A secret of good noir films is that they’re often very silly. The Big Sleep‘s the king example of absurdity, with a story so convoluted that even the author couldn’t follow it, but as early as 1944’s Double Indemnity, the genre knew it was playing dress-up, its characters duetting in a sing-along of smoky nights and doomed love. Choice as the one-liners often are, you can watch good noir with the sound off, and sometimes even should. Doing so helps you realize how the movies at heart are a series of poses, and how important a craggy, weary face like Robert Mitchum’s, or a bland, terrified face like Tom Neal’s, or a tight, calculating face with huge and innocent eyes like Ida Lupino’s is to sell this material. Woody Allen once wrote a brilliant short story called The Whore of Mensa, in which a hard-boiled private investigator spouting tough-guy speak infiltrates a prostitution ring where clients pay babes to discuss Melville with them (“Symbolism’s extra”). The more Allen’s characters pine for a hot threesome to discuss Chomsky over, or hope for plastic surgery to make them look like Lionel Trilling, the more the genre’s unmasked, and then exploded: Noir, at its essence, is an intellectual conceit.
Yesterday Was a Lie isn’t neo-noir so much as Mensa noir, a continuation of the Allen story that, to its detriment, begs to be taken straight. When a doctor warns the heroine, “You’re getting into some pretty obscure stuff here,” he could be referring to the movie. It takes place in a world where a cop snarls that he could never get into Eliot, where a cat is incidentally named Schrödinger, and where one hot babe picks up another with, “So are you into Surrealist art, or do you just come here for the fashion?”
The blonde asking the question is a chanteuse named Singer (Chase Masterson), and the blonde answering, her lips pursed, is a tortured cop named Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown), who both literally and figuratively wears a hat that’s too big for her. Singer smiles impishly at Hoyle a lot, and even heaves her breasts a few times, all very exciting to the critic, but no, no, no, no, no, no—this movie’s about ideas. Emotions as well, in all fairness; it turns out that the mystery Hoyle’s trying to unlock is why she can’t get over a dude (John Newton’s performance as the brainiac is so wooden that why she’d be into him is a mystery in itself). The answer, she learns, has something to do with Jung.
Writer-director James Kerwin is clearly bright, but it’s tough to sustain a love story over intellectual discussions, especially when no one’s telling any jokes. It’s tough, too, to sustain a noir plot when the movie doesn’t look or feel like noir. Oh sure, it’s in black and white, but the lights are off; as opposed to a hard, clear lighting scheme, in which the lines are sharply delineated (important for a story where many scenes take place at night), here the images are often fuzzball, the lines blurring, with peoples’ skin burbling out. The cheeks are baby-fat, and symbolic of this postmodern mélange’s feeling of kids imitating grownups. Yesterday isn’t about any particular noir plot, but rather about people trying to play one.
Tough to say whether the source materials are to blame, but the soft lighting simply mudges up the image, both looking and feeling sketchy. The sound recording is often general rather than specific, heightened to the point where neither a sound's starting point nor its destination are clear.
A series of making-of featurettes espouse homogenous platitudes, as the actors talk about how wonderful it was to work on the project and how grateful they feel for having done so. James Kerwin spends more time talking about how film is collaborative but also auteur-based, and then digs into how the film's characters represent Jungian archetypes. A brief flash of the script's subtitle—"A noir screenplay"—reminds viewers that the term noir was coined only after the genre's height had passed. Kerwin, Kipleigh Brown, and Chase Masterson share an audio commentary in which Kerwin does most of the talking, mainly about the unconscious, and ends with, "I set out to make a film that had a specific vision, and that said certain things about the human condition, and you either get it or you don't."
What starts off as noir feels like kids playing around.