The Fascinating World of Film Noir
Robyn is passionate about everything Film Noir. Its history, cinematic nature, and her childhood memories of “Saturday Night Cinema Classics” and “The Agatha Christie Hour” keep her coming back for more.
Robyn’s interests include Film Noir authors like Agatha Christie, known for her murder mysteries like “Death on the Nile,” and Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for his Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.
Robyn is not overly fond of films with computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead, she would rather spend evenings watching black and white movies and Film Noir because the storyline and old Hollywood is fascinating. “I’m in love with the art deco design of the era, the jewelry, old automobiles, and horse-drawn carriages. And the often missed but storyline necessary details, like location, clothing and furnishings.”
Film noir’s origins are deeply tied to social and historical factors, and its style was influenced by French and German Expressionism. However, as critic James Naremore explained, it seems undefinable, “It has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term.”
The film noir era refers to movies about the dark side of society that were typically produced between 1930s and 1950s. The style of filming involves high-contrast, low-key chiaroscuro lighting and while it is not necessarily factual, noir films get to the soul of the shadiest corners of society and humanity: Its “bas-fonds” or underworld. It reveals the world’s dark city streets, gritty crime, and corruption using a shadowy, moody style reminiscent of European films of the 1920s.
Origin of the Term Film Noir
The French labeled America’s post-WWII film phenomenon as “film noir” (black film) because of its dark nature. French audiences noted similarities between these movies and roman noir novels, a subgenre of crime fiction. The storylines center on protagonists, usually victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Noir characters are often self-destructive and are either the victim or the victimizer.
Reportedly, Nino Frank, a French movie critic, coined the term film noir in 1946. He explained that these movies stepped outside the usual pre-war police dramas. Instead, they are psychological stories that focus on faces, gestures, and words rather than the action, no matter its level of violence. Instead, noirs concentrate on the character’s truth and depth.
For example, in the 1940s, American author Cornell Woolrich published noir novels using the word black in the title: “The Bride Wore Black,” 1940; “The Black Curtain,” 1941; “Black Alibi,” 1942; “The Black Angel,” 1943; and “The Black Path of Fear,” 1943.
In 1945, the word noir was used by a French publishing imprint company, Série Noire, founded by actor and screenwriter Marcel Duhamel. Some sources claim that the company’s name led Frank to begin using Flim Noir to describe Hollywood’s post-WWII movies.
Série Noire also released a series of crime thrillers novels featuring authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, Brabazon Raymond (using the pseudonym James Hadley Chase), and more.
In addition to publishing novels, a film with the same title dropped in 1979 based on Jim Thompson’s 1954 novel “A Hell of a Woman.” Then in 1984, the company name was used as the title of a French TV series created by Pierre Grimblat. Additionally, between 2014 and 2015, the Quebecois Radio and TV series also used Série Noire as its overall title. It centered on a crime drama series, “La Loi de la justice.”
It is unlikely that Frank created the term film noir since it was used in a review of Pierre Chenal’s 1939 “Le Dernier Tournant,” which was the first adaptation of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain, 1934. It seems logical that, while Frank was not the first critic to utter film noir, he could be the first critic to assign the term to America’s post-WWII film phenomenon.
French and German Influences in Film Noir
Noir and Neo Noir is found in French, Italian and German photography, novels, and films of the period between the World Wars. But it was also found in 18th-century roman noir novels, which reached their climax during the aftermath of the French Revolution. The plots examined people in big cities, particularly the poor and the criminal underworld.
Some great examples that Robyn mentions include the works of novelists like Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, and Edgar Allen Poe. “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” by Victor Hugo, 1831, inspired writers from many genres. Edgar Allen Poe is credited with penning the first detective story set in Paris in 1841. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” launched a long tradition of international crime literature that film noir appears to emulate.
By the end of the 19th century, the French attitude about bas-fonds shifted dramatically, from revulsion to fascination. Many believe this shift resulted from the Romantics and their passion for all things bohemia; poverty, vice, and crime.
The period critics refer to when talking about French film noir took place once the “talkies” ended the silent-film era. With the release of “Jazz Singer,” 1927, the first full-length movie with synchronized dialogue, producers could see the potential for improved cinematography.
Noirs are black and white films that use high contrast for stark, chiaroscuro lighting—which involves hard lights and harsh, deep shadows to create a visually intriguing aesthetic that most mainstream black and white films lacked during the era.
Chiaroscuro lighting refers to light and dark elements in everything from photography, paintings and filmmaking. It’s an Italian term that originates from the Renaissance art movement. It was initially popularized by Leonardo da Vinci’s use of it in his paintings.
Creatives could also add background sounds to the dramatic lighting effects that German Expressionism brought to American Film Noir. This period started when Germany outlawed foreign films in 1916, which increased the need for domestically produced movies. Also, audience preferences shifted after the beginning of The Great War; they preferred more gritty subjects over romance and action. That, along with the constant worry of hyperinflation, encouraged filmmakers to become more daring and innovative.
An example of classic German Expressionism is Frtiz Lane’s 1927 film, “Metropolis.” The movie is classified as a science-fiction drama. When discussing his productions, Lane would explain: “I am profoundly fascinated by cruelty, fear, horror, and death. My films show my preoccupation with violence, the pathology of violence.” Chilling, indeed.
Filmmakers drew their ideology from Expressionist artists’ ability to show mood through creative distortion: the way the strokes of color emanate from the screamer’s mouth in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. When translated to film, visual cues overlap drama with poetic realism by simultaneously adding a sharp contrast to the scene, using both diffused and bright lights. Naturally, reactions to such a scene differ, but overall, audiences appeared enthralled with German Expressionist film.
Like German Expressionists, American noir films bring people into the set. Robyn believes that viewers can feel as if they are in the middle of the action. Close-ups of a character’s face let the audience feel, not just see, the emotion. Extreme or subtle lighting changes tell people how to react. As soon as the audience is “comfortable” with the situation, producers throw an unexpected plot twist.
American Film noir brings the best of French, Italian and German techniques to audiences and an abundant pool of modern creatives.
Post-WWII American Phenomenon and Beyond
War-weary audiences wanted to be distracted: Something that would engage their imagination and diminish their personal issues, no matter how temporary. Film noir filled that need.
During the so-called classic period of American film noir, stylish Hollywood crime dramas replete with suspicious characters’ attitudes and motivations allowed viewers to escape. Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, “Suspicion,” starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. Billed as a romantic psychological thriller, the film is a complicated emotional story. Grant portrays the scoundrel, the person everyone loves to hate, and Fontaine plays his victim.
George Cukor’s 1944 film noir “Gaslight,” starring Joseph Cotten, Charles Boyer, and Ingrid Bergman, was billed as a crime, drama-mystery. Newlyweds Boyer and Bergman return to her family home, but marital bliss is not what he wants. Instead, his goal was to gaslight Bergman into insanity.
Enter glamour and the femme fatale character. She is the woman who knows she is appealing. Notoriously, she uses her feminine body and sexual innuendo as tools to achieve her hidden agenda. A femme fatale is like a spider luring a fly into its web by enchanting, and hypnotizing her target, often using lies, deception, and distortion to exert her need for power and control.
Film Noir Femme Fatales represented the birth of the women’s movement. WWII expanded women’s opportunities, which were not typically offered before the war. Film noir filmmakers used that to their advantage while encouraging generations of women. Some memorable characters were brought to life on the big screen by Barbara Stanwyck in Billy Wilder’s 1944 “Double Indemnity,” Rita Hayworth in Charles Vidor’s 1946 “Gilda,” and Lana Turner in Tay Garnett’s 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice.
“My Cousin Rachel,” a 1951 noir novel by Du Maurier, is about the dark side of sexuality and power. Women imagine exhibiting its ambiguity and mystery. Women’s sexuality scares men. This story explores the depths people will go to achieve their perception of power, including revenge and murder.
Two films were made based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel. The 1952 version was directed by Henry Koster and starred Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. In 2017, “My Cousin Rachel” starred Rachel Weisz and Sam Clafin; its director was Roger Michell.
Film noir buffs might prefer the 1951 version since it was filmed in black and white. However, the 2017 rendition of “My Cousin Rachel” exemplifies the style’s ability to entertain modern audiences.
Another film with two versions is “No Man of Her Own,” 1932 and 1950. The second film, starring Barbara Stanwyck and John Lund, is a darker version of the earlier romantic-comedy. In the 1952 version, Stanwyck plays an abandoned pregnant femme fatale. Her target is the wealthy in-laws of the woman whose identity she stole. The storyline devolves into blackmail.
“Suddenly, Last Summer,” 1959, starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mercedes McCambridge in a complicated scenario. Clift portrays the doctor who is asked to perform a lobotomy on Taylor by her aunt to secure a family secret. The film is based on Tennessee Williams’ 1958 play of the same name.
As audiences changed, so did the artform. Neo-noir is a film genre that started in the 1960s — about midway into the Cold War — and maintained the climatological trend of the era. The films included the cynicism and fear of nuclear annihilation.
Due to technological advancements, neo-noir, aka the post-classic era, introduced innovations not previously used in film noir. Some of the early films in this genre were: “Blast of Silence,” 1961; “Cape Fear,” 1962; “The Manchurian Candidate,” 1962; “Shock Corridor,” 1963; and “Brainstorm,” 1965.
“The Manchurian Candidate’s” storyline dealt with the social and emotional situation of American prisoners of war (POWs) during the Korean Conflict. Whereas “The Fugitive” brought classic noir themes to television.
In the 1980s and 90s, neo-noir brought a classic black-and-white by Martin Scorsese’s 1980 “Raging Bull.” This masterpiece was declared the most influential American film of the 80s by the American Film Institute in 2007. “Raging Bull” unveils the story of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer whose violence and temper earned him top billing but destroyed his personal life.
Neo-noir of this decade seemed to expand and modify filming style and overall technique to relay the classic concept of film noir. Femme Fatales and brooding men dominated the list of famous films: “Body Heat,” 1971; “Black Widow,” 1987; “Shattered,” 1991; and “Final Analysis,” 1992. Sharon Stone portrayed an archetypal modern femme fatale in the 1992 post-classic “Basic Instinct.” Its creators used a polychrome palette to reproduce the classic expressionistic effects common in black-and-white noir.
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, expanded the neo-noir library. Their classic noir tributes and new wave crossover films include: “Fargo,” 1996; noir-gangster drama “Miller’s Crossing,” 1990; and “The Big Lebowski,” a 1998 noir-comedy. Another new wave noir B movie great is director-writer Quentin Tarantino. He brought fans “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and “Pulp Fiction” in 1994.
Despite the post-classic era’s arrival, fans flock to readily available black-and-white films from the 40s and 50s. There is something magical about stepping backward in time for entertainment that, at times, is eerily similar to today.