Film Noir

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After the Second World War, American films that had been made during those years were now being screened in Europe. French critics such as Andre Bazin, of the cahiers du cinema, were particularly interested in what were classed as B movies. B films were often low budget productions of the main studios and were seen as the poor relative of the main feature A films. The B film often had less interference from studio bosses and was shot when the more prestigious films vacated the studio set. Commentators have often remarked that noir has its roots in German Expressionism. It is not surprising that its most prominent directors include Fritz Lang and Richard Siodmak. The low budget often meant that directors had to be more resourceful; the low budget can in part be explained by the need to save on costs. French critics observed certain qualities in this category of film that made it stand apart from other films and as Bazin argued, it features the dark side . Critics over the years have tried to define film noir in terms of genre, style and technique. This has proven to be problematic, as there are too many exceptions to the rule. Here, we explore some of the major traits of film noir , including the dark side.

The noir plot is often multi-layered and intricate. It includes the stock characters of ‘goodie’, ‘baddie’, ‘temptress’ etc., but these types are still recognisable as individuals. It is never just a case of good overcoming evil, although time and again, the film is concluded this way. There are broadly speaking, three categories of the noir story. Firstly, there are those that involve private eyes and their somewhat dubious clients. The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly are examples of this group. The second theme concerns the hard headed policemen out to overcome organised crimes. Films such as The Big Heat and the Big Combo fall into this category. The last group is somewhat hard to define, involves neither
private eyes nor policemen but people who are brought together by chance and are characterised by the fact that the audience takes the viewpoint of the villain. Examples of this type of noir are The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Gilda and In a Lonely Place.

The scripts of the noir film are frequently based on what has been termed hard boiled >fiction. Notable authors who fall into this category are James M Cain, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillanne, Dasheill Hammett and Cornell Woolrich. Intricacy is articulated within the plot by not revealing all to the spectators, resulting in ambiguity. Ambiguity arises from the make-up of the characters involved, cinematic
devices such as voiceovers, viewing the outcome of the plot at the beginning and the confusion of time frames. Male characters that appear in noir films consist of the “rogue cop” taking on the criminal fraternity. In Fritz Lang’s film The Big Heat (1953) police sergeant Bannion (played by Glen Ford) resigns from the force in order to bring to justice arch criminal Mike Lagana. At the beginning of the film Bannion is portrayed as a home loving father. When his wife is blown up, Lagana enrages Bannion and nothing will deter his determination to catch the villain. The viewer is presented with a dilemma; will Bannion cross the path into the underworld to catch Lagana or will he stay on the straight and narrow? Debby, played by Gloria Grahame, the girlfriend of criminal Vince Stone, resolves the dilemma; it is Debby who eventually kills Lagana. Another male lead is that of the private eye. Often the private eye is characterised as single and detached. He is devoid of any life-anchoring values. In the film, the Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston), private eye Sam Spade shows no grief when his partner is killed. Yet he is determined to catch the perpetrator.

In Robert Aldrich’s film Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) private eye Mike Hammer is perceived as arrogant and ruthless but at the same time he wants to find out who killed the mysterious blonde woman he had given a lift to. However, the spectator is not convinced that his actions to unravel the mystery are either to uphold justice or that there is something in it for him. Another stock male character is that of the middle-aged man. He is often portrayed as feeble, weak and in some cases, pompous. This character is epitomised by Christopher Cross, the part Edward G Robinson plays in Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang). Cross, a respectable middle aged married bank clerk, falls for Kitty Marsh (played by Joan Bennett) a woman who manipulates him and goes as far as to credit herself with paintings executed by him. Yet another example of this male part can be found in the film, The Postman Always Rings Twice , (1946, Tay Garnett). Nick, played by Cecil Kellaway, is the much older husband of Cora (Lana Turner), whose existence is changed when Frank Chambers (John Garfield) enters their lives. Kellaway keeps us guessing as to his character: a benevolent father figure, a guitar-playing buffoon, an omnipotent malicious manipulator? But his chameleon-like changes of character cannot save him from being murdered while Christopher Cross is mentally destroyed. The last type of male character is typified by Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourner), Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946, Charles Vidor) and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray). Here we find the loner who appears troubled. He has a troubled past but this past is not always revealed. The audience is offered glimpses of his past but this suffices to raise more doubt about the nature of the character. These characters not fit neatly into good or evil compartments. This adds to that lack of clarity felt by the audience.

Psychological manipulation is an inextricable part of the noir plot. In The Maltese Falcon we are hoodwinked into believing that the wife of the first murder victim, Miles Archer, is involved with the crime. This is because the plot hints at her romantic involvement with detective Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. Later in the plot, Bogart mercilessly manipulates the real villain, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) into revealing her own wrongdoing. Female characters that appear in films, like their male counterparts, do not fit neatly into easily definable categories. First, there is the role of the femme fatale, the woman who uses her looks to manipulate men. It is very much a role of female power, yet it is diluted by the duplicitous nature of the woman involved. Many commentators have interpreted the character of the femme fatale , as a metaphor for male angst. During World War 2 women occupied jobs that had been filled by men. This financial independence, although still limited, gave women more independence than they previously had. This independence threatened the dominance of the male. Male supremacy was being threatened, and one of the symptoms of this was the constant theme in fiction and film of their lack of self esteem.

In her essay, How Hollywood Deals with the Deviant Male Deborah Thomas presents the conundrum surrounding the definition of masculinity, especially in the wake of the war; is the ‘he-man’ a respectably married and child-begetting man or is he a soldier on the battlefront, dressed and trained to kill? Men who had been displaced from domestic and workaday life at the onset of the war were displaced once more, both literally and psychologically. John Garfield, as Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, wandering from one low-status job to another typifies the displaced, dissociated male. Dick Powell in the movie, Farewell My Lovely (1945, Edward Dmytryk), presents another type of dissociation. The villains drug Powell and there follows a dream-like sequence that begins with him imagining he is in a corridor lined with doors and is wondering which one to open. The doors fade and he is now alone on a shadowy, highly expressionistic set. We hear Powell’s voice speaking of being drawn into a grey web, woven by a thousand spiders. His words drag us with him into his state of altered consciousness. I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t have a watch. They don’t make that kind of time on watches anyway.

Powell has had his consciousness altered while we are being psychologically manipulated. Consciousness is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the totality of persons’ thoughts and feelings. This playing with our consciousness on the part of early twentieth-century filmmakers stemmed partly from the influences of the new theories of the mind being established by doctors like Sigmund Freud and his pupil, Carl Jung. Indeed, Freud is widely regarded as the founder of the science of psychoanalysis. In the noir movie, nothing is quite what it seems. Even in the transparent case of the femme fatale a device is placed to throw the spectator off balance. For example, Cora, Lana Turner’s character in The Postman Always Rings Twice solicits Frank Chambers help to murder her husband, yet the viewer is made aware that Cora also wants to make a success of herself by expanding her business, the roadside cafe. Other femme characters are Mary Astor’s role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the film The Maltese Falcon (there is no doubt about the guile of Brigid). There is also the “whore with a heart” that Gloria Grahame personifies in Fritz Lang’s film, The Big Heat . Grahame plays Debby, the girlfriend of criminal Vince Stone (played by Lee Marvin). Debby admires Bannion’s resolve to track down Lagana. Vince is aware that Debby meets with Bannion and as revenge, scalds Debby by throwing hot coffee over her face. A scarred Debby then resolves to fight Bannion’s fight for him, simultaneously saving Bannion from crossing the line from good to bad. Another example is Gilda, played by Rita Hayworth, in the film with the same title. Gilda marries Ballin Mundson, a wealthy but much older man, who is the owner of an illegal gambling house. Gilda is in love with Johnny Farrell, played by Glenn Ford, whom she had some distant relationship with. She marries Ballin for money yet she loves Johnny and the spectators see another side of her character. Another type of role was that portrayed by Gloria Grahame in the film In a Lonely Place and Jean Wallace in the film The Big Combo. Grahame’s character is elusive and very little is exposed about her past in the plot; just enough for the audience to suspect that she is running away from someone. She appears estranged from everyone. Jean Wallace plays Susan Lovell, a society girl who is entangled in a relationship with mobster Mr. Brown. The spectator is not informed how Susan has crossed worlds; from one of law and order to that of organised crime. The audience is informed that she came from a middle class background; she played the piano and attended concerts. Although there are roles that portray women who stay at home and become dutiful wives and mothers, they appear to be short lived. For example in the The Big Heat Bannions’ wife is killed off in the early part of the film. In Out of the Past the character Ann Miller has a very small role. Molly Haskell writes: ‘She kept going down, down, down, like Eurydice, to the depths of the criminal world, the enfer of the film noir.’

Haskell is actually referring to the way the nature of roles for women in general changed between the 1930s and 1940s. From being strong, intelligent, witty, assertive and so on, the noir woman fell into the old typecasting trap; the modest virgin, the tramp-vamp, the clinging weakling, the assertive ball breaker. But I believe that this treatment of the female role in noir movies lies with the machinations of the script, rather than with the limitations of the genre.

She kept going down, down, down, like Eurydice, to the depths of the criminal world, the enfer of the film noir.’

The noir plot delights in playing with contrasts. Most of the films have been shot in black and white, a device that allows not only to suspend our disbelief but also gives rise to a delicious visual chiaroscuro. In the earlier noir films the roles assigned to women were less mature than those assigned to the men. While the men had been developed as well-rounded characters the women had been herded into the well-trodden roles of virgin and whore, e.g., Anne Shirley and Claire Trevor in Farewell My Lovely. But two years later, the directors showed a new maturity in assigning the female role. Lana Turner, in ‘Postman , is a hardworking hausfrau and restaurateur in addition to being a femme fatale. The Lady of the Lake, (1947, Robert Montgomery), Audrey Totter is a career-minded literary agent. She encourages detective Philip Marlowe, played by director Robert Montgomery, to turn his hand to writing a novel. She is all at once strong and sexy, funny and clever. Montgomery, of course, gets embroiled in a real murder mystery! But Haskell’s reference to Eurydice is not misplaced. In Greek mythology, Eurydice is the wife of Orpheus. She is kidnapped and taken down to Hades, the underworld, where Orpheus follows at the peril of his life. Some noir plots, in particular Farewell My Lovely, do indeed read like tales of classical heroes conquering the world about him. Dick Powell is drugged and dragged into a dark underworld. He encounters various ‘monsters’ in his struggles to extricate himself. He emerges from the underworld into a tree-lined street, i.e., the everyday world of sweetness and light. But the demons have corrupted him. Still drugged, he forces his way into the home of good girl, Anne Shirley. Although Powell doesn’t intend any harm, this is almost a figurative rape. But Powell’s better nature, personified by two intervening policemen, prevails. By the end of the film, Powell’s reward for good behaviour is the romantic wooing of Anne.

Atmosphere in the noir film is often evoked by the use of surreal images and sequences and it is no coincidence that this genre thrived when surreal artists like Salvador Dali were at the height of their powers. In The Lady From Shanghai (1948,Orson Welles), this surreality is created by an image of the protagonist, Orson Welles, escaping from the evildoers through a fairground hall of mirrors. The distorted mirror images of Welles speak for themselves, suggesting altered states of being, and personal dissociation. Dissociation, too, is evoked in noir movies by the use of the back narrative. In Farewell My Lovely, Dick Powell is telling his story in retrospect, as is John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice . The story is told in retrospect by the voice of the chief protagonist instead of being beamed in ‘real time’ so that the mind of the spectator is alternately drawn from the dreadful present of the narrator back to the sequence of events that got him there.

Novelists had long used this device, for example, Charles Dickens writing David Copperfield. The medium of film heightens the effectiveness of this device. The narrator’s voice draws us inexorably into the plot, like an unfurling curtain that all at once reveals and conceals the strands of the plot. The revelation is what attracts us to the plot; the concealment is what compels us to stay with it until the end. In Sunset Boulevard, (1950, Billy
Wilder), the device is pushed to the edge by the voice of a dead narrator. The voice taunts us, makes us believe that we are about to hear something vital to the survival of our own psyche. Don’t get caught, he seems to be saying, don’t be fooled; don’t be taken in. Yet all the while we wonder; who is fooling whom? In each movie no character is completely free of the taint of wrongdoing. The pivotal character is always either a ‘man with a past’, or someone who has not yet found his place in the system, i.e., society. In Postman’, John Garfield is restless and dissociated, wandering from place to place in search of work. It is this dissociation that leads him to the temptress, Lana Turner, and his ultimate downfall. Orson Welles as Michael in The Lady From Shanghai had once killed a man, a premise that allows blackmail to be part of the plot. And Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the detective and one-time con, barely keeps within the law as he attempts to entrap Mary Astor and solve the mystery of the Maltese falcon. Another device that allows film noir evince vagueness is at not what the plot portrays but what it chooses to leave out. In the film In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart plays a hardheaded, down on his luck. One evening he invites a hat-check girl to his home so she can summarise a book to him. Next morning the girl is found dead. Bogart is arrested and whilst the police chief is questioning him, he informs them that his neighbour (Gloria Grahame) witnessed the hat-check girl leaving his home. Grahame confirms this, yet the audience is not fully convinced. This is because the viewer is not a witness to Grahame’s viewpoint. The double-edged character of Bogart accentuates this. Although he appears quite charming, he has a temper that is unleashed onto unsuspecting victims. The audience is witness to these temper tantrums.

Another example of this lack of conclusiveness can be found in Robert Aldrich’s film Kiss Me Deadly . Inconclusiveness surrounds the mysterious blonde that Mike Hammer gives a lift to. In the opening sequence the viewer sees a woman dressed only in a raincoat, pounding the road in her bare feet. It is nighttime and light evinces from the white road markings. This impressive scene automatically makes the viewer anxious and uneasy. Soon after he gives a lift to this woman his car is run over with the woman being captured, tortured and killed. Hammer recovers some weeks later and begins to unravel the mystery of why the woman was murdered. Another element that contributes to ambiguity is that all threads of the story are not tied up, for example, with the ending of the film Out of the Past. The viewer sees Jeff make a call and the police road trap didn’t surprise him. These events suggest that Jeff informed the police of his and Kathy’s plans. Yet when Ann, Jeff’s lover, asks his sidekick if he was going away with Kathy, his answer is yes. By this twist in the tale the viewer is left with some doubt concerning Jeff’s intentions. In Kiss Me Deadly , there is doubt whether Mike Hammer and his secretary, Velma, survive the bomb blast at the end of the film because the plot doesn’t reveal any more.

Film noir is still with us. Many contemporary directors use noir elements in their movies to great effect. The best contemporary example is Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). But the message they carry is different now. Most of us are too familiar with, and cynical about, the power of psychology to change our lives.

Books to Read

FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN MOVIES, by Molly Haskell, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

THE MOVIE BOOK OF FILM NOIR, edited by Ian Cameron, Studio Vista, London, 1992.

About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software.