Classic neo noir
The below is extracted from Film Note: Se7en, available for the next six days for less than half price here!
It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film … movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique kind of eroticism: … The Maltese Falcon, … Laura, … Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and … The Woman in the Window. (Borde and Chaumeton, 1999, p. 17; first published in 1955)
Deprived of Hollywood movies during the German occupation of the Second World War, French critics had the opportunity, after the war’s end, to view a glut of movies made during the war years. They saw a group of films that had a visual style in common and narratives that shared the mood of serie noire novels. They dubbed these film noir and a new genre was born.
The fact that the makers of these movies were not aware of the existence of film noir is not important. The zeitgeist (‘spirit of the times’) of 1940s America, plus changing conditions of film production and of many German emigres, laid the foundation for the new genre. Although there are disputes as to which film qualifies as the first film noir critics cite the John Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the ground-breaking movie. Based on Dashiel Hammett’s novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon had the hard-boiled detective narrative that was characteristic of pulp fiction thrived, in the 1920s, as serials in magazines such as Black Mask. It was not until three years later, with the arrival of the other films cited by Borde and Chaumeton, that the classic film noir cycle got into ‘full-flow, culminating with Touch of Evil in 1958. The hiatus, between and 1944, was probably a result of Hollywood responding to the War effort.
Unsurprisingly, the Second World War caused massive social upheaval, possibly most lastingly felt in the changing role of women. As men fought on the front line, women were drafted into factories to take on ‘men’s’ work. This gave women a sense of independence and helped fuel their husbands’/boyfriends’ fantasies about what ‘their’ women might be up to. In addition, at the war’s end, men wanted ‘their’ jobs back and women were forced back into the home or the menial employment they had ‘enjoyed’ before the war. This eruption of gender identity was expressed in the film noir character of the femme fatale.
In addition, many soldiers were traumatised by their wartime experiences. They had spent up to five years fighting in the company of men and killing in terrifying conditions, so the return to civilian life was anything but easy. Many suffered from the then largely unrecognised post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hence many film noir characters are veterans, suspicious of women, psychologically scarred by their experiences and capable of psychotic violence.
Also during the 1940s, the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud became fashionable in North America. His belief that human beings’ civilised nature was barely skin deep and our ‘animal side’, the id, was never far away can be seen in film noir‘s narratives that investigate the dark side of humanity.
Paul Kerr (1999) has suggested that industrial constraints helped fuel the film noir genre. These films were made as B pictures (as distinct from the prestigious and expensive A pictures) and were made on tight schedules with little interference from the studio producer. This relative independence meant experimentation was possible in both visual style and narrative. With the time constraints (Edgar Ulmer’s classic Detour, 1945, was made in six days), night and location shooting were required, which helped in the development of filmnoir‘s look.
The influx of German directors, who were fleeing the Nazis, was probably most influential. During the early 1920s, a number of German films drew upon the Expressionist visual style that emphasised characters’ state of mind by exaggerating and distorting the exterior world. In film noir, this mutated into lighting patterns that used shadows to distort people and objects, and camera angles that made the ‘normal’ grotesque. This visual style can be considered to be the iconography of film noir; indeed some critics argue that film noir is not a genre at all but a film movement characterised by its visual style (see Place, 1980). Westerns, such as Rancho Notorious (1952), have been shot as film noir. Rancho Notorious was directed by Fritz Lang, who made his name in Germany with films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Lang made many classic films noir, including Woman in the Window and The Big Heat (1953). As we saw in Background: Director as auteur, Lang has influenced David Fincher.
Although critics suggest the classic film noir cycle ended in 1958, films noir continued to be made: Odds Against Tomorrow was released in 1959 and Cape Fear three years later. However, it was not until the 1980s that there appeared a large number of films that shared film noir characteristics and these have been dubbed neo noir. Body Heat (1981) possibly heralded this return to favour of the convoluted narrative dealing with corrupt individuals. As a 1980s’ remake of Double Indemnity, the sex scenes in Body Heat could be as explicit as those in the earlier films noir had been implicit.
A number of neo-noirs, including Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), can be considered as pastiches that knowingly, and lovingly, recreate the style of earlier films, albeit in colour and with a modern sensibility. Other neo noirs, such as Se7en, move the genre forward and so avoid pastiche. Se7en‘s unmitigated tale of woe (most classic films noir did at least gesture toward a happy ending), suggests there is little, or no hope for modern society (see Critical Responses).
There is not enough space here to do justice to the variations and complexity of film noir; for a more in-depth, though still relatively brief survey, see Lacey (2000) or any of the following books dedicated to the genre: Cameron (1992), Hirsch (1999), Kaplan (1980) or Krutnik (1991).
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