Film Noir for Dummies
If any sort of justice lubricated the gears of the world, hurricanes would remain at sea, the minimum wage would provide for minimum necessities, Oliver North would be the bitch of his entire cellblock, Frank Sinatra would shamble forth from his grave to crush Michael Buble’s head like an overripe melon, and the media would at last decide that there’s not, in fact, always room for J.Lo.
And Dwight Yoakam would rule the cosmos. If there is a pantheon for postmodern American cool, Dwight belongs there. He forged a brilliant career out of the raw pig-iron of country and punk, the righteous offspring of Buck Owens and Eddie Cochran. He covered “Wichita Lineman” and “Train in Vain” on the same album. He hangs out with Billy Bob Thornton. He’s the only man alive who can wear both a cowboy hat and red leather pants and not look ridiculous.
Yet if you want to see Dwight perform in all his Dwightness, you’ll have to go to second-rate “country showcase” joints like Cowboys, in the Atlanta ‘burbs, instead of the high-end venues he should be playing, while a talentless sack like Toby “Let’s kick us some Ay-rab ass—have you driven a Ford lately?” Keith trots out his pseudo-patriotic bullshit in arenas. No justice.
Dwight needs our support, and that’s the only reason to watch 3-Way, a woeful stab at a noir thriller that happens to have him in it. Based on a pulp novel by Gil Brewer called Will to Possess, the film was originally titled Three Way Split, shortened, presumably, to give it a vaguely lurid connotation.
Everything about the film is vague. Lew (Dominic Purcell) is a loser with an ambiguously shady past. After his wife leaves him in the film’s opening sequence, we cut to several months later, when he works as a sign-painter in a sleepy SoCal town and lives in a defunct gas station owned by his realtor girlfriend Rita (Joy Bryant). While putting up signs on a deserted road in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, he stumbles upon a car parked in the woods. Inside the car are local shoe store owner Ralph (Desmond Harrington) and his mistress Isobel (Ali Larter), who are plotting to kidnap Ralph’s socialite wife Florence (Gina Gershon), ransom her for one million dollars, and then kill her.
Exulting in their happy, if wildly improbable, accident, Lew and Rita decide to kidnap Florence from her kidnappers and blackmail Ralph into handing the ransom money over to them. Along comes a brutal interloper named Herb (Yoakam)—who thinks Lew has killed his (Herb’s brother) to mess things up.
The movie sorta walks like noir and sorta talks like noir. Its few sex scenes are supposed to be steamy but are actually faintly unappetizing (in one, Lew and Rita make clumsy bumpies in the shower while the camera pans slowly over their tattoos) and people swear a lot. Nobody is especially scrupulous and everyone attempts to double-cross everyone else.
But 3-Way ain’t noir. The genre typically features two types of protagonists. The first is the none-too-bright male seduced into betraying his principles and doing the dirty work for a femme fatale (Double Indemnity, Body Heat). The second is the group of scoundrels all plotting against each other to achieve a goal that is, in the end, unreachable (The Maltese Falcon, The Grifters). Both cases depend on a weblike intricacy of plot that confound characters and audience alike until the payoff, when all is revealed in shocking and tragic, but utterly logical, fashion. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, requiring the vast talents of a James M. Cain or a Jim Thompson, a Donald E. Westlake or and Elmore Leonard or a James Ellroy (on a good day) to accomplish. Hitchcock. Wilder. Polanski, sometimes. The Coen brothers, with effort.
Here screenwriter/producer Russell P. Marleau and director Scott Ziehl throw the stuff of noir against a wall but none of it sticks. Lew is a meathead but he’s not facing off with femmes fatale or criminal chess-players, just more meatheads. Every single one of these characters is so relentlessly stupid that the only way the plot proceeds is by coincidence and caprice. Lew overhears Ralph and Isobel’s scheme because they happen not to hear him tramping through the underbrush. Herb spends months tracking down Lew, then lets him go twice without learning what happened to his brother. The real murderer and the real dumper-of-bodies miss each other on a boat in the middle of the ocean. A major character gets shot offscreen because another character just feels like doing it.
As much as noir revels in the seedy and exults in the blackness of the soul, it is ultimately a morality play. It is no accident that at the end of The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy goes down in the elevator while Sam Spade takes the stairs. Both are going to Hell, but by choosing to turn Brigid in for killing his partner, Spade slows his descent and affords himself the prospect of stopping it. Noir demonstrates the always disastrous consequences of giving in to our baser urges, and thus it is vital that the tale be painstakingly cut and polished like a jewel, or the legendary black bird.
Noir cannot be sloppy, and 3-Way is criminally sloppy. Dwight Yoakam has been, and should be, in much better pictures. He’s much too cool for this.