Fleeing the mobsters he has double crossed, Harry Fabian runs through a virtual obstacle course of London’s back streets and alleys during a night in which the shadows seem to grow darker with his every footstep. The night itself seems to be his stalker; its shadows enveloping him like a closing coffin lid.
The scene is from Night and the City, the moody 1950 drama sometimes considered the definitive example of film noir, a genre that flourished in post WW II Hollywood, but named and first championed by French critics, most notably Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, whose 1955 book Panorama du film noir americain, was the first major study devoted to the subject. Richard Widmark was pictured on the cover in a scene from the aforementioned film, and the choice was appropriate. With his gaunt face a mask of desperation, his lips wrapped around a cigarette as if it was a snorkel, and a lit match between the fingers that appear jittery even in a still photograph, Widmark’s Harry Fabian may be the archetypal noir “hero”; a man forever on the run, scheming for success, but, in the end, fighting simply to survive.
The film noir is, as critic Louis Giannetti points out, actually a subgenre, one that overlaps with other forms, especially gangster and private detective thrillers. The genre, named after a French word that literally means “black,” emphasizes the dark side of human existence. Its main characters are generally hard-boiled cynics who, if not living on the fringe of society, flirt with it, often with disastrous consequences. When innocence is present in film noir, it is rarely uncorrupted in this world of violence and despair. Greed, lust, murder, and sexual depravity are the principal themes in the genre, and the city, primarily at night, is the backdrop.
The visual style of noir is one of its most important and memorable attributes. Cinematographers have rarely been given the opportunity to be as creative in other genres as they have in this universe marked by anxiety and paranoia. Rain swept streets, menacing shadows, and faces lit intermittently by blinking neon signs, are common images, as are scenes photographed by a camera that seems to have been contaminated by the seedy milieus in which noir is often set.
“The visual compositions,” Giannetti writes, “are dynamic, jagged, off-balance”.
Film noir thrived in the 1940s but had its beginnings in the gangster films that the studios churned out in the wake of such box-office hits as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in 1931. Those films, however, were more optimistic, presenting characters such as James Cagney’s Tom Powers of the latter film, who were determined to succeed at all costs. Only the final, fatal bullets that brought their lives to an end could dissuade them from conquering the world. The typical noir anti-hero has, in many cases, already accepted defeat and counts himself lucky if he at least manages to survive.
Noir’s visual style can be traced back to German Expressionism, an artistic movement that emphasized exaggerated, frequently grotesque, nightmarish images painted in high-contrast lights and darks. Many of the directors who would make vital contributions to noir, including Billy Wilder (“Double Indemnity”), Fritz Lang (“The Woman in the Window”), and Otto Preminger (“Laura”), were associated with the movement before fleeing Europe upon Hitler’s rise to power. The style wasn’t introduced to the cinema by noir, however, having already been evident in the silent thriller The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Lang’s futuristic 1926 classic Metropolis.
Italian Neo-realism also left a mark on noir by influencing the location shooting, documentary style narration, and less colorful characterizations that became commonplace in films of the genre’s later cycle. Literature had a major impact on setting the tone of these films, and writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, whose stories about hard drinking, chain smoking private detectives whose investigations took them into an immoral world of psychotic killers and femme fatales, often had their work adapted by filmmakers.
Though there is disagreement concerning which film represents the first genuine noir, many point to John Huston’s 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon as the progenitor of the form. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the film starred Humphrey Bogart who had only recently graduated to genuine star status after years of playing roles in support of Cagney, Robinson, and George Raft in Warner Brothers’ series of gangster films.
Bogart played Sam Spade, a tough talking private detective whose investigation of his partner’s murder draws him into the hunt for the objet d’art of the title. Huston’s mise en scene does not dwell on the odd angles and chiaroscuro that would be characteristic of later noirs, but instead focuses on the characters whose eccentricities would become standards in the genre.
Brigid O’ Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a calculating and ultimately deadly beauty who lies to and manipulates everyone, including Spade, to get what she wants; and a pair of sexually ambivalent crooks, Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who are also on the trail of the falcon. The veiled but still obvious homosexuality of the latter characters, as well as that of Gutman’s “gunsel” (a slang expression denoting a young, homosexual killer) symbolized, in those days before Gay Liberation, decadent individuals whose lives were lived in the shadows, hidden from the disapproving eyes of society. Such outsiders were unique in other genres but were rarely unrepresented in noir where they stood for depravity and “the sickest of all noir villains”.
The deviant sexuality and/or neurotic and psychotic tendencies of many noir characters are an important substructure of the genre. Villains, and even, in some instances, the heroes of noir struggle to resist their darker, normally repressed impulses. Freudian psychology had a strong impact in this regard, having inspired the creation of characters whose actions are guided by internal forces as much as by external ones.
In Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Dana Andrews is a detective investigating the murder of a beautiful woman (Gene Tierney). The characters he encounters as he attempts to unravel the mystery are eccentrics of whom he does not approve: a disdainful, bitchy columnist (Clifton Webb) and a prissy playboy (Vincent Price) a man kept by an older woman (Judith Anderson) who seems more masculine than the two men combined. As Foster Hirsch writes, this trio “introduces homosexual traits on the sly”.
Yet even the seemingly “straight” detective reveals a disturbing inclination to necrophilia by becoming hopelessly infatuated with the dead Laura’s portrait.
In I Wake up Screaming (1941), directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, a psychopathic detective (Laird Cregor) murders the woman whose love is denied him, and frames the man who has won her affections (Victor Mature) for the crime. The cop’s devotion to his victim is such that his home contains a shrine built in her honor.
When women are not being deified by men in noir, they are often brutalized. In 1947’s Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark made a sensational film debut as a more demented than usual psychotic named Tommy Udo, who cackled maniacally as he pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. In The Big Heat (1953), Lee Marvin disfigures Gloria Graham by throwing scalding coffee at her face, and in The Street with No Name (1949); a more subdued Widmark merely beats a woman after learning she has tipped off the police about his next robbery. The fact that so much of the violence in noir is committed against women has caused some critics to label the genre misogynistic.
There’s no need to weep for the women in noir, though, since they can be just as deadly, sometimes more so, than the men. Witness Barbara Stanwyck’s roles in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, co-scripted by Raymond Chandler, and based on a novel by James M. Cain, opens with the silhouette of a man who proceeds toward the camera until the screen grows black. After the credits, the blackness dissolves into fog and we are soon introduced to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, talking into a tape recorder, recounts the incidents that have brought him to his office at this time, bleeding, and slowly lurching toward death. Neff, an insurance salesman, had been lured by a bored, middle-class housewife into a plot to murder her husband with the intention of collecting the insurance money.
Throughout the plotting of the murder, and the subsequent attempts to stay one step ahead of Neff’s suspicious and persistent boss (Edward G. Robinson), it is the woman, played by Stanwyck, who is in control. As Foster Hirsch writes, Stanwyck’s role in Double Indemnity is “a grotesque in women’s clothing, a character conceived by men who hate and fear strong women”.
The homicidal lovers of Wilder’s classic shoot each other in the end, their scheme having failed due to their distrust of each other more than anything else. A similar fate befalls the characters in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Lewis Milestone’s bizarre drama of a powerful woman (Stanwyck) and her weak-willed husband (Kirk Douglas in his film debut) who, as children, collaborated in the murder of her domineering grandmother. Now, as the most powerful couple in town, they find their position threatened when a childhood friend (Van Heflin), who they believe witnessed the murder, returns to his hometown. Paranoia has gotten the best of them, and their brutal efforts to silence a man who knows nothing of their crime leads to the very downfall their treatment of him was intended to prevent. The end echoes the climax of Double Indemnity with a perverse twist. Instead of husband and wife shooting each other, the wife pulls the trigger on the gun that her husband is pointing at her, killing herself before the man follows her lead and also commits suicide. Even more so than in Double Indemnity, the woman wields the power. The man is a mere puppet.
Even when playing the victim in noir, Stanwyck dominated her surroundings. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), she is the bedridden wife of a man (Burt Lancaster) whose efforts to liberate himself from her control ultimately lead to her murder, and to his downfall.
Like Double Indemnity and many noirs, Sorry, Wrong Number is told in flashback to highlight the role that fate has played in the lives of the characters. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film heavily influenced by noir, describes the flashback technique as a way to establish “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness”.
Flashbacks do not play a role in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, but few film noirs convey a sense of desperation and hopelessness more effectively than this classic of the genre. Dassin, perhaps best known for his later, lighter films, Never on Sunday (1960) and Topkapi (1964), both starring his wife, the sultry Greek actress Melina Mercouri, began his career in noir, first helming the semi-documentary Naked City (1948), which later inspired a popular television series, then directing his masterpiece, Night and the City.
Highly Expressionistic in style, Night and the City’s vivid depiction of a hustler conniving his way through the London underworld is highlighted by Richard Widmark’s finest performance. As Harry Fabian, “an artist without an art,” Widmark, to quote Foster Hirsch, “palpably conveys his character’s mounting desperation, his struggle against impossible odds”. Despite enjoying one of Hollywood’s most durable careers which included roles as Jim Bowie opposite John Wayne’s “Davy Crockett in The Alamo” (1960) and as the Dauphin in Otto Preminger’s misguided adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” (1957), Widmark continues to be strongly identified with noir, a result of his having performed so effectively on its dark, desperate stage.
The influence of Italian Neo-Realism on noir was the result of producer Louis de Rochemont’s entry into the genre with 1945’s The House on 92nd Street. Shot on location, and featuring a narration the likes of which would later become a signature of Jack Webb’s Dragnet television series, the semi-documentary approach, memorably used in Naked City and The Street with No Name, often included detailed accounts of the way in which law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, operate, focusing on techniques and procedures, often to the accompaniment of stirring, patriotic music. These films, though often just as visually dark and sinister as the original, Expressionistic noir films, were, nonetheless, more upbeat, leading some critics to dismiss them outright as the polar opposite of the genre.
Although there are many examples of noir throughout the 1950s, including such exceptional films as Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950), and Robert Aldrich’s highly regarded Mickey Spillane adaptation, “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), the genre’s heyday was, by that time, at its end. For Forest Hirsch, it was Orson Welles who provided the genre with its final blast of glory.
In Touch of Evil, writer-director Welles “offers an overheated summary of what were by 1958 the conventions of the noir style” in a film that represents “the last brilliant flourishes of noir’s decadence”. Described by Welles’ biographer, David Thomson, as “macabre, perverse and unpleasant”, Thomson also suggests that Touch of Evil is “a kind of masterpiece, a terrific film”, an indication of the often contrary reactions one has to a genre that fascinates and repels at the same time. As an actor, Welles himself does both as a psychotic lawman in a Mexican border town as outwardly corrupt (the already portly Welles donned padding to give himself even greater bulk) as he is within, expressed in his willingness to plant evidence in order to bring about “justice.”
In the 1970s, noir would reemerge as a force in cinema by way of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) and Dick Richards’ “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), films that attempted to recapture the style of the original films, and were set in the general period in which the genre flourished. Though critics have been known to slap the noir label on virtually any film that examines the seedier aspects of life; especially those that revolve around the criminal world, most of these films, such as Dirty Harry, Klute, and The French Connection (all 1971), bear no similarity to the original noirs in either their visual style or characterizations. Even Farewell, My Lovely, in which Robert Mitchum was cast as Raymond Chandler’s world weary Philip Marlowe, the same character played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 noir classic The Big Sleep, is less a true noir than an homage to the genre. The same is true of Body Heat (1981), a virtual remake of Double Indemnity with Kathleen Turner expertly cast as a contemporary femme fatale.
The original noirs offered, as Foster Hirsch writes, “a symbolic and psychological profile of its era”. Film noir began in a decade – the 1940s – when war clouds were gathering, threatening to make major changes in the lives of Americans. By the end of the decade, Communist witch hunts, as well as a war in Korea, were on the horizon. The intervening years were marked by uncertainty, especially for men and women whose traditionally established roles were being redefined when World War II necessitated the entry of women into the workplace to fill jobs that were customarily performed by men. Whether intentional or not, noir reflected the fears of those who were wary of the changes taking place by presenting women whose independence came at the expense of men who, in noir, were weak, fearful, and frequently the victims of strong, castrating femme fatales. In noir, the desperate, cynical, and often maladjusted men mirrored, in a wildly exaggerated way, the men who fought in WW II, then came home, finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life.
Regardless of what messages can be found lurking under all those shadows in the film noir, there’s no denying the genre’s impact on the films that followed. There are strong elements of noir to be found in Ridley Scott’s science-fiction thriller Blade Runner (1982), in which Harrison Ford appears as a weary, Bogart-style detective who hunts androids rather than jewel encrusted birds.
It is in the genuine, original noir films that one can find a world not unlike our own, but darker, sexier, and, no matter how grim and violent, strangely appealing. It is a world where it is always night. It is the world of film noir.