Film noir is not only for film buffs and academics. The film-makers of the 40’s and 50’s were not making “film noir” movies, they were making pictures for a wide audience which are still immensely entertaining. The movies of the classic noir cycle were subversive and questioned the facade of everyday life in stories that had wide appeal. They retain their popularity, firstly because the noir themes and motifs have universal appeal: films noir are about the individual in a hostile universe, and in the best noirs, the anti-hero has at least a shot redemption. Secondly, they are so well-made with a craft and discipline we don’t often see anymore.
Movies are essentially entertainment and commodities produced for profit. Somehow however, this endeavour has produced and continues to produce films that not only have wide appeal but value as works of art to a lesser or greater degree. The great films noir had both popular appeal and artistic merit because their themes address the human condition and the frailty of normal lives, which at any moment can be plunged into the chasm of chaos, through chance or individual action – innocent or otherwise. How moral ambivalence, lust, love and greed can destroy lives was explored outside the closed romantic realism of mainstream movies.
While many see film noir originating in post-WW2 trauma, I believe the origins of film noir lie largely elsewhere. Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WWII. This is not to say that the experience of WWII did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of émigré European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30’s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornel Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30’s. Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression. Writer Cornell Woolrich, for example, was a lonely and repressed individual, who spent his life in hotel rooms, and painter Edwards Hopper’s study of the long lonely night in Nighthawks was painted in 1942.
In the first ever book about film noir, A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953, published in France in 1955, and only translated into English in 2000, the authors, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton, in seeking to explain why films noir appeared, saw as a major influence the emergence of a wider awareness of psychoanalysis and its motifs in America at the time. Their analyses of their canon of the first big three post-war noirs was centered on the films’ dream-like qualities and the emergence of protagonists with pronounced psychoses: The Big Sleep (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).
Also there were elements of the socio-political in many noirs: early noir directors Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder come immediately to mind. Many of the great European film noir directors that landed in Hollywood, fled fascism, and had leftist views. While the leftist critique of the intellectual left of Europe was a response to existentialism, the response of others was an inclination to nihilism, and we can see nihilism too in many noirs of the classic cycle.
Principally in film noir, it is the narrative and existential angst that drives a mostly male protagonist, who more often than not is the victim of a manipulative femme-fatale. The post-war anxiety of film audiences can help explain the popularity of the films, but I think Ann Douglas in her piece in the March 2007 issue of Vanity Fair takes us further: “Noir is premised on the audience’s need to see failure risked, courted, and sometimes won; the American dream becomes a nightmare, one strangely more seductive and euphoric than the optimism it repudiates… Noir provided losing with a mystique.”
In America it is the anxiety of being a “loser” that underlies male existence more than the experience of war. The male archetype in film noir is an outsider. The great noir novels, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1945), for example, that were brought to the screen in the 40s, were written before WW2 in the 1930’s, and cannot be understood by reference to post-war trauma. Consider also Out Of The Past (1947) and The Big Heat (1953). In both movies, the male protagonists are clearly outsiders. Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past tries to be rid of his past in a small town but his outsider status is firmly established from the outset before he even appears on the screen, and in The Big Heat, honest cop, Dave Bannion, is not helped by fellow cops in his fight against corruption. These men are outsiders also in the fuller European sense, and it is no coincidence that the directors, Jaccques Tourneur and Fritz Lang, were émigrés from Europe. The Walter Neff character in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), holds down a middle-class job and is respected by his colleagues, but he is a loner. When Neff falls for femme-fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by the great Barbara Stanwyck in THAT wig), he is not only seduced by her allure, but by his loneliness. A man can fatally love a woman he does not quite trust, because he desperately wants to believe otherwise, and fears being alone again more than the fateful consequences of his attachment.
The general consensus is that the first film noir was, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), an RKO b-movie of only 64 minutes, which was a landmark film in a number of respects. The influence of a new generation of European expatriates and of German expressionism in the genesis of film noir is clearly evident. The screenplay is by Austro-Hungarian, Frank Partos, the director is Latvian émigré Boris Ingster, and photography is by the cult noir cinematographer, Italian-born Nicholas Musuraca. With b-actors as leads, the movie is propelled by the intelligence of the script, the strength of the direction and cinematography, and excellent turns by Peter Lorre as the Stranger and Elisha Cook Jr. as the taxi-driver accused of murder. Between the cheesy opening and closing scenes is a tight claustrophobic thriller, where fear and paranoia is deftly portrayed both in reality and oneiristically. The nightmare sequence in this picture has to be the best dream-scape ever produced by Hollywood. Here we have the strongest evidence supporting the thesis set out in A Panorama of American Film Noir, that films noir appeared with the emergence of psychoanalysis in America in the early 1940’s. In this proto-noir, we see explored the role of the subconscious, where reporter Mike, whose testimony sways the jury, starts to question the guilt of the condemned taxi-driver, after his girl-friend Jane tells him she has a “feeling” that the jury has condemned an innocent man. This doubt then feeds into Mike’s paranoia about the mysterious stranger he encounters in his boarding house, and a guilt-fuelled nightmare about the fate of an obnoxious neighbor where his own sanity is put on trial. The film’s makers, as in all the great b-noirs, use set-bound budget constraints as brilliant artifice. The Caligari-like sets and the necessary low-key noir lighting make the dream sequence profoundly surreal and compelling, and the climax towards the end of the film on a tenement street set late at night, builds and sustains the fear and tension in a way that even in a big-budget movie would be hard to emulate.
I consider a movie a film noir if it has a “noir sensibility”. This sensibility must have a redemptive focus for me to value a film, whether redemption is achieved or not. This is what the great films noir have in common: a profoundly and deeply human response to the chaos and random contingency at the edge of existence. Such films include Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Jacques Tourneur’s Out Of The Past (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955), and Jules Dassin’s Thieves Highway (1949).
Although The Maltese Falcon (1941) is perhaps my all-time favorite movie, it goes beyond the boundaries of film noir, so I would have to say my favorite film noir is The Set-Up (1949) from the RKO studio, directed by Robert Wise and starring Robert Ryan. The Set-Up is a sharp expose of the fight game packed into a lean 72 minutes. Filmed at night on a studio lot, this movie is brooding and intense, with Robert Ryan, as the aging boxer, “Stoker” Thompson, in perhaps his best role. The boxing scenes are as real as they get. Ryan himself was a college boxing champ. The arena is brilliantly filmed with focused and repeated shots on selected spectators, which portray not only the excitement, but also the unadorned mob brutality, that reaches fever pitch as the fighters struggle to a climactic finish. Early in the film, the boxers’ dressing room, where Stoker’s essentially decent persona is established from his interactions with the other boxers, is beautifully evoked. Each person in that room is deeply and sympathetically drawn, and these scenes are enthralling. To the movie makers’ credit, remember this is 1949, there is a black boxer, who responds to Stoker’s friendliness, with a heart-felt wish of good luck, after winning his own fight. The Set-Up as a real-time evocation of one fight, brilliantly confronts the noir theme of the melancholy duality of winning and losing. Stoker refuses to throw the fight and by winning loses when the heavies, who paid his trainer for the fall, cripple him in a dark back-alley outside the stadium. It is a simple story of gut-wrenching humanity.
In modern cinema, I would find a film has having noir elements rather than saying that it is a noir or a neo-noir. Recent movies such as Michael Clayton (2007) and In The Valley of Elah (2007) fall into this category. In Michael Clayton the veneer of respectability of modern business is stripped away to reveal corruption and moral turpitude – a perennial noir theme. George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a big NY law firm’s well-heeled clients who get into trouble. When the firm’s top litigator Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) goes off the wall, Clayton is called in to clean up, and as the story develops he is forced to confront his corrupt activities and choose loyalty to his friend and integrity, over corporate and personal survival. On the surface In The Valley of Elah is a police procedural framed against US soldiers returning from the Iraq war. On a deeper level it is an exploration of contingencies and responsibility. The war in Iraq, the killing of a child by a US humvee on the streets of Baghdad, and the gruesome murder of a returning soldier on the outskirts of an American army town, bring chaos to the life of a father, who no longer understands his son or his country and its institutions. Everything including the American flag is upside-down.
If you are new to film and would like to explore it further, I would start with the Wikipedia article on film noir and these books:
- The Rough Guide to Film Noir (2007) A great introduction that covers the genre from early German expressionism to the latest neo-noirs, and highlights the movies to look out for.
- Film Noir by Alain Silver (2004) A general overview of film noir covering its most important themes with many rare stills. Among the films covered are: Double Indemnity (1941), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Gun Crazy, Criss Cross (1949), Detour (1945), In A Lonely Place (1950), T-Men, Out Of The Past (1947) The Reckless Moment, and Touch of Evil (1958).