I love Film Noir. As a child, I spent many a summer’s day ensconced in a darkened room watching old movies in the middle of the day – a time when very few watched TV in those days – and the ‘unpopular’ stuff was shown; old black and white films, public information films, or in some instances, a potters wheel! (Yes kids, British TV had a black and white film of a lump of clay, and we watched it!)
Film Noir is an extension of the Gangster film; Gangster films had been seen less on the screen and returned as this genre; re-categorised by critics. However, most of their appeal came after they were made, not the time they were made. The main influence came from France around pre- WWII. French critics coined the phrase ‘Film Noir’, Black Film; seen as crime, mystery’s, melodramas. Beginning with a small group of films such as : “The Killers”, 1946 and “Double Indemnity”, 1944.
As time progressed more films fell under the heading Film Noir; it is a flexible category.
From the late 1970s onwards saw a Neo Noir revival, with Noirish elements: “Body Heat”, 1981 and “Basic Instinct”, 1992 and the animated “Sin City”, 2005.
But for this essay, I’m focusing only on the older style.
In 1940s America everything was in short supply; film, batteries, even writers, so the film makers looked to pulp fiction for new ideas.
Many of the films were made by European émigrés; escaping from Nazi German oppression. In a time of darkness created by Hitler, film makers, technicians and writers on the run from Europe, brought their style with them. There wouldn’t have been Film Noir without WWII. There was an influx of immigrants to America and they brought ‘German Expressionism’ a style with skewed angles and dark style. The Nazi figures were transformed into gangsters in the films. In the 60s and 70s – people started to see them as Art films, not just popular money makers. “Big Heat”, 1953, by Fritz Lange is now regarded as an Artistic Film Noir.
What makes a Gangster film a Noir film?
There are strong psychological themes present, women of character, complicated plot lines. It is a world mostly devoid of children. Unhappy worlds, dark, urban more so than gangster films, the characters are trapped by their environment. Described by one critic as a “Dark American place with a fancy name”. Noir films were not the property of one studio, it had it’s own rules. Though the films are black and white, the characters are often groping around in a fog, things are not black and white in decision making, European music add to the tension; threat, danger. For an American audience in this period, this was all pretty dark stuff.
Who populates these films?
Everyone is bent, men women, and coppers: the heroine is a predator even when the victim, often a blonde, a femme fatale, desirable, sexy, untrustworthy, and slutty. The hero is her lunch and usually knows it. Women get their power through sexuality. Robert Mitchum in “Out of The Past”, 1947, is a typical Noir hero. The hero often has been to war, has some psychosis, they are hapless. Bogart’s characters often cannot connect, even when they are in love. Men and women in Noir never reach the daylight in their lives. Real men get to show their softer side with these women, without appearing weak. Men were manipulated, women were dodgy and manipulative. Many well known actors and actresses emerged in this period, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, to name a few. Women emerge in their own right post war, reflecting the social changes. Men were damaged by wartime experiences; Post traumatic Stress Disorder; in the film “Blue Dahlia”, 1946, the ‘hero’ is a harmless guy, returned from war, everyone likes him, but he’s a serial killer. There is often a simmering tension between the hero and female, we watch a verbal tennis match going on between them, sometimes they might never even get that first kiss. The best example of this witty, sultry banter can be most often seen between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart (who became a couple off screen too); full of euphemism and innuendo.
What does it look like?
Dark! Mostly urban. Cigarettes, rainy streets, shadows, lipstick, guns. There is little or no sunlight in these films; lighting carves up the scene and the faces with chiaroscuro. Shadows are tall and menacing to enhance the atmosphere. Many cinematographers had been filming in the war effort and brought back with them elements of that, in the mid 1950s they began to make the films more realistic.
Why do we like them?
The audience appeal lies in that the films mostly take place in an ordinary environment; previous films such as Westerns took themselves off to deserts and canyons; not places the audience regularly inhabited so had less to relate to. But in Noir, the people have adventures; we see their unhappiness so we feel better; one could reflect that, at least my life isn’t that bad. Male viewers see quiet men, strong men who can take care of themselves, when required, who yet fall for the charms of the femme fatale. Female viewers were suddenly exposed to female characters who could often stand up for themselves; not the helpless little wifey this one. There was a kind of glamour portrayed in the dialogue, the male/female relationships and clothing.
What should I watch if I have never seen Film Noir?
Out of the Past 1947/ Sweet Smell of Success 1957/ Double Indemnity 1944/ The Big Sleep 1946/The Maltese Falcon 1941/ Sunset Boulevard 1950/ Murder my Sweet 1944/Gun Crazy 1950/ T-Men 1948/ Touch of Evil 1958/ Stranger on the Third Floor 1940/ Sweet Smell of Success 1957/ Gilda 1946/ Kiss Me deadly 1955.
Noir is also famous for its dialogue and snappy lines. Much dialogue, especially in Philip Marlowe films (Raymond Chandler author) is really funny – but ain’t nobody laughing. Here’s a few you might like to use!
“Keep on riding me and they’re going to be picking iron out of your liver.” Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon.
“Okay Marlowe,” I said to myself, ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough—like putting your pants on.” Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet.
“You know what he’ll do when he comes back? Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.” Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
Johnny: “Doesn’t it bother you at all that you’re married?”
Gilda: “What I want to know is, does it bother you?” Johnny and Gilda in Gilda.
“With my brains and your looks, we could go places.” Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
“I wouldn’t give you the skin off a grape.” Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death.
“Well, you’re about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs.” Debby Marsh in The Big Heat.
“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
And now…. We have Nordic Noir – the name given to the new literature, TV and film we see more and more now with programmes like “The Killing”, from Denmark and Sweden.
You might also like “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, the Film Noir parody starring Steve Martin, which you could class as Comedy Noir, I suppose, if such a thing exists!
“To say goodbye is to die a little.” ― Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
So I will say, adieu until next time.
*Title from The Killers.