The Noir World Of Masoud Kimiaie
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Parviz Jahed
The 1950s was the commercial and artistic peak for noir in America and France. These American and French noirs were being shown to a wide audience in Iran at the time as well. Responding to the public interest for such style visions of the criminal underworld, Iranian filmmakers adopted this popular style and created their own brand of noir-inspired gangster movies intended for the domestic market. Among them, director Samuel Khachikian is regarded as the forerunner and nicknamed as the ‘Iranian Hitchcock’ and master of the crime thriller in Iranian cinema.
In the late 1950s Samuel Khachikian’s crime films revelled in Hollywood tropes, taking the US-inspired lens to the Iranian underworld. His films featured villainous characters, typically involved with drugs, kidnapping and counterfeiting money, as well as deceitful femme fatales, who would assist the criminals and use their feminine charms and sexual allure to seduce and deceive the male protagonist and then betray him.
With the continuation of the state’s efforts to enforce modernization, the conflict between modern and traditional values was established as a theme, and a new form of the crime thriller appeared in Iranian New Wave cinema, which was darker and more pessimistic than earlier hollower efforts.
Masoud Kimiaie was among the first of this generation to focus solely on crimes and criminals in his films, a niche which he continued to pursue throughout. Friendship, betrayal and revenge are the most common thematic elements of Kimiaie’s films. He usually picked his characters from the lowest rungs of Iranian society: soldiers, day labourers, hoodlums and peasants. They were people who suffering from poverty or the victims of injustice and inequality.
In Kimiaie’s masculine world we see hard-boiled characters clashing against each other without any kind of mercy. His emphasis on masculinity in society takes precedence over all else. Women often play a minor role in his films; usually they live under the heavy shadow of men and need their support to survive in a patriarchal society. The focus often lies on highlighting brutality and what motivates it. Whilst his protagonists are contemporary in their appearance, they look to the past with lamentation and regret. A past that is always with them and which they cannot break away from.
Kimiaie’s films, whether an anti-Zionist political piece like Sorb (The Lead,1989), or a post-war drama such as Dandan-e Maar (The Snake Fang, 1990) and Gorouhban (The Sergeant, 1991), or street-drama epics such as Radd-e Pa-ye Gorg (The Wolf’s Trail, 1992), Soultan (1996) and Eteraz (Protest, 1999), or a purely gangster film like Hokm (The Verdict, 2006), all look to expose and represent criminality, violence and heroism.
As a former assistant of Khachikian, an innovative forerunner and a key figure in the development of Iranian New Wave cinema, Kimiaie was similarly fascinated by American noirs and passionate about the portrayal of rebellious anti-heroes and disaffected people plagued by poverty and crime. And he introduced a more sophisticated form of criminal drama to Iranian cinema in 1968 with his remarkable film Qaysar.
With his rebellious and anarchic attitude and a yearning for justice, Qaysar became the first true anti-hero in Iranian cinema. The film combined the protagonists of revenge-seeking American Westerns and the dark desperation of noir. It is the story of a young, alienated traditional man who attempts to avenge his sister’s rape and his brother’s murder by a villainous gang. Unlike the pivotal characters of the previous Iranian crime dramas, Qaysar is not driven by money or love, but solely by revenge. Qaysar’s gruesome realism, graphic violence and doomed characters had never seen before in Iranian cinema. The audience was impressed by the main character’s values and sympathized with his rage and desire to get even.
In the traditional Iranian crime genre, a happy ending was an uncompromising formula, but in the new crime films such as Qaysar, the rebellious character’s criminal acts and anti-social behaviour were in fact glorified by the filmmaker. Qaysar was the victim of injustice in a world rife with violence, rage and despair. The boundary between good and evil was blurred and the new heroes bore more similarity to and fewer distinctions from the villains.
After making a few films within the crime genre, Kimiaie made his powerful political drama, Gavaznha (The Deer, 1975). In Gavaznha, the criminality has a political resonance and Kimiaie addresses some critical social issues such as the conflict between good and evil, bank robbery, armed struggle, police brutality, class division and drug addiction which are well known elements in American noirs. Gavaznha may be regarded as the first political crime thriller of Iranian cinema. The protagonist was acting against the interests of the government, out of political motivation and as a protagonist on the run, he provokes sympathy from the audience on a primal level.
Whereas Kimiaie’s Gavaznha was a one-off as a political thriller made before the 1979 Revolution, the early post-Revolutionary crime films were mostly about the conflicts between anti-Shah guerrillas and the police. In Khat-e Ghermez (Red Line, 1981), one of the first films was banned by the authorities after the Revolution, a high-ranking secret agent of the Shah’s notorious SAVAK marries a woman whose brother is arrested for his political activities on the verge of the 1979 Revolution.
In Kimiaie’s Sorb (The Lead, 1987), which takes place in 1950s Tehran, the criminals are part of a covert Zionist organization attempting to assassinate a young suspected Jewish couple who decided to immigrate to the recently founded state of Israel. The influence of an American noir visual style and iconic elements are highly prevalent, including the bleak atmosphere: the problematic and lonely characters trapped in unwanted situations, the dark and smokey urban setting, the low-key lighting, that period specific cars, customs, guns, the atmospheric music and the harsh violence.
Hokm (The Verdict, 2006) contains the most constant thematic and stylistic elements of Kimiaie’s crime films: male camaraderie, deception, revenge and betrayal. The most intrinsically noir element of Hokm is the inevitability that dictates the fates of the film’s characters and the actions that drive them towards disaster, an element sustained from the mob films of the 1930s.
Kimiaie has managed to perfectly capture the dark, gloomy, demoralizing and violent atmosphere of noir in Hokm. His conscious employment of noir elements such as high contrast lighting which is seen especially in the outdoor scenes, and closed frames convey the feeling of confinement and helplessness in people. The overall effect leaves the viewer feeling that this film is set in a city rendered helpless as it sleeps at night while criminals slither through it like wandering ghosts.
Kimiaie has found in noir the perfect means to express the ruthlessness, violence and corruption that pervade within the heart of Iranian society. By placing the characters and the story in such an environment, he underlines the decadence of humanity and demonstrates the idea that people are ruled by material values and a malicious spirit.