Watching The Detectives

The genre of film noir has made an indelible impact on cinema, says Josh Stephenson.

“I get into my office a little after nine. My hangover follows me in five minutes later. That’s just how it goes. You spend the morning trying to chase it away, but it always catches you in the end. Mornings like these need coffee. I make a cup and as I hold it in my hands I stare in to the dark swirl of seemingly bottomless liquid. The barista had asked me if I wanted milk; I told him those who add milk to coffee are just deluding themselves.

“Just as I go to take my first sip, the boss bursts into my office his face animated with rage. Apparently a name had been quoted incorrectly in a feature and some broad was kicking up a stink. It was my mistake, granted, but hardly worthy of all this aggravation. It seems I was wrong. Mornings like these need Irish coffee.

“Next thing I know a voice like honey over gravel calls out to me, “I gotta job for you, Stephenson.” I turned, completely unprepared for the sight that greeted me. It was a beautiful dame – mid-30s, 6-feet in 5-inch heels and with thick, dark hair that shimmered like wet asphalt. Her lips were a shade of red that could stop traffic. That is if her body didn’t first. She was a figure eight and a perfect ten. I regained my composure and asked her what she wanted: “I want you to write me a feature on film noir,” she drawled. At that moment I would have written her into my will if she’d asked. Little did I know that is exactly what she was planning…”

I think if the above proves anything, apart from the fact I will not be the next Raymond Chandler anytime soon, it is that there are few things more distinctive in this world than film noir. You know there needs to be a femme fatale pulling the strings. And you know that no one fit the genre’s grizzled hero character quite like Humphrey Bogart. Pretty simple stuff.

There is something about the film noir genre that has captivated audiences for over 60 years now, but just what is it?

“The classic noirs of the 1940s and 50s continue to appeal as they are vivid and stylish products of their time, that remain instantly recognisable and accessible to a contemporary audience,” explains Dr Michael Williams who teaches the film noir module at the University of Southampton. “The themes that noir addresses – crime, violence, sex, conflict between the genders, greed, sexual identity, and all that lurks within the darker side of the human psyche, while rooted in the mid-twentieth century – are perhaps no less relevant today.”

There is little doubt the modern world mirrors many of the same issues that the genre was born out of, but what were the main social factors that led to its rise?

“Crime has always been a staple of Hollywood cinema and, drawing from the gangster genre of the 1930s, with the influence of hard-boiled detective fiction by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s and 1930s, noir presented a new, darker, way of revitalising the genre,” says Dr Williams. “The social and economic hardship of the Great Depression had influenced many of those stories, but the upheaval of the rise of fascism in Europe, and the Second World War itself, is arguably the most significant factor in shaping the ‘noir’ of film noir. As well as the increasing number of émigré and exile filmmakers that had been bringing their talent, and the important perspective of the outsider, to Hollywood since the early 1930s, the war exposed the very darkest side of humanity.”

It is argued the first Hollywood film noir appeared in 1940 with Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor, or with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941. However, according to Dr Williams, the genre was starting to take shape well before then: “There are links back to Hollywood’s own history. This includes the gritty Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, and also the dangerously alluring ‘vamps’ of the 1910s and 1920s, which evolved into the ‘femme fatale’.

“There is also the well-known link to German Expressionist Cinema of the late 1910s to the early 1930s, with its chiaroscuro mise-en-scène, (chiaroscuro is Italian for the strong contrast between light and dark in visual art), distorted camera angles echoing its psychologically disturbed characters, and arguably echoing a wider post-war trauma.”

How did the filmmakers of the time go about trying to capture this fear and unease and distil it within their pictures? What were the tricks of the trade that elevated movies such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep into the cult canon and formed the basis for what we have come to expect from a film noir?

“A good film noir needs to have crime and deception its heart, it will often be violent and claustrophobic, and have distinctive, stylish, striking monochrome visuals. Shadows and chiaroscuro lighting will predominate, with figures lurking in semi-darkness, with window frames, bars, and the ubiquitous venetian blinds, cutting across those visuals,” explains Dr Williams. “The characters will consist of strong women and weak men – usually with an alluring, scheming and deadly femme fatale, who entraps flawed, damaged, men who seem to consistently make bad decisions.”

If you have experience of noir films, you will know that it can be almost impossible to follow exactly what is going on. Of course, this is all part of the fun and if you can follow the plot of The Big Sleep on first viewing, then you are either lying to yourself or a genius. For the fans of the genre, however, this is just part of the appeal.

“Narratives will be non-linear and sometimes downright confusing, punctuated by flashbacks and subjective voiceovers that mislead us, with motives that are often unclear, and protagonists often worn down by fatalism,” says Dr Williams. “Ultimately, noirs need to be as vivid as the flash of a gunshot in the darkness, but as murky as a foggy street at midnight.”

While it may seem a quintessentially American genre there have been numerous film noirs made in Europe. The term ‘film noir’ itself was first coined in France in 1946 by film critic, Nino Frank, and it seems that after the Second World War everybody was turning to noir to express themselves.

“In the late 1940s and 50s, it is not hard to find examples of European noir, sometimes directed by filmmakers either returning to Europe or fleeing the paranoia of the anti-communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era that affected so many in Hollywood, as with Jules Dassin’s 1950 Night and the City,” says Dr Williams. “Other British noirs include Robert Hamer’s wonderful film It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) from Ealing Studios, which, unlike many Hollywood noirs, had its focus on a female protagonist, played by Googie Withers. There were also the celebrated Graham Greene adaptations, Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949).

“These are films that share the visual style and key thematic concerns of American noir, but are deeply embedded in the European post-war cultural milieu.”

The original noir movement came to an end in 1958 with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, not just a great noir but also one of the greatest films ever made, making it a fitting end to an era of cinema that produced a collection of treasures that are still influencing filmmakers to this day. Yet, you cannot keep a good genre down and there have been many incredible films made over the past 50 years that pay homage to, and try to capture, that film noir essence. If you look at movies such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), which took a sun-drenched Los Angeles and made it feel like the darkest place on the planet, or Robert Altman’s fresh take on Phillip Marlowe in the brilliant The Long Goodbye (1973). Other gems include the twisting plot of L.A. Confidential (1997) and the hilarious Big Lebowski (1998). All incredible takes on the noir genre that prove its longevity and enduring human appeal. As it is, I will leave it to Dr Williams to sum up just what film noir means to all of us: “Wherever there is crime, sex, psychological trauma and anxiety, uncertain and changeable times, a desire to challenge, explore difference and ambiguity, and create unsettling atmospheres, noir will be there.”


Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1623937a)
The Maltese Falcon, Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.