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Film Noir

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What is Film Noir?

Some things, like jazz, are easier to describe than to define. It has been said, for example, that science fiction is what you find on library shelves under Science Fiction.

Film noir is a name applied to a body of American films most of which were made between 1945 and 1959. The films are pessimistic, taking a bleak view of life. They deal with themes such as obsession, alienation, and betrayal, are set amid inhospitable locales such as city streets, and are characterised by high contrast photography with deep shadows. They picked up on motifs already found in hard-boiled thrillers by authors such as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

Many noir films are crime films, but that is only because the darker side of life is more likely to be found there. [For examples of non-crime noir films, see Nightmare Alley (1947) or House of Strangers(1949).] Of the crime noirs, some are heist movies, where the co-operation necessary to the robbery is likely to expose the character faults of the robbers. Others concern crimes passionels, often involving a femme fatale who is the object of the leading character’s obsession. This plot has, of course, a history going back to ancient times (for example, the story of David and Bathsheba), and is typified in film by The Blue Angel (1930).

Film movements

There have been periods when several films produced in a particular country at a particular time have exhibited a number of characteristics in common. This can come about when a group of film makers all share a similar artistic vision, particularly if that vision arises out of the social and political circumstances then prevailing.

German expressionism

Following the First World War, through the 1920s and into the early 1930s, several films made in Germany exhibited what became known as German expressionism. The essential tenet of the movement was that the image on the screen should express what the film was intending to convey. At its lowest, this resulted in certain symbolistic conventions. If the story was that character A dominated character B, then shots of them together would have A in the foreground and B in the background, so that A’s image towered over B’s. If the story was that a child was coming between its parents, then any shots of the three together would have the child in the centre, literally between its parents. More generally, the image on the screen was designed to express to the audience the message that the film maker wished to convey.

In theory expressionism may convey any emotion at all — joy, laughter, hope, or whatever. In practice, however, that period in Germany’s history, in the aftermath of defeat and in the midst of uncontrolled inflation and economic collapse, was one of guilt and despair. This was reflected in the themes of madness, horror, and heinous crime which pervaded many German films of that era, such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), The Golem (1921), Nosferatu (1922), Dr Mabuse (1922), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931). The visual style which resulted was one of harsh contrasts between light and shade, in which discordant and angular outlines prevailed. It is this style which is meant by German expressionism. With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, a number of German expressionist film makers emigrated to the USA, among them Fritz Lang, who would become influential in the field of film noir.

French poetic realism

Throughout the 1930s, French film makers strove to preserve the Gallic flavour of their products in the face of imports from Hollywood. They tended to find their heroes among the common people, and to show real life. However, the traditions of French painting, including impressionism and surrealism, still influenced visual form, so that the films did not have documentary literalism, but rather a poetic and dreamy style. Films from this movement include L’Atalante (1934), Pepé le Moko (1937), Quai des Brumes (1938),and Le Jour se Lève (1939). As the decade wore on, it seemed increasingly likely that France would surrender to Nazism, and French films became increasingly pessimistic.

Italian Neo-realism

At the close of World War 2 the Italian film industry was in disarray. With their studios out of action, film makers had perforce to film on location in natural light. They tended to take their subjects from the tribulations of working class Italians at that time. Films such as Roberto Rossellini's Roma, Citta Aperta (1946), Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (1948), and Giuseppe De Santis' Riso Amaro (1949) had a naturalistic quasi-documentary style which became known as neo-realism. Jules Dassin has stated that he was much influenced by the style of Italian films in the late 1940s, when he was making Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Thieves' Highway (1949).

Film noir — genre or movement?

German expressionism, French poetic realism, and Italian neo-realism all influenced the visual style, subject matter, and mood of noir films. There is often debate — dispute even — as to whether film noir can properly be regarded as a genre. It is said that whereas genres are universal and eternal, film noir was local (namely American) and restricted to a particular era (namely the late 1940s and most of the 50s), and was therefore itself a movement. It is not useful, however, to become a slave to terminology.

The divide between genre and movement is not as distinct as some pretend. Todd Erikson, in his persuasive essay Kill Me Again: Movement Becomes Genre , has argued that film noir can be understood not only as a movement, but also as a genre, which developed within, and emerged from, the movement itself. It could be argued that horror movies are a genre which grew out of the same German expressionist movement which influenced the visual style of film noir.

Silver and Ward, in their definitive volume, regard film noir as a movement. They take the view that film noir arose out of and reflected the social tensions that beset the USA during the fifteen years or so following World War 2. Those years were the classic period of film noir, and the action in noir films was always set in contemporary times, and always either took place in the USA, or involved an American. They point out also that some 75% of noir films involve servicemen or ex-servicemen. Of course, in the immediate post-war years returning servicemen were featured in many types of film, including musicals and romantic comedies, but their presence in noir films is significant in that it reflects the returning GI syndrome, which was an important element of the social malaise that the films reflect.

Genres too can go out of fashion. Like film noir, screwball comedy was American and confined to a relatively short period, but it is accepted as a genre, not a movement. Musicals were longer lasting, but have now had their day, and the few examples that there have been since 1960 are scarcely to be considered in the same breath as the productions of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Even westerns, the very first genre filmed in Hollywood and seemingly a never failing staple, are now virtually unknown. The spaghetti westerns were their dying fling, and Heaven’s Gate stands as a dire warning to those who think that the genre can still be made to work. Westerns dominated TV schedules for decades (Laramie, The Virginian, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Alias Smith and Jones, High Chapparal, etc), but cowboys and Indians were driven from our screens, first by doctors and nurses, and latterly by cops and robbers.

Certainly there are some undeniable distinctions between film noir and most other genres, perhaps the most obvious being that while a single characteristic defines most genres, what noir films have in common is a combination of features.

Film noir and B movies

To keep their audiences, in the mid-1930s cinemas began to offer two films for the price of one. In order to double their production without doubling their costs, the major film studios set up special production units, known as B units, to produce shorter films (around 70 minutes) quickly and cheaply to support the main feature.

The major studios were motivated by the New Deal ethos, and wanted their feature films to be upbeat and optimistic. Even tragic dramas were expected to be vicarious weepies, not disquieting revelations of real social trauma. Tight control was maintained over feature films. Every night, studio heads would view the rushes of the film shot that day. If they saw anything not to their liking, whether in terms of content or technique, the director would be called to account immediately, and often would be required to re-shoot scenes.

As far as the B movies were concerned, however, only time and money mattered. Provided the films came in on time and within budget, the studio was satisfied. This gave enterprising directors of B movies a freedom over style and content that directors of feature films did not have, and some of them took advantage of this to make many of the early noir films, whose pessimistic and cynical outlook would not have been permitted in a major production.

In the 1930s B movies had included many gangster films with clean-cut heroes overcoming worthless villains, often by a straight right to the jaw. Audiences were in no doubt who were the goodies and who were the baddies, nor that the former would triumph over the latter. Morality, as well as the photography, was in black and white. With the coming of the 1940s however, darker themes were introduced, and moral issues were depicted as shades of grey.

Many of the finest noir films came from minor studios or the B units of the big studios.

Common characteristics of film noir

Recurrent stylistic features of noir films include cinematography, plot structure, voice-overs, locales, and musical accompaniment. Recurrent thematic features include alienation, obsession, revenge, femmes fatales, despotic males, and illusion.


Cinematography

As already noted, the visual style of noir films was heavily influenced by the German expressionist movement. This was aided by technological developments, such as more sensitive film stock and lightweight hand-held cameras, which facilitated location and low-light filming, and techniques such as shooting into the light. City street scenes at night, and oncoming cars with blazing headlights, became almost a cliché of the genre. The depth of field of fast film allowed set-ups depicting strong perspective, with significant action occurring perhaps in both foreground and background. Most noir films reflect the distinctive imagery of the genre.


Plot structure

Film noir plot structure is rarely a straightforward narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is frequently non-sequential or even circular.


Voice-overs

Voice-over narration became well-established in movies during the 1930s. It was an inevitable feature of documentary and instructional films, and was adopted for some fictional films to give them an air of authenticity. It was a device particularly used for crime films, especially those depicting police procedures. Voice-over narration came in two flavours: either flat and impersonal, giving the impression of objectivity, or strident and hectoring, suggesting the promotion of propaganda. Films depicting the operations of government agencies such as the FBI frequently adopted the latter style.

Both types of voice-over are to be found among noir films, but more typically there was a new, third, style, namely first-person narration by the hero of the film, frequently depressed and defeatist.


Locales

The majority of noir films have urban settings, usually big cities, frequently depicted by night. This is in keeping with the thematic motifs of alienation and oppression. In any list of titles of noir films, the words big, city, street, night, and dark are likely to be found several times: The Big Clock, The Big Combo, The Big Heat, The Big Knife, The Big Sleep, The Big Night, Somewhere in the Night, Fear in the Night, They Live by Night, He Walked by Night, Between Midnight and Dawn, Clash by Night, The Night Holds Terror, Nightmare, The Night Runner, Nightfall, Night Moves, Night Editor, So Dark the Night, Night and the City, City Streets, Beast of the City, Canon City, The Captive City, Cry of the City, The Naked City, The City That Never Sleeps, The Sleeping City, While the City Sleeps, Dark City, The Dark Corner, The Dark Mirror, The Dark Past, Mystery Street, 99 River Street, Pickup on South Street, Street of Chance, The House on 92nd Street, Scarlet Street, The Street With No Name, Panic in the Streets, Side Street, and many others.


Music

The city is often suggested by the background music too, with a preponderance of street music, such as Alfred Newman’s Street Scene or Earle Hagen’s Harlem Nocturne. Jazz themes are often featured, and the presence of a sultry night-club chanteuse in many of the films involves music to suit.

Audio: Street Scene (plus some opening chords) from Cry of the City.


Alienation

Obsession

Obsession with a female. The Blue Angel situation: Kent Smith and Ann Sheridan as Dr. Richard Talbot and Nora Prentiss in Nora Prentiss, Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett as Christopher Cross and Katharine 'Kitty' March in Scarlet Street, and as Professor Richard Wanley and Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window.


Revenge

Sometimes the noir protagonist is obsessed with revenge (examples?), sometimes he is the intended victim of another's revenge (eg Hang My Gallows High).


Femmes fatales and non-fatales

The larcenous, eg Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity

The innocent, eg Ann Sheridan as Nora Prentiss, Shelley Winters as Peggy Dobbs in He Ran All the Way.

The psychotic, eg Laraine Day as Nancy Monks Blair Patton in The Locket, Jean Simmons as Diane Tremayne Jessup in Angel Face.

The supportive, eg Shelley Winters as Lorry in Odds Against Tomorrow, Jean Hagen as Doll Conovan in The Asphalt Jungle, Coleen Gray as Fay in The Killing.

The long suffering, eg Jane Wyatt as Sue Forbes in Pitfall, Patricia Neal as Leona Charles in Breaking Point.

The helpful, eg Lucille Ball as Kathleen in The Dark Corner, Margaret Tallichet as Jane in Stranger on the Third Floor, Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham in This Gun for Hire and as Joyce Harwood in The Blue Dahlia, Nancy Guild as Christy Smith in Somewhere in the Night, Lizabeth Scott as Kay Lawrence in I Walk Alone.

The opportunistic, eg Lizabeth Scott as Mona Stevens in Pitfall and as Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears.

The insidious, eg Ann Baxter as Evelyn Heath in Guest in the House, Joan Fontaine as Christabel Caine Carey in Born to Be Bad.

The ruthless, eg: Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven, Leslie Brooks as Claire Cummings Hanneman in Blonde Ice.

The homicidal, eg Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Ferguson Doyle in Crime of Passion, Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy.


Despotic males
Illusion

Reality v Appearance — Dreams and Paintings