LOVE IN NOIR

 

In the dual portraits of film noir couples, the tension is not just sexual but existential. Fate was in command, and the film titles said it all: Detour; Kiss of Death; Cornered; Criss-Cross; D.O.A; Fallen Angel: Out of the Past; Possessed. In film noir, the games were played for keeps. This photographic essay of film noir lovers tries to convey that brooding quality, that moment of tenderness or passion, that brief moment before fate comes calling.

 

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Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde in “Leave Her to Heaven,” 1945.

Film noir twisted the normal expectations of movie plots. A happy ending was not in the cards, and everyone had an angle. The couples danced around each other’s schemes, or lost themselves in an obsession with the other. In Leave Her to Heavena film noir in Technicolor, the beautiful and bewitching Gene Tierney smothers her love of Cornel Wilde with jealousy.

Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in "The Killers."
Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in “The Killers.”

In The KillersBurt Lancaster’s past comes calling, and there is no escape. Whereas cars and trains previously represented escape and freedom in the movies, in film noir they became metaphors for confined spaces and one-way tracks to destiny. As the character  Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) says to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity, “They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line.”

 

Susan Hayward and Bill Williams star in "Deadline at Dawn," 1946. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Susan Hayward and Bill Williams star in “Deadline at Dawn,” 1946. Photo courtesy Photofest.
 

During and after WWII, soldiers, marines, and sailors from all over the country passed through big cities like New York and Los Angeles. After the war ended, tens of thousands returned and were cast adrift there, looking for an illusive normalcy.  These veterans had developed a sense of fatalism, a reality born of the seemingly random and instantaneous death that so many saw all around them. Film Noir’s perspective matched their own, while women’s views were born from making it on their own.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in "The Blue Dahlia," 1946, photo courtesy Photofest.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in “The Blue Dahlia,” 1946, photo courtesy Photofest.

The black and white film and still photograhy, perfected in the 1930s, was ideal for the  film noir atmospherics. Deep shadows and strong contrasts of light and dark became film noir trademarks. These settings were perfectly represented by light streaming through venetian blinds and the patterns of prison bars and stair case rails casting long shadows.  These patterns were also mimiked in the criss-crossing of rail-road tracks, a name itself carried into film titles. The haunting settings were mostly of urban nightscapes, and the cinematography emphasized claustrophobic rooms, adding to the pressure-cooker effects of whatever plot-points were at play.

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Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster in “Brute Force,” 1947.

 

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past," 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Noir films often start at the end, their story played out in flashbacks. There is no mistake that destiny rules over the protagonists. The only question is, what road will get them there. And whatever the road, the main characters are always looking  back over their shoulders or in the rear-view mirror. In Out of the Past, even returning to normal life in a small town provides Robert Mitchum no escape from the clutches of his big city past. And a similar fate traps Burt Lancaster in its spider-web in The Killers.

 

Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney  in "Night and the City," 1950. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in “Night and the City,” 1950. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

In Night and the Cityeven London provides the setting for film noir, and the hard-to-explain love of the beautiful Gene Tierney for a professional schemer like Richard Widmark. But even he draws our pity at the end, due to his tour-de-force acting in the role of Harry Fabian.

 

Victor Mature and Coleen Gray in "Kiss of Death," 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Victor Mature and Coleen Gray in “Kiss of Death,” 1947. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Film noir combined great acting talent with great stories and screenplays. Outstanding film directors were also responsible for the classics of film noir. It seemed that the European directors working in the U.S. appear to have best captured the film noir aesthetic. They seemed to have understood the malaise of the post-war years. They included Robert Siodmak, Jules Dassin, Jacques Tourneur, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger. But film noir lives on, not only in these classics, but in more modern but stylish hits such as Chinatown,  Body Heat and L.A. Confidential. We could hope for some more – but bad endings are never very popular. This much is certain – there was no bad ending for Film Noir itself – it lives on in its masterly films and in its influence on filmmaking through today. And that moment, that special moment of movie love was captured forever in those movie stills.

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in "They Live by Night," 1949. Photo courtesy of Photofest.
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in “They Live by Night,” 1949. Photo courtesy of Photofest.

 

THE OSCAR BEST COSTUME CONTENDERS

The race for the 2013 Best Costume Design Academy Award  is a tight one, with several front-runners and favored films in the mix. Leading the pack for the likely top award winner is American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell with costume design by Michael Wilkinson. As with most favored award winners, this is a period movie, although the period here is the recent past; the free-wheeling 1970s.

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Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser

The plot is loosely based on the Abscam bribery scandal of that era, and the setting is New Jersey and Manhattan. For the gowns and dresses, Wilkinson looked back at the fashions of Halston, Yves St. Laurent, and Diane Von Furstenburg.

Amy Adams

Amy Adams wore several very low-cut gowns and blouses in the movie. Wilkinson dressed her in these revealing outfits to give her an air of sexy empowerment, and in keeping with her role, to lure clients to her particular  business with partner Christian Bale.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld at left with Amy Adams

Amy Adams as Sydney competes with Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn for the love of Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld.  The contrast in the color and texture of the gowns emphasized that competition, as well as in the amount of cleavage revealed.

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Bradley Cooper at left with Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld

The men’s costumes displayed all the worst taste of the 1970s. The photo above is very restrained and looks good. But most of the others purposefully show mis-matched colors, textures, and patterns such as polka-dots, stripes, large herring-bone patterns and the like. While these were certainly around at the time, they seem exaggerated in the film.

Another award magnet is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and designed by Patricia Norris. The story is based on the diary of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the ante-bellum South.

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Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor,  shown above with his family, living the life of a mostly prosperous free man of color. His clothes and his family’s indicate a middle-class life.

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The costumes for slaves presented a challenge for Norris. They are not well represented visually in historical sources, so Norris began reading contemporary accounts. She relied on  a method of costuming that used styles of clothing that were slightly out-of-date,  and in those times were likely hand-me-downs. Since these still had to be made new for the film, they also had to be thoroughly aged, distressed, and often hand painted with dye.

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12 Years a Slave has been both a critical favorite and a period film, a good combination for winning a Best Costume Oscar.

Another period film nominee is The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as Charles Dickens, along with  Felicity Jones as Nelly, the young woman who loves him. The costumes were designed by Michael O’Connor.

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One of the challenges for the designer was that the film took place during two different time periods, the 1850s and the 1880s. In the 1850s, Nelly is young and timid. O’Connor dresses her in light colors with simple bow accents.

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Felicity Jones as Nelly

And Dickens liked Nelly to look young and girlish (he was married at the time). Dickens himself dressed somewhat as a dandy in his youth, so O’Connor on occasion put him in velvets and brighter colors.

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In the second part of the film Nelly is older and Dickens has died. At this point O’Connor dresses her in darker grays, stripes, and tartans, with a more structured 1880s silhouette.

The Invisible Woman was not widely seen in the U.S.  While Academy voters are all provided copies of the nominees for voting purposes, this is a movie that had no buzz.

Another nominee without wide distribution was The Grandmaster, directed by Kar Wai Wong and starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Ziyi Zhang. This is the first nomination for costume designer William Chang.

THE GRANDMASTER

Chang is a frequent collaborator with director Kar Wai Wong. Chang is also a production designer and an interior designer. It took Chang two years to collect the beads, ribbons, lace, and materials for the costumes in the film.

Oscar Copstume Grandmaster

As with The Invisible Woman, The Grand Master was not viewed by many, and has had little Oscar award promotion.

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The final nominee is The Great Gatsby. The movie made a big splash when it was released last May,  but that was a long time ago in Oscar-nomination and voter-memory time.

Great Gatsby Michelle

The film was directed by Baz Luhrmann, and starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby,  along with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. The costume designer was Catherine Martin, the wife of director Baz Luhrmann.

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The leading men’s costumes were provided by Brooks Brothers. Miuccia Prada designed some forty dresses for the party scene, adapting many from Prada’s own archives.  Elizabeth Debicki is shown below in one of the party dresses, heavily bejeweled for the occasion. The jewelry for the costumes and the actors was provided by Tiffany. The flapper look is always cycling back in style, and 2012-2013 was one of those fashion cycles.

Oscar costume Great Gatsby Elizabeth Debicki
Elizabeth Debicki makes a great flapper

Carey Mulligan as Daisy had that beautiful yet delicate look that was particularly attractive in dressed in cream colored laces and silver sequins, with Tiffany pearl necklaces and silver headbands of course.

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My own favorite costume movie was not nominated –The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, designed by Trish Summerville  (Katniss’ wedding gown was designed by Tex Saverio).  For a separate awards program, the movie was nominated by the Costume Designers Guild for Excellence in Fantasy Film. Costume designers finally have their own Costume Designers Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. For some reason, movies in trilogies like The Hobbit, or previously The Lord of the Rings, and now Catching Fire (although four movies will actually be made), don’t get nominated for Best Costume. This didn’t seem to be the case, however, with The Godfather part II, which won for Best Costume in 1974.  And in this case, each of the Hunger Games  movies had different costumes, and a different setting, and to my eye, those of Catching Fire were markedly more interesting than its predecessor. Who’s to say the third or fourth would be the best, if that’s what they are waiting for?

In the L.A area where most of the voters live, the Oscar nominees in all major categories are getting a lot of publicity. In the case of American Hustle and and 12 Years a Slave, additional publicity is being given to related personalities. Diane von Furstenberg is being celebrated for the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress, one of which  Amy Adams wore in American Hustle. And as for 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey in the movie has been hailed as the new fashion plate in magazines and blogs alike. Given the inclination of Academy voters to favor period films, I would predict 12 Years a Slave to beat out American Hustle as well as the others for Best Costume Design for 2013.  All of these movies were excellently costumed,  and their designers should all be proud of their excellent work.

A blog about classic movie costume design and fashion