The Elements of Film Noir

By Katie Gillespie

(TRU FILM 405 Film Noir student essay)

 

            One of my favourite films, a made for television “TNT Original” called A Slight Case of Murder (Steven Schachter, 1999), makes some interesting observations about the noir film genre. It stars the brilliant William H. Macy as Terry Thorpe, a film critic suspected of the murder of his lover. In one scene, Thorpe gives a lecture about film noir to a group of students. While speaking, Thorpe shows stills from classic films The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). Thorpe’s lecture is the first “lesson” about film noir I remember receiving:

The world is a dangerous place. This is the central theme of the noir film. The main character walks a cityscape rife with traps set to destroy him – like the great Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. The cast of characters includes the sleuth, the victim, and the hero – or more accurately, the anti-hero. He’s not a bad man, he’s a good man tripped up by fate. These are ordinary men whose small worlds start to close in on them. Dramas of claustrophobic desperation. For next time, I would like to present for your viewing edification, the 1946 MGM classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. And I would like to pose the following two questions for discussion – why, in the noir genre, is it always raining? And what do these people do during the day? Alright, read the chapters, go to the movies, and I’ll see you next week! 

Thorpe’s quip about it “always raining” in noir films is meant to poke fun at the genre, but there is some truth to what he says. In the noir genre, there are often scenes that take place in the rain, particularly murders (as in The Blue Dahlia, for example). As well, his comment inquiring about “what do these people do during the day?” is, while funny, a relevant question. Film noir, or “black film”, is known for its darkness, as the name itself suggests. Much of noir takes place at night, and stark contrasts between dark and light are typical. Although it is not a requirement, it is common for noir to be filmed in black and white.

In fact, much of Thorpe’s analysis of noir films is accurate. Certainly, films such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice possess the classic qualities he describes. However, after taking this course, I have come to question just what exactly qualifies as “film noir”. With each film that we have studied this semester, we have asked the crucial questions, “Does this film fit into the category of film noir?” and “Why, or why not?”. As well, I have begun to look at other films through the noir lens. Perhaps there are more exceptions than I had at first thought, and perhaps it is the case that certain films not usually considered as “noir” belong to this genre. At the very least, the noir influence can surely be seen in several films made after the period commonly thought of as the heyday of noir (i.e. 1941 – 1958). In this paper, I would like to examine some of the conventions of the noir genre, and to focus on a few select films in order to determine whether or not they can be thought of as belonging to the film noir genre. In looking at films commonly considered “classic noir” as well as some classified as “neo noir” or “modern noir”, I hope to learn how the film noir genre has been adapted in more recent times.

The reason I have chosen Terry Thorpe’s description of film noir as the main criteria for closer examination is because these characteristics are some of the most common stereotypes of the genre. In other words, in popular culture, these are the qualities that people tend to associate with the noir film. The fact that they are taught to students of noir as the key ingredients of the genre both on film and in real life lends credibility to this statement. I wanted to see if the conventional assumptions people have about the genre hold up when analyzing particular films, often thought of as “pure” noir, and if these so-called “requirements” of noir are applicable to other, more recent films. 

According to Terry Thorpe, the “central theme of the noir film” is that “the world is a dangerous place”. He says that “the main character walks a cityscape rife with traps set to destroy him”. This statement implies three things about the noir film. First of all, Thorpe presumes the main character must be a man. Secondly, the setting of a noir film is supposedly urban. Finally, the protagonist is destined to be destroyed. Let us examine each of these criteria, one by one.

Firstly, there is the assumption that the protagonist of a noir film is always male. Admittedly, this is true of many noir films. Consider Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity or Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon. Other famous examples include Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in Fritz Lang’s 1945 film Scarlet Street, Johnny Morrison  (Alan Ladd) in George Marshall’s 1946 The Blue Dahlia or Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in the 1946 film The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks. However, this is not always the case. Films such as Mildred Pierce (starring Joan Crawford) and Laura (starring Gene Tierney) have female protagonists, yet they are still considered to be noir. It could be argued that the women in these title roles are meant to be the femme fatales of the films, and that there are strong male stars in leading roles. However, while it is true that Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott) are important male characters in Mildred Pierce, and Laura would not be complete without Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson, Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker and Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter, these men can hardly be said to be the main characters of the films.

There are also more modern examples of noir, some of which support and some of which contradict the male protagonist theory. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner, often considered “neo noir” (as it combines some of the typical noir elements with science fiction) stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown also has a male main character, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). However, just as there are more recent films that could fall into the noir category with male protagonists, there are also some that, like Mildred Pierce and Laura, focus on women characters. As Nickolas Pappas notes in his article, “Failures of Marriage in Sea of Love (The Love of Men, the Respect of Women)”, “[s]omewhere among contemporary films noir lies a genre yet to be mapped out, in which women occupy classically male noir roles”. He continues:

The films of this group bring women to the centers of their plots, as

if to subvert the genre’s expectations, since these women behave

neither as victims nor as ornaments to a male agon, but as

instigators of the action. These purportedly subversive films

question the woman’s identity and therefore, one might feel inclined

to say, open their traditional themes – crime, love, the woman – to

new interpretations (Philosophy and Film, 109).

Some examples of such films listed by Pappas include 1987’s Fatal Attraction and 1992’s Basic Instinct. Two 1992 films, Single White Female (starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (starring Annabella Sciorra and Rebecca De Mornay) also depict female protagonists, despite their other noir-like elements. Likewise, the highly successful 1996 Coen brothers feature, Fargo, which could also be considered noir, features Frances McDormand as police officer Marge Gunderson. As we have seen, the assumption that the main character in a noir film is always a man is not necessarily true, though it is common.       

What is the effect of this element of noir films? That is, does the absence of a male protagonist make a film any less “noir”? I would like to propose that it does not. Though they may not be exactly the same, films with female main characters can still be noir. For example, in the article, “Missing Mothers/Desiring Daughters”, Naomi Scheman claims that Mildred Pierce “is a melodrama framed by a film noir” (Philosophy and Film, 95). It may simply be that the interactions between the characters are different. With a female protagonist, we do not get the typical sexual tension between the main character and the femme fatale. Rather, in Mildred Pierce for example, our protagonist is the title character and our femme fatale is her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). The tension between Mildred and Veda, although different from a couple such as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, is still a driving force in the film. Although there is no sexual attraction between the protagonist and the femme fatale in this case, sex is still an important issue. Consider Pam Cook’s article, “ Duplicity in Mildred Pierce” and its perception of the film in terms of gender and through psychoanalysis (e.g. Freud’s Oedipus complex). 

However, there does seem to be a difficulty in the integration of two different genres. For example, during our class discussion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, students seemed to come to the conclusion that although the film contained elements of both film noir and science fiction, the contrast between the two styles was too noticeable. That is to say, the noir and the sci-fi did not really fit together well, as a whole. Certain elements of each could be found and picked out of the film, but the separation between them was clear. The same may be true of Mildred Pierce, which can be viewed both as melodrama and as film noir.

This is an issue that Pam Cook also addresses in her article, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”. Cook claims that “the film does not fit easily into the category of film noir”. It seems the film is divided into different parts, which can be classified either as light or dark. Consider Cook’s assessment of the film’s genre:

Although the opening and closing sequences, and two short interruptions during the film, are shot in ‘classic’ noir style, the first two long flashback sequences in which Mildred tells the story of her past are significantly different, more evenly lit, few variations in camera angle, etc., except towards the end of the second flashback when Mildred realises that Monty has betrayed her and she ‘confesses’ to the murder, when noir mise en scène takes over Mildred’s discourse as well…The difference between the two forms of discourse (Mildred’s story and the framing noir discourse) is marked enough for some account of the function of this marking to be necessary.

Cook explains this difference of discourse in terms of gender. She says that “a basic split is created in the film between melodrama and film noir, between ‘Woman’s Picture’ and ‘Man’s Film’, a split which indicates the presence of two ‘voices’, female and male”. According to Cook, “In the process of resolution, melodrama, Mildred’s point of view, is displaced by film noir…when in the final flashback narrative and lighting codes combine with extreme camera angles and music to connote imminent chaos, and the truth about Monty’s murder is revealed”. Also, I find it interesting that Cook refers to the noir sections of Mildred Pierce as “interruptions”. This term has quite a negative connotation, and implies that the noir aspects of the film are inferior to, or get in the way of, the story told in the melodramatic style. Perhaps this is not what she had in mind when writing the article, but Cook’s use of the word “interruptions” certainly suggests a derogatory attitude toward the noir parts of the film. I do not believe Cook uses the term arbitrarily, as she repeats it later on in the article, again in reference to the noir parts of Mildred Pierce

Perhaps this difficulty in amalgamating two genres has to do with the fact that one of the genres is noir. After all, the genre of “comedy”, for example, seems to be much more versatile when it comes to combining with other genres. For example, Meg Ryan films such as When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989) and Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) cross comedy with romance. Danny DeVito’s 2002 picture Death to Smoochy is an example of a darker kind of comedy, and Mel Brooks’s 1993 Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a hilarious example of a spoof. The wide ranging possibilities of comedy include “romantic comedy”, “musical comedy”, and “black comedy”, to name just a few. It is possible that the problem in crossing genre boundaries arises specifically with film noir. This is not to say that there are no successful noir films besides those classified as “pure” noir. Take the 1952 film High Noon starring Gary Cooper, for example, often thought of as a “noir western”. As well, I do not intend to suggest that it is necessarily a bad thing that noir is difficult to integrate with other genres. As Cook explains in her analysis of Mildred Pierce, the combination of (yet clear separation between) melodrama and film noir acts as a tool in the film. The distinction between the two can be considered an asset rather than a liability or a weak point in the construction of the film.

It is also worthy of note that the noir scenes of the film are set in the present whereas the melodramatic scenes take place in the past. This is yet another distinction between the two genres, in addition to the different purposes each serves in the film. In the end, as Cook states, “[t]he split between melodrama and film noir is overcome by the force of the Law”. Once justice has been served (that is, once Veda is revealed to be the real killer), Bert and Mildred are “reconstituted as a couple”. Cook sees this reunion in a very negative light, interpreting the women Bert and Mildred walk past as “support[ing] the patriarchal institution by scrubbing the steps of the police station”. She explains that “[t]hey remain as a reminder of the consequences which would ensue should ‘illicit’ or ambiguous couplings become a possibility again”.

Having established that it is possible for a noir film to have either a male or a female protagonist (and thereby voiding Terry Thorpe’s first assumption about the genre), let us now move on to his next point. Characteristically, the noir film is set in the city. This is an important quality of noir, and it is almost always the case. Perhaps the best example of this would be Fritz Lang’s incredibly influential 1927 film, Metropolis. As we are told by the title, a synonym for “city”, Metropolis has an urban setting. Much of the film focuses on the futuristic architecture and technology of the city. Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk film Blade Runner is also set in a futuristic city, specifically, Los Angeles, 2019. Other examples of noir films set in major cities include The Blue Dahlia (Hollywood), Scarlet Street (New York) or Chinatown (Los Angeles).

Part of the reason noir films tend to have urban settings is because this lends a gritty, dirty, darker feel to them. It may not make sense for characters to be wearing trench coats in California, but nevertheless, films set in the city are able to provide an authenticity that could not be obtained anywhere else. Consider, for example, Edward Dimendberg’s comments on German director Fritz Lang from the article “Down these Seen Streets A Man Must Go: Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Hollywood’s Terror Films,’ and the Spatiality of Film Noir”:

Two of his films, M (1931) and Scarlet Street, present similar representations of urban space, a claim that could not be made about the German and American films of any other émigré director…The scenes in M involve groups engaged in some common action, be it a mob attacking an innocent man or the police or underworld conducting surveillance of the street. In each instance, we are made to understand how the city is a socially charged space, a polarized ground fought over by competing, collectively organized agents…By contrast, the Manhattan intersection we observe from an elevated distance in Scarlet Street is without social conflict. It contains no mobs and is rendered threatening only by a fierce rain storm. Cars, buses, and nameless strangers pass by Chris and Charlie. If the collective occupies the city in M, here, we find a reversal of the figure/ground relationship in which the emptiness of the street – the absence of a crowd – seems to weigh heavily upon the two characters (118-119). 

Each of these Lang films, set in the city, has a distinct effect because of the urban setting. Whereas the crowd is what is disturbing and chaotic in M, in Scarlet Street, it is the lack of people on the city streets which is unnerving.

            The urban setting of a noir film can have a dramatic psychological impact on the protagonist. This is seen in Scarlet Street, as Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) becomes separated from society. As Dimendberg points out, in the film’s final shots: “an urban crowd dissolves into an image of Chris wandering the city as a social outcast. The experience of isolation is represented spatially and suggests that the metropolis is the arena in which the émigré or exile lives separated from the larger social order” (119). His loss of self and descent into madness are represented by his isolation from the rest of the city. Cross is traumatized by what has happened, and just as he can never recover his former self, he is unable to reintegrate himself into society. Instead, he is doomed to be alone in a city full of people, a prisoner of his own internal torments.

            The role of the urban setting in noir films seems especially prominent to me in another more recent film, Polanski’s Chinatown. What stands out in my mind, specifically, is the climactic final sequence, in which Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is shot to death while trying to escape from her abusive father, Noah Cross (John Huston) with her sister/daughter. Here, the use of space on a city street is employed with an incredibly dramatic effect. There is silence, followed by the incessant honking of a car horn, at which point the audience slowly realizes what must have happened. Evelyn has been shot, and having slumped forward onto the steering wheel, her body is leaning up against the car horn causing the loud, obnoxious sound. At first, the street is relatively empty, but it gradually fills with people as a crowd gathers to witness the accident. This invasion of people upon such a private scene as death occurs logically on an urban street. The tragedy of Evelyn’s death becomes perverted as a mob forms, filled with the grotesque fascination to discover what has happened.

            Both Scarlet Street and Chinatown are examples of films in which one (or more) of the main characters is destroyed. According to Terry Thorpe’s description of noir films, the main character is beset by traps that will inevitably get the best of him. The protagonist of the film is typically considered to be the hero, or as Thorpe qualifies him, “the anti-hero”. He claims that the main character is “not a bad man, he’s a good man tripped up by fate”. Trapped in a “drama of claustrophobic desperation”, the protagonists of noir films are “ordinary men whose small worlds start to close in on them”. Is this assessment accurate? Let us leave aside, for now, the female noir protagonist and focus on the men of the genre. Perhaps the best example I can produce of Thorpe’s good guy gone wrong can be seen in Billy Wilder’s film, Double Indemnity.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is not a particularly special man. He is actually an average, middle class, white male. Neff has a good, stable job (as an insurance salesman) and a nice apartment. He makes a comfortable living, but not an extraordinary one. In a sense, he is “everyman”. Yet, Neff, Thorpe would argue, is destined to be “tripped up by fate”. I do tend to agree with this notion that Neff will inevitably fail. From the moment he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), it is obvious that Neff is susceptible to the charms of the classic femme fatale. It seems to be only a matter of time before he submits to temptation. An ordinary guy with dreams of making it rich, Neff plans to commit murder for the two most common motivations around. As he says at the beginning of the film in his confession to Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), “I did it for money and I did it for a woman”. As it turns out, Neff doesn’t get the money and he doesn’t get the woman. However, this is not really surprising. Although the non-linear plot of Double Indemnity allows us to know that Neff doesn’t get the money or the woman, since he admits this before the flashback, it is likely the audience would have anticipated Neff’s failure without such a confession.

Consider, for example, the famous shadows cast upon Neff by the Venetian blinds, resembling prison bars. This instance of foreshadowing that Neff will end up in jail is merely one clue that the scheme will fail. Others include the numerous times the pair is almost caught, such as the scene in which Phyllis is forced to hide behind Neff’s door as Barton Keyes leaves the apartment, or the Hitchcock-like moment of suspense immediately after the murder, when it momentarily appears that the car will not start. As well, the presence of a witness to Dietrichson’s “accidental” death further complicates matters. Although he could not place him, Neff was recognized by the other man on the train. Had he been able to remember where he knew him from, the results would surely have been disastrous.

Neff’s predictable, yet unavoidable, downfall backs up Thorpe’s claim that the main character is “tripped up by fate”. As the film progresses, Neff does become trapped in a “drama of claustrophobic desperation”. That is, he becomes more and more paranoid about being caught, and begins to place less and less trust in his partner in crime, Phyllis Dietrichson. As Keyes puts the pieces together and Neff becomes distanced from Phyllis, it seems as if his world really is collapsing around him. 

The inevitability of the fall of the hero (or “anti-hero”) in the noir film is reminiscent of the Shakespearean tragedy. However, there is an important difference between characters like Walter Neff and Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello. Neff, unlike the Prince of Denmark, Thane of Cawdor and Moor of Venice, is an ordinary man. The downfalls of Shakespeare’s protagonists are, arguably, equally as unavoidable as that of Walter Neff, but they do not begin as ordinary men. It is for this reason that the ruin and demise of a character such as Othello or Macbeth is tragic, whereas Neff’s failure is simply viewed as a shame. It is too bad that he does not get away with his plot (strangely enough, even though what he is doing is wrong, the audience does tend to root for Neff to succeed) but it is understandable why he does not. Neff is never a hero figure, and because he gets what he deserves, it is acceptable that he is caught in the end. Neff’s hubris also reminds us of Greek tragedy, as noted by James A. Paris in his article, “’Murder Can Sometimes Smell Like Honeysuckle’: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)” (Film Noir Reader 4, 15). 

Perhaps it is the case that Walter Neff exemplifies Thorpe’s predestined good guy because Double Indemnity is one of the best examples of “pure” noir. This raises the question, are the protagonists of other noir films destined to be destroyed, like Walter Neff? Chris Cross from Scarlet Street certainly ends up as a failure, damaged both mentally and emotionally, an outcast from society. But Scarlet Street is also a film from the typical noir period. How do other, more recent films measure up to this particular standard?

Consider Blade Runner, for example. In this film, Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner, a cop who is responsible for destroying Replicants. Although they are not fully explored in the film, it is clear that Deckard has some emotional problems. Part of Deckard’s job is to administer a test, which is meant to determine whether someone is a human being or a Replicant. Deckard’s refusal to answer when Rachael (Sean Young) asks him if he has ever taken the test suggests that either he has, and did not like the results, or that he is too afraid of what he might discover to take the test himself. The film toys with the idea that Deckard may also be a Replicant, although no definitive answer is given in the film’s text. Anyway, whether or not Deckard is a Replicant, it is obvious that he suffers from identity issues. This is not the same kind of downfall suffered by Walter Neff, for example, but the possibility of a breakdown (like Cross from Scarlet Street) still exists.

We must also examine the predestined downfall of the protagonist in terms of female noir characters. In Laura, for example, the title character (presumed dead for most of the film) is deeply disturbed to discover that her close friend and mentor, Waldo Lydecker, is a murderer. In fact, he tries (twice) to kill her. Yet, despite the murder attempts, it can be said that Laura has a happy ending. She ends up with Mark and the “bad guy” is caught.

This raises yet another interesting question about noir films. Is it possible for a noir film to have a happy ending, and still be considered noir? This is certainly true of The Blue Dahlia. However, that script was changed from its original version. Had it remained as intended, the ending would not have been as cheerful. Perhaps it is the case that noir films with happy endings, such as Laura or The Blue Dahlia are not “pure” noir, but variations of it, just as more recent films like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction and David Fincher’s 1999 Fight Club can be considered as forms of noir, or at least, films influenced in part by the noir genre.

As Terry Thorpe explains in A Slight Case of Murder, “the world is a dangerous place”. This is a theme that is common to most, if not all, noir film. Although the cast of characters may have variations, it usually does include “the sleuth” (like Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), “the victim” (like Monty in Mildred Pierce) and “the hero – or more accurately, the anti-hero” (like Murray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity) in some form. Perhaps the main character is a woman, rather than a man. Perhaps the supposed victim actually ends up being alive. Although there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a film noir, there are general guidelines. Visual techniques such as lighting and the use of shadows, or plot motifs like rainy nights and too much alcohol or cigarettes are common to many films outside of the noir period. Just as film noir was influenced by German Expressionism, so too are modern films influenced by directors like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. However, this does not mean that noir-esque films of today contain all the elements of classic noir. Thorpe’s brief summary of the genre, while it certainly does not encompass all of the key ingredients of a noir film, does hit the highlights. It may not be universal, but it is, at the very least, a workable definition of the complex genre that is film noir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

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Ridgely, and Martha Vickers. Warner Bros., 1946.

Blade Runner . Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean

Young, and Daryl Hannah. The Ladd Company, 1982.

The Blue Dahlia. Dir. George Marshall. Perf. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William

Bendix, and Howard Da Silva. Paramount Pictures, 1946.

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Kracauer, ‘Hollywood’s Terror Films,’ and the Spatiality of Film Noir”. 

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