Frame of Mind: Touch Of Noir
Alfred Hitchcock may be the most recognizable name in suspense, but there is one man who certainly gave Hitchcock a run for his money. Henri-Georges Clouzot was a master of suspense in his own right, and as a contemporary of Hitchcock, became a great rival and influence. His most frequent themes dealt with the moral corruption of individuals and communities. Films such as Le corbeau and Quai des Orfèvres depict a very cynical assessment of humanity while showcasing Clouzot’s immense talent for suspenseful filmmaking. His best film – and the one he is best known for – is undoubtedly Les Diaboliques, a noir adaptation of a Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel. Hailed by some as "the French film noir to end all French film noirs," Les Diaboliques turned noir convention on its head and provided one of the best examples of a noir thriller with horror overtones.
Jean Renoir is often cited as one of the best filmmakers of all time. His most memorable films provided erudite commentary on modern society and influenced generations of filmmakers. His least well-known sound film is quite possibly La Nuit du carrefour, an adaptation of one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. Maigret, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, investigated numerous murder cases, but La Nuit du carrefour provides Renoir with the perfect opportunity to create a haunting atmosphere that visually traps his characters at a dark and foreboding crossroads. While the plot is convoluted and, at times, hard to follow, this overwhelming tone is utterly captivating and makes up for plot holes rumored to be the result of either a diminished budget or missing reels of film. Godard described La Nuit du carrefour as Renoir’s “most mysterious film,” and it is easy to see the strands of influence that connect this early Renoir mystery to the poetic realism of the 1930s and, ultimately, film noir.
Jules Dassin (Night and the City, Rififi) has the odd distinction of being a director best known for films that were atypical of his particular aesthetic, which tended toward dramatic showmanship rather than gritty realism. While most of his films fall into the noir category, they are all surprisingly different in their approach. The Naked City was an early success for Dassin and predated his blacklisting and subsequent career in Europe. Like post-blacklist noir Night and the City, The Naked City is set in a vibrant city that becomes very much a character within the film, yet instead of London, the city is New York. What makes this film stand out, however, is the influence of Italian neorealism. In this overtly realist vein, the workaday world of New York becomes a literal asphalt jungle whose corrupt and restless nature is apparent in each shot. Presented as a quasi-documentary complete with a narrator and extensive on-location shooting, The Naked City was unlike anything a Hollywood studio had made before.
A title can make a film, and Night and the City is the perfect title for a film noir. It is a distillation of two of the most iconic elements of film noir, a genre that flourishes in the encroaching darkness and the unfeeling industrialism of cityscapes. Those four words conjure the immoral horrors of a corrupt city with a life of its own. In the case of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, the city is London, and it’s overrun with hustlers and conmen. The first film Dassin made after being exiled from America for alleged communist sympathies, Night and the City is an amalgamation of film noir and its origins. Directed by an American, starring American and British actors, shot by German cinematographer Max Greene, and borrowing from both the American studio system and British pulp-thrillers, the film serves as a unique hybrid of film noir’s cinematic roots.
In some regards, film noir was a genre that came full circle, from the darkly brooding French films that inspired American tales of ill-fated, morally corrupt characters and back again to the French who coined the very term “film noir” and celebrated its impact as a genre. Late 1930s French cinema saw an influx of films whose pessimistic themes earned them the name “poetic realism.” From directors such as Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné, and Jean Renoir came films that sought to depict life in all its gritty realism and characters who lived on the margins of society – the working class and even criminals. One of the most celebrated films of the poetic realism movement is Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939). The third in a trilogy of fatalistic dramas, Le jour se lève is less a story about crime and more of the doomed love triangle that ruins a humble working man’s life. A deeply claustrophobic film, its emphasis on disillusionment and imprisonment within society are clear precursors to classic film noir.
The dangers that threaten everyday people and society differ from film noir to film noir, but what unifies them is their insidious nature. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) is undeniably a film noir of the 1950s. Its protagonist, Det. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), lives the suburban American dream with a good job, a beautiful, doting wife, a princess of a daughter, and a comfortable home. Bannion is as happy as a man can be, but even he knows that there is evil at work in his small city, deftly controlling everything, even the police chief. He takes it upon himself to bring down these controlling criminals but at the high cost of life, happiness, and morality. One of Lang’s best American noirs, The Big Heat presents the familiar story of a city corrupted by crime and uses the cliché as a jumping off point for a story of vengeance and the corruption of a good man. What makes Lang’s film all the more important in the film noir canon, however, is the question it poses the audience. Bannion embarks on a mission to restore justice but is sidetracked by his own thirst for revenge – and for understandable reasons – but The Big Heat asks whether this vigilante vengeance is right or as immoral as the criminals Bannion sought to capture.
Throughout his career, Hitchcock returned again and again to stories of wrongfully accused men desperately trying to prove their innocence. From The Lodger to The 39 Steps and even Strangers on a Train, this theme is a specialty of Hitchcock’s. In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock would once again return to this theme, but what sets the story apart from previous incarnations is the fact that the events of the film are true. With this key change, Hitchcock adjusts his approach away from incorporating tempering whimsy in favor of depicting the gravity of this very real situation. Hitchcock creates a sense of danger so convincing as to mimic the realism of the darkest film noirs. The story of Manny Balestrero, a man mistaken for a robber and tried for his alleged crimes, is therefore told as a stark tragedy to reflect the seriousness of the actual events. This approach solidifies The Wrong Man as one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films and a brilliant foray into film noir territory.
In his second film with Warner Bros., Alfred Hitchcock created what is arguably his best contribution to film noir. Dense and dark, Strangers on a Train (1951) was his most expressionistic and germanic picture in years, thanks to the moody, atmospheric cinematography of Robert Burks. Building on his success with psychopath Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock delivers one of his most disturbing villains in Bruno Anthony, a grown man doted on by his mother and intent on having his father murdered. What could have been a simpler film about a murderous madman takes on much more humanity and evokes real foreboding with the inclusion of the unassuming Guy Haines. In contrasting these two men and their rationalization of murder, Hitchcock presents an unforgettable story of good versus evil, authority versus anarchy, and bright futures versus sinful oblivion.
As Alfred Hitchcock explored film noir further into his career, a distinct darkness would overtake his film's outwardly wholesome Americana, and shadow would engulf his ill-fated characters. Breaking with the idealistic characters of Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock weaves a tale of deeply troubled people in Notorious. The film blends elements of melodrama, romance, spy thriller, and film noir, allowing it to fit loosely into many genres. Its central story of the relationship between American agent, Devlin, and the “notorious” Alicia Huberman may appear at first to be a simple spy melodrama, but the larger film explores the pain that results from the conflict between love and duty. The espionage activities in the film act as Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin,” his characteristic plot device and pretext for examining more serious issues. In Notorious, Nazi plots and uranium merely provide a means to observe the possibility of love and trust redeeming two lives overwhelmed by fear and guilt.
Alfred Hitchcock, renowned for his thrillers, has never been prominently associated with film noir. Certainly, he was never linked to noir as directors such as Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger were, yet his style is preeminently, demonstrably noir. Hitchcock's first film noir, and fifth film made in the United States since his arrival in 1939, Shadow of a Doubt, marks Hitchcock’s transition from his earlier English modes to the pessimism of his noir-tinged American work. Shadow of a Doubt encapsulates Hitchcock’s particular twisted vision of Americana, turning the quaint Saturday Evening Post–esque small town into a grim setting of the hunt for the Merry Widow murderer.
Film noir is not all anti-heroes and femme fatales. There is a great tradition of noir villains, the ruthless schemers who populate the dark city streets and make life that much worse for the protagonists. Far from being caricaturish crooks easily brought down by the noble hero, these criminals elude capture time and again, and some never receive punishment for their crimes. Noir villains run the gamut from wealthy aristocrats in three piece suits to insane hit men, or even villainous women orchestrating elaborate intrigues. To show just how dark noir can be, here is a list of ten noir villains that truly terrify.
No actor is more associated with the genre of film noir or better suited to interpret its tropes than Humphrey Bogart. His filmography covers a wide range from comedy to westerns, but noir was his specialty. Playing shrewd, playful characters with strict moral codes inhabiting a corrupt world, Bogart appeared in more than twenty noir and noirish tales, from The Petrified Forest (1936) to The Harder They Fall (1956). The actor who famed director Howard Hawks once called “the most insolent man on the screen” is undeniably emblematic of film noir.
Ahead of next week’s release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film Only God Forgives, which reunites him with Drive star Ryan Gosling, it is only fitting to explore the deep film noir roots of the intensely stylish, highly acclaimed Drive. It’s not surprising that Refn won the prize for Best Director at Cannes with this film because, even though the subject matter may be familiar –the film has been compared to the likes of The Driver (1978) and the works of Michael Mann – Refn’s direction breaks with Hollywood banality to create a positively captivating film. Drive seamlessly blends minimalism and visually striking style into a film that manages to perfectly situate ‘40s film noir characters in a modern Los Angeles.
Film noir was born from the evocative shadow play of German Expressionism. As one of the greats of Expressionist cinema, it is only fitting that after fleeing the Nazis Fritz Lang would reinvent himself by making highly stylized noir films in Hollywood. Fritz Lang is best remembered for his classics Metropolis and M, but Lang’s American career peaked with the two noirs The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Both starring the same central cast of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, these films have frequently been characterized as Lang’s pair of middle-class nightmares. Following the misadventures of Robinson’s middle class characters under the influence of Bennett’s femme fatales, Lang’s noirs serve as cautionary tales against lust and temptation.
For all the seriousness of film noir, its easily identifiable visual and narrative conventions lend themselves to parody. The genre’s distinctive voice-over narration and recognizable archetypes become humorous caricatures on film, TV, and radio, providing predictable storylines that all viewers are familiar with. These parodies range anywhere from downright silly mockeries of film noir and crime mysteries to great neo-noirs in their own right that merely indulge in slight self-parody. It is even conceivable that many people were first introduced to film noir conventions through such parodies. To show the lighter side of film noir, here is a list of five of the best film noir parodies.
Born out of Jean-Pierre Melville’s love of 1930s Hollywood crime dramas, Le Samouraï (1967) is unquestionably one of the best homages to film noir. The film itself is a cross between classic film noir and Japanese yakuza samurai films, melding the principled noir anti-hero and the honor-bound, wandering warrior samurai figure into a rumination on the loneliness of the drifter. Le Samouraï achieves a minimalist noir style and, in embracing the utter fatalism of film noir, gives audiences one of the bleakest depictions of a doomed noir anti-hero. By incorporating these elements of film noir and the narrative conventions of the samurai, Melville’s film is a brilliant depiction of film noir as contemporary tragedy.
Stanley Kubrick is best known for his films 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lolita (1962), The Shining (1980) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), but he always considered his first mature feature film to be the elaborate film noir heist The Killing (1956). Clearly overshadowed by his later works, The Killing is generally viewed as a minor work in Kubrick’s oeuvre, but it has served as the blueprint for heist films ever since, greatly influencing contemporary films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Kubrick brought a fresh twist to film noir with the film’s non-linear structure overlapping each heist member’s perspective of the robbery. The result is a puzzle of a film, full of suspense and an overwhelming sense of doom. As with most elaborate cons, something, if not everything, will go wrong.
Danny Boyle is no stranger to stylish thrillers. From Shallow Grave (1994) to 28 Days Later (2002), Boyle is a master of mystery and suspense. His latest film Trance (2013) takes many cues from film noir, incorporating a conflicted anti-hero, Simon, whose principles are rattled all the more by his memory loss. The psychological neo-noir thriller deftly juggles issues of memory, dreams, and the repeated reconstruction of identity. As Simon’s memories are progressively unraveled, one plot twist after another sees the lines between truth and manipulation begin to blur. With so many questions, the biggest unknown in the film is its femme fatale, Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Trance is the first time Boyle has put a woman at the heart of one of his films, and here, Elizabeth holds all of the film’s secrets. With every new twist, Elizabeth becomes more and more the classic, vicious femme fatale but with a surprising backstory of emotional damage and victimization.
There is no better film to finish our discussion of the noir loser in the Coen brothers’ films than The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). With the film’s protagonist, Ed Crane, the Coens take the noir loser archetype to its extreme. Whereas previous Coen losers were anxious, unsure men who let people walk all over them, Ed is effectively a cipher.
The Coen brother’s films frequently share film noir’s basic philosophical assumptions: power corrupts all, evil is pervasive, and fate cannot be controlled or avoided. Their films illustrate this philosophy through stories of simple people with complex problems. These characters are tempted by greed and corruption and ultimately begin a downward spiral that can only result in disaster in this fate-driven world. The characters most susceptible to this greed are ill-fated noir losers. Continuing the discussion of the noir loser archetype in the Coens’ films, Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard is the best example of a man utterly incapable of stopping the onslaught of destruction resulting from his own corrupt decisions.
The films of the Coen brothers present strangely familiar yet bizarre and inexplicable characters. Just as their films subvert conventions, their protagonists are average people driven to extremes, and frequently exaggerated and surreal extremes. Although the Coens’ films typically defy genre, this characterization is clearly influenced by the classic noir loser – an ordinary man who sees an opportunity to advance his life, often immorally, only to find himself the victim of fate. The noir loser is, fundamentally, the common man out of his element, losing control. This common man loser may be seen in Coen characters Barton Fink, Jerry Lundegaard, Ed Crane, H.I. McDunnough, and more; the difference in these characters being how they handle their escalating, unfamiliar situations.
Movie budgets of the 1940s pale in comparison to those of today. It’s the question of maybe a few million versus an average $40 million, but just as independent films are produced today, there were independent films with minuscule budgets released in the ‘40s. Most of these low budget films were genre B movies produced by the so called “poverty row” studios. One such film to receive critical praise was Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir Detour (1945), produced by the lower tier PRC studio. Ulmer made a reputation for himself as the master of the “stylish cheapie,” able to expertly disguise his threadbare production values, and Detour is no exception. Considered by some as the grandfather of the independent film, Detour is a stunningly impressive feat of technical creativity over budgetary limitations.
Continuing last week’s exploration of Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir Following (1998), it is only appropriate to venture into a discussion of his more widely known noir throwback, Memento (2000). As in Following, Memento builds upon the sinister, paranoid tone of noir by employing a non-chronological timeline. The film goes one step further, however, by incorporating two alternating timelines: a black and white timeline told in chronological order and a color timeline told in reverse. This structure certainly makes Memento a unique and fascinatingly confusing neo-noir, yet the most interesting aspect of Nolan’s screenplay is its portrayal of the femme fatale, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Arguably the most complex character in Memento, Natalie is at once the quintessentially coercive femme fatale and the character most sympathetic to anti-hero Leonard’s condition and vendetta.
Fans of director Christopher Nolan will note his eight feature films prevailing noir tones. From Memento (2000) to the The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception (2010), Nolan is constantly imbibing his films with sheer mystery and suspense. As Nolan continues to cleverly deceive audiences, his ardent fans return to his first features and the start of his career to see the vision of a fledgling director who would become one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of his generation. It is these fans along with a small cult of admirers who would be familiar with Nolan’s debut feature Following (1998). The film has many trademark Nolan elements: a less than reliable narrator, an unstable sense of identity, and a non-linear chronology. Following, however, is an ingenious neo-noir worthy of more notoriety, a stunning throwback to the low to no-budget film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.
The classical film noir period may only have stretched from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, but the tone, themes, and style of film noir continue to inspire a host of modern films, or neo-noirs. One of the most stylistically successful neo-noirs of the past decade is Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005). Unlike contemporary neo-noirs such as Chinatown (1974) or L.A. Confidential (1997), which lovingly recreate the 1930s-1950s, Brick applies the style and even the dialogue of classic film noir to a modern-day high school setting. A modern high school is a self-contained world teeming with moral strife and a perfect stand-in for the seedy underground of the classical noir city. This melding of noir and adolescence intuitively recognizes the pervasive sense of gravity shared by both and makes Johnson’s effort unique among neo-noirs.
Continuing the exploration of the outer limits of film noir I will now discuss one of the last examples of the genre with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). In the seventeen year period between 1941 and 1958, film noir had come to dominate Hollywood. Loosely based on the novel "Badge of Evil" by Whit Masterson, Touch of Evil offers an intriguing new take on the noir detective hero and the femme fatale and a much darker world view than that expressed even in The Maltese Falcon.
There are two films most often cited as the bookends, the outer limits of film noir: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958). By near consensus, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon marks the beginning of the genre, and it will be the topic of Part I of this look at the boundaries of noir. Part II will cover Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and the end of film noir. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon introduced the elements that would become the hallmarks of the genre – the amoral private detective, the femme fatale, and the dark city surrounding them. Huston’s directorial debut truly put a new spin on the traditional detective film. The film’s most important contribution to the film noir genre is its depiction of the flawed private eye as a noir hero, characterized by his unscrupulous behavior.
Film noir is a term coined by French critics writing in the Cahiers du cinéma to describe the distinctly dark films coming out of America during World War II; they noticed decidedly different shifts in tone from American Studio films of the 1930’s. Film noirs were characterized by their pessimistic and cynical portrayal of people and society and their sombre style. Unlike the usual happy endings in American movies, these noirs often ended in defeat, with ordinary protagonists drawn astray by temptation and violence.
As an introduction to film noir, here is a list of five must-see films emblematic of the genre.
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