August 19, 2005 Headlines:
 

Culture Editorial: Madison Avenue Noir

Look closely at the shootout in the rain-swept street. It's the concluding moments of a 1965 lost film noir, "The Money Trap." This was the fourth and final pairing of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, who made three better known noirs ("Gilda," "Affair in Trinidad," "The Loves of Carmen") starting in the 1940s.

Ford is again the silky, angry authority figure--a role he patented in movies like "The Big Heat" and "Experiment In Terror"--and here he's a detective trying to live way beyond his means and satisfy a young wife (Elke Summer). Hayworth, no longer the beautiful glamour girl, gets a minor role: the beautiful prostitute. "Where you been?" growls Glenn at one point. "I been around," murmurs Rita. She's better than anyone in the film.

But at the end of the day, it's Ford's movie to die for, and so he does, plugging and being plugged by a worse guy (Joseph Cotton), who's already face down in the gutter.

Madison Avenue likes those rain-slick nighttime streets in the Naked City. That's why of all the images from the stunning :60 American Express commercial starring Robert De Niro (directed by Martin Scorsese), this behind-the-scenes portrait is classic Mad Ave noir. De Niro looks like he's waiting off-camera for his next scene in the commercial. The aura says it all: cold, chiseled black-and-white; the actor's dark trenchcoat and scarf swirling in Manhattan's endless winds; steam rising from underground, echoing "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver"; the instantly recognizable, grimy, old-neighborhood TriBeCa architecture. "My life happens here," De Niro intones in the commercial. "My card is American Express."

The two enduring constants of film noir are crime and death, and Robert De Niro has built a long, distinguished string of movies that honor both. The New York setting is a natural--after all, this is a city that knows crime and death very, very well. It's a town that even supports four crime/mystery bookstores, three more than any other literary genre. So it's not surprising that Madison Avenue Noir insinuates itself into many contemporary campaigns.

Consider the young woman in the two-page spread for Levi's Low Rise Jeans. She's just opened the trunk of a car in a dark garage and is looking over her shoulder at us. What's in the trunk? A body? Maybe she's waiting for De Niro and Joe Pesci to join her with guns and butcher knives like in the opening of "Goodfellas" when they blast and hack apart some poor guy who's been locked in their trunk, already half-dead before they open the trunk and finish him off. Maybe she's the femme fatale, although she's a little young for that badge of duty. Femme fatale usually implies a woman with too much past and too little future. She doesn't look like she's weighed under that much past, particularly in those snug, "dangerously low" jeans. But then looks can be deceiving in film noir, just as they can be deceiving in advertising. What's in that trunk, huh?

Mad Ave Noir borrows its imagery from more than noir movies. Torani surrounds its luxury bottle of chocolate Biscotti syrup with a classic girl-on-the-run scenario. This is styled as a 25-cent crime paperback original from the early l950s. The cover price, graphics and blurb resemble a bargain-basement imprint, while still suggesting the cinematic flavor of films noirs like "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Detour" and "Devil Thumbs A Ride." She's got the Torani secret formula, and the guy behind the wheel is determined to run her down. You probably didn't notice the bottle clutched in her right hand, in the lower left corner of the cover. Who would? In that dress she looks like 50 million bucks. What's she going to look like if that widebody Chevy takes her down?

All this tawdry, doom-filled imagery feels like it should be targeted to a downscale audience. But of course it's just the opposite. It's strictly upmarket because it's been given credentials and the seal of approval by some of the classiest players in mass communications. Smithsonian magazine devoted its August, 2003 cover (and a six-page cover story) to an exhibit of 127 original pulp art paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a landmark show that ran nearly half a year. The guy in the incinerator being handed a .45 is from a 1947 issue of Detective Tales, painted by Rafael De Soto; the blonde with the gat is one of his stunning Veronica Lake look-alikes. Pulp art and pulp creations--like Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe--first appeared in the pages of pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective in the l920s and 30s, long before they turned up in timeless noirs like "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep." Pulps were the starting place of noir.

New Yorker magazine recognized the impact and influence of noir almost ten years ago when it gave its Double Fiction Issue of 1996 a pulp-styled homage. The city--and the fellow in the bed who seems to have fallen asleep reading--is framed in the background with a brass bed. The only thing that tells us it's not a cheap hotel room or rooming house (like the facing cover of the 1949 hardboiled novel by Horace McCoy, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye") is the quality wallpaper.

The brass beds are virtually identical. The woman undressing on the paperback cover strongly echoes the woman undressing on New Yorker's cover. Or are the women dressing? We might assume from the man's expression of serious anticipation on the 25-cent novel that she's undressing. On the New Yorker cover, maybe she's given up and is getting dressed, since the guy seems oblivious to her presence. (It's all that great reading that's tuckered him out.) "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" turned into another lost and thoroughly nasty noir with James Cagney in l950, right after Cagney made the better-known "White Heat." Deconstructing noir imagery is such fun.

The most consistent big-budget noir campaign running today is Camel's "Pleasure To Burn." Camel's market target must be smokers old enough to remember and appreciate the artifices. A secondary market could be younger smokers looking to identify with rites of passage into "real" adulthood. Camel's noir images work to both ends of the age spectrum. This contact-sheet half page, followed by the 'pick shot' half page, uses one of noir's most common visual motifs--the tilted blinds that immediately place the woman in a shadow world. Like the voice-over narration in films noirs, the blinds are a semiotic signal that we're in what those Levi's ads call "dangerously low" territory. And Camel's theme, "Pleasure To Burn" works its double-edged meaning for all it's worth.

One of her male counterparts in the Camel campaign is this guy, tipping his hat to us. He's a little softer than your typical idea of the hardboiled private investigator or Continental Op. He's carrying more weight than Bogart, and those long sideburns seem to place him in the 70s. He almost looks like a cowboy model from the Marlboro campaign, outfitted in a period trenchcoat and fedora. But he's not.

Back in 1995 the same guy appeared on New Yorker's Fiction Issue cover, riding a subway from a different era and keeping an eye pealed on the gal who we just saw getting dressed. This is a very funny cover. Everybody on the subway is reading a hard-cover novel. It must have been an earlier era, though in the 1940s most quality hardcovers sold for two dollars, a lot of money back then. The man seems to be wearing the same trenchcoat and fedora, though you'll notice he's lost the sideburns for his trip back in time. Would you like to know where this chap really got his start?

This is Adventure magazine from May, 1936, a top pulp magazine of its time. It sold for 15 cents and its adventure genre usually included a mix of hardboiled, aviation, South Seas and western fiction. The hero in the trenchcoat and fedora, about to draw his .45, was painted by Walter Baumhofer, one of the premiere pulp illustrators. Baumhofer's adventurer may or may not have been the "inspiration" for the urbanized fellow used by a major publisher and advertiser 60-70 years later, but you know what they say--Madison Avenue is always putting new twists on old pretzels.

In the Camel page, let's just say our noirish hero is tipping his hat to an earlier hero in an earlier medium. You notice in the lower right corner of the cigarette page the legend "since 1913" under the camel logo. In a way Camel has never forgotten its roots--it has a past and a tradition. In less imaginative hands this could make the brand feel like an anachronism -- a "mature" product long overdue for retirement.

But Camel's creators are smart; they're refreshing a rich literary legacy, just as neo-noir movies of today refresh rich and devious crime dramas of the 1940s.

This is the essence of Madison Avenue Noir.

Here's looking at you, kid.

At the Madison Avenue Journal, your comments are always welcome.

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