks; the effect is to make Quinlan look small, isolated, and trapped.

Welles also uses film noir lighting techniques and mise-en-scène to create an ominous environment for his characters. Touch of Evil shows a preference for darkness, night-for-night, and high-contrast lighting. In some scenes, the only available light source is a single, unshaded bulb or a neon light flashing on and off. Carefully choreographed mise-en-scène also provides symbolic or ironic commentary in two key scenes. When Quinlan is persuaded to emerge from his sanctuary in Tanna's brothel, he pauses for a moment under the mounted head of a bull, which is stuck full of swords. The juxtaposition of the cornered detective with a bull that has been killed for sport — filmed from an extreme low angle — intensifies Quinlan's sense of danger and foreshadows his future. Earlier in the film, Charleton Heston's character, the Mexican "observer" Vargas, stands beneath a billboard featuring the words "Welcome Stranger" — just before Quinlan makes him feel very unwelcome.

Touch of Evil's visual homage to film noir is matched only by the extremes to which the movie takes the narrative elements first developed in The Maltese Falcon. The hard-boiled detective hero of The Maltese Falcon and many later films reappears in Touch of Evil, but he has been split into two distinct characters: police chief Hank Quinlan and the Mexican Government's Mike Vargas. Both have fallen away from Sam Spade's strict code of behavior and have lost the heroic qualities that Spade possessed. Although one would appear to be "good" and the other "evil," both men are flawed, and it is not clear which man is the protagonist. At the same time, film noir's juxtaposition of the independent, dangerous femme fatale with the good but unattainable traditional woman has been reversed: Quinlan seeks refuge with the dark, mysterious madame of a brothel across the border, while Vargas's beautiful, blond, American wife is a source of danger and anxiety for both men.

Sam Spade became the archetype of the tarnished hero who was nonetheless better than those around him, but Quinlan (and Vargas, to some extent) is more deeply implicated in an all-consuming guilt. Thus, Paul Schrader's comment about Kiss Me Deadly may be even more appropriately applied to Touch of Evil: "The private eye hero . . . undergoes the final stages of degradation."7 Where the evil and guilt of the world had infected and destroyed earlier film noir heroes, it now has been internalized by Quinlan. He cannot escape it or fight it, because evil and guilt are a part of him. Significantly, when Quinlan assures Pete that he never framed anyone, at least not anyone "who wasn't guilty," we first hear Quinlan's voice and then the echo from Vargas's tape recorder, so that the word "guilty" reverberates and fades away, like a lingering note on a piano. The word "guilt" echoes literally and figuratively throughout this movie.

Even Vargas, who on the surface is the more "heroic" character, is not completely "innocent." He pursues Quinlan relentlessly, and in doing so he neglects and endangers his own wife. Vargas repeatedly leaves his wife alone in a town full of his enemies, without ensuring her safety or trying to contact her — until it is nearly too late. His over-zealous pursuit of Quinlan also leads him to compromise his standards of justice and use procedures that are less than ethical, including the use of Quinlan's best friend to trap him. As his desire to expose Quinlan grows to an obsession or even a vendetta, Vargas's conception of justice becomes increasingly problematic. In the end, he destroys Quinlan, but he does not understand the tragedy of Quinlan's fall, nor does he restore order to the town or closure to the film — he only leaves a vacuum. In some sense, he is tainted by his contact with Quinlan. The final irony is that the suspect that Quinlan framed and Vargas fought to protect confesses to the murder, so that even this "innocent victim" turns out to be guilty.

While taking the noir detective hero to "the final stages of degradation," Touch of Evil also provides an extreme variation on another noir convention — the pairing of the femme fatale with the "good girl." This image appears again and again in film noir, and can even be identified in The Maltese Falcon, with Brigid O'Shaunessy as the femme fatale and Effie Perine as the woman who takes care of Spade. Jeremy Butler cites Janey Place's analysis of how these roles typically are used in film noir:

The women of film noir have been divided by Janey Place into two categories: the "rejuvenating redeemer" and the "deadly seductress," also known as the "spider woman." The redemptive woman, according to Place, is strongly associated with the status quo, moral values, and stable identities. Her love provides an escape route for the alienated protagonist, but he is seldom able to join her world of safety. The rejuvenating redeemer exists as more of an ideal than an attainable reality.8

In contrast, the femme fatale, according to Place, "is comfortable in the world of cheap dives, shadowy doorways and mysterious settings."9

In Touch of Evil, these roles are reversed. Vargas's wife, Suzy, would seem to be the model of the nurturing woman — she embraces the traditional role of married woman and she is loyal to her husband. In every way, she is "associated with the status quo, moral values, and stable identities."10 Yet, Suzy becomes the center of conflict and danger for both Vargas and Quinlan. Vargas is vulnerable to his enemies because of her existence, while Quinlan is destroyed when he uses her to fight Vargas.

The classic femme fatale, on the other hand, turns out to be a "rejuvenating redeemer" in Touch of Evil. When Quinlan is pursued by Vargas, he finds sanctuary in a brothel that he had visited regularly in the past. There, Marlene Dietrich's madame represents an idealized and unattainable past, inverting the convention of the "redemptive woman" mentioned by Place and Butler. She has all of the surface characteristics of the mysterious spider woman, yet she remains true to Quinlan — the film implies that she loves him — and is the only person who seems upset by his death.

This reworking of the classic femme fatale/nurturing woman imagery indicates that Welles altered film noir conventions developed for the 1940s in order to comment on the American psyche of the 1950s and perhaps to parody the femme fatale as a stock character of film noir. In 1958, the "threat" of the independent female represented by working women during World War II had long since receded, but it had been replaced by a new, equally threatening image of women as gold-diggers out to capture wealthy husbands or housewives who pressure their husbands to play the traditional role of breadwinner. In this context, it is not surprising that film noir — always suspicious of women — was reconfigured to question the latest threat to masculinity. In Touch of Evil, men and women are even more alienated from one another than they were in the classic period of film noir; it is the traditional married woman whose very existence is a threat, while a prostitute — the ultimate unmarried woman who never demands commitment from men — is seen as unthreatening and nurturing.

In its final inversion of film noir conventions, Touch of Evil allows the redemptive femme fatale to verbalize a possible moral for the movie. As she looks down at Quinlan's dead body, Tanna says simply, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" She refuses to eulogize Quinlan, perhaps because she could say nothing that anyone else would understand or because everything has already been said. Thus, Touch of Evil ends with a strong sense of closure — not for this particular film, but for film noir itself. With Touch of Evil — the movie that Paul Schrader calls "film noir's epitaph"11film noir had said everything that it had to say.

Endnotes

  1. Schrader, Paul (1972). Notes on Film Noir. p. 279. (Course materials; complete citation unavailable.)
  2. Cook, Pam, ed. The Cinema Book. p. 93.
  3. Harvey, Sylvia (1978). Woman's place: The absent family. In E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.), Women in film noir (pp. 22-34). London: British Film Institute. fn. 1, p. 33.
  4. Butler, Jeremy G. (1985, Fall). Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir. Journal of Popular Film and Television. (13)3. p. 129.
  5. Place, Janey (1978). Women in Film Noir In E. Ann Kaplan (Ed.), Women in film noir (pp. 35-67). London: British Film Institute. p. 41.
  6. Butler, p. 130
  7. Schrader, p. 287.
  8. Butler, p. 129.
  9. Place, p. 41.
  10. Butler, p. 129
  11. Schrader, p. 287.
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