As part of Hot Docs’ morning speaker series Curious Minds, film writer Geoff Pevere presents The Big Shadow: The World of Film Noir, which began on January 17, 2017 and continues every Tuesday morning until February 21, 2017. Geoff Pevere is a former film critic with the “Toronto Star” and regular contributor to “The Globe and Mail,” who has been writing, teaching and broadcasting about movies, media and popular culture for more than 30 years. Pevere also maintains the website thebigshadow.com, which focuses on the depiction of crime in popular culture. Toronto Film Scene spoke to Geoff Pevere about what he hopes to accomplish through his lecture series and why film noir in general has remained relevant over the years.
Pevere says that his goal with The Big Shadow is to provide a historical look at one of the more influential film styles, which is actually not that well understood. “There’s still all kinds of arguments about what film noir is and where it came from,” says Pevere. “We don’t actually aim to arrive at those answers, but what I try to do is to basically take people back to the origins of film noir and then it’s what happened when it flourished in the Hollywood studios in the 1940s and then to track it as it also showed up in the films of other countries, like France, Italy, Japan, Germany, and Great Britain.” The series began with a look at the origins of film noir and will conclude with a look at how film noir is currently flourishing in television.
When asked whether film noir can be seen as a genre of film or a style, Pevere prefers the latter definition, since it opens up different possibilities in terms of perception. “It’s a style that tends to be most effective when it is actually applied to certain genres; Crime movies, the gangster film are probably the most obvious examples,” says Pevere. “If you start to think of it in terms of a style, it kind of opens up your appreciation and perception of things and you can see for instance like how many even Westerns during the 1940s and 1950s had elements of film noir style and elements of the film noir narrative and you can also see it very abundantly in horror movies.”
According to Geoff Pevere, film noir has remained relevant over the years, since he doesn’t believe that there has ever been a part in history, where people didn’t harbour feelings of anxiety about the world, which is frequently played out by the characters in film noir films. “It’s about the contrast of black and white and light and dark and I think those are things which have perennial, visual traction to us,” say Pevere. “I think when you associate also with the fact that there is an ongoing resonance in a lot of the situations that the characters in film noir films find themselves in, I think that is part of the reason why it has an ongoing fascination, but also it finds an interesting way of reinventing itself every decade in a different way.”
Probably one of the most iconic elements of film noir is the character of the femme fatale, which will be the topic of Pevere’s next lecture on January 31. “What’s one of those scenes that in a film noir movie that you can just basically describe in general terms and everybody gets it as a film noir situation,” asks Pevere. “That is the moment where the protagonist, who’s usually male, finds himself in the presence of a woman and he knows that from that moment, his fate is sealed.” Pevere notes that their is a sexual dead in film noir film, since encounters with femme fatales often result in the protagonist’s doom. However, even though film noir’s recurring theme of men fearing women can be viewed by some as misogynistic, he also notes the strong women that appear in film noir films, such as Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, and of course Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. “These are women who are have been victimized, but they are not victims,” says Pevere. “And if you turn that perspective a little bit, you can understand why, under their circumstances, the use of a particular guy, who might be able to help them out, is sort of irresistible.”
Over the decades, the film noir style has persisted, being used in films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City. Pevere believe that the reason for this is that the film noir style is irresistible. “I think the reason why filmmakers go back to it also is, apart from the fact that it allows for the exercise of a particular kind of visual style, I think the other reason why they are going back to it is again because of the depth of the stories,” says Pevere. “And the thing is that film noir also wouldn’t basically have existed unless there was a shift in the way movies were being made and also, around the world, the way people were thinking about our internal lives.” Pevere also notes that there is a hardwired dramatic and emotional depth in film noir, which is appealing for many filmmakers.
The Big Shadow: The World of Film Noir takes its name from a website of the same name that Geoff Pevere runs, which is focused on his love of crime in movies. “I’m really sort of interested in not just the history of the Hollywood crime film, but I’m fascinated in the way that crime is depicted in different cultures over the decades, around the world,” says Pevere. “To me it’s sort of the riches of all of those approaches and treatments for me in film noir.” Pevere notes that he has had this fascination with crime films since he was university and that it has never waned over the years. “What the Big Shadow website does it’s an amalgam of impressions and reviews and thoughts on crime films generally, but with probably two thirds would be definitely or arguably categorized as film noir,” says Pevere. “It’s funny because it is a story form, which is often about obsession and it is one that can generate a very obsessive response. At least certainly on my part, what’s exactly what happened.
Geoff Pevere’s Curious Minds lecture series The Big Shadow: The World of Film Noir takes place from 10:00 am to noon every Tuesday morning at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, from now until February 21, 2017. Please check the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema website for ticket information.