Sunday, June 21, 2009

[film noir] should return in the coming dystopia

You might like to also check out Chris O'Grady's more detailed analysis here.

Lee Horsley goes into the origins of Film Noir:

The years immediately following the end of World War Two marked … several concurrent developments: the Hollywood production of a growing number of pessimistic, downbeat crime films, the post-war release in Europe of a large backlog of American films, the publication in France of a new series of crime novels and the appearance in America of a new kind of book, the paperback original. Films released in America just before the end of the war, such as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (both 1944), were taken as evidence, when they appeared in France, that 'the Americans are making dark films too'.

In 1945, under the editorship of Marcel Duhamel, Gallimard started publishing its translations of British and American crime novels in the Série Noire. In 1946, echoing the Gallimard label, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American 'film noir'. Although they were not thought of in the United States as films noirs (the French label did not become widely known there until the 1970s), numerous post-war Hollywood movies seemed to confirm the French judgement that a new type of American film had emerged, very different from the usual studio product and capable of conveying an impression of ‘certain disagreeable realities that do in truth exist'.

Roger Westcombe takes up the tale:

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.

I don't think the McCarthy era and the rise of Sci-Fi can be discounted in this era either. Hitchcock I plan to treat in a separate post. Fritz Lang - Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window and Tay Garnett - The Postman Always Rings Twice, always spring to mind when one thinks of Film Noir, so Horsley again:

The hard-boiled detective is often taken to be one of the defining features of film noir, particularly as exemplified by Humphrey Bogart, whose performances as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and as Marlowe in The Big Sleep established him as the iconic private eye. Revisions of the detective story were, however, only one element in the phenomenon.

In addition to the weary integrity of the private eye, there was the pathos of the ageing gangster (Roy 'Mad Dog' Earle in High Sierra), the desperation of the 'wrong man' (the escaped convict wrongly accused of his wife's murder in Dark Passage) and the violence of the suspected psychopath (the self-destructive writer in In a Lonely Place).

The look of Noir


Dark plotlines to express themes of shadowy motivations and bleak prospects [are defined with] long, sharply-defined shadows, frames bathed in inky blackness, tilted camera angles and claustrophobic compositions.

Wiki comments

Film noirs tended to use low-key lighting schemes producing stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning. The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in film noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters' faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood moviemaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir, color films such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Niagara (1953), Slightly Scarlet, and Vertigo (1958) are regarded as noir by varying numbers of critics.

Film noir is also known for its use of Dutch angles, low-angle shots, and wide-angle lenses. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects (such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train), and special effects sequences of a sometimes bizarre nature. Beginning in the late 1940s, location shooting—often involving night-for-night sequences—became increasingly frequent in noir.

The Femme Fatale


The other key iconic figure of noir is, of course, the fatal woman, who poses seductively both on film posters and on hundreds of mid-twentieth century pulp covers. The elements of the image are a kind of visual shorthand for perilous attraction and steamy corruption. Sometimes the dangerous woman is simply a sexual predator who tempts and weakens a male protagonist; sometimes she actually imitates male aggression and appropriates male power.

On the poster or pulp cover she perhaps holds only a cocktail glass and a smouldering cigarette, or she might hold a gun and might by the end of the narrative have pulled the trigger. Constrained by the Hays Code, Hollywood tended to package the femme fatale narrative in ways that ensured the defeat of the independent female, but such was the power of the image of the sexual, aggressive, strong woman that she in many ways, in the minds of audiences, resisted this formulaic reassertion of male control.

Westcombe puts it this way:

The 1940s also brought a major challenge in the area of gender and family roles. The male draft combined with the industrial mobilisation 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.

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 labelled a ‘predator’, despite acting no differently from accepted male norms.

It would not be fair to say that the path to feminism led from here. For a start, the suffrage movement was already a well known phenomenon and there was still the age of bourgeois families clustered around the television to go. The reassertion of the 'kick-butt' female would not come again until much later and when it did reappear, it was done in a quite distorted way which undercut some of the basic assumptions of classic Noir.

Westcombe comments on the reassertion of Noir:

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) explicitly revived film noir visual motifs (rain soaked streets reflecting harsh neon, etc), voice-over narration, urban claustrophobia - even a melancholy Bernard Hermann score! - but portrayed a level of social breakdown as foreign to the 1940s as Vietnam and Watergate were to Harry Truman’s administration. Other thrillers in this period like W.U.S.A. (1970), Badge 373 and The Outfit (both 1973) instinctively turned back to film noir for style and/or content. This 70s revival is often termed ‘neo-noir’.

As has been said, the Noir Femme Fatale is not the kick-butt Lara Croft and the 'I can do anything better than a man' female today, females who have no need for the male [or so they'd like to imagine]. The Noir Femme Fatale is actually someone worth having, someone worth fighting for and she needs him just as much as he needs her in her dastardly plans. The former is the asexual and ultimately, inevitably disempowered feminist, the latter is the fully-empowered woman in full flight, unashamedly and without modernist complexes, using every part of her coquettishness, her curvature, her wiles and let's face it – her power, to get what she wants.

Where the 'don't oppress me' feminist is a turnoff to the majority of men, the Noir Femme Fatale could get anything she wants and still have men eating out of her hand. She could in my case anyway.

Elements of Noir


Discussions of noir often centre on visual and specifically cinematic elements – on things like low-key lighting, chiaroscuro effects, deep focus photography, extreme camera angles and expressionist distortion. But it is essential as well to take account of themes, mood, characterisation, point of view and narrative pattern. Both literary and cinematic noir are defined by: (i) the subjective point of view; (ii) the shifting roles of the protagonist; (iii) the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and society (generating the themes of alienation and entrapment); and (iv) the ways in which noir functions as a socio-political critique.

We are brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed. Treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another constitute key structural elements in noir narrative. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, noir is a deliberate violation of this convention.

This is why the reproduction of the Christies, even given their plot twists, are hardly Noir and yet 4:50 from Paddington has definite Noir elements in the opening sequence, particularly from 5:04 to 6:46:

Looked at through modern eyes, Noir is a flashback to a grittier and yet still romantic era. Can you imagine, in your mind, The Third Man in lush colour and bright light or even the scene in Hitler’s devastated Germany in that kodachrome way? And yet the image of the girl in the French Resistance and the brave young man flying his crate and engaging Jerry over the cliffs of Dover is both dark and romantic.

Amanda Holden who plays Lucy Eylesbarrow in a different production of 4:50 from Paddington, took the role because, in her words [Harper Collins signature edition, p364]:

I admit it! I don’t often get the chance to do a lot of period drama – I think everyone just sees me as a modern girl. So, the chance to wear gorgeous frocks and wonderful hairstyles really appealed.

That’s the thing with Noir too – seen through modern eyes, it takes on a whole new aspect – one loses oneself in a dangerous, thrillingly romantic world where men are either heroes or villains, women are all curves and danger is just a slowly opening door handle away.

Now compare that to our bus exchanges today. Tescos or the local McDonalds.

Which has more thrill to it?

Quite aside from the thrill and the romance, Noir can even find parallels in the inexorable direction of our blighted Brownean society. Horsley again:

The noir narrative confronts the protagonist with a rift in the familiar order of things or with a recognition that apparent normality is actually the antithesis of what it seems to be: it is brutal rather than benign, dehumanised not civilised. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that the things that are amiss cannot be dealt with rationally and cannot ultimately be put to rights.

Doesn't that just describe today's socio-political situation? Isn't it where we're headed and where we currently find ourselves? That's why I think Noir will return in a more romantic way. Remember that romantic does not have to mean saccharine sweet and cloying; it can mean gritty and yet stylish and with a passionate few moments in a dystopic jungle. I'd argue that with such a backdrop, the intensity of the romantic elements would be even keener.

Westcombe points out:

A defining film noir characteristic (notably absent from many pseudo-noirs 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.

Again, doesn't this just define our current times or rather, the times which we're inexorably being dragged into?

J'adore le film noir.

In it is none of the blind hatred of Wars of the Roses, the gratuitousness of Saw, a series devoid of artistic merit, the pointlessness of the film adaptation of the at least sane novel Fried Green Tomatoes and so on.

Noir is at the same time romantically improbable and yet based very much on the reality of life, the dirty side of town. It strongly asserts the best and worst elements of men and women, free of societally debilitating modern social constructs, free of the intellectual lack of emotion and passion and yet quite philosophically intellectual in its own way.

Noir plays on the base instincts of the human and allows of nobility, even in the gutter. It is both an appropriate genre for the coming dark times [2012 – 2022] and a reminder that even when Big Brother has us almost down and out, the true power of men and women, together, not apart, both once again pulling in the same direction, will always win through in the end.

And in the end now, what could possibly explain Film Noir better than this under two minute clip, particularly given all the events which had led to this moment?



  1. Amanda Holden who plays Lucy Eylesbarrow in A DIFFERENT PRODUCTION OF 4:50 from Paddington...

  2. Yes, you're right.

    Under the youtube of the Hickson version [which is the one in the post], I expressed a preference for the Hickson Marple.

    The two versions were not made clear in this post, so I'll go back and remedy that now.

  3. At the age of 12 I saw a film called Knock on any door. I can't remember the plot or the characters, but I remember the black and white effects and the impression they created.

  4. Very interesting article. My own piece FILMS NOIR, viewable at Associated Content, deals with a similar look at the genre and its sources, from another slant, but not so different from your piece.

  5. Jams - it's great.

    Steve - that's the thing. It stays with you.

    Chris, I'll check that out now and welcome.