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Friday, April 13, 2018

BAMcinématek's Beyond the Canon—One False Move + Touch of Evil

One False Move, courtesy Sony Pictures; Touch of Evil, courtesy Universal Pictures
It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. This monthly series seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.

This month’s double feature pairs Carl Franklin’s brilliant One False Move with Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil. Both films exemplify the film noir genre while also investigating interracial relationships on both an intimate and community-wide scale. Guest writer Michael Boyce Gillespie examines the genre and how it relates to, and was born out of, boundary crossing.

By Michael Boyce Gillespie

Film noir remains one of the richest and most difficult film categories to quantify. In More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore addresses the lack of a definitive consensus surrounding its origins and status as genre. He suggests that this indeterminacy represents a need to rethink noir and the idea of genre more broadly: “If we want to understand [film noir], or make sense of genres or art historical categories in general, we need to recognize that film noir belongs to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema; it has less to do with a group of artifacts than with a discourse—a loose, evolving system of arguments and readings, helping to shape commercial strategies and aesthetic ideologies.” To place Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1958) and Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1992) together is to recognize the crucial ways that borders and crossings constitute a central concern of film noir as the history of an idea. Both screen at BAMcinématek on April 21.

Touch of Evil, courtesy Universal Pictures.

Film noir itself resulted from “crossings” of ideas—consider how the hard-boiled novels of the 1920s—30s, and the later Hollywood studio adaptations, were each labeled as “noir” by the French existentialist and surrealist communities of the day. Crossings and borders are negotiated in every noir film, evident in the aesthetic distinctions of high contrast lighting, signifying distinctions about culture, ideas of race, conceptions of good and evil, and that which distinguishes social order from chaos. Yet, these binaries are conceits that can never be fixed in simple terms of black and white. The way these binaries bleed into one another is the crux of every noir story.

At its start, Touch of Evil is compelled by border anxieties and the fear of miscegenation evidenced by its newlyweds: Mexican law enforcement agent, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), and his white bride, Susie (Janet Leigh). This is compounded by Heston’s non-ironic, brownface performance. His body alone is a comic and grotesque vessel of boundaries and whiteness as a dangerously normalizing standard. Initially, the multiple crossings of the borderline between Mexico and the US amplify the implied distinction between the civility of white society and the lawlessness of Mexican gangs and drug lords. But this slowly erodes. In spite of the film’s anti-Mexican/white supremacist tones, it is Hank Quinlan (Welles), a law man with impeccable intuition, who comes to represent the greatest evil of the film. His reputation is eventually revealed to be built on violent coercion, false confessions, and the planting of evidence. The law man as arbiter of justice is concurrently the everyday injustice of the police state.

One False Move, courtesy Sony Pictures.
The fraught traversing of boundaries is equally central to Franklin’s brilliant One False Move (1992). “Star City, Arkansas,” the destination of its on-the-run characters, is a Southern town that sounds of future promise, but in truth is a place that connotes an unreconciled and/or arrested past, a time before one was cast out or just ran away. Fantasia (Cynda Williams), the child of a black mother and an unknown white father with another family, embodies the crossing of borders. Unlike Sarah Jane of Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959), who is desperate to pass as white and erase all vestiges of being black, Fantasia challenges the tragic mulatta with the additional measure of also being the film’s femme fatale. Her return home entails the revisiting of secrets and violations that dovetail with her old persona, Lila Walker. She is a fugitive woman on the run (femme fatale) and the product of miscegenation fears (tragic mulatta). The meeting of these two tropes results in something other than a resolution but more a fantasy that social order has returned.

To pair these two films is an opportunity to view noir as the history of an idea—how it produces distinct accents on a politics of transgression, the idea of race, and film form. These accents are neither clean nor unproblematic. But “happily ever after” is never the real point of film noir. Perhaps the real force of film noir resides in staging the fantasy of immutable categories and moreover, the desire that these fantasies remain impossibly intact.

Join us for
Beyond the Canon next Sat, Apr 21.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He is the author of
Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016).

ⓒ 2018, Brooklyn Academy of Music. All rights reserved.

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