A Dame to Kill For, by Tyler Smith
Film noir is tricky. In many ways, it seems like it would be easy. There are so many iconic images and character types within the world of film noir that it would seem that one need only hit those points and you have a successful film. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There is an intangible quality to film noir that transcends the gravelly voices and dark shadows and hard luck dames. There needs to be a total commitment to this dark world, yet a self awareness to it all. These are characters that talk and act tough, but are usually very conscious of their image.
In Double Indemnity, for example, we get an insurance agent that talks like somebody out of a dime store novel. At times it seems as though the insurance agent is putting on an act, trying to live up personally to the situation he finds himself embroiled in. We also get Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, playing up his temper and unpredictability in dangerous circumstances, only to reveal when he is alone that his hands are shaking from fear.
It is a world of artifice. Nobody is what they seem; everybody appears to be playing a part.
This is why a lot of modern noir doesn’t work. In The Girl From The Naked Eye, the director and the actors try to talk tough, like they fully belong in this world. However, they never seem quite comfortable with it. In the better noir films, the characters always seem to have something to prove; mostly to themselves. In this film, however, it is the artists behind the story that appear to feel that they have to prove themselves. This kind of self consciousness is death to a movie like this. Because it betrays that, underneath all the guns and cigarettes and girls, it’s really just a bunch of kids play acting.
The elements are all there. We have a simple story about a man wanting revenge in the midst of a city that seems to exist primarily on vice. To be fair, the city looks great in this film. The art direction and cinematography are by the far the high points. Not unlike James Foley’s Confidence, the harsh reds and greens, combined with the gray smoke perpetually billowing from a cigarette or sewer grate, indicate that this is not our reality. It’s somewhere different; somewhere a little bit better and a little bit worse at the same time.
The problem lies with the writing and the acting. Characters are written with all the neediness of a film school student looking to impress his professor. Where this is most obvious is in the use of profanity. Now, I don’t mind harsh language. But there needs to be a certain wit to it, especially if people are going to swear in almost every line. The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and David Milch are all artists that manage to take the coarsest of dialogue and weave an oddly beautiful tapestry of grit and poetry. Here, it just seems like a bunch of people trying to show how adult and edgy they are.
This could be partially due to the acting. While the actors are clearly trying their best and are having a pretty good time, I never really got the sense that these people belong in this world. I felt like almost every line should be followed with a look off camera and the actor saying, “Is that right?” Perhaps the worst offender is Jason Yee, who looks good on camera and has obvious athletic abilities in the action sequences. Unfortunately, he does not have the confidence to pull off a role like this. There needs to be multiple layers to any film noir protagonist; layers of self hatred and self preservation, to name a couple. Actors like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum managed to perfect the tough talking anti-hero with the wounded eyes. Yee can’t compete with that. He has a hard enough time just acting like he knows what’s going on.
The one exception is Samantha Streets as the titular girl, dead by the time the film begins. Murdered. We only see this girl in flashbacks, which means that we’re seeing the protagonist’s version of her. As such, we see a victim; vulnerable, pleading, weak. Streets manages to capture that without ever seeming truly pathetic. She imbues the character with an inner strength that makes her immensely watchable. In a film like this, we need to be invested in the girl. Otherwise, we won’t really care who killed her. It’s an important role and Samantha Streets manages to live up to that and create a fleshed out character with limited screen time.
Many of the other characters are two dimensional and largely uninteresting. This is sacrilege in film noir. The supporting characters are meant to be fascinating. They are doomed souls striving to get what little they can in this world. They are meant to help give us a glimpse into the reality of the protagonist. They are crime lords, pimps, corrupt cops, and hired guns. How on earth does one take these archetypes and make them boring? In the past, we got Joel Cairo, Kasper Gutman, Whit Sterling, Barton Keyes, General Sternwood, Noah Cross, and many more. Even the names are fun! These are unforgettable characters, fitting into the mold while also being totally distinct. This film has no such characters.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare The Girl From The Naked Eye to some of the greatest movies of all time, but that is par for the course with neo-noir. Films like L.A. Confidential and Sin City bank on our having seen the classics as a point of departure. We need to know what the cliches are so that these films can show us how different and flexible the genre can be. The risk of this, however, is that, if the newer film is bad, it only serves to remind us of why we loved the classics in the first place.
The filmmakers behind The Girl From the Naked Eye clearly love noir and have a desire to- by mixing it with a low level martial arts film- introduce it to a different audience. Those are noble goals and I applaud them. Unfortunately, no matter what a person’s motivations, they have to deliver. If I had my way, everybody would come to appreciate just how amazing the film noir genre is. However, for every great film in the genre, there are several forgettable ones; movies that tried to cash in on the trend by emulating the style without understanding the substance. The Girl From The Naked Eye, while desperately trying to replicate the look of the best film noir, forgets to look deeper, at the corrupt, desperate, undeniably human core.