Prime noir

The film noir quality of Stephen Harper’s new ads


I haven’t been able to get that Conservative TV ad “Rising to the Challenge“—the one with the Prime Minister working alone in semi-darkness in Parliament’s Centre Block—out of my mind. I think I know why: I’ve always been a sucker for old film noir movies, and this ad is a one-minute slice of derivative noir film-making, although it would have been more effective as homage if the Tories had shot it in black and white.

The other hallmarks of the genre are all there. First, an atmosphere of melodramatic foreboding is established (00.01-00.08). Next, the classic noir cinematographic toolkit is swiftly unpacked—extreme contrasts of shadow and light (00.11), shots from odd angles, notably up dimly lit stairways (00.13), occasional cuts to extreme close-ups (00.14).

The protagonist is presented as a solitary man. In the classic formation, he’d be a private eye in his austere office with what little light is allowed slipping in through venetians. Here we have a Prime Minister (00.25), alone in his lair with the requisite slatted blinds behind him (I guess there was no way to work in a dame showing up with a case to solve).

The noir mood dissipates a bit, unfortunately, as the narrator talks through the Harper government’s economic accomplishments, while we watch our lone hero doing mere paperwork, and failing entirely to moodily light a cigarette, pour himself a stiff belt, or check to see if the revolver in his desk drawer is loaded. Also, I don’t think Sam Spade would drink from a Fab Four coffee mug (00.37).

Still, the director redeems himself (00.54) with a nicely noirish closing shot of the Parliament Buildings, shot from the right disorientingly low angle, with the light of the eternal flame used to the correct lurid effect. As the narrator intones over this atmospheric image, “With so much at stake, why would we risk changing course?”, he strikes the appropriate fearful noir tone, although I think a voice closer to Sydney Greenstreet’s would have served better.


Prime noir

  1. Nice analysis.

    If it was an Agatha Christie novel, this scene would kick off the mystery — the lone figure in the night, harper, would be found dead next morning, despite being locked in "safe" from inside — the murder victim for the mystery novel — they are always alone late at night, working — seemingly locked in yet we, the audience can see him…and so who else could see him and do the horrible deed?

    • The camera operator.

      • Or the make-up artist?

    • The law of unintended consequences kicks in yet again.

  2. Personally, I thought the whole idea of Stephen Harper staying late into the night to work in his office alone was thrown off by a few things:

    1) A lack of computer anywhere in sight. Instead of governing based on the best decision, instead he works based on uncontrolled versions of files (that looked entirely too neat to be anything important.) Good to know.
    2) The pan shot by the shuttered window that is interrupted by the bright sunshine outside. The suspension of disbelief is shattered, and suddenly the man working so hard alone, burning the midnight oil is replaced with the image of some weirdo shutting himself off from the world in the middle of the day.
    3) Only because someone mentioned it before, but can someone get the PM's office a new phone? The company that made the one pictured no longer exists, and stopped making that type of phone about 15 years ago. Look, steve… instead of marking up paper copies of documents that have probably changed several times since they were sent to the printers, why not get your security detail together and make a quick run to the Rideau Centre and pick up a phone from this century. Really… we won't begrudge you!
    4) The idea of "Stephen Harper Is The Only One Who Works" would probably sell better if not for Prorogue '08 and '09. Quite frankly, the first thing that crossed my mind was "yeah, well maybe you wouldn't have to work late if you didn't spend all your time at tightly controlled photo ops or shutting down Parliament to avoid confidence votes and hard questions. Or maybe if you reduced QP prep from 3 hours to 2? Just some thoughts….

    • Dude looks like the control freak he is: alone, managing the files himself, making decisions without input from his "team." Indeed, from the ad it's clear he ain't got no team to share the workload with — nobody he can trust anyhoo.

      Music in background should be "All By Myself," or "Alone Again ( Naturally).

    • I have to admit I expected the final shot to be of the Parliament Buildings at night, with a light on in one window…

      • I expected the final shot to be of the Parliament Buildings at night, with a light on in one window…

        But after the shot with the afternoon sun forcing it's way through the shuttered windows, the light could only be in either a different office, or else for the cleaning crew as they tidied up from the surprise visit of Harper, his security detail, his aides, his hairdresser, his dry-cleaner*, and the camera crew.

        (* note for next time: people who work late do not have severe creases in their attire that are only visible when taken from the wrapper. Nor do they have their ties neatly tied. I'll give you the hair… while most people would have slightly messy hair, I suspect that it would take hurricane-force wind to move the minifig do out of place)

        • The window is shuttered so he can avoid noticing global warming.

        • Maybe a little 10:00 pm shadow. He's very clean shaven for that – cough- time at night. Mind you, if you've ever tried applying blush over stubble…

  3. Why is Jaime Weinman posting as John Geddes? ;-)

    • Oh this is way too well-written to be anything by Weinman.

      • Bite your tongue! IMHO, Weinman is a good writer.

      • Kidding aside, IMHO Weinman is a good writer.

  4. I thought the part of the commercial which was most indicative of Conservative values was 00.08 to 00.14: meandering down the corridors of power – in the dark.

  5. With so much at stake, why would we risk changing course?”

    I took this to mean "Trust me, you've seen the federal cabinet, you don't want me working with my colleagues! It'd be for the best if I just keep running the joint all by myself, 'cause those idiots would ruin the place!"

  6. I think it would work better if the files were dossiers with compromising 8×10 photos . Harper as J Edgar mulling over his intelligence gatherings and getting ready to strike.

    • Didn't J. Edgar relax by dressing in frilly dresses? Next up, Harper singing "Get back, Jojo…"

  7. The more you watch the office shots the more disjointed and overloaded with camera angles it seems to be.

    There's a lot of potential for spoofs of this to go viral.

    Are you taking notes Mr Mercer?

  8. "moody pictures of a serious Prime Minister in his Langevin Block office, working late into the night."

    posed, posed, posed… unless Harper regularly puts on make up before he spends a night in the office with a personal photographer to capture legislative Kodak moments, they say Tony Clement is on constant standby with an old Minolta…

    the joys of selecting photos from the Harper scrap book: "Ooooooh Tony, here's me killing national day care, and that's me killing funding to women's groups, ooohhh look, signing legislation to transfer funds to Ontario and BC so they can implement the HST… and here's me plotting strategy to blame Iggy for losing the UN Security Council….sigh we had Chinese food that night …. ooohhhhhh and that one's really intense, must be when I was trying to decide whether or not I'd sing the lyrics to Imagine…

  9. There is far too much attention being given to the Conservatives' adds.

    I don't get it.

  10. Also, the two-part CBC interview with Mansbridge, with its dim lighting and visual organization, acted as a force multiplier for the Conservatives' ad campaign, given the coincidental timing of the interview and the ads' release.

  11. it took them 5 days to shoot the latest Tory ad and in the end they decided not to let Harper speak because he couldn't say "making Canada better" with a straight face…

    using fake footage to make Stevie look the leader… if only they released the making of video… okay second take on the stairs… okay Stevie, you got the weight of the world on your shoulders, every step is an issue, yeah, yeah… unreported crimes, new jet fighters, what to wear on the ice flow…. action… good good, ponder, baby, ponder…. that's it… okay now we're moving on to signing, Stevie, we need a bold masculine pen, perfect, alright get him a piece of a paper to sign, something with lots of print, legal lookin' … sign more slowly, more brooding, more brooding…good, good, can we get some more files over here? whatever, make 'em thick… okay, Stevie, places everyone, make up, we're getting some shine off those cheeks… lick your lips, can we get him a Fresca? places everyone… in 3, 2…

  12. To be totally pedantic, the flame in front of the Parliament Buildings is the Centennial Flame, not the eternal flame. It's actually turned off on a semi-regular basis (maintenance, protests, etc.), and when it was installed in 1967 was intended to be temporary.

    /Ottawa pet peeves

    • So the flame is like Harper's government?

  13. Sinister!

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