Guest Post: Alan Fassioms on Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Origins Of Film Noir

The plots and subtexts of the Expressionist films often dealt with “intellectual” topics such as madness, insanity, betrayal, and humiliation, as we see here in a still from F.W. Murnau 1924 silent classic Der Letze Mann (aka The Last Laugh)
The plots and subtexts of Expressionist films often dealt with “intellectual” topics such as madness, insanity, betrayal, and humiliation, as we see here in a still from F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent classic Der Letze Mann (aka The Last Laugh)

After some encouragement from my Film Noir-loving comrades, I’ve decided not to be modest about my enthusiasm for Film Noir and to share this with you.

Recently I became slightly obsessed with the origins of Film Noir, of which I knew very little about, so decided to do some digging. Boy, did I ever underestimate the incredible journey that I was about to embark upon. It was a journey of discovery that took me through the mysteriously dark, yet compelling archives of silent horror movies, to early divas that shaped the mould for our beloved femme fatales (one of two for whom I developed a slightly unsettling school-boy crush), to the meaning of Pre-Code and the realisation of just how much freedom these early film pioneers were permitted in expressing themselves in the most imaginative ways. The results were often horrific, shocking, slightly perverse and even upsetting to watch sometimes, yet compelling to the end. Nevertheless, they had in common the fact that they were stylish, sexy, incredibly intellectual, and possessed of a charm that would make a grown man weep at their sheer, simple beauty.

I feel that it would be unfair to keep this treasure to myself, and so would like to share it with those yet to discover the mysteries of Film Noir’s origins. I use the term ‘treasure’ deliberately because the journey of discovery into this world is exactly that: a treasure hunt; identifying clues along the way that will lead you further and further back into cinematic history. My own personal treasure-hunt led me as far back as the mid 1910’s. But even here I had the distinct impression that the blueprint for what would later become known as Film Noir, had already been well established.

So you can call this little write-up a map of sorts, if you decide to take on the case! On the way you may encounter the very first femme fatales. You’ll then exuberate: “Oh, wait a minute. Ah, now I see where that came from”. I saw my first fatale in a 1913 German silent  titled Der Student Von Prag (The Student of Prague) directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener. She was quite tame, and not as ‘naughty’ as her counter-part in the 1926 remake of the same name. But still she was distinctly present and up to no good. If you do decide to do some digging yourselves, I would suggest going down the ‘availability’ route, as so much early material has been lost. If you can get hold of anything pre 1930 from any of the following directors, you’ve found yourself a gem and another piece of the puzzle: Fritz Lang; F.W. Marnau; Robert Wiene; and Josef von Sternberg. A good starting point is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931) and then work your way back through the 1920’s and before.

Alternatively, you may consider yourself a bit of a maverick like me and think, “To hell with that. I’m going to start with material from as far back as I can possibly find and end with M. That makes more sense to me”, then bravo and good luck. That’s a tougher route because you may spend all your time looking for the door to the treasure chamber when you could be inside looking at the treasure itself. But it does indeed make more sense to do it that way starting with The Student of Prague (aka A Bargain with Satan) from 1913. Last I looked, it was available on YouTube. If you can’t find the original version, the 1926 remake, (aka The Man Who Cheated Life) directed by Henrik Galeem, which is just as important as its predecessor. Many critics claim it’s even better, but that’s for you to decide. These silent classic will be your Stranger on a Train pushing forward or back in time.

Obviously none of these films are listed as Film Noir, but rather as horror films, thrillers, crimes or dramas. They are almost all silent films and mostly German (or directed by Germans in Hollywood).

Your assistants on this journey will be YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, IMDB and a multitude of online streaming sites. Finally, here are a few clues to get you started. Beware there is a red-herring among them!

  • German Expressionism (this is a massive clue!)
  • Caligari
  • Eliza La Porta
  • Nosferatu
  • Metropolis
  • Hitchcock
  • Hermann Warm
  • Weimar era
  • Walt Disney
  • George Wilhelm Pabst
  • Louise Brooks
  • Leopold Jessner
  • “An azure-colored celestial being”
  • Paul Wegener

Good luck. I envy you – especially if you have not yet made the acquaintance of Louise Brooks!

Alan Fassioms is a freelance writer and  self-confessed “film noir addict”. You can read more of Alan’s writing on film at his blog Stranger on the 3rd Floor.

 

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Alan Fassioms on Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Origins Of Film Noir”

  1. “Obviously none of these films are listed as Film Noir, but rather as horror films, thrillers, crimes or dramas. They are almost all silent films and mostly German (or directed by Germans in Hollywood).”

    Indeed Alan. I wholeheartedly agree that the roots of film noir can be traced back to German expressionism, horror and that thriller-drama hybrid you broach here. In fact the greatest noirs would appear to showcase the best visual and narrative aspects of the films that fall under that earlier umbrella. I love the journey you have embarked on – it’s heaven for the noir fan but at least cinematic bliss for the movie lover in general. The tools to complete the task are all perfect, and I dare say I’ll do some investigation myself. Great post!

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  2. Thanks Sam for your kind feedback. It’s also interesting that you mention “thriller-drama hybrid”, as ‘hybrids’ are another aspect of Noirs that are worth some digging, I’ve recently discovered. Particularly Horror-Noir hybrids that Hammer Film Productions in particular was notorious for. I use the word ‘notorious’ carefully, as Hammer didn’t have such a great reputation in the Noir department. However, if Martin Scorcese’s opinion is worth anything, there are definitely at least few Noir gems in the Hammer archives just waiting to be re-discovered. Perhaps this will be the subject of my investigation!

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  3. Epilogue:
    Admittedly when I first wrote the above article, my passion for classic silent movies, and particularly the German Expressionist ones, were high. They still are! As is, and always will be, my passion for Film Noir. But now that the honeymoon phase with German Expressionism has passed, I can look at my article more objectively. The main mistake I make is to try to suggest that Film Noirs roots lie solely in Weimar, or early German, cinema. Irrevocably, I maintain that this is true to a certain degree. However after doing further research into this subject, it has to be said that my attempts to pinpoint exactly where Film Noirs origins lie remain inconclusive. The fact is Film Noir is the mongrel of the film industry…a ‘street dog’ with more than one owner. Sure, the themes, particularly of the earlier Noirs, reflect much of the post WW1 mood that was present in a traumatized and broken Germany. Cinematically, this translated into films about the ‘intellectual’ topics that I mention in my article, i.e. madness, betrayal, humiliation etc. Also from an aesthetics viewpoint, some important German cinematographers were responsible for helping to create film noirs distinct visual style (e.g. Karl Freund). But other key components, such as the dark, shadowy street scenes, criminals on the fringe of urban society, and femme fatales, can also find their roots in other genres. The Strassenfilm, or ‘Street Film’ genre, which grew out of the New Objectivity art movement in latter 1920’s Germany [‘New Objectivity’ or ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ reflected more the mood of a Germany prepared to pick themselves up and welcome new ideas and more social awareness, and was a direct counter-reaction to negativity of German Expressionism]; the film movement known as French Poetic Realism where the pessimism and despair of the urban lower classes is expressed with romance and melancholy; French, hard-bolied crime fiction of the 1930’s; and the closer to home, American ‘hard boiled’ urban crime-fiction, from authors such as Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as well as stories found in the crime pulp magazine ‘Black Mask’, all had an important role in Film Noirs early development, and therefor deserve a big mention.

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  4. Agreed Tony, It’s been fascinating opening this can of worms and finding so many pieces to the puzzle. It’s really opened my eyes to a lot of important directors and various genres that, had it not been for film noir, I’d never of had the pleasure of experiencing.

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