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.


1946: The numbers and the when and why of Film Noir

Kiss of Death (1946)
An ad for Kiss of Death in a 1946 issue of the Hollywood trade journal ‘The Film Daily’

Some film noir academics dispute the widely held view that the “expanding cycle of hard-boiled and cynical films” (as Bosley Crowther described them in the New York Times in his May 1946 review of The Blue Dahlia) produced in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period, necessarily reflected a darker pessimistic mood in American society in the shadow of WW2, as there was still plenty of Hollywood’s traditional romantic and escapist fare screening in the US at the time, and that the movies retroactively labelled as film noir were not big box office.

Mike Chopra-Grant in his 2006 book, ‘Hollywood Genres and Postwar America’, put this view as follows (my emphasis):

“when I began to look at the rental revenues earned by films in the American market in 1946 no single mood or tone could be identified that uniformly characterized all of the most popular films, although the dominance of musicals and comedies suggested a lighter and more exuberant mood than the emphasis on film noir in academic writing would suggest… Despite the inconsistency between the number of upbeat musicals and comedies among the most popular films of the early postwar period and the “mood” of that period suggested by much film noir scholarship, I do not entirely reject the suggestion that the “tough” movie represents one response to the disruptions and uncertainties of the wartime and postwar period. I do, however, take issue with the suggestion that this kind of film represented the typical response of Hollywood filmmakers, and with the implication that the “tough” movie captured the zeitgeist of American culture in the period after the Second World War: the evidence provided by the popular films suggests otherwise, and in the contradictory impressions of the period presented by the combination of the most popular films and the “tough” movies the very notion of zeitgeist is revealed to be highly problematic…  Although explaining these films in vague sociological terms, as a manifestation of historically existing social anxieties, produces an inadequate account of their place within the wider culture, examination of these “tough” movies in relation to the specific themes and discourses already discussed in relation to the popular films of the period does provide a way of understanding the position of film noir within its historical setting without the need to resort to common-sense truisms about the “mood” of the culture.”

On the other side and in the same year in her book ‘Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir’, Sheri Chinen Biesen argues that the dark expressionism of crime movies that started to appear during WW2 arose out of the economic constraints imposed on Hollywood by the war effort, such as the shortage of film stock and electricity rationing, dark lighting to hide cheap sets, and other deprivations, together with growing audience demand for “red meat” entertainment.

The other day I was idly ‘flipping’ through on-line archive copies of The Film Daily, a Hollywood trade journal of the period, and came across an interesting tabulation in the Friday May 23, 1947 issue: The Broadway Run Score Board comparing the weekly runs of new release movies in Broadway cinemas for the periods Jan-June 1946 and Jan-May 1947. The Scorecards are reproduced at the end of this article.  I have highlighted all the movies that are now identified as films noir. There are quite a number, and more than a few had exceptional runs. Some prestige noirs did very well. Clearly, there was something going on.

How we account for these numbers I leave to the experts, but I do have a view which I set out in my article What is Film Noir. Basically, 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 WW2. This is not to say that the experience of WW2 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.

The Score Boards – Double-click on the image to zoom:

The Film Daily Score Card - click to to zoom in
The Film Daily Score Board- click to to zoom in


Alienation in the Modern Metropolis: The built environment New York 1964

These frames from The Pawnbroker (1964) illustrate how Director, Sidney Lumet and Cinematographer, Boris Kaufman deftly cast the high density built environment to visually portray the isolation of the individual in the modern metropolis.

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Long Wait (1954): Tie Me Up And Kiss Me Deadly

The Long Wait (1954)

Anthony Quinn as an amnesiac who is wanted for murder? You got him in The Long Wait, and not one but four femmes noir. Three blondes and a brunette. All leggy and not backward in coming forward.
This violent and brutal flick has Mickey Spillane all over it. The second Spillane novel to be filmed in Hollywood – after I, The Jury (1953) – The Long Wait takes pulp fiction down to a new level. A preposterous plot with more holes than a pair of fishnet nylons itches a perversely compelling pastiche of noir tropes: amnesia, corruption in high places, crooked cops, frame-ups, violence, duplicitous dames, and sex. But no Mike Hammer. Our protagonist is strictly an amateur. But that doesn’t make him any less able to dizzy the dames nor prove his innocence – even if the key to the frame is patently absurd.

Quinn is a hunk and knows it. His kisses and clinches are not for the faint-hearted. He beds the first girl to show an interest. In fact, she picks him up. A frank come-on and cut to her apartment, where after a shower she is ready for the bout naked under her wrap. You get the picture.

Despite a strange incoherence and lackadaisical direction from Brit Victor Saville, the talented lensing of Franz Planer sustains visual interest, with suitably dark lighting and expressionist flourishes.

This brings us to the climax which melds sex and violent entrapment into an amazing expressionist sequence involving a spot-light and deft crane shots. Quinn is tied-up in a chair and a girl called Venus trussed on the floor is being goaded by the bad guy to crawl to Quinn for one last kiss. The resolution is neat and unexpected. One of those rare moments when you are left open-mouthed before the craft and audacity of what you have just seen. Totally weird.


Two New Books on Film Noir: Movie #3,500 and counting, or is enough enough?


They stopped making films noir 50 years ago, yet the books on film noir keep on coming.  The study of film noir is career-defining for many academics and noir pundits, and the selling of all those books and scholarly treatises must rake in the readies.

But sorry guys I am starting to get cynical about this plethora of prognostications and chatter about film noir.  Let me tell you why.  I will have to follow some currents and eddies but indulge me.

A new film noir encyclopedia has just been published, and I have been privileged to preview the galleys on-line. ‘A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide’ by prolific film author John Grant, is a 512 page behemoth that boasts capsule reviews of over 3,500 films. As you would guess the net has been cast far and wide to get this tally, with the publisher’s blurb telling me that the book covers “3,500 movie entries, including not only classic US film noirs from the 1940s through 1960s, but also modern manifestations like neonoirs and erotic thrillers. Films from every continent (except Antarctica)”.

I doubt even Eddie Muller has seen this many noirs, and my current list is only a bit more than 300.  So I will have to take Grant at his word.  Flipping through the book on my iPad, I see all the essential noirs are there, and Grant gets the stories right – something Silver & Ward in their pioneering effort, The Film Noir Encyclopedia, achieve only occasionally in their longer and rather overwrought entries. One thing Grant does do is avoid spoilers and this is definitely welcome.  His entries for the more important movies are longer, and provide some background and snippets on a movie’s aesthetics.  At US$50 it is a pricey but useful reference.

I just don’t believe there are that many noirs!  Let’s be honest. Most b-movies were b-movies: cheap and nasty. There are no doubt some forgotten gems still to be discovered, but not that many surely.  If you want a more manageable program of films that you can actually get hold of savour my list of essential films noir.

Hot on the heels of Grant’s book is a new academic treatise edited by UK academics Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, ‘A Companion to Film Noir’, presenting a new range of essays from the usual suspects from both sides of the Pond, and prefaced with an introduction by James Naremore. If you thought Grant’s book was beyond your budget, then this number is strictly for the birds at just below US$180 for the hardcover and US$160 for the Kindle e-book. No prizes for guessing that mere mortals don’t get a review copy. But the publisher Wiley has made the Introduction and a chapter titled ‘The Ambience of Film Noir’ available free on-line here.

A segue that may justify my increasing suspicion that we have an overload of books on film noir. In the introduction to Grant’s book he makes reference to the seminal film journal article in 1946 by French critic and existential intellectual Nino Frank, in which Frank coined the expression ‘film noir’. That year a backlog of Hollywood product hit Paris screens. (During the Nazi Occupation of France from 1941 to 1945 American films were banned).  Frank was struck by the darkness and ambience of a clutch of films that were radically different from Hollywood’s pre-war output. The films Frank wrote about were The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945). Wanting to know more about Frank I started searching for references to his writing on film noir, and thanks to Google, I discovered a web site devoted to Nino Frank which hosts an excellent paper on just what was written and discussed in Paris in 1946. Frank’s original article appeared in the French film journal L’Ecran français on 28 August, 1946, and he wrote a follow-up article in another French film journal La Revue du Cinéma in November of that year.

The paper is comprehensive, providing a detailed history with citations. What struck me was that the intellectual ferment in Paris in 1946 produced a synthesis and comprehension of film noir that has hardly been added to since by the myriad books and journal articles that have appeared in the wake of Frank’s first distillation. I commend readers to the paper titled ‘Nino Frank and the Fascination of Noir’ available here, and best of all it is free.

New York: Scenes from The Window (1949) Then and Now

The Window (1949) was filmed on the streets of New York, and challenges Jule’s Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) as the first documentary-style noir. The Window was actually completed two months before The Naked City in January 1948.

Noir aficionado and film-maker Ray Ottulich visited New York recently, and he has kindly allowed me to publish his photographs of locales used in The Window matched to actual frames from the movie. This is the second post featuring locale shots from Ray. The first in October last year featured Robert Wise’s classic film noir Odds Against Tomorrow, which was shot on location in New York City and in the Hudson river town of Hudson, NY.

East 105th Street
East 105th Street
East 105th Street
East 105th Street
19th Precinct  East 67th Street
19th Precinct East 67th Street
East River Bakery
East River Bakery
East 105th Street & Park Ave Viaduct
East 105th Street & Park Ave Viaduct

Memento (2000): The Days of Future Past

Memento (2000)

A brain injury leaves a young man with no short term memory. He can’t make new memories remembering the present for only a limited time, and then his memory reverts to the self that knows only past memories at the time of the trauma, an horrific event that consumes every waking moment in his eternal present.  He uses tattoos on his body and Polaroid snapshots with captions as aides-memoires to his reason for being: to track down and avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Mementos that he recalls not in time but as memories of an indeterminate past. Each day he awakens to the baleful necessity of reconstructing the present.

Christopher Nolan’s clever and gripping noir thriller Memento takes the noir convention of the flashback and builds the film’s narrative as one long extended backward exposition that deconstructs what has gone before – yet deepens the mystery of the how and the why.

Some critics quibble that this central conceit is clumsy, that the chopping up of events and segues between scenes are too contrived and lack narrative cohesion.  This is to miss the forest for the trees.  As viewers we are active in the construction of the narrative and are privileged voyeurs who – unlike the protagonist – can inform the present from the future past. We think the hapless protagonist is stuck in the present and must re-learn where he is at each lapse of memory. But is he?

The revelation is that beyond memory, life for sanity’s sake cannot be borne without a narrative. Life without a purpose or end is not living. So the protagonist of Memento must destroy memories as well as preserve them. He is trapped in a vortex that has the same purpose but a different trajectory each time that purpose is achieved. A creative destruction that can end only in death, real or virtual. Virtual in that if he can longer act, through incarceration or incapacity, he can no longer reinvent the past to give the present meaning.

Nirvana is hell not liberation.