Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Paul Schrader - Notes on Film Noir Part 1

In 1946 French critics, seeing the American films they had missed during the war, noticed the new mood of cynicism, pessimism and darkness which had crept into the American cinema. The darkening stain was most evident in routine crime thrillers, but was also apparent in prestigious melodramas.

The French cineastes soon realized they had seen only the tip of the iceberg: As the years went by, Hollywood lighting grew darker, characters more corrupt, themes more fatalistic and the tone more hopeless. By 1949 American movies were in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk. Never before had films dared to take such a harsh uncomplimentary look at American life, and they would not dare to do so again for twenty years.

Hollywood’s film noir has recently become the subject of renewed interest among moviegoers and critics. The fascination film noir holds for today’s young filmgoers and film students reflects recent trends in American cinema: American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical film noir as Kiss Me Deadly or Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of Easy Rider and Medium Cool seems naive and romantic. As the current political mood hardens, filmgoers and filmmakers will find the film noir of the late Forties increasingly attractive. The Forties may be to the Seventies what the Thirties were to the Sixties.

Film noir is equally interesting to critics. It offers writers a cache of excellent, little-known films (film noir is oddly both one of Hollywood’s best periods and least known), and gives auteur-weary critics an opportunity to apply themselves to the newer questions of classification and transdirectorial style. After all, what is film noir?

Film noir is not a genre (as Raymond Durgnat has helpfully pointed out over the objections of Higham and Greenberg’s Hollywood in the Forties). It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film “noir”, as opposed to the possible variants of film grey or film off-white.

Film noir is also a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave. In general, film noir refers to those Hollywood films of the Forties and early Fifties which portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.

Film noir is an extremely unwieldy period. It harks back to many previous periods: Warner’s Thirties gangster films, the French “poetic realism” of Carne and Duvivier, Von Sternbergian melodrama, and, farthest back, German Expressionist crime films (Lang’s Mabuse cycle). Film noir can stretch at its outer limits from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958), and most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements. There are also foreign offshoots of film noir, such as The Third man, Breathless and Le Doulos.

Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up. Personal and descriptive definitions, however, can get a bit sticky. A film of urban night life is not necessarily a film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?

Rather than haggle definitions, I would rather attempt to reduce film noir to its primary colors (all shades of black), those cultural and stylistic elements to which any definition must return.

At the risk of sounding like Arthur Knight, I would suggest that there were four conditions in Hollywood in the Forties which brought about the film noir. (The danger of Knight’s Livliest Art method is that it makes film history less a matter of structural analysis, and more a case of artistic and social forces magically interacting and coalescing.) Each of the following four catalytic elements, however, can define the film noir; the distinctly noir tonality draws from each of these elements.

WAR AND POST-WAR DISILLUSIONMENTS. The acute downer which hit the U. S. after the Second World War was, in fact, a delayed reaction to the Thirties. All through the Depression movies were needed to keep people’s spirits up, and, for the most part, they did. The crime films of this period were Horatio Algerish and socially conscious. Toward the end of the Thirties a darker crime film began to appear(You Only Live Once, The Roaring Twenties) and were it not for the War film noir would have been at full steam by the early Forties.

The need to produce Allied propaganda abroad and promote patriotism at home blunted the fledgling moves toward a dark cinema, and the film noir thrashed about in the studio system, not quite able to come into full prominence. During the War the first uniquely film noir appeared: The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, This Gun for Hire, Laura, but these films lacked the distinctly noir bite the end of the War would bring.
As soon as the War was over, however, American films became markedly more sardonic—and there was a boom in the crime film. For fifteen years the pressures against America’s amelioristic cinema had been building up, and, given the freedom, audiences and artists were now eager to take a less optimistic view of things. The disillusionment many soldiers, small businessmen and housewife/factory employees felt in returning to a peacetime economy was directly mirrored in the sordidness of the urban crime film.
This immediate post-war disillusionments was directly demonstrated in films like Cornered, The Blue Dahlia, Dead Reckoning, and Ride a Pink Horse, in which a serviceman returns from the war to find his sweetheart unfaithful or dead, or his business partner cheating him, or the whole society something less than worth fighting for. The war continues, but now the antagonism turns with a new viciousness toward the American society itself.

POST-WAR REALISM. Shortly after the war every film-producing country had a resurgence of realism. In America it first took the form of films by such producers as Louis de Rochemont (House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777) and Mark Hellinger (The Killers, Brute Force), and directors like Henry Hathaway and Jules Dassin. “Every scene was filmed on the actual location depicted,” the 1947 de Rochemont-Hathaway Kiss of Death proudly proclaimed. Even after de Rochemont’s particular “March of Time” authenticity fell from vogue, realistic exteriors remained a permanent fixture of film noir.

The realistic movement also suited America’s post-war mood; the public’s desire for a more honest and harsh view of America would not be satisfied by the same studio streets they had been watching for a dozen years. The post-war realistic trend succeeded in breaking film noir away from the domain of the high-class melodrama, placing it where it more properly belonged, in the streets with everyday people. In retrospect, the pre-de Rochemont film noir looks definitely tamer than the post-war realistic films. The studio look of films like The Big Sleep and The Mask of Dimitrios blunts their sting, making them seem more polite and conventional in contrast to their later, more realistic counterparts.

THE GERMAN INFLUENCE. Hollywood played host to an influx of German expatriates in the Twenties and Thirties, and these filmmakers and technicians had, for the most part, integrated themselves into the American film establishment. Hollywood never experienced the “Germanization” some civic-minded natives feared, and there is a danger of over-emphasizing the German influence in Hollywood.
But when, in the late Forties, Hollywood decided to paint it black, there were no greater masters of chiaroscuro than the Germans. The influence of expressionist lighting has always been just beneath the surface of Hollywood films, and it is not surprising, in film noir, to find it bursting out full bloom. Neither is it surprising to find a large number of Germans and East Europeans working in film noir: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Franz Waxman, Otto Preminger, John Braham, Anatole Litvak, Karl Freund, Max Ophuls, John Alton, Douglas Sirk, Fred Zinnemann, William Dieterle, Max Steiner, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Rudolph Mate.

On the surface the German expressionist influence, with its reliance on artificial studio lighting, seems incompatible with post-war realism, with its harsh unadorned exteriors; but it is the unique quality of film noir that it was able to weld seemingly contradictory elements into a uniform style. The best noir technicians simply made all the world a sound stage, directing unnatural and expressionistic lighting onto realistic settings. In films like Union Station, They Live By Night, The Killers there is an uneasy, exhilarating combination of realism and expressionism.
Perhaps the greatest master of noir was Hungarian-born John Alton, an expressionist cinematographer who could relight Times Square at noon if necessary. No cinematographer better adapted the old expressionist techniques to the new desire for realism, and his black-and-white photography in such gritty film noir as T-Men, Raw Deal, I’ the Jury, The Big Combo equals that of such German expressionist masters as Fritz Wagner and Karl Freund.

THE HARD-BOILED TRADITION. Another stylistic influence waiting in the wings was the “hard-boiled” school of writers. In the Thirties authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and John O’Hara created the “tough”, cynical way of acting and thinking which separated one from the world of everyday emotions—romanticism with a protective shell. The hard-boiled writers had their roots in pulp fiction or journalism, and their protagonists lived out a narcissistic, defeatist code. The hard-boiled hero was, in reality, a soft egg compared to his existential counterpart (Camus is said to have based The Stranger on McCoy), but he was a good deal tougher than anything American fiction had seen.

When the movies of the Forties turned to the American “tough” moral understrata, the hard-boiled school was waiting with preset conventions of heroes, minor characters, plots, dialogue and themes. Like the German expatriates, the hard-boiled writers had a style made to order for film noir; and, in turn, they influenced noir screenwriting as much as the German influenced noir cinematography.

The most hard-boiled of Hollywood’s writers was Raymond Chandler himself, whose script of Double Indemnity (from a James M. Cain story) was the best written and most characteristically noir of the period. Double Indemnity was the first film which played film noir for what it essentially was: small-time, unredeemed, unheroic; it made a break from the romantic noir cinema of (the later) Mildred Pierce and The Big Sleep.

(In its final stages, however, film noir adapted then bypassed the hard-boiled school. Manic, neurotic post-1948 films such as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, D. O. A., Where the Sidewalk Ends, White Heat, and The Big Heat are all post-hard-boiled: the air in these regions was even too thin for old-time cynics like Chandler.)

STYLISTICS. There is not yet a study of the stylistics of film noir, and the task is certainly too large to be attempted here. Like all film movements film noir drew upon a reservoir of film techniques, and given the time one could correlate its techniques, themes and causal elements into a stylistic schema. For the present, however, I’d like to point out some of film noir’s recurring techniques.

------The majority of scenes are lit for night. Gangsters sit in the offices at midday with the shades pulled and the lights off. Ceiling lights are hung low and floor lamps are seldom more than five feet high. One always has the suspicion that if the lights were all suddenly flipped on the characters would shriek and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at noontime.

------As in German expressionism, oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal. Obliquity adheres to the choreography of the city, and is in direct opposition to the horizontal American tradition of Griffith and Ford. Oblique lines tend to splinter a screen, making it restless and unstable. Light enters the dingy rooms of film noir in such odd shapes-jagged trapezoids, obtuse triangles, vertical slits—that one suspects the windows were cut out with a pen knife. No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light. The Anthony Mann/John Alton T-Men is the most dramatic but far from the only example of oblique noir choreography.

------The actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis. An actor is often hidden in the realistic tableau of the city at night, and, more obviously, his face is often blacked out by shadow as he speaks. These shadow effects are unlike the famous Warner Brothers lighting of the Thirties in which the central character was accentuated by a heavy shadow; in film noir, the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow. When the environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing the protagonist can do; the city will outlast and negate even his best efforts.
------Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical action. The beating of Robert Ryan in The Set-Up, the gunning down of Farley Granger in They Live By Night, the execution of the taxi driver in The Enforcer and of Brian Donlevy in The Big Combo are all marked by measured pacing, restrained anger and oppressive compositions, and seem much closer to the film noir spirit than the rat-tat-tat and screeching tires of Scarface twenty years before or the violent, expression actions of Underworld U. S. A. ten years later.

------There seems to be an almost Freudian attachment to water. The empty noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain (even in Los Angeles), and the rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the drama. Docks and piers are second only to alleyways as the most popular rendezvous points.

------There is a love of romantic narration. In such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Laura, Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai, Out of the Past and Sunset Boulevard the narration creates a mood of temps perdu: an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate and an all-enveloping hopelessness. In Out of the Past Robert Mitchum relates his history with such pathetic relish that it is obvious there is no hope for any future: one can only take pleasure in reliving a doomed past.

------A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time. Such films as The Enforcer, The Killers, Mildred Pierce, The Dark Past, Chicago Deadline, Out of the Past and The Killing use a convoluted time sequence to immerse the viewer in a time-disoriented but highly stylized world. The manipulation of time, whether slight or complex, is often used to reinforce a noir principle: the how is always more important than the what.

THEMES. Raymond Durgnat has delineated the themes of film noir in an excellent article in British Cinema magazine (“The Family Tree of Film Noir,” August, 1970), and it would be foolish for me to attempt to redo his thorough work in this short space. Durgnat divides film noir into eleven thematic categories, and although one might criticize some of his specific groupings, he does cover the whole gamut of noir production (thematically categorizing over 300 films).

In each of Durgnat’s noir themes (whether Black Widow, killers-on-the-run, dopplegangers) one finds that the upwardly mobile forces of the Thirties have halted; frontierism has turned to paranoia and claustrophobia. The small-time gangster has now made it big and sits in the mayor’s chair, the private eye has quit the police force in disgust, and the young heroine, sick of going along for the ride, is taking others for a ride.
Durgnat, however, does not touch upon what is perhaps the most over-riding noir theme: a passion for the past and present, but a fear of the future. The noir hero dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful at that, he retreats to the past. Thus film noir’s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style. In such a world style becomes paramount; it is all that separates one from meaninglessness. Chandler described this fundamental noir theme when he described his own fictional world: “It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting patterns out of it.”


  1. I am a big fan of film noir and enjoy watching the black & white classics. This is a great post!

  2. stunning post...wonderful info.

    thankyou. oh the music!