"It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief ": Crime and the American genre film──Interview with Chris Fujiwara & Mark Roberts vol.1


Kinugasa: The thief has been a central figure in films about crime, in the American genre film, and in film noir. In a sense, there is also a link between the idea of the genre film and theft, for insofar as it's a repetition of certain patterns and characters, the genre film is the result of quoting or even stealing elements from previous films.
  Here, we might look at the way some national cinemas have borrowed or stolen elements from others, how the European cinema — the French nouvelle vague, for example --has cited, been influenced or perhaps stolen elements from the American cinema. Certainly, Godard comes to mind, especially his films which seem to parody elements from American films, such as "Made in U.S.A." (1966). This kind of film could be seen as a gathering or quotations, or even a kind of theft from other films or other cinemas, and Godard is still engaged in this practice, as we can see in his series "Histoire(s) du cinéma".
  To explore the general theme of theft in the cinema, I'd like to start with the director Jacques Becker, whose film "Arsène Lupin" (1957) was the subject of a recent symposium in Tokyo. The character Lupin is of course familiar to the Japanese through the manga by Monkey Punch and the film versions by Miyazaki Hayao, but for a Japanese audience, Becker is not well-known, simply because his films are not available here. In the West, meanwhile, Becker has become a canonical figure.
This is a complicated history of influence and counter-influence. To begin, then, what can be said about the relationship between Jacques Becker, film noir, and the American genre film?

Fujiwara: In relation to Jacques Becker and film noir, the first thing that comes to mind is that at the beginning of his career, the first film that Becker worked on with Renoir was "La Nuit du carrefour" (1932). It was based on a crime novel by Simenon, and Godard wrote a very famous review of this film in which he remarked that some of the footage was lost, and that actually improved the film by adding to its atmosphere of mystery. It's a very dark film and film noir is of course a French phrase. I think the sense in which the phrase "film noir" eventually took on an understandable meaning, came from "La nuit du carrefour" and similar films. So, Becker was right there at the beginning of what later came to be called film noir.
  Still, I have a problem with the phrase "film noir," for I'm not sure what it really is. Maybe in Japan and France, people can talk about this genre more precisely, but in America film noir became more of a marketing tool — and a very important one — because it was one of the ways that repertory movie theaters in the United States managed to stay alive. They found that audiences were drawn to these so-called film noir, crime or mystery thrillers, films with actors like Humphrey Bogart. Actually, Bogart was one of the stars most strongly associated with the American repertory-theater movement, since the Brattle Theater in Cambridge was the place where they revived "Casablanca" in the 1960s and thereby helped that film become well known again. So, for me as an American, the phrase "film noir" has a certain association with marketing.

Roberts: The story that's often told about this phrase is that the French critics looking at American films just after the war compared them to a series of books — the Série noire — a collection of hard-boiled stories published by Gallimard starting in 1945. The book covers were mostly black, very simple in design. So, film critics transposed this notion, projecting an idea from a then-contemporary French literary tradition onto an American film tradition. But then that phrase — "film noir" was taken back across the Atlantic, and the Americans started using it to talk about a certain kind of genre film. Yet, it seems as if each time the term has been borrowed, there's some distortion, something has changed in the translation, where for example the American film noir is not really the same as the Série noire, and eventually it becomes more of a marketing buzz phrase.

Fujiwara: Perhaps film noir is a concept whose main meaning might be of making a genre film as an art film. It's worth remembering that the art film itself is a concept that hardly existed in the 1940s, in America, when these films were made. Nobody had this concept. People made experimental films but for the most part a movie was something that was shown in a theater for a mass audience. Sometimes it's said that "Citizen Kane" (1941) was the first American art film. So, it does seem that there was a kind of transaction, back and forth across the Atlantic, in which the French saw "Laura", "The Lost Weekend", and "Double Indemnity" — all of which were made in 1944 or 45, but weren't shown in France until 46, after the war — and they said: "these films are amazing, they're very black, we'll call them film noir." Eventually, the Americans got wind of this and they started making films that were a bit more self-conscious both visually and aurally. I think that had to do with a certain awareness of the ways the French appreciated these films. A film like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) reveals that very clearly. This is a film made by somebody who is quite sophisticated with respect to visual design, which is something we can see in many films later described as film noir.

Kinugasa: In Japan, some people see Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" (1946) as the first American film noir. Also, it's based on a novel by Raymond Chandler. So, I wonder if Howard Hawks was less conscious of the origin of this idea.

Fujiwara: Well, I'm not sure. There are films that were made before "The Big Sleep" that are typically considered to be film noir today, and again it depends how we want to constitute this genre. If it is a genre indeed, what defines it? Some people trace it back to "Stranger on the Third Floor" an RKO B-movie made in 1940 by Boris Ingster with Peter Lorre. This is a film which has many visual elements that were later picked up on by other cameramen and directors, elements that were expanded upon, later to become hallmarks of the genre, such as shooting up and down staircases, with lots of shadows and a very ambiguous, nocturnal way of looking at people, such that you cannot tell who's good or bad. Nobody is really good or bad in this film. Everybody is in a kind of neutral zone. There's an atmosphere of hostility and tension in which anything could happen at any moment — all of that is in "Stranger on the Third Floor". "The Maltese Falcon" was produced in 1941, also before "The Big Sleep".
  In fact, by the time "The Big Sleep" came out, that kind of film was already well-enough established that James Agee could write in his review that Hawks' film fit into an kind of established pattern. It had all the recognizable symptoms of being this type of film. He speaks about putting the audience under hypnosis for two hours, or something to that effect, and this dreamlike atmosphere is a quality shared by many of these films. Edward Dmytryk's "Murder, My Sweet" (1944), which is also based upon a Raymond Chandler novel, "Farewell, My Lovely", has a famous dream sequence — probably one of the first in a crime or detective film — where the hero, Philip Marlowe (played by Dick Powell), is drugged and passes out. Dmytryk shows Marlowe's hallucinations, his tormented mental state, using camera techniques to produce distortions. That's probably a key moment in film noir, that dream sequence.
  However, it's not true either to say that a dreamlike atmosphere defines film noir. Jacques Tourneur, for example, is now considered one of the great noir directors, and his films don't really use dream sequences. There's one in "Cat People" (1942), but that's it. There are no scenes that are filmed in this distorted fashion that Dmytryk used in "Murder, My Sweet". Tourneur always films everything in the same style, which is very realistic, yet also quite poetic. We could say something similar about Otto Preminger, also considered one of the masters of film noir, mainly because of "Laura". All of his films are very direct, very much on the level of reality as the real. There would never be a dream sequence in a Preminger film. It would be an outrage to his system, his sensibility. So, these things make me tend to question the concept of film noir.

Kinugasa: Following the first generation that made films described as noir, there were later directors like Nicholas Ray or Robert Aldrich who also made films now considered to be noir. What can be said about their influence on European directors such as Becker?

Fujiwara: Nicholas Ray is one of the Americans who is bringing a new consciousness to commercial filmmaking during the late 1940s and 50s, just like Aldrich. We know the French picked up on this, because there's a famous phrase by François Truffaut about "Johnny Guitar" (1954): he described it as the "Beauty and the Beast" of Westerns. In other words, Truffaut is responding to it basically as an art film, as a kind of fairy tale, rather than as a Western per se. In some respects, I think Ray was very conscious of himself in a way that somebody like Howard Hawks was not. He was conscious of being an American folk artist — I don't think that's too much to say. Ray studied American folk music with Woody Guthrie, and he was one of the people who helped to document the American folk music of the 1930s, when he was working for the WPA. Ray was very interested in rural American subcultures and a lot of that finds its way into his films, often in marginal ways. He was limited by the commercial strictures of the time, but he did manage to get it into some films. For example, he made a whole film about American gypsies: "Hot Blood" (1956). So, I think he was conscious of himself as somebody who was changing the definition of what a commercial filmmaker in America should be. A commercial filmmaker wasn't just going to be someone who was making mass entertainment, but one who was talking about key social issues (and "Rebel Without a Cause" talking about juvenile delinquency is nothing if not that), and a commercial filmmaker would be somebody who was involved in documenting aspects of life in the United States that often didn't get wide attention. Ray made a number of films about poor people, people who moved around the United States a lot because they were criminals (for example, in "They Live by Night"), or they were rodeo people constantly on the move ("The Lusty Men"). Even his film about Hollywood, "In a Lonely Place" (1950), has a kind of bandit-like quality. He likes to show small groups of people who are not part of mainstream society. In the beginning of "They Live by Night" there's an inter-title which says: "This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world in which they live" — in other words, they're outsiders, they live in a different world. Ray had a sense of being an artist whose responsibility is to show, to celebrate, and to preserve something about these people and their way of life. This doesn't really have much to do with Europe, unless we think of Americans as looking up to Europe as having a certain authority where artistic matters are concerned. I don't think Ray felt that way, though. He seemed to view himself as an American artist, and one for whom that phrase had some value and depth.
  As for Jacques Becker and American cinema, I'm not sure how much he was really influenced by the American film noir. As I said before, he was back at the roots of this idea of film noir, when it was purely a French matter, with Simenon and Renoir. A later film like "Casque d'or" (1952) is about criminals, but just because of its period and its language, it is clearly something very different from the film noir.
  There are relations between Becker and America that are interesting to think about, some of which we touched upon at the recent symposium at the Athenée Français. For example, Becker was a friend of Howard Hawks, and there are some connections between his films and those of Hawks, as both Mr. Hasumi and Mr. Aoyama mentioned. Mr. Aoyama compared the building of the hole in "Le Trou" (1960) to the building of the pyramid in "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), which is an interesting comparison. Becker was a huge fan of jazz. In "Rendez-vous de juillet" (1949) there's a sequence in a jazz club in which he uses American musicians. Sometimes Americans appear in his films, like the millionaire in "Montparnasse 19" (1958), as well as in "Édouard et Caroline" (1951). Both of these people are in a position to help the heroes of the films, and it works out successfully in "Édouard et Caroline", but unsuccessfully in "Montparnasse 19" because of a misunderstanding between the people. As Mr. Hasumi said, that's one of the most interesting scenes in that film, though it is not one of Becker's most successful films. So, these scenes give us clues that Becker has a real appreciation for certain aspects of American culture, that he didn't reflexively stereotype or reject Americans. It's so easy to make a movie where the American millionaire is a figure of scorn, a ridiculous or repulsive person, but Becker doesn't do this. He makes these people sort of likable and interesting. There's a real dignity that he gives to his American characters that I can respond to.
  There are a number of films by Becker that might be compared to film noir. "Falbalas" (1945) is about a fashion designer who falls in love with a girl, becomes obsessed with her, and finally goes berserk. Almost any other director making a film on this subject would have treated it in a very different way. Becker's treatment is quite beautiful, but very straightforward. Becker isn't really in love with madness for its own sake. He's interested in madness, as many artists are, but he doesn't see it with any false glamor. He doesn't use it as a way to make the film more interesting or do something different with the camera, something a little crazy or erratic. It's like what I mentioned before about the "level-ness" of Tourneur and of Preminger. Becker is the same. When these directors make a movie, they don't put its parts in hierarchies. They don't say: "X belongs to fantasy and Y belongs to reality, so I'm going to shoot this one way, and that another way," or "I'll use two styles to show that one type of person or way of life is better than another." They decide they're just going to show things. Becker's approach is similar.
  Perhaps we could point to "Touchez pas au grisbi" (1954) as a film in which a French director is taking an American model — a story about the life of gangsters — and then doing something very different with it. But thinking of that film it's hard for me to see, right now, what American films might have been in Becker's mind, if any, when he made that film. For me, it looks like a very fresh, native French treatment of gangsters. It has Jean Gabin who is, again, one of the actors associated with the original French film noir. So, already, Becker is working with a more French tradition. It would be hard to speak about "Grisbi" as a work strongly influenced by or responding directly to American films.

Roberts: "Grisbi" seems especially a part of the French tradition if we compare it to another gangster film from the same time, Dassin's "Du rififi chez les hommes" (1955). In "Rififi" there's a very palpable American influence, especially in the way the crime is shown, how the suspense is constructed, the plotting, the rehearsals, the potential getaway, and the shoot-out at the end — these are all of the "moments" that tend to appear in the American drama. Of course, Dassin grew up in America but moved to France following the red scare in Hollywood (in part thanks to Dmytryk, it seems). So maybe "Rififi" is a hybrid work, but what's striking about "Grisbi," by comparison, is that it isn't terribly dramatic. It's about two gangsters in the twilight of their careers, just trying to hang on to what they've already got. They're not plotting any new crimes. The main concern seems to be "wake up and realize you're over 55 years old, you can't carry on like before." We see the gangsters relaxing, eating pâté, brushing their teeth, wearing pyjamas. In this respect it's very different.

Fujiwara: Yes, "Grisbi" is wonderful in that way. Which reminds me that Raoul Walsh had already dealt with the idea of the aging gangster in "High Sierra" (1941). In that film, a lot is made of the fact that Bogart is in advanced middle age when he gets out of prison. The guys that he knew are either dead, in prison, or very old and sick. So, "High Sierra" is already a film, like Becker's, about the aging gangster, about how he must adapt to a different way of life. I suppose this is also true of Walsh's "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), which is all about time passing, about how the world is changing all around the hero of the film (James Cagney), and how he must learn to change with it. In this respect, Walsh preceded Becker in his poetry of age that he brings to the gangster genre.
  Returning to Becker's "Arsène Lupin", one of the interesting things in that film is how it shows a kind of theft that shows the abstract nature of money itself. Lupin doesn't have any financial need for stealing these things. He's more like a gentleman thief for whom it's a sport. Theft is like an interesting hobby that he has. Second, at some point in the film he claims not to know how much money his exploits bring him each month. He doesn't deal in figures at all. He "doesn't calculate" (that's an exact line that he says). Lupin is somebody for whom money is all important, but also not important at all. He's somebody for whom money is really something unreal. I think the point of what Lupin does, and the point of what Becker does in making this film, is to show that money is something unreal. Becker is trying to do the audience a big favor by liberating us from the clutches of money. He's saying we don't need to care about money either, because these people, even though they seem to care about it so much, really prove that it has no value.
  As I've been thinking about other films in which theft is a major theme, I thought about Hitchcock, whose films work on a somewhat similar level, in that when they show thieves, they often move you to question the value of what's being stolen. Certainly, they prompt us to question why the person is stealing, as in "Marnie" (1964), for example. The woman is a pathological thief, she's a kleptomaniac, she's compelled to steal but she doesn't know why. The whole film is sort of a mystery as to why she's stealing, though actually we do find out. Certainly, there's that element in Hitchcock: what is it that people are actually stealing, in a psychoanalytic sense, when they steal something. In the way that he talks about that theme, Hitchcock also gets us to question money, to question the bases for social relations. The world of Marnie is all held together by old social ties that the Philadelphia family has with others in the town, the old upper-class wealth that Marnie is forced to marry into. Hitchcock shows that it all comes down to money, just like in "Vertigo" (1958). The Gavin Elster character, who is behind the plot in this film, talks very early about old San Francisco, about the old society of men who had all the freedom and the power to do what they wanted. These words are repeated later in the film, and even though it seems to be a story of romantic obsession, it's also about money, stealing, and the power of money. Somewhat like Becker in "Arsène Lupin", Hitchcock seems to be saying over and over that money only has the power that we give it. Of course, it's not easy to dismantle that illusion, because that would mean dismantling the entire society (which Hitchcock never shows us how to do), but this kind of critique is in the film. That's one thing that I find very interesting in films about thieves: do they reach the level where they begin to question all of society, all of capital?

Roberts: "Marnie" is a good example for leading us in that direction because finally we have to go into the level of the unconscious to understand her motivations, through the family history, how she's ostensibly become a kleptomaniac, the events which have produced her denial. It's often amusing how some critics have used psychoanalysis to talk about Hitchcock, when it's right there on the surface in a film like "Marnie". Hitchcock is very savvy, so it's almost not a discovery, his interest in psychoanalysis is often just there. Another Hitchcock film that concerns theft is "Torn Curtain" (1966), the film that followed "Marnie". It's not one of his stronger ones and a bit heavy on the atmosphere of communist East Germany as a deeply sinister place, but the story is interesting. Paul Newman plays a nuclear scientist who defects to East Germany on the pretense that the U.S. government doesn't want peace and doesn't want to reduce the possibility of nuclear war, so this noble scientist who "wants to work for peace", will help the Eastern Bloc build a nuclear defense system that will end the madness of mutually assured destruction. In fact, though, he wants to steal some ideas from the Soviets via their more brainy collaborators in East Germany. The theft is shown in some detail as the Newman character uses bluff to extract the secrets. The curious and strange part is that while it's a Cold War story, and the East Germans are somewhat stereotypical commie bad guys — and thus we in the West are justified in stealing something from them — the way that Newman and the Americans carry on is much more conniving and duplicitous than their East German counterparts. There's an excruciating murder scene in real time, but the more striking point is that the American scientist gives a speech about how he's going over to the other side to work for the cause of humanity, but it all rings false when it turns out he's a thief, a double-agent working for the government. He's shown to not really be interested in the cause of humanity or ending the Cold War as he said. This leads us to question what this theft is really about. Forty years later, even though the Soviet Empire is gone, the wall has long since fallen, Europe's place in the world has changed, there is still a strange resonance in this film.

Fujiwara: Many of Hitchcock's films are in some way concerned with theft, even if only metaphorically.

Roberts: Yes, also in "The Wrong Man" (1956), the Henry Fonda character is accused of theft. Even though he's not really a thief, that's the point of departure.

Fujiwara: It's interesting how in "The Wrong Man" that false accusation opens up an entire world that Henry Fonda didn't realize was there. He didn't realize there's a legal system that one must pass through when accused of a crime, that one must find a lawyer, stand in line, and all sort of things, just to go to court. There's a phrase from Orson Welles, perhaps in "The Stranger" (1946), which Welles attributed to Emerson: "Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass." I think Hitchcock is one of the people who takes that phrase and makes it the principle of an entire film, but in "The Wrong Man" it goes even beyond that. Here, you don't even have to commit the crime, you only need to be accused of the crime, and then the world is made of glass.
  There's something fundamental about American cinema in that kind of assertion. To the extent that we agree that film noir exists, or that we could call this cycle of crime movies "film noir", all of them really show how the world is made of glass. This means two things: it means that it's very breakable, fragile, that you could fall through at any moment, but it also means that you can see through it, that surfaces are meant to be seen through. So in the films of the 1940s, we find a series of beautifully polished, composed, and fantastically elegant ways of shooting scenes — we see this in the work of John F. Seitz, Billy Wilder's great cinematographer, and it appears literally at the end of "The Lady from Shanghai" (1948) of course, when the mirrors are shattered. All of these people devoted such fantastic talent and energy to creating the image of a world that's made of glass.
  So, as Kinugasa-san alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, there's a profound interconnection between cinema and theft. They're related to each other, and I think this relationship comes to the fore, becomes especially strong and apparent in the works of people like Hitchcock, Becker, and the American film noir. I don't know if it's too well known in Japan, but one film I often think about is Abraham Polonsky's film "Force of Evil" (1949). Polonsky had been a writer, he wrote "Body and Soul" (1947), directed by Robert Rossen. "Force of Evil" was the one film that he directed before being blacklisted. It's the story of gangsters in New York. John Garfield plays a lawyer who represents the gangsters, but the point of the film is that everybody is a criminal, that you can't really do business at all without getting your hands dirty, even though you claim that your hands are clean. This is dramatized through the situation of Garfield's brother, who thinks of himself as an honest businessman, as somebody who's helping people. He gives people in the neighborhood jobs who would otherwise be starving. He sees himself as a benefactor, but he's working for the mob. He's as much of a gangster as the big guys who are making real money. Eventually, he realizes this, and he has a great speech in which he talks about business in exactly these terms. He talks about how he used to work at a gas station, and he says: "That was a business! Three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas: two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me. Penny for one thief, two cents for the other." The point is that everybody in that business is a thief too. When you mark up the price, then you're stealing from the consumer. When the wholesaler marks up the price to you, they're stealing from you. Everybody in that chain is stealing from the person lower in the chain. So the gang in New York is just a bigger version of that. That's a certain critique of society, and "Force of Evil" is perhaps one of the films that made such a critique most strongly at that time, 1949, though other films talk about the same thing. I think that comes through in Hitchcock too. As you say, when he criticizes the Americans in "Torn Curtain", in the middle of the Cold War — which he does in "North by Northwest" (1959) also — it's somewhat like what Polonsky does, criticizing American capitalism.

vol.1 vol.2 vol.3

02 Apr 2007

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