Plotlines: Tragedy


(tra-ji-dee) noun, plural -dies.

1). a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction.
This could almost describe the typical plot of a film noir, wherein the central character is often doomed to a sequence of disastrous events beyond his or her control, often due to an error in judgement or some personal flaw in character , and from the outset a dark and sombre mood is often set.

You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937), Detour (Edgar G Ulmer, 1945), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), Out of the Past (Jaques Tourneur, 1947), and In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) are all classic examples of tragedy as well as film noir.

The tragic character is usually human and likeable enough for us to root for them – often because of their flaw – and to identify somehow with their story. With a tragedy there is always the feeling that their suffering is worse than their actual crime, and that they have not deserved the card that Fate deals them. But all we can do is look on as the story unfolds, knowing in our heart of hearts that it’s not going to end well.

The pleasure in watching these bleak stories lies partly in what Aristotle described as a catharsis – going through intense pity and fear and finally, relief (that their suffering is over, or that it all happened to someone else!) – but often with a lingering memory that it’s hard to shake off entirely. Add a haunting soundtrack, sharp dialogue and visually stunning mis en scenes from a handful of brilliant directors and it’s easy to see why the film noir has become one of cinema’s great genres.

The film we’ve chosen to represent Tragedy in our basic plots series is “Chinatown” (1974) directed by Roman Polanski. Polanski was persuaded to return to Hollywood to make this film only five years after the violent murder of his pregnant wife and the film is still inhabited by horror and loss. Part of the its enduring legend is that Polanski rewrote the script the night before filming the last scene, choosing a tragic ending for the film over Robert Towne’s original and more upbeat version. “Because if it all ended with a happy ending we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this film today

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