No Colors, Deep Shadows
In terms of my own cinematic preferences (which, after all, are the only ones that really matter, right?), no genres, styles, or movements have made more of an impact on me than American film noir and Italian neo-realism.
I am hardly unique in this regard. These two particular filmic interpretations of the stresses, the temptations, and the fatalistic world-views of the post-war struggles of two different nationalities and cultures has drawn in many critics and viewers, and for many of the same reasons. Nor am I the first to find a similarity between the two that extends beyond their mere location in a particular time; innumerable observations have been made that link the two styles, both in their postwar settings and their determination to show the lives of those left behind by the various economic upheavals of the new global era. But while one has become an official critical and cinematic shorthand, its particular verbal and visual language replicating and mutating down the ages into other genres and other forms to spawn its own immediately recognizable artistic vocabulary, the other has nearly vanished from the world of film, apparently condemned to be an outlier only occasionally emerging from the stark shadows that birthed both styles in the rough maternities of developing national cinemas.
The Second World War saw vast disruptions in Italian and American film. In the former, the smashing of Mussolini’s fascist state and its control over the cultural apparatus left a void to be filled by an up-and-coming group of movie directors who were steeped in the until-recently outlawed politics of socialism and communism; the very tools and locations of the movie industry had been literally blown apart by the war, leaving them to tell new stories of the disenfranchised, the disrupted, and the damned with little more than determination and vision. They used amateur actors, street locations, and narratives that showed a generation exposed to unthinkable hardships, impossible situations, and everyday frustrations made worse by the loss of the war. America, meanwhile, had emerged from the war as a superpower, socially and economically stronger than ever, but not everyone was allowed to share in the success. Many noir directors were Europeans, driven out of their home countries by the upheavals of fascism; others were natives made to feel like foreigners by their treatment at the hands of a state blindly obsessed with communist infiltration. They told stories of men who had seen terrible things during the war and returned home, officially as winners but unable to feel as if they were receiving the rewards of victory. Their films were often financed by second- and third-rate studios who had little access to the vast wealth and resources of the major leaguers, and this isolation gave them the freedom to push back against the moral restrictions of the Hays Code.
Both noir and neorealism were determined to address, in their own ways, the vital question of how to portray everyday life in art. American crime dramas of the pulp era were often keyed into issues of poverty, desperation, and the existential role of men and women who did not quite fit in to the new narratives of success; the link between the artist and society was paralleled in the link between the criminal and the law. The creators of noir were able to take a sturdy cultural hook, the age-old story of the bad man on the run, and hang from it stories that questioned America’s attitudes towards class, race, sex, and freedom. Similarly, Italian neorealists — many of them trained, as were their successors in the French New Wave, as critics before they stood behind the camera themselves — rejected the dominant status quo of Italian cinema as a blend of farce, staid tradition, and frivolity that aped the bourgeoisie entertainments coming out of pre-war American film. Their country in ruins, their culture in flux, their very political future in doubt, they wanted to make movies about the way people really lived in Italy, and in doing so, they produced more brilliant insights into the way common citizens lived in a capitalist society than Soviet cinema had managed to do in thirty years of propaganda.
Neither cinematic movement was entirely pure. Noir was not an intentional movement, but a more or less coincidental coming together of dozens of factors that only seemed to make a coherent critical narrative in retrospect; but even more so, it was inherently, despite the clearness of its creators’ intentions, a fantasy from the start, rooted in the outsized, lurid stories of the pulp era and delivering its fatalistic observations of men doomed by their own weakness and the hostility of society using the eternal language of the shoot-’em-up. They were hobbled from without (the demands of even small studios for commercial product and the censor’s insistence that institutions not be denigrated and criminal behavior not be rewarded) and from within (their diffusive visions and their inability to deliver an explicitly political narrative). The Italians had similar weaknesses; pressure from the state and the Catholic church, their own lack of material resources, a questionable political atmosphere, and the restlessness and curiosity of the filmmakers themselves combined to dilute the message, even where it was intentional and unmistakable. By the end of the 1950s, noir was played out, transforming into a new kind of crime film, and neorealism’s authors had drifted into fantasy, allegory, biography, obscurity.
But noir found a second life almost immediately. For an aesthetic whose particulars were often maddeningly difficult to pin down, it proved to have lasting appeal for even those who had done the most cursory study of the genre and its meaning; since menacing men with guns never go out of style, all it took to reify noir for a new generation was black and white film and a firm grounding in the abstracted but memorable patter that proved to be its lasting legacy. Filmmakers who knew nothing of Raymond Chandler’s spoiled sense of nobility, vehement dislike of the police, and complex sense of foreordination still borrowed his gorgeous language, putting in the mouths of characters who never shared his sense of affinity with the down and out.
Neorealism, though, had no such upside for the slick revivificationists of the postmodern era. While the original Italian filmmakers stumbled against their country’s standoffish attitude towards socialism and its economic resurgence in the 1960s, no one in the developing world much seemed to care about introducing anything too painfully real to the national cinema. America sunk itself further and further into blockbusters crammed with painful excess, and telling the stories of the everyday, the impoverished, the desperate seemed like something only a crazy person would do. Britain had its own flirtation with working-class cinema, but has largely settled into the habit of making prestige pictures about the toffy heroes of the respectable side of the national culture; other developing nations, particularly the ones freed from the yoke of Soviet tyranny, dabbled in realism when attempting to reconcile the lives of their poorest citizens with the hollow promises of capitalist ‘freedom’, but the lessons never seemed to stick. Indian cinema began with Ray but ended in the nonstop musical fantasies of Bollywood; Japan had many compelling stories to tell immediately after the war, but drifted into the well-meaning but often vague humanism of Akira Kurosawa. Many other countries have found their national metier in horror, in deranged action, in fantasy and history, but few have shown any determination to build a national movement around the way most people of the nation actually live.
It’s a loss that’s hard to calculate. In a sense, noir, for all its triumphs and strengths, was always a fantasy, although one that strove mightily to convey the brutal lessons of reality. But realism, which alone has the power to show us the true state of those most in need of help, and in doing so to build the vital bridge of empathy and solidarity with the consuming classes, has become a cultural relic of another time and place, an eruption of sentiment best relegated to the early days of national cinemas that have not yet found the best way to entertain American audiences. For one sustained moment, it looked as though two movements in two different countries borne of two distinct understandings of war and political turmoil might finally give a popular cinematic voice to the lowest rungs of society; but one disappeared into an idealized aesthetic, while the other — the one with the courage to identify itself with a word that meant the very locus of truth, of the unsentimental and the real — has become an artistic curio, at a time when the division between the rich and the poor could not be more stark than the shadows and light against which its stories played.