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Star Wars: Film Noir, Stop-Motion, and Musical Scores… Oh, My!

Star Wars: Film Noir, Stop-Motion, and Musical Scores… Oh, My!

This month I want to talk about two films that may not have had a direct influence on Star Wars, yet their lasting legacy helped paved the road for filmmakers like George Lucas, and eventually J. J. Abrams and Gareth Edwards to create movies that will inspire future filmmakers.

Those two films are Double Indemnity, whose film noir style created a whole new genre in film as far as cinematography, story, and dialogue. And Mysterious Island which served as yet another technical milestone for effects artists Ray Harryhausen and composer Miklòs Ròsza.

Double Indemnity debuted in theaters in 1944, the same year George Lucas was born. It was directed by Billy Wilder, and was essentially the start of the Film Noir movement. “Film Noir was Hollywood’s only organic artistic movement,” says the author of Dark City: The Last World of Film Noir, Eddie Muller. The beginnings of Film Noir can be traced back to The Great Depression of 1929 and the U. S. involvement in WWII, when society was eager for a more realistic portrayal of life in film. The stories originated from early pulp crime novels by such authors as Dashiell Hammett. While the screenplay was written by Raymond Chandler, the film which was based on a novel of the same name was written by James Cain. It was Chandler’s job to take the dialogue, which looked good on paper but didn’t read well, and turn it into something more easily spoken. The quick spoken lines felt very John Ford-ian to me. One particular bit of dialogue that stuck out to me was this one:

“As I walked to the drugstore, I couldn’t hear the sound of my shoes on the pavement.” — Walter Neff

The script was originally turned down by both starring actors for their taboo subject matter and the previously described difficult dialogue. Eventually both Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (who was at the time the highest paid woman in the country, and regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time) accepted the roles. Another great addition to the excellent cast was actor Edward G. Robinson, who had several exceptionally long lines of dialogue, of which he nailed every time. The musical score was composed by Miklòs Ròsza, who up to this point had scored films like The Thief of Bagdad, The Jungle Book, and Sahara, and would eventually score the epic Ben-Hur among other classics.  

Film noir generally has four distinct qualities; a plot from the criminal’s point of view, psychosexual themes, dark framing, and voiceover narration. Cinematographer John F. Seitz gave the film a slight German expressionism look with light and shadows—this effect was called Venetian Blind lighting. Stanwyck was quoted as saying that, “The lighting helped my performance.” Aluminum particles were even blown into the air to give the impression that dust was floating about. I couldn’t help but wonder if that natural lighting effect was used, instead of adding it in later as an effect on the set of Revenge of the Sith, would the performances be any different?

When the bars of light and shadow cut across Anakin’s back in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, we’re witnessing direct influences of film noir. In the case of Double Indemnity, it is said that these contrasting bars represent the jail cell in which the characters will eventually find themselves. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) plots along with his mistress, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband so they can collect on his life insurance policy and live skeak-ily ever after.  In Anakin’s case, it represents the prison he feels the Jedi have placed him in to keep his powers under control, and possibly a self-imposed prison he feels he is in because he is unsure of what he should do as far as saving Padme.

One element that is also typical of film noir is the femme fatale. Princess Leia takes the femme fatale archetype and turns it on its head, much credit is given to Carrie Fisher for her groundbreaking portrayal.

Mysterious Island (1961) was based on a book by Jules Verne that was a sequel to two other books, In Search of the Castaways, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The film Mysterious Island was made famous for the continuously influential special effects work in stop-motion animation by effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, and composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew too Much, Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane) who worked on several of Harryhausen’s films.

It’s pretty evident the homage paid to Harryhausen during the crab scene in Mysterious Island, when we see Obi-Wan battle the Acklay in the Geonosian arena. The work of Harryhausen had a large impact on the lives and careers of both Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett. Muren was also quoted as saying his favorite Harryhausen film is 7th Voyage of Sinbad with the Cyclops being his favorite character.

“Look at Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, you got these flying saucers. And you see those in other movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and in that movie they just sort of come and land, but in Ray’s movies they’re right there. He came up with great angles, great ideas, great dynamics, that they could fly, and he was not afraid to show the star of the movie.” – Dennis Muren.

George Lucas said this of Ray,

“I’ve seen some other fantasy films before, but none of them had the awe that Ray Harryhausen movies had, because of the fact that they’re characters. They are synthetic characters that are alive; that are moving around in the sets with you, and that are affecting real people that can’t possibly be real.”

As I sat and watched Mysterious Island one scene really had me baffled, and that was a scene with two characters, Herbert and Elena who found themselves trapped inside a bee hive in which a giant bee encased the couple. I sat there wondering how that scene was created. I thought maybe it was filmed backwards so it looked like the wall of was being closed instead of opened. I was amazed. And to think this film was made almost 60 years ago astounded me. I also really appreciated the scenes where live actors and Ray’s stop motion creations supposedly intermingled. Ray thought that effects like his should have a herky-jerky motion to distinguish his work from real actors. I definitely appreciate the road Lucas paved as far as wanting to move things to a more digital direction, but I’m an old schooler at heart. I couldn’t help but miss this style of effects work. Then again when Jurassic Park came out in 1993 I was equally amazed at the realistic portrayal of the T-Rex.

So there we have it; the film noir style, the music of Miklòs Ròsza and Bernard Herrmann, and the special effects of Ray Harryhausen. Twenty or thirty years later it all led to George Lucas creating Star Wars and John Williams scoring the majority of the films. Even now we’re seeing filmmaker’s direct new Star Wars films with composers like Michael Giacchino composing and conducting. The string of influences never seems to end.

@EricOnkenhout

ericonkenhout@coffeewithkenobi.com

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