From the dim-lit Venetian blinds in a dingy Los Angeles apartment to the dark street corners of Chicago, noir leaves a distinct taste in the mouth. After watching Double Indemnity we are left to ponder whether the authorities are always innocent. We grow to understand and even sympathize with violent characters. This is the essence of what makes film noir, well, film noir. As Borde and Chaumeton claim, “good and evil often rub shoulders to the point of merging into one another” (Borde 12). Noir presented audiences with femme fatales and morally ambiguous men, which for the time was revolutionary as studio films relied heavily on black and white characters. Wide-angle cinematography and low key lighting are to thank for the iconic “look” of film noir. Noir was a socio-cultural response to the darkness of the time period. A postwar America was riddled with high crime, the red scare, and industrialism.
“We didn’t believe your story Ms. O’Shaughnessy, we believed your $200” (Huston). It doesn’t get more straightforward than that. Detective Spade’s words ring true to the changing conventions of cinema in the mid-twentieth century. Whereas classical Hollywood movies obscured the “corrupt state of American society”, Noir painted a very distinctive picture of positions of authority (Fluck 382). In The Maltese Falcon’s case, detective spade is the morally ambiguous protagonist of the story. From the get-go, we don’t know what to expect from his actions. Given his position of authority, one would expect him to be a faithful servant of the law. Film noir aims to make its hero of the story “ambivalent in the face of Evil” (Borde 28). As audience members, we sympathize with characters like Mike Hammer who, despite his brutish ways, saves Velda from death at the end of Kiss Me Deadly. Noir taps into our collective id which through Freudian terminology contains our primitive and sexual aggressions. No character is completely innocent which makes them more realistic. This realism is perhaps what makes noir so fascinating.
When it comes to women, noir takes a very special approach in its portrayal. The “domesticated woman” of classic Hollywood is thrown out the window in place of the femme fatale. Think of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit with her entrancing looks and domineering personality. In this case, Jessica is animated to poke fun at the classical noir femme fatale but it is interesting to note how the trope came to be. With the onslaught of World War II, women were leaving home to join the workforce and become more independent. This independence directly threatened the social conventions of the time where women were expected to become a housewife. These ideas made their way into early noir films such as Double Indemnity and The Big Heat where women like Phyllis and Debbie use their sexuality to ensnare men for their own social or economic advantage (Krutnik, 58). This projection of misogynistic inadequacy completely flipped the tables on the conventional woman of the 1940s and 50s.
It is often argued that noir is not actually a film genre per se, but that it is in fact a style. Regardless of stance, however, film noir is highly stylized by specific cinematography and mise en scene. Low key lighting was often used to create a chiaroscuro effect in film noir, in part because of budgeting. The 1982 neo-noir film Blade Runner uses the contrasting neon lights with the shadows of the city to emphasize the mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere characteristic of noir. While low key lighting and high contrast are staples in film noir, camera angles play a role just as important. Extreme high and low angles are utilized in noir to aid in the sense of “alienation and fatalism” (Cowie 127). When blade runner Deckard chases Zhora through the crowded streets of Los Angeles, wide low angles isolate the characters amidst the herd of people. Although the characters are in a crowded city, they are more alone than ever. The camera movement is disorienting and we fall into the chaos of the chase. Deception and uncertainty are a staple in film noir and this is communicated not only through unstable plotlines, but the camerawork. And, like Blade Runner, the film Kiss Me Deadly incorporated unusual shots like the dutch angle when detective Hammer wakes up in the hospital bed. Director Robert Aldrich utilized this odd angle to tilt the horizon, making the viewer as disoriented as the character himself. This use of vertical and sloping lines as opposed to horizontal provide the needed feeling of unease. The dutch angle is a favorite among directors in noir for its versatility in emaciating a negative response from audiences. As scholar Janey Place explains, “…bizarre, off-angle compositions of figures placed irregularly in the frame…create a world that is never stable or safe” (Place 68). There is always a threat looming around every street corner and under every brim tipped hat, and the camera makes every effort to communicate that to audiences.
One of the most prominent themes in film noir is the feeling of helplessness. Regardless of what city the story takes place in, they all can be characterized by a centripetal force. The city in a sense, is its own character, pulling in the protagonist and trapping him from escape. This feeling is created through the use of wide-angle cinematography. The emphasis on the high and low perspectives makes the subject look small in comparison to the domineering city. Dark streets and cramped alleyways provide the basis for settings in a noir film. They create the perfect atmosphere for a character to feel alienated yet at the same time set up a perfect setting for chase scenes or chance encounters. In the film Chinatown, Jack is consistently shot in enclosed spaces, even outdoor settings like the aqueduct are fencing him in. When we see him indoors, the blinds are shut with barely any light coming in. It’s almost as if the city is suffocating its inhabitants, squeezing the life out of them.
Film noir was a direct response to the post-modern feelings emanating from American society. As many noir films were based on hard-boiled crime novels from the 1930s, it’s no stretch to say that the nihilism from the Great Depression was transposed onto the silver screen. This way of thinking was only stressed more by “the coalition of liberal and socialist interests that flourished throughout the Depression and World War II” (Naremore 103). Noir was anti-capitalist in its subliminal messaging with films like Double Indemnity showcasing the corrupt conglomerate insurance industries taking advantage of helpless citizens. And, as mentioned earlier, the introduction of the femme fatale can be attributed to the working woman of World War II. Because men were sent off to fight, women entered the workforce with a might. In wartime, 6.5 million women were working, and by 1945 that number skyrocketed to 20 million (Krutnik 57). This drastic change in American culture rendered the trope of the dangerous “spider woman” simply because she wanted more than what patriarchal society expected her to have. Along with traditional noir being attributed to a pessimistic view of reality, neo-noir can also be tied to the nihilistic philosophy of the 30s. Films like Blade Runner play off the dystopian sci-fi society that is as cramped as it is corrupt. While it was released in 1982, seven years after the Vietnam war and pentagon papers were released, tensions were still incredibly high within society.
Noir is incredibly distinctive from other film styles. It is a clear representation of American society in the mid-twentieth century. As a country, we experienced two world wars, an economic depression, the red scare, and a number of other traumatizing events. Society rapidly adjusted to the chaos and upheaval of the times. While painters like Picasso expressed this harsh cold world through their paintings, filmmakers followed suit. Noir pioneered cinematographic techniques as well as narrative tropes that portray a more intellectual view of the human psyche. It paints a picture of a world that isn’t just black and white, but grey and full of introspection. It is that exploration into those perspectives that push us as viewers to revisit these classic films time and time again.
- Borde, R., Chaumeton, E., Naremore, J., & Hammond, P. (2002). A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. doi:http://www.stafforini.com/docs/Borde%20&%20Chaumeton%20-%20A%20panorama%20of%20American%20film%20noir.pdf
- Cowie, E. (1993). Film Noir and Women. Retrieved 2020, from https://gauchospace.ucsb.edu/courses/pluginfile.php/10771385/mod_resource/content/0/Film%20Noir%20and%20Women-%20Cowie.pdf
- Fluck, W. (2001). Crime, Guilt, and Subjectivity in “Film Noir”. Amerikastudien / American Studies, 46(3), 379-408. doi:https://www.jfki.fu-berlin.de/en/v/publications_fluck/2000/fluck_crime_guilt/Fluck_Crime_Guilt.pdf
- Huston, J. (Director). (2020). The Maltese Falcon [Video file]. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://gauchocast.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=6fd2271d-070e-4fcb-a4ab-ac450177f918
- Krutnik, F. (1991). Film Noir and America in the 1940’s. In In a lonely street: Film noir, genre, masculinity (pp. 56-72). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Naremore, J. (2008). More Than Night, Film Noir In Its Contexts. Berkeley, Calif., CA: Univ. of California Press.
- Place, J., & Peterson, L. (2005). Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir. In 1111694219 840258567 A. Silver & 1111694220 840258567 J. Ursini (Authors), Film noir reader (pp. 65-75). New York, NY: Limelight Editions.