So I decided to add something unique and different to this blog to at least make it different from the rest. I figured the best insight I can provide to a film subject that is not widely talked about is film noir. Noir is my favorite movement in all of cinema. So many timeless classics that hands down have the best mood and atmosphere out there. So what I am going to do is once a week (or so) I'm going to make a post about a Noir film (usually a detective thriller) and do a little review on it and why I appreciate it so much. However, I understand a lot of people out there don't really know what noir is, or what characteristics of a film are considered noir. This first week I am going to share an essay I wrote my freshman year of college on how I define Noir. It's a little on the drier side and not as personable as some of these other posts but I think it offers decent insight and is a nice reference for anyone who want's to understand or find some Noir films on their own. Anyways I'm excited to share some of my favorite movies in the coming weeks and hopefully a few of you will be inclined to watch some of these films and become a fan of noir as a whole! I'm going to be calling this series "Noir Time." Below is the essay I wrote for my English 49B class at PCC. I've updated it a little for the sake of clarity and for spoiler warnings.
Film Noir is one of the most unique concepts in all of cinema. Born in a period where times were definitely tough, it proved to show that moviegoers were more mature than prior films tended to incline. But what exactly is Film Noir? A genera? A period in time? A solemn mood? It is trickier to define than most people think. I personally believe it is a combination of the three, and that’s not necessarily a cop out. I find film noir as this complex entity that engulfed movies during a certain period of time, and petered off into a few in the future. They were all heavily influenced by the history of the time, as a giant war had been waged over seas. They were genuinely reflective of the feelings of the time. They all had a very distinct lighting style, that used chiaroscuro (lighting technique that describes low lit characters in art and film) techniques. They implemented setting to convey the mood. They had damaged leads, with a corrupt supporting cast, most notably the dreaded femme fatale. The dialogue was snappy, yet the plot never rushed out of the gate. These traits were exemplified in a large number of films from the early 1940’s to the late 1950’s. Generally speaking if your film had any of this, it was probably a noir. The only contingency I have with my definition is that true noir fall between that 40’s through 50’s time frame. I feel like anything after that is simply paying homage to the idea (Chinatown, Blade Runner, etc.), and even then they have to be blatantly noir. Vagaries don't apply, for me at least, when color and self aware filmmaking come into play. That being said, Let’s dive deeper into what film noir truly is.
First and foremost, I believe you have to take in the time period into account. America had just transitioned from a great depression into a full fledged world war. Though it is said that the war was one of the key factors into getting us out of the depression, the fact that one came after another was a huge blow to the security and peace of mind of many American citizens. The feeling of the times was definitely more cynical. So naturally directors and writers correctly assumed that the moviegoers would be able to handle darker stories, with crime and no real closure at the end. Something else to take into account is the influx of German directors from UFA who fled Nazi Germany to avoid persecution. They brought German Expression with them, a movement in Germany that depicted the feelings of many post World War I Germans. German Expressionism in film consists of psychological themes such as skewed angles and dream sequences, and depicted the hardship of the working class during the time. All of this plus the hard boiled, to the point dialogue in pulp fiction novels, helped make the film noir into what it is. In Murder My Sweet, we see Marlowe drugged and taken to the phoney hospital, and we see him go through a psychological trip, along with the after effects with his spider web vision. This is very expressionistic, giving us a look at what he was going through in his head, along with giving us a POV (point of view) of his symptoms. The Maltese Falcon is probably the finest example of hard boiled dialogue. Everything in that film moves at a mile a minute, and to me is probably one of the faster paced noirs of the time. As for movies demonstrating the terrors of war, all of the noirs depict that in their own subtle way. It is more of the unnerving pessimistic feeling of the time portrayed in the films. The corruption with the cops, the lying central female female, and most notably, an ending without full closure. The Maltese Falcon, an early Noir, ends on a note that probably didn't satisfy most at the time, as the real falcon hyped up the whole movie was never found, or at least confirmed. [SPOILERS] Double Indemnity and Detour both have our protagonists meeting the fate of the police, almost feeling like their efforts the entire film were for naught [END SPOILERS]. All of this make reflect how people felt during and after the war, at least before Eisenhower, and that was cynical. And all of this to me is a key component to defining Noir.
Now we dive into the more technical aspects of the film. How they were shot? All film noir must have stark contrast between lighting. Characters moods are generally portrayed through the lighting, significant characters are more or less light up than the rest, and lighting is used as a means to tell the tale. One stereotype I like to think must be consistent in noirs is the venetian blinds. The silhouetted lines it creates brings a shadyness (no pun intended) to the scene, especially since they’re used in the offices of private detectives. Speaking of silhouettes, character silhouettes are huge motifs in many movies as well. They tend to stick out more than they naturally would and are very ominous. [SPOILERS] In the Maltese Falcon, at the end of the movie we see the elevator cast a shadow over Brigid’s face, simulating a talon of a Falcon. She was thwarted at the hands of the falcon,and the lighting is emulating that metaphor [END SPOILERS]. In Double Indemnity, we have plenty of venetian blinds in the Dietrichson home, foreshadowing the ultimate fate of our two main characters that happens at the home in the end of the film. In Detour, when Al goes into a flashback and has inner monologues, the background dims, and we see a prominent light on his face. Also in Double Indemnity we see Walter Neff exit the home or room on multiple occasions, but we always see his full silhouette before he leaves, showing a double side to his motives. Dark rooms, dark offices, dark streets, the main theme of it all is darkness. It is the overarching tone of film noir. It’s even in the name, which translates from french to “black film”. Lighting is must be included when defining noir.
Setting is also a very key part of film noir. Many Noirs take place in either Los Angeles, New York City, or San Francisco. All of these places contain unique set pieces and bring themes into the movie just by being a city. New York has many alley ways, and is a place for foggy potholes and streets. Los Angeles has many iconic locations that can be engraved in many audience members head. From the twisty Bradbury Building in D.O.A., to the Hollywood Bowl in Double Indemnity, to the beach house in Murder My Sweet, there are plenty of places that are memorable and moody. San Francisco has very unique hilly streets, which are a good representation of the mind bending, and the foggy bay, bringing an atmosphere like no other to films. Another aspect of the setting that creates mood is the weather. No matter what the circumstances it will be raining. Even Los Angeles on a summer day. Rain is placed at the point where bad begins in the movie, and at the climax of the film (neither are mutually exclusive). [SPOILERS] When Walter Neff decides to help Phyllis Dietrichson kill her husband in Double Indemnity, it is raining in his apartment building [END SPOILERS]. That is a blatant example but weather is a big factor in conveying the mood. To me, I enjoy an atmospheric film, and none are more so than film noirs. I feel like a key component of that is it’s setting.
Finally, let’s delve into the characters of Film Noirs. First we have our lead. He can either be a detective, like Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, or a criminal, like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (not a spoiler you find this out in the opening of the film). Generally our lead is damaged. He is safe from being harmed fatally, by always pulling a sneaky move to hijack a weapon, but still is very vulnerable emotionally. Marlowe from Murder My Sweet had many guns pointed at him but he always got himself out of it, yet allows himself to be seduced by an evil woman, and drugged by the man he’s trying to stop. Sometimes we even start the movie at our characters end, showing that a noir is not about the destination, but rather the journey. The movie Detour finishes almost immediately after Al’s Monologues do, so we know what essentially happens to him, he lives. I think we as American’s are supposed to see a part of us in the lead, and empathize and root for him. Then we have the Femme fatales. These ladies are nasty and backstabbing. All noirs have one. Some are much worse than others, Brigid from The Maltese Falcon doesn’t nearly stack up to the murderous Phyllis in Double Indemnity, but never the less they all lie about their motives. They play very prominent roles, which is especially surprising to have women portrayed so strongly at a time where they had considerably less rights. And finally there are the corrupt institutions. Some are bad and don’t believe the protagonist, and some are just double crossed. In the Maltese Falcon, the other detectives never believe Sam until he has physical evidence of his innocence at the very end of the movie. A corrupt institution reflect the insecurities Americans had with the government following the World War. They were not so quick to trust them after they promised to stay out of a war that they didn’t. Overall, no other movie class has these array of characters in their repertoire like the noir.
In conclusion, it’s hard to put a word that correctly describes film noir as a whole. Sure the word “dark” comes to mind, but that alone does not do it justice. Dark fits with its tone, its mood, its ambiance, but not all of its attributes. There is still the history behind it all, the characters driving the film, where the film is set and so on. That is what makes noir so unique. In such a short span of time, this movement made such a lasting impression in the world of cinema. I would say it is probably the most creative time in terms of innovation (aside from the practical effects of the 80’s). Film noir evokes an emotion in us that no other medium really can. It is one of thick sfumato (not a typo an actual term for moody art) atmosphere, dark motifs, lurking evil, an unsolved mystery. Film Noir still stands out today as one of the greatest movements in film history and it’s not hard to understand why. The Darkness does indeed encapsulate us (groan).