The Street A long silent street. I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall and rise, and I walk blind, my feet stepping on silent stones and dry leaves. Someone behind me also stepping on stones, leaves: if I slow down, he slows; if I run, he runs. I turn: nobody. Everything dark and doorless. Turning and turning these corners which lead forever to the street where nobody waits for, nobody follows me, where I pursue a man who stumbles and rises and says when he sees me: nobody. ---Octavio Paz
D ark rooms with light slicing through venetian blinds, alleys cluttered with garbage, abandoned warehouses where dust hangs in the air, rain-slickened streets with water still running in the gutters, dark detective offices overlooking busy streets: this is the stuff of film noir--that most magnificent of film forms--a perfect blend of form and content, where the desperation and hopelessness of the situations is reflected in the visual style, which drenches the world in shadows and only occasional bursts of sunlight.
The word ‘noir’ is literally French for ‘black’, giving us the concept of ‘dark film’. French film critics coined the term soon after the end of WWII. In the early part of the 1940s France was occupied by Nazis, making it enemy territory forbidden to receive Hollywood product. By war’s end there was a half-decade backlog of American movies which hit French viewers suddenly in one rush, rather than gradually over the years as usual. From a Hollywood point of view, they’d been an audience asleep for half a decade.
The French noticed with surprise after the war how a gloomy, pessimistic worldview had replaced much of the formerly sunny optimism of can-do U.S.A. America’s movies were growing darker in the 1940s - not just visually, but also in terms of theme and content. There were numerous reasons for this, springing from changes both in consciousness and practicalities. The world had become a darker place and the more word seeped out of atrocities of war, the deeper the shadows grew over human nature. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Fallen Angel (1945)
America at that time felt powerless to avoid enigmatic conflicts in foreign climes. This was mirrored in movies with doomed heroes whose fate seemed pre-ordained, and immune to free will. Also the popularity of Freudianism brought psychological concerns into common discourse as the world turned inward. Films reflected this introspection through the use of voice-over to describe interior states. Thrillers of the 1940s (and horror flicks of the time like Val Lewton’s RKO series) often took on the ‘otherworldly’ feel of a waking dream. These and other elements (described below) came together in a fortuitous accident of cinematic history to express the mood: film noir .
For Americans victory abroad, perhaps surprisingly, was followed at home by an aftermath of social frustration and disappointment called the ‘postwar malaise’. There were widespread industrial disputes (strike action being unpatriotic in wartime), continued rationing of many consumer durables, race riots (from Detroit in the midwest, to the ‘zoot suit’ battles on the west coast), sickening photographic evidence of the Holocaust and a frightening future revealed by the A-bomb. The ‘dark film’, appropriately, would enter its heyday in the postwar years. Late 1940s – the ‘postwar malaise’ Hollow Triumph (1948)
A defining film noir characteristic (notably absent from many pseudo- noir s of modern times) is fatalism. One small misstep, such as a petty crime, minor evasion - even a ‘white lie’ - sends our doomed protagonist, typically an ‘ordinary Joe’ American male, into a quicksand of obliteration made only more intractable by his futile attempts to escape. A ‘spiderweb of deceit’ is how it’s often described. This is what happens in the noir underworld, but it tells us something of ordinary peoples’ attitudes and expectations. That such minor transgressions could lead to such out-of-control punishments suggests an air of hysteria, even moral panic. Noir’s spiderweb of fate The Set-Up (1949)
Being fundamentally an action genre, and often low budget thrillers, noir used a strong, punchy filmmaking style for maximum impact. Besides its thematic elements which could include fatalism, alienation and transgression, its look was the other half of the noir equation. These films’ long, sharply-defined shadows, frames bathed in inky blackness, tilted camera angles and claustrophobic compositions created an overall aesthetic of nocturnal, subterranean unreality that is easily recognized (and imitated). The ‘look’ of Noir
Film noir linked this look to its dark plotlines to express themes of shadowy motivations and bleak prospects. Using visual elements in this way to express the story is the basis of Expressionism, an extreme visual style of heightened perceptions. Its sense of drama is at the opposite pole from the style of ‘realism’. Expressionist visual techniques were pioneered in Germany during the 1920s and redeployed in 1940s Hollywood by refugee filmmakers fleeing Hitler like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Edward Dmytryk and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom are strongly associated with the noir style. This Gun for Hire (1942)
The 1940s also brought a major challenge in the area of gender and family roles. The male draft combined with the industrial mobilization for the war effort (the entire U.S. auto industry ceased making cars from 1942-46 to concentrate on armaments) made women the primary source of factory workers for the huge number of vacancies. The previous female stereotype of the housewife financially dependent on the male was blown away. This was called the ‘Rosie-the-Riveter’ syndrome. Soldiers returning from the stresses of war came home to newly independent women unlike those they’d left behind. Arising from this new male anxiety and eternal male fantasies of women was the ‘femme fatale’, a siren-like figure of desire whose distinctive characteristics, compared to previous female archetypes, were her independence, strength and ruthless desire. Femme Fatale
A key element of this strength is her sexual forthrightness. The femme fatale is not passive when it comes to desire. She takes action to get what - and whom - she wants with a directness and aggression previously reserved for male players. As a result she is sometimes labeled a ‘predator’, despite acting no differently from accepted male norms. Stereotypes of dangerous women, such as ‘the vamp’ from the 1920s, were not new, and without the other elements such as uncertainty, destabilization and transgression which coalesced into film noir , the femme fatale wouldn’t have existed. Nor must every film noir include a femme fatale; many don’t. She reinforces film noir ’s fatalism. The Ordinary Joe American is helpless to resist the lure of the ‘spiderwoman’ at the heart of these movies.
Basic Elements of Film Noir a crime the perspective of the criminals, not the police an inverted view of traditional sources of authority, such as corrupt police unstable alliances and allegiances the femme fatale--the woman who causes the downfall and/or death of a good man brutal violence bizarre plot twists and motivations
The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia. Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, socio-paths, crooks, war veterans, petty criminals, and murderers. These protagonists were often morally-ambiguous low-lifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual or otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing. Htmphrey Bogart Robert Mitchum
The females in film noir were either of two types - dutiful, reliable, trustworthy and loving women; or femme fatales - mysterious, duplicitous, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, predatory, tough-sweet, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women. Usually, the male protagonist in film noir wished to elude his mysterious past, and had to choose what path to take (or have the fateful choice made for him). Invariably, the choice would be an overly ambitious one. Often, it would be to follow the goadings of a traitorous femme fatale who destructively would lead the struggling hero into committing murder or some other crime of passion. When the major character was a detective or private eye, he would become embroiled and trapped in an increasingly-complex, convoluted case that would lead to fatalistic, suffocating evidences of corruption and death. Ava Gardner Joan Crawford Jean Hagen
Film noir films (mostly shot in gloomy grays, blacks and whites) showed the dark and inhumane side of human nature with cynicism and doomed love, and they emphasized the brutal, unhealthy, seamy, shadowy, dark and sadistic sides of the human experience. An oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment were stylized characteristics of film noir . The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Film noir was marked by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, skewed camera angles (usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal), circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced compositions. Settings were often interiors with low-key lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses. [Often-times, war-time scarcities were the reason for the reduced budgets and shadowy, stark sets of B-pictures and film noirs.]
Narratives were frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks (or a series of flashbacks), witty, razor-sharp and acerbic dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed. Revelations regarding the hero were made to explain/justify the hero's own cynical perspective on life. Some of the most prominent directors of film noir included Orson Welles, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Howard Hawks.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one of the most popular and best classic detective mysteries ever made, and many film historians consider it the first in the dark film noir genre in Hollywood. It leaves the audience with a distinctly down-beat conclusion and bitter taste. The stylistic film is a mixture of mystery, romance, and thriller. It is mostly known for a number of memorable portrayals of corrupt, deceitful, hard-nosed villains and tough heroes, interwoven complex interactions between vividly-played characters, double-crossing intrigues and deceptions, posturings, betrayals and materialistic greed. Everything is contained in marvelous characterizations and lines of dialogue. B-movie lead character Humphrey Bogart, now introduced as a 'good guy', presented the definitive anti-hero Sam Spade in the mystery thriller classic - as a cynical, cool San Francisco sleuthing private-eye who lives by his own code of ethics.
Double Indemnity (1944) is director Billy Wilder's classic film noir masterpiece - a cynical, witty, and sleazy thriller about adultery, corruption and murder. This seminal tale, told in the past tense (in voice-over), involves two major characters with "an unholy love and an almost perfect crime." Both are duplicitous and callous lovers - a beautiful, shrewd, predatory and dissatisfied femme fatale housewife and a likeable insurance salesman. Their calculated, cold-blooded scheme to brutally murder her husband for purposes of lustful desire and financial gain, because of a double indemnity clause in his accident policy, ultimately fails. Their fraudulent, almost perfect crime leads to guilt, suspicion, betrayal, duplicity, and thrilling intrigue in a film with numerous swatches of sharp and nasty dialogue. It was billed as " Paramount's SHOCKING, SUSPENSE-FILLED MASTERPIECE OF LOVE...AND MURDER ." From its opening sequence, the film identifies with the self-destructive murderer and his murder plot, using the metaphor of a train ride with the evil heroine that goes "all the way...to the end of the line." Its tagline from a poster declared: "You can't kiss away a Murder!"
The Big Sleep (1946) is one of Raymond Chandler's best hard-boiled detective mysteries transformed into a film noir , private detective film classic. It is a very complex, confusing, logic-defying whodunit with a quintessential private detective (Marlowe), false leads, unforgettable dialogue and wisecracks, raw-edged characters, sexy women (including the two daughters of a dying millionaire, a bookseller, and others), tough action, gunplay, a series of electrifying scenes, and screen violence. The atmosphere of the film is dark and paranoic - full of suspicion, dread, and intrigue. The film's title, The Big Sleep , refers to death. Blackmailers and murderers commit their ill deeds (gambling, pornography, vice, perversion) while the world continues on its course, almost asleep. Marlowe's single-handed pursuit and investigation of pervasive corruption and treachery is met with deception, threats of extermination and violence.
Out of the Past (1947) is the quintessential classic film noir masterpiece from RKO, a definitive flashback film of melodramatic doom, containing all the elements of the genre. First and foremost, there is an irresistible but deadly, chameleon-like femme fatale (Jane Greer) who is the object of romantic fascination for both a detective Mitchum) and a gangster (Kirk Douglas). Themes of betrayal, passion, and a cynical, perverse, and a morally ambiguous atmosphere are all interwoven and entangled together in a confusing and convoluted dark plot (mixing narrative flashback with linear narrative) with both double- and triple-crosses. Eventually, all three individuals meet their inescapable, tragic ends typical of a Shakespearean-level tragedy.
The Third Man (1949) is a visually-stylish thriller - a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption in a depressed, rotting and crumbling, 20th century Vienna following World War II. The striking film-noirish, shadowy thriller was filmed expressionistically within the decadent, shattered and poisoned city that has been sector-divided along geo-political lines. A clever and original mystery tale of a love triangle with nightmarish suspense, treachery, betrayal, guilt and disillusionment, its two most famous sequences include the Ferris-wheel showdown high atop a deserted fairground, and the climactic chase through the underground network of sewers. Unusually reckless, canted camera angles (one of their earliest uses), and wide-angle lens distortions amidst the atmospheric on-location views of a shadowy Vienna cast a somber mood over the fable of post-war moral ambiguity and ambivalent redemption. The deliberately unsettling, tilted angles reflected the state of the ruined, fractured and dark city, filled with black marketeers, spies, refugees, thieves, and foreign powers seeking control.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a classic black comedy/drama, and perhaps the most acclaimed, but darkest film-noir story about "behind the scenes" Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition. The mood of the film is immediately established by the posthumous narrator - a dead man floating face-down in a swimming pool. Director Billy Wilder certainly intended to make a really, really cynical attack on Hollywood, its politics, and its power. Movies distort to express. Low angles create ominous authority. Plywood impersonates brick. People become distorted as well through the Hollywood lens, the Funhouse effect of celebrity. Here on Sunset Boulevard , “the Industry’s” illusions can manifest as dementia, ranging from the mild to the acute. Silent screen has been Ms. Desmond clings to her faded cellulite with assistance from her butler, who scribes fake fan letters to stoke her dim stardom. Once the younger Joe Gillis arrives, she buoys her spirit with talk of dreams and desires, a return to her fabricated public.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a truly compelling, haunting, and frightening classic masterpiece thriller-fantasy, and the only film ever directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton. Although one of the greatest American films of all time, the imaginatively-chilling, experimental, sophisticated work was idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like expressionistic and strange, and it was both ignored and misunderstood at the time of its release. The stylistic film, shot in only thirty-six days - an adult story with children as major characters, was extremely unusual and unpopular. It was black and white (when color was en vogue ), shown in standard ratio (when theaters were showing Cinemascope wide-screen films), and it daringly portrayed a perverted, pedophile Preacher as the main protagonist - a villainous, obsessive, homicidal, and misogynous character with repressed sexuality and violence. Told with inventive, stylized, timeless and dark film noirish images, symbolism and visual poetry, it blends both a pastoral setting with dream-like creatures, fanatical characters, imperiled children during a river journey, a wicked guardian/adult, and salvation and redemption in the form of a old farm woman, 'fairy godmother' rather than a saintly Bible-totin' Preacher.
Touch of Evil (1958) is a great American film noir crime thriller, dark mystery, and cult classic - another technical masterpiece from writer-director-actor Orson Welles. It was Orson Welles' fifth Hollywood film - and it was his last American film. Although unappreciated in its time in the US, a box-office failure, and criticized as artsy, campy, sleazy pulp-fiction trash, the low-budget film - in retrospect - has been ranked as the classic B-movie of the silver screen. It was regarded as a rebellious, unorthodox, bizarre, and outrageously exaggerated film, affronting respectable 1950's sensibilities, with controversial themes including racism, betrayal of friends, sexual ambiguity, frameups, drugs, and police corruption of power. Its central character is an obsessed, driven, and bloated police captain ("a lousy cop") - a basically tragic figure who has a "touch of evil" in his enforcement of the law.
Nothing stands still however, and as returned GIs abandoned urban life for the new invention ‘the suburb’, working women were tamed and the Baby Boom began its 10-15 year surge. The new-fangled television forced film noir out to suburbia to compete with ‘pulp’ crime on TV where, in all the bright sunshine and open spaces, noir was effectively dead as a film genre by 1955. The Decline of Film Noir Ben Hur (1959) The King and I (1956)