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Memento as Film Noir
Christopher Nolan's Memento as Film Noir
Film noir rose to prominence in the late 1940s and was at first described as being "murder with a psychological twist (Spicer 1). Since the 1940s, the film noir genre has undergone a few changes, yet the central concepts of the genre remain the same. Christopher Nolan's 2000 film Memento is a neo-noir film that integrates many of the concepts found in traditional film noir into its narrative and editing. Memento utilizes traditional film noir devices such as narrative structure, the opposition of good and evil, setting, lighting, and mise-en-scene to play upon the themes of memory and perception.
Memento follows Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pierce, a former insurance investigator with anterograde amnesia who is on a quest to find the person that helped to rape and kill his wife. During the course of his investigation, Leonard meets Teddy, played by Joe Pantoliano, who also goes by the name of John Edward Gammell, a seemingly corrupt police officer and who Leonard eventually suspects of killing and raping his wife; Leonard eventually executes Teddy for what he believes was his part in his wife's murder. Leonard also meets Natalie, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, a bartender, who uses Leonard to rid herself of her boyfriend, Dodd. A subplot focusing on Sammy Jankis also plays a major role in Leonard's investigation. Prior to losing his memory, Leonard was investigating Sammy, who similarly was suffering from amnesia. Leonard uses Sammy as a model for his own recovery and conditioning.
The term film noir was first used by Nino Frank to describe a series of films that had just recently been released. These films were The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), and Laura (1944) (Spicer 2). Each of these films, and others within the genre, share characteristics such as "iconography, visual style, narrative strategy, subject matter and characterization (4). Additionally, the film genre's style helps to "[engage] the viewer in a critical relation with its narrative compositions" (Conley 327). While approximately 20% of films noir that were produced in the 1940s were adapted from novels about hard-boiled detectives -- written by authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain -- Memento is an adaptation of a short story, "Memento Mori," written by Nolan's brother, Jonathan.
Classic film noir often begins with a criminal investigation in order to introduce the story's main characters: the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, and the corrupt law enforcement agent (7). The hard-boiled detective is often an individual who at some point during the course of his investigation becomes an "inglorious victim who undergoes…some appalling beatings" (9). In Memento, Leonard Shelby fulfills the role of the hard-boiled detective despite the fact that he is in no way affiliated with any law enforcement agency nor is he a private investigator in the strictest sense. Rather, Leonard was formerly employed as an insurance investigator and was tasked with determining whether or not an insurance claim was legitimate. One of Leonard's investigations as an insurance investigator focused on Sammy Jankis, whose neurological disorder was under scrutiny, yet whose case is the basis for Leonard's methods of investigation (Memento). Leonard can be considered to be an "inglorious victim" because of the fact that the investigation is prompted by the rape and murder of his wife. Not only does Leonard have to suffer the loss of his wife, but he is also her attackers' victim as the neurological and psychological disability that he suffers from is a direct result of being attacked in the process of attempting to save his wife. Furthermore, Leonard is a victim of his environment and the individuals that he interacts with. Leonard also falls victim to Burt, the hotel's manager, who has been instructed by his boss to rent out as many rooms to Leonard as possible because he will not remember nor know about the multiple charges to his account. Leonard also falls victim to Natalie who manipulates him into getting rid of Dodd for her. In this instance, Natalie somewhat fulfills the role of the femme fatale. The femme fatale is a woman that attempts to manipulate the hard-boiled detective, however, the femme fatale does not survive or live past her involvement in the scheme or conspiracy she is a part of and will end up proving to be "fatal unto herself" (9). Given this definition of the femme fatale, and given the events that occur in the film, Natalie does not completely fulfill the role as she does not prove to be fatal unto herself, but rather she manipulates Leonard for personal gain. Alternately, Sammy Jankis's wife can be considered to be the femme fatale even though she is not directly involved in Leonard's investigation into who attacked his wife. Mrs. Jankis is the film's true femme fatale. In the course of her investigation into the extent of her husband's injury and disability, Mrs. Jankis attempts to verify whether or not he is faking his amnesia by repeatedly tricking Sammy into giving her insulin shot. Her scheme ends up backfiring on her as it is revealed that Sammy truly does not know that he has administered her insulin shot three times, once in the arm, once in the side of her stomach, and once in her thigh (Memento). Mrs. Jankis proves to be fatal unto her as she inadvertently manipulates her husband into giving her too many insulin shots, which cause her to fall into a coma and die (Memento). In the film, Teddy fulfills the role of the dubious and corrupt police officer. While the film begins and ends with Teddy's death at Leonard's hands, throughout the course of the narrative it becomes clear that Teddy is someone that cannot and should not be trusted. Because Teddy demonstrates that he, too, tries to manipulate Leonard for his own gain, brings forth his own death and can also be considered to fulfill the role of the pere fatale, a character that emerges in neo-noir films.
Many times, these noir characters are at risk of losing themselves in the qualities that they initially believed to be in opposition to who they are and what they represent and sometimes makes them have a distorted view of him or herself (Lott 549). This is especially true of Leonard because he cannot trust his own instincts and must rely on the notes that he takes and what other unreliable people tell him. The inability to trust anyone, even himself, leads him to commit deeds that he does not approve of, however, luckily enough Leonard cannot remember what he has done shortly thereafter; Leonard consciously makes a choice to forget his misdeeds and missteps through the destruction of specific notes and polaroids that he takes in an attempt to remember and develop his short-term memory. The complex and interwoven nature of these characters' relationship add to the intricacy of the film's narrative and expound upon character behavior and the motives for their actions.
Through the use of non-linear editing and flashbacks, narrative devices often found in traditional film noir, Nolan is able to focus on the themes of memory and perception throughout the film. These two narrative devices play a major role in the film as the narrative follows two distinct storylines, one moving forward throughout the course of the film and the second moving backwards eventually meeting at the film's end. Film noir often uses voiceover narrative to provide the audience with further insight into the hard-boiled detective's perspective. "Noir's highly complex narrative patterning is created by the use of first-person voice-overs, multiple narrators, flashbacks and ellipses frequently oneiric (dream-like), where every object and encounter seems unnaturally charged (Spicer 4). Nolan masterfully uses these narrative patterns to explain to demonstrate what is going on from Leonard's perspective. Because of his compromised memory and the ability to retain information, Leonard's perspective constantly runs the risk of changing and, in fact, his perception of Natalie is distorted because she has found a way to manipulate his memory. Natalie has also found a way to distort Leonard's perception of Teddy and convinces Leonard that Teddy is the "John G." that murdered his wife. Flashbacks are fully integrated into the film through its reverse chronological editing and oneiric qualities are imbued through Leonard's amnesia, wherein all information gathered remains unreliable.
It is through the film's highly stylized non-linear editing that the audience is given insight into the constant battle between good and evil that Leonard confronts on a daily basis. Film noir is known for interweaving good and evil with the concepts often being merged into one (Borde & Chaumeton 12). In Memento, the interweaving of these concepts is facilitated by the fact that Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, a disability that does not enable him to fully comprehend another individual's intentions within the film because of the fact that his short-term memory has been severely compromised. Because he cannot remember what individual's intentions are, he must…[continue]
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