Blend film noir with science fiction? You bet. My top two picks: Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, (Alphaville, a Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), 1965, director Jean-Luc Godard, cinematographer Raoul Coutard; and Blade Runner, 1982, director Ridley Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth.
I’m a big fan of this combination, often referred to as “science fiction noir”, “future noir” or “tech noir” this latter coined by director James Cameron (he used it as the name of a nightclub in The Terminator, 1984). Most film critics and writers use the term more broadly than I do and include films such as Alien, The Terminator and Soylent Green. Great science fiction, but to me, not quite “noir”. The difference lies in my own particular view on essential components of “film noir”.
Eddie Muller, one of the foremost film noir experts writes, “Suffering with style. That’s the pithiest description I’ve come up with to explain film noir. The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge—which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter. But I’ll be damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you’re going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.” It takes a blend of story and style to make noir really work. I’m no expert, but I would add to greed, lust, jealousy and revenge that sometimes behind the drive is a deep-seated, misguided, basic human bid for survival.
Film noir characters are often not that different from us but for a “simple twist of fate”. People end up doing things we believe we would never do, yet we can believe it when they do them. The characters know what they are doing is wrong but are relentlessly driven by pressure from external forces beyond their control merging with an overwhelming internal steamroller, as though the reptile complex awakens and blinks one dreary eye before entering the fray and knocking the sense of right and wrong askew. They feel trapped and see only one way out, inertia takes over and they can’t stop, sometimes a bit horrified at their own actions. There is a basic dark, yet human, truth at the core. Quite often, in spite of ourselves, we feel a shade of empathy for the characters, if not their actions. Take Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, 1944, this man is not a murderer nor thief by nature but we watch as he becomes someone who commits both of these crimes. Moreover, we believe he would not have crossed this line had Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) not come down those stairs, in that way, wearing those shoes. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, 1947, is building a new life–a good life–until the past comes swooping down the road in a 1941 Cadillac Series 62 convertible. Inevitably this links him back up with Kathie (Jane Greer) a gold standard of femmes fatale. In the end we cannot condone their actions but we watch with suspense hoping that they find another way out just in the nick of time.
Films noir feature strong women whether good, bad, ugly or all three. A femme fatale? Even better. They are visually stunning by virtue of cinematography, lighting, blocking, Dutch angles and choreography of pace and movement. Actors weave in and out of shadow and light. A cameo appearance by a cat slipping through a strip of light and back into shadow is icing on the cake. Cigarette smoke becomes part of cast and crew. Out of the Past provides one of the best examples where cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and director Jacques Tourneur throw massive white lights onto exhaled smoke as though spotlighting a character. Those clouds of white smoke evoke mood and tension. Dialog, like foils in a fencing match, make so many films noir eminently quotable. Though black and white film is more common, a master director and cinematographer create an equally effective mood with color. A perfect example is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, 1974 with cinematographer John A. Alonzo. It is considered by some the last movie made in the genre, Stephen Marche wrote, “In a sense, film noir could go no further than Chinatown.”
The Terminator and Alien, both movies I enjoy, focus heavily on the science fiction, technology, action and terror. These almost upstage the characters. They, rather than the characters, reach out and interact with the psyche of the audience. They somehow just miss that connection with humanity I find essential to film noir.
Alphaville, described by critic Andrew Sarris as “a science fiction film without special effects”, is filmed in Paris, a Paris we can recognize but for the lack of joie de vivre. Lemmy Caution, hard-boiled secret agent (played by perfectly cast Eddie Constantine) arrives in Alphaville posing as a journalist from the Outlands and driving a 1965 Ford Mustang. Lemmy has been sent to find a missing agent and “collect” the professor behind Alpha 60, the computer that is turning society into drones and systematically removing words from the dictionary. The science fiction, the technology lies in the infrastructure and control of the population. Tranquilizers are as much a part of your hotel room as a Gideon Bible. Almost all the women say “I am very well, thank you for asking.” whether they’ve been spoken to or not. Technology is the underlying vehicle, but never in your face. In your face are the humans living in the backdrop of a futuristic political and social system and the tough decisions they must make and again, perhaps doing something out of character pushed by circumstances beyond their control. Lemmy comments that “Something’s not in orbit in the capital of this galaxy.” In the end he falls in love with and is compelled to rescue the professor’s daughter.
In Blade Runner we have a story of the future, a detective or “Blade Runner” (Harrison Ford) and replicants (their leader a perfectly-cast Rutger Hauer) running from the fate of their own expiration dates. The science fiction supplies backdrop, background, backstory. The technology has not replaced what has come before it, it has evolved from it and in a much more realistic way than a “completely all new stuff” world . Life goes on: new buildings rise amidst older ones. Street markets and vendors still exist…though some of them deal in things we don’t find in today’s markets and new air-capable vehicles join old automobiles moving about the city. The story is in the interaction of the replicants and their will to live and the “Blade Runner” whose job is to see that they don’t make it past their “pull date” at the same time he’s discovering the woman he’s fallen in love with is also a replicant. It is the interplay of emotions and human reactions. The will to survive the replicants have is not “other” it is human and we get it, we empathize. Even when you’ve seen the relentless strength and violence the replicants bring to bear in their fight to survive, there is a sense of mourning at their demise. Consider replicant Roy Batty’s poetically human dying words to hard boiled detective Rick Deckard, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain…Time to die.”