serenity film noir

(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood.)

By this point audiences have been scratching their heads and questioning their film choices with the release of Steven Knight’s Serenity. It’s a movie that is as compellingly bonkers as it is exceedingly dumb. It’s a fun bad movie that you’ll enjoy if you’re into that kind of thing. But, in watching it myself (and loving everything about it), the classic film comparisons flew fast and furiously. Knight certainly did his homework for key portions of the film and it’s worth using the Classically Contemporary forum to examine all things dark, noir, and silly about Serenity.

Serenity follows Plymouth fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) who seems to spend his days doing little more than fishing and getting laid. When his ex-girlfriend, Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up with a proposition, Baker isn’t having it. She wants to pay him $10 million to murder her husband. Will the fisherman do it? Will Karen and Baker get together at the end? I’d say yes but the movie goes FAR further than that.

The Breaking Point(ish)

What’s being promoted in trailers and anchors Serenity’s first half is a noirish murder mystery plot involving Baker and his ex, Karen. She’s trapped in an abusive relationship where she’s beaten constantly, leading her to make the ultimate proposition to Baker. He, like all good noir men, is down on his luck and perpetually broking, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or, in this case, sleeping with a local woman named Constance (played by Diane Lane) who gives him payment for his….services.

The old “murder my husband” routine has been borrowed from countless noirs including 1944’s Double Indemnity, wherein Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who cons horny insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) into murder. But the film’s closest inspiration seems drawn from the work of Ernest Hemingway. Released the same year as Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks released To Have and Have Not. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the film was more of a take on the ultra-popular Casablanca than Hemingway’s novel. In it, Bogart’s Harry Morgan is a sea captain helping transport a French Resistance leader and his wife. Lauren Bacall plays a sultry lounge singer who captures Morgan’s eye.

When director Michael Curtiz wanted to remake To Have and Have Not in 1950, he adhered closer to Hemingway’s novel than what Hawks did. In this iteration, entitled The Breaking Point, John Garfield plays Harry Morgan who gets himself in a series of illegal scraps in order to keep his boat under his name. Along the way he meets up with a mysterious woman, played by Patricia Neal, who causes issues with his domestic situation.

The Breaking Point is a closer influence on Serenity than anything else. Like Garfield’s Morgan, Baker Dill only has one goal in life: to keep fishing. Dill wants to catch a massive tuna, while Morgan just wants to have the freedom of owning something that’s his. Neal, like Anne Hathaway’s Karen, seems uncaring but has a backstory that justifies her reasons for being who she is. And Diane Lane, playing the kind and constant (get it?) Constance is just like Phyllis Thaxter’s beleaguered Lucy Morgan – with a little sex in it.

Anne Hathaway: Femme Fatale Queen

Between this and her role as Daphne Kluger in last year’s Ocean’s 8, Anne Hathaway is becoming a new generation’s noir queen. Rocking a look and voice that immediately conjures up comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, Hathaway presents Karen as a conflicted woman who has to use her looks to manipulate and scheme.

The Monroe comparisons are somewhat apt, as the famous blonde bombshell did star in a fair bit of noir, including 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, Clash by Night, and Don’t Bother to Knock (the latter two released in 1952). But in terms of characterization Hathaway’s performance is tougher. She’s a victim who feels there’s no way out. She doesn’t want to rely on men because she knows how they act, but she has to rely on them – whether it’s her husband’s money or Baker’s ability to kill.

Using her feminine wiles, Karen understands men are easily misled, giving her more power in the world of Plymouth than she has in reality. She draws comparisons to small-town diner owner Cora Smith in the 1946 noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. In that film, Smith is a beautiful woman who wants to make something out of the diner she runs with her husband, but he doesn’t see her as anything more than a sex object. Her life isn’t abusive, just sad and melancholy. There are also juxtapositions made between Karen and Rita Hayworth’s Elsa in 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai. Elsa is certainly in an abusive relationship with her husband (Everett Sloane), forcing her to manipulate a reluctant hero (Orson Welles) to kill him. That film even has a plot as incomprehensible as Serenity’s!

Film Noir Predetermination or Computer Simulation

What everyone is talking about though is Serenity’s ultimate reveal that the world of Plymouth is a computer simulation, created by Karen’s son as a means of convincing himself to kill his stepfather. But as nuts as the twist is, Baker’s examination of life and his role within it is also similar to the ‘40s noir. A key factor of the genre involves the concept of predetermination. Walter Neff in Double Indemnity questions whether he was drawn, as if by fate, to Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson. John Garfield’s character in Postman also finds his “feet” carry him to the diner where Cora Smith lives, and even after he seems to escape the locale he’s drawn back in by a chance meeting with her husband.

For the men of noir, their actions aren’t of their own choosing, but women are victims of circumstance. Like Karen, and many other femme fatales, she made a bad choice and has seemingly lived with the consequences all these years. When she can no longer take it, she throws fate to the wind and makes her own. The men of noir have destiny, the women only their steely determination to see them through.

Serenity’s noir influences are worn heavily on their sleeve, and it’s to the movie’s benefit. When it’s too crazy to handle, just remember that it’s based on the world of noirs where if something was fishy….they just shot it and hoped for the best.

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