by Eddie Muller
What is film noir anyway?
Film Noir is the flip side of the all-American success story. It's about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they're tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that's merciless and unforgiving.
Linda Darnell, Percy Kilbride and Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel (1945).
Back in the post-WWII Hollywood era that spawned most films noir, these movies were called either Crime Thrillers or Murder Dramas. By and large, Crime Thrillers were movies about professional crooks - pictures such as Kiss of Death, T-Men, Cry of the City, The Asphalt Jungle. Murder Dramas involved desperate acts committed by amateurs: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Criss Cross, Side Street, literally hundreds more. Tales of people bumping off their spouses, stealing the company payroll, blowing everything for that hot trick at the end of the bar. Thematically, noir is about the swampy dark place in the soul where crime ferments.
It's about what people want, how badly they want it and how far they'll go to get it.
Of course, that's looking at it from a writer's perspective. For many movie-lovers, noir is all about style: kanted camera angles, dense shadows, a romantic, doom-laden atmosphere, always in shimmering, high-contrast black and white. In truth, that's what most people think of as NOIR - rain-slick streets, guys in fedoras, dames in slinky gowns slipping into glistening Packards. It's a great look, and we'll never see it again. If that's what you love about noir, stick with the classics.
Where did the whole noir ethos originate?
Noir's roots can be traced to American pulp literature and German cinema in the years immediately preceding the Great Depression and the Third Reich's rise to power. It's as if American tough guy writers were pre-destined to fall under the spell of a world-weary Teutonic femme fatale.
American writers, inspired by Hemingway's modern, masculine pacing and vernacular speech, started churning out crime stories that reflected the fear and anxiety of rampant urban expansion and corruption in America. "Hardboiled" fiction was born in the pages of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett and many others. Simultaneously, in Europe's most prolific and creative film studio, Berlin's Ufa, a whole generation of cinematic geniuses (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Curtis Bernhardt - the list is mind-boggling) were being trained in a highly stylized, overtly theatrical form of storytelling, dubbed "expressionism," that stressed an almost baroque artifice and heightened theatricality in filmed narratives. Many scholars feel that Expressionism was a direct artistic response to Germany's dire post-WWI economic situation, which led to the rise of the Nazis.
In early 1940s Hollywood the influence of these American writers began combining with the storytelling style of these German emigrés - and what we now know as "film noir" was born - at precisely the same time American and German soldiers were killing each other. Once the smoke cleared, the French got in the act by bestowing the name, after some savvy Gallic critics noticed a revelatory change in the Hollywood product being shipped overseas once the embargo on US films had been lifted. Give critic Nino Frank credit for coining "film noir," as early as 1946. Trust me, no one in 1940s Hollywood thought they were making films noir.
When did these films reach their peak?
The pivotal year in its development was 1944, which saw the release of five significant films: Double Indemnity, Laura, Woman in the Window, Phantom Lady, and Murder My Sweet. The first four were directed by Ufa "graduates" (Wilder, Preminger, Lang, and Siodmak, respectively). The latter was directed by Canadian Edward Dmytryk, whose head was swimming with the influence of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, a significant noir precursor). Most importantly, they all made money, the prerequisite for any Hollywood "trend."
Three vital areas of influence: 1) All five films were about murder, presented with a much more daring and perverse tone than any previous films about the subject. Double Indemnity was particularly influential, presenting protagonists who were immoral and unredeemed - a benchmark in Hollywood history. 2) The writing was exceptionally witty, especially in Laura, Double Indemnity and Murder My Sweet (Chandler being involved in those last two). It showed that mordant humor was especially potent when mixed with the darkest aspects of human nature. Dozens of screenwriters were inspired to follow suit. 3) All the films shared a dramatic, brooding style of cinematography that turned the city into a starkly lighted stage set. The look would pervade crime thrillers for the next half dozen years.
Noir reached its cinematic zenith in 1949-50, when America's movie screens were inundated with dark, urban thrillers. So many, in fact, that theater owners in the hinterlands complained that the black tide had to be stemmed, because Hollywood's depiction of American cities was frightening off Middle America's moviegoers.
Why did noir rise and crest in that particular span?
Many, many reasons. The floodgates cracked open once Double Indemnity showed that a film about murderers could be nominated for seven Academy Awards and reap a huge return at the box office. Producers realized that these films could be made more cheaply because the look was dramatic but minimalist, the camerawork hiding the paucity of production values, especially in the "B" variations on noir. Politically conscious screenwriters knew they could slide social criticism into crime pictures fairly easily, since the studio bosses cared less about genre pictures. Hollywood was situated in the heart of a city with no shortage of glamour, venality and corruption - very inspiring to artists with a criminal bent. The newspapers of the day contained endless fodder for noir dramas. (In a weird twist, notable Hollywood crime writers of the day were solicited by the daily papers to conjure solutions to the Black Dahlia murder.) Starting in 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities launched an all-out campaign against communists (and Jews) in Hollywood, fomenting a climate of paranoia reflected in much film noir. So a better question might be: how could film noir not have flourished during that time?
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