In the musical “My Fair Lady,” Eliza Doolittle sings the line: “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!” Of course, if Eliza was watching the classics of the film noir genre, she’d literally be singing a different tune!
Film noir, as any movie addict knows, is that remarkable class of film where the cinematography is thick with dark shadows, the men are tough, the women are tougher, and the language scalds like a third-degree burn. It is a violent, warped view of post-war American society, where rivulets of malice wash over the hard-living people who move in deadly waves.
Film historian Charles Pappas has gathered the best of the genre’s screenplay gems into the wonderful, must-have book “It’s a Bitter Little World: The Smartest, Toughest, Nastiest Quotes from Film Noir.” Spanning the cinematic experience from the 1940s up to the present, with occasional trips across the Atlantic for snatches of Euro-noir, Pappas has brought the best of noir-talk together into a single collection.
Beginning with noir’s roots in “The Maltese Falcon” and traveling the course of cinema to Tarantino and Dahl, “It’s A Bitter Little World” doesn’t (pardon the pun) mince words. Whether it’s Bogart’s Sam Spade saying “If they hang you…I’ll always remember you” or Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe saying “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud” or Linda Fiorentino unzipping a guy’s fly and saying “I believe what we’re looking for is a certain horse like quality,” noir is a strong wash of dark, dark java.
“It’s a Bitter Little World” is being released by Writer’s Digest Books. Film Threat caught up with Pappas at the start of his national book tour to talk the noir talk.
What inspired you to write this book? ^ The years of being clubbed like a baby seal in the comfort of my stadium-style seat with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Their semi-literate scripts were the ear wax buffering the tiny squirrel-size brain of the flicks themselves. It was migraine-painful to watch them. More and more I began turning to an older era and an older genre, if you will, where language, not a daisy-chain of car crashes and explosions, was the currency they traded in: noir.
I began watching -and listening to- the classic and updated film noirs, like “The Big Combo,” “The Big Heat,” “Touch of Evil,” “Double Indemnity,” “Ride the Pink Horse,” “Out of the Past,” “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “The Blue Dahlia.” I watched “Chinatown” like an obsessive-compulsive scrubs a floor or turns the lights on and off. No matter how often I watch them, it’s like listening to a poetry slam in Hell. They always offered something richer, like a painting whose shades darken with the years. Their language -and the language of all the other noirs- had this kind of hypnotic tom-tom beat to it -a relentless, pounding, insinuating sound you didn’t need Dolby technology for.
And how many movies did you have to sit through and transcribe to compile all of the juicy dialogue excerpts included here? ^ Roughly 300. Many of them I had already seen or known of; others came to me by word-of-mouth too: enthusiasts -i.e., people who can live without movies about as long as they could live with H2O- in online groups and message boards who would gush about the tough-guy language. Then, too, I start looking for scripts penned by great-but-ignored writers who, fortunately, are buried in the equivalent of a literary shallow grave, like A.I. Bezzerides, who also did “Thieves’ Highway” and “Kiss Me Deadly.”
How did the sharp-tongued film noir screenplay style first come about? ^ There were as many factors as a revolver has bullets: In the 1940s Hollywood swooned like one of Valentino’s conquests for writers like Dashiell Hammett and “The Maltese Falcon,” and James M. Cain, who had an uncredited hand in “Out of the Past,” and Raymond Chandler, who worked on the movie of Cain’s “Double Indemnity.” That was before Hollywood discovered a higher-paying but even lower rung on their social ladder for writers, when digital effects pushed them down even further.
Hollywood is a jackal and always scavenges anything it can find that looks edible, i.e., has box office potential. The leavings here it feasted on were the crime fiction of the Depression era – from Horace McCoy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” to James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” that reflected a meaner, harsher America
What came to be identified later as film noir started out mostly as B movies. These cheapies were suited to the dark, depressing genre because A) the high contrast lighting wasn’t art; it was a Coleman Lantern budget. That inadvertently resulted in the funeral gloom of the pics. And B), with low budgets they had to rely on characters and not props or spendy sets. That left the dialogue to be the rocket fuel in this contraption.
But in many ways it was expatriate directors like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder who didn’t so much present noir as to fling it at the audiences like Molotov cocktails. The drew on the distorted, bad-dream look of German Expressionism and the WWII fatalism that took the old adage – show, don’t tell – and turned it on its head. Like Debby Marsh’s jaded self-actualization in Lang’s “The Big Heat” when she says to another dame, “We’re sisters under the mink,” or Walter Neff’s gas chamber-gabbing in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.”
And when were people originally cognizant that this style constituted a genre of its own? ^ You couldn’t recognize noir anymore then than you could recognize a mosaic if you stood a centimeter away from it. With time came distance and with distance came the academics and critics who found noir to be a black thread through an otherwise colorful garment – the postwar years. You look back at those movies -like “Touch of Evil” and one of my favorites, “Nightmare Alley” – and, my God, those writers tossed words like Chinese throwing stars. Language was a starched collar and a Rotarian handshake.
Noir was a cinematic case of “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter” and “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate.” Cheap lightning that was about as primitive as a torch in a cave became its MO; and the bitter, mean dialogue was its blood splatter pattern.
How is it that certain studios, most notably Universal and RKO, were rich in film noir during Hollywood’s heyday while others, especially 20th Century Fox and MGM, never quite got the hang of it? ^ RKO had a Murderers Row of writers and actors on contract. First you had Mr. Noiry-McNoir himself, Robert Mitchum, there. You had Jane Greer, the kind of woman you’d do a cannonball into an empty pool for. Robert Ryan, who had the effect on audiences like a cockroach running into your open mouth. And then there was the pitbull-with-two-legs, Lawrence Tierney.
The RKO’s and the Universal’s slopped out B movies like Microsoft does patches for Windows. Like I said before, they accidentally created the petri dish film noir would thrive in. Then add to that noir directors who would sharpen their canines on these bones: Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray and Robert Wise, to name a few. 20th Century Fox and MGM just never had the same kind of talent who were predisposed to the noir attitude -I mean, 20th Century Fox’s icon was Shirley Temple. Over at MGM, Louis B. Mayer wanted only uplifting, beautiful pictures that made a barbershop quarter look like Marilyn Manson. Plus, he deferred to his “College of Cardinals,” senior producers who were simply the bland leading the bland.
What were you favorite dialogue exchanges from the film noir world? ^ Oh, God, that’s like asking Donald Trump which dollar bill is his favorite. Vera – who could give Martha Stewart lessons in Bitch- has two I like from “Detour”:
Vera: Not only don’t you have any scruples, you don’t have any brains.
Vera: Shut up, you’re making noises like a husband.
Or this one from the police chief in “Coup de Torchon”:
LUCIEN CORDIER: At first, you’re right, it is horrible, but then you start to think about a thousand other different things: Starving kids, girls sold as slaves for a mirror, women whose sex is sewn up… and you start thinking God created murder out of pure kindness.
And then there’s this Webster’s Dictionary definition of noir and life from “Out of the Past”:
JEFF BAILEY [watches Kathy play roulette]: That isn’t the way to play.
KATHIE MOFFAT: Why not?
JEFF BAILEY: ‘Cause it isn’t the way to win.
KATHIE MOFFAT Is there a way to win?
JEFF BAILEY There’s a way to lose more slowly.
Can this rich, bitter blend of verbiage ever find its way back into mainstream moviemaking? ^ It not only can, it does: John Dahl’s “The Last Seduction” and “Red Rock West” and “Rounders,” and John Rildey’s script for “U Turn” are the dark roast coffees in the middle of everyone else’s Sanka. “L.A. Confidential,” “Shallow Grave,” “The Usual Suspects” – they’re out there, like muggers in a dark alley.
But noir is like pornography, hard to define exactly but you know it when you see it. These films seem rare because Hollywood makes movies like the Soviets made architecture: by committee. Committees of bland hacks forcing writers to work with script-o-matic software, whose results they toss on a blander and press the “Puree” button until it’s all mush. Noir is the cockroach of movies: you can’t kill it off and it breeds quietly somewhere you can’t see until it scuttles across your vision. And then it’s too late except to sit back and endure it. But as long as life disappoints, men and women betray each other, and what we need gets us killed, there’ll always be film noir.