Free Film School #77: What the @#$% is Noir?

Professor Witney Seibold ponders the influence, the origins, and the virtues of film noir before giving you about 50 recommendations. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

I'd like to thank you for indulging my Free Film School lecture from last week wherein I described a dream I had about a closing video store, and led to a somewhat personal rant about the importance of video stores in particular, and the importance of having physical venues wherein to get your film education in general. (And yes, I do realize the irony of praising physical education venues at a specialty film school that lives merrily online, here in the hallowed cyber-halls of CraveOnline.) I don't usually get so personal, but I felt it was an important lesson, and an elegy to a way of life that has withered a bit over the last decade. Now go order a t-shirt from Cinefile Video.

To shift gears a bit, this week's lecture is going to be one of my subgenre lectures, wherein I look at an entire class of films, investigate its origins, and ponder its long-reaching influence. And, when it comes to this week's particular subgenre, there is a lot of ground to cover. There was a time, it seems, sometime beginning in the mid 1930s, and lasting until the late 1950s when film noir seemed to be the reigning king of the movie theaters.

What is film noir? Well, I'm sure many of you know already, and those who can't rattle off a ready definition probably have at least a general idea as to what I'm referring to, although the exact source of the term and the first film that could be considered film noir is tricky to pin down. The word “noir,” at the very least, is the French word for “black,” and film noir is, most typically, noted for its extensive and striking use of particularly stark lighting and dark shadows. It's pronounced "nwaahr." There are a few films that could be considered “noir” that are made in color, but the noir aesthetic frequently refers to black-and-white photography. “Noir” also, perhaps, refers to the content of the film, as noir flicks typically trace the lives of urban-bound cons, criminals, gamblers, prostitutes and other seedy folks who either occupy the “low” aspects of life, or merely dabble in it. By that definition, noir films are still being made with regularity. Noir films spend most of their times indoors, often feature guns, smoking, and large amounts of money, although a good noir film can also be a mere heist picture, or even a cop film. Crime, however, must necessarily be involved. Film noir is also typically all about males (just like most movies, sigh), and women tend to be supporting characters in the men's lives, either as temptresses and indicators of criminal activity, or tragic lovers doomed to die with their mates. Whenever a woman is presented as a good, pure-hearted gal in a noir flick, you can be pretty certain that she will die by the end of the film.

Indeed, many noir films have been accused of casual misogyny, and I have no defense against that. A lot of these films are outwardly sexist, and often depict some ugly scenes that feature violence against women. But more than that, I feel that film noir also brought an element of hothouse sexuality to movies that was not often seen in mainstream entertainment. I don't know the origin of the term “femme fatale,” but it was noir films that brought this notion into the popular consciousness (first through pulp novels, and then through movies). All of a sudden, women could be outwardly dangerously sexy, an important facet to keep intact after the infamous Hays Code put the kibosh on so many frothy sexy comedies of their day. A lot of noirs are centered around “bad girls” who turn otherwise decent criminals to seed. Indispensable noir classics like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Out of the Past (a truly awesome film with Robert Mitchum) are all centered on a wicked woman. Many of these women were based on earlier silent sirens like Theda Bara and Louise Brooks who starred in cautionary scare films, but with noir, the caution was a little less cautionary (and certainly less preachy).

Consider this: Smoking didn't used to be cool. It was just something you did casually. When sex was taken out of movies by the Hays Code, film noir stepped up their game by adding cigarettes to movies as ersatz sex objects. Now we could see sexy lips wrapping around a cigarette, or have a sort-of simulated sex act in the lighting and trading of smokes. I have heard some sociologists go so far as to posit that American smoking habits are directly related to the sexualizing of cigarettes in film noir.

Also, and this is an important element to remember: When people refer to film noir, they are typically also referring to the ineffable cool that comes with the genre. Noir films can be kind of sophisticated, and follow gentlemen criminals in nice suits and fedoras, and they can also be about grimy, dumb Chandler-esque alcoholics who sweat through their dirty undershirts, and seem incapable of human communication other than grunting and punching people, but, thanks to their style, noir films nevertheless tend to exude a certain element of class and coolness that other crime flicks lack. Film noir may be about a dark and dreary side of illegal urban living, but, when done right, there's a sort of romance involved in the lifestyle. The romance may inevitably be seen as tragic (someone is always going to die horribly, often bleeding to death after a gunshot), but tragic romance is still romantic. Maybe even more so.

Another important conceit about film noir: It is largely predicated on the notion of hero-lessness. Noir films hardly ever feature the heroic cop as their central character, and the protagonists are never righteous or even moral. If the central character is a policeman, they are usually a corrupt policeman. No, the heroes of noir films are always antiheroes, up to no good, looking to connive or double-cross. The thrill of film noir comes not only from the tragic romance of fringe living, but the vicarious thrill of living through the evils of another. It's been said by critics greater than myself that film noir (along with other “dark” genres like horror films and revenge flicks) provides a perfectly healthy outlet for audiences who are secretly harboring violent criminal fantasies. They can, for a few moments, at least pretend to go on the lam with a slutty gal and a suitcase fulla cash.

The term “film noir” was first coined in 1946 by a critic named Nino Frank, who used it to describe a rising trend in American filmmaking toward the criminal. The title of film noir, however, can easily be cast on films stretching back to the silent era. Indeed, much of film noir's aesthetic roots lies in the artistic movement known as German Expressionism, which incorporates, to offer a brief summation to the uninitiated, a series of German-produced horror movies made during the '10s and '20s marked by their surreal sets, stark lighting, and gut-wrenching grand guignol content. If you've seen any silent horror movies (i.e. Nosferatu or perhaps The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) then you've likely seen a piece of German Expressionism. It's no wonder, then, that many of the earliest of noir films were made by German filmmakers. The German Expressionist movement, however, was a country-wide trend, and covered more than just films.

A legitimate noir classic is Fritz Lang's German crime epic M from 1931. M is a film about a child murderer (and possibly molester, although that's not made explicit) and how his crimes are considered so unbelievably heinous by the local police force that a citywide crackdown in instigated, forcing all the city's regular criminals into hyper-aware mode. The crackdown so angers the underworld that there is, in turn, a crackdown on the child killer himself by the city's criminals. Eventually we see the killer give his speech. He is played by Peter Lorre in one of his more famous roles. The killer's speech is a plaintive explanation that he cannot help what he does. M is not so much about the killer, but a general story about various groups of cops and crooks. Fritz Lang was also the man behind a series of noir-ish German-language crime films featuring a recurring character named Dr. Mabuse, as well as the hard-boiled 1936 English-language noir Fury. Aside from M, Lang's best noir film is possibly his 1953 flick The Big Heat, which intentionally lacked a lot of the director's known flare in favor a much more spare and down-home aesthetic, very similar to what Hitchcock did with Psycho. The story involved bombings, dirty criminals, and a woman who is horribly scarred on her face. It's raw and excellent.

The 1930s in America saw a rise of horror movies (which you know about thanks to Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy), so a lot of studios began cashing in on the craze by not just offering up a myriad of ghouls and monsters, but by also monstering up their crime landscape as well. I wouldn't necessarily say that gangster pictures count as film noir, but they do have all the trappings: criminal protagonists, romanticizing of the criminal lifestyle, a striking aesthetic, and no small amount of sexuality. Films like Scarface, and the James Cagney classics Little Caesar and The Public Enemy came out during this phase. Once the war began, and many German filmmakers fled to the states, a sudden influx of noir films began to take solid shape in this crime-ridden cinematic landscape. By the 1940s, film noir was in full swing.

Soon, the genre was everywhere, and it's hard to make a definitive list of classic noir greats from the 1940s because there are so many great films to choose from. Where do you start? Well, why not start with Billy Wilder's awesome swindle flick Double Indemnity from 1944? Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck play an adulterous couple would would murder her husband and collect on the insurance money. The film is so sweaty and sexy and amazingly dark, it's had not to fall under its spell. Double Indemnity is one of the crown jewels in film noir's crown. Billy Wilder also made one of the best films about Hollywood ever made with his noir-ish showbiz satire Sunset Boulevard in 1950. I don't want to get into Sunset Boulevard here otherwise we'll never get home. That film will warrant a lecture on its own someday.

I mentioned that many noirs are predicated on the notion of a “bad girl” who seduces an otherwise straight arrow into a life of crime, and one of my favorite “bad girl” noirs is from the 1950 cheapie Gun Crazy, directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Gun Crazy is not entirely complex or even considered to be an exemplar of style, but there's an appealing campy cheapness to the proceedings that give the film power and style. Gun Crazy is about a guy named Bart (John Dall) who is a skilled shooter and proper gun nut, even though he has never done anything criminal. A sexy blonde named Annie (Peggy Cummins), also a gun nut, convinces/seduces/haplessly mentions that the two of them are kindred spirits, and we get the sense that these two are destined to murder people with handguns. A cloud of romantic doom forms over their heads. Gun Crazy features an awesome sequence shot from inside a car, and we witness a heist through the windshield.

No discussion of film noir would be complete without a mention of Raymond Chandler, the famous mystery author whose work perhaps inspired every single private investigator story to follow it. Chandler only wrote a few novels in his life, but the films based on them were so popular and so influential, it could even be said that Chandler birthed American film noir, even though he wasn't a film director. But, get this: Chandler wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity. The 1946 film version of Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep starred Humphrey Bogart, was directed by Howard Hawks, and is often cited at the best noir film ever made. The story is, according to all who have seen it, impossible to follow, but the tone, they say, is incredible to experience. The simmering sexuality pouring off of a young Lauren Bacall will make anyone's underpants explode. Chandler wasn't entirely prolific, and only about a dozen films have been based on his work over the years, but when it came to establishing the hard-boiled life of the brash and down-on-his-luck private detective, Chandler most certainly codified it.

The noir trend continued to hit big all throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Famous directors not only made a name for themselves with hard-boiled crime stories, but many established directors explored the genre openly. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, for instance, could be considered noir films. 1951's Strangers on a Train is definitely noir, and I would personally include 1946's Notorious. John Huston, the great American director, was the mastermind behind the celebrated noir films Key Largo and The Maltese Falcon, both with Humphrey Bogart. Even the venerated Orson Welles made several noir films, including the pretty good The Lady from Shanghai and the 1958 classic Touch of Evil, often considered his last great film. Seriously. This would also be a good time to mention The Third Man.

I don't have time here to talk about Edward G. Ullmer, Samuel Fuller, or Otto Preminger, but I encourage you to track down those three directors' filmographies. You'll find some of the great American noirs came from them.

I will take a brief pause to mention some more of my favorites, though, and detail the parallel movement of French noir. By the late 1940s and early1950s, noir had become so codified that its influence began to leak back to Europe, and a new generation of French filmmakers began to make ultra-stylized pastiches to the famed American film movement. Now the criminals were even cooler, the ennui even more powerful, and the style all the more impressive. Some of the French noir filmmakers even started shooting in color (which may or may not be verboten in noir filmmaking, depending on whom you ask). Filmmakers like Henri-George Clouzot made the “bad girl” noir Les Diaboliques, and the cop thriller Quai des Orfevres. Jacques Becker made Casque D'Or and the truly excellent Touchez Pas au Grisbi. 1955 saw the release of Rififi, one of the best heist movies ever made, and featuring a famous extended heist sequence with no dialogue at all.

My favorite of the French noir filmmakers is Jean-Pierre Melville, who named himself after Herman Melville, so much he loved Moby-Dick. In 1955, Melville made the film Bob le Flambeur, about a heist gone wrong, but also gone kinda right. His films, while possessed of a tragic edge, always struck me as being playfully self-aware. His characters all seemed to be positioning themselves after previous noir heroes, rather than just being themselves. As such, the tragedy was often undercut with a stylish joyfulness that's hard to define. By the time he made his 1967 film Le Samouraï, Melville was clearly helping to invent a sort of post-noir movement, which was more of an homage to noir than legitimate noir in itself. Melville will also warrant a lecture of his own someday.

I'm sorry to be rattling off so many names and titles, but I think the encyclopedic nature of this lecture just goes to prove the volume and quality of the noir movement. Not only was it far-reaching and prolific, but the percentage of actual quality output to come from the genre is much higher than other genres. Of course, a wide swath of films can fit comfortably under the aegis of “noir,” and many crime flicks call themselves “noir” without necessarily being noir, so it may be unfair to cite the genre as the crux of the quality. In more recent years, many serial killer thrillers – distant children of The Silence of the Lambs and Seven – are attempting to claim the noir appellation, with dubious veracity. But the notion of the classic crime drama still lingers in the popular consciousness. Many fans of older films tend to point to the noir films of the '40s and '50s as being the true representation of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, and given how many dang titles I've bothered to namecheck in this lecture, it's hard to argue.

What happened to noir? Well, like all popular trends, it sort of evolved. By the 1960s, the age of the noir was clearly at an end, and the tone had shifted. More and more films were being made in color, and crime dramas fell out of the public eye. Stories of criminals soon shifted into grindhouses and other exploitation venues, and violence increased. The hard-boiled detective story, once seen as so gritty and sexy, was now viewed as being old-fashioned and even hokey. Occasionally, you'd have a film like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), which was a modern update of the Phillip Marlowe character, but that feels more like an Altman film than a proper noir. Ditto for Roman Polanski's Chinatown. It is of a decidedly different vintage. These days, the notion of a detective story is rarely as cool or as stylish as they used to be, as most neo-noirs tend to be more and more stylish pastiches. I'm looking at you, Sin City.

But watching some of these old noir films today, you don't get a whiff of hokeyness. Indeed, classic noir films of the '50s still possess their wicked subversive qualities, and they still have the cool intact. Watching some of those hot actresses smoking cigarettes is still pretty damn sexy. Sure, the casual misogyny is still in there, but I would hope we're enlightened enough to enjoy the films and still understand that the misogyny is a thing of the past. There's even a charm to hearing Humphrey Bogart call a woman called a “dame.”

So enjoy. Noir is timeless in a funny way. If you know a lot about noir films, you are cooler. Get to watching.

Homework for the Week:

See how many recommendations I just gave you? Start with any of those. How should crime flicks be told? What is the secret to constructing a proper antihero? How do the various filmmakers above elicit sympathy for an immoral character? Do you think sex is handled well in older movies, or is a more direct approach more effective? Do you prefer if noir films are stark and dark and stylized, or more natural?

Follow Professor Witney Seibold on Twitter at @WitneySeibold to hear his random musings and bizarre mind escapees.