“Madison Avenue Noir” by Kurt Brokaw

“Madison Avenue is always putting new twists on old pretzels.”

Look closely at the shootout in the rain-swept street directly above. It’s the final moments of a 1965 lost neo-noir, The Money Trap. This was the fourth and final pairing of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, who made three better known movies (Gilda, Affair in Trinidad, The Loves of Carmen) starting in the 40s. Here, Ford is again the silky, angry authority figure – the role he patented in movies like The Big Heat and Experiment in Terror. Hayworth, no longer the beautiful glamour girl, gets a minor role, playing the still-beautiful but tarnished prostitute. “Where you been?” Glenn growls 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 night streets in the Naked City. That’s why in the stunning 60-second American Express commercial starring Robert De Niro (directed by Marty Scorsese), this behind-the-scenes portrait is classic Mad Ave Noir. The aura says it all: cold, chiseled black-and-white; the actor’s dark trench coat and scarf swirling in Tribeca’s endless winds, steam rising from underground, echoing Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; the instantly recognizable, gritty old neighborhood downtown architecture. “My life happens here,” De Niro intones. “My card is American Express.” The two enduring constants of film noir are crime and death, and De Niro’s long, distinguished career explores both.

Consider the young woman in the ad above 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 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 a femme fatale, though 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 hauling around that much past, even in those snug, “dangerously low” jeans. But then looks can be deceiving in film noir, just like in advertising. What’s in that trunk, huh?

Madison Avenue Noir borrows its imagery from more than noir movies. Torani surrounds its luxury bottle of chocolate Biscotta syrup with a classic girl-on-the-run scenario. This repurposes a 25-cent paperback original from the 50s by Harry Whittington. The cover price, graphics, and blurb resemble a bargain-basement imprint. 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 product, the bottle, clutched in her right hand in the lower left corner in the cover. Who would? In that dress she looks like 50 million bucks. What’s she going to look like if that wide body Chevy takes her down? 

All this tawdry, doom-filled imagery feels like it should be targeted to a downscale audience. But it’s just the opposite. It’s strictly upmarket because it’s been given credentials by some of the classiest players in mass communication.

Smithsonian magazine devoted its August, 2003 cover (and a six-page cover story) to an exhibit of 127 pulp 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 lookalikes. 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. The pulps published the seminal stories that grew into Hammett and Chandler’s novels and movies. Pulps were the starting place of noir.

New Yorker magazine recognized the impact and influence of noir 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? On the 25-cent novel we assume she appears to be undressing. On the New Yorker cover maybe she’s given up and is getting dressed, since the guy seems oblivious to her presence. The movie Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the pulpier, sleazier flip side of White Heat, an essential noir that also starred James Cagney. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the lost noir, with Barbara Payton who was getting ready to die of everything.

The most consistent big-budget noir ad campaign in the 90s through the early 00s was Camel’s “Pleasure to Burn.” Camel’s target market had to be smokers old enough to remember and appreciate the artifices. A secondary market was younger smokers looking to identify with rites of passage into “real” adulthood. Camel’s noir images work at both ends of the age spectrum.

The contact sheet above 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 noir, the blinds are a semiotic signal that we’re in what those Levi ads call “dangerously low” territory.

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 dick 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 it looks like the same guy appeared on New Yorker’s Fiction Issue cover, riding a subway car from a different era and keeping an eye pealed on the gal who we just saw getting dressed. This is a very funny cover – everyone on the subway is reading a hard cover novel. It must have been an earlier era, though in the 40s most quality hardcovers started out selling for two dollars, before they went to the cheaper 49-cent department store cloth reprint and finally the 25-cent drugstore paperback. The man above on the right seems to be wearing the same trenchcoat and fedora, though you notice he’s lost his sideburns for his trip back in time.

In 2005 Maureen Dowd, whose op-ed columns in The New York Times can be more lethal than anything fired by a femme fatale, wrote a book titled Are Men Necessary? 

Classic Maureen, some might say. But look – the same guy is back in the same subway car, keeping an eye on the same dame, who’s wearing the same dress and seems to be reading the same book, ten years later. How time flies. The only element that’s different is that the guy has changed from a book to a newspaper, probably the Times. The other male riders are reading papers or keeping an eye on the dame. Our guy in the hat is probably trying to figure out what it is with this doll and her dress and her novel. Maybe they’re frozen in time, doomed to ride the MTA forever and ever. It may seem that way when you realize where the guy first got his start. Look below:

Above right is Adventure magazine from May, 1936, a top pulp magazine of its time. It sold for 15 cents and its adventure genre included a mix of hardboiled, aviation, South Seas, and western fiction. The hero in the trench coat and fedora about to draw his .45 was painted by Walter Baumhofer. His adventurer may or may not have been the inspiration for the urbanized fellow invented by a major advertiser 70 years later, but you know what they say – Madison Avenue is always putting new twists on old pretzels. 

In the Camel page, suffice it to say, our noirish hero is tipping his hat to an earlier hero in an earlier era. 

Squint in the lower right hand corner and you’ll make out the legend “since 1913.” Camel has a past and a tradition. This might 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 all those rich and devious crime dramas of the 1940s.  

This is the essence of Madison Avenue Noir.

Kurt Brokaw is senior film critic of The Independent (Independent-magazine.org) and taught film noir at The 92nd Street Y for 15 years. His memoir, The Paperback Guy: Words from the Sidewalk, was just published.

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