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Posts Tagged ‘noir

“Don’t think, but look!”*…

The scene is London; the year, 1941. Ludwig Wittgenstein, likely the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, has taken a hiatus from his Cambridge professorship to do “war work” in a menial position at Guy’s Hospital. By the time he arrives there, in September, the worst of the Blitz is over, but there’s no way of knowing that—the bombing could begin again any night. Wittgenstein serves as a dispensary porter, meaning he pushes a big cart from ward to ward, delivering medicine to patients. He’s 52 years old, small and thin, not to say frail. He writes in a letter that sometimes after work he can “hardly move.”

To John Ryle, brother of Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein explains his reason for volunteering in London: “I feel I will die slowly if I stay there [in Cambridge]. I would rather take the chance of dying quickly.”

Wittgenstein’s time at Guy’s Hospital is an especially lonely period in a lonely life. Socially awkward in the extreme, he does not endear himself to his coworkers. Although it soon gets out, he initially hopes to conceal that he’s a professor in regular life, hating the prospect of being treated differently. But he is different. His attempts to hide in plain sight must strike everyone as yet another eccentricity.

Nevertheless, he makes at least one friend at the hospital, a fellow staffer named Roy Fouracre. After some time, Fouracre is permitted to visit Wittgenstein in his room, a rare privilege with the reclusive philosopher. Crossing the threshold into Wittgenstein’s private quarters, Fouracre must expect to find books everywhere, hefty, awe-inspiring tomes by Aristotle and Kant and the like. Nothing of the sort. The only reading material in evidence is “neat piles of detective magazines.”

Those magazines would have been American detective pulps, the kind that chronicled the adventures of Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and other hardboiled heroes. During the last two decades of his life, Wittgenstein read such fiction compulsively. But what drew him to detective stories, and to American hardboiled ones in particular? How did a man engaged in a fundamental reform of philosophy—no less than an overhaul of how we think and talk about the world—develop such a passion for pulps?…

How pulp magazines inspired Wittgenstein’s investigations of the mysteries of language: “The Philosopher of the Detectives- Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction.”

For more on Wittgenstein’s thought, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article; for more on his life, this engaging biography.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we “only describe, don’t explain,” we might spare a thought for Henri-Louis Bergson; he died on this date in 1941.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding of reality…. many, but not Wittgenstein (nor Russell, Moore, nor Santayana), who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.

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“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”*…

 

maltesefalcon

 

The term “film noir” is typically credited to French critic Nino Frank, who apparently coined it in a 1946 essay published in the magazine L’Écran français to describe four American crime films: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet.

“These ‘noir’ films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel,” Frank wrote. “They are essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters.”

The films in question grew out of the hardboiled detective genre birthed by novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. Notably, two of the movies Frank wrote about—Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, based on novels by Cain and Chandler, respectively—were set in Los Angeles, a city whose glamorous reputation became laced with stories of crime, scandal, and corruption…

Laced with corruption in the 1940s and ’50s, LA became the birthplace of a literary and cinematic style: “13 of the best noir films set in Los Angeles.”

* Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), The Maltese Falcon (in the sequence pictured above; source)

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As we celebrate the gum on our shoes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1929 that the first Academy Awards presentation was held.  The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the awards were meant to to unite the five branches of the film industry, including actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers.  As Mayer explained:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.  (source)

270 people attended the ceremony, which was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and held over dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; tickets were $5 (about $74 in today’s coin).  12 awards were presented in 15 minutes: the award for Outstanding (now “Best”) Picture went to Wings.

It was the only Academy Awards ceremony not to be broadcast on either radio or television.

220px-1stOscars_1929 source

 

Written by LW

May 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”*…

 

In 1699, an anonymous lexicographer known only as “B. E., Gent.” published the first comprehensive dictionary of non-standard English. Although shorter word lists and glossaries of slang terminology had been published previously, B.E.’s New Dictionary of the Canting Crew listed over 4000 words and phrases, and is credited with being the first such publication resembling a modern dictionary. As a result, it remained the standard reference work for English slang and jargon for almost another century…

“Addle-plot,” “ebb-water,” and 28 other examples of historic jargon at “30 Excellent Terms From a 17th Century Slang Dictionary.”

* Carl Sandburg

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As we reach for the right phrase, we might send gritty birthday greetings to a man who was a master of the coinage of crime– Samuel Dashiell Hammett; he was born on this date in 1894.  Hammett worked as an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915-1922, when– disillusioned by the organization’s role in strike-breaking– he left to become a writer, providing copy in an ad agency until his fiction earned enough to support him.  Hammett drew for his fiction on his experiences as a “Pinkerton Man,” and created an extraordinary series of characters– Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), The Continental Op (Red Harvest and The Dain Curse)– on the way to becoming, as the New York Times called him, “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction.”

In his book The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler, considered by many to be Hammett’s successor, observed,

Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of The Glass Key is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before. 

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Written by LW

May 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”*…

 

From the British Film Institute, an infographic dedicated to the shadowy world of one of classic Hollywood’s most beloved subgenres– see it in its gritty entirety at “What Makes a Film Noir?

* Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

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As we grope for our gats, we might send haunting birthday greetings to Brian Easdale; he was born on this date in 1909.  A composer of both orchestral and operatic music, Easdale is best remembered for his film scores, especially those he composed for the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (including Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Elusive Pimpernel).  Perhaps his most powerful film work was on Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom, a film that used a number of film noir conventions to create a horror-thriller so shockingly unexpected that– while the film is now considered a masterpiece– it effectively ended Powell’s career.

Sir Thomas Beecham (left, with baton), and Easdale (center) preparing to record the score of The Red Shoes

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Written by LW

August 10, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle”*…

 

Long before the lights from Pittsburgh’s PNC Park began illuminating the North Shore every summer, a local corporation gave the city an art show every night on the same grounds.

The Westinghouse Electric Supply Company (a subsidiary of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, or Wesco), based in Pittsburgh, moved into a warehouse facing the Allegheny River in 1948. On its roof, a giant orange and blue sign spelled out the the company’s tag line, “You can be sure … if it’s Westinghouse.”

As modernist design trickled down from the Bauhaus to Madison Avenue, most noticeably in the 1960s, corporate giants like Westinghouse began leaning towards minimalist visual identities. In 1960, Paul Rand gave the company a logo that looked like an electrical socket that also spelled out the letter W.

Six years later, Richard Huppertz, head of Westinghouse’s Corporate Design Center, wanted to emphasize the company’s sleek new identity with text-free signage on top of their North Shore warehouse. Huppertz ran the idea by Rand, who then came up with the country’s first computer-controlled sign…

Read the rest of this illuminating story at “Remembering Pittsburgh’s Most Mesmerizing Sign.”

* Walt Whitman

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As we celebrate bright ideas, we might turn to the noir side and send hard-boiled birthday greetings to Raymond Chandler, novelist (The Big SleepFarewell, My Lovely, et al.) and screenwriter (Double Indemnity, with Billy Wilder, e.g.), whose Philip Marlowe was (with Hammett’s Sam Spade) synonymous with “private detective,” whose style (with Hammett’s) defined a genre, and who was (unlike Hammett) born on this date in 1888.

Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery because it introduces a type of suspense that is antagonistic to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem. It stacks the cards, and in nine cases out of ten, it eliminates at least two useful suspects. The only effective love interest is that which creates a personal hazard for the detective – but which, at the same time, you instinctively feel to be a mere episode. A really good detective never gets married.

– Raymond Chandler, “Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel” (essay, 1949)

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Written by LW

July 23, 2014 at 1:01 am

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