Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Awful Truth about Screwball and Film Noir

Saw an old screwball classic today, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and it's one of the best, funniest screwballs I've seen yet (out of the dozen or so I've seen so far). I realized there are different screwball formulas. My favorite screwball of all time, Bringing Up Baby, like the 70s neo-screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? which draws inspiration from it and other classic screwballs, has a nutty, smitten woman chasing an uptight man until wild circumstances allow him to let his guard down and see that he loves her, too. The formula of The Awful Truth, on the other hand, like that of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Hitchcock film I wrote about recently, is this: a married couple become unmarried after a superficial spat and then, in an attempt to deny their continued feelings of love, proceed to sabotage each other's subsequent affairs. It seems there are never children in a screwball, but there are often animals, both domestic and wild. Funny that Mr. and Mrs. Smith should come up, since, by coincidence, in The Awful Truth there's an adorable and hilarious pet dog named Mr. Smith (who, I'm told, was a star in his day--certainly a great talent and a scene stealer). My biggest problem with the Hitchcock picture was that it got too spiteful and mean, so that you couldn't root for the couple to get back together. You might feel they deserved each other, but the film's sense of romance gets shot by the end. Not so in the vastly superior The Awful Truth, which, through a deft combination of direction and acting, gets just the right recipe: great handfuls of comedy, a dash of strong wistfulness, and a consistent flavor of romance.

Then there's the nutty ensemble screwball, such as many of Preston Sturges' films. Recently, I was absolutely bowled over by a stunningly good film, I ? Huckabees. It's one of the few successful neo-screwballs of the last several years (artistically, at least--the box office has been meager so far, though it's only been in limited release). I'd classify it in the crazy ensemble screwball formula, but it's so much more original than that makes it sound. While there are romantic elements, the film is ultimately about philosophy, about the big questions of life and how we cope with the crises of modern life, yet rather than coming off as pretentious, the film somehow feels very relevant. Imagine: a firefighter who's reexamining his life post-9/11, played by Mark Wahlberg (in perhaps the film's most surprisingly impressive performance). Except you won't notice its profundity or its relevance because you'll be too busy laughing.

It's perhaps my favorite film of the year.

Lately I've been thinking how much more I like screwball comedy than film noir. I've been part of a movie discussion group, and this year we watched 10 or so examples of film noir, most recently Out of the Past. Because many of us had already seen them before, we tended not to watch the best, most famous noirs, but we still chose highly regarded and well-reviewed titles. As time went on, it became clear that they all tend to be pretty much the same, with crazy MacGuffin plots that keep your brain scrambled but never add up. Only a very few film noirs have ever really impressed me (Gilda, for example, or to some extent Laura), but I've had a better average finding great screwballs. Plus, great screwballs tend to be exhilarating and romantic; film noir tends to leave one in a cynicial mood.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum recently put it best:
"Is there any way to win?" asks Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), archetypal doom-ridden noir heroine in Out of the Past (1947), addressing Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), archetypal doom-ridden noir hero. He replies, "There's a way to lose more slowly." When it comes to politics in art, the mannerist noir style seems to be one of the most attractive ways of losing slowly. It makes doom more voluptuous and artful than success, makes a film's characters seem "half in love with easeful Death," as Keats put it. I often wonder if the fondness many leftists have for noir films stems from their being suckers for romantic fatalism -- defeatists who wouldn't know what to do with success if it hit them over the head.
Out of the Past is sumptuously made, with excellent performances, exquisite cinematography and some of the sharpest one-liners in the genre (like, "Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible"), but after seeing it twice it still doesn't quite satisfy me the way it should.

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