The Film Noir genre

Creating the condi­tions for a new kind of Amer­ican cinema wasn’t one of Hitler’s policy aims; you won’t find a pitch for “The Postman Always Rings Twice “anywhere on the pages of “Mein Kampf”. But the dark­ness that Nazism brought to Europe is the same dark­ness that cloaks the char­ac­ters of film noir. You’ll find the evid­ence in the biographies of the émigré talents who shaped the genre: Billy Wilder,  Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak … “The Killers” begins with a pair of trench-coated hitmen arriving in a small town; they’re working for a mobster, but their silhou­ettes suggests they might easily be from the SS.

Matthew Sweet, The Origins Of Film Noir, The Guardian 2009

Film Noir as a film genre has been the subject of endless argu­ment and debate ever since the term was first coined by French cine­aste Nino Frank in 1946 to describe the Amer­ican crime thrillers that were finally getting a showing in Europe after WW2 had ended. The legend is that the name also partly derives from a series of pulp fiction novels by the likes of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler published in 1945 in France and called  the ‘Serie Noire.

Since the label was invented, nobody has ever been quite able to agree which films belong to the genre and which don’t. For some it is prin­cip­ally a matter of cine­ma­to­graphy; the prevailing tone and mood of the films are dark and this tends to be reflected in the camera-work (see clip).

For others, it is the moral universe inhab­ited by the char­ac­ters: nihil­istic, amoral and often desperate; and still, others see it in terms of certain arche­types (like the Femme Fatale) and situ­ations that crop up again and again in the stories being told.

Perhaps the most defining char­ac­ter­istic of Film Noir is that it deals with both the interior and exterior, phys­ical and the meta­phor­ical dark­ness; and that the dark shadows are there to throw into sharp relief the world of conven­tion and normality we take for granted. The essen­tial quality of such films is that of morality tales but ones that deny us a comforting ending.

This is only to be expected because the gener­a­tion who gave us film noir had seen the triumph of fascism, the insanity of war, and the horror of the death camps in their life­time. They had witnessed the seismic moral shift of the 20th Century at first hand. Inev­it­ably some of that dark­ness was evident in the pulp stories they put onto celluloid.

Film Noir Cinematography

The cine­ma­to­graphy asso­ci­ated with film noir combines the gritty realism of docu­mentary film-making (many young directors and cameramen had been news-film reporters in the war) with minim­al­istic stark lighting delib­er­ately intended to create a chiaroscuro effect.

This has been attrib­uted to the influ­ence of the 1920s German Expres­sion­istic Cinema but is reportedly also because the films were cheaply made and the dim lighting helped to hide the tattered sets and lack of props. Whichever reason, it is very much a visual signa­ture of the genre.

Tropes and themes

Film noir movies have quite a consistent set of themes and elements. This list of ‘rules’ is taken from Dancyger and Rush’s Altern­ative Scriptwriting (2002):

The desperate central char­acter lives on the edge; he merely exists. We can’t call him the hero, as is the case in the gang­ster and Western genres, because the personal beha­viour of the central char­acter in the film noir is anything but heroic.

The central char­acter thinks that his chance at a better, richer, more vital life can only be found in another character—usually a woman. This may be his last chance, and he certainly acts as if it is.

The rela­tion­ship between the central char­acter and his saviour is a highly charged, sexual relationship.

The central char­acter will be betrayed in this rela­tion­ship.
A by-product of the rela­tion­ship is viol­ence.

The key root of the problem with the rela­tion­ship is the city, the stand-in symbol for modern life. The city saps the gener­osity out of the rela­tion­ship. All that is left is decep­tion and betrayal.

There are no chil­dren in film noir. Married couples have no chil­dren. Chil­dren represent hope and there is no hope in any rela­tion­ship, nor in the future.

Sexu­ality and viol­ence coexist and seem to be cause and effect.

The sense of alone­ness in the central char­acter is palp­able. It repres­ents an exist­en­tial state.

Archetypal char­ac­ters

In all other genres of cinema it sort of comes down to people expecting char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion to come through dialogue, or, you know, char­ac­ters talking about who they were ten years before, or what’s happened to them in their lives. The thriller is the one genre where it’s abso­lutely demanded that char­acter be defined through action. You want to be surprised by certain char­ac­ters. You want to be finding out through what some­body does who they really were. To me, that’s a strong approach to char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion and it’s quite attractive.”

Chris­topher Nolan, Creative Screen­writing, 2001

The usual rela­tion­ship in a Film Noir is that the male char­acter (private eye, cop, journ­alist, govern­ment agent, war veteran, crim­inal, lowlife) has a choice between two women: the beau­tiful and the dutiful.

The dutiful woman is pretty, reli­able, always there for him, in love with him, respons­ible – all the things any real man would dream about. The beau­tiful woman is the femme fatale, who is gorgeous, unre­li­able, never there for him, not in love with him, irre­spons­ible – all the things a man needs to get him excited about a woman. The Film Noir follows our hero as he makes his choice, or his choice is made for him.

The reason the femme fatale meets the male char­acter is that she has already made her choice. She is usually involved with an older, very powerful man (gang­ster, politi­cian, million­aire), and she is looking to make some money from the rela­tion­ship. She needs a smart man (who is also dumber than her) to go get that money, and take the fall if things go wrong. Enter the male character.

The story follows the romantic/erotic fore­play of their rela­tion­ship. The male char­acter is often phys­ic­ally and mentally abused in this meeting and separ­ating of bodies. Some­times, he ends up doing very bad things… “

Paul Duncan, Film Noir, Pocket Essen­tials 2002

Double Indem­nity 1944

Cameron Crowe called Double Indem­nity “flaw­less film-making”. Woody Allen declared it “the greatest movie ever made”. Even if you can’t go along with that, there can be no disputing that it is the finest film noir of all time, though it was made in 1944, before the term film noir was even coined.

Adapting James M Cain’s 1935 novella about a straight-arrow insur­ance salesman tempted into murder by a dupli­citous house­wife, genre-hopping director Billy Wilder recruited Raymond Chandler as co-writer. “Chandler,” said Wilder, “was a mess, but he could write a beau­tiful sentence”. Noir’s visual style, which had its roots in German Expres­sionism, was forged here, though Wilder insisted that he was going for a “news­reel” effect.

We had to be real­istic,” he said. “You had to believe the situ­ation and the char­ac­ters, or all was lost.” And we do. Fred MacMurray, who had special­ised largely in comedy until that point, was an inspired choice to play the big dope Walter Neff, who narrates the sorry mess in flash­back, and wonders: “How could I have known that murder can some­times smell like honey­suckle?” Edward G Robinson is coiled and charis­matic as Neff’s colleague, a claims adjuster who unpicks the couple’s scheme.

But the ace in the hole is Barbara Stan­wyck as Phyliss Diet­richson, a vision of amor­ality in a “honey of an anklet” and a plat­inum wig. She can lower her sunglasses and make it look like the last word in pred­atory desire. And she’s not just a vamp: she’s a psycho­path. There are few shots in cinema as bone-chilling as the close-up on Stanwyck’s face as Neff dispatches Phyliss’s husband in the back seat of a car.

Miklós Rózsa’s fretful strings tell us throughout the picture: beware. Stan­wyck had been reluctant to take the role, confessing: “I was a little frightened of it.” Wilder asked whether she was an actress or a mouse. When she plumped for the former, he shot back: “Then take the part.”

 Ryan Gilbey,  The Observer, Sunday 17 October 2010

Les Diabol­iques 1955

This tale of two women plot­ting to murder a sadistic husband is directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot with terrific elan and, at its finest moments, achieves an almost Shakespearian feel of impending doom. One of them being appro­pri­ately a child’s voice quoting a line from Macbeth: ‘Tis the eye of child­hood that fears a painted devil.”

It has all the trap­pings of noir in its cine­ma­to­graphy and atmo­sphere but it’s unusu­ally spooky for the genre. The ending of the film is typic­ally laconic however and has one of the best final lines in cinema.


Neo-noir – noir reinvented

Noir, according to the offi­cial ledger, was done by 1958 – the narrative possib­il­ities wrung out, shinier postwar consumerism, including tele­vi­sion, on the ascendant. That year, Orson Welles’s late master­piece A Touch of Evil was its epitaph. But it wasn’t away long, even if you ignore the French, Japanese and British imit­ators that kept it alive during the inter­regnum years.

A mere 16 years, if you count Chin­atown (debat­able) as the start of the “neo-noir” revival. More gran­diose than the first wave, Roman Polanski’s film feasted on the rotten heart of Los Angeles and spiced it up with niceties previ­ously forbidden under the Hays Code: graphic viol­ence, incest and the unshak­able convic­tion that the house always wins. But the essen­tial dynamic between Jack Nich­olson and Faye Dunaway – arousal and aggres­sion in terse tango – was unchanged from Bogart and Astor three decades before.

In noir’s Vene­tian blind-lit vale of tears, though, they could be any guy and any dame. The mood is the constant. Noir is as much a sens­ib­ility as a fixed genre, which perhaps explains its longevity. It has become a kind of cine­matic Instagram filter that can – and has – been applied to almost any locale to add murky ambi­ence and moral relativity.

Like roman­ti­cism or hip-hop, it has been triumphantly inter­na­tional: away from the well-trodden side streets of the Nordic and French vari­eties, we’ve had Bolly­wood noir (Satya, 1998), Japanese noir (Branded to Kill, 1967), Australian noir (Lantana, 2001), Indone­sian noir (Kala, 2007), German noir (Phoenix, 2014).

In the neo-noir phase, the all-pervading-web-of-corruption narrative perfected by Ellroy in his LA quartet of novels has become common oper­ating prac­tice, even exported to places where there seems to be limited scope for such skul­dug­gery. The idea of North York­shire Police, in David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, oper­ating a death squad always seemed laughable.”

(Extract from Philip Hoad, “After The Maltese Falcon: how film noir took flight”)

The Long Goodbye 1973

“Robert Altman’s big changes (to the original film)  were to simplify the plot and, above all, to bring forward the action some two decades from the conformist early 50s to the permissive 70s.  Altman speaks of “Rip Van Marlowe”, seeing his hero as a man sleep­walking into a later era and trying to make sense of its amor­ality, decad­ence and lack of values, though this is only an exag­ger­ated form of the fictional Cali­fornia the disil­lu­sioned Chandler made his own.

As played by Elliott Gould, Marlowe is a quiz­zical, self-mocking figure, constantly commenting on the world and his anachron­istic pres­ence in it. Indeed, everyone seems trapped in a vacuum of nostalgia and allu­sions to the past, espe­cially Hollywood’s.

Superbly photo­graphed by Vilmos Zsig­mond in a desat­ur­ated colour that echoes a bygone age, The Long Goodbye is an elegant, chilly, delib­er­ately heart­less movie. A master­piece of sorts, it digs beneath the surface of the supposedly liber­ated spirit of the times to expose the ethos that took America into the Vietnam war and produced Water­gate. In pushing the cynical idealist Marlowe over the edge it ends up true to the spirit of Chandler.”

(Adapted from an article by Philip French: Guardian 22.12.2013)

The Last Seduc­tion 1994

The Last Seduc­tion is a neo-noir thriller whose heroine is a cheer­fully amoral femme fatale. Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) talks her husband Clay into pulling off a drug deal to pay off his gambling debts and then absconds with the money. Fleeing the city, she ends up in a bar in a small town where she meets another man, Mike, getting over a divorce.

Bogart couldn’t have coped with Bridget who unzips a man’s fly to check his ‘creden­tials’. In many ways, she is an immensely appealing char­acter but the film itself has been criti­cised for being anti-feminist. Read this inter­esting review (PDF) and decide for your­self if you agree.

Blood Simple 1984

In this darkly humorous thriller by the Coen Brothers, an unscru­pu­lous private eye is hired by a bar owner, Marty, to murder his faith­less wife and her lover but the detective double-crosses him and Marty becomes the victim himself, leaving his wife’s lover the diffi­cult task of disposing of the body. Camera work and images are clas­sic­ally noirish in style.

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