By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The dark and turbulent worlds of the film noir genre often resonate with tremors from the past. History has a way of bludgeoning characters into hardened survivors who eke out livings in chaotic presents.
Two premiere "noirs," "The Third Man" (1949) and "Chinatown" (1974), offer mysteries that force the protagonists to choose between following their past or electing a new direction for their lives.
"The Third Man" (1949), directed by Carol Reed, is widely considered one of the best thrillers ever made. Written by Graham Greene ("Ministry of Fear"), it tells the story of a hack novelist, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who travels to Vienna to meet a childhood friend, Harry. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Harry has been killed in a street accident and Holly begins to suspect he was really murdered.
Holly's quest for truth unearths a sordid network of black marketeers and his past loyalties are abruptly challenged. He must ultimately decide whether to take action against an evil that doesn't directly affect him.
The "Third Man" is a wonderful mystery that offers several major surprises. Greene's screenplay pulls out the moral ambiguity infested in a dog-eat-dog postwar city covered in rubble.
The movie's harsh black and white cinematography emphasizes deep shadows and its tilted
compositions depict a world out of balance. In addition, Anton Karas' partly-comedic zither score serves as sarcastic counterpoint to the film's pessimism.
"Chinatown" is a newer film that revisits the film noir genre. It stars Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, a private eye in L.A. during the '30s, who becomes embroiled in a murderous plot to force a water bill and appropriate millions of dollars.
The district of Chinatown serves as a metaphor for the seediness and corruption prevalent both in the film's political and personal relationships. It creeps up in conversations and symbolizes Gittes' haunting past when he worked there and became a victim to a secret tragedy.
The movie is directed by Roman Polanski ("Rosemary's Baby") who uses an abundance of over-the-shoulder shots that quickly place the viewer into Gittes' point of view. The film is saturated with an overall yellow tint that evokes the look of an older, more nostalgic era.
The screenplay, by Robert Towne ("The Last Detail") is a model of film writing. Its searing dialogue and logical unraveling of a complex mystery make it storytelling at its finest.
Both of the above films are as visually impressive, atmospheric and multilayered as any of the best film noirs. Their ability to present well-rounded characters with internal struggles and imprisoning pasts make them emotionally unforgettable.
"I Like to Watch" is a weekly alterNation feature that recommends favorite films available on video."
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