FILM NOIR

In the course of a few weeks in the summer of 1946 – from mid-July to the end of August – The Maltese Falcon; Double Indemnity; Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and The Woman in the Window opened in Paris cinemas. The French had seen nothing from the States during the German Occupation and these movies re-introduced them to Hollywood. But the stories these movies told, fatalistic tales of self-destruction, were startlingly different from pre-war Hollywood escapism. The GIs who had liberated Paris had been radiant with victory, tossing out cigarettes and chewing gum from their tanks – the kind of Americans for whom defeat is unthinkable. These black and white films on the screens of Paris, however, offered something very different from the familiar stereotype. The French critic Nino Frank coined a name for this new American movie: film noir.

Film noir does more than question the prevailing American ideology; it subverts it entirely. Optimism becomes pessimism; freedom turns into fatalism; self-interest, the heart of the American Dream, is portrayed as heartless alienation. How did such a dark vision find an audience in the U.S. during the war and the wake of the Allied victory, a victory driven by a resurgence of American economic and military power?

Critics have turned to the social conditions of post-WWII America to explain their appeal of noir films to American audiences. Men were returning from combat conditions in which they had witnessed brutalities that would have been unthinkable in their peacetime lives. Women had had to set their domestic duties aside and assume independent lives in the workplace. Many marriages had been a hasty response to desperate circumstances. Wives without husbands had found intimacy elsewhere. After years of high-adrenalin combat men returned to routines of work and domesticity. For both men and women it was a period of difficult readjustment. The world was at peace at last…or was it? The war against the Axis powers had barely been concluded when another war – the Cold War with the Soviet Union – had begun. Though not a “hot war,” this conflict carried the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

What began as American noir in the 40s became a style adopted globally: in Europe, Latin America, even Japan. Our program includes examples from France (Le Samourai) and Britain (The Third Man, set in Post-war Vienna), as well as two American classics, Murder, My Sweet and Sunset Boulevard.

 

FILM NOIR VISUAL AESTHETICS

  • Low-key lighting and dramatic chiaroscuro contrasts of light and dark
  • Deep focus
  • Distorting mise-en-scene : tension-inducing, oblique and vertical compositional lines
  • Jarring juxtapositions between shots involving extreme changes in camera angles
  • Claustrophobic framing

 

FILM NOIR STORY ELEMENTS

  • Alienated, reactive male protagonist
  • A femme fatale
  • The setting (usually urban) is a major character
  • A convoluted, fatalistic plot: an unsuccessful struggle to control events
  • Protagonist’s voice-over narration
  • Trust/betrayal theme
  • An anxious, foreboding mood

Eric Nelson