The shadows, the femme fatale, the private investigator, the murder. The year is 1946, the end to a very long drought of American cinema in the war-torn Europe. The duration of World War II had left French cinemas without any taste of Hollywood, bringing a 6-year flood of films to replenish thirsty critics. A cinematic phenomenon was born.
Before jumping into the birth of film noir (French for “black film”), we must go back to its roots. Names such as Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M, You Only Live Once), a Polish refugee of the war, played with noir themes in 1931, long before the Classic Era began in 1944. Considered by most to be more of a proto-noir, M lacks a few of the most important noir themes, like the infamous femme fatale — a mysterious female character who, through seduction and charm, ensnares the hero, usually resulting in the deaths of other characters and sometimes herself. M focused much more on the black-and-white contrast in its cinematography, using shadows and non-traditional camera angles to induce feelings of discomfort or imply mental imbalance of characters and sketchy behavior. A notable scene is found in the opening, as a mother awaits the return of her daughter from school. Various shots including the girl’s dinner setting and the clock on the wall cast defined shadows, adding to the stress and uncertainty brought by the daughter’s absence. Such Germanic influence would continue to be seen throughout film for the next two decades.
Now, I don’t mean to sound unprofessional, but part of me just wants to write these on the more informal side. D’s much more English-minded than me, so I’d rather write as if I were talking. GO EXPERIENCE FILM NOIR. I was fortunate enough to take a class under a seasoned film-goer, Dr. Noble, and voice my opinion on every film we watched. Our class discussions centered around everything from cinematography to lighting to existentialism (of which there’s a TON of). I even wrote a research paper solely on the use of shadows, zeroing in on a particular scene in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Honestly, Billy Wilder is a madman. He’s like Kubrick in the sense that he has mastered multiple genres. Just take into account his film noir masterpieces that are Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, his Oscar-winning “dramedy” The Apartment, and even his Marilyn Monroe hit Some Like It Hot, ALL of which are on IMDb’s Top 250 list and AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies.
Without getting into too much detail, let’s talk about the order in which one should watch films noir (that’s the plural form, surprisingly). M should definitely be your starting point, no question. It obviously took a little time for the influence to take form, but we see it pretty subtly in The Stranger on the Third Floor. Now don’t be too tough on this as a film. It was considered a b-film — created with a smaller budget (as low as $3,000), played at the theater before the audience watched the feature presentation. To put that in perspective, larger films costed anywhere from $190,000 – $250,000 to make in the 1930s and 40s. Having a smaller budget allowed directors to play with low-key lighting, as high-key (better quality, more full) lighting was much more expensive. B-films were being cranked out like crazy as production studios attempted to fill theater seats at a low-cost.
After you’ve dipped your toe in, we come to 1944: the Golden Year. The year the big three were released. Double Indemnity, which I’d call the king of lighting and flashbacks; Murder, My Sweet, known for its most notable femme fatale; and The Woman in the Window, which is just full of Freudian allusions (i.e. puddles, mirrors, the id). Something else to keep in mind as you watch, the Classic Era was also at the time of the Hays Code. It’s basically a list of rules that must be followed by filmmakers, forcing the “good guy” to always win and the “bad guy” to always learn a moral lesson from his actions. Kind of lame, but you get used to it.
We’ll go ahead and leave the “brief look” at that. Who knows, soon I may need to write a continuation post — A Brief Look at Film Noir II: Judgment Day.
Connelly 4/26/17 ♞