Intro to Film Term Paper: Film Noir (200 Level Course)



Cinema is an art form that people will never get tired of. Early film gave people a chance to see the progress civilization has made by recording pieces of time and showing them to others in mass numbers. The

first cinema was extremely basic. Topics ranged from a day at the lake to A Trip to the Moon. These films were very basic in nature.

This was long before the age of color and in some cases before sound. As time progresses and plot-lines thicken, different genres emerge and movies become a mass-medium for people all over the world. Film is in large part a big cycle that is constantly evolving. In this paper I will discuss the roots of film noir and whether or not it is considered a genre. I will also touch up on some of the many themes of that made film noir what it was.

Film Noir was a term coined by French movie critic Nino Frank in 1946, which meant “black film”. The dark and unethical plotlines were noticed by all who went to see one of these films. We think of the color black as the color of death. We use expressions with the word “black” as an adjective to usually describe something as being bad or depressing. I think of a dark comedy or a dark drama as a movie that deals with disturbing subjects. Paul Schraeder, a Film Noir Scholar says, “French Critics, seeing the American Films they had missed during the war noticed a new mood of cynicism, pessimism and darkness” . The French had missed years of films that vented the overall mood of people in the United States. People were not certain about the future and where it would take them. He also says, “…as the years went by…Hollywood lighting grew darker and characters more corrupt…Never before had films dared to take such uncomplimentary look at American life…” Film Noir is distinctly American, but the Aesthetics are Film Noir lead back to German Expressionism and French Realism. Before World War Two and the Nazis rise to power, many German filmmakers left Germany for the United States bringing over their expertise in German Expression. Fritz Lang, director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M was a big inspiration in the development of Film Noir. The German influence in film noir is quite obvious not only by the way it was made, but by the directors who made them. Of course not all directors of film noir were German, but this new form of film definitely has roots within European filmmakers. German directors had no problem making the transition in to American film. There were those who did fear that there was too much of a German influence in American film, but the German filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany did not consider their movies to be German. They like to think of their work as a part of American Cinema. German directors who left Germany for Hollywood think that their real contribution to film noir was the actual lighting of the movie. I too believe that the most important part of making a film noir was the new lighting that seemed to dominate the overall décor of the movie.

From the start of World War Two, the American people became more and more aware of the horrors that existed in the world. People wanted to see movies with some excitement and action. People wanted to see movies that could keep them on the edge of their seat. The public was sick and tired of seeing the same movie over and over again. This was a time when the overall mood of the country was at a low. America was looming at the idea of sending American Boys off to War in Europe and in the Far East. By the late 1940’s, Film Noir had reshaped the movie industry with its look at the dark side of American culture.

In 1946 after World War Two had ended, French moviegoers began to see a new type of film in their theaters. The French caught up on movies they had missed since the start of the war. Until this point, Americans did not really have an idea as to what this new type of film should be called. Raymond Durgnat, a scholar of Noir says, “Black is as ubiquitous as shadow…If the term Film Noir has a slightly exotic ring it’s no doubt because it appears as figure against the rosy ground of Anglo-Saxon Middle Class and especially Hollywoodian, optimism and Puritanism” . A major theme in this new genre was good vs. evil. Durgnat also says, “The happy ending in a true film noir is that the worst of danger is averted, with little amelioration or congratulation…” Durgnat, like Schraeder argues that Film Noir is not a genre as the Western and Gangster film, and takes us into the realm of classification by motif and tone” . He says that only some crime films are noir, thus reaffirming his belief and the beliefs of others that film noir is not a genre.
The first book published on Film Noir was written in 1955 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton called Panorama du Film Noir Americain, which examines the cultural traits of this new series of films. In the book, they try and figure out the actual origin of Film Noir. They vehemently deny Marc Vernet’s outlook that states that Film Noir was really a European form of plot that used American Actors. Borde and Chaumeton agree that whatever actual origin of film noir really is, the first movies were made by American moviemakers in America. Marc Vernet argues that well established film noir directors were European and German artists. Film critics have debated whether or not the national origin of the director changes the nationality of the film. They both believe that, “Film Noir is a self-contained reflection of American culture and its pre-occupations at a point in time” .
Over the course of a couple of weeks in France post war, five movies were shown with a certain plot line with dark and violent plot lines that had derived from “hard-boiled” or as some say, pulp fiction novels which happened to be enormously popular with Americans. “Hard-Boiled” mystery novels usually share certain characteristics. These stories usually take place in either big cities or small towns where the atmosphere is pessimistic and hostile. Other traits that make a “hard-boiled” novel are the constant feeling that the world is full of violence and corruption. These books try to give the reader a sense of the true nature of human beings. We are inclined to lie, steal, cheat, corrupt, murder, and pollute the overall status of man and woman’s ability to deceive. These novels all share another common trait which is the notion of good vs. evil. This phenomenon came about in the late thirties and early forties when this country was on the brink of war.

The people of this country wanted to see something different then the sweet and innocent plots that came before the war. I would be willing to bet that Americans were not totally drawn to the idea of “dark film” because of what was taking place in the world. It is very possible that the audience was ready for change. People wanted something more then the typical Hollywood musical or the movie that puts a big smile on one’s face and allows the viewer to walk out with a sense of security. This was not the intention of Film Noir. It was there to show just how duplicitous the human soul could be. These novels tried to expose a dark side of the human spirit and people were fascinated by it. It had not been done before, but was able to capitalize on the fears of Americans and people all over the world.

The stories of film noir are different and there is no set pattern for what makes a film noir. Paul Schraeder argues that film noir borrows from other films such as a western or a gangster movie. He says film noir is created by the use of light, shadows, character descriptions, facial expressions and an overall sense of mystery. In the book Some Visual Motifs for Film Noir, Place and Peterson say, “…Film Noir has agreed that visual style is the consistent thread that unites the very diverse films that together comprise phenomenon” . They too agree with Schraeder in his belief that Film Noir is really defined by the light, dark, and mystery. They say, “The characteristic film noir moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute…but through their ultimate style”.

Robert G. Porfirio is another scholar who does not want to classify film noir as a genre because it, “…cuts through many of the traditional genres: the gangster film, the Western, the comedy…we must create a genre out of pre-existing categories” . Film noir borrows ideas and similar plot lines to create a certain type of ending. I think it is safe to say that instead of film noir being a specific genre; it is more of a movement amongst American filmmakers. Most people agree that film noir began in the early 1940’s and ended in the late fifties, but many critics consider film noir to apply as late as the 1970’s with Taxi Driver and Chinatown and Body Heat. Paul Schraeder makes it clear that it is hard to tell film noir by the time period in which it was made. He feels it is more accurate to define film noir by the setting, characters and basic plotline of the movie itself.

The fact that film noir is not a genre allows it the chance to use all different types of genres and fuse it all in one story. Alfred Apple has noted in his book, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema: “What unites the seemingly disparate kinds of film noir, then, is their dark visual style and their black vision of despair, loneliness and dread- a vision that touches an audience most intimately because it assures that their suppressed impulses and fears are shared human responses…This is nothing less than an existential attitude towards life…” According to Porfirio, film noir obviously constituted a particular set of social, historical and cultural conditions in a wartime and postwar America undergoing profound social and psychological changes…” There are many conditions that helped bring about “dark film” such as the lasting impact of the Great Depression, the problems of war and many other social and economic issues. Porfirio also agrees with Paul Schraeder assessment that film noir should be classified as, “…specific period or cycle of film”. Porfirio and Schraeder argue that film noir does have the characteristics that place it in to a genre. It rather mixes an array of genres to portray a dark and evil world dominated by the reality of human nature at its worst. This is in sharp contrast to what Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg wrote in their book Hollywood in the Forties. They say, “Film noir is a genre that is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century’s vein romanticism” .

We have discussed the background of film noir and its origins, but now we have to define the landscape of noir, the basic plotline and what the characters are like. In Borde and Chaumeton’s book, they say, “…Often the noir aspect of the film is linked to a character, a scene and a setting….The presence of crime gives film noir it most constant characteristic…Blackmail, accusation, theft, drug trafficking set the stage for a narrative where life and death are at stake…” Borde and Chaumeton give a few good examples of what film noir consists of, but they strongly emphasize that, “…Film noir has no monopoly on death…Film noir is not a crime documentary…” Film noir was dominated by darkness a certain way of lighting which set the mood for a “dark” movie dealing with issues that had not been discussed before the early 1940’s. The Darkness also sets up an atmosphere where it can rain at any time. This rain continually appears over the course of the classical period of film noir. This is a bit different then a movie such as Body Heat which plays off the extreme heat that the main characters are subjected to during the course of the movie. Although there is not rain in this movie, the heat serves as a factor in determining the final outcome. The dark atmosphere of early film noir gave a feeling of loneliness and despair just as the heat did in Kasdan’s movie. I don’t think it really matters whether or not it rains or shines. The important aspect of film noir is a set pattern that occurs regularly over the course of the movie. Too much of anything can shape the way people perceive the direction that the movie is headed.

If the plot is based on actual events that might have taken place then there is usually some sort of narration at the beginning which alerts the audience that what they are about to is loosely based on reality. Although noir does not have to be a crime documentary, movies such as Lasio Benendek’s Port of New York and The Enforcer by Bretaigne Windust all have film noir elements. All in all, they say, “…Film noir posits a criminal psychology which recalls forbidden milieus…” Other aspects of noir that seem to overlap one another is lighting which adds a sense of mysteriousness to the story. Other traits that make film noir are the Femme Fetale. This is used to describe women of film noir. Women in film noir usually have a certain knack for misleading and deceiving the protagonist of the story.

The woman in film noir has a deceitfulness that allows the main character of the story to be sucked in to a plan that revolves around dark subjects such as crime, kidnapping and even murder. An example of the role of women in film noir is best illustrated by Phyllis Dietrickson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The protagonist in this movie is a man named Walter Neff is a salesman who gets sucked in by the beauty and cunning ways of Phyllis. She convinces him to murder her husband so she can collect the money. Phyllis convinces Walter that they can eventually be together once her husband is gone. The plot thickens when Walter learns that Phyllis has done this before. Walter realizes that Phyllis is a liability to him and he eventually kills her to protect himself from the classic femme fetale. The protagonist is usually someone who is virtuous and abides by the law, but is open to criminal activity in one way or another. In other words, there is a dark side to the character we think is honest and law abiding. The femme fetale never really does any of the work herself. She relies on someone else to do the “dirty work”, but she is not completely evil. The femme fetale has a soft side that allows the protagonist to see a side of her that he wants to see. The protagonist is usually so tainted by love that he begins to forget what is right and what is wrong. Walter is blinded by his love for Phyllis that he does not even realize the consequences of his actions. The femme fetale has some sort of power over the protagonist that usually revolves around her beauty and her ability to get whatever she wants. Walter is the model of what a film noir anti-hero should be like. The femme fetale is a character that must die at the end of a film noir. Film noir also has characters that are the complete opposite of Phyllis and Walter.

These characters in film noir are called ‘double ghangers”. In this case the two characters are Lola and Keyes. Both of these characters are extremely virtuous but do not share the same excitement as Walter and Phyllis. Film noir in this instance is the “nighttime world”. There is a sharp contrast in day vs. night. The day signifies a sense of normalcy in which the characters are moral people, but what brings out this dark side is the darkness of night. In the end of a film noir, it seems like the characters have lost a sense of reality and they no longer behave like the people moviegoers were so used to seeing. Film Noir often picks up at a certain point after we see the ending. The audience gets an idea of what happens at the end of the movie first and then it jumps back to how the story begins. The stories have plots that seem to have a whole range of possible endings, but the main characters don’t walk off in to the sunset holding hands with one another. These movies use a slew of narrations and flashbacks to events which took place before the movie picks up. These narratives and flashbacks add a sense of pessimism and darkness to the film. The plots are not conventional in there being a beginning, middle and an ending. The overall plan of film noir is to keep the audience away from traditional stories that allow the audience to guess what happens in a sequence of timed events. Film noirs jumps around a lot and does not start from the beginning. These storylines were very different then what had come before the 1940’s. In many instances of film noir, the hero is really the bad guy. This new type of movie featured a lack of morality mixed in with a new form of lighting. This lighting created a shadow which created a sense of darkness to the film. This darkness not only had to do with the fact that the films were dark, but also the films were dark in overall nature. This new type of movie required the help of “hard-boiled” novel writers who had used these dark themes in their books.

The film noir movement in this country produced a specific type of movie that took unconventional themes and made them the norm. Film noir is a look in to the thinking of a culture that had been affected by all the turmoil and distrust in the world. Raymond Durgnat divides film noir in to three phases. The first is the wartime period from 1941-46. The second was the post war phase from 1946-49. The third phase of film noir takes place from 1949-53. Durgnat says that it was the third phase of film noir that finally revealed the root causes of the dark film.

1. Silver, Alan. Ursini, James. Film Noir Reader, New York: Limelight Edition, 1995