11th July 2020
‘Noirish Project’ (66mins, UK, 2018)
Written & Directed by James Devereaux
Torrential rain illuminated by a single street light, a face emerging from the shadows, anxious and tense, a clock ticking, pounding agonisingly, a policeman appearing unexpectedly, the essential key dropped down a drain, precision planning, split-second timing, tough times and tougher men.
Such are the images evoked by the crime sub-genre ‘Film Noir’ (1) yet we, the audience, can sense that this is not what we are about to witness in ‘Noirish Project’, written and directed by James Devereaux.
I’ve known James for several years, so I have to recuse myself from a review or critique, and instead focus on the plot, the cinematic choices used in telling this story and what I think happened – clearly there is some ambiguity, equally clearly I will be discussing the entire film, so in the modern argot there will be spoilers.
To set the scene, I’ll give the synopsis, after which …
I’ll spill the beans on what goes down so listen and listen good … go to James’ website, rent or buy the film, watch it real close, then come back and read my two cents’ worth.
This is taken from the official website:
Bleak, melancholy, neorealist feature film masquerading as film noir. A couple of low-lifes try to make some quick cash but end up just waiting around.
Noirish Project is a melancholy and gently comic feature film about Billy, who steals his family’s precious pearls and hands them over to low-life Jimmy (played by James Devereaux), who in turn takes them to a fence. But when the pearls turn out to be fake, Jimmy barely escapes from the fence with his life, let alone the pearls. Billy and Jimmy endevour to get the pearls back before Billy’s family finds out they’re gone, but when the fence goes missing, they realise their story has only just begun.
Shot in black and white, Noirish Project is a neo-realist fantasy, featuring moments of peculiar poetry and gentle comedy.
Additionally, there exists a prelude short, giving some back story, but I’ll just focus on the main film. Characters studies and plot will be followed by a section on cinematic technique, then my conclusion.
The title itself conveys all the information we need; this is not Noir but Noir-ish (2). Unlike the Hollywood Noir formula, with meticulous planning, boosting, hi-jacking and heists, this is a ‘project’, reminiscent of an innocent school activity; innocence and (perceived) experience as personified by the two leading characters.
The reversal of Noir conventions is further evident in the naming of the characters. The strong, regal-sounding James, William and Richard are softened to the familiar Jimmy, Billy & Dickie. Another detour from genre is the blatant disregard to the film-makers’ mantra: ‘show, don’t tell.’ What makes the film so intriguing is that almost nothing essential to a Noir film is shown … it is all told, and told by Jimmy. Therefore, our interpretation of the film relies on how much we trust him, by extension, how much we trust his narrative. This cinematic ‘project’ hangs on the literary concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’. So what do we know about said narrator ?
Our first view of Jimmy is telling. He is shown in MEDIUM-LONG shot, walking along the street, and when he realises he’s been seen, he pulls his cap further down and slips into a side street. We often see him walking away from the camera, or with his back initially turned to us, before swinging around, as if he’s been composing himself for a performance, an act.
Throughout the film, with one exception, mentioned later, Jimmy hides under a cloth cap, and wears a long black coat, buttoned up to the top, a metaphor for how Jimmy plays his cards close to his chest and is, literally and figuratively, giving nothing away. His hands are often in his pockets, which we perceive to be deep; Billy will more than once encounter the expression ‘short arms, long pockets.’ (3)
Jimmy’s language is full of portentous saying, aggressive expletives and admonishments not to apologise. He is certainly playing his part, verbally.
As for Billy, he seems a man out of time, a misfit, anachronistically resembling a refugee from Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu‘ (1939), alongside US literary icons Holden Caulfield and Ignatius J. Reilly (‘Catcher in the Rye’ 1945- 6 / 1951 & ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ 1960s published 1980) (4). Billy wears a dinner suit and bow tie (a ‘Dickie’ bow) and protects his head with a fur cap with ear flaps.
Jimmy has to work, to earn his crust, Billy is protected and pampered; so much is indicated by their outfits. Jimmy is also taller than Billy and uses this advantage on occasion. He will be the dominant character in this tale, and all tales needs a McGuffin to set the wheels in motion … but first, the two protagonists need to be in the same scene. Not so easy when the evasive Jimmy seems hell bent on evading Billy.
Finally, around three minutes into the film, they start a conversation. Jimmy speaks in cliches, conveying urgency and danger but, characteristically, avoiding specifics. What follows is exposition, and a further clue to the path the film will take. There is a robbery, a jewel theft, [not shown in the film], jewels pass to an intermediary, then to a fence (5) [not shown], the fence declares the jewels fake and almost kills the intermediary in anger [also, not shown]. The previous sentence could concisely encapsulate a typical Noir plot … but this is not a typical Noir plot. Furthermore, it is the audience who has to be on their guard. We have not been shown any of the above action, we only have direct and indirect speech to go on. The plot, as the saying goes, thickens, so let’s clarify.
Billy is the thief. We learn that he has stolen some pearls from his own family. Our view of Billy as an innocence is suddenly altered, his act is both cowardly and detestable (from Greek drama we know that crimes against the family never end well). Jimmy is the intermediary; he is not the fence but knows someone who is, a certain ‘Dickie’. Or does he … ?
I’ve termed such a situation ‘opennism’: to describe a situation which has multiple interpretations, and where the reader or viewer is much more involved, indeed has to be an active contributor to the story. Thus, the viewer can accept everything Jimmy says as the truth and enjoy the film on that level.
However, for me, the interplay between characters, the changes in power, the dynamic swirls seem indicative of something deeper. Jimmy looks a guy with something to hide, and I want to find out what makes him tick.
The potential for ambiguity starts immediately. The pearls, Jimmy informs Billy are fake … at least, according to Dickie. How many permutations does that simple sentence generate?
ONE: All is 100% true
TWO: Dickie knows the pearls are real, knows Jimmy can’t tell a genuine pearl from a breathe mint and lies to him, to avoid paying. Jimmy, humiliated, leaves without the pearls, trying to save face.
THREE: As above but when Jimmy protests, Dickie gets aggressive to forestall any further discussion, and gets rid of Jimmy.
FOUR: Dickie sees they are real and offers a price. Jimmy takes the money, lying to Billy, claiming he was almost killed to explain the lack or pearls and money.
FIVE: There is no Dickie. Jimmy is flattered that Billy thinks he is part of the underworld and plays along, seeing how far he can take it.
Billy himself questions Jimmy’s reply, doubting Dickie’s appraisal (to be clear … Dickie’s response as related by Jimmy). All that we know for sure is that Billy is left without the pearls (fake or otherwise).
What follows is the Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin’: to retrieve the pearls, to put them back before his family notices, a return to the status quo although he will still be in debt and won’t be able to flee, “To Mexico,” [that ultimate goal for crooks in US Noir films]. To do that, he has to convince Jimmy to revisit Dickie, and thereafter the film turns into a quest full of challenges to be overcome and dangers to be meet and, as the synopsis promises … a lot of waiting.
First stage is to return to the ‘scene of the crime’. Jimmy takes Billy to where he (claims) to have met Dickie. It appears to be some sort of clinic, a very basic clinic with a receptionist, whose occupation is signified by a single telephone, and a doctor, an older man in a suit, with a stethoscope serpent-like around his neck.
Jimmy is unable to communicate with the receptionist, who speaks like a witness caught by the police, afraid to squeal: “I don’t know nothing, I’m a nobody.” The doctor appears, perturbed and aggressive, demanding to know what is happening. Despite Jimmy’s explanation (for Billy’s benefit ?) the doctor claims to know nothing about any pearls, nor to know anybody by the name of ‘Dickie’, furthermore, he seems unduly unsettled when he hears that Jimmy has been, “Asking questions.”
The doctor then breaks the Hippocratic Oath by nearly breaking Jimmy’s arm, knocking his cap off and pushing our anti-heroes out of the building. Instead of following Jimmy and Billy, we remain in the clinic and listen to some very dubious dialogue, a text-book sexual harassment case. However, the ‘receptionist’ plays along, willingly, possibly suggesting that another type of film is about to be made at this location, and explaining why the ‘doctor’ was so anxious to clear the set.
Back outside, we have some more revealing character development. Jimmy, so easily threatened and beaten by the doctor, tells how he could have snapped the doctor with just a click of his fingers. He further suggests going for a drink in Dickie’s local and, setting a repeated pattern, asks Billy to wait. Jimmy later returns with some more reported speech: Dickie isn’t in the pub but the bar staff said that he was on his way. In fact, they were preparing his drink right now. Unfortunately [with a theatrical show of hands on chest], Jimmy has left his wallet, “In my other coat.” The audience may wonder if Jimmy even owns a second coat, but Billy is taken in and, despite the perfunctory protests, Jimmy accepts the offer of a drink. There follows a long take, in shallow-focus, of Jimmy and Billy playing pool or snooker, for nearly ten minutes. All that time, Dickie fails to appear.
Jimmy phones Dickie and engages in a very friendly conversation, but again, this seems put on for Billy’s benefit as we don’t see Jimmy paying for the call, nor do we hear any voice at the end of the line. The banter makes it sound as if Jimmy hasn’t seen Dickie for a long time, as opposed to a few hours ago, while Jimmy signals to Billy with smiles and repeats the name ‘Dickie’ more times than is necessary or natural. The upshot … Dickie will come to meet them so now they wait outside at a train station … and wait.
The Beckett parallels are obvious, albeit with one difference; only Jimmy knows if Dickie really intends to come or, as I posited earlier, if there even is a Dickie.
Tension builds as the characters, and the audience wait .. and wait. We hear the sound of trains arriving, twice … but as in Beckett, “Nothing happens.” Finally Jimmy goes to phone Dickie and offers to buy some coffee, with Billy’s money, naturally. In his absence, Billy asks how he will recognise Dickie (an issue that didn’t seem to occur to Jimmy, further strengthening the theory that Dickie was never going to arrive). The answer is shown, but again is literary: Billy wears a sign saying, “Dickie.”
Time passes, Billy portraying his innocent side, plays with a yo-yo. Not only does he play with a yo-yo but he evidently carries one with him. Later, innocent as a babe, he falls asleep, only to be awoken by Jimmy. The quest takes another turn. They must visit Dickie in his country home. There is, of course, no coffee for Billy, “There’s no time for coffee !” yet when Billy says he’s hungry, Jimmy agrees. We can presume that Jimmy’s had enough coffee, while he was off-screen, but is also hungry. Of course, Billy will be paying.
We cut to, appropriately enough, a waiting room and wait, then ride a prosaic commuter train to a country station.
A further dichotomy arises, that of city and country. Jimmy, a city dweller is out of his comfort zone, and what starts as a pleasant city-break, a walk in the woods takes a more ominous turn as Billy realises that Jimmy doesn’t know the way, that he has been lead in circles (in both senses) and loses his temper, though it is more childish petulance than macho aggression.
Finally, Jimmy sees the house, or perhaps we should say a house. This is far removed from a reclusive, inconspicuous country getaway. It resembles a Baronial manor, an estate run by the National Trust. Unsurprisingly, Jimmy instructs Billy to wait, at quite a distance, and unsurprisingly the wait is long. Billy falls asleep.
Jimmy has the pearls, in a black, plastic bag. Billy sees them and is content. The quest is over, now the return to the city. Under a soulless station underpass, Jimmy offers to buy Billy a drink … he was given some money, he alleges, from Dickie. For Billy, this day has been a rite of passage. He has failed in his criminal endeavour, and maybe also lost faith in Jimmy. He built Jimmy up, in his imagination, as someone ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Now he’s not so sure. Billy declines the offer and exits with a, “See you around,” which is code for ‘I hope I don’t see you around.’
As for Jimmy, he has a little money in his pocket, whether from Dickie, or Billy, maybe even his own which he had all the time. He walks alone, pondering his day, then goes to a cafe, drinks coffee and watches the world go by.
The film uses, exclusively, a static camera (6) and the opening shot, is rather Zen-like in its framing. We see the city, the Docklands area of east London occupying the lower part of the frame, the upper devoted to the sky. The division sets a visual theme of two opposites (innocence / experience, city / country, breaking the law/ being caught), areas clearly demarked, not unlike a Rothko painting.
Mr Devereaux’s London story has similarities with ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) by the Japanese director Ozu, also known for making films with a static camera exclusively. As in the aforementioned film, ‘Noirish’s’ opening shot has movement, here provided by two Tube trains, who could easily represent the two characters. One trains enters, slowly laboriously making its way across the screen, while a second train enters from the opposite direction at speed, leaving the shot while the first train is still trudging by. We first see Billy, sitting at a cafe, then Jimmy, walking rapidally.
We also feel how this will be ‘Noir-ish‘. The scene starts in clear day, not a rainy night and unlike the frantic, fast-cutting in action films, we have a long, very leisurely take. The film will use long takes frequently, many shots lasting well over a minute, in contrast to what audiences expect from a crime caper. By my calculation, the entire film is composed of just 150 shots. Compare that to the contemporary ‘Bourne’ films with an average shot length (ASL) of around two seconds (7) .
The static camera sets up the scenes rather theatrically. Characters enter and exit the scene [usually] from the sides in the city, while the transition to the country enables Jimmy and Billy to enter from the back of the scene and walk towards the camera. The viewer is allowed time to consider the action or situation as the camera often lingers a numbers of seconds after the actors have made their exit, and we are allowed to view the scene, as if that too were a character. The camera is passive, not active; will that reflect the ultimate actions of the characters ?
The static camera / long take dynamic is taken to the extreme in the pub interior scene, the pool scene. This could be a homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (1948), shot in ten-minute takes, at the time, the maximum length of a film reel. In keeping with the film, we don’t see the game, just the players sitting and watching each other play and passing comment on the action.
The day ends with nothing gained, especially for Billy. He has a chance to repent, and his crime can be erased. It never happened. Throughout the film that are symbolic clues to indicate what could be the future if things had developed along a different trajectory. Jimmy and Billy are so often shown trapped or enclosed against walls, doors and windows. Waiting at the station, the pair are framed against a wire fence, resembling a prison yard with nothing but wasteland and a thick, high wall in the background. A police siren wails and even in the waiting room, a security camera can be seen, observing them.
During the train ride to the country, we have some focalisation, where we see Billy as Jimmy sees him; Billy has a false beard on. This could be a comic interlude, indicating Jimmy’s fatigue, a semi-dreaming state, or it could be a deeper realisation, that maybe Billy isn’t all that he seems. He too is putting on a front and Jimmy should be on his guard against this ‘innocent’. Jimmy has handled stolen goods, but Billy is the actual thief. So who is the worst of the two ? The final scenes, dialogue free, pure cinema, hold, I believe, the answer.
After Billy leaves, Jimmy walks, from the right into shot, as the train entered in the opening shot. He leans against a wall, framed, again like the opening shot, in the lower half, the upper showing a nondescript building. He smiles to himself. The film CUTS TO:
A street scene, two house doors next to an antique, bric-a-brac shop. The scene cuts back to Jimmy, in the Zen framing, thinking what happened, what could have happened.
Jimmy looks in the shop window. How easy to buy a cheap set of pearls and keep the real pearls. Billy would probably never know, and even if he did, what could he do ? He couldn’t beat Jimmy physically, nor could he report him to the police, nor hire someone from the criminal classes to beat Jimmy – Jimmy is the only person he (believes) to operate in that milieu. Like taking candy from a baby. Is that what Jimmy does ? The answer, for me, lies in a subsequent shot.
Jimmy is shown, back to camera, typically, walking away from camera, in a covered retail area. Concrete bridges create a heavy shadow on one side of the frame. Jimmy starts to move to the shadow … then changes his mind. He walks in the light and out of shot. Back at the antique shop, we see him look in, turn … and walk past the shop. He doesn’t go in, he doesn’t con his friend.
London may hold 8 or 9 million stories but Jimmy knows his isn’t one of them. He’s no Bogart or Mitchum, no Belmondo or Delon. He goes into a modest cafe, alone, and thinks about his day, how he played at being gangster, a life of thrills and danger but now he’s safe, protected behind a thick pane of glass, and watches the world, watches other people … watches.
Alfred Hitchcock: British film director, famous for crime and suspense movie.
Yasujiro Ozu: Japanese film maker, famous for his use of the static camera and low-angle ‘tatami’ shot. While the camera remains fixed, there is so much movement within the shot.
Jean Renoir: Regarded as one of the best ever French film directors
Mark Rothko: US artist
(1) A style of crime film popular in the 1940s and 50s, often with many night scenes and shadows, hence the name ‘noir’ which means black in French. The films were often about gangsters or criminals planning to rob banks, or rich people, then escaping but they were usually caught or killed by the police.
(2) The – ish suffix is applied to words to mean ‘a little bit,’ ‘to an extent.’ Examples would be,
“Are you free now ?” “No, I should be ready at 5-ish,” meaning some time around 5 o’clock.
“What colour is that ?” “It’s kind of blue-ish.”
(3) An humorous English expression to indicate a lack of generosity, meanness and selfishness.
(4) Famous and canonical ‘modern’ US fiction by J.D. Salinger & John Kennedy O’Toole, both of whom were troubled and ‘out of time’, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.
(5) Slang term for a person who buys stolen goods and then sells them to other people.
(6) The camera does not move at all. Characters can enter and exit the scene. Several directors use this style of filming, to various extents, in their films but I will draw comparisons with Ozu.
(7) Concerning the increasing speed of cutting in the Bourne Trilogy: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/jason-bourne-ruined-action-movies-hollywood-film-cinema-2018-4