notes on noir Author(s): Source: , Vol. 8, No. 1 (SPRING 1972), pp. 8-13 Published by: Film Society of Lincoln Center Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43752885 Accessed: 16-02-2018 15:07 UTC

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This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Paul Schräder is editor of Cinema () and medium cool seems naive and romantic. As and author of Transcendental Style on Film, soon the current polical mood hardens, filmgoers and to be published by University of Press. filmmakers will find the of the late Forties This article originated as program notes for a series increasingly attractive. The Forties may be to the of seven film noir, screened as part of the first Los Seventies what the Thirties were to the Sixties. Angeles International Film Exposition , November Film noir is equally interesting to critics. It offers 1971. writers a cache of excellent, little-known ( film In 1946 French critics, seeing the American films noir is oddly both one of 's best periods they had missed during the , noticed the new and least known), and gives auřeur-weary critics an mood of cynicism, pessimism and darkness which opportunity to apply themselves to the newer ques- had crept into the American cinema. The darkening tions of classification and transdirectorial style. After stain was most evident in routine crime thrillers, but all, what is a film noir? was also apparent in prestigious . The French cineastes soon realized they had Film noir is not a (as seen only the tip of the iceberg: as the years went has helpfully pointed out over the objections of by, Hollywood grew darker, characters more Higham and Greenberg's Hollywood in the Forties). corrupt, themes more fatalistic and the tone more It is not defined, as are the and hopeless. By 1949 American movies were in the , by conventions of setting and conflict, but throes of their deepest and most creative funk. rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. Never before had films dared to take such a harsh It is a film "noir, " as opposed to the possible variants uncomplimentary look at American life, and they of film gray or film off-. would not dare to do so again for twenty years. Film noir is also a specific period of film history, Hollywood's film noir has recently become the like German or the French New subject of renewed interest among moviegoers and Wave. In general, film noir refers to those Hollywood critics. The fascination film noir holds for today's films of the Forties and early Fifties which portrayed young filmgoers and film students reflects recent the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and trends in American cinema: American movies are corruption. again taking a look at the underside of the American Film noir is an extremely unwieldy period. It harks character, but compared to such relentlessly backcynical to many previous periods: Warner's Thirties films noir as or kiss tomorrow gangster films, the French "poetic " of Carné goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of easy rider and Duvivier, Sternbergian , and, farthest

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This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms back, German Expressionist crime films (Lang's can define the film noir; the distinctly noir tonality MABUSE cycle). Film noir can stretch at its outer limits draws from each of these elements. from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) to War and post-war disillusionment. The acute (1 958), and most every dramatic Hollywood film from downer which hit the U.S. after the Second World 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements. There War was, in fact, a delayed reaction to the Thirties. are also foreign offshoots of film noir, such All as throughthe the Depression, movies were needed to THIRD MAN, BREATHLESS and . keep people's spirits up, and, for the most part, they Almost every critic has his own definition did.of filmThe crime films of this period were Horatio noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to Algerish and socially conscious. Toward the end of back it up. Personal and descriptive definitions, the Thirties a darker began to appear (you however, can get a bit sticky. A film of urban ONLY LIVE ONCE, ) and, were nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and a film it not for the War, film noir would have been at full noir need not necessarily concern crime and cor- steam by the early Forties. ruption. Since film noir is defined by tone rather The need to produce Allied abroad than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one and promote patriotism at home blunted the fledg- critic's descriptive definition against another's. How ling moves toward a dark cinema, and the film noir many noir elements does it take to make a film noir thrashed about in the , not quite able noir? to come into full prominence. During the War the Rather than haggle definitions, I would rather first uniquely film noir appeared: the maltese attempt to reduce film noir to its primary (all FALCON, , , LAURA, but shades of ), those cultural and stylistic ele- these films lacked the distinctly noir bite the end ments to which any definition must return. of the war would bring. As soon as the War was over, however, American At the risk of sounding like Arthur Knight, I would films became markedly more sardonic- and there suggest that there were four conditions in Holly- was a boom in the crime film. For fifteen years the wood in the Forties which brought about the film pressures against America's amelioristic cinema noir. (The danger of Knight's Liveliest Art method had been building up, and, given the freedom, is that it makes film history less a matter of structural audiences and artists were now eager to take a less All photos: Museum of analysis, and more a case of artistic and social optimistic view of things. The disillusionment many / forces magically interacting and coalescing). Each soldiers, small businessmen and housewife/factory Film Stills of the four catalytic elements, however, employees felt in returning to a peacetime economy Archives.


This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms was directly mirrored in the sordidness of the urban quality of film noir that it was able to weld seemingly crime film. contradictory elements into a uniform style. The best This immediate post-war disillusionment was di- noir technicians simply made all the world a sound rectly demonstrated in films like cornered, the stage, directing unnatural and expressionistic - DAHLIA, DEAD RECKONING and RIDE A HORSE, in ing onto realistic settings. In films like union station, which a serviceman returns from the war to find , the killers there is an uneasy, his sweetheart unfaithful or dead, or his business exhilarating combination of realism and partner cheating him, or the whole society some- expressionism. thing less than worth fighting for. The war contin- Perhaps the greatest master of noir was Hungari- ues, but now the antagonism turns with a new vi- an-born , an expressionist cinematog- ciousness toward the American society itself. rapher who could relight Times Square at noon Post-war realism. Shortly after the War every if necessary. No cinematographer better adapted film-producing country had a resurgence of realism. the old expressionist techniques to the new desire In America it first took the form of films by such for realism, and his black-and-white producers as Louis de Rochemont (house on 92ND in such gritty film noir as t-men, raw deal, i the street, ) and (the jury, equals that of such German killers, brute force), and directors like Henry expressionist masters as Fritz Wagner and Karl Hathaway and . "Every scene was film Freund. on the actual location depicted," the 1 947 de Roche- The hard-boiled tradition. Another stylistic in- mont-Hathaway kiss of death proudly pro- fluence waiting in the wings was the "hard-boiled" claimed. Even after de Rochemonťs particular school of writers. In the Thirties, authors such as "March of Time" authenticity fell from vogue, real- , , Raymond istic exteriors remained a permanent fixture of film Chandler, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and John noir. O'Hara created the "tough," a cynical way of acting The realistic movement also suited America's and thinking which separated one from the world post-war mood; the public's desire for a more of everyday honest emotions- romanticism with a protec- and harsh view of America would not be satisfied tive shell. The hard-boiled writers had their roots by the same studio streets they had been watching in pulp or journalism, and their protagonists for a dozen years. The post-war realistic trend suc- lived out a narcissistic, defeatist code. The hard- ceeded in breaking film noir away from the domain boiled was, in reality, a soft egg compared to of the high-class melodrama, placing it where it his existential counterpart (Camus is said to have more properly belonged, in the streets with everyday based The Stranger on McCoy), but he was a good people. In retrospect, the pre-de Rochemont film deal tougher than anything American fiction had noir looks definitely tamer than the post-War realis- seen. tic films. The studio look of films like When of the Forties turned to the and the mask of DiMiTRios blunts their sting, American making "tough" moral understrata, the hard- them seem polite and conventional in contrast to boiled school was waiting with preset conventions their later, more realistic counterparts. of heroes, minor characters, plots, dialoque and The German influence. Hollywood played host themes. Like the German expatriates, the hard- to an influx of German expatriates in the Twenties boiled writers had a style made to order for film noir ; and Thirties, and these filmmakers and technicians and, in turn, they influenced noir screenwriting as had, for the most part, integrated themselves into much as the Germans influenced noir cinematog- the American film establishment. Hollywood never raphy. experienced the "Germanizaron" some civic- The most hard-boiled of Hollywood's writers was minded natives feared, and there is a danger of himself, whose script of double over-emphasizing the German influence in Holly- indemnity (from a James M. Cain story) was the best wood. written and most characteristically no/'r of the period. But when, in the late Forties, Hollywood decided was the first film which played to paint it black, there were no greater masters of film noir for what it essentially was: small-time, chiaroscuro than the Germans. The influence of unredeemed, unheroic; it made a break from the expressionist lighting has always been just romanticbeneath noir cinema of mildred pierce and the the surface of Hollywood films, and it is not BIG surpris- SLEEP. ing, in film noir, to find it bursting out full (Inbloom. its final stages, however, film noir adapted Neither is it surprising to find a larger number and then of bypassed the hard-boiled school. Manic, Germans and East Europeans working in film neurotic noir: post-1948 films such as kiss tomorrow , , , Franz GOODBYE, D.O. A., WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, WHITE Waxman, , John Brahm, Anatole heat, and are all post-hard-boiled: the Litvak, , Max Ophuls, John Alton, Doug- air in these regions was even too thin for old-time las Sirk, , , Max cynics like Chandler.) Steiner, Edgar G. Ulmer, Curtis Bernhardt, Rudolph Maté. STYLISTICS. There is not yet a study of the On the surface the German expressionist influ- stylistics of film noir , and the task is certainly too ence, with its reliance on artificial studio lighting, large to be attempted here. Like all film movements seems incompatible with post-war realism, with its film noir drew upon a reservoir of film techniques, harsh unadorned exteriors; but it is the unique and given the time one could correlate its tech-

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This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms niques, themes and causal elements into a stylistic a predetermim ed fate and an all-enveloping hope- schema. For the present, however, I'd like to point lessness. In ou iT of the past relates out some of film noir's recurring techniques. his history with i such pathetic relish that it is obvious ■ The majority of scenes are lit for night. there is no pe hofor any future: one can only take sit in the offices at midday with the shades pulled pleasure in rei living a doomed past, and the off. Ceiling lights are hung low and ■ A complex < chronological order is frequently used floor lamps are seldom more than five feet high. to reinforce th le feelings of hopelessness and lost One always has the suspicion that if the lights were time. Such fil ms as THE ENFORCER, THE KILLERS, all suddenly flipped on the characters would shriek mildred pierc E, , DEADLINE, and shrink from the scene like Count Dracula at out of the pa st and the killing use a convoluted sunrise. time sequence 5 to emerse the viewer in a time-dis- ■ As in German expressionism, oblique and verti- oriented but hi ighly stylized world. The manipulation cal lines are preferred to horizontal. Obliquity ad- of time, whett 1er slight or complex, is often used heres to the choreography of the city, and is in direct to reinforce noir a t principle: the how is always more opposition to the horizontal American tradition of important thar i the what. Griffith and Ford. Oblique lines tend to splinter a screen, making it restless and unstable. Light enters THEMES. laymond F Durgnat has delineated the the dingy rooms of film noir in such odd shapes- themes of filni noir in an excellent article in the jagged trapezoids, obtuse triangles, vertical slits- British Cineme i magazine ("The Family Tree of Film that one suspects the windows were cut out with Noir," August , 1970), and it would be foolish for a pen knife. No character can speak authoritatively meto attempti to redo his thorough work in this short from a space which is being continually cut into space. Durgna it divides film noir into eleven thematic ribbons of light. The /John Alton categories, an


This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms TWICE, DARK WATERS, , SO DARK THE did not shy away from that fact. The best and most NIGHT, THE GLASS KEY, THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS, and characteristically noir films- , , THE DARK MIRROR. , KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, D.O. A., The Wilder/Chandler double indemnity provided they live by night, and the big heat- stand at the a bridge to the post-War phase of film noir. The end of the period and are the results of self-aware- unflinching noir vision of double indemnity came ness. The third phase is rife with end-of-the-line noir as a shock in 1944, and the film was almost blocked heroes: the big heat and where the sidewalk ends by the combined efforts of Paramount, the Hays are the last stops for the urban cop, ace in the hole Office and star Fred MacMurray. Three years later, for the newspaper man, the -produced however, double indemnitys were dropping off the Spillane series (i the jury, the long wait, kiss me studio assembly lines. deadly) for the private eye, sunset boulevard for The second phase was the post-War realistic the Black Widow, white heat and kiss tomorrow period from 1945-'49 (the dates overlap and so do goodbye for the gangster, d.o.a. for the John Doe the films; these are all approximate phases for which American. there are many exceptions). These films tended Appropriately, the masterpiece of film noir was more toward the problems of crime in the streets, a straggler, kiss me deadly, produced in 1955. Its political corruption and police routine. Less roman- time delay gives it a sense of detachment and tic heroes like , and thoroughgoing seediness- it stands at the end of Charles McGraw were more suited to this period, a long sleazy tradition. The private eye hero, Mike as were proletarian directors like Hathaway, Dassin Hammer, undergoes the final stages of degradation. and Kazan. The realistic urban look of this phase He is a small-time "bedroom dick," and makes no is seen in such films as , qualms about it because the world around him isn't THE KILLERS, RAW DEAL, , UNION much better. , in his best performance, STATION, KISS OF DEATH, JOHNNY O'CLOCK, FORCE plays OF Hammer, a midget among dwarfs. Robert EVIL, DEAD RECKONING, , DARK Aldrich's teasing direction carries noir to its sleaziest PASSAGE, , THE SET-UP, T-MEN, CALL and most perversely erotic. Hammer overturns the NORTHSIDE 777, BRUTE FORCE, THE BIG CLOCK, THIEVES' underworld in search of the "great whatsit," and HIGHWAY, RUTHLESS, PITFALL, BOOMERANG!, and THEwhen he finally finds it, it turns out to be- joke of NAKED CITY. jokes- an exploding atomic bomb. The inhumanity The third and final phase of film noir, from and 1949- meaningless of the hero are small matters in '53, was the period of psychotic action and suicidal a world in which The Bomb has the final say. impulse. The noir hero, seemingly under the weight By the middle Fifties film noir had ground to a of ten years of despair, started to go bananas. The halt. There were a few notable stragglers, kiss me psychotic killer, who had in the first period been deadly, the Lewis/Alton the big combo, and film a subject worthy of study ( in the noir's epitaph, touch of evil, but for the most part dark mirror), in the second a threat (Richard a new style of crime film had become popular. Widmark in kiss of death), now became the active As the rise of McCarthy and Eisenhower demon- protagonist ( in kiss tomorrow strated, Americans were eager to see a more bour- goodbye). There were no excuses given for the geois view of themselves. Crime had to move to the in gun crazy- it was just "crazy." suburbs. The criminal put on a flannel suit and James Cagney made a neurotic comeback and his the footsore cop was replaced by the "mobile unit" instability was matched by that of younger actors careening down the expressway. Any attempt at like Robert Ryan and . This was the phase social criticism had to be cloaked in ludicrous af- of the "B" noir film, and of psychoanalytically-in- firmations of the American way of life. Technically, clined directors like Ray and Walsh. The forces of , with its demand for full lighting and personal disintegration are reflected in such films -ups, gradually undercut the German influence, as WHITE HEAT, GUN CRAZY, D.O. A., CAUGHT, THEY and was, of course, the final LIVE BY NIGHT, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, KISS blow to the "noir" look. TOMORROW GOODBYE, DETECTIVE STORY, IN A LONELY New directors like Seigel, Fleischer, Karlson and PLACE, I THE JURY, ACE IN THE HOLE, PANIC IN THE Fuller, and TV shows like , M-Squad, Lineup STREETS, THE BIG HEAT, , and Highway Patrol stepped in to create the new and sunset boulevard. crime drama. This transition can be seen in Samuel This third phase is the cream of the film noir Fuller's 1953 , a film which period. Some critics may prefer the early "gray" blends the black look with the scare. The water- melodramas, others the post-War "street" films, but front scenes with and film noir's final phase was the most aesthetically and are in the best noir tradition, but a later, dynamic sociologically piercing. After ten years of steadily fight in the subway marks Fuller as a director who shedding romantic conventions, the later noir films would be better suited to the crime school of the finally got down to the root causes of the period: middle and late Fifties. the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, per- sonal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability. The third-phase films were painfully self-aware; they Film noir was an immensely creative period- seemed to know they stood at the end of a long probably the most creative in Hollywood's history- tradition based on despair and disintegration and at least, if this creativity is measured not by its

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This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms peaks but by its median level of artistry. Picked at noir wasn't. criticism is interested in how random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film directors are different; film noir criticism is con- than a randomly selected silent , musical, cerned with what they have in common. western and so on. (A Joseph H. Lewis "B" film The fundamental reason for film noir' s neglect, noir is better than a Lewis "B" western, for exam- however, is the fact that it depends more on choreog- ple.) Taken as a whole period, film noir achieved anraphy than sociology, and American critics have unusually high level of artistry. always been slow on the uptake when it comes to Film noir seemed to bring out the best in visual style. Like its protagonists, film noir is more everyone: directors, cameramen, , interested in style than theme, whereas American actors. Again and again, a film noir will make the critics have been traditionally more interested in high point on an artist's career graph. Some direc- theme than style. tors, for example, did their best work in film noir American film critics have always been sociolo- (Stuart Heisler, Robert Siodmak, Gordon Douglas, gists first and scientists second: film is important , John Brahm, , as it relates to large masses, and if a film goes awry , ); other directors it is often because the theme has been somehow began in film noir and, it seems to me, never "violated" by the style. Film noir operates on oppo- regained their original heights (Otto Preminger, Ru- site principles: the theme is hidden in the style, and dolph Maté, , , Jules Das- bogus themes are often flaunted ("middle-class sin, , , Andre de Toth, values are best") which contradict the style. Al- and ); and other directors who made though, I believe, style determines the theme in great films in other molds also made great film noir every film, it was easier for sociological critics to (, Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, , discuss the themes of the western and , , Anthony Mann, apart from stylistic analysis than it was to do for , , and Stanley Ku- film noir. brick). Whether or not one agrees with this particu- Not surprisingly it was the gangster film, not the lar schema, its message is irrefutable: film noir film noir, which was canonized in The Partisan was good for practically every director's career. (Two Review in 1948 by Robert Warshow's famous essay, interesting exceptions to prove the case are King "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." Although Warshow Vidor and .) could be an aesthetic as well as a sociological critic, Film noir seems to have been a creative release in this case he was interested in the western and for everyone involved. It gave artists a chance to gangster film as "popular" art rather than as style. work with previously forbidden themes, yet had This sociological orientation blinded Warshow, as conventions strong enough to protect the mediocre. it has many subsequent critics, to an aesthetically Cinematographers were allowed to become highly more important development in the gangster film- mannered, and actors were sheltered by the cine- film noir. matographers. It was not until years later that critics were able to distinguish between great directors and great noir directors. The irony of this neglect is that in retrospect the Film noir' s remarkable creativity makes its long- gangster films Warshow wrote about are inferior to time neglect the more baffling. The French, of film noir. The Thirties gangster was primarily a course, have been students of the period for some reflection of what was happening in the country, time (Borde and Chaumenton's Panorama du Film and Warshow analyzed this. The film noir, although Noir was published in 1955), but American critics it was also a sociological reflection, went further until recently have preferred the western, the musi- than the gangster film. Toward the end film noir was cal or the gangster film to the film noir. engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the mate- Some of the reasons for this neglect are super- rials it reflected; it tried to make America accept ficial; others strike to the heart of the noir style. a moral vision of life based on style. That very For a long time film noir, with its emphasis on contradiction- promoting style in a culture which corruption and despair, was considered an abera- valued themes- forced film noir into artistically in- tion of the American character. The western, with vigorating twists and turns. Film noir attacked and its moral primitivism, and the gangster film, with its interpreted its sociological conditions, and, by the Horatio Alger values, were considered more Ameri- close of the noir period, created a new artistic world can than the film noir. which went beyond a simple sociological reflection, This prejudice was reinforced by the fact that film a nightmarish world of American mannerism which noir was ideally suited to the low budget "B" film, was by far more a creation than a reflection. and many of the best noir films were "B" films. This Because film noir was first of all a style, because odd sort of economic snobbery still lingers on in it worked out its conflicts visually rather than the- some critical circles: high-budget trash is consid- matically, because it was aware of its own identity, ered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash, it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological and to praise a "B" film is somehow to slight (often problems. And for these reasons films like kiss me intentionally) an "A" film. DEADLY, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE and GUN CRAZY There has been a critical revival in the U.S. over can be works of art in a way that gangster films the last ten years, but film noir lost out on that too.like SCARFACE, PUBLIC ENEMY and LITTLE CAESAR Can The revival was auteur (director) oriented, and film never be. Ill


This content downloaded from on Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:07:58 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms