Welcome to Film Noir: Danger, Darkness and Dames! This online course was written by Chris Garcia, an Austin American-Statesman Film Critic. The course was originally offered through Barnes & Noble’s online education program and is now available on The Midnight Palace with permission. There are a few ways to get the most out of this class. I certainly recommend registering on the message boards if you aren’t currently a member. This will allow you to discuss Film Noir with the other members; we have a category specifically dedicated to noir. Secondly, we also recommend that you purchase the following books. They will serve as a companion to the knowledge offered in this course. You can click each cover to purchase directly.
Both of these books are very well written and provide incredible insight in to Film Noir, its many faces, themes and undertones.
This course is structured in a way that makes it easy for students to follow along and pick up where they leave off. There are a total of FIVE lessons. Each lesson contains lectures, summaries and an assignment. Note: this course is not graded. The sole purpose is to give students a greater understanding of Dark City, or, Film Noir to the novice gumshoe. Having said that, the assignments are optional but highly recommended. The most important thing is to have fun! Enjoy the course!
Social and artistic developments forged a new genre.
Lecture 1 – Introduction
In this course you will learn about film noir, its definition, its place in film history, and its place in film today. We’ll also take a look at some defining films, actors, and filmmakers of the movement. This first lesson will cover the definition of film noir, its validity as a style, and the environment from which it sprang.
If at any time you have questions or comments about this course or its texts, please post them on our message board. I’ve found that the more each of you participate, the more we all can learn from each other.
The main reference book for this course will be the Film Noir Reader by Alain Silver and James Ursini. I highly encourage you to read this text along with the course lessons. It presents a great overview of noir.
Is Film Noir Really a Movie Genre, or Just a Fancy Way of Saying “Black Cinema”?
Before we answer the question posed above, let’s define what a movie genre is. A genre is a category in the arts, such as Impressionism in painting or romance in fiction. Your local Blockbuster splinters its video stock into the prominent movie genres, often with alarming laxity. There are sections for westerns, comedies, war films, horror films, and musicals, to name a few. These are relatively strict groupings, and the movies in each category, bound by similar qualities, would have a hard time wriggling out of their respective genres.
Not so with noir. Though the bulk of noirs can safely be indexed in crime, mystery, or thriller genres, noir is really a style of movie, not a circumscribed genre that jealously holds its subjects captive.
What’s the difference between style and genre?
Style reflects flavor, look, tone, and theme. Noirs invariably share some or most of these qualities.
Genre denotes the inflexible content of a movie, the type of story being told. If it has gunslingers, horses, and cacti, and it’s set in Tombstone, Arizona, it’s a western. Spontaneous song and dance in embarrassingly public arenas should tip you off that you’re watching a musical. And so on.
Noir, on the other hand, is acutely fluid. The style’s unmistakable traits — ominous shadows, claustrophobic atmosphere, murder, danger, alienation, corruption, double dealing, bleak endings — flow indiscriminately, frequently bubbling up in movies that don’t neatly fit the crime or gangster genres.
Take Sweet Smell of Success, for example. The 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster is an extremely dark and hard-bitten drama about a tyrannical newspaper columnist and the venomous power he exerts over others. There are no gangsters, but the movie’s cynical textures, grim themes, and scabrous tone frequently earn it the noir tag. (Note that not all gangster and crime films are noirs.)
Film noir is so elusive that it took the French to designate the new style, informing Hollywood that it had minted a batch of movies in the 1940s which were linked by a shocking cynicism and despair.
The French didn’t see American films during World War II. After the war, French critics, seeing American movies for the first time in six years, were struck by a new strain of Hollywood film. They saw unapologetic violence and stark nihilism imbuing movies such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and the prototypical noir Double Indemnity (1944).
Stunned and fascinated by the movies’ postwar pessimism, they dubbed this fresh style film noir — literally “black film” — though the phrase is widely translated as “dark cinema.”
The name derives from the black covers of a series of crime and detective novels, the Serie Noir, which was popular in France. Many of these pulp paperbacks were translations of books by American crime writers Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and, later, Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) and Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly).
Noir flourished through the ’40s and ’50s in such definitive classics as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Out of the Past (1947), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Laura (1944), and The Big Heat (1953), all of which happen to be macabre crime stories.
But while the French were lumping the films into a unified genus, American moviegoers took them for granted as Hollywood-issue thrillers and melodramas. The first book on noir, Panorama du Film Noir Americain by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, was published in France in 1955, but the term would not enter the lexicon for good until the heyday of serious film studies in the late ’60s and ’70s.
Alain Silver’s introduction to our course text, Film Noir Reader, cites one film reviewer’s take on how an emerging style can be mistaken for a new genre:
“Genres are invented by critics. When the first film noir — whatever you might consider that to be — was released, nobody yelled, “Hey, let’s go down to the Bijou! The first film noir is out!” What is at first innovation or anomaly only becomes a genre through repetition and eventual critical classification.”
Noir remains a slippery rubric. Some viewers, like screenwriter and former critic Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), spurn calling noir a genre or a style. To Schrader, noir is a movement, “and therefore restricted in time and place” — namely, to postwar America.
However it’s argued, noir is a fairly pliant style that bleeds into movies that would otherwise be traditional dramas or, in some cases, comedies. (I will demonstrate this in Lesson 5.) The noir influence is palpable: It gives movies a bitter tang. They are tougher, meaner; they leave teeth marks, and they dash hopes for happy endings.
Most critics regard noir as a distinctly American style, like jazz. (And like jazz, it’s a Yankee creation the French adore and emulate. Take a look at Jean-Luc Godard’s raffish New Wave nod to noir chic in Breathless.) Writes Silver:
“The noir cycle has a singular position in the brief history of American motion pictures: a body of films that not only presents a relatively cohesive vision of America but that does so in a manner transcending the influences of auteurism or genre … Film noir is a self-contained reflection of American culture and its preoccupations at a point in time. As such it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.”
Next we’ll take a look at some of the trends in American society and filmmaking that gave birth to film noir.
Summary: Film Noir: What Is It?
“A term coined by French critics to describe a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical pessimistic mood.” (The Film Encyclopedia, Third Edition, by Ephraim Katz).
Lecture 2 – Postwar Disillusionment and Bare-Knuckled Realism
American movies around World War II were, for the most part, celebrations of optimism. They were soft and sanguine, uninterested in rippling the status quo’s nicely ironed surface. During the war, movies fussed with ennobling heroics and feel-good patriotism — emotional propaganda. By war’s end, lavish musicals, soapy melodramas, and treacly romances reigned at the show palaces.
Then, in the mid-1940s, our soldiers came home. What they found was a place altered from how they’d left it. Like those in all fighting countries, American society went through cataclysmic change during the war effort. Women went to work in factories. Cities thrived. With the men away, many homes were broken, becoming war casualties on the domestic front. Wartime was also, notably, the advent of the nuclear age, whose collateral anxiety cannot be downplayed.
War veterans had been through hell and back. The horrors of war introduced a rough-hewn cynicism. These were not always happy individuals. Many noir protagonists are war vets discovering their shaky place in American society. Embittered, alienated, down on their luck, they are often depicted as lost men, shambling in society’s margins as they try to regain their equilibrium.
Art reflects the world at a particular moment in time, and postwar American movies enlisted a new sense of realism, harshly conveying the world as it had become. The peachy view of American life assumed a dimmer complexion, while the social underbelly was scoured with unflinching candor.
“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,” writes Paul Schrader in his seminal essay “Notes on Film Noir” in Film Noir Reader (an incisive chapter you should read by the end of Lesson 2).
Urban crime films weren’t a postwar invention. They thrived before the war in Hollywood’s gangster cycle in the 1930s (Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, You Only Live Once). The public was fascinated with the seedy mirrored reality. Thanks to Prohibition, what was legal and illegal began to blur. Segments of society went underground and the gangster was born. The Great Depression fanned discontent.
Spirit-boosting pictures in the war years eclipsed these gritty crime flicks. But in the postwar era, they returned with a bitter vengeance.
“During the War,” Schrader tells us, “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.” He goes on:
“[The] immediate postwar disillusionment was directly demonstrated in films like Cornered, The Blue Dahlia, Dead Reckoning, and Ride the 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 socity something less than worth fighting for. The war continues, but now the antagonism turns with a new viciousness toward the American society itself.”
This “new viciousness” would manifest itself in some of the toughest and most intricately moody films Hollywood ever made.
Now you have a theoretical and historical understanding of noir’s roots; in the next lesson, we’ll explore the specific visual and thematic characteristics that defined these films. In the meantime, check out the assignment for this lesson. The assigned reading will deepen and expand your understanding and appreciation of noir; the films will give you a chance to apply your newfound insight — plus they’re great examples of noir and just plain fun to watch.
Summary: Crime and (No) Punishment
Despite shared physical trappings — gangsters, guns, the urban jungle — there’s a sharp difference between noir and your standard crime flick from the Hollywood gangster cycle of the 1930s. Sure, many of those movies were gritty and shockingly violent; we still wince at the brutality in Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). But after World War II, a psychological gloom draped the crime picture — a gnawing anxiety, reckless fatalism and rudderless morality. While ’30s scoundrels got their comeuppance with prison or violent death, in noir films bad deeds often went unpunished. Compare the crime world of, say, 1932’s Scarface to that of 1947’s Kiss of Death. You can feel the difference, and it stings.
1. Read the Introduction and Chapter 1, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” in the Film Noir Reader.
2. Watch one or two of the films I mentioned from the 1930s gangster cycle (Howard Hawks’ Scarface, with Paul Muni, and William Wellman’s The Public Enemy, with James Cagney, are personal favorites) and one or two from the noirs. Compare the overall tones of the movies. Pay special attention to:
– The protagonist’s attitude in each film. Is he optimistic and exuberant, or melancholy and fatalistic? Does he get a bang out of life, or is he resigned to it being a corrupt snake pit?
– What is his fate? Does he survive? Get his just desserts? Escape penalty? Shamble off into the miserable darkness?
– Are his problems material or psychological?
Understand the look, style, and themes of film noir.
Lecture 1 – Seeing in Black and White
In the last lesson, we learned about some of the conditions that led to the film noir movement. Now we will look in detail at some of noir’s themes and motifs.
Noir’s favorite time is nighttime. It is stingy with light, dispensing it in odd shafts and eerie splinters. Characters are often queerly lit, and silhouettes loom like the Grim Reaper, in doorways and corners, out of the past.
Since many noirs were cheaply made B pictures, black and white was a no-brainer for filmmakers. But even the classier productions used it, knowing that its chiaroscuro was well suited to the crime and mystery genres because of its power to evoke peril, the unknown, and psychological distress. It also provided an instant visual metaphor: “black and white” equals “bad and good”.
Noir filmmakers took black and white photography to new levels with what’s been called anti-traditional cinematography. Low-key lighting, depth of field, and shooting at night helped create moods on film, forging a subjective visual vocabulary that has made noir perhaps the most visually dynamic film style.
Hollywood filmmakers took their cue from the German Expressionists, who invented a perverse style of lighting and composition on purposely artificial-looking sets. Oddly angled light distributed oblique lines and discombobulating planes — geometric collisions that exerted a claustrophobic, stomach-knotting effect on viewers.
(It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest noir filmmakers were German and Eastern Europea immigrants: directors Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Robert Siodmak and cinematographers John Alton and Karl Freund.)
Noir’s German antecedents include famous Expressionist classics like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Lang’s Dr. Mabuse (1922). The optical legerdemain in these films, like that in so many shadow-streaked noirs, powerfully conveys tension and dread; the inkling that something is terribly wrong always lurks. (No character, notes Paul Schrader in the Film Noir Reader, can speak authoritatively from a space which is being continually cut into ribbons of light.)
Various lighting techniques and audacious compositions — people and things arranged to wring maximum anxiety from a scene — forged an abstract language. The screen became a cubist canvas of harsh lines and discordant planes that threw the audience off balance.
Summary: Learn More
For a deeper understanding of the conventions that permeate and define noir, read the following chapters in Film Noir Reader: “Noir Cinema,” “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir,” “Notes on Film Noir,” “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” and “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.”
Lecture 2 – Great Practioners
John Alton: Painter of Poems
The great cinematographer John Alton helped invent the mannered noir look. Initially working on low-budget B flicks, he flouted conventional rules of lighting out of necessity, conjuring shadowy magic with fewer lamps. He worked on a clutch of noirs with director Anthony Mann, including the classics Raw Deal and T-Men, and captured some of the most reproduced noir images in 1955’s The Big Combo. In his famous book Painting With Light, he writes, “To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following: The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air.”
Orson Welles’ groundbreaking Citizen Kane (which is not, in fact, a noir) stands as a virtual compendium of noir visual motifs. The dramatic deep focus, wide angles, almost religious lighting, use of physical barriers and the unconventional placement of characters in a shot (not to mention the extremely noirish flashback device) are all there.
Here are some other key visual motifs of film noir:
– The city — the asphalt jungle. Its labyrinthine layout is an incubator for urban angst, alienation, and claustrophobia. It’s where crime nests and no one rests.
– Venetian blinds and other devices that chop up light, casting ominous and freighted shadows.
– Tilted and/or extremely low photographic angles to generate tension and feelings of unease.
– Fog, urban steam, cigarette smoke. Watch how smoky tendrils dance and curl in shafts of white light. It imparts a sense of mystery, and it looks incredibly cool.
– Bars, usually prison bars, serve as visual shorthand for entrapment and separation.
– “Jostled chronology and intricate flashbacks, frequently used to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time,” Schrader writes. These are effective devices that disorient viewers and allow us to share with the protagonist the dizzying sensation of descending a downward spiral. Out of the Past, The Killers, The Killing, and Mildred Pierce are a few classic noirs that employ jumbled time frames, as do Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern noirs Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. “Expect anything,” they warn us.
Next we’ll look at some of the themes that pervade film noir.
Summary: Voice-Over Narration
Voice-over narration, fired in hard-boiled staccato by noir antiheroes, is a tried and true convention of noir and it’s been ripe for parody since the start. Laying down brittle, jazzy rhythms, these monologues are valuable tour guides through Byzantine pulp plots. They escort us through flashbacks, tell us who’s who, and illuminate the speaker’s gloomy interior life. Sometimes a narrator speaks from the grave, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (a trick repeated in 1999’s suburban noir American Beauty). Some classic noirs with narration are Detour, Force of Evil, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Naked City, and Out of the Past. Why can’t Citizen Kane be defined as a noir film? Head to the message board to talk it over.
Lecture 3 – Angst, Ma’am: Themes That Haunt Noir
“Great noir poses the question: ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me?’ And the very dark answer that it provides is: for no reason. For no reason at all.” — documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
S*** happens. That’s noir in a bruised and cracked nutshell. So let’s get right to the oft-belabored point. The themes snaking through film noir are alienation, anxiety, obsession, loneliness, despair, self-preservation in a cold and meaningless world, greed, hopelessness, and a romantic devotion to fatalism.
Noir titles say it all. Skim this quickly culled list, and noir’s hidebound themes will flicker before you:
Where the Sidewalk Ends. Raw Deal. The Big Sleep. Force of Evil. Touch of Evil. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Brute Force. Gun Crazy. Kiss Me Deadly. Farewell, My Lovely. In a Lonely Place. Dark Passage. Narrow Margin. The Killers. Fallen Angel. Cry of the City. Murder My Sweet. Nobody Lives Forever. Act of Violence. Kiss of Death. DOA. On Dangerous Ground. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
We can make this complicated and academic, but what’s the point? Critics try all the time, and I don’t knock their efforts. Putting the abstract down on paper aids understanding. But it’s the application that counts. A noir’s themes seep into your bones. Again, it’s a feeling, a sensation. Noir, as you’ve learned, is so inextricably entwined in feeling and flavor that theory tends to fail us in apprehending its thematic sources.
Alain Silver, in his introduction to the Film Noir Reader, acknowledges that in film, the dilemma is that narrative is usually explicit and style is usually not. (Italics mine.)
He offers this digestible chart, which assign(s) critical allegiances to noir figures:
Alienated characters = Existentialism
Obsessed characters = Freudianism
Proletariat characters = Marxism
Femme fatales = Feminism
Are you still awake? Hello? That eye-glazing chart could be applied to scores of movies, so it’s almost meaningless. Critics are expert at vetting the interesting until it becomes boring.
Instead of focusing on theory, let’s look at the social and historical context in which noir was created.
Lecture 4 – The Inner World and the Antihero
The Birth of Pop Psychology
First, noir arrived right around the time modern psychology was sweeping America. Freudian psychoanalysis was hot stuff, both for the intelligentsia and the armchair brigade. Psychology seeped into mainstream entertainment — for example, in Hitchcock’s deeply (almost comically) Freudian thriller Spellbound (1945), which featured a psychiatrist and a florid dream sequence.
Noir, too, is interested in what’s going on in the collective psyche, particularly the diseased and troubled psyche. The films are rife with psychosis and pathology, most often in the form of demented killers whose moral compasses long ago dropped out of their pockets and onto the subway tracks.
Existentialism, a philosophical gift from the French, caught fire in mid-century America. This radical, ostensibly nihilistic school of thought plumbed the darker side of the soul, finding no real meaning in life as it dismantled bourgeois notions of morality.
Life is cold, cruel, and meaningless, said the existentialists. They proclaimed people utterly free to engineer their own moral codes and purpose in order to make our absurd existence bearable until we die. (For an excellent, in-depth look of its application in noir, read the chapter “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” in the Film Noir Reader. )
Noir was romantically allied with this idea, transfixed by the ineffable, unsympathetic role of Fate. So in noir we see lost men and women, gnawed by cynicism and pessimism, their hopes and dreams laid waste by society, by themselves. That’s life, folks. Enjoy!
But, of course, they didn’t enjoy. Not much, anyway. A changing society placed people in thorny struggles. The antiheroes of noir frequently found themselves ensnared in the classic Sisyphean conundrum: the more you fix things the worse they get.
The private detective, noir’s favorite antihero, embodies this ethos. Note the raw cynicism and alienated sense of self-preservation consuming Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. You can also see it in two versions of detective Philip Marlowe: Bogart’s in The Big Sleep and Dick Powell’s in Murder, My Sweet.
Another prime example of this is the snowballing predicament of Al Roberts, the doomed protagonist in the unrepentant 1945 noir Detour. He’s just an innocent, brokenhearted guy who hitches a ride. Before he knows it, he’s a murder suspect and a malicious vixen is blackmailing him. He’s walled in and can’t budge. Things only get worse — devastatingly worse.
Poor Al’s final slumping words, spoken in vintage voice-over, could be noir’s epigram: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”
The overused term “Kafkaesque” comes into play, too. Unjustly trapped, noir figures regularly became fall guys, their descents into hell paved with miles of bum luck, jeopardy, error, and confusion — all of it sticky as hot tar.
Tough stuff, to be sure. But the movies stave off viewer despondency with their sheer crackling style. We are braced and entertained by the way noir packages its dark stories — by the snappy dialogue, by the narrative thrills and tense action, by the visual richness, and not least of all, by the riveting characters who populate noir’s topsy-turvy world.
In the next lesson, you’ll meet a variety of these people.
Summary – Additional Reading
A good overview of our subject can be found in the chapter entitled simply “Noir Cinema,” in the Film Noir Reader. For a more in-depth look, see these books: The Noir Style by our primary text’s authors, Alain Silver and James Ursini; Detours & Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir by Foster Hirsch; and Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.
1. Watch one of the cited German expressionist films. Write down the visual motifs you think film noir borrowed. Then watch a noir such as Double Indemnity, Laura, Out of the Past, or The Killers and note the visual similarities. Be specific.
2. Optional: Watch Citizen Kane and write down all of the noirish techniques used, such as arty lighting, odd camera angles, deep-focus and the other characteristics we discussed.
3. Read these Chapters in Film Noir Reader: “Noir Cinema,” “Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir,” “Notes on Film Noir,” “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.”
4. Just for fun, watch one of the noirs shot by cinematographer John Alton and take mental note of his innovative lighting tricks. To find one, search for John Alton in the Internet Movie Database.
Meet the men and women who embody noir style.
Lesson 1 – Detectives, Reporters, and the Existential Antihero
Previously, we explored the motifs and themes of film noir. In this lesson, we’ll meet some of noirs main character types: the antihero, the femme fatale, and the psychopath.
“There can be no Noble Causes in quintessential noir, nor pure heroic characters. Life is lived in vintage noir within the margins of moral choice, and protagonists live on the edge and often plunge into the abyss.” –Andrew Sarris, film critic.
Melancholy, torn, lonely but steel-plated, defensive yet vulnerable, plagued by angst, soul-probing soliloquies looping through his clouded mind — the quintessential noir protagonist is Hamlet in a fedora and trench coat. He smokes, and he packs heat. He is commonly a private detective on the trail of trouble, looking for the end and hoping it’s not a dead one. Of course, death doesn’t frighten him — at least not his own.
Like Hamlet, he’s an existential hero — an antihero — stoic and alone, tinged with danger and able to put his conscience on hold to commit whatever deed is bidden. He’ll kill when he must. But don’t expect him to be happy about it. A shot of bourbon helps to wash it down.
Sometimes called the Hemingway hero, the detective (like similar noir antiheroes) is laconic and curt. He speaks like he’s spitting nails. He displays a misogynist streak, though perhaps women shouldn’t take it personally. He’s more likely an incurable misanthrope: he don’t like nobody.
He’s a wounded soul. His eyes are weary portals of loss. Once, in the past, he was hurt. Now he walks alone, nursing a bottle of 100-proof romantic fatalism.
He’s a rock, hard-boiled. He can’t be seduced, corrupted, penetrated. He’s rigid in body, mind, and heart. He’s unmoved by tears, love, or money.
He wants to know one thing: What’s in it for him?
The inevitable answer: A wad of trouble.
In the amoral province of noir, the antihero stands somewhere in the middle, between the dame seeking help and refuge (who may just as swiftly turn on him) and the baying miscreants who keep him on the defensive.
You can see the type in many, many film noirs. Where to begin? Take a look at Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key, and This Gun for Hire; Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past; or Dana Andrews in Laura (although this tough nut succumbs to the allures of a woman’s painted image, of all things).
No one personifies the amoral antihero like Humphrey Bogart. His definitive depictions of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep remain iconic and untouchable.
A later and much nastier version of the antihero is Ralph Meeker’s private eye Mike Hammer in what is certainly the most uncompromising noir, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.
Every antihero needs a dame, and next I’ll introduce you to some of noir’s most notorious.
Summary – Reporters: Detectives with Dictionaries
Scrounging for dirt, raking muck and just trying to figure out this crazy world — that’s always been the role of the newspaper reporter. He pops up again and again in noir, the ink-stained ambassador of the period’s primary media source. Sometimes the reporter assumes the detective’s role, sniffing out leads, as in Call Northside 777 or Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps. Other times he’s a cutthroat opportunist, as dangerous as an underworld thug: Burt Lancaster’s rapacious society columnist in Sweet Smell of Success is a pungent creation that gives the Fourth Estate a foul odor.
Lecture 2 – Femme Fatales and Black Widows
“She liked me. I could feel that. The way you feel when the cards are falling right for you, with a nice little pile of blue and yellow chips in the middle of the table. Only what I didn’t know then was that I wasn’t playing her. She was playing me, with a deck of marked cards, and the stakes weren’t any blue and yellow chips. They were dynamite.” — Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity.
Femme fatale is, of course, French for “fatal woman.” An easy contemporary reference point for the femme fatale is Glenn Close in 1987’s Fatal Attraction: sexy and seductive — and deadly as a viper.
Hitting Bottom and Liking It
The femme fatale is as iconic a noir figure as the antihero. Indeed, theirs is a symbiotic relationship, if not a very healthy one. We’d like to think that most couples, when they’ve hit a rough patch, either separate, break up, or talk it out. Noir’s tough customers often pull out guns and get done with it. Sometimes their honeymoon’s at the morgue.
But heartache isn’t the fatale’s game; that’s kid stuff. She usually knows exactly what she’s doing, never surrendering herself headlong to a man but beckoning him just close enough to spin a web of deceit and appearances. She’ll get what she wants, good manners be damned.
Traditionally, the fatale materializes in the life of the antihero, who’s minding his own business. Her sexual enticements are deployed like secret weapons. Often while she’s snaring the man she has a boyfriend or husband waiting at home. Occasionally she and the hero conspire to bilk and murder the husband, as happens in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), a feverish case of fatal attraction between Lana Turner and John Garfield.
Sometimes she’s the gangster’s disaffected moll. But always she’s a mirage, a lovely, sexually pulsating smoke screen for misdeeds. She’s the devil escorting the man to hell. The antihero, despite knowing better, usually takes the bait; it’s his one weak spot, the chance to be loved. As Robert Mitchum says about femme fatale Jane Greer in Out of the Past, “It was the bottom of the barrel and I scraped it. But I didn’t care, I had her.”
The fatale coils around him, becoming the object of star-crossed obsession. Things proceed in this order: love, betrayal, murder.
Summary – Femme Fatale
Marie Windsor: Dish or Book?
“What kind of a dish was she? The sixty-cent special: cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.” — Charles McGraw describing Windsor’s character in The Narrow Margin (1952).
“I know you like a book, ya little tramp. You’d sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge. But you’re smart with it. Smart enough to know when to sell and when to sit tight. You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.” — Sterling Hayden, on Windsor’s character in The Killing (1956).
Lecture 3 – Power Players
If the fatale sounds like the tawdry fantasy of a bored male screenwriter — a dominatrix with a pistol — think again. She is an empowered figure, an emblem of women’s new place in American postwar society. Some critics reason she’s a significant upgrade from the way Hollywood tended to draw women, as Karen Hollinger posits in Film Noir Reader:
“Female characters in classical Hollywood films are traditionally portrayed as weak, ineffectual figures safely placed in the fixed roles of wives, mothers, or daughters and desperately in need of the male hero’s affection and protection. Film noirs release the female image from these fixed roles and grant it overwhelming visual power. The iconography of the femme fatale grants these beautiful, provocative women visual primacy through shot composition as well as camera positioning, movement and lighting.”
The best femme fatale can hold her own with men, thrusting with a serrated tongue sharpened on the man’s frail ego. Exchanges become quick-witted, quicksilver repartee, and, when supported by a great script, bracing feats of verbal dexterity. Noir offers few tart rallies as dynamic as those between Barbara Stanwyck’s fatale and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.
The fatale wields a hard beauty. Most of the time she is classically thin. She has long hair and wears tight clothes. Her smoking habit signifies loose morals. She can be vulgar, vicious, and sweet as vinegar. Look for these characteristics in some of noir’s most memorable femme fatales:
– Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), whose elaborate deceit riles Sam Spade. It’s telling that the first film version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, in 1931, was at one point called Dangerous Female.
– Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When she savagely turns on private dick Mike Hammer, the results are literally explosive.
– Claire Trevor in Murder My Sweet (1944). She juggles dual identities to con Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe. The title gives a hint of the kind of pillow talk these folks engage in.
– Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948). In the former, Hayworth is a taunting but married strumpet, cruelly toying with Glenn Ford’s heart. She’s the fatale as sex goddess. In the latter, she’s a scheming villainess.
– Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1949), the explosive, semi-psychotic half of a married couple-in-crime. The film was originally titled Deadly is the Female, but its present title is just as fitting.
– Ann Savage in Detour (1946), the supreme femme fatale. She’s a foul and manipulative harpy, whose blackmailing of a poor fellow down on his luck amounts to a kind of torture.
– Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), noir’s creepiest fatale. She’s a faded and delusional movie star who keeps a young screenwriter virtual hostage in a baroque gothic mansion that’s more tomb than home.
Next, we’ll look at some of the unpredictable and remorseless killers who populate many noirs.
Summary – Want More?
For an in-depth look at the femme fatale in noir, read “Film Noir,” “Voice-Over,” and “The Femme Fatale” in Film Noir Reader and “Deadly is the Female” in The Noir Style.
Lecture 4 – Psychopaths and Cold-Blooded Killers
This bunch — the sadistic loose canons and indiscriminate exterminators — comprises a smaller but no less important species in noir’s asphalt jungle.
The psychopath is easily distinguished. He’s defined entirely by his horrendous actions rather than his thoughts and outlook (like the antihero) or shrewd machinations (like the fatale). He’s a doer who’s restless when not giving full vent to the molten hate seething inside. Blind fury propels him.
There aren’t many convincing theories to explain the psycho-sadist. Psychology doesn’t work well on them, unless of course we’re discussing James Cagney’s Oedipal thug in White Heat, in which the psycho is the main character.
The following movies, some of them not only noir gems but chilling cinematic classics, place the psycho at center stage.
– The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949). In both, James Cagney plays the foaming-at-the-mouth megalomaniac on a fiery path of self-destruction. In The Public Enemy, his rising prohibition-era gangster even loses it at the breakfast table: smashing a sliced grapefruit into your honey’s face is no way to start the day. Cagney, that teeth-gritting, knuckle-cracking fireplug, also created Hollywood’s definitive cracked criminal in White Heat. His fugitive killer suffers from an acute Oedipal complex, in which Ma is the recipient of wanton doting. He consummates this forbidden love by going up in an orgasmic (and suicidal) mushroom cloud, screaming the immortal line, “Top of the world, Ma!”
– Kiss of Death (1947). Victor Mature’s canary is being shadowed by reptilian nutcase Tommy Udo, indelibly played by Richard Widmark in his film debut. Widmark was so effective deploying gleeful, cackling sadism that he had some trouble shaking the character in future roles. His most famous scene, as well as one of noir’s, comes when he pushes a wheelchair-bound old woman down a flight of stairs. His hyena laugh out-pierces her screams.
– Strangers on a Train (1951). Robert Walker’s disease-minded killer is fey and seductively suave in this thriller, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Meeting innocent tennis player Farley Granger on a train ride, Walker proposes that they trade murders: He’ll kill Granger’s wife if Granger will kill his rich father. Before Granger knows it, the plan is halfway done. Walker is eminently unctuous as the amoral dandy.
– The Big Heat (1953) and Raw Deal (1948). Both films showcase gangster thugs who like to demonstrate their psychosis by terrorizing women. In Big Heat, gangster Lee Marvin splashes scalding coffee on the face of moll Gloria Grahame. She wears bandages over half her face for much of the film. Raymond Burr’s sadist in Raw Deal nonchalantly sets a woman on fire during a dinner party.
Now that you’ve met some of the characters that loom large in film noir, the next lesson will feature a few of the key performers who made these archetypes come to life on screen. You’ll also learn what the cornerstone noirs are and why they are representative, and meet a few of the most noirish directors.
Summary – The Psycho in Film Noir
Psychos are fun to watch because they scare us the most. Noir is packed with them, though often they are marginal characters whose temperamental detonations occur only to spur the protagonist into action.
1. Read Chapter 3, “Deadly is the Female,” in The Noir Style.
2. Read the Chapter “Film Noir, Voice-over, and the Femme Fatale” in Film Noir Reader.
3. Watch some of the movies cited in the lesson that feature the detective antihero, femme fatale, and psychopath, such as The Maltese Falcon, This Gun for Hire, Detour, Gun Crazy, Gilda, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, White Heat, or Kiss of Death.
Take a look at some of the most memorable noir movies and essential noir filmmakers.
Lesson 1 – Five Key Film Noirs
In the last lesson, we looked at noir’s essential character types. Now we’ll meet some of the actors and actresses who played these roles in the classic noir era. We’ll also cover some of noir’s key films and filmmakers.
What constitutes a USDA, pure-to-its-black-heart noir depends on your requisites for dark cinema. The noir style, as I suggested in Lesson 1, is fairly elastic and able to bend to the contours of many genres (including, believe it or not, the Western, as in the Raoul Walsh thriller Pursued, starring great noir boulder Robert Mitchum as a cowboy antihero).
You may be surprised that newspaper noirs, such as Sweet Smell of Success and Ace in the Hole, are noirs at all, as they are unconcerned with thieves, killers, and fatal women. You may find the noir qualities of domestic, women-driven melodramas like Mildred Pierce and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers singularly evasive. And how in the world does the bleak boxing drama The Set-Up punch its way into the noir ring?
Remember, noir isn’t defined by guns and gangsters or molls and mugs. Noir’s all about the human capacity for rotten, unalloyed evil and the forbidden impulses of the collective id. It’s about the unspeakable things we do or want to do, driven by lust, greed, paranoia and malignant monomania. Betrayal, deceit, infidelity, opportunism — these are the lullabies of noir. Film noir is the Seven Deadly Sins, tightly packed and topped with a celluloid bow.
Listing the “definitive noirs” is not easy, for the reasons stated above and because there are so many deliciously dead-on films to choose from. But over time, writers, fans, and critics have gravitated to a handful of what, after much sifting, repeatedly emerge as absolute noirs. These enduring films stand as noir monuments, 90-minute encyclopedias of noir style, bristling with the movement’s numerous tropes and traits.
Out of a bucketful of favorites, I have plucked five movies that exemplify the nuts and bolts of noir. Rent these movies; they provide a crash course in our subject:
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Almost too famous for its own good, this tautly efficient mystery heralds the birth of the movement. Humphrey Bogart’s inimitable Sam Spade is the iconic private detective sucked into a femme fatale’s vortex of deceit. Based on the Dashiell Hammett novel and brilliantly directed by John Huston, this was the blueprint for a million clichés: the office door with the private eye’s name stenciled on the glass; the hard-boiled, no-nonsense dick, whose emotions run the gamut from phlegmatic fierceness to stone-faced fluster; the dangerous dame (Mary Astor) who comes for help but already has things fixed … her way; the futile search for a glorified MacGuffin, in this case a dumb bird statuette, which, sniffs Spade, is “the stuff dreams are made of.” With its snappy dialogue, panting pace, vivid characters, and dark twist ending, Falcon minted the noir template, and became a Hollywood classic.
Double Indemnity (1944)
If The Maltese Falcon introduced the early noir at its best, Double Indemnity took it to the next nasty degree. This is the prototypical ’40s noir, marinated in themes of greed, betrayal, murder and dead-end morality. Not only immensely entertaining, the movie is an inventory of noir tics that influenced every noir in its wake. Director Billy Wilder adapted James M. Cain’s novel with that other great thrill-spinner Raymond Chandler, and the result is positively pungent. A pre-My Three Sons Fred MacMurray (believe me, the accountant-bland actor can play bad and bitter) is an insurance agent who conspires with ennui-bitten blonde Barbara Stanwyck to knock off her husband and cash in his insurance claims. The lovers’ plan is executed. So is the hubby. But things soon go very badly, as cigar-gnawing Edward G. Robinson gets wise to them. Watch how quickly passion curdles in a clammy climate of culpability. Rapier dialogue graces this five-star classic: MacMurray and Stanwyck turn their clipped repartee into shrapnel.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
A stomach-knotter of tension propelled by the edicts of Murphy’s Law. This one, too, is stuffed with noir elements, including the star-crossed affair, the fiery femme fatale, the adrift antihero thrashed about in fate’s inexorable spin cycle, fatal attraction, murder, greed, backstabbing — you know the drill. The brutal sexuality of James M. Cain’s gritty novel is of course muzzled here (though reinstated in the 1981 remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson), but John Garfield and platinum blonde Lana Turner manage to boil their passions enough to steam the lens. Echoing the premise of Double Indemnity, the story follows Garfield as he blows into a diner where Turner works. Lust at first ogle hurtles them into a scheme to kill Turner’s rich husband for his dough. But the addled duo botches things big-time. Love keeps them strong, until fate grows weary of them. Tay Garnett crisply directs this essential downer.
Out of the Past (1947)
Director Jacques Tourneur, known for visionary low-budget horror pictures like Cat People, elucidates this convoluted but richly satisfying thriller. The story twists and lurches on the jerky rhythms of jumbled chronology and flashbacks, those classic noir devices, but Robert Mitchum’s smoky voice-over, muttered in a world-weary monotone, guides us through the melodramatic morass. Mitchum became a star as the private detective (what else?) who gets entangled with his client’s (Kirk Douglas) temptress girlfriend (Jane Greer). The past truly comes back to haunt our basset-eyed antihero, until Fate gives him a swift kick in the groin. Naturally. Yet another noir whose verbal pyrotechnics scorch the screen.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Breathtakingly brutal, sardonic, funny, and as violent as you could get in genteel 1955, Kiss Me Deadly was light years ahead of its time. Directed by Robert Aldrich with trenchant wit and whiplash velocity, the brazen and bizarre film is a masterpiece of flashy cinematic style, all crazy camera angles, vertiginous effects and innovative use of sound. Ralph Meeker’s self-absorbed detective Mike Hammer is as hard, durable and deadly as his name. When a woman is murdered, Hammer pounds his way through the mystery only to land plop into a nuclear conspiracy, tapping the very real anxieties of the movie’s time. No one gets off easy here, and Aldrich depicts murder and torture to chilling effect. Note the mysterious glowing suitcase, which Quentin Tarantino would borrow 39 years later for Pulp Fiction. This hurly-burly noir was a prime influence on the French New Wave.
Those are some terrific movies, but whatever you do, don’t stop there. Great noirs come in all virulent varieties and fetid flavors, and it’s a good idea to surf the full sweep. So here are 15 more gems from the noir pantheon, exemplars of the form worth your time (listed in chronological order):
– High Sierra (1941), with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino; directed by Raoul Walsh
– Laura (1944), with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews; directed by Otto Preminger
– Mildred Pierce (1945), with Joan Crawford; directed by Michael Curtiz
– The Killers (1946), with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner; directed by Robert Siodmak
– The Big Sleep (1946), with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; directed by Howard Hawks
– Force of Evil (1948), with John Garfield; directed by Abraham Polonsky
– The Naked City (1948), with Barry Fitzgerald; directed by Jules Dassin
– The Third Man (1949), with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten; directed by Carol Reed
– They Live by Night (1949), with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell; directed by Nicholas Ray
– The Asphalt Jungle (1950), with Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern; directed by John Huston
– Sunset Boulevard (1950), with William Holden and Gloria Swanson; directed by Billy Wilder
– The Big Heat (1953), with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame; directed by Fritz Lang
– Pickup on South Street (1953), with Richard Widmark; directed by Sam Fuller
– The Killing (1956), with Sterling Hayden and Marie Windsor; directed by Stanley Kubrick
– Sweet Smell of Success (1957), with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis; directed by Alexander MacKendrick
Summary – A Dirty, Lowdown Detour
Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1946 cult classic, is noir in extremis, the black pit of black film. This raw, shoestring B film was shot in six days but leaves a metallic tang in your mouth for a lifetime. It’s an outstanding example of down and dirty noir, made with independent grit. And it’s terrific filmmaking. Told in flashback and voice-over, our sad-sack antihero (Tom Neal) is trapped in a blackmail scheme by possibly the meanest, shrillest femme fatale ever unleashed, an acid-spitting nightmare who never cuts him a break played by Ann Savage. A must-see.
Lecture 2 – Six Actors and Actresses Who Made Noir Cool
If you think of noir as a style, consider the performers who give it flesh as the runway models who slip it on like skin and make it look, sound, and move great. Actors, of course, are much more than human coat hangers, and the best of them bring their own textures, vibes, and personality to the fold, going beyond cogs in the machine to become integral parts of the experience.
Some actors and actresses fit the noir style better than others. Perhaps, like Robert Mitchum, they were born with the world-weary mug that’s at once baggy with sadness and tough as granite. Or, like Barbara Stanwyck, they could switch from desperate and lonely to foxy in the amount of time it takes to fire a bullet.
Take a look at the following performers — three actors and three actresses — who suit the world of noir as well as Jim Carrey suits loopy comedy.
– Humphrey Bogart. That brooding hangdog face, the cocky stance, the rapid, dryly sardonic delivery … in his best period, Bogart became indivisible from the self-caricature called “Bogey,” a dark, fatally cool figure, with a fedora and a smoke permanently dangling from a thick, wet lip. (“How can a man so ugly be so handsome?” a character asks of him in a late film.) That icon was worshipped in the 1960s, thanks partly to Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave homage to Bogey and film noir. The actor busted into noir — and Hollywood fame — in 1941, with High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. In High Sierra, he plays Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, a wizened gangster on the lam from the cops after a botched job. He’s a tough, self-destructive loner, whose tender heart goes after the wrong girl. In The Maltese Falcon, he makes the mold for the skeptical private detective armored by hidebound cynicism and a loaded gun. He’s also superb, and quite funny, as the acerbic Philip Marlowe, a man of brutal horse sense, in The Big Sleep, and heartbreakingly fatalistic in In a Lonely Place, in which his hard veneer softens with doomed vulnerability. He could play the romantic hero (To Have and Have Not, Key Largo) and the dangerous thug (The Petrified Forest, The Desperate Hours) with equal aplomb. Flinty and ruthless, jaded and inconsolable, Bogart remains the preeminent noir figure.
Key noirs: The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, Dark Passage, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, In a Lonely Place, The Desperate Hours.
– Robert Mitchum. The quintessential unflappable tough guy, Mitchum could project unsmiling menace and deep-seated indifference simultaneously, making him the consummate noir antihero. He was a lumbering oak of a man, frequently wearing trench coat and fedora (see his best noir, Out of the Past), those heavy, half-mast eyes about to shut from weariness. Mitchum had a natural off-screen ruggedness that he brought to film. His acting was almost undetectable, rumpled and light as a paper sack. In noir, he was the personification of the loner — sad, with a malicious undertow. Meanwhile, his villains in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear were the very face of menace.
Key noirs: Out of the Past, The Racket, Angel Face, The Big Steal, Crossfire, The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, Farewell, My Lovely.
– Burt Lancaster. He was a barrel-chested beauty who caromed nimbly from resigned victim (The Killers) to monstrous brute (Sweet Smell of Success). The onetime acrobat’s athletic physique sometimes belied a sensitive layer, a layer that showed through in all his roles except his most demonic, that of newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. Lancaster glimmered with the vigor of the true Hollywood star; he was one of the genuine acting talents who lent noir vitality and legitimacy.
Key noirs: Brute Force, The Killers, Criss-Cross, Sorry, Wrong Number, Sweet Smell of Success.
– Barbara Stanwyck. This sophisticated actress makes the list by the sheer force of her “glittering Medusa” in Double Indemnity. She was aggressive and sardonically funny in that film (as well as in such classic comedies as Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire and Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve), and she seduced viewers with her sluttiness as agilely as she did Fred MacMurray’s addled sap. Her image was the steely dame, but she persuasively falls apart as the invalid menaced by Burt Lancaster in the grim Sorry, Wrong Number.
Key noirs: Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong Number.
– Lauren Bacall. I leave this description in the able hands of legendary film critic James Agee, who wrote after seeing her in the semi-noir To Have and Have Not (1945): “[She] has cinema personality to burn…. She has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness, and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” (It’s also worth noting Bacall’s facility at matching husband and frequent co-star Humphrey Bogart in wit and grit.)
Key noirs: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo.
– Ida Lupino. She was a hard-cooked looker, pretty and mean. Despite her prickly carapace, she got the men, and they could almost fall into those globe-sized eyes. The British Lupino had heart, too. She was the pleading moll in High Sierra, begging Bogart to surrender and save himself. In They Drive By Night (like High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh and co-starring Bogart) she was the crazed femme fatale who killed her husband to get her man. Lupino went on to direct a passel of B dramas, including her own 1953 film noir, The Hitchhiker, a factual drama about a psychotic killer.
Key noirs: High Sierra, They Drive By Night, Road House, Beware My Lovely, On Dangerous Ground, While the City Sleeps, The Big Knife.
Summary – Other Defining Noir Performers
Actors: John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Force of Evil); Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, Pick-up on South Street); Alan Ladd (This Gun for Hire, The Blue Dahlia); Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing).
Actresses: Veronica Lake (This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia); Marie Windsor (Force of Evil, The Narrow Margin, The Killing); Rita Hayworth (Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai) Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, Crossfire, In a Lonely Place, Sudden Fear, Human Desire).
Lecture 3 – Four Directors: Lang, Preminger, Mann, and Wilder
Now we’ll look at some of the creators — the princes of darkness behind noir’s coolly observant camera. These are the filmmakers whose dark sensibilities and darker palettes fashioned some of the style’s paramount titles. These guys were so good, they could genre-hop with ease, making some of Hollywood’s best Westerns and comedies, as well.
– Fritz Lang. Lang began in silent-era Germany, conjuring eerie visions of the urban cityscape as oppressive concrete thickets fraught with peril. His Dr. Mabuse films of 1922 anticipated the governing themes and moods of noir. M, his chilling 1931 masterpiece, which follows Peter Lorre’s psychotic child killer to his doom, revealed the director’s mastery of unbearable suspense and implied violence. In his best Hollywood noirs — The Big Heat, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street — Lang creates nightmarish worlds in which the protagonist finds himself a modern Everyman, trapped, dazed, and unfairly persecuted. Critic Andrew Sarris credits Lang with practically inventing film noir.
Key noirs: The Big Heat, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Ministry of Fear, Human Desire, While the City Sleeps.
– Otto Preminger. A first-class entertainer known for the stubborn objectivity of his camera, Preminger’s most popular noir is certainly Laura. The 1944 drama is famous for its theme tune and won an Oscar for cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. But the gripping mystery at its core is what keeps us going back, and what makes it a noir essential. Dana Andrews is the detective investigating Laura’s death, only to fall in love with her painting, making it a perilously personal quest. Preminger revisited the femme fatale in the critics’ favorite Angel Face, in which Jean Simmons plays a black widow who snuffs the men who love her. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, Andrews plays a cop seeking the “murderer” of the man he himself killed. Pure noir.
Key noirs: Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face, Fallen Angel.
– Anthony Mann. Today best known for his series of stalwart Westerns, including Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur, Mann emerged in the 1940s with a handful of B noirs that are as hard and streamlined as bullets. Plotted with quicksilver efficiency, films like T-Men and Raw Deal soaked in the city’s neon and smoke and quivered with sweaty danger. They owe much of their evocative oomph to John Alton’s densely shaded, hauntingly lighted cinematography — legendary camerawork that still mesmerizes.
Key noirs: Desperate, T-Men, Raw Deal.
– Billy Wilder. Wilder’s infamous cynicism was a solid asset to his masterful film noirs, which are not only some of the best of their kind, but some of the most flat-out entertaining, deftly written, and humanly complex movies we have. The films, which he invariably co-wrote, are streaked with his duly noted vulgarity, gentle misanthropy, and the darkest of comedy. He restlessly hopscotched genres, marking them with his bitter scent, turning even a melodrama about a hopeless alcoholic into something of a classic noir.
Key noirs: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole.
Now you know some of the essential noir films, filmmakers, and stars. In the next lesson, we’ll look at noir’s epitaph film. We’ll also see how the movement became a genre of sorts, and examine some modern noirs.
Summary – More on Mann
To learn more about the great director of such films as Desperate, T-Men, and Raw Deal, see pages 189-202 in the Film Noir Reader.
More Great Noir Directors
Raoul Walsh (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, They Drive By Night, Pursued, White Heat)
John Huston (Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo; co-wrote High Sierra, The Killers)
Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City)
Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground)
Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?)
Sam Fuller (Pick-Up on South Street, Underworld USA, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor).
1. Read the Chapters “At the Margins of Film Noir: Preminger’s Angel Face,” “Mann in the Dark: the Films Noir of Anthony Mann,” and “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style” in Film Noir Reader.
2. Watch this lesson’s “Five Key Film Noirs” and consider what elements make them definitive. Consider how noir evolved between 1941 and 1955.
3. Choose a director from “Four Key Directors,” watch a few of his films, and note any consistencies of style, or directorial calling cards, in the films.
After a brief silence in the 1960s, noir is reborn with a modern edge.
Lecture 1 – Fade Out: Touch of Evil, Noir’s Epitaph
By now, you might be all noired out. In the previous four lessons, I’ve foisted unvarnished angst, murder, and sadism your way. Many people have suffered, many hopes and dreams have been flushed like so much crumpled tissue down the existential sewer.
Don’t blame me. Blame film noir, with its insidious capacity to rattle, to get under the skin and bite.
If any filmmaker in Hollywood’s golden age could rattle, could make us shift and seesaw in our seats with his intelligence and panache, it’s Orson Welles. Give him a noir tale and he’s in heaven — and we, appropriately, are in hell.
Welles’ ornate, borderline garish aesthetic was perfectly wedded to noir. As I discussed in Lesson 2, his dizzying masterpiece Citizen Kane stands as a dazzling textbook of noir visual style — the canted angles, extreme floor and ceiling shots, chiaroscuro, deep focus, flashback montage. It’s all there.
Nearly all of Welles’ films bear the visual filigrees of the gothic baroque. Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, and that deep-dyed noir The Lady from Shanghai (the shoot-out in the funhouse of mirrors!) fairly clank and groan with Welles’ imposing ornamentation.
He did this for good reason. An intuitive storyteller, Welles’ visual abundance always had function, as it did in the best film noirs. It teased out psychological subtext, illustrating with shadow and skewed camera angles the intangible anguish of the characters’ heart and soul. If the camera was badly tilted, you had a pretty good idea of a character’s moral equilibrium.
Welles’ last fully realized movie was 1958’s Touch of Evil. Now that you’ve seen many of the great noirs, and you can recognize the subtexts and textures, visual signatures and accouterments of the style, watching Touch of Evil will be like watching all of those movies rolled into one.
In Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, author Foster Hirsch smartly calls Touch of Evil “the film noir that knows too much about film noir.” In other words, it appeared so far into noir’s run that it couldn’t help being a gleefully self-conscious, meticulously comprehensive monument to the form.
Take the very first shot in the film, one of the most celebrated tracking shots in movie history. It starts with a close-up of a time bomb, pulls back, swooning skyward. It ends two and a half minutes later with the bomb exploding. The shot screams for attention to its own bravado, and is bracing in its ambition.
This was late noir style, a flashier ’50s brio also evidenced in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
But Touch of Evil outdid all others. Welles slathered on oppressive ambiance with oblique angles, unsettling close-ups, blinking neon, sweat-steeped characters, and disjointed sound montage. The movie is a full-flowered nod to German Expressionism in all its diagonal fever-dream weirdness. (Russell Metty did the cinematography.)
Touch of Evil is, of course, thematically rich as well. It presents a dank, nightmarish world of corruption, power abuse, and bullying of the innocent.
A grotesquely roly-poly Welles plays Hank Quinlan, a corrupt cop trolling a seedy Mexican border town. His M.O. is to frame suspects and land convictions. Charlton Heston is a straight-arrow Mexican narcotics agent who smells the stink of police malfeasance. When he tries to expose the tyrannical Quinlan, his wife, Janet Leigh, is harassed and molested, and violence is unleashed.
Stark and dark as can be, Touch of Evil is audacious in its perversity (check out the gang-rape scene with lesbian undertones) and sadistically violent. Some scenes howl with dementia and debasement. They are hard on the eyes, and utterly noir.
The film is about a bad cop’s fall, and about waking from one long, humid nightmare. It bristles with noir themes that you really can’t miss when watching this taut masterwork.
The movie is also film noir’s “rococo tombstone,” as Hirsch puts it, and as such, there’s a valedictory sadness to it. Like Welles’ globular, growling, short-of-breath cop Quinlan, Touch of Evil wheezes and shambles to its — and noir’s — terminal point.
Summary – French Homage: Gallic Gangsters
In hindsight, a budding strain of film noir ran through the French poetic realism of the 1930s. Dark themes permeated films by Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir, whose grimly realistic La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1938) were remade by Fritz Lang as the U.S. noirs Scarlet Street and Human Desire, respectively. In the ’50s and ’60s, as French cineastes cleaved to American noir, French homages to the form sprung up. The most famous are Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential gangster films Bob le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samourai (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959) and Bande a Part (1964), and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Godard’s and Truffaut’s films are raw melodramas patterned on B noirs, whose threadbare aesthetics agreed with the blunt, quasi-documentary idiom of the New Wave.
Lecture 2 – The ’70s Through the ’90s: Following Form
Of course, film noir did not die with Welles’ pungent punctuation mark. By that time, the late ’50s and early ’60s, young French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who’d been galvanized by Robert Aldrich’s gritty Kiss Me Deadly, were busy writing and directing rough-hewn homages to the movement.
Hollywood, though, let noir slumber through the ’60s. Films were responding not to the postwar malaise, but to the mirage-like bourgeois splendor the ’50s had engendered. Suburbia, not the urban rattrap, was the setting.
More significant to noir’s demise were the technological advances happening in Hollywood, from widescreen presentation to brilliant color cinematography — “the final blow to the noir look,” writes Paul Schrader.
“In addition,” adds Todd Erickson in Film Noir Reader, “…the overall mood of the nation was in a vibrant upswing, drastically reducing the scope of the noir canvas on which society’s problems could be painted … the unique combination of elements fueling the noir movement, and the noir genre it spawned, had dissipated (with the exception of the Cold War) to such an extent that by the early 1960s the noir sensibility was barely decipherable in the American cinema.”
But noir’s black heart still pitter-pattered. Television stoked it with shows like Dragnet and The Fugitive. And by the late ’60s and early ’70s, newer noirish films such as John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Arthur Penn’s bloody Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had emerged.
The ’70s saw more nods to noir. Some critics chalk it up to a yearning nostalgia that Hollywood was happy to exploit.
Indeed, some filmmakers raised on original noir express debts to the greats. Martin Scorsese, for example, characterizes his raw slab of street realism Mean Streets (1973) as “a very clear attempt at doing a film noir in color … (It is) as much as possible an homage.”
And what else is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) but unabashed homage, though also great in its own right?
The ’70s also produced these notable noir homages: The Long Goodbye, Klute, The Getaway, Night Moves, Taxi Driver, Farewell My Lovely (a remake of Murder My Sweet), Thieves Like Us (a remake of They Live By Night), Who’ll Stop the Rain?, The Late Show, and a host of blaxploitation crime melodramas, including Shaft and Superfly.
Todd Erickson, in his essay “Kill Me Again: Movement becomes Genre” in Film Noir Reader, draws up a list of reasons why film noir reemerged around the late ’70s and thrived in the ’80s and ’90s. He cites socio-cultural influences, “ranging from post-Vietnam War disillusionment to the Feminist movement, and an alarming wave of international terrorism, which mirrored many of the factors present in post-World War II America.”
He weighs equally “the era of the leveraged buyout on Wall Street” and the AIDS explosion as founts of anxiety that provided a worthy noir backdrop. The feminist movement, he adds, opened up a whole new field for lurking femme fatales, who were freshly empowered and fearless.
Erickson continues, “In addition to these various socio-cultural influences, there are three principal factors which have stimulated the resurgence of noir in the contemporary American cinema: 1) Technical advancements made with color film stock (this means that the shadowy, high-contrast images familiar to film noir can now be realized with color film); 2) the pervasiveness of crime and the public’s fascination with sensational crime stories; and, most importantly, 3) a definitive noir sensibility among contemporary filmmakers.”
Around 300 films influenced by noir have been released theatrically since 1971, according to Erickson, and around 400 others have gone straight to cable and video.
Some contemporary directors have made a specialty of the form. Scorsese continues to revisit gangsters and night and the city in flinty films like Goodfellas, Casino, and 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead. Even his 1980 boxing epic Raging Bull and the nocturnal comedy After Hours bear the unmistakable marks of noir.
Director-writer Michael Mann has forged a singularly modern noir style — I call it “neo-noir” — beginning with the taut feature Thief (1981) and the smash TV drama Miami Vice, which he created. In that brilliant and influential show, Mann synthesized preening style — in clothing, cars, set decoration, and music — with the criminal themes of classic noir. He carried this slick vision into two more potent crime films, Manhunter (1986) and the masterly Heat (1995).
Neo-noirs span far and wide, ranging from Scorsese’s bloodbaths Taxi Driver and Cape Fear and David Lynch creepouts Blue Velvet and Lost Highway — to form-fitting noirs like Chinatown, Body Heat, Blood Simple, Dead Again, Bound, and L.A. Confidential.
I have broken down some of the best of the neo-noirs, all of them worth a look, into three categories:
– Noir remakes (original titles in parentheses if changed) — Farewell, My Lovely (Murder, My Sweet); Thieves Like Us (They Live By Night); The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Underneath (Criss Cross), No Way Out (The Big Clock), Against All Odds (Out of the Past), D.O.A., Kiss of Death, Cape Fear, The Desperate Hours, Narrow Margin, Gun Crazy.
– In the classic mold — The ’70s: Chinatown, The Conversation, Klute, Night Moves, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Badlands.
– The ’80s — Body Heat, Blade Runner (“cyber-noir”), Dressed to Kill, House of Games, Thief, Manhunter, To Live and Die In L.A., Angel Heart, At Close Range, Blood Simple, Blue Velvet, Jagged Edge, Frantic, 52 Pick-Up.
– The ’90s — Light Sleeper, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, King of New York, Red Rock West, Dead Again, Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress, Heat, The Spanish Prisoner, Homicide, L.A. Confidential, Lost Highway, True Romance, One False Move, The Professional, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Seven, The Usual Suspects, A Simple Plan, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Limey.
– Modern femme fatales — Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, The Last Seduction, La Femme Nikita, Basic Instinct, Thelma and Louise, Bound.
Summary – More about Modern Noir
For a more in-depth look at some modern noirs, read the chapters “Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir,” “Kill Me Again: Movement becomes Genre,” and “Son of Noir: Neo-film Noir and the Neo-B Picture” in Film Noir Reader.
Lecture 3 – Gun-in-Cheek: Postmodern Noir with Laughs
Evil has a sense of humor. Sure, it might be excessively arch, slightly demented, a trifle malicious, but evil does laugh. And not just at us. With us, too.
Even the grimmest, grittiest stories don’t want to smother us with the darkness. They let in shafts of light with wit and humor — release valves amid the building pressure of drama. A work as relentlessly bleak as Hamlet crackles with wonderful unfettered wit. Laughs keep us — and the art — breathing, alive. What is tragedy, after all, but a piece of the human comedy?
You may have laughed watching some of the noirs we’ve covered. Beyond the chuckles elicited by, say, a soapy and outmoded love scene or the ridiculous hat a femme fatale sports, noirs can indeed be pointedly funny.
The Big Sleep comes to mind, what with Marlowe’s serrated sarcasm. The sparkling badinage in Double Indemnity gets so over the top it makes you giggle. Sunset Boulevard is nothing if not a black comedy, no matter how grotesque the humor might be.
Neo-noir has spawned a host of black-comedy noirs. These remarkable and hugely popular films are a raucous fusion of guns and guffaws, mining humor from the sheer dumbness of human deeds and the sticky existential webs people find themselves in. You’ve heard a variation on the line, “It was so horrible, I just had to laugh.” Well, that’s how these movies approach their subjects.
I’m not talking about flat-out comedies, like the Steve Martin/Carl Reiner noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). I’m referring to classically dark film noirs, laden with violence, crime and assorted, yet very real, trouble.
Smirking postmodern irony looms large in the films I will discuss. Many of them, especially the ultra-hip riffs of Quentin Tarantino, brazenly play with the form, becoming very self-conscious pastiches of old crime movies. Once you know your noir, you should be able to locate exactly where Tarantino, an admitted crime film fanatic, poached many of his ideas. But, like the other filmmakers below, he’s clever and resourceful enough to mold the old into something new and exhilarating.
Here’s a choice sampling of postmodern noir filmmakers:
– Robert Altman — His idiosyncratic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973) raised purist hackles. Elliott Gould’s slouchy and hilariously indifferent Philip Marlowe may be keenly irreverent, but Altman knew that was the only way a hard-drinking private detective was going to be credible in the freewheeling ’70s. His 1992 Hollywood noir The Player is a grim satire of Tinseltown culture, featuring a spooky murder mystery and playful allusions to old noir movies.
– Martin Scorsese — After Hours (1985) takes place over one night on the mean streets of New York, when a desk-bound yuppie is trapped in a disturbing labyrinth of absurd misadventures. The dark comedy brims with urban angst, alienation, and why-me misfortune. Goodfellas (1990) is the true story of small-time New York gangsters and their alternately hilarious and horrific misdeeds. Menace and mirth mix uneasily, peaking in the famous “You think I’m funny? You think I’m a clown?” scene between Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta.
– The Coen Brothers — Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature Blood Simple (1985) could have been a classic noir of the most morbid order, but the filmmakers embroider the template with plenty of squiggly surprises that are as witty as they are harrowing. Fargo (1996) is noir comedy crystallized, what with its gruesome murders, bumbling but ruthless criminals, and a pregnant and chatty police chief. When a body is shoved into a wood-chipper, your laughs choke on your repulsion.
– Quentin Tarantino — The maestro of hipster irony in the crime genre, Tarantino knows his noir, and splashes the blackness with the lollipop shades of pop culture. Reservoir Dogs (1992) is a classic heist thriller, including the distinctly noir device of juggled chronology. Except that Tarantino can slip in funny references to Madonna, blare pop-rock music, and have his thugs wear cool shades as they bicker and crack wise. The wildly inventive, funny, and violent Pulp Fiction (1994) is a three-piece crime chronicle of life on L.A.’s gritty margins. Tarantino has great fun switching the film’s moods like a kaleidoscope, never easing the menace that snakes below the gleeful surface.
– John Dahl — Dahl is an almost pure noir practitioner, who just happens to be working in our time. Both his Red Rock West (1993) and femme fatale feast The Last Seduction (1994) are variations on a thousand classic noir themes and setups. The difference is Dahl’s awareness of his awareness, enabling him to spike these exceptionally amusing and entertaining neo-noirs with wryly wicked humor.
– Oliver Stone — Generally one of our most humorless directors, Stone loosens up and explodes in the hyperviolent “satire” Natural Born Killers (1994), a bloody and kinetic ode to such deadly lovers-on-the-lam tales as They Live By Night, Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands. A little less neo and a lot more noir is Stone’s U-Turn (1997), which stars Sean Penn as the archetypal noir victim of circumstance, whose every move takes him deeper down the spiral. Even the devastatingly nihilistic conclusion offers a chuckle of cruel dismay.
Hopefully this course has granted you a better understanding of film noir — its origins, its characteristics, some of its major moments and stars, and its influence on filmmaking today. Remember to read the Film Noir Reader. It is a wellspring of information about this influential movement in film. And if you want to learn more, please post questions or comments on the message board.
Goodbye and good luck!
Rent and watch Fargo, Reservoir Dogs, or Goodfellas. Take note of how these films are more frank and explicit than older noirs, and think about whether this is a positive or negative change. Is violence more powerful when it’s implied or when it’s shown?
1. Watch Touch of Evil. Note the abundance of film noir visual elements that help convey the psychology of character and story. Also note visual similarities to Citizen Kane, and watch the noir style come full circle. Most importantly, watch and enjoy.
2. Read the Chapters “Miami Vice: The Legacy of Film Noir,” “Kill Me Again: Movement Becomes Genre,” and “Son of Noir: Neo-film Noir and the Neo-B Picture” in Film Noir Reader.
3. At your own discretion, choose Chapters to read in Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. I suggest not skipping the chapters “Mapping the Route” and “The French Connection.”
4. Watch Jean-Luc Godard’s playful French New Wave homage to noir, Breathless. Consider how the idea of the suave Bogart-like gangster has been romanticized and turned into an icon. Note how Godard has fun with the form, and how amazingly cool Jean-Paul Belmondo is.
5. Take your pick from the numerous neo-noirs mentioned in Lesson 5; watch them and notice how the tradition is carried on. Look to see if and how these films are franker and more explicit than the older films, and if this helps or detracts from them. For example, is violence more powerful when it’s implied or when it’s shown? Also, pay attention to how humor is woven into the tension.