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X-Ray Visions: Radiography, Chiaroscuro, And the Fantasy of Unsuspicion in Film Noir (Critical Essay) (Cover Story)

Film Criticism 2007, Winter, 32, 2

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Introduction Immediately recognizable even to the film noir neophyte is the lighting technique known as chiaroscuro, the angular alternation of dark shadows and stark fields of light across various on-screen surfaces in films such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway, 1946), Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948), and many others. Whereas critics have long suggested that chiaroscuro fittingly evokes the postwar milieu, furnishing a backdrop for tales of psychological imprisonment (1) while creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and duplicity, (2) this essay seeks to focus our critical gaze a little less deeply. Instead of arguing about what chiaroscuro is supposed to represent historically (in terms of German Expressionism, the advent of the Cold War, existentialism, and so forth), I attempt a more basic inquiry into what the technique tends to present spatially, calling into question the sources of light from which its intricate patterns emerge and the apertures through which they are traced. More specifically, I argue that in working to theorize noir style, it is important to account for chiaroscuro not solely in terms of affect or mood, but as representing a specific kind of optical structure--the structure of the X-ray--as well as a particular brand of criminal deception. Not only do noir's distinctive lighting schemes frequently resemble a medical X-ray, they also spell out in visual terms the noir criminal's goal of outward unsuspicion--a craftily engineered appearance of normalcy that is perhaps best expressed in the noir-era catch phrase "more than meets the eye." (3) This cliche, when understood not simply as a fuel for paranoia but more pointedly as an invitation to see oneself not seeing, both announces that an X-ray-like insight is precisely what average people lack and helps to pinpoint noir's overarching investment in a fantasy of public obliviousness.

X-Ray Visions: Radiography, Chiaroscuro, And the Fantasy of Unsuspicion in Film Noir (Critical Essay) (Cover Story)
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  • Category: Performing Arts
  • Published: 22 December 2007
  • Publisher: Allegheny College
  • Print Length: 38 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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