All the colors of darkness
When Cinemascope was introduced, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer hailed the process in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema. Rivette argued that Cinemascope freed the director from the confines of the old 1:33 to 1 screen. The filmmaker could now “claim the whole surface of the screen, mobilize it with his own enthusiasm, play a game that is both closed and infinite — or he can shift the poles of the story to their opposites, create zones of silence, areas of immobility.” Furthermore, Cinemascope was, at this early stage in its development, mostly associated with the color image. For Rivette, the two processes went hand in hand. Cinemascope and color, in his view, both insisted on the filmmaker no longer conceiving of cinema simply in terms of the play of light and shadow. Rather, these processes allowed for a cinema that expressed itself in terms of concrete forms, which nevertheless could easily allow the filmmaker to proceed from the concrete to the abstract.
These issues of the meaning of color and widescreen are worth raising in the context of film noir, since no other genre or style of cinema has been more closely tied to the 1:33 to 1, black-and-white image. So much so that the first wave of major filmmakers attempting to create revisionist works within the genre from the late ’60s through the ’70s needed to distinguish themselves historically from their predecessors by shooting not only in color (then a virtual commercial necessity) but also in the dominant contemporary anamorphic process, Panavision. With the recent release of letterboxed laserdiscs of the three most important revisionist noir works of this period — Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967), The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1974), and Chinatown(Roman Polanski, 1974) — a close study of what these films do to establish a revisionist film noir universe is now possible.
A close study, however, is not what is being offered here (to put it mildly). At best, I would like to outline a few ways in which these films may be visually situated within the context of a film noir tradition, a tradition from which they are also clearly attempting to establish a distance. But first, the discs themselves.
It would be happy news indeed to report that the quality of all three of these discs matched that of the films. But this is true of only one of them. Paramount’s transfer of Chinatownnot only looks beautiful, with the proper masking, but Jerry Goldsmith’s score is isolated on the second audio track. The only limitation of the two-disc set is that there are no chapter stops.
MGM/UA has provided an adequate number of chapters for their lasers of Point Blank and The Long Goodbye. But the advantage of their discs over the Paramount release ends there. These two discs have a number of flaws including imperfect masking, excessive grain, and overall muddiness that strongly interfere with any sort of concentrated viewing. Still, what’s the alternative? You could wait years for someone to revive either of these films theatrically in 35mm. And the only 16mm prints of Point Blank now available are those pan-and-scan horrors. The initial disappointment with how these discs look is transcended by the opportunity they give to reexperience the power and intensity of the films themselves.
Of the three, Chinatown’s relationship to the archetypal film noir of the ’40s and ’50s is most superficially apparent. In terms of the rigorous perfection of its Robert Towne scenario, it is probably more classical than the convoluted narratives of films like Out of the Past (1947) or Touch of Evil (1958).But Polanski’s visual conception of the film is highly elusive, indebted to a certain classical tradition of editing and shot composition yet pulling that tradition inward on itself, stripping the parameters of classicism to the bare minimum. The film’s claustrophobia has been widely noted, but this alone would hardly qualify it for any sort of revisionist honors. Claustrophobia is a hallmark of any classic film noir. Chinatown’s distinction here lies in its fresh conception of this claustrophobia for Panavision and color. While Rohmer welcomed Cinemascope for bringing to film “the only palpable element it lacked: air, the divine ether of the poets,” this air is precisely the element deliberately avoided in Chinatown.The recurring setup for most of the film’s sequences is not the standard plain Americain (cutting the actors off at the shins), but the medium close-up, in which the actors are cut off just below the shoulders. Even if Polanski and cinematographer John Alonzo were shooting in academy ratio, claustrophobia would still be achieved by this pointed avoidance of the standard medium shot’s ability to orient the viewer to the space and to the character’s relationship to it. Stretched out to the horizontal proportions of Panavision, the film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. This is intensified by the shallow sense of space, activities placed front and slightly offcenter, occasionally broken by shots of extreme and often quite narrow depth.
The dominant colors of Chinatownare brown, gray, and black — barely colors at all, an indication of the film’s debt to the noir tradition of black-and-white, and of its attempts to render this drought-ridden environment as completely closed in on itself. The various hues of brown and gold (associated with the parched, sunbeaten desert earth surrounding Los Angeles) seep into every corner of the characters’ lives, from clothing to homes to work environments. Red and black, the extreme ends of the film’s color spectrum, underscore those moments of tension and disruption that threaten to capsize the entire universe in which the narrative occurs. Red emerges forcefully only twice — first during Evelyn Mulwray’s meeting with J. J. Gittes in a restaurant decorated in garish reds, and in the final sequence when Evelyn is shot, her blood splattered across her face and the brown leather seat of the car. “There’s something black in the green part of your eye,” Gittes tells her at one point. This blackness, this “flaw in the iris” is a metaphor for the void toward which Evelyn is pulled. Darkness keeps asserting itself more and more insidiously, from Evelyn’s gray and brown clothing, to the black mourning outfit she wears after Hollis’ death, to the bullet shot through the back of her head and out through that “flawed” eye, the bullet exploding this black point and drawing the narrative to a close.
“L.A. is a small town,” Gittes says at one point. And Chinatown is very much concerned with the process by which Los Angeles was transformed from desert community to giant metropolis. Point Blank and The Long Goodbye are contemporary film noirs set in the Los Angeles Chinatown is anticipating. No longer a small town in which gossip gets around (outside Hollywood, at least), the primary interest of L.A. for filmmakers like Boorman and Altman is its discursiveness.
While classic L.A.-based noirs like Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) were already documenting a city that was joining the ranks of alienated large urban environments, Point Blank and The Long Goodbye Extend this concept. The overwhelming expansiveness of L.A. finds an ideal visual corollary in the horizontal Panavision screen of these two films. If Chinatown is ultimately a kind of scaled-off Panavision chamber piece, the Altman and Boorman films take very different approaches to the dimensions of film noir, marked by their consistent elasticity in the use of the widescreen space. L.A. becomes a city of infinite possibilities but no realization, no end point. The Long Goodbye can offer only the blue and white expanse of the Pacific Ocean, beautifully and serenely expanding across the Panavision screen, waiting to swallow up Wade. A director like Siodmak can confidently introduce L.A. with a stunning helicopter shot under the credits of Criss Cross, grasping the look and feet of the city in a quick minute and a half or so of screen time and then moving his camera down into it for the duration. Conversely, Altman and Boorman cannot conceive of the space of the city in such classical terms. The sheer size prohibits it. This is a world without establishing shots, a world in which, morally speaking, there can be no closed frames. Everything is out there, just beyond the edges of the frame or in the extreme rear of the shot, like the stoned-out women living in the apartment behind Marlowe, moving in and out of focus but never inching forward.
Both films use white not as a representation of purity but as a site of anxiety. White here stands for nothing except its power to annihilate. This is the white on white of Sharon Acker’s apartment in Point Blank or the white beach house of the Wades in The Long Goodbye with its reflective sliding doors. If, in classic film noir, black and white emergeless as colors than as points of light and shadow, in these revisionist noirs it is often difficult to distinguish between the world of light and shadow and the world of colors — they all carry the same absorbent function.
In these films it is both color and the absence of colorthat draw the spectator and the characters deeper into the labyrinth of their structures: “We’re seeing colors,” the stoned women tell Marlowe, “all the most beautiful colors you can imagine.” Warm colors in particular form almost dreamlike connections through the films. In The Long Goodbye, red first appears on the chiffon dress of the woman scampering through the grounds of the sanitarium late at night in long shot. Then we see it in the ugly, tight shirt of Marty Augustine’s white pantsuit and the red and white chair Marlowe sits in while talking to him. Finally, red emerges violently in the blood-covered face of Augustine’s mistress after he smashes a Coke bottle across her check. In Point Blank,Walker smashes a shelf of primary-colored bath oils into Sharon’s white tub, creating a near-Expressionist pattern of colored ooze, which briefly exerts a hypnotic hold on him, a form both tangible and intensively subjective. Yellows, oranges, and browns form insistent patterns throughout the film, resisting carefully assigned meanings. Color has no transcendent function in these films. On the contrary, it seems to swallow the characters. No wonder at the end of Point Blank, Walker retreats into the more traditional world of shadows at Alcatraz rather than face the intense light and color of L.A.
Rivette predicted that the cinema of widescreen and color would be one in which filmmakers would create “empty spaces distended by fear or desire,” a world in which the filmmaker would discover “the beauty of the void” and “no longer be afraid of gaps or disequilibrium.” Certainly Rivette’s predictions have been fulfilled many times over. But the interest and distinction of the films under consideration here reside in the degree to which the revisionist form they take is not superimposed on the films but emerges inevitably out of the most fundamental aspects of the classic film noir. Since its inception, it has been a style of filmmaking marked by “gaps and disequilibrium,” a world of “fear and desire” in which its protagonists are continually being drawn into “the beauty of the void.” Apart from their many other merits, then, the fascination of Point Blank, The Long Goodbye, and Chinatown is in how they formally realize what had been implicit in film noir all along.
Originally published in issue 14 (1994) of the discontinued print edition.