Film Noir – that group of shady, black and white crime flicks from the ’40s and ’50s – is notorious among students of film to pin down. Dissertations have been written on the subject that struggle to define it. The problem is that Film Noir is not a genre in the way Westerns or gangster pictures are; genres defined by plot and setting. Film Noir movies can be about anything and set anywhere. It is style that defines them regardless of setting. Some movies fit anybody’s definition of noir. Others land in a gray area and are hotly contested.
The term is usually credited to the French film critic Nino Frank who wrote an article called Un nouveau genre ‘policier:’ L’aventure criminelle, (A new police genre: the criminal adventure) which appeared in the film magazine L’écran français in August 1946. He applied the term to certain American movies made during the war which hadn’t been available to French audiences under the Nazi occupation. When these movies did reach French cinemas en masse in 1946, audiences noticed a marked difference in tone to the Technicolor epics and musical extravaganzas of pre-war American cinema. These films were tough, violent, raw and above all, dark.
Shot in black and white with emphasis on expressionism, the subject matter often dealt with the ugly flip-side of the American dream; organised crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and adultery. While tame in comparison to Hollywood’s output today, these films caused quite a stir in France and there was a degree of moral outrage at their content.
Double Indemnity (1944) was one of the original films noir Nino Frank alluded to in his article.
Nobody in the 1940s set out to make a Film Noir as the term hadn’t been invented. They were more often than not known as crime pictures or melodramas, leaving it up to Nino Frank and future generations to band them together into a loosely defined group based on a set of shared characteristics. There’s plenty of blogs that list ‘top ten noirs’ or try to untangle the knotty problem of definition. Instead, I’m going to list a few influences and archetypes of Film Noir. These are the ingredients of the Film Noir cocktail; a stiff drink with a bitter aftertaste of revenge, indulgence and the streets.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) is perhaps the most famous example of German Expressionism.
German Expressionism and Gothic Literature
German Expressionism evolved during a period of cultural isolation in Germany directly following the First World War. With a ban on foreign films, German filmmakers developed their own surrealist style. Geometrically skewed angles, shadows painted on backdrops and themes of insanity and murder reflected a psychologically disturbed nation reeling in the wake of a horrific war. The rise of Nazi Germany sparked a cultural emigration that saw many German filmmakers (largely of Jewish descent) flee to America. Directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger brought this distinct European style to Hollywood and it was well suited to both horror movies and the emerging Film Noir movement.
German Expressionism – and by extension, Film Noir – owes a debt to Gothic Literature; a genre popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that blended the erotic and the macabre with much focus on decay, corruption and madness usually in an aristocratic setting. Death is never simple in novels like Wuthering Heights or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe in which psychological motivation takes precedence over murder for profit. As with Film Noir, Gothic Literature is more concerned with why people kill rather than how they kill. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray are concerned with man’s duality and play with the idea of light and dark/good and evil fighting for dominance within. These themes which were so evident in German Expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) were handed down to American crime films of the 1940s. The decadent aristocratic family of the Gothic novel can easily be seen in the Sternwoods of The Big Sleep (1946) and the surrealistic nightmares of many a Byronic hero translate well to the troubled man spiraling into insanity as in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). The hopelessness and bleak outlook of Gothic literature are so recognizable in Film Noir that the movement could almost be called ‘Urban Gothic’.
There is a reason Film Noir is almost exclusively an American product. The situation in the U.S in the 1940s was perfect for it. A relatively new country, the U.S. had experienced an economic boom that saw vast cities rise up in record time. The Depression knocked America for six and stripped many of their fortunes leaving a bitter, world-weary and cynical nation. Prohibition caused a second boom; this time in organised crime and the corruption it bred.
The Depression created a need for cheap, lowbrow entertainment and the pulp magazine was the perfect medium. Lurid tales of sex and violence made the anti-hero the protagonist of choice and the frontiersman of the wild west that had been so popular in the dime novels of previous decades quickly morphed into the American private detective in magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. The stories of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and others were a stark contrast to the cozy English detective stories of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that preceded them. These detectives were working class tough guys pursuing leads into the dark corners of the American city; a bleak landscape inhabited by gangsters, corrupt cops and villains of all sizes and perversions.
Hardboiled novels were popular in France around the time Nino Frank christened Film Noir and there was once a wide held belief that he was referencing a publishing imprint called Serié Noire. This series of crime paperbacks made a name for itself translating the works of American writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain into French. But as this article states, the series didn’t get into its stride until after Frank’s article was published and none of the Noir-associated authors mentioned appeared in the series until 1948 meaning that the name of the imprint was probably a coincidence.
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). Low budgets forced filmmakers to make the best of sparse sets and minimal lighting.
The Cost of the War
Color films began to appear just as war broke out in Europe. With America’s involvement came budget cuts and studios were forced to revert to the cheaper black and white format. There were other restrictions too and sets were made on the cheap and in some cases, barely finished. Thus, the lighting style of German Expressionism fulfilled a utilitarian purpose as well as an artistic one. Deep shadows masked shoddy or incomplete sets and the simple setup of a lamp and a table in a confined studio set provided atmosphere on a tight budget.
The style may have evolved out of necessity but it covered up its flaws well. Some of the best noirs were B-movies like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and Detour (1945). The more polished noirs of the ’50s like The Big Heat (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) showed a degree of self awareness. Whereas early noirs used deep shadows and simple sets out of necessity, these films actively sought out crummy locales because they had the budget to film on location and reveled in the gloomy atmosphere established by early noirs.
The Returning Veteran and the Femme Fatale
Robert Mitchum in Crossfire (1947)
Films noir are generally known for their bleak endings. Although the production code with its insistence that all criminals had to pay for their crimes on-screen is responsible for a part of it, there are other reasons too. Disillusionment, alienation and a sense of unease were all symptoms of a generation of men returning home from the war and struggling to find their place in a country they no longer recognized. Whether it is Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) in The Blue Dahlia (1946) who comes home from the war to find his wife sleeping with another man and subsequently finds himself accused of her murder, or Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) in Crossfire (1947) telling a cop the only killing he’s done is ‘where you get medals for it’, the noirs of the late ’40s often showed the returning veteran at odds with the society he went to war to defend. Cynical of American values which have become ever more materialistic in his absence and distrusted by the very people he fought to protect, the returning veteran is a man outside of society and perfect as either a protagonist or villain in Film Noir.
Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) – the classic image of the Femme Fatale.
One cannot talk about Film Noir without touching upon the concept of the Femme Fatale. Much has been written on the psychology behind the phenomenon. During the war women were needed to work positions traditionally filled by men. When the veterans returned they found a female workforce that had got used to earning a dime and in some cases were reluctant to go back to their roles of housewives. This rejection of gender roles is key to the Femme Fatale who is traditionally depicted as a ballsy, seductive and deadly woman enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Manipulation of men is her general game and prime examples are Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson who convinces a hapless insurance salesman to commit murder in Double Indemnity (1944) and Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy; the deceitful murderess in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Perhaps the best example of the post-war generation’s feeling of emasculation is Gun Crazy (1949) in which Annie Laurie Starr (played by Peggy Cummins) literally outguns her fellow bank robber Bart Tare (John Dall) who only ever commits one murder in the movie (hers) and pays the ultimate price for it in the movie’s desolate climax. It invariably ends badly for the Femme Fatale with most noirs stripping them of their freedom or their life before the credits roll. It is debatable if this is a criticism of women who stray from their traditional roles or an attack on the oppressive patriarchal society that forces them to break free and embark upon such self-destructive journeys.
Film Noir was an important influence on my newest novel, Curse of the Blood Fiends which blends the noirish private detective story with the monster movies of the 1940s. Private detective Rosa Bridger is on the trail of a drug-addled Hollywood starlet for her fiance’s movie mogul father. But something is lurking in the shadows of the City of Angels far worse than the hoodlums and hop-pushers she is used to dealing with…
Blaser, John. “No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir” and “Film Noir’s Progressive Portrayal of Women.”