Film Noir is a term coined in the early 1940s by the French to refer to trendy Hollywood crime movies produced during this period. The term literally means black film in French and the movies were characterized by their black and white visual style, a style generally thought to have begun in the early 1940s was used up to the late 1950s.
Most of the film noirs reflected on the tensions resulting from the World War II (Spicers 2002, p. 35). This was also the period during which this style developed.
The first recognizable film noir was Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) though other films applying the noir facet had appeared before, these included Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). Most of the plots and themes for the noirs were adaptations of American literary works, mostly from best-selling; crime-fiction novels Themes of fear, paranoia, and betrayal were very common in film noirs.
Film noirs were characterized by several features as discussed below.
Film noirs were easily recognizable by their visual style; low-key lighting mostly in dark, smoke-filled rooms with characters’ faces wholly or partially covered by the darkness. Light was filtered through blinds and neon lights occasionally used.
Film noirs were shot in a black-and-white color mix as evidenced in Leave her to Heaven (1945) and Niagara (Bould 2005, p. 109). In addition, film noirs were also characterized by dissimilar angle shots. Examples of these angle shots are the Dutch shots that are somewhat skewed. Exterior scenes were often shot in urban settings with long shadows, dark alleys and street lights flashing on and off in poorly lit streets.
Femme fatales in Film Noirs
Film noirs were also evident by the presence of a female character that would use her feminine traits to charm the lead male character, leading to his fall or arrest. These females were of two types; a reliable, trustworthy and loving woman, the second type was the morally questionable type (femme fatale).
She was not always known to the lead character at the beginning of the film, and at times came between the male protagonist and his wife. The lead male character may have been trying to escape his past life and in the process would find himself falling into the femme fatale’s trap.
These female characters were almost irresistible by the male lead character and would lure him to commit murders out of jealousy or lead to his arrest (Snyder 2001, p. 162). They were often presented as beautiful women who used all avenues to achieve their objectives. Most femme fatales were destroyed at the climax of most film noirs.
Plots and Characters
Crime investigation by a tough-looking detective was also a norm in the films and the protagonists would be a suspect in heist or fraud cases in some of the plots. False suspicion, double crosses and betrayal were also common in these films.
The position of the protagonist was not fixed; he would shift from one role to another and would be the hunter at one moment and the hunted in the next instance. The storylines were complex and told with frequent flashbacks and background music. Some were marked by a dilemma at the end as depicted in Sunset Boulevard.
Film noirs were also associated with urban settings; they were mostly set in small towns represented as a maze (Silver, Ursini & Duncan 2004, p. 62). Bars, nightclubs and gambling in small dingy rooms were common. The climax was mostly set in complex scenes; these included a train station, refineries or an old shut-down industry as seen in White Head.
Morality, Tone and Mood
Film noirs were generally pessimistic; the stories were mostly about people caught up in unwanted situations. They also depicted a cruel, corrupt, merciless and unforgiving world and are defined by moral decadence. The tone of the noirs was generally described as downbeat and the protagonists were often of morally questionable character living in the underworld of sex and crimes (Snyder 2001, p. 162).
The main mood addressed in noir films were those of alienation, pessimism, melancholy and evil.
A Study of Early Film Noirs
This is a 1946 film directed by Charles Vidor, it was shot in black-and-white color scheme; a distinct film noir characteristic. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) narrates the story continually, another technique applied by noirs. Faller has a passion for gambling.
He organizes a trip to Buenos Aires. In addition, he is able to overcome claims of money laundering as well as attempts at robbery. Farrell hears from Mundson about an illegal casino, which turns up to be Mundson’s. He assigns Farrell to keep watch on her.
Meanwhile, Mundson has refused to transfer the ownership of a Tungsten cartel to the Germans who had registered it in his name and shoots dead one of the Germans during subsequent visits ((Silver et al 2004, p. 63). There is also an element of betrayal when Mundson finds Gilda and Farrell kissing.
Farrell marries Gilda after she had inherited the estate but their relationship is not out of love, Gilda tries to escape to no avail. Mundson reappears and tells both Gilda and Farrell that he was going to shoot both of them, fortunately Uncle Pio; the washroom attendant stabs him in the back. The estate is then confiscated by the government while Farrell and Gilda are given the freedom to go back to America.
Out of the Past (1947)
This is a 1947 film directed by Jacques Tourneur and the male protagonist is Jeff Bailey who is dating Ann Miller. But Ann is also in love with a town lawman (Jim). Jeff is so secretive about his past. A man going across the town recognizes Jeff and tells him to go and see their friend, Whit Sterling for which Jeff agrees.
Before leaving, Jeff tells Ann about his past; his real name and also tells her the fact that he worked for a rich gambler named Whit Sterling. Whit tells Jeff that his girlfriend, Kathie, had stolen $40000 from him and fled and he wanted the money and Kathie back (Bould 2005, p. 112).
Jeff follows her to Mexico City and to Acapulco where he finds her and falls in love with her. They settle in San Francisco where they are later spotted by Jeff’s old partner (Fisher), he demands $40000 else he reports them to Whit. Fisher is accidentally shot by Kathie during a fistfight, she then drives off leaving Jeff behind, and Jeff finds that she has a $40000 bank balance from the bank records she left behind.
The next scene shows Jeff telling Ann that he never saw Kathie, Whit sends for him and when he arrives at Whit’s home, he finds Kathie living there and he is then employed by Whit to recover some tax records that are being used to blackmail him by a San Francisco lawyer, Leonard Eels. Eels’ secretary is found dead and it is found out that it was Whit and Kathie who had killed her and are planning to blame it on Jeff.
Kathie had managed to convince Whit that indeed, Jeff was responsible for the death of Fisher. He is therefore very confident as he frequents the nightclub owned by Whit wit ha view to serving him with affidavit papers. This would in effect implicate Jeff with thee murder of Fisher. Once she finds out about the real truth, Kathie plots for the murder of Whit.
Later on, she manages to leave with her new-found love, Jeff. At a round block mounted by the police, the truth downs on Kathie that she had sadly been betrayed by Ben. The police manage to murder both of them. Ann later drives off with Jim who still loved her after Jeff’s burial.
From the plots of the two films, several aspects of film noirs are evident in both. Apart from the visual styles used to capture the movies, the storylines are typical of noirs (Bould 2005, p. 113). There is the presence of the femme fatale in both films who leads to the demise of one of the male characters.
In Gilda, the femme fatale is a woman named Gilda who betrays a man who was supposed to be her husband, Mundson. In Out of the Past, the femme fatale is a woman named Kathie who manipulates both the male protagonist and another male character, leading to the demise of both.
The storyline in both movies is also twisted. In Gilda; Mundson brings in a wife without knowledge that she was a former lover to Farrell. We also observe that just when Mundson is thought to have died, he parachutes to safety and fakes his death, later reappearing in the scene.
Gilda and Farrell later end up in marriage despite not loving each other. The storyline in Out of the Past is also complex, Jeff traces Kathie to Acapulco and despite being under instructions from Whit to bring her back, he falls in love with her and moves to San Francisco where they are spotted by Fisher despite thinking that nobody could ever spot them there. Kathie is later found to be living with Whit and together they implicate Jeff in Eel’s murder, she later kills Whit. Jeff betrays her when he contacts the police just before their planned escape.
Both movies are generally pessimistic and are of people caught up in unwanted situations; Farrell’s loyalty is trapped between his former love, Gilda, and that of his employer, Mundson in Gilda.
The lead character in Out of the Past is also caught up between the femme fatale and Whit, one moment he is the hunter, looking for Kathie in Acapulco, another moment he is the hunted as Whit and Kathie try to implicate him in the murder of Eel’s secretary. False suspicion, double crosses, betrayals and murders are also a common feature of both films, especially when the femme fatales are involved.
Influence of the Film Noir Movement to the Contemporary Cinema
The Film Noir movement of the 1940s has continued up to date with film producers using the film noir features to develop their films. Cotemporary noirs include Thirst (2009), The Salton Sea (2002), A History of Violence (2005) and Batman: the Dark Knight (2009). A closer look at A History of Violence reveals similarities with the early film noirs.
The movie is set up in a small town in Indiana where a man, Tom Stall, lives with his wife and one child. A complex storyline is emphasized when it is found out that Tom’s real name is Joey Fogarty and is not from Indiana. He had previously fallen out with his gang members in Philadelphia before moving to Indiana and took up his Tom Stall personality. There are numerous murders in this film, just as in Out of the Past.
Much of the story involves flashbacks showing scenes of Tom’s fallout with the mob, another film noir technique.
A look at Thirst also reveals similarities with the noirs and the movie is about a priest, Sang-hyun, who is mysteriously healed of a fatal disease, we later realize that he has turned into a vampire and kills many people in order to drink their blood.
He also kills the husband to his childhood friend by drowning him. During the police investigation, Sang-hyun claims the deceased became drunk and drowned on his own; the movie is characterized by a sad ending, typical of noirs.
The Film noir movement was a major contribution to modern film making, the techniques invented during this period continue to be used up to date. Debate among scholars is ongoing in an attempt to decide whether film noir was really a film genre, some argue that it was a visual style. Though there is no consensus on the matter, this was a very important step towards the development of the film industry.
Bould, M., 2005. Film noir: from Berlin to Sin City.
Silver, A., Ursini, J. & Duncan, P., 2004, Film noir. Cologne, Germany: Taschen
Snyder, S., 2001. Personality Disorder And The Film Noir Femme Fatale. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 155-168
Spicer, A., 2002, Film noir. Oxford: Longman Publishers.