Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Paul Schrader - Notes on Film Noir Part 2

Film noir can be subdivided into three broad phases. The first, the wartime period, 1941-46 approximately, was the phase of the private eye and the lone wolf, of Chandler, Hammett and Greene, of Bogart and Bacall, Ladd and Lake, classy directors like Curtiz and Garnett, studio sets, and, in general, more talk than action. The studio look of this period was reflected in such pictures as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Gaslight, This Gun for Hire, The Lodger, The Woman in the Window, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound, The Big Sleep, Laura, The Lost Weekend, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, To Have and Have Not, Fallen Angel, Gilda, Murder My Sweet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dark Waters, Scarlet Street, So Dark the Night, The Glass Key, The Mask of Dimitrios, and The Dark Mirror.

The Wilder/Chandler Double Indemnity provided a bridge to the post-war phase of film noir. The unflinching noir vision of Double Indemnity came as a shock in 1944, and the film was almost blocked by the combined efforts of Paramount, the Hays Office and star Fred McMurray. Three years later, however, Double Indemnitys were dropping off the studio assembly line.

The second phase was the post-war realistic period from 1945-49 (the dates overlap and so do the films; these are all approximate phases for which there are many exceptions). These films tended more toward the problems of crime in the streets, political corruption and police routine. Less romantic heroes like Richard Conte, Burt Lancaster and Charles McGraw were more suited to this period, as were proletarian directors like Hathaway, Dassin and Kazan. The realistic urban look of this phase is seen in such films as The House on 92nd Street, The Killers, Raw Deal, Act of Violence, Union Station, Kiss of Death, Johnny O’Clock, Force of Evil, Dead Reckoning, Ride the Pink Horse, Dark Passage, Cry of the City, The Set-Up, T-Men, Call Northside 777, Brute Force, The Big Clock, Thieves’ Highway, Ruthless, Pitfall, Boomerang!, and The Naked City.

The third and final phase of film noir, from 1949-53, was the period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse. The noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years of despair, started to get bananas. The psychotic killer, who had in the first period been a subject worthy of study (Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror), in the second a fringe threat (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death), now became the active protagonist (James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye). There were no excuses given for the psychopathy in Gun Crazy—it was just “crazy”. James Cagney made a neurotic comeback and his instability was matched by that of younger actors like Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin. This was the phase of the “B” noir film, and of psychoanalytically-inclined directors like Ray and Walsh. The forces of personal disintegration are reflected in such films as White Heat, Gun Crazy, D. O. A., Caught, They Live By Night, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Detective Story, In a Lonely Place, I’ the Jury, Ace in the Hole, Panic in the Streets, The Big Heat, On Dangerous Ground, Sunset Boulevard.
The third phase is the cream of the film noir period. Some critics may prefer the early “gray” melodramas, others the post-war “street” films, but film noir’s final phase was the most aesthetically and sociologically piercing, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability. The third-phase films were painfully self-aware; they seemed to know they stood at the end of a long tradition based on despair and disintegration and did not shy away from that fact. The best and most characteristically noir films—Gun Crazy, White Heat, Out of the Past, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, D. O. A., They Live By Night, and The Big Heat—stand at the end of the period and are the results of self-awareness. The third phase is in rife with end-of-the-line noir heroes: The Big Heat and Where the Sidewalk Ends are the last stops for the urban cop, Ace in the Hole for the newspaper man, the Victor Saville-produced Spillane series (I’ the Jury, The Long Wait, Kiss Me Deadly) for the private eye, Sunset Boulevard for the Black Widow, White Heat and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye for the gangster, D. O. A. for the John Doe American.

By the middle Fifties film noir had ground to a halt. There were a few notable stragglers, Kiss Me Deadly, the Lewis/Alton The Big Combo, and film noir’s epitaph, Touch of Evil, but for the most part a new style of crime film had become popular.
As the rise of McCarthy and Eisenhower demonstrated, Americans were eager to see a more bourgeois view of themselves. Crime had to move to the suburbs. The criminal put on a gray flannel suit and the footsore cop was replaced by the “mobile unit” careening down the expressway. Any attempt at social criticism had to be cloaked in ludicrous affirmations of the American way of life. Technically, television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence, and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the “noir” look. New directors like Seigel, Fleischer, Karlson and Fuller, and TV shows like Dragnet, M-Squad, Lineup and Highway Patrol stepped in to create the new crime drama.

Film noir was an immensely creative period—probably the most creative in Hollywood’s history—at least, if this creativity is measured not by its peaks but by its median level of artistry. Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western and so on. (A Joseph H. Lewis “B” film noir is better than a Lewis “B” western, for example.) Taken as a whole period, film noir achieved an unusually high level of artistry.

Film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone: directors, cameramen, screenwriters, actors. Again and again, a film noir will make the high point on an artist’s career graph. Some directors, for example, did their best work in film noir (Stuart Heisler, Robert Siodmak, Gordon Douglas, Edward Dmytryk, John Brahm, John Cromwell, Raoul Walsh, Henry Hathaway); other directors began in film noir, and it seems to me, never regained their original heights (Otto Preminger, Rudolph Mate, Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise, Jules Dassin, Richard Fleischer, John Huston, Andre de Toth, and Robert Aldrich); and other directors who made great films in other molds also made great film noir (Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, Howard Hawks, Robert Rossen, Anthony Mann, Joseph Losey, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick). Whether or not one agrees with this particular schema, its message is irrefutable: film noir was good for practically every director’s career. (Two interesting exceptions to prove the case are King Vidor and Jean Renoir.)

Film noir seems to have been a creative release for everyone involved. It gave artists a chance to work with previously forbidden themes, yet had conventions strong enough to protect the mediocre. Cinematographers were allowed to become highly mannered, and actors were sheltered by the cinematographers to distinguish between great directors and great noir directors.

Film noir’s remarkable creativity makes its longtime neglect the more baffling. The French, of course, have been students of the period for some time (Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama du Film Noir was published in 1955), but American critics until recently have preferred the western, the musical or the gangster film to the film noir.
Some of the reasons for this neglect are superficial; others strike to the heart of the noir style. For a long time film noir, with its emphasis on corruption and despair, was considered an aberration of the American character. The western, with its moral primitivism, and the gangster film, with its Horatio Alger values, were considered more American than the film noir.

This prejudice was reinforced by the fact that film noir was ideally suited to the low budget “B” film, and many of the best noir films were “B” films. This odd sort of economic snobbery still lingers on in some critical circles: high- budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash, and to praise a “B” film is somehow to slight(often intentionally) an “A” film.

There has been a critical revival in the U. S. over the last ten years, but film noir lost out on that too. The revival as auteur (director) oriented, and film noir wasn’t. Auteur criticism is interested in how directors are different; film noir criticism is concerned with what they have in common.

The fundamental reason for film noir’s neglect, however, is the fact that it depends more on choreography than sociology, and American critics have always been slow on the uptake when it comes to visual style. Like its protagonists, film noir is more interested in style than theme; whereas American critics have been traditionally more interested in theme than style.

American film critics have always been sociologists first and scientists second: film is important as it relates to large masses, and if a film goes awry it is often because the theme has been somehow “violated” by the style. Film noir operates on opposite principles: the theme is hidden in the style, and bogus themes are often haunted (“middle class values are best”) which contradict the style. Although, I believe, style determines the theme in every film, it was easier for sociological critics to discuss the themes of the western and gangster film apart from stylistic analysis than it was to do for film noir.
Not surprisingly it was the gangster film, not the film noir, which was canonized in The Partisan Review in 1948 by Robert Warshow’s famous essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Although Warshow could be an aesthetic as well as a sociological critic, he was interested in the western and gangster film as “popular” art rather than as style. This sociological orientation blinded Warshow, as it has many subsequent critics, to an aesthetically more important development in the gangster film—film noir.

The irony of this neglect is that in retrospect the gangster films Warshow wrote about are inferior to film noir. The Thirties gangster was primarily a reflection of what was happening in the country, and Warshow analyzed this. The film noir, although it was also a sociological reflection, went further than the gangster film. Toward the end film noir was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the materials it reflected; it tried to make America accept a moral vision of life based on style. That very contradiction—promoting style in a culture which valued themes—forced film noir into artistically invigorating twists and turns. Film noir attacked and interpreted its sociological conditions, and, by the close of the noir period, created a new artistic world which went beyond a simple sociological reflection, a nightmarish world of American mannerism which was by far more a creation than a reflection.
Because film noir was first of all a style, because it worked out its conflicts visually rather than thematically, because it was aware of its own identity, it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems. And for these reasons films like Kiss Me Deadly, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Gun Crazy can be works of art in a way that gangster films like Scarface, Public Enemy and Little Caesar can never be.


  1. Gotta love Film Noir. I think Bogart's the best:) Awesome blog:)

  2. Geordie version: "Filum Knaa."