Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Noir, names, and hidden secrets

NEFF. Just don't let's start losing our heads.

PHYLLIS. It's not our heads. It's our nerve we're losing.

I don't really have time to write tonight, but it's late and my brain is still too busy kicking around ideas from the bike ride home to go to sleep. And following my recent post about books and movies in which I gave books the advantage in part because they can be read in parks, I feel like I need to admit to where I spent my evening: I was in the park, downtown, watching a movie. The Chicago Outdoor Film Festival, now in its eighth season, has become one of my favorite parts of a Chicago summer, and tonight, as you may have guessed from the still, was Double Indemnity (1944). The three lead performances, from Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, are magnificent, but the heart of the movie is Raymond Chandler's screenplay, adapted (with Billy Wilder) from James M. Cain's novel, which crackles and stings and leaves you gasping, astonished at the rhythm, force, and audacity of the dialogue.
PHYLLIS (standing up again). Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.

NEFF. Who?

PHYLLIS. My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?

NEFF. Sure, only I'm getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.

PHYLLIS. There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

NEFF. How fast was I going, officer?

PHYLLIS. I'd say about ninety.

NEFF. Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

PHYLLIS. Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

NEFF. Suppose it doesn't take.

PHYLLIS. Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

NEFF. Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

PHYLLIS. Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.

NEFF. That tears it.

And that name: Walter Neff. He was Walter Huff in Cain's novel, but the name was changed for the movie, and now it's perfect. The sound and the feel of it are just right for a guy who thinks just a little too highly of himself and is willing to be unscrupulous--but who is, ultimately, just another patsy in the hands of someone who instantly saw through him and had even fewer scruples than he did.

I was already thinking about names because while we sat waiting for dark, I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (I wasn't the only one: within ten yards of our blanket I counted half a dozen other people reading it--but that's nothing compared to what Julie Wilson at Seen Reading logged last Saturday in Toronto.) J. K. Rowling is very, very good with names: Fenrir Greyback, Albus Dumbledore, Mundungus Fletcher, Bellatrix Lestrange, Cornelius Fudge, Dolores Umbridge, and, of course, the best, Severus Snape. The names conjure the essence of each character in near-Dickensian fashion; they're fit to take their places with Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Lady Honoria Dedlock, and Ebeneezer Scrooge.

I'm now nearly two-thirds of the way through The Deathly Hallows, and what I found most striking about the first half or so was the pervasive sense that Rowling was going to somehow make use of every single incident and character from the first six books to resolve her long-running plot. It feels almost as if one could go back to the first books and, line by line, scene by scene, decode what's to come, the way typologists would read the Old Testament in search of prefigurations of the New Testament stories--as if there should be a reminder early on that you should be paying close attention, like the publishers of eccentric mystery novelist Harry Stephen Keeler used to insert midway through his books:
STOP! At this point all the characters have been presented. It should now be possible for you to solve the mystery. CAN YOU DO IT?

Thinking of Rowling's first six books as volumes of occluded signs and seemingly insignificant clues caused me to remember this passage from Alan Furst's Night Soldiers (1988), in which his protagonist, a former Soviet NKVD operative hiding in wartime Paris, gives a stark example of the paranoia bred by--and essential to--any double life:
As Khristo hurried to and from the kitchen, his mind wandered among the small, insignificant events of the past week. Simply, there were too many of them--he felt like a blind man in a room full of cobwebs. There was Dodin, the new lodger. The blind veteran in the Parc Monceau with an educated, cultured voice--wearing a corporal's tunic. Small things, ordinarily not worthy of notice. The death of Kerenyi. Sad, surely, and perhaps without meaning. The clumsiness of the gold theft. Ineptitude could be, he knew, an effective mask for intentions of great subtlety. He feared that something was gathering around him, strand by delicate strand, and that, when its presence was at last manifest, it would be one instant too late to run for freedom.

Which, in turn, reminded me of the following story, which I hadn't thought of for a good while.
From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl
Responsibility is difficult, wearing, neverending. Without care, it can lead to a fate like that of the Director of Messages in the following tale. In those days of increasing intrigue, messages flew between palace and battlefield, battlefield and palace with the inscrutability and foreboding of thunderheads. Everyone, it seemed, had reason to watch, the schemers and the schemed against, the progress of the many messengers on their fleet mounts. Those who pressed gold into the scarred hands of bandits for the kidnapping of messengers considered it their duty to the empire, the emperor, the prince, or even their own terrified hearts. As garrison after garrison was lost to ambush, the Emperor realized that the old methods of secreting messages were no longer sufficient. The messages sent in code were decoded, those inscribed in invisible ink shewn forth. The unfortunate courier whose message had been tattooed on his bare head, over which his russet hair had again been grown, was captured by bandits whose patron had read the ancient histories: his head, shaved, was cut from his shoulders and taken for inspection while his corpse was left as a meal for the vultures and a message for his companions.

Over time, the success of one sender of messages came to the emperor's attention: his messages were rarely intercepted, and, if intercepted, never comprehended. With the emperor's praises, he assumed the position of Director of Messages. His abilities were vast, equal to his responsibilities. To the army in the east, desperately needing orders, he sent a band of reinforcements. Spies, confused, discerned no message, but the garrison commander understood that the very number of the reinforcements was itself the message. In short order, the required actions had been taken. To the southern border towns the Director of Messages sent a mute juggler. On his journey, his luggage was rifled, his juggling balls stolen and studied at length--scraped and heated and cracked and finally burned. But the message got through, his inability to speak being all the information needed. A black African, a favorite of the Emperor's court, was a message; a halt beggar, tap-tapping his cane, another. The successful transfer of information translated to success in the campaign: the emperor's enemies were quashed.

But as intrigue subsided and the need for messages decreased, the fervor of the Director did not. He continued to encrypt even the simplest of messages in the most obscure and difficult fashion. The order for breakfast had to be interpreted from the hint of jasmine beneath the cook's window of a morning; the emperor's choice of wife for the night was conveyed by a single orange butterfly released in the inaccessible chamber of the ladies. The business of the palace, as might be expected, ground to a halt. Summoned before the emperor to provide an explanation, the Director could not bring himself to emerge from behind an sky-blue silk folding screen, from behind which emanated whistles and clicks and the rustling of rice paper. The emperor, as quick to anger as he had been to praise, flung a lighted torch at the screen, which burst into flames that licked the high ceiling of the chamber. Some would say that the short but intense conflagration was the Director's final message.

And with that, it's to bed. Sleep well.

1 comment:

  1. In writing about Double Indemnity, I neglected to point out just how beautifully shadowed the movie is. Darkness and light are used so well as to be almost a character in themselves.