I’ve been meaning to write about The Big Combo for a while. The Big Combo is a 1954 film noir that’s now considered a small classic. But when it was made, few would have thought to consider it as anything other than a cheap, nasty, disposable B-picture for drunks to sleep through at the bottom end of a double-feature. Viewers nowadays are more likely to be struck by its expressionistic high-contrast lighting — The Big Combo is the apotheosis of film noir’s characteristic visual style. The man who did more than anyone to cement that style was John Alton, The Big Combo‘s cinematographer. (This site has a wonderful collection of Alton’s high-contrast noir images.) Alton called it “mystery lighting,” and it pervades this scene from The Big Combo, where the henchmen of the big boss, Mr. Brown, have kidnapped the hero, Lt. Diamond, and try some “enhanced interrogation techniques” on him. Mr. Brown shows up, though, and shows these amateurs some real technique, with a radio and a hearing aid:
I showed this film in the course on cold war American music that I did a couple of years ago at the University of Texas. I like to use The Big Combo, not for its musical underscore so much as for its use of diegetic music — notably its use of Chopin’s C sharp minor scherzo as the leitmotif of Alicia, a classical pianist who has fallen into the noir sewer and has become Mr. Brown’s gun moll. This particular scherzo is famous for its Jekyll/Hyde dualistic character — the demonic octave passages in C sharp minor bluntly juxtaposed to angelic chorales (with tinkly cascading figures) in the enharmonic major, D flat — and its repeated appearance in this film (at a concert, on the phonograph) says something about Alicia’s character.
And then, of course, there’s the use of merry dance-band jazz as a torture device. Noir excels at this sort of thing: the calculated desecration of an emotion, or, rather, desecration of the conventional icon or sign of that emotion. One classic example of this is the opening image from David Lynch’s neo-noir Blue Velvet, where the camera pans across blue sky, white picket fence, red roses — a great icon of suburban contentment — and we then see the man watering the roses struck down with a heart attack, with the camera sinking down into the dirt beneath the lawn to reveal the seething insect life beneath. Noir always wants to show us what lies beneath. Its technique is (a) to show us something that is not only cheery or wholesome but that also registers on our nervous system as an emblem or sign of cheeriness, and (b) to place that thing in a situation where its emotion is emptied out and what is left is the husk of the sign: the conventional sign is revealed as just that, a convention, a dead letter, the empty mask of a vanished emotion that mocks our sentimentality. You like crazy drums, Lieutenant? Have a good time. Noir makes the sinister out of the sweet, and tells us it was always sinister—only now you see it.
I was thinking about this when I read Suzanne Cusick’s recent article on music as an implement of torture. Writes Cusick:
As press reports conflating music’s use on the battlefield with its use in interrogations proliferated, I began desultory research on a phenomenon of the current “global war on terror” that particularly wounds me as a musician — wounds me in that part of my sensibility that remains residually invested in the notion that music is beautiful, even transcendent — is a practice whose contemplation would always lead me to contemplation of bodies and pleasures. Not bodies in pain.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? If music is what lets us feel and express love, then let it serve hate; if it soothes our sore bodies and nerves, then let it hurt; if it lets us feel the humanity of our fellow creatures, and lets us experience our own humanity, then let it dehumanize, brutalize, and degrade. And — this is the important part, the part that the apologists for torture affect not to understand — this is a lesson that the state wishes all of us to learn, not only those it tortures. Torture is a pedagogical principle: it teaches us that what we thought was beautiful, or transcendent, or sacred, is in fact as foul as anything else. One of Charles Manson’s “family” told John Gilmore that Manson had planned to kill celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor because “that’s how you put the fear into people—you butcher what they dream of being. These are all the gilded replicas of fame and happiness, and when you smash them you can go right into the heart of the dark.” And this was a philosophy Manson learned in prison: “like a dog that’s been whipped and chained and learned only the whip and the chain, there wasn’t even a yearning to be free. There was only the whip and the chain.”* The state that tortures wants to bring its people to this same condition; like Manson, it wants to teach us that there is nothing but the whip and the chain. If there is no transcendence, in music or anything else, there is nothing left to hope for, nothing to aspire to beyond the whip and the chain, and then whip and chain will become our aspiration; we will have learned our civic lesson, and we, too, will bend to the will of the torturers.
This is why it matters when music becomes an instrument of torture. When the Society of Ethnomusicology published a statement against torture, the response in the right-wing commentariat was, predictably, dismissive: who cares that we made some guy listen to rap against his will? My upstairs neighbor does that to me every day! And: who cares what a bunch of ethnomusicologists think? Even if you oppose torture, you might think that music, compared to waterboarding and cold cells, is a minor concern. But I don’t think it is.
This is why I respectfully suggest that my own scholarly association, the American Musicological Society, draft its own statement against torture. Granted, this would be a symbolic gesture, but what I’ve been arguing here is that torture itself is in part a symbolic gesture. If the torturers want to put the fear into us by smashing our icons, we can only resist by insisting that what we love is not yet theirs to destroy. [UPDATE: I changed my mind about this — see my follow-up post here.]
*These quotes are from Laid Bare, John Gilmore’s memoir of Hollywood low life.