November Newsletter: On Noirvember and Tom Waits’ Noir Sensibility

Right: Film poster by Tony Stella for the neo-noir “Gloria”, 1980


Photos: Classiq Journal, unless otherwise stated

You take a deeper and deeper dive into noir’s murky stories. The more obscure, the more forgotten, the less known, the better. A cinephile is truly an explorer. You want to discover a film on your own or at least follow a tip to find a film and maybe keep it to yourself a little longer before you tell the world. Discovering a new film you have never heard of and nobody talks about is the greatest joy.

“Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days,” said Robert Mitchum. “We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars [at RKO] got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts.” We were just making movies. One of the reasons I love noir films so much is that they have hardly ever been referred to in terms of “best” films. They were films for actors, not stars. The directors and cinematographers had to be inventive and innovative (it’s where many of them cut their teeth in and created their filmmaking style) because the budgets were limited and the time-frames were short. They presented a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life had low values and an even lower running time, a world where love is replaced by obsession and fatal desires, but found a streak of poetry in the light coming out of a street pole in a dark alley or in the smoke of the omnipresent cigar, captured the interest with an odd angle, a glowing haunted face or a sharp line of dialogue, got under the viewer’s skin with deadly femmes fatales. They were made on Poverty Row, but they revelled in their cheapness, creating their own language, honing such a distinctive and definitive cinematic style “where one did not exist before”. Film noir gives you the license to experience a world of danger, vice and darkness, but only from a safe distance. We all have a dark side.

But then there are films such as Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, a reality bite of sorts that goes down very low on the ladder of criminality: “All over the world, you’ll find small-time crooks like Skip, Candy, and Moe living on the underbelly of society, struggling to survive with their scams, abiding by their own unwritten code of ethics. I’d seen plenty of these people firsthand when I was a crime reporter. They are individuals, trusting no one, beyond politics, changes in governments, intellectual labels, and fashion. […] I wanted my film to be told through the eyes of the powerless. Cold war paranoia? Hell, these crooks were more interested in just getting by.” All Samuel Fuller’s films had this realistic feel that goes beyond genre and cinematic stylisation. Real people in real-life situations always had an intense effect on him, he would say, and he envied the gritty visual style and neorealistic approach of the Italian directors.

This Noirvember, I am diving into Arthur Lyon’s Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir and listen to the noir sensibility of Tom Waits, beginning with Potter’s Field from the album Foreign Affairs (1977), inspired by Samuel Fuller’s own Pickup on South Street. The filmmaker considered music “an essential part of every picture I make, maybe as important as the story. Before photographs and movies, people were listening to music and getting strong emotional messages.” About On a Foggy Night, from the album Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Waits said, “this is the soundtrack for a film, the soundtrack was written quite a bit later than the film,” referring to the noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I like that. Just as a pre-existing song sometimes only comes alive in a film (Yasmine Hamdan’s Hal in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is one such song), in a particular story, and listening to it separately doesn’t have the same effect, not even close, I like how some other songs are inspired by movies or a cinematic element without being part of a soundtrack. Music gives voice to all kinds of drifters and dreamers, just like movies, and, in turn, the characters come alive through the music and enter our own imagination.

Right: Tony Stella illustration for The Set-Up, 1949

In nome della legge, 1949

I was just mentioning the Italian neorealism above and Pietro Germi’s In nome della legge has exactly that gritty visual style and the neorealist setting that Samuel Fuller himself appreciated about the neorealist directors. But the stylistic framework is much more complex and contradicting, somewhere at the confluence of noir, mafia drama and Hollywood western, where Sicily becomes a frontier land, that well-known Western frontier where the very concept of law is fleeting and where justice is in the hands of the individual or of a small community. Pietro Germi considered himself “a man of other times” and unfortunately I don’t think he is appreciated at his true value.
The Beach. This one is soon to be released, but the trailer alone grabbed my attention and it will only be available temporarily, for Thanksgiving week, 22-28 November. The quietude and calmness, that incredible vastness and that great light. Capturing, but especially living, all that. Just beautiful.
La cage (The Cage), 1975

Lino Ventura is one of those actors who had something special. He stood apart through his modesty, frankness, humour and humility and a classic, distinctive elegance. He is best known for films such as L’armée des ombres, Classe tous risques, Un papillon sur l’épaule, Touchez pas au grisbi, but I always love seeing him in more under the radar movies, such as La cage. Watching his range of emotions unravel in a story that mainly takes place in a single room is a proof of his natural, instinctive talent.
Le renard et l’enfant (The Fox and the Child), 2007

It takes patience and it takes effort and time to gain others’ trust, especially when you are part of two different worlds. It’s an incredibly valuable lesson for this fast world where we want everything to happen now, and it’s a film for children and adults alike but children will respond very powerfully to it, because of the way it is told, through the eyes of a little girl and the bond and friendship she forges with a wild animal, which leads to the most wonderful adventure. It also features the most beautiful autumn scenes I have seen in a movie. I recommend the French narrated version.
And because it’s Noirvember, Detours, a series of video essays on “the bruised soul of noir film”. Of course, it takes the name after Edgar Ulmer’s Detour. In an interview with illustrator Jennifer Dionisio, who has recently created the cover art for Raoul Walsh’s noir High Sierra, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, for the Criterion Collection, she was describing her design process for her cover art for the remastered edition of Detour, choosing to go for “a composition which reflected the grittiness and shoe-string budget of the production”.

Right: Tony Stella illustration for The Maltese Falcon, 1941


“Art is not the place for moralizing –
otherwise we would have no painting, no books,
no nothing. It’s where we explore all the thoughts
and acts we could never confess to in normal life.”

Isabel Huppert, The Sydney Morning Herald


“I realised that this is one of the reasons I don’t read on my iPad, because there are reactions in your underlining, tactile movements, textures, a series of stimuli to your memory that don’t exist in digital space (or at least don’t work for me: I read to remember and think, not escape, I need those memories of my reads.),” says author Jorge Carrión in Against Amazon and Other Essays. Books are one of the links we have left to remain humans in a world that wants to turn us all into machines. Reading paper books also keeps us in touch with ourselves. This is what these essays are about. As Anna Iltnere, the founder of the Sea Library, recently told me in our conversation, “Some might say that reading is an act of escapism. I don’t believe in that. The words and sentences will get you to fantastic places, both emotionally and geographically, yes, but that’s not getting away. It’s arriving; at least for me.”

Jean Renoir’s portrait of his father digs deep but with the sensibility that permeates his own films into art and artists and into the life and work of an artist whose one of the greatest traits and paths towards his genius was his modesty, but also his profound connection to everything around him and life itself. Renoir, My Father is also one of those rare biographies that speaks about its writer, and what a privilege it is that the writer is one of the greatest filmmakers the world has known, just as much as it speaks about its subject.

It’s incredible how the simple story in Hedgehog in the Fog plays with children’s imagination. It is beautifully illustrated by Francesca Yarbusova, based on the sketches to the award-winning animated film directed by Yuri Norstein, from 1975, which has gained worldwide acclaim (Norstein is known for his painstaking production methods – his animation style involved the manipulation of hand-drawn paper shapes and the fog effects were created using layers of translucent paper), but I prefer the book.


Right: Tony Stella illustration for John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, 1950


PJ Harvey, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The style of music that feels at home for me.

Tom Waits and David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Next Day). I could listen to them anytime, just as I could listen to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen anytime, but this is a time when I’m particularly drawn to their music.

Probably the best part about all this music is that I have discovered it in time, waiting for each album to be released and then purchased, or finding it by chance, going and finding it in person not knowing that it even existed, or especially setting out to search for it in stores – “by thinking with our feet and eyes,” as Jorge Carrión describes the experience of entering a bookshop, which can be translated just the same for when meandering a record store – not just benefitting from it at a click away – where is the joy in that, the anticipation, the element of surprise?

At the suggestion of Anna Iltnere, in the same interview mentioned earlier, I am recommending the Moby Dick Big Read, an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters is read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, in a sequence of 135 episodes, publicly and freely accessible.
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Sophy Robert’s The Art of Travel. Monocle and Sirene magazines, in print.

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