Blog Directory CineVerse: That was then, this is noir

That was then, this is noir

Thursday, May 28, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Like a sultry femme fatale with a lit cigarette dangling erotically from her fingers and a dastardly scheme festering in her clever head, the dark and delectable film noir movie is as irresistible today as it was nearly 70 years ago when it was introduced.

"Film noir", a term invented by French critics, is used to define a pessimistic brand of movies that incorporates formulaic themes such as inescapable fates and emasculating females, and employs shadowy compositions and urbanized settings to frame its bleak images.

In his definitive text on the genre, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, author Foster Hirsch describes film noir as a descriptive term for the "dark, brooding, doom-laden films that emerged from Hollywood after World War II...ranging from claustrophobic studies of murder and psychological entrapment to more gene
ral treatments of criminal organizations."

Known as more than simple gumshoe detective flicks, murder mysteries or crime thrillers, noir films usually depict complex, morally ambiguous characters lured by evil temptations, many who come to violent or tragic ends, like Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity" (1944) or James Cagney ("Top a' the world, Ma!") in "White Heat" (1949). Diabolical "femme fatales" like Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) seduce naive men into committing murder. And themes of gloom, deadly lurking fate, dangerous eroticism, and double-crossing partners play out across grim cityscapes seething with shadows.

"These are stories about corruption, especially of the rich and powerful," says Daniel M. Kimmel, past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics, current reviewer for the Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette, local correspondent for Variety, and adjunct film professor at Suffolk University. "Though individuals may be able to turn the tide in one instance, the problems of the larger society remain."

Although some noirs are predictably formulaic in their acting, hardboiled language, and dark visuals--while others depict an all-too-gritty realism and knack for the streetwise vernacular--superb writing, directing and acting are trademarks of the vast majority of these movies.

"The obvious visual characteristic of the noi
r genre, the shadows which seem to breathe evil, certainly speaks to our sense that there is danger lurking out there, especially in the urban environment," adds Dan Gribbin, Professor of English at Ferrum College, Virginia, where he teaches an Introduction to Film class that focuses on the noir genre. "But most noir films end up emphasizing that the real evil lies inside the protagonist--and it's usually drawn out of him by a woman."

Noir must also have both a romance angle and a mystery angle without crossing the line into either gothic horror or run of the mill crime drama, says film scholar Jennifer Kramer, board member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. "The staging and overall visual style must be claustrophobic. The dramatic focus should be on one person or a couple, at most a romantic triangle."

Film historians argue that the hundreds of noir films released after WWII was a reflection of the underlying nihilistic world view that emerged following the most violent of wars, and the seething pessimism that accompanied the onset of
the Cold War.

"Film noir is a genre born of post-WWII disillusionment," says Kimmel. "They're generally urban dramas in which people make tragically wrong decisions, or find that fate has set them a path of betrayal and self-destruction."

Kimmel says that one of the best noir moments that typify the movement occurs at the opening of "D.O.A." (1950). "The film begins with a character reporting a murder: his own. He's been poisoned and there's no antidote. The movie is told in flashback as he tells the story of his downfall and ends with his inevitable death."

The noir era began with a bang, arguably, in 1941 with "The Maltese Falcon," starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade, and built up steam with subsequent films like "To Have and Have Not," "Out of the Past," and "Criss Cross." Silver screen noirs became fewer and far between in the 1950s, and arguably reached its golden age denouement in 1958 with Orson Welles' seething "Touch of Evil."

More than a decade passed and it wasn't until the early 70s, when the nation was gripped by gloom--spurred on by political disillusionment (Watergate, Nixon's resignation) and problems abroad (OPEC manipulation, the bitternes
s of the Vietnam War)--that noir enjoyed a comeback. In the midst of this depression, a wave of neo-noir movies was released that seemed to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of 1970s America. Hollywood appeared to be returning to the thematic and formalistic characteristics quintessential of the discarded noir tradition-only this time with color, a la pictures like "Klute," "Dirty Harry," "The Godfather" I and II, "Chinatown," and "Taxi Driver." Each brought back the look and feel of classic noir with its negative worldview and explosive themes of corruption, inherent urban violence, and dangerous sexuality.

"Perhaps director Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976) best helped to propel us into a new era of noir films in which the evil is powerful but much more difficult to categorize," says Gribbin. "It was no longer a question of black and white anymore." Despite its resurrection-of-sorts in the '70s, some film purists argue that film noir rigidly encompasses the period between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, and that its kind has long since died out as a form of filmmaking, let alone a movement. Many others insist that the noir tradition has resurfaced with a vengeance in a number of contemporary movies, and is, even now, alive and well in film and television offerings.

The modern look of dark cinema Indeed, the grays may have given way to color, but there's no denying that noir themes and motifs continue to resonate onscreen and sell tickets, as evidenced in more recent films like "Sin City," "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Jade," "The Crying Game," "Reservoir Dogs," "Shallow Grave," and "Bound."

Classic noir made stars out of many top actors--including Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, and Veronica Lake--and became the canvas of choice for signature directors from Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder to Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak. Contemporary noirs have also been career builders for stars like John Travolta, Dennis Hopper, Linda Fiorentino and Nicholas Cage, and the perfect framework for modern directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and John Dahl.

"Noir proper may be rooted in wartime and postwar paranoia, but there are elements to neo-noir that are timeless and, most conveniently, easily adaptable to low-budget filmmaking," says Kramer. "That's why neo-noir has always been a staple genre in the video-debut B movie market and always will be. Kimmel says that the genre has even made a transformation into science-fiction, as evidenced in films such as "Blade Runner" and "Species." "There can be happy endings, but the statement on the society where the story takes place is almost inevitably downbeat."

Noir that raised the bar
Some things never go out of style, like blue jeans, Chanel No. 5, and our collective craving for movies about dark, dirty deeds. Here are 10 classic films noir that stand the test of time:

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • Laura (1944)
  • Mildred Pierce (1945)
  • The Big Sleep (1946)
  • Gilda (1946)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
  • Out of the Past (1947)
  • Lady From Shanghai (1948)
  • Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

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