Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Film Noir - A Definition

The Big Combo (1955)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
film noir
/ˌfilm ˈnwär/

  1. A style or genre of motion picture marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, menace, and cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is   conveyed by shadowy, low-key photography and foreboding background music.   
  2. A film of this genre.

A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour.  Lamps form haloes of light in the murk.  In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or to be murdered… the specific ambience of film noir, a world of darkness and violence, with a central figure whose motives are usually greed, lust and ambition, whose world is filled with fear, reached its fullest realization in the nineteen forties.  A genre deeply rooted in the nineteenth century's vein of romanticism developed through U.F.A, the principal film studio in Germany and the murky fog-filled atmosphere of pre-war French movies, flowered in Hollywood as the great German or Austrian expatriates - Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder - arrived and were allowed more and more freedom to unleash their fantasies on the captive audience.  Here is a world where it is always night, always foggy or wet, filled with gunshots and sobs, where men wear turned-down brims on their hats and women loom in fur coats, glamorous gowns, perfect lipstick, and guns thrust deep into their pockets.  

Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film.  Five movies flashed one after the other across Parisian screens, movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique eroticism: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Otto Preminger's Laura, Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window.  During the Nazi occupation of France, US films were not allowed in France and so the summer of 1946 was the first opportunity for French audiences to see these US World War II era movies.  

Long cut off from the United States, with little news of Hollywood production during the war, living on the memory of Wyler, of Ford, and Capra, French critics could not fully absorb this sudden revelation.  Other films followed: Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire, Robert Siodmak's The Killers, Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, Charles Vidor's Gilda, and Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep imposed the concept of film noir on moviegoers.  A new series of "dark film" had emerged in the history of cinema.  

A series can be defined as a group of motion pictures from one country sharing certain traits (style, atmosphere, subject matter…) strongly enough to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an unmistakable character.  Moreover they all reach a peak, that is, a moment of purest expression.  Afterwards they slowly fade and disappear leaving traces and informal sequels in other genres.  

The history of film is, in large part, a history of film cycles.  There are, of course, certain titles that resist classification:  Orson Welles' Citizen Cane or Clifford Odets' None but For The Lonely Heart are among these.  Often a remarkable film cannot be classified because it is the first in a new movement and the observer lacks the necessary perspective.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was unclassifiable before it engendered the German expressionist style of cinema "Caligarism."  It is a style that included both the horror genre as well as the film noir movement.  

Since the start of the talkies, one could cite many examples:  in the Unites States, social realism, gangster films; in Germany, the farces from 1930 to 1933 which inspired a like movement in American comedy, in the USSR films dedicated to the October Revolution; in France the realism of Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, and Julien Duvivier.  

The existence over the last few years of a "série noir" in Hollywood is obvious.  Defining it's essential traits is another matter.  Some of the film noir qualities are nightmarish, weird, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.  In some titles, the cruelty of some bizarre behavior is preeminent.  Often the noir aspect of a film is linked to a character, a scene, or a setting.  The Set-up is a good documentary on boxing: it becomes a film noir in the sequence when scores are settled by a savage beating in a blind alley.  Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a psychological melodrama which attaches itself to film noir through its intriguing sadism.  

Film Noir is french for "black film".  It is the presence of crime which gives film noir its most constant characteristic "The dynamism of violent death" as said by the famous film critic  Nino Frank whom first coined the term film noir.  Blackmail, accusation, theft, or drug trafficking set the stage for a narrative where life and death are at stake.  Sordidly or bizarrely, death always comes at the end of a tortured journey.  In every sense of the word a noir film is a film of death.  

Since 1946 Hollywood had exported a score of films to France which have as their main themes criminal inquiries supposedly based on actual cases.  In fact, a title card or a narrator often alert the viewer at the start of the film that this is a true story which took place in such and such a time at such and such a place.  The shots on the screen faithfully reconstruct the start of the process: a call to the homicide bureau, the discovery of a body.  Sometimes it may be a seemingly inconsequential incident or some report from a neighborhood police that sets events in motion.  Then comes the tedious "leg" work by the cops: the careful but fruitless searches, ineffective surveillance, and futile decoys.  Finally there is a glimmer, some object found, a witness, which leads to a climatic chase and uncovering a den of cutthroats.  Film noir is from within, from the point of view of the criminals.  

The documentary-style picture examines from without, from the point of view of the police official.  In features such as The Naked City, the action begins after the criminal act, and their murderers, their minions, and other accomplices move across the screen only to be followed, marked, interrogated, chased, and killed. Police investigators are traditionally portrayed as righteous men, brave and incorruptible.  The "police documentary" is more accurately a glorification of the police.  

Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman in
Notorious (1946) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This is not the case for the noir series.  If police are featured, they are rotten - sometimes often murderers themselves as in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel or Where the Sidewalk Ends.  At minimum, they let themselves get sucked into the criminal mechanism.  As a result of this screenwriters have frequently fallen back on the private detective.  It would have been too controversial always to impugn American police officials.  The private detective is midway between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink, sometimes unscrupulous but putting only himself at risk, fulfilling the requirements of his own code and the genre as well.  As if to counterbalance this, the actual law breakers are more or less sympathetic figures.  The narrative is manipulated so that at times the moviegoer sympathizes and identifies with the criminals.  

As for the ambiguous protagonist, he is often more mature and not too handsome.  Humphrey Bogart typifies him.  He is also an inglorious victim whom may suffer appalling abuse, before the happy ending.  He is often masochistic, even self-immolating, one whom makes his own trouble.  At times he is a passive hero who allows himself to be dragged across the line into the gray area between legal and criminal behaviour, such as Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai.

Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Finally, there is ambiguity surrounding the woman: the femme fatale who is fatal for herself.  Frustrated and deviant, half predator, half prey, detached yet ensnared, she falls victim to her own traps.  This new type of woman, manipulative and evasive, as hard bitten as her environment, ready to shake down or to trade shots with anyone--and probably frigid--has put her mark on noir eroticism, which may be at times nothing more than violence eroticized.  The female protagonist is being depraved, she is murderous, doped-up or drunk.  She is a mysterious flawed human with character imperfections and makes use of her hypnotic seductive sensuality.  Her charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.  The phrase is french for "deadly woman".  The femme fatale is often described as having power akin to an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having some power over men.  

In the film noir genre lighting was perfected and used on a grand scale with such techniques as high-contrast, revealing certain characters in bright, almost washed out light, while casting others in almost total shadow.  Low angle camera setups were used to make the subject seem taller and more powerful.  Deep focus, which was a new technology at the time, was employed lavishly allowing the camera to maintain in focus objects and characters in the both the background and foreground in the same shot.  Film Noir cinematographers were masters of light and darkness.  Hungarian-born John Alton is one of the most recognized and celebrated cinematographers for setting the stage for the stylizing of such films as The Big ComboHe walked By Night, and Talk about a Stranger.  Many cinematographers mirrored his style and craftsmanship but none ever came close to his careful use of chiaroscuro, the powerful striking contrast of light (chiaro) with the elements of dark (oscuro).  One thing these disparate films have in common is the beautiful crisp black and white photography.  Unlike most cameramen of his time, Alton used very little grayscale, noting, "the most beautiful photography is in low key with rich blacks."  He was an artist whom liked working in the dark.  Other major cinematographers during this classic period included John F. Seitz who shot Billy Wilder masterpieces Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. and Burnett Guffey whom worked at Colombia Pictures shooting titles such as The Reckless Moment, In a Lovely Place and Scandal Sheet.

All the components of film noir yield the same result: disorienting the spectator, who can no longer find the familiar reference points.  The moviegoer is being presented a less severe version of the underworld, with likable killers and corrupt cops.  Good and evil go hand in hand to the point of being indistinguishable.  Robbers become ordinary guys: they have kids, love women, and just want to go home again as in the The Asphalt Jungle.  The victim seems as guilty as the hit man, who is just doing his job.  The moral center is completely skewed and in the end the chaos goes "beyond all limits."  


Panorama Du Film Noir Américain. 1941-1953 (French)
Raymond Borde and ´Etienne Chaumeton

Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style 
Edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Special appreciation and recognition to Monsier Freddy Buache
Secretary-general of the Cinématheque of Lausanne, Switzerland


  1. I think I have seen them all...I remember black and white and how I loved to sit with my Mami and whatch the Maltsese Falcon, one of my favorites.

    1. Wonderful Memories with your family! I love The Maltese Falcon! Have you ever seen Sunset Blvd. directed by Billy Wilder? The story is set in 50's Hollywood and focuses on Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), a silent-screen actress- goddess whose pathetic belief in her own destructibility has turned her into a narcissistic murderer.