Film Noir

Hola Everybody,
As promised, I’ll be spending some major alone time this weekend. I’m taking some time off reading and nessabatin’ to write today’s entry.

Funny thing happened before I left the office last night. I got a call from a former colleague offering me the directorship for one of their projects. Before I could answer, he asked straight out, “How much will it take to bring you on board?” I quoted $20k more than I’m making now, and he offered 15. I paused, was about to tell him good-bye and he asked that I didn’t make a decision until we met.

LOL!

On another note, it seems the formerly recalcitrant Amy Winehouse will be going to rehab after all. May she have a long and slow recovery.

* * *

Film Noir

What I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.”
Jane Greer to Robert Mitchum: The Big Steal

A guy down on his luck, hitting the bottle and hiding out from his landlord. A mysterious and beautiful lady appears at his door with a wad of cash for seemingly simple errand to run…

The stereotypical beginning of a classic film noir.

I love film noir. Its use of clipped language and some of the most ingenious use of lighting ever, along with a not so black and white perspective on morality, alone make it a uniquely American art form. I consider film noir the single greatest American contribution to cinema. Many today would agree. However, it wasn’t always like that. Early on, what became known as film noir was mostly a stepchild of cinema. A motherless invention of necessity. During its heyday, which lasted from 1941to 1958, noir films were derided by critics. In fact, the top movie studios usually relegated noir films to B-unit productions and released on the bottom half of double bills.

There were, of course, some exceptions, such as The Maltese Falcon, Laura, and Double Indemnity – all Academy Award nominees; but even these films weren’t spared scathing reviews from the critical community.

You may scoff at my harping on films shot mostly in back and white, but believe me, you have watched many modern-day films directly influenced by film noir. Film Noir has influenced two generations of film makers, including but not limited to Roman Polanski (Chinatown, 1971), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation, 1974), Francois Truffant, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976), Spike Lee, Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, 1981), Quentin Tarrantino (reservoir Dogs, 1992), and Stephen Frears (The Grifters, 1990), to name a few. In fact, this film movement has carried on, now called “neo noir,” for thirty years.

“I killed him for money — and for a woman. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.”
— from Double Indemnity (1944)

So what is film noir? Some will say that film noir isn’t a genre like westerns and crime films. Film noir is more about setting and mood. Film noir (“dark film”) is a term that French flim critics originally applied to the dark doom-laden, black and white Hollywood crime dramas of the 1940s, which were only seen in French cinemas for the first time shortly after World War II. The French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they began to watch them late in 1945, they noticed not just a darkening of mood but of subject matter. Long before the term was introduced into the English language, film noir became part of the of the lexicon of French film criticism, with the first full-length treatment of film noir published in French by Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. They began to examine the works of noir directors like Nicholas Ray, Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang, and Anthony Mann.

Americans didn’t catch up with the French appreciation of film noir until a new generation of film enthusiasts entered film schools in the 1960s. This new vanguard rebelled against the established norms of film history and found inspiration in the works of neglected noir classics such as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past (1947), T-MenDetour (1945), Criss Cross (1949), Gun Crazy (1950), Touch of Evil (1958), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Reckless Moment (1949), and Kiss me Deadly (1955). (1948),

Film noir’s roots are deep and diverse. On the literary side, noir borrowed heavily from the works of hard-boiled school of detective fiction written by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. Equally influential were the works of Emile Zola and Earnest Hemmingway’s clipped language and poetic prose style was particularly influential, serving as a role model for noir works. It is no coincidence that the works of these writers were the first to be adapted, beginning with Hammett’s Maltese Falcon in 1941, Woolrich’s Phantom Lady (1941), and Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946).

On the philosophical level, both existentialism and Freudian psychology, already familiar with the American upper middle class, which included the film community, promoted a world view that emphasized the absurdity of existence along with the importance that an individual’s past plays in determining his or her actions. This plays into the two most important themes of noir work: the “haunted past” and the “fatalistic nightmare.”

Noir protagonists are not creatures of the light. More often they are attempting to escape some past burden, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) or sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross, or Double Indemnity). Sometimes they are simply attempting to escape their demons created by vague events buried in their past. Whatever their problems, these characters seek concealment in the dark alleys and dimly lit rooms of the noir world.

As much as I like sometimes fatally flawed characters of film noir, I love its artistic contributions. Noir directors were masters of lighting and angle shots. We wouldn’t have music videos if it weren’t for noir. At least not videos as we see them now. They used chiaroscuro lighting, low key lighting in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Shade and light play with each other not only in exteriors but also in interiors, shielded from sunlight by drapes and Venetian blinds. There’s use of hard, unfiltered side-light and rim light working to reveal only part of a face for dramatic tension.

In addition, noir utilized the camera in innovative ways. For example, odd angles never before used in cinema. Noir directors favored low angles for several reasons. First, this angle made characters rise from the ground in an expressionistic manner, giving them dramatic weight and height. In addition, low angles allowed the viewer to see the ceilings, giving the effect of claustrophobia and paranoia. High angles also cause a sense of imbalance – vertigo – peering down a steep stairwell over a flimsy railing or out a skyscraper building at a city street far below. They were also the first to utilize the moving camera effectively. A camera sliding across the room past a cluttered foreground, or tracking a character through a crowded café created a relentless quality and oozed fate.

I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on noir archetypes (such as the femme fatale, for example), or noir’s depiction of the urban landscape, or its influence on language.

While the thematic treatments, low lighting, off center camera angles, and shadowy, almost claustrophobic atmosphere are not everyone’s cup of tea, film noir is a great body of work that continues to influence film today. For me, there are few pleasures comparable to a rainy weekend holed up somewhere with a lover and a stack of classic film noir works. I encourage anyone to explore what I like to call the “ugly beauty” of film noir.

Love,

Eddie

Resources

They Shot Dark Films, Didn’t They?

50 Key Noir Filmmakers

Classic Noir Online comprehensive survey of over 700 noir titles, with links to actors and directors

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