All at once, French critics were struck by a sudden change in this batch of movies—they were darker, more sinister than any previous productions they had seen out of the States. In place of the old screwball comedies and the extravagant, well-lit classic romances, came a new type of American picture: film noir. Literally ‘Black Film’, these movies lived up to their namesake—black, twisted tales about vice and corruption set in the urban jungle, characterized by sparse, shadowy lighting and awkward camera angles. These films were reflections of the nation’s social climate in the 40s and 50s, a time filled with fear and tension, and for that reason they can give us an important look into the hearts and minds of the American people at a dark time in their history. At the same time film noir marked a change in the way movies were made, turning popular filming methods and storytelling conventions on their heads. The style has enjoyed a lasting influence on cinema that can still be seen today, in the US and abroad, therefore film noir can be considered relevant both as a snapshot of an America in turmoil, and as an enduring part of film history.
Film noir is not an easy subject to pin down—it doesn’t seem to want to be boxed in or categorized, preferring to remain a formless idea, something invisible hanging in the air that can nevertheless be distinctly felt. Indefinable yet undeniable...but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The classic period of noir films is constantly debated, with some claiming The Maltese Falcon (1941) as a starting point . Others point toward an earlier beginning, while many believe it to be a strictly post-war phenomenon . It is at least more generally agreed upon that the noir cycle ends with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, though this, too, is disputed. But then come the constant debates of definition. Is noir a genre? Style? Sub-genre, tone, movement? The answer isn’t clear cut. In the first place, directors that have today become known as masters of the form— Billy Wilder, Fritz
Lang, and John Huston, to name a few—had no idea, at the time, that they were creating a whole new type of American movie. In fact, the term ‘film noir’ didn’t even catch on in the States until sometime in the 1970s. In 1946 French critics coined the phrase in reference to a recent line of crime novels published in the country under the banner title “Serie Noire”. They noted a resemblance in tone and subject matter between these books and the ‘noir’ films they were seeing. As it turns out, most of the books in this “Serie Noire” were translations of American hardboiled crime stories by the likes of authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, many of whom would go on to have their works adapted into screenplays. A classic film like Double Indemnity, scripted by Chandler and based on a book by James M. Cain, shows off the connection between Noir and the pulp stories of the 1930s, with sharp, witty dialogue and a cynical attitude that didn’t hesitate to show off the seedy side of life in the city. Dry, tough-guy lines like “If I have to die, I’m going to die last” ( Out of the Past), are straight out of the popular pulp magazines of the era, like Dime Detective and Black Mask .
But let’s step back for a bit. The origins of film noir are as diverse as the debates over its definition. The German Expressionism film movement in the 1930s introduced many of the key visual styles and techniques that were later adopted into film noir. This movement focused less on realism and more on expressive use of lighting and camera movement to tell the stories. Subjects would often be lit from odd angles, creating faces obscured by darkness, and shadows that crept eerily across floors like some
disembodied hand. It’s in these movies that the low-key, shadowy lighting style of noir has it’s roots. M, a 1931 German film, is often considered by critics to be one of the earliest prototypical examples of what would become film noir. It has all the developing traits of the style—the story is of a serial child murderer who evades capture by the police and causes a wave of distrust and fear to spread throughout the city. Paranoia and fear later became common themes in noir. M also features a dark, nocturnal view of the city, full of long shadows and imposing buildings. One scene shows the killer standing in the middle of a deserted street trying desperately to evade capture, but each time he turns, another man appears from around the corner to block his way. This idea of being trapped in the city would later be carried over to the noir period, when Americans were beginning to fear the threat of nuclear attack. In the wake of WWII and as the Cold War began, the big city was no longer a place of security. As noir scholar Nicholas Christopher wrote, the city suddenly became “a place where a hundred thousand—no, even five million—people can be incinerated in the time it takes to boil an egg”. It may be that some of these German and European directors were more able to sense early signs of the incoming disasters, and translated that into their work. And then there’s the state of Germany post-WWI: left in shambles with a bill of 33 billion and saddled with all the blame. No wonder their movies took a darker, more twisted turn.
These foreign directors created a uniquely un-Hollywood vision of film, which would eventually bleed into American cinema in the 40s. World War II brought with it an influx of foreign talent fleeing to the United States, including several talented Directors who would be instrumental in developing the Noir style. Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and M ’s director, Fritz Lang, were among the most prominent. Not only was the subject matter they introduced unique, they also brought revolutionary film techniques to the table. Moving cameras, severely angled shots, low-key photography, and innovative uses of light and shadow to frame backlot shooting—all fairly new techniques to Americans, that had been developed in places like Berlin and Vienna. These ideas conveniently came at a time when movie equipment was also evolving and being refined for use in the war. More compact camera equipment and higher-speed lenses allowed filmmakers to experiment with their craft, and gave them newfound mobility, leading to some of the more creative shots in film noir. Pictures like Notorious (1946) began to include strange camera angles, one shot consisting of the camera flipping 180 degrees to frame a towering man peering down at the viewer, his face upside-down. Touch of Evil opens with a spectacular three-minute tracking shot that starts at ground level, swoops into the sky for an overhead shot, then zooms back down again while keeping two separate groups of people in the frame almost the whole time—all without a single cut. These were the types of groundbreaking techniques being developed in noir films which would forever change perceptions on the boundaries of the camera and what it could do.
Beyond film and novels, American urban painters also contributed to the visual atmosphere of the City which was the centerpiece of so many noirs. The metropolis of eternal night, with a maze-like amalgam of alleys, stairways, windows buildings and doors, built as if to trap the unwary noir hero, were the most common setting for the black film. One painter, Edward Hopper, was so influential on the look of these cities that there was a movie screening in New York entirely devoted to films that took cues from his art. And when noir director Abraham Polonsky wanted to explain to his cinematographer the way his film should look, he showed him a set of Hopper’s paintings. The film noir city also rises from industrialism and the hardship that it brought for thousands of Americans. Corporate powers grew richer as the wage-earners slaved in the pits of the cities, barely earning enough to buy their bread for the day and spending the nights in filthy, unsanitary tenement housing. A common theme in noir is the rotting of the city—cops are often as crooked as criminals, if not more so. This corruption suggests a bitter view of the cities, a peeling back of the layers of prosperity to reveal the ugly consequences of the American Dream.
Film journalist Alain Silver calls noir “a self-contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form.” He takes the term noir not only in a visual and thematic sense, but as “a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them”. Like most any movie, noirs reflect the social climate in which they were made—these ones just happen to offer a more concentrated, intense burst of human expression than most. It’s impossible to pin down any one source of influence, but the sudden darkness may have come in part as an explosive reaction to a long boiling set of frustrations in the American conscience. The Second Industrial Revolution brought about a rapid change in the structure of society and government, as well as a sharpened class hierarchy. Then came World War I, and “Total Warfare”, with the destruction of lives by the millions, the likes of which had never been seen before. Suddenly it wasn’t just the soldiers that had reason to fear death—civilians were also at risk. Nothing could stop the staggering, ever rising numbers of casualties in that first World War. Then hit The Great Depression and the temporary death of capitalism, raising the unemployment rate to a massive 25% and leaving rich and poor alike suddenly broke and homeless. Interestingly, although crime and gangster films were developing at the time, the most popular Hollywood fare 1930s often tended to be comedies. People wanted to slip out of their own desperate lives and escape into a world of laughter for 90 minutes, and so the 30s saw the birth of the screwball comedy.
Then something changed. Raymond Durgnat writes in his noir essay: “Late forties Hollywood is blacker than thirties precisely because it’s audience, being more secure, no longer needed cheering up”. With it’s entry into World War II America regained it’s economic stability, but rather than feelings of relief and security, a great cynicism crept into the minds of millions. Americans no longer wanted to be comforted; maybe they simply couldn’t be comforted. No longer could they sit in a dark theater and forget about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps and the slaughter, especially when it was broadcast before their eyes on newsreels before the movies. Plots became more convoluted, characters became morally flawed and ambiguous, the line between good and evil blurred. Author Phillip Kemp makes the point that “a 1930s gangster—Cagney, Muni, or Robinson—might be ruthless in pursuit of the loot, but against him there stood the regular citizen, honest and industrious, supporter of the forces of law.” Suddenly that was no longer the case. Everyone had turned amoral—in noir city, it’s what was expected of you, and if you were too soft, too kind, too trusting, you didn’t have long to live.
Ironically, this was the era when the Hays Code was most stringently enforced. Created in 1934 by puritanicals who believed that American cinema had become too “dark” and “scandalous”, the film noirs born in the 40s were arguably darker and more twisted than any films ever made in the States pre-code. They displayed an overwhelming lack of morality that would seem to go against the Hays standards, but as long as the “wrongdoers” (take your pick of any noir character) were “punished” (usually killed), the films would be passed. “Is there a way to win?” asks a character to private dick Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past . “No,” he replies, “but there’s a way to lose more slowly”. That about sums up the nihilistic viewpoint of your average flim noir—there were very few upbeat endings to be found. The happiest ending you could hope to find in a true film noir is that the worst of danger is averted, with a body that is mostly one piece, even if the soul isn't. More often, the main characters would end up full of bullets.
Meanwhile America would go on to win the war, but the mood of the population was far from settled. Feelings of tension and fear were running high with the likes of McCarthyism and the threat of nuclear weapons. These fears were heavy influences on the common noir theme of paranoia, and the Hollywood blacklistings only compounded that fear. The Soviet Union, United State’s former allies in World War II, suddenly became enemies, and a lot of media attention began to stir up the ideaof
Communists traitors among our ranks. (The double-cross quickly became such a staple of Noir that it’s often more of a twist when there is no betrayal.) What followed was a series of hearings in Hollywood, overseen by the House of Un-American Committee (HUAC), first in 1947, then again in 1951. These hearing quickly degraded into a witch-hunt of sorts, with HUAC members accusing film workers of being Commies on the flimsiest of charges, and demanding that they give up the names of fellow party members. Some industry workers cracked and talked, while others resisted, believing with good reason that their freedoms were being infringed upon. When Marc Lawrence, a prolific bit actor of many film noirs, was put up on the stand, he quipped “I joined because I heard it was a good place to meet broads.” He was booted out of the industry. At least he wouldn’t be lonely: actors, directors, screenwriters, producers—none could escape the frenzied ‘Red hunts’. From Charlie Chaplin to Orson Welles, many great talents were put out of work until well into the 1960’s. Lawrence later recalled HUAC: “They didn’t give a fuck. They were out to destroy, out for control. You think they thought these Hollywood shmucks were going to take over the government?” These misguided power struggles left a deep impression on the American consciousness, and changed the Hollywood film industry forever.
The men of noir who were thrust into the middle of all this madness and paranoia, (and they were always men,) were far from your typical handsome hero. These characters were flawed and easily compromised—no matter how hard they might try to escape their past or their weaknesses, they were always dragged back down in the end. In a Lonely Place features Dixon Steele, an explosively hot-tempered Hollywood screenwriter who, despite his best efforts, cannot overcome his violent tendencies to keep a healthy romance with the woman he loves. Many film noir protagonists share this sense of fatalism and lack of control; as if they’re lives have been taken over by unseen forces beyond their grasp. A character in The Dark Corner speaks in anguish: “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner, and I don’t know who’s hitting me.” These feelings of alienation and emptiness may have been echoed by many Americans during and in the wake of WWII, who felt little satisfaction at “winning” the war. These unseen forces of control would often be manifest physically as the now-classic female character archetype, the femme fatale. Women in film noirs were never as complex as the men, usually being painted as pure good or pure evil--the femme fatale is of the latter type, and is much more common. Using her seductive charms, the femme fatale would manipulate the hero into furthering her own goals, which were almost always fueled by greed and selfishness. Oftentimes the hero would even see through the thinly-veiled seduction, but allow themselves to be swept up by it anyways. In Double Indemnity, insurance salesman Walter Neff understands the heavy consequences of the insurance fraud he is about to commit with his client’s wife, Phyllis, but does it anyways. He later tries to escape the “one-way train”, but gets carted off to the gas chamber instead. Likewise in Out of the Past , Kathie tries to convince Jeff that she is innocent of a shooting, and that he should help her escape. Jeff interrupts her with eyes full of lust and says, “baby, I don’t care”. As they kiss, the camera zooms in close to frame the pair against a crisscrossing fishing net draped in the background; they’re trapped. Film noirs exposed and exploited human weakness with little sympathy.
As the 1950s wore on, fIlm noir began to fade, before completely disappearing pre-1960. The reasons for this are numerous, but as Alain Silver explains, there was “a sociological change, a shift in national preoccupations as an undirected, postwar malaise was replaced by legitimate if less apocalyptic concerns over economic recessions and foreign entanglements.” For several decades, the noir style dropped off the map almost entirely, but around the 1970s it began to reappear in the form of the neo-noir. Movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential are throwbacks that share many elements of the classic film noirs, while also updating them in ways that never could have been possible under the heavy censorship in the classic noir period. Neo-noirs borrow from the original hardboiled images and themes and update them for the modern Era. Blade Runner's rain-slicked metropolis is a futuristic version of the quintessential noir setting. Dark City features heavy noir imagery in a city of eternal darkness, but adds sci-fi elements to the mix. And Brick replaces the worn private dick with a teenager, transplanting all of the style and motifs of the genre to a high school setting. There's obviously no shortage of creative ideas within the industry, and it's clear that noir still has a place in modern times. Noir imagery has become so iconic that it has seeped into other areas of life as well, from advertising, to video games, to fashion. No matter what the form, film noir is still very much alive and relevant today, and will continue to evolve and reflect the changing social climate of their times, just as they originally reflected the turmoil and uncertainty of a troubled America.