The first lesson of any film noir lecture: beware the gams! Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
What is it with film noir? Why for decades have the trappings of a sixty- or seventy-year-old genre been reappropriated, rejigged, recycled, or otherwise reworked, revisited, and rehashed? Is it the hard-nosed private dicks? The chiaroscuro lighting? The prevalence of smoking guns and smokier single malts? The endless spans of sexy gams on those femme fatales probably don’t hurt.
With their latest film series, The Revue on Roncesvalles attempts to plumb the shadowy fathoms of one of cinema’s most enduring genres. And to help them, they brought in Toronto film critic, lecturer, and broadcaster Kevin Courrier.
With his lecture series “Roads to Perdition: The Dark Allure of Film Noir,” Courrier intends to help neophytes and diehard fans of the genre probe its seemingly inexhaustible appeal, with all the devotion of Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and other hardboiled noir sleuths. “This is the third lecture program that I’ve done at the Revue Cinema,” says Courrier. “They’ve always wanted to bring me back, but we could never settle on the idea.” When Ellen Moorhouse at the Revue approached him about a film noir series, Courrier was immediately piqued by the idea, withdrawing into his office (figuratively), drawing the slatted venetian blinds (presumably), and developing the concept for the lecture series under the knowing revolutions of a rickety ceiling fan (almost certainly).
“Because I’m a film critic, I don’t actually work from a historical base,” Courrier explains. “I don’t go ‘Well, here’s where film noir began, then it starts going here, then it ends there.’ I’m more interested in themes. The films become like laundry I hang on a line.” Throughout the five-week series, Courrier will trace how film noir’s various permutations have tended to get hung up on united narrative, thematic, and stylistic preoccupations. Character motivation constitutes one such fixation. “The heroes don’t necessarily operate by conscious intent,” says Courrier. “There are other forces, often unconscious, that lead them into situations that aren’t very good. Sometimes these characters go down roads that maybe they shouldn’t have gone down. There’s this fatalistic element about it and I think that’s what the genre’s all about.”
This ambiguity extends beyond character motivation, though, and Courrier also intends to address the larger cultural undercurrents coursing through the genre. Not incidentally, film noir emerged in its classical form near the end of the Second World War, playing into an audience of traumatized soldiers and other citizens similarly troubled by the war’s multifarious moral quagmires. “Coming back home was not a reassuring experience. Home was not the same anymore,” he says. “It didn’t offer the same security, the same sense of place. It was almost like a shadow country had emerged. What film noir tended to do was look at what that shadow country might be.”
It’s this sinister division that allowed the genre boilerplate to be transplanted so readily to sci-fi dystopian and so-called “tech noir” films, like Scott’s Blade Runner, Cameron’s Terminator (which features an action scene set in a dimly lit club called “TechNoir”), and Spielberg’s Minority Report, which more explicitly imagines an alternative American present or near-future.
This idea of a cultural doppelganger also seems to make noir filmmaking especially salient in America. “Because America is a country very built on an idea,” Courrier explains, “it creates voices that want to lay claim to what that idea, or that ideal is. And always there’s a shadow side that’s much darker than what the original idea may have appeared to be.” (What’s more, looking too far afield—to German Expressionism, the French New Wave, and some of Kurosawa’s pulpy gangster pictures—would make the series unruly, especially given its thematic focus.)
What emerges after speaking to Courrier about “Roads to Perdition” is the obvious effort he invested crafting the series—this isn’t just some guy popping in to introduce a screening and collect a cheque. Partnering with The Revue (which has long dedicated the neighbourhood rep house to exceptionally thoughtful screening series), fantastic local video store The Film Buff (whose owner, Scott Worsley, will hand out extensive viewing lists to all attendants), and Ryerson’s Chang School for Continuing Education, Courrier’s series is shaping up to be one of the most interesting currently being hosted across town, and one that’s well worth any local cinephile’s dime.
Just don’t go for coffee with that leggy dame who approaches you after the screening. Oh, and remember: no smoking. Not even if you roll your own.
“Roads to Perdition: The Dark Allure of Film Noir” begins Tuesday, January 18 at 7 p.m. at The Revue (400 Roncesvalles Avenue). The first lecture will explore the role of fatalism in film noir, using clips from Detour, Double Indemnity, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Tickets run $10 for Revue members and $12 for non-members. You can also buy a pass to all five lectures for $40.