A Noir Primer

I've been rethinking my Film Noir posting plan for this month and think I'll back up a little and focus on a more accessible “introduction to” approach with these first few entries. I regularly catch myself these days presuming that everyone has seen the “big” films of the past whereas, in reality, there are literally hundreds I haven't seen myself. Once you get into an area or genre that you are familiar with, it's very easy to get carried away digging into its dark recesses and pulling out the obscure and marginal while skipping over the obvious pictures that set the tone for the entire oeuvre in the first place. Toward that end, this post will be about the origins of the Noir cycle, it's early examples and how, (or maybe more-to-the-point, why), I came to love them.

At the risk of repeating the opening paragraph in every essay ever written about Film Noir, it's probably worth noting that Noir isn't a genre in the same way that say, Comedy is. It's rather a loose description of a style of film making with significant overlap into the drama, thriller, crime and mystery genres. Because it doesn't have a clear definition, the Film Noir moniker has been attached to countless movies that share stylistic elements of the original cycle, but little else. While it becomes difficult to nail down exactly what qualifies a movie as Film Noir, I think it's easiest to think of them in relatively simplistic terms. I've decided to reduce the qualifiers to a three relatively consistent factors: 1) Noirs have a “look”, tied to the cinematography and cinematographers working in Hollywood during and after the 2nd World War. 2) Noirs have a “theme” associated with the alienation and existential disconnect of men recovering from the war and trying to reintegrate with a society that changed while they were fighting overseas and, 3) Noirs have a “morality” where choices and the consequences of those choices, however unintentional, need to be faced and overcome by a flawed protagonist.

The “Look” of Noir
There are reams of dull film grad papers devoted to Film Noir's unique look but for the sake of this primer, it's probably easiest to consider that Hollywood directors and cinematographers of the day, working with miniscule budgets and on very tight schedules, took some creative license to spice up their films. Using odd-angle camera work and high-contrast lighting to cover the fact that the set was built that afternoon and would have to stand in for 4 of the 5 interior scenes on their shooting schedule, they managed to make films that looked more expensive than they were.

Noir “Themes”
Probably the most important single element of the cycle is the recurring theme of alienation that pervades Film Noir. Often made by displaced Europeans (Lang, Wilder, Siodmak, Curtiz) adapting American pulp crime novels from the era and placing those stories in a post-war setting was a recipe for a thematic and visual consistency that in retrospect become known as the Film Noir “style”. I think that the ubiquitous “Femme Fatale” regularly associated with Noir is perhaps a unconscious manifestation of the threat returning servicemen felt from women empowered by the war-time necessity to undertake factory work and traditionally male roles in American society. This theory dovetails with the alienation themes faced by the typical Noir protagonist. The world had indeed changed almost overnight.

Noir “Morality”
The Noir protagonist regularly faces a simple moral choice early in the story. A seemingly minor dalliance or ethical shortcut sets in motion a series of unforeseen events that further entangle him until he becomes trapped by circumstance and unable to backtrack. A simple and seemingly innocuous moment of weakness seals his fate and like quicksand, the more he struggles, the worse it becomes.

Something happened when these three elements came together and a cross-section of the best films of the era regularly contains a hugely disproportionate number of Film Noirs. Perhaps it was the fact that these films were “about” something. Perhaps audiences found the stories relevant and adult in ways that hadn't existed before. For whatever reason, these small B-movies continue to resonate with audiences fifty years later, a testament to their uniqueness and the creativity of their architects.

In 1944, seven movies that have come to represent the semi-official start of the classic Noir period were released in quick succession – Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Edward Dmytryk's Murder My Sweet, Otto Preminger's Laura, Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady and Christmas Holiday, Howard Hawks' To Have or Have Not and Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window. This is as good a place to start as any, but if you had to pick one make it Double Indemnity. I don't consider Laura or To Have or Have Not to be true Noirs but they certainly share early elements of the style. My favourite is Murder My Sweet. The Woman in the Window with Edward G. Robinson is the most fun. Phantom Lady and Christmas Holiday aren't on DVD but are in the FBW Black Vault.

A little long winded but the Noir canon is a rewarding one if you dig into it. Another way to approach the cycle is to work backwards from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), the final acknowledged masterpiece of the Film Noir classic period.



the coelacanth said...

superb post! this clears up many of the questions i had regarding the style. thanks for that. one question still lingers with me though - maybe an obvious one, but why "film noir"? a link to the french films of a similar style? a nod to becker, melville, etc? i'm sure i could get the info on wikipedia or somewhere on the web, but i'd like to hear your take...

La Sporgenza said...

I think you're asking about the term and it's origins. I'm pretty sure it was first used by a French film critic in the the mid-40s but didn't come into popular usage until a widely read essay written 20 years later by two other French film critics (whose names also escape me). It was the subject of endless research papers by the late sixties and in the public lexicon by the early '70s. During the German occupation, American films were banned in France and 5 years worth of them were released immediately following the war, leading some to suggest that seeing the films in quick succession made the themes more apparent to French audiences and critics than to Americans. The French film industry produced a number of grimly realist films in the '30s (Port of Shadows, Pepe Le Moko, etc.) so audiences were attuned to the themes as well. The French Noir period (known in France as “Films Policier”) didn't really get rolling until the mid-50s with Becker's Touche Pas au Grisbi, Melville's Bob Le Flambeur and Dassin's Rififi all releasing in 1954/1955.

the coelacanth said...

ahhh, interesting. so the term "film noir", although flirted with at the time, was not really used to describe these films until much later? so the tag is similar to "new wave" (as an example), in that it was applied to the movement posthumously?

i guess you touched on this in your post when you said that film noir is not a genre, but a style of filmmaking. were the films, at the time of their release, labelled anything as inclusive as "film noir", or were they simply marketed as, say, comedy, drama, crime, etc, and the style in which they were shot (what we now call film noir) was merely accepted as that which was en vogue?

sorry for all the questions, i'm just curious, and you are as good a source as any for the answers...

La Sporgenza said...

Yes on all accounts. The term was never used in the day and applied only in retrospect decades later – much like the French New Wave. They were mostly crime dramas and marketed as "hard boiled", "detective thrillers", "melodramas" and "mysteries" back at the time of their release. Although I can't be certain, the "look" of the films probably wasn't noted at the time – I'm guessing audiences just assumed that films were supposed to look like that.

I'm tempted to say that films from our era will be seen in the future as being oddly frenetic (endless jump cuts, jittery hand-held compositions, furiously paced, etc.) and representative of a nervous, uncertain society ill-at-ease with its future, but who knows? That's why they call it “the future”.