Friday, 4 January 2013

Juice Season

It's that time of year again when the liver needs a little love. To help us get over the party season, at Colebrooke Row we're huge fans of fresh juices. This week we'll be drinking Apple Mojitos and praising the homogeniser which makes our fresh juices that extra bit tasty. 

The Apple Mojito


- 6 mint sprigs
- 15ml sugar syrup
- 10ml fresh lemon juice
- 15ml fresh lime juice
- 75ml freshly pressed green apple juice
- lemon and lime slice and mint sprig, to garnish

1. Muddle the mint sprigs with sugar syrup in a cocktail tin. 

2. Mix in the lemon and lime juices, then add crushed ice and the apple juice.

3. Shake twice and then pour the mixture into a highball glass. 

4. Garnish with a lemon and lime slice and a bruised mint sprig.

At Colebrooke Row, Tony's Apple Mojito recipe is a winner for bartenders and the home-cocktail maker alike. 

There are heaps of detox properties in every element of this drink. As a whole, the three major components are fantastic for facilitating and improving digestion. In addition, lime juice works hard to rejuvenate the skin, apples aid in preventing anaemia and weakness, and mint helps with both headaches and nausea and activates the saliva glands to promote taste.

For those not drinking alcohol, there's no reason not to be drinking something really good. This is simple to make, especially in batches. Happy detoxing!

An Ode to the Homogeniser

Traditional stirring and mixing methods don't always produce optimum results when employed for many blending tasks. A homogeniser is a nifty machine that transforms the consistency of various types of material by breaking up its particles, resulting in a more uniform - or homogenous, product. There are several types of homogeniser used in the food industry and in science laboratories alike, which break up tissue, plants, soil and food. The original homogeniser is the humble pestle and mortar, used for thousands of years to disrupt the consistency of material and is still a standard tool in laboratories and kitchens. Whereas older technologies simply focused on the disruption of material, newer technologies prioritise quality. For example, the ultrasonic homogeniser uses ultrasonic sound waves to create high and low pressure cycles which breaks up the particles of individual liquids to allow them to blend together. 

High-pressure homogenisation is an important process in the sanitary treatment of food and nutritional products, especially dairy. It provides improved product stability, shelf life and digestion as well as improving the final taste. Using a high-pressure homogeniser can also significantly reduce the amount of additives required, especially with baby foods and dairy products. The effect is achieved by forcing the product through a special homogenising valve at a very high pressure. Typically, products enter the homogeniser with sizes ranging from 1 micron (1000th of a gram) to 0.4 microns. 

At Colebrooke Row we like to use a homogeniser for fresh juices which are used in the bar either on their own or in cocktails. Our homogeniser is a simple model that works using a series of fast-spinning sharp blades. The homogeniser is fantastic for juicing fibrous fruits such as lemon, lime and rhuburb: when the blades spin, they break up the fibres of the fruit, which produces a rounder, fuller and richer flavour. There are different levels on the homogeniser so that you can choose the speed at which the blades spin. The more fibrous the juice, the higher the level needed. However, be careful not to homogenise a juice for too long at too high a speed, or it will begin to burn. Homogenising juice is a fast and simple way to really to improve the texture and mouth-feel of juice - it makes being good to yourself all that more pleasurable!

Friday, 28 December 2012

On Nature

The role of science in the craftsmanship of our drinks is often one of the most talked about factors for those who visit 69 Colebrooke Row. The ethos behind our menu is that nothing is ever finished; be it a classic cocktail or an entirely new creation, drinks are always subject to engineering. Each recipe is regarded in the same manner that a mechanic might look at an engine - as something that can be taken and put back together again. For us, not only will the drink still work once all its components are back in place, but it will also function on an entirely new level. 

In this way, using the science available at the bar's lab is a way for us to evolve what bartenders can do with the ingredients available to them, as well as add a new chapter to a pre-existing recipe rather than simply rewriting the book. Because science is used on a daily basis to help execute the concepts behind many of our drinks, it is often overlooked how much nature is an inspiration for the crafting of a new cocktail.

Nature has always been an inspiration for the arts encompassing the diverse terrains of painting, architecture, perfumery, fashion, photography, literature and cuisine. Nature has an inherent duality, incorporating as it does both growth and destruction and it is truly inspirational in its evocative ability to reinvent itself. Although nature is full of aesthetic pleasures, its beauty also comes from its clever design. For centuries, Japanese culture has revered nature as an ideal of beauty. Indeed, a defining part of Japanese culture is a deep awareness of nature’s seasons in order to work in synthesis with them. Seasonal culture is inherited from generation to generation and incorporates diverse traditions: from changing dishes and tablecloths, to horticulture and cuisine; this has been a real inspiration for the way in which we approach ingredients and cocktail-making at Colebrooke row.

The word shun which means ‘now-in-season’ is a long-held principle for selecting local food produced in its season. Japanese cooking reflects the natural environment that surrounds it. Apart from being thought of as a tasty and healthy way of eating, it also has cultural value. When it comes to food, the experience of eating includes smell and taste, as well as the sight of the food which is considered an important kind of art. Decorations and colours of the dish are aligned with the season. White is for the winter, pink and green are for the spring, red and green (or purple) are for the summer and orange and yellow are for the autumn. 

In addition, utensils for eating are also 'seasonal.' Deep bowls, which give a  'warm feeling', are used in the winter to keep the heat, whilst in the summer, wide shallow bowls which allow more air exposure are used. These dishes are decorated seasonally too - a sakura pattern in the spring and a red-leaved pattern in the autumn. Glassware which signifies ice is used in the summer to promote a cool-feeling. 

At Colebrooke Row we are huge fans of Kigo, the Japanese shochu. In Japanese, the word Kigo denotes specific terms used to describe seasonal events. For example, haru is the name of the spring but the morning time in spring is called shungyoo. The spring thunder is called shunrai but thunder in the summer is termed kaminari. When it comes to using Kigo in cocktails we like to keep in mind the beautiful six-generation Kyo-ya distillery in Nichinian, Kysushu where the spirit is distilled. Its woodland surrounding and fresh water stream are often focal points for the way in which Kigo is incorporated in our drinks.  In this way, we try to draw what is best from that which nature offers us, remove what is unnecessary and accentuate what is most desirable..

Monday, 17 December 2012

FASHION: From Catwalk To Plate To Cocktail Bar

In its various incarnations, the love affair between food and fashion is booming. There aren’t many who wouldn’t agree that a beautiful dish is style on a plate. This is perhaps why collaborations between chefs and designers have become more and more commonplace in recent years.  The artistry and craftsmanship inherent to the culinary world lend themselves to the design and aesthetic values of fashion houses, both big and small. Helmut Newton, trailblazing as always, was perhaps the first to pioneer the modern transcendence between the two disciplines. With his signature sense of louche, Newton’s foray into luxuriant surfaces naturally led him to the world of food.  In a 1974 shoot for American Vogue, Hewton snapped Jerry Hall squeezing a fistful of raw meat against her face. The later series ‘Chicken and Jewellery’ depicts crude, sexualised food-play as a hand bedecked with a blinding diamond bracelet and ring rips apart a greasy cooked chicken. In these beautiful photographs, fashion, kink and food are all at play with one another.

A cure for a black eye, Helmut Newton

Chicken and Jewellery, Helmut Newton

In recent years international chefs have been commissioned by fashion houses to construct menus which reflect the values of a fashion brand’s aesthetic. The iconic Italian fashion house Trussardi took this idea one step further by opening its own restaurant: Trussardi alla Scala is the gastronomic extension of the Trussardi brand. The director and chef Andrea Burton, was employed to create a style that imitates the brand's fashion formula by partnering culinary tradition with an avant-garde, technical approach. 

The result has been internationally acclaimed, and has made the Milanese restaurant one of the most desirable addresses in Italy. In fact, the Trussardi alla Scala initiative has been so inspiring that Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs have both followed suit with projects to explore their creativity in the culinary field. In this way, Trussardi were the first to realise that fashion can transcend the runway and the pages of glossy magazines: the new style is style on a plate. Commenting on the collaboration, Trussardi sums up the fashion brand’s holistic aspirations nicely: 'Through excellence it is possible to produce culture in any field - from fashion to design, from art to food.'

Trussardi Alla Scala, Milan

In a recent Nowness Feature, friend of Colebrooke Row and chef extraordinaire, Nuno Mendes explains the raison d’etre behind his collaboration with designer Julia Muggenburg in their shoot for The Gourmand Journal. When asked how to take culinary approach to a style shoot Mendes responds:

'I wanted to both mimic and contrast with Julia's incredible wardrobe and jewellery. For me it is a delicate and beautiful thing - it is dainty, and I wanted to showcase food in the same way. Like food, it is a garnish that we apply to the body in the same way that we use ingredients to decorate dishes and so we wanted to continue with this same idea - we garnish to extend its value.' 

To read the full interview, visit

Mendes & Muggenburg shoot for The Gourmand

Newton, Trussardi and Mendes all seem to share the same understanding when it comes to cuisine and design, so if food and fashion are such comfortable bed-mates, why is it that the drinks world is taking so long to get in on the fun? Considering the aesthetic inherent in drinking culture and the diverse inspirations that cocktails are born of, it seems strange that fashion hasn't had more influence on the cocktail world. At Colebrooke Row, we've spent some time over the past couple of years trying to bridge the gap. With Tony's history of working in the fashion world, it seemed natural to collaborate with fashion houses, particularly for the launch parties of new ranges. A good example of this is Ralph Lauren's launch of their vintage denim range in Spring 2011. In keeping with the brand's style, ethos and personality, we created a bottled cocktail 'Tiger Milk', labelled with beautiful original artwork. Later commissions by Roland Mouret continued the burgeoning partnership between the drinks and fashion worlds, one which we hope to see blossom in 2013...

Bottled Tiger Milk Cocktail

Somerset Egg Nog

With Christmas looming, below is the recipe for Somerset Egg Nog as featured in Tony's book 'Drinks'. The perfect excuse for a festive tipple.


- eggs, separated 
- 300g sugar
- 300ml single cream
- 600ml whole milk
- 150ml Breton cider
- 150ml cider brandy 
- freshly grated apple and nutmeg, to garnish 

As with food, drink recipes (particularly punch) are passed down via families and friends, with each generation adding its own twists. I first sampled, and then inherited, this recipe from Dale Degroff, who in turn was taught it by his uncle Angelo. Dale's recipe uses bourbon and spiced rum and I exchanged these for cider brandy and cider.

Cider brandy gives this drink a wonderful kick whilst simultaneously adding spice and dryness. The carbonation of the cider makes the mix fluffy. On paper the ingredients suggest a heavy, stocky drink, but the order and method ensure that the end product is light and yielding.

1. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to form a batter. Add the cream and milk and whisk  thoroughly. Continue whisking while slowly adding the cider and cider brandy.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the whites into the batter mix.

3. Serve in a large bowl and ladle into small cups or glasses.

4. To garnish, grate fresh apple over the drink and top each cup with a sprinkling of grated nutmeg.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Essence of an Italian Christmas

Here at Colebrooke Row this week we've been well and truly bitten by the festive bug. The bar is looking suitably Christmasy and we have a new winter libation by the name of St. James' Gate due next week for its first appearance on the Colebrooke menu. Featuring a delicious Guinness and treacle reduction, we love this new winter warmer.

Inspired by Tony's inherited egg nog recipe, this week we've been looking into Italian traditions surrounding the Christmas holidays and salivating over food and drink recipes. In fact, the very essence of Christmas Day in Italy is family, food and talking, all of which occurs in abundance; whole families come together to celebrate with traditions that have been handed down for generations and to start new ones of their own.

Light and Decorations 

Celebrating Christmas with festive lights and decorations is something that the whole of Italy embraces. Often beginning around December 8th on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, decorations tend to follow religious tradition and focus on the nativity scene. Almost every church will partake with their own nativity and they are often found outdoors in piazzas as well. Traditionally bonfires are usually held on Christmas Eve in a town's main square, especially in mountain areas. 

Torino, in north Italy, is one of the most impressive places for lights. Over twenty kilometres of streets and squares are illuminated from late November to early January. In Verona, an illuminated arch with a huge star points to the Christmas market.

Present Time

Most Italians open their presents on Christmas Day morning or after lunch, although some with stoic patience wait until the Epiphany on January 6th. Traditionally, children receive a long, colourful stocking (la calza) filled to the brim with sweets if they have been good; but if they have been bad then Christmas morning will reveal a stocking full of 'coal' (black sugar). According to tradition, it's not Santa Claus who delivers gifts to expectant children across the world but rather La Befana - a kind witch. It is thought that she followed the three wise men but got lost and has been wandering ever since, handing out presents to children on Ephinany eve.

Food and Drink 

Christmas Nougat

 Depending on the region and religious beliefs, the Christmas season commences at different times but December 24th and 25th are the most important days and they encompass a two-day feast. According to the Italian Catholic tradition, the Christmas Eve meal consists almost entirely of fish, with plentiful courses sometimes amassing to six or seven different fish dishes. Antipasto seafood salad, fettuccine with smoked salmon, dried and salted cod, fried eel with peas and polenta or a stuffed trout are often amongst the evening's offerings.

Christmas Day lunch is an orgiastic symphony of food and talking. A stuffed pasta such as tortellini or cappelletti or crostini with liver pate often begins the day's eating. The next course of a stuffed goose, pig's foot stuffed with spiced mince meat, or il cotechino - a sausage made from pig's intestines are particularly popular in northern Italy although in southern Italy the seafood bonanza continues. An abundance of side dishes, such as artichokes cooked in white wine, or a gratin of vegetables roasted in the oven are also served up.

The sweet side of things are equally important to the Christmas meal. Many of the traditional recipes originated in convents, where the nuns made special types of sweets to mark major religious  holidays and offered them to eminent and noble families from which their mother superiors came. Most Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds as, according to peasant folklore, eating nuts aids the fertility of the land and those who dwell upon it. As such, post-Christmas lunch sweet-treats will include nougat, pandoro - a light, golden cake and panforte, a gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds.   

The most traditional Christmas cake is the Milanese panettone. Legend has it that the cake was first baked in the sixteenth century, when a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked a golden, buttery egg bread to win her heart. Over the years the name of the bread evolved into panettone and in the nineteenth century, with the unification of Italy, the bread was embellished with candied red cherries and green citron as a patriotic gesture. Delicious.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Fifties and the Rise of Italian Fashion

Behind the Scenes at a fifties fashion show
More than simply fashion, a piece of clothing emblazoned with the words 'Made in Italy' is emblematic of a certain kind of lifestyle; it is a label that has become synonymous with good taste, attention to detail and quality. Italy has always maintained a rich and multifarious affair with fashion. However, a distinctive Italian look had yet to emerge until the 1950s - a decade of pioneering experimentation and a time in which Italy's sense of fashion bloomed.

As is its want, fashion is determined by both political and social changes. From the twelfth century, right through until the early twentieth century, Italy thrived as an exporter of luxury fashion items, textiles and small leather goods. However, an insecure government structure resulted in the absence of a unified Italian fashion centre and so estranged the country's fashion artists from competing in the global market.

For the first part of the twentieth century, France monopolised the world of fashion, with Paris recognised as both the epicentre of chic and the global leader in couture culture. Italy, like much of the world, looked abroad for the latest fashions; wealthy women travelled to Paris to buy their clothes; wealthy men had their suits and shoes custom-made in London. The Italian middle classes employed dressmakers and tailors to produce copies of the latest Paris and London styles.

Christian Dior
As World War Two drew to a close, a lapse in overseas communications waylaid France's domineering fashion force. By 1950, America was gaining on France's heels, offering an alternate view of fashion as comfortable, durable and sporty as opposed to tailored and refined. From this dichotomy came the rise of ready-to-wear. French couturiers such as Christian Dior and Jacques Fath were simplifying their designs to sell to American department stores and New York boutiques alike. The post-war Italian government actively sought ways to help the nation recover from the war's economic damage. One early success was the revival of traditional craft-based products - shoes, leather goods and other accessories, for an export market aimed at the United States, which at this point was the only large country in the world with substantial post-war purchasing power. The middle-ground that lay between the French and American take on ready-to-wear was provided by Italian fashion designers, who saw the need for collections which combined accessibility and comfort with refined, elegant design.

A crucial step in bringing Italian Fashion to an international platform was the first multi-designer Italian fashion show held in Florence in 1951. Florentine business man Giovan Battista successfully organised a fashion show of Italy's most promising designers including the pioneering works of Sorelle Fontana, Contessa Visconti, Emilio Pucci, Baroness Gallotti and Bertoli. The fashion press were enthused, reporting the show using rapturous phrases such as seductive elegance and aristocratic ease. The American fashion press in particular took notice and observed too that Italian dresses were coming onto the market at prices far lower than those for French creations. High-end American department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdof Goodman, sent representatives to review the collection and consequently the designs of Capucci, Fabiani and Sorelle Fontana were transported back to the States.

Myrna Loy in That Dangerous Age
Rome's oldest and most prominent fashion house - Sorelle Fontana, is the success story of three sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna who learnt dressmaking from their mother. Making the bold decision to move their dressmaking business to Rome at the beginning of the Second World War, the sister's glamorous designs were inspired by Christian Dior's New Look, which clung to the bust-line with full, swinging skirts. The three sisters had grand aspirations. Initially sought after by the Italian aristocracy, after the success of the Florence fashion show in 1951, the Fontana's developed their Italian informal but feminine style to appeal to the American market. This was a liberating moment for Italian fashion designers: for the first time they were commercially freed from foreign influence.

Sorelle Fontana design in La Dolce Vita
Hollywood began to take notice. The Fontana designs first caught the eye of Myrna Loy who bought all her costumes from the sisters for her film That Dangerous Age. The following year they made Linda Christian's wedding dress when she married Tyrone Power. The cassock dress, based on robes worn by Roman Catholic priests and worn by Ava Gardner, and the infamous dress worn by Anita Ekberg in the La Dolce Vita fountain scene, catapulted the Fontana designs into the most exclusive wardrobes of the era. Gardner and Ekberg were the perfect Fontana client and model - unashamedly and voluptuously sexy and already known for their alluring and elegant dressing.

Audrey Hepburn in Sorelle Fontana

Glamorous and sophisticated evening gowns and cocktail dresses designed by Pucci, Contessa Visconit and Sorelle Fontana were worn by both Italian and Hollywood movie stars both on and off-screen, most notably by Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. First ladies soon took their cue and Jackie Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower continued to display Italian design in the public eye. In addition to breathtaking cocktail dresses, throughout the 1950s, competing fashion shows in Florence and Rome solidified Italy's reputation for Capri pants, 'palazzo pyjamas,' and other youthful, elegant sportswear.

The continuing unity between life and film brought worldwide recognition to Italy and propelled Rome into the running for most glamorous international city. During the fifties, Italy created an empire of post-war fashion, and enjoyed an influential and unforgettable decade of style sovereignty.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Art Nouveau in the Streets of Paris

The Colebrooke Row love affair with Paris began years ago but with the opening of our new venture Bar Le Coq, this week we’ve fallen in love all over again. Paris has a vibrant and exciting bar scene and Le Coq has arrived to celebrate the 1970s and the synergy between traditional French glamour and the raw energy of the New York underground music scene. Originally the site of a Parisian wine bar, Le Coq graces a small backstreet in the 10th Arrondissement.  Despite an incredibly busy month we’ve had the opportunity to stroll along the autumn streets and in doing so we couldn’t help but spend some time admiring the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and delving into its rich and fascinating history.

Paris has always been a key-player in all European artistic movements. In the latter part of the nineteenth century it played home to core developments in the formation of Art Nouveau, many of which found themselves immortalised upon the streets of Paris. From the mid-1890s, the works of emerging young designers were exhibited at the gallery L'Art Nouveau and the city hosted the World's Fair of 1900 which helped to propel Art Nouveau into the limelight. 

The most infamous of Parisian Art Nouveau architects is Hector Guimard (1867- 1942) - indeed, the Art nouveau style is often referred to as the Style Guimard in France. Guimard attended the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris from 1882 to 1885. Here Guimard became acquainted with the theories of Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc whose rationalist ideas formed the inspiration for many of his ensuing architectural endeavours. Guimard's first project was to design the interior of the "Au Grand Neptune" restaurant in Paris and on the success of this followed numerous commissions for private dwellings in Paris.

Castel Bérange
Perhaps Guimard's Parisian masterpiece is Castel Béranger, which presides on the rue La Fontaine, but his best-known works - despite some initial scandel - are most likely to be the entrances to the Paris Métro, some of which were completed just in time for the 1900 World Exposition. Based on the ornamented structures of Viollet-le-Duc, Guimard utilised an organic and tense linear style and combined it with cast iron for both structural and decorative purposes. By 1903 Hector Guimard had designed numerous Métro entrances in the Art nouveau style, featuring wrought iron, bronze and glass. The results became instantly iconic. These arches are testamount to the progressive curiosity of Guimard and their construction serve as a precursor to industrial standardisation. In this way, although Art Nouveau often calls upon nature as a muse, it is really an urban style, designed to grace the streets and interiors of modern industrial cities

Guimard's Metro Entrance

When we travelled to the 7th arrondissement we found it to be home of many masterpieces of the Art Nouveau architectural design. It is here that you can find many of Jules Lavirotte’s incredible Art Nouveau masterpieces. Jules Lavirotte (1864-1928) was one of France’s most brilliant and fearless Art Nouveau architects and designers. A contemporary of Hector Guimard, Lavirotte is known for his freeform and audacious designs. Although he worked very little in Paris, there are several examples of his legacy which still stand proudly. The Countess de Montessuy, who lived on rue St-Dominique, was the first patron to enable Lavirotte to work in Paris. On rue Sedillot, close to his patron's dwelling, is a fantastic example of Lavirotte's earliest and Baroque-influenced designs. In the roof and windows, Lavirotte uses designs most commonly seen in Baroque French castles and he cleverly combines these with Art Nouveau iron-worked balconies. Now an Italian school, this building has an impressive and imposing tower over the main entrance.  

Rue Sedillot

Lavirotte's presidence in the 7th arrondissement continues with his building on the Square Rapp. A lack of symmetry in the facade and elaborate balconies, each one different from the rest, ensures that this building really stands out from all others. A short walk away at 29 Avenue Rapp is Lavirotte’s most outlandish building. Designed in 1901 for his friend Alexandre Bigot, the building has a wildly decorated facade and as ceramist himself, Bigot worked in collaboration with his friend to execute the lavish and ornate design. Lavirotte's gift for exuberant forms is clearly visible in this facade, whose bravura set piece is the doorway. 

Avenue Rapp
Square Rapp

Maison des Arums

Unassumingly tucked into a quiet little street near the Champ de Mars park is one of the finest Art Nouveau buildings in Paris. Designed by Octave Raquin in 1904, this building earned the nickname “maison des arums,” or the house of the lilies, because of its lavish floral and vegetate designs and decorations. Here at Colebrooke Row we can't wait to spend more time in Paris as Bar Le Coq approaches the busy Christmas season. No doubt we'll fall victim to a fresh new wave of love as we walk the streets of Paris in the snow...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Erotic and Lethal: The Origins of the Femme Fatale

"Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying."

Larna Tuner
Beyond the sensational design details, film noir is close to our hearts at Colebrooke Row because it cemented the rise of the femme fatale, the type of woman who inspired the creation of ‘The Lipstick Rose’ cocktail. Film noir, or 'black cinema', refers to the dim city-scape backdrops and shadowed alleyways of film noir, but also to the dark and sordid motives of its characters. Among these characters is the femme fatale,the French phrase for ‘deadly woman.’ However, the French term is somewhat misleading: more accurately femme fatales are simply the queens of compromising situations – the match for cynical, disillusioned male protagonists who were susceptible to the charms of a beautiful but promiscuous and seductive double-dealing femme. The exceptional frequency in which women of a questionable virtue graced the screens of film noir was a focus that had become rare in Hollywood films after the mid-1930s and the end of the pre-Code era.

The Pre-Code Era

The pre-Code era is a shorthand term for a roughly five-year period in film history which began with the widespread adoption of sound in 1929 and ended in 1934, with the inauguration of the Production Code Administration and a policy of rigid censorship. Before July 1, 1934, restrictions on film content varied wildly depending on local laws and public taste. As a result, pre-Code films tend to be sexier, more adult, more cynical, socially critical and honest. Preferring the individual to the collective, these films were considerably politically strident.

Marelene Dietrich

The emerging jazz age and the Great Depression encouraged encouraged directors and screenwriters to seriously examine the moral and socio-political underpinnings of America and so came about a new wave of films that radically expanded the previously accepted moral thresholds. Without strict laws of censorship, actresses in the early thirties had access to a greater scope of female presentation. In this terrain the newly materialised, sexualised, self-sufficient New Woman - epitomised by Christian Dior's fashion in the 1920s, could truly flourish. Consequently, the injustices of corporate capitalism, divorce and particularly the sexual experimentation of women were now considered to be fitting subjects for the silver screen. Provocative and pro-active, women were presented as not just being aware of their sexuality but in control of their sexual prowess. It was not an unusual sight for women to waltz across the screen scantily clad in silken lingerie.

Colette Colbert
Many women in the early pre-Code era played prostitutes, however Norma Shearer in The Divorcee established a different pattern. She played a normal wife who, upon discovering her husband has been unfaithful, sets out on a voyage of sexual discovery. With nothing floozy-like about her, Shearer established the bedroom as safe territory for the ordinary woman, and so paved the way for Claudette Colbert in the Smiling Lieutenant, Loretta Young in Employee's Entrance and Bette Davis in Ex-Lady. 

Norma Shearer

The Rise of the Femme Fatale 

In early American slang, what we now consider to be a femme fatale was dubbed a 'vamp', short for vampire, a term which was inspired by Rudyard Kipling's popular poem The Vampire which described the downfall of a seduced man:

A fool there was and he made his prayer/ (Even as you and I!)/ To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair/ (We called her the woman who did not care)/ But the fool he called her his lady fair...

'A fool there was...' very much became the mantra for film noir male protagonists. Surfing the underbelly of many film noir movies is the failure on the part of male leads to recognise the dishonesty inherent in many of noir's principal women. Such hamartia is the downfall of the male characters in iconic noir films such as Scarlet Street, The Locket and Angel Face. In this sense, the power of the woman in film noir was, in part, channelled through wickedness. Women would employ their feminine wiles and alluring heightened sexuality to manipulate the make lead into becoming the fall-guy - often following a murder. However, after a betrayal or double-cross, she was frequently destroyed as well, often at the cost of the hero's life.

Laraine Day in The Locket

The more malevolent femme fatale tends to torture her lover in a relationship of -take-take as opposed to give-and-take, often denying any confirmation of her affection. Double Indemnity provides the archetype of this kind of femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck's character Phyllis Dietrichson (an apparent nod to Marlene Dietrich of pre-Code era). The film's commercial success and seven Oscar nominations ensured that it became one of the most influential of the early noirs. A plethora of noir 'bad girls' would follows; characters played by Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Lana Tuner and Jane Greer were particularly adept at driving men to the point of obsession and exhaustion. Jane Greer's unapologetic portrayal of a cunning female in Out of the Past epitomises the appeal and darkness of an authentic femme fatale. Greer truly possessed the perfect on-screen persona of post-war desolation. 

Jane Greer
However, it's not all sex and murder for the noir femme fatale. Although usually villainous, if not morally ambiguous, and always associated with a sense of mystification and unease, femme fatales have also appeared as anti-heroines in some stories, and some even repent and become true heroines as the film concludes. Some film noirs even feature benevolent and heroic femme fatales who employ their wiles to ensnare the villain for the greater good. 

Nonetheless, by the late fifties and into the sixties, strong, tough and independent women were replaced by assistants and consorts. Those who had once been leading ladies were now defined only by terms of their male protagonists who were increasingly portrayed as gallant Don Juan's or Casanovas - a fashion that was to reach its peak with the James Bond generation... However, the freedom and allure that defines the legacy of the femme fatale lives on in our hearts at Colebrooke Row.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Legacy of Film Noir: Part 1

What is Film Noir?

The Big Sleep (1946)
All the more seductive for its elusive nature, most scholars and critics continue to battle out their definitions as to what constitutes film noir. Essentially film noir is a cinematic term, first coined by French film critics, to describe the emerging trend of black and white American crime and detective films that first evolved in the 1940s and made their way onto French cinema screens in the years following World War Two. Whatever its scholarly definition, at Colebrooke Row we're huge fans of film noir, especially early classics such as Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, a black, moody thriller about a mild-mannered painter's unpunished and unsuspected murder of an amoral femme fatale. And the nightmarishly-dark, rapid-paced D.O.A, from cinematographer-director Rudolph Mate. Who couldn't fall in love with a movie that opens with the eerie line "I want to report a murder - mine?"

Although infinitely stylish and enormously watchable in themselves, classic noir films are so compelling because they cleverly explored the European post-war sentiment of disquiet, pessimism and misgiving and combined it with the USA’s penchant for ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction which celebrated the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and John Huston.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

With this balance in place, film noir carefully scales the terrain of fear, mistrust and bleakness and allows it to collide with moral ambiguity and sexual motivation.  Protagonists were often anti-heroes: the down-and-outs, conflicted detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, killers, crooks and politicians all of whom were absorbed in a gloomy underworld of corruption. In particular, the male figures of film noir were cynical and brooding, struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing. For a period fraught with tension and insecurity, this bleak offering very much reflected the true feeling of the time and the jaded perspectives of such characters ultimately conveyed post-war society’s sense of injustice and moral conflict. Perhaps this is why there is rarely an optimistic or happy ending to a film noir, and this served as a refreshing alternative to the optimism of musicals and comedies that Hollywood were churning out at the time. 

The Film Noir Style 

With the argument around solidly defining film noir as a genre still prevalent, film noir can be more accurately described as a visual style or ‘look’ with low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions underpinning its output. In this sense, film noir is a mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. Whatever it is – it’s instantly recognisable and that’s what makes it classic.

The roots of this style are in German expressionism - an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s which incorporated theatre, photography, painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as cinema. The opportunities offered by the fast growing Hollywood film industry, and later by the threat of Nazi power, led to the emigration of numerous important filmmakers working in Germany, many of whom had been directly involved in the Expressionist movement. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Fritz Lang's M (1931), Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) arose from this era. In particular, films from German directors, such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene, were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast images - all elements of later film noir set design  that were used to enhance mood.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Metropolis (1927)

During the filming of a film noir, the camera rolls and rolls, often in time with the whirring mind of the protagonist. The camera angles were usually angular and skewed to convey disorienting visual schemes. Jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, circling cigarette smoke and unbalanced or moody compositions were effective and often-employed tropes. Most of all, disorientation is key: shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects, such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train were a great way to convey perplexity.

Film noir story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses. Interior settings took place in rooms which were defined by their dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances and venetian blinds with low-key or single-source lighting. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets with flashing neon lights. 

The Third Man (1949)

Pickup On South Street (1953)

Just like a successful film noir, a successful bar has clever lighting. It encourages intimacy, with shadowy images sprung from strategically placed candles and clever overhead lamps. Most notably it creates atmosphere and no one knows the importance of that better than film noir. During the initial design stage of Colebrooke Row it was really integral to our visual aesthetic that our love of film noir happily married with our delight in the Italian café style and culture.
Indeed, it is the lighting which really forms the crux of film noir aesthetics. To mirror the elliptical and twisting storylines of the film, lighting was used to trace themes: doomed love, brutality and moral corruption were emphasised by the shadowy, gloomy and grey lighting which produced a toxic atmosphere of sex and oppression. Lighting also played a huge part in characterisation; if a character had vertical shadow lines cast across them this meant they were a threat, and if the lines were horizontal it meant that they were threatened.

The Big Combo
Kiss Me Deadly (1955
The Big Combo (1955)

Colebrooke Row and the Couple Silhouette 

Studying the film noir lighting in detail inspired both the lighting in the bar and the shadowy silhouette of a film noir couple projected beyond the staircase of the bar. The relationship between the male and female protagonists in film noir is scintillating. Glamorous and alluring, these central figures were often caught in their own double binds and their existential bitterness is both compelling and disarming to watch. Drowning outside of the social mainstream, they came to represent America’s stylised vision of itself.

Film noir had many famous duos, and particularly popular were Alan Ladd and Vernonica Lake who were first matched in This Gun For Hire in 1942 and starred again together in The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler. It was gorgeous couplings such as these that inspired the Colebrooke homage to the film noir silhouette.