Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
Hochschule der Medien, Stuttgart Medienwissenschaft 44692, SS 2006 Prof. Stephen Lowry
Dennis Maciuszek Medienautor 1. Semester
firstname.lastname@example.org – email@example.com
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
Table of Contents
Abstract 1 2 3 4 Introduction Objectives Method Results 4.1 History 4.2 Themes and Characters 4.3 Storytelling and Narration 4.4 Cinematography and Mise-en-scène 4.5 People 5 6 7 8 Definition of Film Noir Related Definition and Discussion Outlook References 3 3 4 5 5 5 6 7 8 9 10 10 11 12
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
Dennis Maciuszek Stuttgart Media University Course paper “Media studies” Summer term 2006 firstname.lastname@example.org
Film noir is a style of Hollywood film-making that was popular during the 1940s and 50s. Interestingly, despite their old age, these films continue to have a strong influence on contemporary cinema – as well as on other media. The difficulty for the novice media student is to point out those references. Although film noir is easy to spot, it is hard to describe. To obtain more clarity, this text develops a compact definition of the concept of classic film noir. It uses an inductive method that identifies common storytelling and cinematographic aspects in five selected film noir movies.
– and for a woman – and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it? It all began last May... Thus begins the flashback that is the film DOUBLE INDEMNITY (USA 1944, Billy Wilder). It is one of the most prominent film noir movies – a type of film-making popular in Hollywood during the 1940s and 50s. Already in this tiny excerpt, one can recognise a variety of typical noir elements, as the later analysis will show. But first of all, what is film noir? Is it a film genre – like western or science fiction? Kolker, for instance, regards it as a genre that “changed some elements of melodrama and disrupted some Hollywood stereotypes about gender and the inevitability of sacrifice and suffering” (1999, 120). Borde/Chaumeton, who were among the French critics to establish the term during the late 40s and 50s (cf. R?wekamp 2003, 19), call it a series, i.e. “a group of motion pictures from one country sharing certain traits (style, atmosphere, subject matter...) strongly enough to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an unmistakable character” (Borde/Chaumeton 1996, 17). According to Schrader, “film noir is not a genre [...]. It is not defined [...] by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is [...] a specific period of film history” (1996, 53, emphasis added). Werner adds that a genre should be something developing over a long period of time. Film noir were rather a movement or a style (2000, 22–23). Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson do not find a consistent style in all films noirs: “Critics have not suc3
A dark 1940s car hurries through the faintly lit streets of nighttime Los Angeles, ignoring all other traffic. A tall, but weak looking man – telling from his slow walking, as we only see his back – gets out and heads towards an office building. After having sustained some meaningless small-talk with a receptionist, the man passes the dark, almost deserted hall, followed by his shadow. The sick man sits down at his work desk. Only a few dim stripes of light fall on his clothes, coming in through the blinds. With considerable effort, he turns on a small lamp and lights a cigarette. There is sweat on his face. He reveals an old dictating machine and collects his remaining strength to record a statement... You wanna know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours, Keyes. I killed Dietrichson. Me, Walter Neff, insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars. Until a little while ago, that is. Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
ceeded in defining specifically noir visual techniques [...] or narrative structure [...].” (1988, 75) Steinbauer-Gr?tsch concludes that all classifications of film noir as genre, cycle, style, or movement have had their weaknesses. In fact, she supports Schrader's period approach (2005, 15–16). Maybe, the most convincing points of view are those that see film noir as a movement which became a genre (Erickson 1996) or a cycle of US cinema which became one of the most influential styles in film history (Silver/Ursini 2004, 9). In that sense, this paper will examine film noir as a classical film-making style that developed during the 1940s and 50s. Section 2 states the objectives of the examination. Section 3 outlines the examination method, and introduces the empirical material. Section 4 discusses the results, divided into five categories. The results led to a definition of film noir, given in Section 5. Section 6 compares the found definition to an existing one. Section 7 is an outlook to noir style in contemporary media and towards possible uses of the definition.
Despite its age, film noir continues to have a strong influence on contemporary cinema – as well as on other media (cf. Section 7). The difficulty for the media student is to point out those references. Although film noir is easy to spot, it is hard to describe. As Naremore notes: “It has always been easier to recognize a Film noir than to define the term” (1998, 12, cited from R?wekamp 2003, 15). And once one has recognised something, “how many noir elements does it take to make film noir noir?” (Schrader 1996, 54) It is therefore not surprising that authors tend to spend several pages to set up a mood (and this paper was no exception) instead of starting off with a precise definition of what film noir is. In order to help students and novice film analysts identify – or even apply – noir style in films, this text aims at coming up with a short and practical definition of the concept that can fit a large number of classic films noirs.
THE MALTESE FALCON Year Director Adapted from Stars 1941 John Huston Dashiell Hammett Humphrey Bogart Mary Astor Detective Sam Spade tries to retrieve a valuable falcon statuette. A shadowy figure appears at the door to Spade's office: A man delivers the Falcon, then he dies.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY 1944 Billy Wilder James M. Cain Fred MacMurray Barbara Stanwyck Lady seduces insurance salesman, makes him kill her husband. see Section 1 (flashback narration as a confession)
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE 1946 Tay Garnett James M. Cain Lana Turner John Garfield Employee falls in love with boss's wife. In two tries, they kill the boss. On death row, the killer gets philosophical. Death penalty is almost a relief for his bad conscience.
SUNSET BOULEVARD 1950 Billy Wilder (original screenplay) William Holden Gloria Swanson Screenplay writer is held captive by a fallen silent movie queen. Surrounded by numerous portraits of the mad actress, the writer prepares her 'comeback'.
SUDDEN FEAR 1952 David Miller Edna Sherry Joan Crawford Jack Palance Actor marries theatre director who turned him down – only to kill her. The director speaks her will into a dictating apparatus, not knowing she is 'signing' her death sentence.
Table 1. Empirical material
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style protagonists are of questionable character, and there is usually no happy ending for them. At best, they survive the intrigue and corruption around and within them.
4.1.2 Literature Study
If it is easier to recognise film noir than to describe it, then an inductive method makes sense that gradually generalises from specific cases. Five representative movies were selected and investigated for similarities regarding history, themes/characters, storytelling/narration, cinematography/mise-en-scène, and people involved. Table 1 lists the five investigated films noirs. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SUNSET BOULEVARD, and SUDDEN FEAR were random choices of films noirs from the bargain bin. DOUBLE INDEMNITY was added since the “Media Studies” course schedule mentions it, and since it is frequently discussed in the literature (e.g. Kolker 1999, 124–125; Schatz 1981, 130–136) as a typical film noir. THE MALTESE FALCON was added because it is one of the very first films noirs (Werner 2000, 30) and because the selection so far was lacking a detective movie. That genre is often associated with noir style (cf. Silver/Ursini 2004, 147). To Schatz, this movie is the prototype of hardboiled-detective film noir (1981, 126–130). Admittedly, five examples are a small sample. Yet, these were only the starting point. Once similarities between them had been noted, literature on film noir was studied regarding the identified aspects. What is the bigger picture? What detailed knowledge is available? Finally, all results were compiled and evidence gathered from the five films for both, empirical and literature findings. In that way, not only a theoretical definition could be presented in the paper, but also a bunch of illustrative examples.
4. RESULTS 4.1 History 4.1.1 Empirical Findings
The term “film noir” is French and means “black film”. It was invented by French film critics who first used it for French productions. After World War II, they got to see a bunch of innovative American crime movies which the label fit, and they adopted it for those films (e.g. Bordwell/ Staiger/Thompson 1985, 75; R?wekamp, 15–19). The first film noir was STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (USA 1940, Boris Ingster), a year before the better-known MALTESE FALCON (Werner 2000, 30). The last of the classic films noirs was TOUCH OF EVIL (USA 1958), directed by Orson Welles, who had already set certain standards for noir style with CITIZEN KANE in 1941 (Kolker 1999, 127). Film noir has roots in (1) hardboiled fiction by writers like Dashiell Hammett, who introduced Detective Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler, who introduced Detective Philip Marlowe, and James M. Cain (e.g. Werner 2000, 83–91), (2) German expressionist film like DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (Germany 1920, Robert Wiene), (3) French poetic realism, e.g. QUAI DES BRUMES (France 1938, Marcel Carné), (4) to a degree 1930s American gangster movies (e.g. Werner 2000, 116–127). The fast evolution of classic film noir can be divided into three phases (Schrader 1996, 58–61: 1. wartime phase 1941–46, 2. realistic phase 1945– 49, 3. psychotic action phase 1949–53; or Werner 2000, 26–68: 1. romantic phase 1940–45, 2. alienation phase 1945–49, 3. obsession phase 1949– 54). The phases are linked to changes in American society – effected by World War II, the postwar time, and the McCarthy era. Each development caused new traumas and brought new fears that would influence noir stories and images. The three phases relate to Schatz' model of the evolution of a genre: Once a genre becomes more established, Schatz writes, there is an increasing consciousness of its formula, both on the part of the filmmakers and on the part of the audience (1981, 36–41). Even though film noir may not have been as long-lived as a traditional genre, this observation is very appropriate: In the beginning, no one knew they were making films noirs. In the end, they exploited the full formula. 5
As Table 1 shows, all selected movies are from the 1940s and early 50s. All are Hollywood productions filmed in black and white. Yet, only in some aspects do they present conventional Hollywood entertainment. They do tell popular crime stories with elements of detective plots (THE MALTESE FALCON), melodrama (SUNSET BOULEVARD), and thriller (SUDDEN FEAR). They do feature tough men and attractive women. But there is no glamour in this. The scenery is dark and shadowy, the
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style Interestingly, three movies share the unusual motif “signing of own death sentence”. A character signs an insurance contract (DOUBLE INDEMNITY), a confession (THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE), or a will (SUDDEN FEAR), not knowing this will give someone a reason for killing him or her.
THE MALTESE FALCON is a prototypical visualisation of a hardboiled novel, in that case by Dashiell Hammett. Humphrey Bogart introduces the hardboiled detective Sam Spade to the film audience. Both DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE are adaptations from James M. Cain. The selection includes movies from all evolutionary phases. THE MALTESE FALCON centres round the romantic image of the lonesome private detective, which is typical for early film noir (cf. Werner 2000, 29). The four following films show the alienation of good people turning into criminals. The two latest films are fully aware of the noir formula and exploit, even exaggerate it. SUNSET BOULEVARD features a grim castle – with an explicit reference to GREAT EXPECTATIONS (UK 1946, David Lean; “It was like that old woman in GREAT EXPECTATIONS...”) – and an overacting Gloria Swanson as the obsessive silent movie star. SUDDEN FEAR casts shadows on everything, and shows the psychotic state of mind of its heroine through nightmare sequences realised by odd camera angles and a frightening sound design.
4.2 Themes and Characters 4.2.1 Empirical Findings
Noir themes and characters
Crime (more than detective stories), death/ 5 murder, money, relationships, strong women/self-realisation/femmes fatales Big city, psychology, criminal protagonists, good people corrupted, 4 fatalism/nihilism/tragic protagonists, weak/dependent men, unfaithfulness to partner, killing partner Deserted places, phobias, manipulation, 3 bad conscience, ruined life, faked accident /insurance/signing of own death sentence
Table 2. Occurrences Themes and characters
4.2.2 Literature Study
Table 2 shows one major reason for why film noir is “black”: the dark themes and characters found in these movies. The first column marks the number of occurrences of each identified theme/characteristic. That is, a “5” means each aspect in the second column, first row is in all five movies. All of them are crime stories. A “4” means that each aspect was found in all but one, and so on. 1 or 2 occurrences are not listed. Those aspects would be of smaller significance to film noir. A few concepts need clarification. A femme fatale (French for “fatal woman”) is a self-confident woman who uses her attractiveness on a male protagonist for some evil purpose (Werner 2000, 143). For instance, she might seduce him into killing her husband as in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. “The femme fatale embodies film noir's ambiguity between appearance and character – she looks good, but is evil” (ibid., translated from German). Nihilism is the attitude that nothing is meaningful. This is apparent already in THE MALTESE FALCON, where everybody chases the valuable artefact, avoiding no effort, even killing for it. When they have it in the end, it turns out to be fake. 6
According to Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson, film noir basically assimilated its themes from popular literature of the time – hardboiled novels and espionage tales – and from psychological thrillers: “the relativity of right and wrong, the city as a jungle of corruption and terror, the solitary investigator walking down 'mean streets' [...], [an] atmosphere of fear and peril, psychological ambiguity, and abnormal mental states” (1985, 77). Silver/Ursini summarise film noir's themes in two major motifs: the haunting of the past and the nightmare of predestination (2004, 15).
Silver/Ursini's concepts get to the heart of what creates a strong fatalistic mood and an atmosphere of doom in the five investigated movies. In THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, it is the haunting of the past that torments Frank Chambers. He escapes punishment for murder, but cannot lead a happy life. When he finds himself in court again, the death sentence comes as a relief. Once Myra Hudson hears about her husband's plot to murder her – it was accidentally recorded by the dictating machine onto which she spoke
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
4.3.2 Literature Study
her will – she is struck with SUDDEN FEAR. It is the nightmare of predestination of which she (and the audience) will not get rid before the ending.
4.3 Storytelling and Narration 4.3.1 Empirical Findings
As Table 3 shows, similarities regarding storytelling techniques were not as strong as similarities regarding themes and characters. No narrative technique occurred four or five times. Apparently, flashbacks and hardboiled language are typical narrative styles that film noir uses, but they are not necessary for creating a “black” mood. Likewise, drastic unhappy endings occurred only in three of the films. A detective like Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON normally does not die. It was not counted as an unhappy ending that the retrieved statuette is fake. It was at least found. Myra Hudson survives her SUDDEN FEAR and treacherous husband – in the end even without applying violence herself. An explicit (voice-over) narrator may be a relict from film noir's roots in hardboiled literature. In two of the movies, there is also textual or graphical narration. THE MALTESE FALCON uses newspaper clippings. SUDDEN FEAR visualises a dramatic dream sequence by visually synchronising a handwritten time schedule and the corresponding actions of the characters. The entry “long third act after crime” refers to the three-act structure of many motion picture screenplays (Field 1984, 7–13). A film would start with a short setup act, continue with a long confrontation act, and end in a short resolution act. The resolution of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE seems unnaturally long. The protagonist has to fight long and hard with his bad conscience, until he is finally convicted.
Even though film noir is sometimes associated with the detective movie genre, its plots differ a lot from a traditional Sherlock Holmes case or a police investigation. As Werner notes, action is not important in noir detective plots. Dialogue and setting dominate instead (2000, 70). Film noir differs from 1930s gangster movies in that it does not tell stories about social tensions, but about psychological conflict (ibid., 127). Narration in film noir is often laid out as a psychoanalytical process (Steinbauer-Gr?tsch 2005, 127–130). Steinbauer-Gr?tsch has studied the use of voiceover narration and flashbacks in film noir (ibid., 109–122). She distinguishes flashbacks as confession, as investigation, graphical voice-over, and background stories with a psychological function. Graphical 'voice-over' would be the same as “textual narration” in Table 3. Interestingly, Steinbauer-Gr?tsch grants these storytelling means only a marginal significance in film noir (ibid., 117–118). They are a relict from the silent movie period, where dialogue and explanations had to be given in text form. Another type of flashback would be temps perdu – a flashback to an irretrievable past (cf. Schrader 1996, 57–58).
The MALTESE FALCON is a noir detective movie in which setting and dialogue dominate. Sam Spade hardly does any brain work to solve the case. The clues come to him, and in the end the valuable statuette is delivered to his office more by chance than through clever investigation. What is more interesting, is how Spade interacts with the underworld. The four other stories are psychoanalytical trips through the minds of criminals, as well as mad people and their victims (SUNSET BOULEVARD) and traumatised individuals (SUDDEN FEAR). DOUBLE INDEMNITY uses flashback as confession. SUNSET BOULEVARD uses flashback as investigation – told by a man who lies dead in a swimming pool: Figure 1.1 In THE MALTESE FALCON and SUDDEN FEAR, textual or graphical narration are used rather creatively, although technically they are no longer necessary in the sound era. Figure 2 shows the handwriting that is synchronised with the acting in SUDDEN FEAR. DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and SUNSET
Noir storytelling and narration
Voice-over narration/flashbacks, tough 3 language, unhappy endings for protagonists/death Textual narration, confessions, nonverbal 2 communication/silent looks, long third act after crime, ending already known
Table 3. Occurrences Storytelling and narration
All photos are screenshots taken from the DVDs.
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style speaks his confession into a microphone. This contributes to the cold feeling of the night scene in a deserted office. He makes the statement in a matter-of-fact manner. There is no need for facing a human being. In SUDDEN FEAR, Myra Hudson uses a (for her time) new technology. It can record voice from anywhere in a room, without a visible microphone. This is important for the story, as the device later happens to record a secret conversation. THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE has a scene in which the female protagonist Cora makes a cold confession to an unemotional officer who writes on a typewriter. It is almost as if she speaks to the typewriter: effectively another dictating machine.
BOULEVARD all make use of at least one temps perdu flashback (Schrader 1996, 57–58).
Figure 1: Investigative flashback: SUNSET BOULEVARD
Noir cinematography and mise-en-scène Spartan/cold sets, night scenes, rain/wind, technology/dictating machine, trains Dark rooms, staircases, mirrors, cars, women 'introduced' by their legs
5 SHADOWS!!!, guns, cigarettes 3 2
Table 4. Occ. Cinematography and mise-en-scène
4.4.2 Literature Study Figure 2: Textual narration: SUDDEN FEAR 4.4 Cinematography and Mise-en-scène 4.4.1 Empirical Findings
The second major reason (besides themes and characters, Section 4.2) why film noir is “black” is its dark cinematography. As Table 4 states, the five investigated movies include night scenes and dark rooms. The dominating darkness factor in film noir however is... shadows! Further common aspects of mise-en-scène besides cinematography can be found in Table 4: guns, exaggerated smoking, intriguing inventory like staircases (where do they lead?) and mirrors (leading to confrontation with one's self). Another interesting aspect is the use of certain technological items. Three of the chosen movies feature variations of sound recorders or dictating machines. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Walter Neff 8
The typical film noir look is achieved by high contrast and shadows. High-contrast look in film has a name: chiaroscuro. Film noir adopted chiaroscuro visuals from its expressionist predecessors like CALIGARI, which in turn had got it from experiments with lighting in theatre productions (Werner 2000, 119). Originally though, chiaroscuro style is as old as 15 th century paintings, e.g. by Giovanni Baglione (Wikipedia 2006a). Film noir's dark visual style is marked by the use of low-key lighting, i.e. relatively little fill light plus an extra emphasis of shadows (see Bordwell/ Staiger/Thompson 1985, 74 for the technical details). Low-key lighting had already been applied, for instance, in the horror film genre (ibid.). The prototypical image of shadows in film noir is black and white slats of light entering a dark room through venetian blinds (Kolker 1999, 124). Film noir tends to use close-ups, subjective camera, and weird, expressionist perspectives (e.g. Steinbauer-Gr?tsch 2005, 151–160).
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style
Staircases and mirrors are only two types of visual symbols frequently used in noir cinema. Steinbauer-Gr?tsch adds masks and portraits (paintings or photos; ibid., 59–89). Like mirrors, these stand for the 'Doppelg?nger' motif common in film noir (ibid., 46–58). The staircase on the cover of her book is from the 'staircase film noir', THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (USA 1946, Robert Siodmak; cf. Werner 2000, 265). There are further noteworthy uses of then modern technology in film noir storytelling (besides dictating machines, that is). KISS ME DEADLY (USA 1955, Robert Aldrich) is about a mysterious box which contains radioactive material – a pointer to the frightening political topic of nuclear weapons (Kolker 1999, 127; Werner 2000, 240).
Figure 4: Mise-en-scène: The POSTMAN...
Figure 3 sends light through venetian blinds in SUDDEN FEAR. It is being cast both onto the walls and the ceiling. Whether that is realistic is of minor importance – it creates a scary mood. Note also the unusual camera perspective.
Notice further the shadows and how well their direction matches the lines of the actors' bodies as well as the spatial arrangement of the scene.
4.5 People 4.5.1 Empirical Findings
Who are the creative people that made the classical films noirs? Both DOUBLE INDEMNITY and SUNSET BOULEVARD were directed by Billy Wilder, with John F. Seitz at the camera. Both DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE are adaptations of James M. Cain novels. Interestingly, Raymond Chandler – fellow hardboiled writer and creative father of Detective Philip Marlowe – wrote the script of DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
4.5.2 Literature Study
Figure 3: Cinematography: SUDDEN FEAR
The literature names as important film noir directors (besides Wilder): Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Anthony Mann, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, Edgar G. Ulmer, Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Aldrich, and others (Werner 2000, 128–141, Silver/Ursini 2004). Many of these were immigrants from Europe, especially Germany, Austria, and France (Steinbauer-Gr?tsch 2005, 29–36; Silver/Ursini 2004, 11; Werner 2000, 128–130). They fled Nazi terror, and brought to Hollywood European film traditions like German expressionism. Billy (actually Samuel) Wilder left Germany in 1933. He helped shape film noir, and continued with a remarkable career afterwards. Altogether, his work earned Wilder six Oscars. Between DOUBLE INDEMNITY and SUNSET BOULEVARD, he filmed another noir called THE LOST WEEKEND 9
Figure 4 is an interesting example of visual composition in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. The camera focus is on the background where we have Cora and Frank. Frank (the weak man) is immobilised – physically, but also psychologically, as he cannot stop Cora (the strong woman) from making a confession. Cora is not really talking to the officer in the foreground, who has turned his back on her. She is rather dictating to the typewriter machine itself. The room is cold and empty. There is nothing that would not have a use.
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style Film noir is a (for its time) innovative style of Hollywood film-making that evolved during the years 1940 to 1958. The term was introduced and established by French film critics, with hindsight. It means “black film”. Film noir tells 'dark' stories, often psychological studies of ambiguous characters involved in big city crime and manipulative behaviour. It creates a dark visual language by low-key lighting, contrast, shadows, and symbolism. Noir directors were often European immigrants that brought with them German expressionist style and French poetic realism, and applied those to American hardboiled storytelling. Many noirs make use of nonlinear narrative techniques that fatalistically build up to an unhappy ending.
6. RELATED DEFINITION AND DISCUSSION
(USA 1945), which won two Oscars (Silver/Ursini 2004, 36–37; Werner 2000, 243). One of the more famous camera persons in film noir was John Alton (Werner 2000, 109). At the time, he published a book on lighting (Alton 1995). In the chapter “Mystery Lighting”, he teaches the reader how to film the lighting of a cigarette, how to imitate lightning, how to light a campfire scene, how to illuminate a fireplace scene, how to film candles, and how to film a prison scene (ibid., 44–56). To Alton, “black and white are colours” (ibid., ix). Some films noirs of John Alton include THE BIG COMBO (USA 1955, Joseph H. Lewis) and WITNESS TO MURDER (USA 1954, Roy Rowland). He also worked with the director Anthony Mann (Werner 2000, 109). The stars of film noir were Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Edgar G. Robinson, James Cagney, and others (e.g. Werner 2000, 143–155).
In THE MALTESE FALCON, we have Humphrey Bogart, who set the standard for the portrayal of a hardboiled private investigator. Besides Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, he would later also play Raymond Chandler's Detective Marlowe. Dick Powell is known for that role as well. Bogart also portrayed criminals (Werner 2000, 149–152). There are two typical female roles in films noirs: the femme fatale and the victim (Silver/Ursini 2004, 131). In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Barbara Stanwyck is the typical strong femme fatale. But Stanwyck can also be the victim. She demonstrates this in WITNESS TO MURDER. Joan Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR is a combination of the strong, successful, self-realising woman – she is a successful Broadway director and can turn down any man for a role – and the fearful victim who cannot kill. Crawford is also famous for her role as the title heroine in the noir melodrama MILDRED PIERCE (USA 1945, Michael Curtiz). For that performance, she received an Oscar (Werner 2000, 145).
5. DEFINITION OF FILM NOIR
A concise definition like the one of Section 5 is not likely to be found in a book on film noir. After all, that was the reason why this small study was carried out. It is rather the type of definition that would appear in an encyclopedia. In fact, Wikipedia does offer a comparable text (2006b, introduction): Film noir is a film style and mood primarily associated with crime films, that portrays its principal characters in a cynical world. Film noir is primarily derived from the hard-boiled style of crime fiction of the Depression era (many films noirs were adaptations of such novels) and the gritty style of 1930s horror fiction. Film noir is first clearly seen in films released in the early 1940s. “Noirs” were historically made in black and white, and had a dark, high-contrast style with roots in German Expressionist cinematography. The term film noir (French for “black film”) was unknown to the filmmakers and actors while they were creating the classic films noirs. Film noir was defined in retrospect by film historians and critics; many of the creators of film noir later professed to be unaware 10
As a conclusion, the following definition was derived from the investigation and results above:
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style The next question would then be if someone would want to watch it. Moviegoers today are used to modern cinema that uses colour and fast cuts. One might rather choose to make a more modern film that would apply noir style to today's film conventions. This is what neo-noir does (Erickson 1996, Werner 2000; R?wekamp 2003). It is surprising how many modern Hollywood productions refer to or use film noir style. Neonoir though is much more diverse than classic film noir. Typical neo-noirs include: ? TAXI DRIVER (USA 1976, Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Paul Schrader, who also wrote the “Notes on Film Noir” essay (Schrader 1996); cf. R?wekamp 2003, 53–56) ? BLADE RUNNER (USA 1982, Ridley Scott; cyberpunk – the noir of the future; cf. R?wekamp 2003, 56–60) ? PULP FICTION (USA 1994, Quentin Tarantino; gangsters as the heroes, the reference to hardboiled fiction is already in the title; cf. R?wekamp 2003, 60–64) ? THE MATRIX (USA 1999, Andy and Larry Wachowski; truly dark and nihilistic; cf. R?wekamp 2003, 88–97) + ANIMATRIX (a collection of animated films inspired by THE MATRIX): one episode, A DETECTIVE STORY (Japan 2003, Shinichir? Watanabe), manages to recreate classic film noir look and narration ? MEMENTO (USA 2000, Christopher Nolan; takes nonlinear storytelling to the extreme: the story is partly told backwards, partly by textual narration in the form of tattoos on the protagonist's body; cf. R?wekamp 2003, 100) One could also add several films by David Fincher (whose neo-noir career started already in 1992 with the dark, atmospheric, and fatalistic ALIEN3 – a depressing monster story set on a grim prison planet; cf. Kolker 1999, 130) – or films by David Lynch (Werner 2000, 186, 197, 201). Moreover, the noir influence does not stop in the cinema. Chris Carter's mystery TV series THE XFILES (cf. Erickson 1996, 307) is visually dark, fatalistic (aliens will colonise the earth, our heroes cannot prevent it), often ending unhappily (or at least with more questions than answers), and full of ambiguous protagonists (Mulder, Scully, everyone in the FBI, the informants...). In a way, its 11
at the time of having created a distinctive type of film. Both definitions make the major point that film noir tells dark stories by dark pictures. Still, their focus is different. Is film noir about dark (“ambiguous”) characters or about a dark (“cynical”) world? The films studied in this paper seemed to stress the psychological side of committing a crime, i.e. the (metaphorical) darkness in characters. Yet, it can very well be discussed whether e.g. SUNSET BOULEVARD portrays either a mad actress who is a bad loser – or the cruelty of Hollywood which neglects its aged stars. Probably both is true: Society creates its own psychopaths. Further on, the Wikipedia definition omits the important factor of shadows. What is new though is that it mentions 1930s horror fiction as an influence. The authors may be thinking of the dark, nihilistic writings by H.P. Lovecraft and their kind. Definitely, film noir style should also be of interest to the makers of horror and dark fantasy pictures, not just for psychological crime thrillers. This leads to two final questions: For what purposes can the found definition of film noir be used? And: Can someone still make a film noir today?
First of all, the investigation was intended to provide the other students in class with a clear definition of film noir. It can be of further use to any novice film analyst wanting to discover noir influence in films. Moreover, filmmakers can take the definition and accompanying examples as a starting point for incorporating elements of noir style into their own works. From classic noir, one can learn how to shape dark, depressing, yet atmospheric moods. These would suit films of many genres: detective stories, psychological thrillers, mystery, horror, fantasy... But can one still make a pure film noir? This is difficult to answer. Film noir is very much a sign of its time. Black and white film supported the use of contrast. Developments in society, particularly World War II and all that came with and after it, stimulated a feeling of doom and paranoia. Yet, one can still shoot in black and white today or with little colour. More than enough depressing things happen around us each day. Thus, it might actually work to make a new 'film noir' that would be close to its predecessors.
Film Noir – An Inductive Definition of a 40s and 50s Film Style Field, Syd (1984) Screenplay. The Foundations of Screenwriting (expanded edition). New York: Dell. Kolker, Robert (1999) Film, Form, and Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Naremore, James (1998) More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press. R?wekamp, Burkhard (2003) Vom film noir zur méthode noire. Die Evolution filmischer Schwarzmalerei. Marburg: Schüren (German). Schatz, Thomas (1981) Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Schrader, Paul (1996; originally 1972) Notes on Film Noir. In: Silver/Ursini 1996, pp. 53–63. Silver, Alain / Ursini, James (2004) Film noir. K?ln: Taschen (German translation). Steinbauer-Gr?tsch, Barbara (2005) Die lange Nacht der Schatten. Film noir und Filmexil (third, revised edition). Berlin: Bertz (German). Werner, Paul (2000) Film noir und Neo-Noir (revised and extended edition). München: Vertigo (German). Wikipedia (2006a) Chiaroscuro. [http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiaroscuro (accessed 8 July 2006)] Wikipedia (2006b) Film noir. [http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Film_noir (accessed 7 May 2006)] Wikipedia (2006c) Sin City. [http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Sin_City (accessed 7 July 2006)]
conspiracy stories are a sign of today's mistrust in governments (in particular the US government) in a similar way as film noir grew in American traumas caused by World War II or McCarthy. SIN CITY (USA 2005, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) is a recent film adaptation of a comic book series that was itself influenced by classic film noir movies (Wikipedia 2006c, introduction). Furthermore, people create noir novels, noir music – even noir radio shows (Werner 2000, 207). Is this a symptom of our multimedia society? Maybe. Or maybe it is all too natural, considering the many influences that made film noir come into being: hardboiled fiction, chiaroscuro paintings and theatre... Noir-style comics are as old as the films themselves (Bordwell/Staiger/Thomson 1985, 77). Perhaps, “noir” has always been a 'multimedia' phenomenon, and making TV, drawing comics – or even designing websites in a noir fashion means no more (or less) than catching the spirit of a rather special artistic style.
Alton, John (1995; originally 1949) Painting with Light. Berkeley: University of California Press. Borde, Raymond / Chaumeton, ?tienne (1996; originally 1955) Towards a Definition of Film Noir. In: Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini. New York: Limelight, pp. 17–25. Bordwell, David / Staiger, Janet / Thompson, Kristin (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge. Erickson, Todd (1996) Kill Me Again: Movement becomes Genre. In: Silver/Ursini 1996, pp. 307– 329.