Characteristics The Films
In addition to unsettling narrative themes of ambiguity and
violent death, certain stylistic characteristics immediately
come to mind when discussing film noir.
Stark, angular shadows. The isolated feel of modern cities.
Conflicted anti-heroes and terse dialogue. Determined, beautiful,
Taken together, these created a unique body of films that
continues to be discussed and emulated even today.
Many film noir characteristics were the result of
an interaction between filmmakers, new filmmaking techniques,
and a tension and uncertainty that lay underneath the patriotism
and optimism of the 1940s.
MOOD AND STYLE
It can be argued that nearly every
attempt to define the film noir comes to agree that
the sometimes very diverse noir films are united by
the consistent thread of a visual style that emphasizes a
claustrophobic and off-balance feel to the world.
As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson state, it is the constant
opposition of areas of light and dark that characterizes film
noir cinematography. Harsh, low-key lighting brought about
the high contrast and rich, black shadows associated with
the films. Place and Lowell discuss the newly-developed technical
significance of depth of field, which is essential for keeping
all objects in the frame in sharp focus and the resultant
need for wide-angle lens, which creates a distorted view of
the image, as well as drawing the viewer into the picture
and creating a sense of immediacy with the image.1
The impact of German Expressionist lighting was brought to
bear by the large number of German and East Europeans working
in Hollywood: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Robert
Siodmak to name a few.
Schrader noted that on the surface,
the artificial studio lighting of the German Expressionist
influence might have seemed incompatible with postwar realism,
but the unique quality of film noir allowed it to meld
the seemingly contradictory elements into a uniform style.
Films such as Union Station, They Live by Night,
and The Killers bring together an "uneasy, exhilarating
combination of realism and Expressionism."2
The visual look and feel of the films contributed to the
unsettled sense of claustrophobia and distortion in the stories:
nothing was as it seemed.
Many of the original American film
noirs identified and analyzed by the French critics were
adapted from popular and critically admired novels from the
1930s. William Marling writes that "the debt of film
noir to the novels of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler may
by now seem clear."3
These authors had their roots
in pulp fiction, with a tough, cynical way of acting and talking.
Schrader notes that when the filmmakers of the 1940s turned
to the "American 'tough' moral understrata, the hard-boiled
school was waiting with preset conventions of heroes, minor
characters, plots, dialogue and themes."4
American cities grew tremendously during the war years as
workers flocked to rapidly expanding urban areas for the promise
of new jobs. As the urban population exploded, especially
in the industrial north, a new modern prosperity and its problems
weren't far behind.
In Somewhere in the Night,
Nicholas Christopher writes evocatively of the complex connection
between film noir and the city. "The great, sprawling
American city, endless in flux, both spectacular and sordid,
with all its amazing permutations of human and topographical
growths, with its deeply textured nocturnal life that can
be a seductive, almost otherworldly, labyrinth of dreams or
a tawdry bazaar of lost souls: the city is the seedbed of
America rediscovered film noir
in the 1970s, in part John Belton notes, because of Paul
Schrader's well-recognized "Notes on Film Noir,"
written in 1972. When Belton refers to Taxi Driver
(1976) in his introduction to a series of essays on Movies
and Mass Culture, he could well be discussing late 1940s
film noir as he writes, "New York City is portrayed
as an urban inferno, inhabited by a disaffected and alienated
populace that has surrendered itself to the crime and corruption
brought about by industrialization and urbanization."6
This modern sense of alienation and underbelly of corruption
in the mean cities played a significant part in creating the
texture and dark mood of film noirs.
In the October 18, 1943 issue of
The New Republic, Manny Farber took note of the development
of a new breed of contradictory hero in American films who
stood in opposition to the American traditional hero represented
by Gary Cooper. This "anti-intellectual, anti-emotional
and pro-action" hero was personified by Humphrey Bogart
- the cynical Rick of Casablanca and the mercenary
Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon.
Acknowledging changes in the American psyche during the early
war years, he wrote, "in a world where so many people
are doing things they dislike doing, Bogart expresses the
hostility and rebellion the existence of which the Cooper
tradition ignores," going on to note that, "he is the
soured half of the American dream, which believes that if
you are good, honest and persevering you will win the kewpie
Noir protagonists were almost
always single men, often detectives who were once cops, psychologically
flawed or wounded, and although they might appear morally
ambiguous or compromised, they usually adhered to their own
personal code of right and wrong. In Projecting Paranoia,
Ray Pratt finds that, "some form of cynicism even
fatalism and hard-bitten wisecracking is universal
among these PIs, as is their aura of compromised, world-wary
Often, these anti-heroes found themselves tempted by a woman,
looking for a man to further their schemes.
Quart and Auster describe this relationship
as, "a world where women, often in the central role,
were glamorous and dangerous seductive sirens whose
every action was marked by duplicity and aimed at satisfying
a desire for wealth and power while the male protagonists
were frequently weak, confused and morally equivocal, susceptible
to temptation, and incapable of acting heroically."
They argue that many Hollywood films, especially in the postwar
era, usually made sure that by the end, career women would
be domesticated and see the error of their ways when they
competed with men. The film Mildred Pierce, staring
Joan Crawford, ended with Mildred being punished for being
a strong, independent woman by being treated with contempt
and being betrayed by her eldest daughter.
As they examine possible explanations for the diverse, powerful
images of female menace and power as women took on the roles
of murderous wives and lovers, Quart and Auster suggest that
this tendency may be due in part from American soldier's fears
of infidelity at home during World War II. However, they are
quick to note, along with most critics, that no matter how
much the camera focused on the "predatory sexuality or
psychological strength of the female, male dominance was always
restored by the film's climax."9
The new economic, social, and sexual freedoms that women
experienced during the war years as they joined the laborforce
in record numbers was deeply unsettling to many Americans.
This conflict and fear of strong, independent women
and the desire to show the dangers of this independence
was reflected, consciously or not, in most film noir
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Characteristics The Films