World War II changed everything. The world had been wracked with economic strife in the 1930s; it would get even darker in the following decade with World War II, the most violent era this world has ever known. Cinema in America, and worldwide, was not exempt from this. The change was not found so much in theme. Instead, the change was found in the style. If American cinema in the 1930s were characterized by scripts with style, then the 1940s would be characterized by the important marriage of linguistic style with a photographic style. Indeed we saw, in 1939, that these super scripts of the era were placed before the backdrop of style in cinematography, particularly in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. Style became the key, and from an appeal to that style was born several key genres in international film. The genre in question for this article: film noir.
Yes, dear reader, the time has come, finally, to complete a year’s worth of writing that has been dedicated to the era of Great American Screenplays, the 1930s and 1940s. Along with a special section focused on the year 1939, we have studied two of the three signature American genres that matured during this era: the screwball comedy and the American Western. Film noir, the topic of this essay, is the third. All three of these genres were naturally-occurring products of their era, and the strain that connected them was what made that era great: brilliant scripts teeming with linguistic aptitude, literary artistry, and latent wit. Whether through an appeal to sex, social commentary, or national identity through myth, these genres were, first and foremost, masterworks of language.
Now, of course, language is not enough. As has been stated frequently throughout this blog (probably best restated in my A Slice of Cake [Revisited] essay, though you can see this theory in other places as well), movies are movies, they’re not books. Language, therefore, without image, is not good film. What is so great about these films in the 30s and 40s is that they were not so far removed from the silent era to have forgotten about the importance of the image onscreen. They were the result of brilliant directors left over from the 1920s working with the brilliant newspaper men and novelists of the Lost Generation to tell stories in a new, fresh medium that somehow flew above the ashes of the Great Depression.
Of all these genres, one would probably argue that the screwball comedy was the least fantastic when it came to cinematographic proclivity. Of the other two, the determination is more difficult as to which was, generally, the superior visionary breed. The Western tended to a natural style, pitting mythical figures against untamed land. Film noir, on the other hand, was a brand new style, one that had not really been seen in the American mainstream. It was so unique, as a matter of fact, that the Americans didn’t even know they were making it. It wasn’t until a French critic named Nino Frank decided to categorize this new movement in film in 1946 that the movies came to be known as film noir (which is, translated, “black film”). Really, it wasn’t until 1955 that attempts to really categorize and define the characteristics of the genre were made by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, and not until the 1970s that Americans began calling it by the same name.
That’s not to say though, that the styles had not been known in other nations. As a matter of fact, without certain of these foreign styles, the great American genre of film noir may never have been.
Emigration from Europe and the Impact of Expressionism
Like I said in the first line of this article: World War II changed everything. Even the political movements before the war played their role in stylistic shifts in the film landscape, just as they changed the geopolitical landscape for generations to come. To see just how the events surrounding the second World War influenced the genesis of film noir in the United States, we need to visit the heart of it all: Germany.
In the silent film era, Germany ruled the horror genre. With films like Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Weine, the Weimar Republic was internationally acclaimed for the oeuvre of fright that its artists produced. While the terror of these films has not aged well in this desensitized generation, the style lives on; and no true film lover could possibly watch the early works of these artists and not appreciate their haunting quality.
Like all great artists, these men were products of their time. After the close of World War I, Germany’s economy was rocked with massive inflation and an isolation from the word brought on by strict trade barriers. The treaty of Versailles had placed, perhaps fittingly, the blame of the Great War on Germany’s shoulders, and the weight of restitution was too much to bear. From this economic turmoil came two conflicting waves in the artistic arena: from one direction came a wave of hyper-inflation that had no appearance of slowing down and from the other came a wave of market depression with equal ferocity. This first wave effected the German population in many ways; the common anecdote that a bread cost a wheelbarrow full of Deustche Marks is not far off in its reality. Just like it did in America, the value of their dollar (and its value tomorrow) led people to avoid saving, and film tickets were cheap. A large movement to the theater swept up post-Versailles Germany.
As for the second torrential force, the wave of market depression, the film industry in Germany was highly pressured. The lack of investment coupled with low profit margins due to inflation and resulted in disparagingly low budgets for German production companies, the most famous of which was UFA, which would be economically forced to sign a merger with Paramount Pictures in the United States in 1925 (after the import block was lifted in 1916). And it’s not like they could stop making movies, the industry was technically thriving when one considered the consumption of their products, and there were no other outlets by which the consuming public could satisfy their spending; after all, Germany forbade foreign cinema as early as 1916.
The result: these artists made magic.
With small budgets and big ideas, directors like Robert Weine (along with their creative cohorts) developed a style greatly influenced by two key elements: mise-en-scène and light. The inability to create set pieces in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith was not a problem for these artists, who did not need money to show what was going in their heads. They wanted to express themselves in a way not bound by the confines of reality. So, they started a movement of Expressionism.
At first glance, the products of expressionist art share many similarities with the surrealism that would come around later. Both were concerned with existing outside of surface truth; expressionism was more about feeling while surrealism was generally associated with thought, but as aesthetic elements of a mise-en-scène, these two styles both made use of sharpness and distortion. Expressionism in particular was interested in sharp angles and shadows. In German cinematic Expressionism, one can palpably see the act of protest against the reality that existed outside the theater walls. The German people felt distorted and broken, and the big screen acted as a giant mirror of their inner angst.
As for the elements of light, the German Expressionists used it like a painter uses color. The principle of chiaroscuro in artwork was tailor-made for black-and-white cinema, and though every early filmmaker respected the basic premise, few exemplified this practice of pitting dark against light in the same way that the German Expressionists did.
Compare, for a moment, the styles of mise-en-scène and lighting in America with what was going on in Germany in the late 1910s and early 1920s:
D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916)
Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Where the Americans (and other nations) were embracing realism, the Germans were profoundly rejecting it. And, with the nationalist furor that erupted in 1920s Germany, they German people were becoming more and more faithful to this style.
But, like I said, World War II changed everything, and the emergence of the Nazi Party had massive effect on German cinema, which was now becoming a worldwide sensation. With the dawn of the Third Reich, movie-makers and other artists fled the country, to become expatriate artists in the thriving film industry of Hollywood. Murnau, Lang, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, and many others were included in this massive emigration across the Atlantic, and they brought their style of starkness, angles, and shadow with them.
Take for example, this shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). Notice the tilt of the camera, the use of shadow, and consider how it could have been influenced by the Expressionist movement.
German Expressionism and the “A Slice of Cake” Theory
It is now important to take a step back and look at this from 30,000 feet, if you will. You probably noticed (if you’re a good, faithful, avid, and observant reader of this fine blog) a statement I made a few paragraphs ago. The German moviemakers “wanted to express themselves in a way not bound by the confines of reality.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like the basic precepts of my “A Slice of Cake” theory? It should; that wording was intentional.
Every genre, in the end, hopes to create art. And art is all about telling stories or expressing emotions or conveying ideas in ways that can’t be told, expressed, or conveyed in much any other way than through an alternate reality or worldview. It’s all about subjective vision. The Germans, through Expressionism, embraced this in very literal ways. They threw the real world out the window and told a story that existed in another dimension: the dimension of personal feeling underneath the scarred surface of a suffering person, culture, and nation.
But, there was another party in World War II that took center stage as Germany’s greatest ally, and their approach to expression could not have been more different.
Where the German style was mostly pre-World War II, the Italian style of cinema that would eventually play a key role in the development of film noir was a direct result of the pains of the war, and didn’t come to full fruition until the early 1940s. It should be noted that, by this time, several American films now deemed film noir classics had already been made. But, the survival of the genre and its established style was dependent on this Italian contribution.
The style in question has since been called Italian Neo-Realism, and, unlike German Expressionism, it was limited to film. Where German Expressionism could be found in dance, theater, and other art forms, Neo-Realism was a cinema-specific genre. It was not concerned with expressing one’s emotions beneath a scarred surface reality, instead, Italian Neo-Realism was concerned with expressing one’s emotions by showing the scarred surface. As a result, you had the genre of film that many would say was the most concerned with reality (at least, until the Dogme 95 movement, but little will ever be said about that in this blog).
For Italian movie-makers like Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Federico Fellini (who would later abandon this style), the crux of their internal strife was shared with everyone else in their broken nation. They filmed most of their sequences on-scene, away from sound stages, often pitting them against ruin and depredation. Instead of the symbolic mise-en-scène, they went with the starkly true. They were more concerned about human action then human feeling as a way to show internal strife.
The stylistic method of this movement resulted in what has been called a quasi-documentary approach to film fiction, even employing non-professional actors in attempt to make it more lifelike. This is not to be confused with the mockumentary approach, but more like the cinéma vérité of the French tradition which is best seen in the stateside examples of Robert Flaherty. Unlike these styles, though, the Neo-Realist movement was not limited in its creative ability to structure a scene with literary tools like narration, foreshadowing, imagery, and monologue. The fact that these narrative elements were able to operate amid such a distinctly realist background is but one of the obvious reasons why the genre’s fines films (The Bicycle Thief; Rome, Open City; I Vitelloni, and others) survive so well today. Ultimately, this quasi-documentary technique would create the storytelling style that would come to dominate film noir cinema in the 1940s and into the 1950s.
Neo-Realism and the “A Slice of Cake” Theory
As was alluded to in my review of The Roaring Twenties, the concepts of Neo-Realism and other types of realist cinema seem to contradict the principles that undergird my “A Slice of Cake” theory. Actually, they do not. I will dedicate an entire section to this later on in this blog, so there is no need to get into it now.
The Predecessors: Gangster Films and a Certain Citizen named Kane
With the emigration of German stylistic pioneers and the high impact of Italian Neo-Realism in world cinema, the United States of America was ready, yet again, to create a new signature genre. After all, the United States is a cultural melting pot…and the uniquely “American experience” lends itself to a sort of multi-culturalism that is one-part borrowed and one-part completely homegrown. But, these factors, like the seeds that fell among the stony places and thorns, could not bring forth good fruit without good, fertile soil. The marriage of German Expressionism and Italian Neo-Realism worked by virtue of a stylistic climate that already existed in the United States, and, with the advent of World War II, was ready to be expanded into the most stylish genre of film in world history.
The genre that would join up with these international movements to create film noir was the gangster film. I have labeled the screwball comedy, the Western, and film noir as the three signature American genres. A close fourth would have to be the gangster film; the only thing keeping it from a medal is that the gangster film is more shared with other countries than distinctly American, particularly over the last half-century.
But, undoubtedly, it is here in the United States that the film was born, and here in the United States where it has, probably its most satiric value. Elsewhere, the gangster film works as an explicit and realistic rebuke of fractured cultures and governments. But, here in the States, it acts more as an irony than a condemnation, with a satirical comedy that dares us to laugh at the American Dream while also daring us not to with its starkness. I discuss the principles of satire and how they apply to the American gangster film in my “My Take On…Comedy” essay.
In the 1930s, the gangster film’s prowess as a satirical suspense genre led to the establishment of a special character-type, one that ran in full antithesis to the mythical Cowboy: the anti-hero.
Something about the urbanity of American film already lent itself to the creation of the anti-hero, but up until the gangster film’s development in the 1930s, the anti-hero was comedic. Chaplin. W.C. Fields. Keaton. I don’t think that the satirical elements shared in both Little Caesar and The Kid should be ignored when wondering why the anti-hero was so well-suited to both the ’30’s crime drama and the ’20’s silent comedy.
Now, I don’t want to get into too much on this, for the same reason that I didn’t get too deep into the topic of Neo-Realism; I plan on dedicating an entire discussion to the gangster film (worldwide) in the near future. For now, consider the important groundwork that the genre laid for the stylistic upgrades that the Italian and German influences would bring.
The gangster film was urban. The gangster film had anti-heroes. And the gangster film was a product of its generation and culture: an American film culture based on script.
In particular, the gangster film, like the screwball comedy, was drastically influenced by the newspaper. The newspaper film, actually, could be found in the form of both screwballs (like The Front Page and His Girl Friday) and gangster films (like Five Star Final and Picture Snatcher). In both cases—and I discuss this in great detail in the first essay of the “Great American Screenplays” series—we see what made the newspaper such an integral part of the era.
“Here we go again,” you’re saying.
Yes, you’re right. We’re going to be talking about Citizen Kane again. Kane played the same role in 1940 that The Roaring Twenties would play in 1939. The two films were drastic signposts on the road of evolution towards film noir. In these films, we see how the themes of the newspaper film, the gangster film, and the comedy coalesced with this idea of corruption, shadow, and romance that would become indicative of the noir genre as a whole.
Kane, in particular, is one of the greatest examples of the film-noir-that-is-not-film-noir types of films that were made before the genre really came to be. If you think about it, Kane has all the thematic trappings and photographic style that would qualify it as a film noir:
- Low-key black-and-white lighting used with an emphasis on distinction and morality
- Convoluted storylines that frequently move anachronistically
- This includes an appeal to flashback and narration
- A story revolving around an inherently flawed—even corrupt—protagonist
- Important emphasis on a character’s appeal to power (whether sexual or social)
- Prose based on two types of dialogue:
- Quick back-and-forth between two parties
- Mystery (solved and unsolved)
- Abrupt and often-times unresolved ending
With these considerations of the gangster film, Citizen Kane, and newspaper comedies in general in mind, let’s talk a little bit more about the scripts themselves.
When considering the relationship between Kane and the birth of film noir, and when considering the overarching themes of the genre generally, consider the following two quotes from the book Film Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini:
“The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked… and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology… and even the structures of society… can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters may have.”
“In the noir world both past and present are inextricably bound… One cannot escape one’s past… And only in confronting it can the noir protagonist hope for some kind of redemption, even if it is at the end of a gun.”
We’ve spent the bulk of this essay talking about the lead-up to film noir in the 1940s. Now, we’re actually going to talk about the genre directly. (Hopefully, by discussing the lead-up, everything will fall into place and the topic will be simple and quick to cover from here on out). As shown in the two quotes from Silver and Ursini, the films noir in the ’40s went in a special direction thematically. Perhaps because of Kane, perhaps on their own volition, these were movies unlike screwball comedies, Westerns, or gangster films because they weren’t concerned about being representative of community, society, or culture. These were films decidedly individualistic.
- “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” says Lauren Bacall’s Vivien Rutledge. “And I don’t like your manners.” Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe replies: “I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t mind them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during long winter evenings. And I don’t mind your ritzing me, or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”
- Bacall: “…speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come from behind… I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free….” Bogart: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.” Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Here, we have classic examples from a classic film that show just how driving the pulse of the dialogue can be. They also show us a good idea of how the screenwriters went about writing their scripts. What were the character’s motivations? Rarely, will the dialogue stray. Even in the case of double entendres (in the tradition of Mae West), the innuendos never betray the point, and the point in all of these films is character.
Now, in the case of The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and many others, the screenwriters had a special advantage: these were mostly adaptations of short stories and novels that had were massively popular in the pre-World War II era. Authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were responsible for these ostensibly heroic private investigators, and many of these brilliant exchanges were originally penned by them (with a little more grit than what was allowed in Hays-code Hollywood). They created an unrealistic reality, true to “Slice of Cake” form, where people talked with a verbal flare that was toxic. Only intentional foils were exempt from the ability to side-talk, quick-talk, and double-talk the way that the Philip Marlowes and Sam Spades. Just as the mythical heroes of the Western were quick with the draw, the anti-heroes of the film noir were quick with the tongue, and the ultimate manifestation of superiority (masculine or feminine) was to out-talk your opponent in a face-to-face bout of words.
The types of dialogue were conflict-specific, and two types of conflict defined the genre. The first was the conflict with the self. The second was conflict between the sexes.
Born of the narrative omniscience of Hammett and Chandler, and raised by the voiceover-driven approach of Citizen Kane, the first conflict (the internal one) would be the most important in traditional noir films. Anyone who has seen the “film noir game” on Whose Line is it Anyway? knows that the ability to break the fourth wall was an important element to the narrative rhythm of the category. If the reconciliation of past and present is, indeed, the overarching theme of the genre, then the need to reconcile in the protagonist’s mind acted like the percussion of the symphonic approach of the scripts. We are often taken into the mind of the shamus, or gangster, or cop, or innocent bystander now caught up in something with which he wants no affiliation. They let us in by their own words when they address us in these narrations.
If the first conflict is the rhythm, then the second conflict, the conflict between the sexes, is the melody. This is where the greatest pleasure lies in the film noir genre; like the screwball comedy, it takes center stage. At the end of the day, the traditional conflicts of good guy vs. bad guy, or crime vs. law, are the seats and walls of the symphony hall; they are there to contextualize the melody and rhythm, and give us a framework in which we can enjoy them. Where narration and monologue are common literary tools to show us the internal conflict of the protagonists, the iconic exchanges between lovers (or lusters) are the go-to utility to show the materializing conflict and potential reconciliation of the sexes. Far more than in interchanges between criminal and cop, or bad guy and good guy, it is in these exchanges that the quickness of the tongue is most important. It is all about establishing superiority, determining the alpha, and creating subjugation in the other. There is an inherently sexual drive in the characters’ motives, almost without fail. And, somehow, this sexual victory of words is more important than any other victory they can find elsewhere in the film.
Take for example, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. This is one of the finest examples of these brilliant scripts to show the two important conflicts. The narration is focused on getting us into Walter Neff’s mind (played by Fred MacMurray), as he details to his colleague, Barton Keyes (played by gangster film staple Edward G. Robinson), his actions over voice recording. It’s not so much the story he tells, but how he tells it, that makes the story work. This is the same in every case…delivery is just as important as words, and the type of words matters just as much as the message they send. There is a special dialect to these films.
Also, in Double Indemnity we have what might be the finest example of conflict #2. When Neff first meets the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck), the two give us the pleasure of their obligatory joust:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.
I’ll let you decide which one became the alpha in this instance. It should be clear, and that one exchange will set the pace and status of their relationship for the rest of the film. It becomes a key element of that important narration that Neff gives us as we see just how her manipulation gets the best of him. Ultimately, though, he has to deal with his past, and that, as I showed early, is one of the most important themes of the genre…even if that reconciliation must be dealt with at the end of a gun’s barrel.
It’s like the old adage from Chekov: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
One of the biggest difficulties to making any statement of certainty as to thematic or stylistic continuities between the films in the genre is that there are so many that it is difficult to say. For example, what if a film has all the trappings of a film noir (internal strife of the protagonist due to a past trauma, a femme fatale, an unsolved mystery, a murder, complex double entendres, expressionist style of photography, etc.), but it’s filmed in color rather than low-key black-and-white? That is the issue with films like Vertigo.
What about a movie with all of the visual styles, including the right lighting scheme, but which borrows more heavily from German Expressionism then the realism of the gangster film or Italian cinema? What if it features a common film noir actor, but in a role of a pure villain rather than an anti-hero? Is it disqualified from the category? That is the issue with films like The Night of the Hunter.
What about a movie that is the other way around: it borrows more from Italian Neo-Realism than from German Expressionism? However, it still has all the trappings of a noir script, including common film noir actors. Would it still be disqualified if only because it actually does have significant political tones, rather than the individualistic approach of other films in the category? This is the issue with films like Casablanca.
Or what about considerations of time? What if a movie was long held to be one of the very first films noir, only now to be excluded because its plot is somewhat unique and because it borrows too little from the Expressionist chiaroscuro? This is the issue with films like The Long Weekend.
In conclusion, we see how the screwball comedy, the Western, the year 1939 in American film, the gangster film, and Citizen Kane were all signposts on the road to World War II, which would bring expatriates of style and politics from Germany and Italy into the United States to create a brand new genre of script and visual flare. The genre was film noir, the most stylish of all types of film.
Stars would be born and raised in this genre, stars that could match the visual style of their directors with a personality and vivacious magnitude that, in my opinion, has never been matched in film actors since. These supreme directorial stars—Howard Hawks, Jacques Tournier, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and so much more—met up with writing gods and acting legends to bring us into a world of their own making. It was a world of conflict, shadow, stark lines, mystery, flare, beauty, ugliness, and….yes, I’m going to use this word again…style.
We will spend a little time on this genre by reviewing some of the great noir masterpieces of the 1940s. I hope you enjoy it and savor it: this will be the final chapter in my “Great American Screenplays” series, a series that has taken our attention for a year now, and that has taken us on excursions not only into the cinematic past in our own country, but also into styles of film in China, Japan, and worldwide. The groundwork is being laid as we move from casual movie-watching to film competency, and I hope that I will only further open your eyes to the marvelous world of film around you.