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Denis Johnson's 'Nobody Move': notes on noir

September 4, 2008 | 10:00 am

Doa0904

Reviewing a batch of DVDs in the New York Times, Dave Kehr wrote: "Film noir is a notoriously difficult concept to define." I don’t buy that. In a narrow way, noir is the film style that emerged when German expressionism met the American hardboiled idiom through the agency of the émigré writers and directors who fled Europe and flocked to Hollywood throughout the 1930s.

The genre, in this classic sense, probably begins with Billy Wilder’s "Double Indemnity" and was given its full stop in the 1950s by Robert Aldrich’s "Kiss Me Deadly" and "A Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles. That's the broad stroke of the history. Check out Paul Schrader’s essay “Notes on Film Noir” — he nailed it.

The genre reflected post-WW2 American unease about sex, politics, identity, the future and was characterized, as Carolyn says, by pronounced black and white chiaroscuro, exaggerated camera angles and shadows. Noir has a broader thematic meaning, too, however, and this is what David is getting at.

Noirs are stories that operate like traps, in which characters come to sense, and even rush toward, their own destruction. Pushing it, we might say that “Oedipus Rex” is the first noir; noir tweaks a fear of fate that’s haunted humanity forever.

Where Denis Johnson fits in, after the jump.

So, indeed, to answer Carolyn’s question, I think the rules of this genre can be retooled and reshaped endlessly; hence its fascination and continuing allure. "Chinatown," though shot in lush color by John Alonzo, is classic noir. For me, it’s the theme and tone of noir that are everything, not the style. Give me David Goodis’ sad sense of doom over the pastiche fripperies of De Palma’s "The Black Dahlia" any day of the week.

Denis Johnson is hip to this, of course, and in this latest installment he is, indeed, shooting us straight to the heart of noir, loading the story with foreboding while having great fun at the same time. The whole section feels aimed at the moment when Gambol first utters a line of dialogue. He keeps not speaking and not speaking and plowing through the pain and blowing that guy’s head off, and we cut to and fro between the scenes of the action, and we get the sense that when Gambol finally does say something, it’s going to be great.

And it is laugh-out-loud funny. "What I don't understand about the whole thing," he said, "is when the Twin Towers went down, why didn’t we nuke ... those bastards and turn that whole Muslim desert into glass."

Gambol’s excellent, an unreasoning and implacable A-bomb of a bad guy, like Ralph Fiennes in "In Bruges" or Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast." Obviously we’re heading toward another confrontation between him and Luntz; and, I have to say, I'm not sure how Johnson is going to play it. I'm already so invested in Jimmy and Anita that I'd hate to see them get it.

Johnson's teasing us, isn’t he? And we know that in the end he’s not Elmore Leonard and this plays much tougher than "Get Shorty."

— Richard Rayner

Photo: movie still from 1950s' "D.O.A."

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