"You can't eat the venetian blinds, Curly.
I just had 'em installed on Wednesday."
-- Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) admonishing an
anguished client who's just seen photographic evidence that his wife has been screwing
another man; the first words spoken in Chinatown (1974)
Why are venetian blinds such a fixture in film
noir? Simple: 1) They cast neat shadows -- the vivid stripes and emphasis on
distorted diagonals lend visual tension and an air of instability, ambivalence, or
imprisonment (at times suggesting cage or prison bars) to a scene; and 2)whether the light
streaming in through the window is from the sun, a streetlight or a neon sign, the light
through the blinds creates the impression is that it's always darker and more
claustrophobic inside the room, where the characters are confined, than it is
Blinds also suggest a filter through which we, and our
noir protagonist, is seeing and interpreting events. It's equal parts light
and shadow, transparent and opaque, so really only about half the picture is visible
through a blind at any given time. That's particularly significant in a world of
treachery and deceit, where nearly every movie is some sort of epistemological quest, and
where even private eyes who've seen a lot have a tough time taking in the whole picture --
until it's too late...
injunction 'Thou shalt not kill' is one that requires qualification, in view of our
broader knowledge of impulses behind homicide..." Prof. Richard Wanley (Edward G.
Robinson) finds himself entangled in his own theories about crime -- and caught in a
web of shadows from the blinds -- in the brief prologue of Fritz Lang's The Woman in
the Window (1944).
||Upset by seeing photos of his
wife in sexual congress with another man (courtesy of the associates of private eye J.J.
Gittes), Curly (Burt Young) vainly attempts to "eat" the venetian blinds only
recently installed in Mr. Gittes' place of business.
|Glenn Ford and Gloria
Grahame in Fritz Lang's brutal The Big Heat (1953). The composition of the
image, with him looking down a diagonal shadow at her, suggests he dominates the
scene. She turns her back, and the disfigured part of her face, from him, suggesting
she may be concealing something from him. A dark shadow looms behind her, perhaps the
spectre of a terrible event in her (recent?) past... (Obviously, this moment comes
sometime after one of the most shocking and famous scenes in noir,
involving Grahame, Lee Marvin, and a scalding pot of coffee.)
||A beautiful specimen of a
pre-noir shadow-spun spiderweb, courtesy of Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful Suspicion
(1941). Joan Fontaine suspects her husband, Cary Grant, may be trying to kill her --
here with a poisoned glass of milk. The whole movie is filtered through her paranoid
vision. Are her suspicions justified or not?
|By shooting through the
headboard of the bed in The Killing (1956), director Stanley Kubrick achieves a
vertical effect similar to the shadow-stripes of blinds, ominously placing the movie's
racetrack robbery conspirators behind bars.
||Vertical blinds add visual
tension to, and suggest the fractured structure of, John Boorman's existential neo-noir
Point Blank (1967). A brutal and bewildering jigsaw puzzle of murder and revenge
starring Lee Marvin (right) and Angie Dickinson, the film uses cool, flat, rigid
geometric designs to reflect the alienation and sterility of modern life.
|The window and blinds in the
Dark Room, although treated as separate noir elements, were both digitally based
on this image of Victor Mature in Kiss of Death (1947).
back into the dark room