One of the most stylish and effective films I’ve recently seen is The Man Who Wasn’t There, starring Billy Bob Thornton. Set in 1949, it tells the story of Ed Crane, a small-town barber, who doesn’t enjoy his job, discovers his best friend has made him a cuckold, yet faces life with an eerie impassivity.
One day he cuts the hair of a travelling salesman, whose dodgy toupee, sales pitch & general demeanour would raise the suspicions of the average person, but Crane is not average. He convinces himself that the salesman’s proposition is a good one. Like a trusting child, he’s eager to buy into a new-fangled technology, dry cleaning, for the measly sum of $10,000. Now, how can he get his hands on that kind of money? He thinks of a way. This is where things start to go inexorably, inextricably and ineffugibly downhill, in the manner of a Greek tragedy.
Except that the genre is known as Film Noir. Instead of the unities of time, place and action, as in Greek drama, the classic Noir format involves a lot of cigarette-smoking; a major police investigation with various false trails and little real progress; a rugged hero who usually shows little emotion, but whose facial bone-structure shows up well in studio lighting;—and black & white photography.
Amongst the bonus features on the DVD version of The Man Who Wasn’t There you find an interview with the cinematographer Roger Deakins, who waxes lyrical about black-&-white. He lists a number of films which have influenced him, including In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart. So I watched that too. It’s set in Hollywood, where Bogart plays a much sought-after screenwriter, whose artistic temperament can sometimes flare up in violence. Naturally there is lots of cigarette-smoking. It becomes a major prop in the foreplay of seduction—placing a fresh-lighted cigarette in the young lady’s mouth, for instance. Studio lighting contributes to showing Bogart at his most handsome, and, at certain points in the plot, his most ugly. The dénouement depends on the bumbling police investigation reaching its conclusion too late; failing to prevent the tragedy careering headlong towards its ineffugible* conclusion.
Now we cut to some on-location stills, in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, England. On several Spring days, I’ve been out walking, amidst April showers, taking my new camera along. It is lovely to be surrounded by nature, embedded in its substance and depth. Every picture I snapped was gorgeous with fresh greens, but portrayed something flat and disappointing. So on a hunch I tried black-and-white.
Click here, or the picture above, for a Flickr-hosted slide show†.
Why does black-and-white, “grayscale” to be precise, give a better sense of depth? What makes it more exciting, crisper? Is it merely my imagination? Well, as for the latter, without imagination there is no seeing at all. “I Am a Camera”, said Christopher Isherwood, but he lied for poetic effect. We are better than the camera. We must not surrender to its offer of colourful cornucopias. The more realistic the artificial representation appears, the more we let imagination doze, and pretend we are seeing the real thing. Paradoxically, the stylized artificiality of Film Noir frees the imagination and touches our soul; whereas the realism of colour movies, especially in 3D as in the recent conversion of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), keeps the imagination shackled and earthbound, in mechanical fear and primitive wonder.
† When running the slide show it’s best to click Options and make sure the three square boxes are unchecked. You can click a round box to select slow, medium or fast.