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Thread: Film Noir for Newbies

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    Red face Film Noir for Newbies

    Today, movie buffs attend film noir festivals and critics argue whether the latest film is a noir. But what does the term really mean?
    Actually, film noir (literally ‘black film’) was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of how dark, downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following World War II.


    THE STORY
    Storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting. Narratives were frequently complex, maze-like and convoluted, and typically told with foreboding background music, flashbacks (or a series of flashbacks), witty, razor-sharp and acerbic dialogue, and/or reflective and confessional, first-person voice-over narration. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.


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    THE SETTING
    Settings were often interiors with low-key (or single-source) lighting, venetian-blinded windows and rooms, and claustrophobic, gloomy appearances. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, wet asphalt, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets, flashing neon lights, and low key lighting. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low-rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses.

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    THE VISUAL STYLE
    Noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, ominous shadows, skewed camera angles (usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal), circling cigarette smoke, existential sensibilities, and unbalanced or moody compositions.

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    ROOTS
    Noirs were rooted in German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s, such as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Classic film noir was a style of black-and-white American films that first evolved in the 1940s, became prominent in the post-war era, and lasted in a classic ‘Golden Age’ period until about 1960.

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    CORRUPTION AND CRIME NOIRS
    Crime and corruption were often the main focus of noir films, usually with tough police detectives in pursuit. In Raoul Walsh’s gangster noir High Sierra (1941) based on W.R. Burnett’s novel, Humphrey Bogart (in his first starring role) was ageing gangster Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle with a heart of gold toward country girl Velma (Joan Leslie), who couldn’t give up his life of crime and died while pursued in the Sierra Mountains.

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    DOCU-NOIRS
    There are numerous, pseudo documentary-style film noir, often set in dark, rain-swept, crime-ridden urban areas, made in a realistic, semi-documentary fashion. Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (1951) (aka Ace in the Hole), an insightful expose of the media, starred Kirk Douglas as a cynical and immoral newsman named Charles Tatum who exploited a ‘human interest’ story to the public by orchestrating a media frenzy around a man trapped in a Pueblo cliff dwelling tunnel collapse.

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    ROMANCE NOIRS
    Twisted, shocking melodramatic film noir featured deadly femme fatales on a path of romance and self-destruction with the men in their lives. Billy Wilder’s classic black comedy and film noirish drama Sunset Boulevard (1950) was a “behind the scenes” look at Hollywood. Down-on-his-luck B-movie screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) spoke (in flashback) as a dead man floating in a swimming pool in Beverly Hills, about his struggle to produce screenplays to meet the demands of the industry and satisfy the illusions of comeback of ageing silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

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    MENACED-WOMEN NOIRS
    In menaced-women noirs, the tables are turned and women are menaced by the men in their lives (often their husbands), as in Otto Preminger’s hard-edged noir romance Laura (1944), a police detective (Dana Andrews) investigated socialite Laura’s (Gene Tierney) murder until she reappeared — and was threatened a second time. The film contained troubling necrophiliac themes and sexual obsession by the hard-boiled detective for the dead woman.

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