© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
BACKGROUNDS TO FILM NOIR
The period from the 1930s through the 1950s is often viewed as a sort of Golden Age in American film, as an emergent Hollywood film industry developed a highly sophisticated system for making and distributing classic films that made Hollywood the world capital of cinema. Talent flowed into California from all over the country and even all over the world, enriching the Hollywood milieu even further and making the Los Angeles neighborhood a shining paradigm of America itself as a land of opportunity where anyone with the ability and willingness to work hard could have ample chance to succeed. Moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, and David O. Selznick became the kings of the industry. All of these were immigrants or the sons of immigrants; all were Jewish, and all came from working-class backgrounds. The building of this film industry was an impressive achievement, a highly visual demonstration of what American skill, ingenuity and industriousness could accomplish. Meanwhile, Hollywood films became advertisements for America; distributed more and more widely across the globe, they became emblems of prestige, markers of quality that encouraged audiences around the globe to associate America with wealth, sophistication, and fine craftsmanship.
That, of course, is only one side of the story. The Hollywood film industry grew so impressively in the 1930s largely in order to provide a momentary diversion from the harsh realities of American poverty during the Great Depression. In the first half of the 1940s, Hollywood films provided brief moments of respite from the trauma and anxiety of World War II. Meanwhile, victory in that war brought anything but universal prosperity and contentment. Hollywood films continued to provide escapist entertainments in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, even as the industry itself became a central target of the anti-communist hysteria that swept across America like a plague. Meanwhile, millions of American men, returning from a war in which they had believed themselves to be fighting for the American dream, came home to find that the promise of that dream had been greatly exaggerated and often did not include them. And millions of American women, thrust during the war (due to the absence of so many men) into roles from which they had previously been excluded, suddenly found that they were expected to recede back into submissive secondariness after the war. Indeed, one of the great ironies of American cultural history is that the Golden Age of Hollywood corresponded so closely with some of the darkest decades in American history.
This darkness was, of course, inevitably reflected in Hollywood film itself. Even as the highest-profile Hollywood films continued to supply glitzy entertainment and glorious spectacles, there were always films such as the Universal monster movies and the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the early 1930s that reflected, even if indirectly, the difficulties of their era. Such films were the forerunners of film noir. The connection between gangster films and noir films is fairly obvious, but it should also be clear that monsters such as King Kong and Frankenstein are virtual prototypes of the noir protagonist: alienated, misunderstood, and basically innocent, but driven to crime and eventually destroyed by forces beyond their control. Indeed, despite the shiny surface, Hollywood film began to develop dark undercurrents that built gradually throughout the Depression years and came to full fruition during World War II with the emergence of what we now know as film noir. Fed by a steady influx of European refugees (especially talented Jewish actors, writers, and directors who were no longer able to work in the once-mighty German film industry due to the rise of Nazi anti-semitism), these undercurrents were strengthened by the nightmare that was building in Europe.
The build-up toward the emergence of full-blown film noir was, however, so gradual that few observers in America realized that something genuinely new was happening in the relatively low-budget, dimly-lit crime dramas that were appearing with increasing frequency during the war years. Meanwhile, American films were largely banned in France during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, so that, once the war was over, French viewers suddenly gained access to a five-year backlog of American films all at once. Astute French critics immediately recognized that much of what they were now seeing was distinctively different than the Hollywood films to which they had become accustomed. Viewing films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944) for the first time, the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier declared these films to belong to a family of related works that represented a new breakthrough in American film realism—though many aspects of these films must have seemed familiar to French viewers in the sense that many French films of the 1930s anticipated film noir in a number of ways. Responding both to the thematic darkness of the films and to the literal darkness of the images they saw on the screen, they dubbed this new kind of American film “film noir” (black, or dark film), apparently inspired by the “Série noire” series of dark crime novels that had recently begun appearing in postwar France.It was thus that one of the most American of all film phenomena acquired its French name. Other French critics soon followed suit, remaining in the vanguard of critical appreciations of film noir for some time. For example, the first (and now classic) book-length study of the genre—only recently (2002) published in English—was A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953, by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, published in France in 1955.
To the list of wartime noir films, one might add such films as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941), Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Stuart Heisler’s The Glass Key (1942), Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), Richard Wallace’s The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943), and Herman Shumlin’s Watch on the Rhine (1943), films which together demonstrate that film noir was well established by the end of World War II—even before it had been identified as a distinct phenomenon. Such films clearly owed a great deal to the hard-boiled fiction of such American writers of the 1930s as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain, writers who had gained relatively little high-brow literary respect by the 1950s, but whose ascendant reputations since that time testify to a growing breakdown between the high and the low in the postmodern era. But the visual texture of film noir also clearly owes a great deal to earlier German Expressionist films, such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Lang’s Metropolis (1926), which already anticipated this breakdown through the production of genre films that have become recognized as modernist masterpieces of the silent-film era. Film noir, then, was a product of an alliance between pulp and high-art sensibilities on both the American and the German sides of its family tree.
Expressionism continued to be a force in the German film industry into the sound era as well, and Lang’s M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) are both clear forerunners of film noir both visually and thematically. Things were about to change in Germany, however, and Adolf Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in 1933 soon led to a tidal wave of oppressive policies that drove many top talents out of Germany. One of the first actions of the new regime, in fact, was to exert control over the German film industry, at that time perhaps the most sophisticated film industry in the world. And one of the first consequences of this new control was the banning of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in Germany. Lang, a practicing Catholic whose mother had been born Jewish, fled to France before moving on to Hollywood to make his first American film, the proto-noir crime drama Fury, in 1936. He then worked in the Hollywood film industry for the next twenty years, becoming an important noir director and a key example of the influence of filmmakers who had formerly worked in the German film industry.
The influence of filmmakers with roots in the German film industry—who also included such noir masters as Wilder, Curtiz, Preminger, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer—was no doubt one reason for the prominence of German Expressionist techniques in Hollywood by the 1940s. In the case of film noir, of course, this prominence was greatly enhanced by the fact that it was so well suited to the thematic texture of film noir. This style, which emphasized low-key lighting and the inventive use of light and shadows to create atmospheric effects, was also well suited to low-budget filmmaking, another plus for noir film.
The high-art, low-budget character of the German Expressionist style further enhanced the strange mixture of the high and the low that characterized the original cycle of noir films. This mixture plays out in a number of other ways as well. On the one hand, directors such as Orson Welles, perhaps America’s greatest cinematic artist, and Wilder, perhaps America’s greatest filmmaker, were intimately associated with the genre. On the other hand, many of the noir films that have enjoyed the most positive and lasting critical reputations are offbeat, low-budget cult classics such as Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and the noir films of Samuel Fuller. Meanwhile, some of the greatest works of film noir, such as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and (especially) Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), openly parody the conventions of the genre, while others, such as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), adapted from a novel by the outrageous Mickey Spillane, are strongly skeptical of, if not downright antagonistic toward, the pulp fictions on which they are based.
THE BIRTH OF FILM NOIR
There has been a great deal of discussion of about just when film noir began—largely because it had no distinct beginning but evolved gradually over time. The body of wartime films identified by French critics as the founding texts of film noir indicates that the phenomenon was already well developed by that time—which surely means that there were earlier proto-noir films that the first true noir films built upon. The original noir films responded to the specific historical circumstance of World War II, of course, but even that particular context was strongly affected by the fact that it came on the heels of more than a decade of economic depression—during which films such as gangster films and monster films responded to grim economic conditions in ways that clearly anticipated film noir.
Many films before World War II anticipated film noir even more directly. In 1940, for example, Stranger on the Third Floor showed numerous characteristics that would later come to be associated with noir films. It also features performances by Elisha Cook, Jr., who would later become a key noir character actor, and Peter Lorre—who had starred in Lang’s M (1931) back in Germany and who would play important roles in a number of American noir films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), which also features Cook. The film itself includes a psychotic killer (played by Lorre), an innocent man (played by Cook) wrongly convicted of murder, and a protagonist (played by John McGuire) who is driven to near madness by the events of the film. The film ultimately deviates from noir in its successful resolution, but it nevertheless has very much the look and feel of a noir film—especially in the strange dream sequence at the center of the film, which is an almost perfect example of German Expressionist visuals. The film features the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, who would become a leading noir cinematographer.
Finally, in terms of films that anticipated film noir, it is absolutely necessary to mention Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, officially released in September of 1941, three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor finally brought the U.S. into World War II. Often considered the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane was certainly one of the most innovative, especially in its use of unusual camera angles and movements, play with lighting, unbalanced compositions, and flashback narrative structure. All of these elements would subsequently become central to film noir, even though Kane is not typically thought of as a film noir, mostly because its central character is a larger-than-life figure, as opposed to the Everymen, outcasts, and losers who typically populate noir films. Of course, even the powerful Kane is driven by childhood trauma, has his life disrupted by a sexual obsession, and ends up a broken man, dying alone. Kane is probably best considered a proto-noir film than a noir film proper, but it certainly deserves a prominent mention in any history of film noir. Borde and Chaumeton do mention it mutiple times, for example, though they also regard Kane as an “unclassifiable” film that doesn’t really fit in any category (2). It is also worth mentioning here that Welles himself would go on to become one of the greatest noir directors, directing such crucial noir films as The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). And Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), quite possibly his second greatest film, is often cited as the end of the noir cycle, which can then be seen to be bookended by Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.
Finally, no discussion of the backgrounds to film noir would be complete without a consideration of the impact of the Motion Picture Production Code on these films, which in many ways designed to do exactly what the Production Code was trying to prevent. The Motion Picture Production Code was a series of restrictions on the content of Hollywood film adopted by the film industry as a form of self-censorship, designed both to counter the public perception of film as a morally suspect form and to prevent the imposition of censorship from outside the industry. Adopted in 1930, the Code remained in effect until 1968, by which time it was clear that the highly restrictive and sexually Puritanical Code was out of step with the changing mores of American society.
The Code was drafted by former United States Postmaster Will B. Hays, who resigned his cabinet post in 1922 to become the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), charged with creating a better public image of the film industry. The Code (often referred to as the Hays Code), established three general principles. First, no film should be produced that would tend to lower the moral standards of its audience. Second, films should present “correct standards of life.” Finally, no film should ridicule the law (natural or human) or show sympathy with the violators of the law. It then spelled out a number of specific restrictions, most of which were oriented toward limiting the representation of sexuality, violence, or criminality on the screen. Though it was not fully enforced until 1934, the Code had a major impact on Hollywood film from that time until the 1960s, when it began to appear more and more anachronistic. The Code was periodically updated to try to stay relevant but was abandoned in 1968 after a series of incidents—including controversies over approval of the 1964 Holocaust film The Pawnbroker and the defiant release by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the film Blowup (1966) without Code approval—made it clear that the Code was no longer viable. It was replaced by a film rating system, still in use today in modified form, instituted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA),to which the MPPDA had changed its name in 1945.
The specific provisions of the Production Code can be found here. It is clear that virtually every noir film was in some way problematic according to this Code. What is also clear is that noir filmmakers developed an elaborate language to suggest a variety of forbidden topics without actually showing or mentioning them, thus skirting the restrictions of the Code. Many film historians, in fact, feel that noir films were enriched by the limits placed on them by the Code, which forced the filmmakers to be more clever and creative than they might otherwise have been. One reason for the emergence of neo-noir films at the end of the 1960s was that filmmakers wanted to explore the possibilities of film noir in an era without Code restrictions. Indeed, the two major, obvious distinctions between noir and neo-noir films are the absence of Code restrictions on the latter and the tendency of the latter to be produced in color.
BASIC CHARACTERISTICS OF FILM NOIR
The phenomenon of film noir is closely associated with a number of distinctive characteristics, even though no one noir film can possibly contain all of these characteristics. In fact, some of the best-known characteristics of film noir are actually absent from most noir films. For example, partly due to the association of Hammett and Chandler with the phenomenon, film noir is often thought of as featuring hard-boiled private detectives, even though such detectives appear in relatively few noir films. Similarly, because their depiction stood out in such stark contrast to the representation of women in most Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, a focus on the figure of the femme fatale is often thought of as a key attribute of film noir. Again, however, most noir films do not contain a classic femme fatale, even though they do contain a number of female characters who in one way or another stand apart from the Hollywood mainstream.
In their initial characterization of film noir, Borde and Chaumeton identified five basic characteristics of the series of films they were discussing. These films, they declared, were “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel,” though different films focus on different elements in this list (2). And, if this list of qualities seems a bit vague and general, many critics since that time have attempted to come up with a concise list of basic properties of film noir as a phenomenon. Deborah Thomas, taking an approach that is anchored in gender studies, has suggested the followed list of basic characteristics of noir films:
First, these films tend to feature a “central male protagonist whose point of view is privileged through such devices as first-person narration … and subjective framing devices like flashbacks or dreams” (67).
Second, they tend to undermine this point of view “through labyrinthine plots which seem to elude the protagonist’s attempts to give them coherence through his narration” or through “breaks in the protagonist’s consciousness” (68).
Third, she argues that noir films tend to feature protagonists with a divided or split consciousness, often figured in his simultaneous attraction to a “good” (i.e. domesticated) woman and a “bad” (i.e. strong and independent) femme fatale (68).
And, finally, Thomas suggests that noir films feature a “mood of pervasive anxiety” for their male protagonists, often resolved through the death of the femme fatale or a suggestion of normalcy and domesticity looming in the near future (68).
Any number of other lists might be proposed: noir is a broad phenomenon that shows many characteristics, not all of which are shared by all films. As a good starting point, I myself would suggest (in addition to the basic noir “look” of the films, the following basic characteristics of film noir.
- The noir protagonist, typically male, is an unconventional hero. Sometimes he is seriously flawed, even evil or psychotic. Often, he is unusually violent or misogynistic. Sometimes he is simply an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances with which he is ill equipped to deal. Often, he is weak or ineffectual, confused and lost, particularly at the mercy of women. When he is strong and effective, he tends to be so on his own terms, often following his own moral code that differs substantially from the societal norm.
- Women in film noir are often represented in stereotypical ways: the conniving bad girl and the virtuous good girl are the most common types, often placed in the same film in opposition to one another, perhaps competing for the affections of the same man. In many cases, though, noir women are actually far more complex than the classic Hollywood norm; they can be quite strong and capable (often more so than the male protagonist), but they sometimes have a tendency to use these characteristics to the detriment of the male protagonist, in which case they are usually given the label “femme fatale” (“fatal, or deadly, woman”). In a number of noir films, though, a woman character is the protagonist, and in this case she tends to be more virtuous than the femme fatale, though social pressures often force her into ruthless or unscrupulous actions.
- Noir films tend to be informed by an air of moral crisis and uncertainty; characters are tempted by opportunities they know they should rightly decline or otherwise find themselves at a moral crossroads, knowing that the path they take will have crucial long-term consequences. Often the characters are morally ambiguous: they are neither fully good nor fully bad, nor are their actions. Borde and Chaumeton repeatedly emphasize the “ambiguity” of film noir and of the way in which noir films tend to break down easy distinctions, especially between good and evil, creating an effect of confusion that disorients viewers: “the moral ambivalence, criminal violence, and contradictory complexity of the situations and motives all combine to give the public a shared feeling of the anguish or insecurity, which is the identifying sign of film noir at this time” (Panorama 13).
- Noir films tend to be skeptical of high-minded pronouncements and pessimistic about the future. They tend to suggest that life has no inherent meaning, though sometimes (in the mode of philosophical existentialism) characters are able to make their own meanings in life.
- Noir films tend to be heavily stylized. The lighting, music, and camera placements are often intrusive, used to excess as a means of creating an atmosphere of mystery or uncertainty. Characters and plot events are not necessarily realistic in any conventional sense.
HOW TO WATCH FILM NOIR
As we watch the various noir films that will be presented in this class, students are urged to keep in mind all of the general points made in this introduction to the genre, keeping in mind how each film fits into the phenomenon of film noir as a whole. In addition, as you watch each of the films, you should be asking yourselves the following general questions.
- In what ways does the visual style of this film identify it as a noir film? Look for unusual, unbalanced compositions, odd camera angles and movements, and so on, that seem to be attempting to create a sense of strangeness or unease. Also, look for the distinctive noir play with light and darkness, especially the creative use of shadows to produce atmospheric effects.
- What thematic aspects of the basic plot of the film identify as belonging to the noir family? (Look for greed, excessive ambition, corruption, betrayal, confusion, mistaken identities, and other typical noir motifs as drivers of the plot.)
- In what ways does the plot structure of the film deviate from straightforward realist narrative? (Look for elements such as flashbacks, dream sequences, nonlinear narration, gaps in the narrative, and moments of strangeness that do not seem to be logical developments.)
- What are some of the film’s social and political themes? (Look for the ways in which the film can be taken as a critique of capitalist greed, as an exploration of the dark side of the American dream, or an exploration of motifs such as alienation and routinization.)
- In what ways do sound and music enhance the atmosphere and impact of the film?
- In what ways do the characters display behavior that might be attributed to unusual or extreme psychic states? (Look for characters who appear fundamentally psychotic, sadistic, or irrational, but also look for ways in which events in the film drive characters over he edge, causing them to unravel and begin to behave in irrational or unstable ways.)
- In what ways does the film seem to be impacted by the Production Code? (Look for ways in which violence and—especially—sexuality are more implied than directly represented.)
- Where are the women? (Look for the ways in which women are portrayed in the film. Are there unusually strong or powerful women characters, perhaps smarter and more capable than the male characters? Is there a femme fatale? Is there a pairing of “good” and “bad” female characters?)
SELECTED FILM NOIR BIBLIOGRAPHY
Booker, M. Keith. The Coen Brothers’ America. Rowman and Littlefield, 2019.
Borde, Raymond, and Étienne Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941–1953. 1955. Trans. Paul Hammond. City Lights Books, 2002.
Bould, Mark. Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Wallflower, 2005.
Bradshaw, Peter. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings. Ed. Paul A. Woods. 2nd ed. Plexus Publishing, 2004. 196–197.
Broe, Dennis. Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. Henry Holt, 1997.
Cochran, David. America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Dickos, Andrew. Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Durgnat, Raymond. “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1996. 37–51.
Graham, Mark. “The Inaccessibility of The Lady from Shanghai.” Perspectives on Orson Welles. Ed. Morris Beja. G. K. Hall, 1995. 146–63.
Hirsch, Foster. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999.
Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. Da Capo Press, 1983.
Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Women in Film Noir. Rev. and exp. ed. British Film Institute, 1998.
Leab, Daniel J. I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic. State College: Penn State University Press, 2000.
Luhr, William. Film Noir. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Lyons, Arthur. Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir. Da Capo Press, 2000.
Meuel, David. The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943–1962. McFarland, 2015.
Naremore, James. Film Noir: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.
Nathan, Ian. The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work. Aurum Press, 2017.
Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. Twayne, 1994.
Palmer, R. Barton, ed. Perspectives on Film Noir. G. K. Hall, 1996.
Place, Janey, and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1996. 65–76.
Porfirio, Robert, Alain Silver, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period. Limelight Editions, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Pantheon, 1988.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1996. 53–64.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. The Noir Style. Overlook Press, 1999.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader. Limelight Editions, 1996.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader 2. Limelight Editions, 2004.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes. Limelight Editions, 2004.
Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Rev. and exp. ed. Overlook Press, 1992.
Smith, Imogen Sara. In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. McFarland, 2011.
Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Longman, 2002.
Deborah. “How Hollywood Deals with the Deviant Male.” The Book of Film Noir. Ed. Ian Cameron. Continuum, 1993. 59–70.