Payback vs. Payback: Fim Noir & Noir Films

Is “film noir” just a style, or is it a genre of its own? This is the question that most scholars, critics, cineastes, and filmmakers have tried to answer ever since “film noir” was acknowledged as a phenomenon[1] (SCHRADER). Ultimately, after much analysis and execution, “film noir” has become nowadays both a genre and a style, with specific circumstantial, technical, and thematic traits. In fact, these features are so strong and well defined, but variable at the same time, that not all of them need to intervene in the creation of a noir film. Evidence to this can be easily found when analyzing and contrasting the two versions of Payback (Helgeland, 1999) — namely, the original theatrical cut, and the restored director’s cut labeled Straight Up (Helgeland, 2005). Both versions of wiseguy Porter’s rampage of revenge are clear pieces of neo-noir[2], since they pertain to a contemporary period, not to “classic” film noir, and thus consciously feature many of the noir elements.

The first traits to analyze are circumstantial, beginning with the one that is the reason for the existence of two versions of a same film: censorship. Resembling a lot the situations prompted by the Hays code in the 1930s-1940s[3] (NAREMORE), Payback suffered of studio intervention, which meant firing the director due to “creative differences” and having an anonymous replacement to re-shoot and re-cut an “appropriate” version of the film. The creative differences were about scenes and plot points considered to be too dark, too violent, and overall “inappropriate” — in other words, not appealing enough for audiences and not profitable in theaters. Out of this discrepancy, an approved, entertaining theatrical version was manufactured, with a director’s cut released years later on DVD. And still, both are pure neo-noir films.

The next trait refers to the source material and influences for the movies. Payback falls into the category of a crime thriller or crime melodrama[4] (DURGNAT), because many elements of these are present; mainly, that the plot centers on a robbery and its aftermaths, all involving stock characters and objects of the underworld, like gangsters, corrupted cops, prostitutes, dirty money, and murder. It is not surprising that the story depicts such brutal and gritty reality, typical of hard-boiled material, for crime is not something pretty, despite how entertaining or interesting it may be[5] (CHANDLER). And related to this is the fact that, just like many of the major or classic noir films, Payback happens to be an adaptation of a hard-boiled novel, one by Donald Westlake.

Besides sources and influences, both versions of Payback share technical traits that make up the visual and narrative style of film noir[6] (PLACE & PETERSON), but with different approaches for each aspect treated. The only couple of stylistic choices fully shared by the versions are those of varying camera angles (many oblique), and anti-traditional mise-en-scene.

Then lighting and color texture are the first differences that can be noticed between Payback and Straight Up. The former gets its tone set by the abundance of blue hues and other cool colors that match the cold-blooded nature of the characters, while the latter has more vivid colors but under low-key lighting consistent with the darker tone of the film.

Second difference is editing and pace. Payback‘s pace is fast and to-the-point, presenting early the characters and situations, and shifting swiftly from the action of one scene to the action of the next. In contrast, Straight Up‘s pace is slower, building up tension and suspense, but taking too long to introduce the characters and circumstances, most noticeably at the very beginning of the film — Porter’s experience in the robbery, and motor of the whole plot, is not revealed until some twenty minutes have run, with Porter committing several petty crimes along his comeback.

Third difference is music. Payback has a simple yet moving score that just goes along with the visuals and supports the storytelling, whereas Straight Up has music that stands out because it’s jazzy and reminiscing of the scores of Dragnet.

Last difference in technique involves the usage of narrative tools typical of film noir: oneiric metaphors, flashbacks, and voice-over. On its part, Payback lacks metaphors for the sake of clear-cut storytelling. Under this same principle, it has a flashback that explains early how Porter relates to most other characters and defines the reason for his revenge: bloody betrayal by his partner and his wife after robbing 140,000 dollars from the Triads. The voice-over, too, helps explain Porter’s motives, since the narration is Porter’s first-person comment on the story’s development. In this manner, the voice-over serves as a tool that prompts sympathy for the antihero and understanding of his psychology[7] (HOLLINGER). Straight Up, however, lacks the voice-over, giving a more distanced appreciation in which the story is more important than the main character. Instead of the voice-over, Straight Up resorts to sound metaphors — Porter hears random noises or pieces of dialogue throughout his quest of revenge, only increasing the confusion. To increase the suspense even more, the same flashback of the original version happens, but almost halfway through the film, after some of the main characters have appeared and even died already, like Porter’s wife. The whole plotline, then, acquires much more fatalistic and alienated feelings representative of existentialism and postmodernism[8] (PORFIRIO).

As far as content goes, both versions of the film have a good variety of film noir’s key elements. Again, some of these coincide, others contrast. First detectable characteristic, to a greater or lesser degree in each version, is the feeling of anxiety, despair, and uncertainty about the future that permeates the storylines[9] (BORDE & CHAUMETON), which is connected to the previously mentioned fatalism and alienation. The best examples of this are the different endings. In Payback, Porter gets to dispose of all the bad guys, including the bosses, and escape with his girl, after literal torturous suffering and struggle with “higher powers”. In Straight Up, Porter is virtually victorious in the last gun fight, but it’s unclear if he is fatally wounded or not, and he doesn’t face or kill the higher power. In a sense, in the former instance Porter gets to shape up his destiny, while in the latter everything is a matter of fate and determinism.

Next identifiable trait is corruption, specifically that of the family institution[10] (HARVEY). None of the films presents a functional family, or even a couple that could be a good prospect; Porter’s marriage, the only one showed, is riddled with betrayals, physical abuse, and substance abuse, leading to its dissolution when, or little before, Porter’s wife overdoses and dies. The rest of the couples either involve prostitutes or some other sort of sexual deviations usual to noir films (DURGNAT), as embodied by the sadomasochistic couple of the Chinese dominatrix and Porter’s former partner, Val Resnick. Even Porter’s own relationship with his prostitute lover is not that romantic in either version. It is “warmer” and tenderer in the original, but still there are lies and “baggage” to it. Straight Up‘s account is darker, by adding to the baggage Porter’s self-absorbedness, his lover’s distrust, and occasional physical violence between them.

There’s also the fascination for the foreign exotic (NAREMORE), represented by the Chinese in both versions. Porter robs the Chinese Triads, which come after him later on looking for retribution. At the same time, and as previously mentioned, Resnick is close to a Chinese dominatrix prostitute who happens to be connected to the Triads. As in any worthy noir film, there had to be foreign influence directly affecting the storyline.

The differing representation of the ambiguous hard-boiled antihero (BORDE & CHAUMETON) and the various femme fatales[11] (PLACE) are the last pieces of this film-noir puzzle. In both versions, Porter’s wife and the dominatrix are good examples of deadly “spider women” (PLACE) who killed or cause death with guns or sex. They each try to kill Porter in different occasions, while the positive “nurturing” figure (PLACE) happens to be Porter’s prostitute lover who supports him and helps him survive his own quest.  The only difference in the femme fatale area is that in Straight Up, the mastermind and overlord of the Mafia that Porter confronts is a woman, an ultimate femme fatale, so powerful that all she needs to control things is a phone call.

Concerning Porter, he is portrayed rather differently in each version. Payback‘s Porter, thanks to the voice-over and the actual sequence of scenes, is presented as a cold-blooded killer crook with his own ethics, capable of outsmarting good and bad guys alike, and who asks only for the right amount of his money even when offered more — much like a Phillip Marlowe of The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946) who has gone to the dark side of premeditated killing and crime. This is much more heroic, or antiheroic, than Porter’s portrayal in Straight Up; without the appealing voice-over, and with more violent moments in his storyline, he simply appears to be a raging beast focused on revenge. Straight Up’s Porter is a short-tempered bastard crook who doesn’t hesitate to use brute force and who is favored by mere chance until fortune abandons him in the end.

Ultimately, analyzing and counterpointing Payback and Straight Up renders them as epitomes of how, despite variations and deviations, these circumstantial, technical, and thematic traits of the film noir style construct the noir film genre in our modern times.

[1] Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir”. 1972

[2] Silver, Alain. “Sons of Noir: Neo-Film Noir and the Neo-B Picture” 1996.

[3] Naremore, James. “More Than Night”. 1998.

[4] Durgnat, Raymond. “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir”. 1970.

[5] Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder”. 1944.

[6] Place, Janey & Peterson, Lowell. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir”. 1974.

[7] Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice-Over, and the Femme Fatale”.

[8] Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir”. 1976.

[9] Borde, Raymond & Chaumeton, Étienne. “Panorama du Film Noir Americain”. 1955.

[10] Harvey, Sylvia. “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir”.

[11] Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir”.

Dallas, TX. 2008.

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