Deep Analysis: What is film noir?


In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.

We decided it might be nice to get a sense of what “Film Noir” is exactly, if we want to get the most out of L.A. Noire week here at Flixist. The general perception of a “noir” might be encapsulated almost completely by The Maltese Falcon, featuring Humphrey Bogart as anti-hero Sam Spade, a tough private-eye who becomes embroiled in a search for a mysterious bird after his partner’s murder. The seminal detective film of Bogart’s career features a femme fatale, a number of shady antagonists, and the flawed detective himself all in pursuit of a black falcon statue through the inky streets of San Francisco. The Maltese Falcon might be a great place to start for a film noir background, but it certainly doesn’t represent the genre as a whole. In fact, if there is anything I know about noirs, its that they don’t take kindly to categorization.

From classics like Carol Reed’s The Third Man to modern noirs like The Big Lebowski and future noirs like Blade Runner, the genre is as much a part of the American film landscape as America’s other homegrown genre, the Western. Both the noir and the Western are uniquely American film constructs, but, as author Alain Silver points out, the the noir film movement did not grow from a literary movement itself but instead from other films of its time. Join me after the jump as I delve a little deeper into the genre, from its humble beginnings in the shadows of German Expressionism to its influence on French New Wave directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville.  

It is very possible that the term “Film Noire”, which translates as “Dark Cinema”, was not used until the latter stages of its “classical” period. I put quotations because contemporary noirs are still being made, whether in the traditional sense (L.A. Confidential) or in alternative settings (a high school, in Brick). Long ago, however, the noir took its first steps out of the surrealist shadows that pervaded German Expressionism in the 1920’s. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene and the Dr. Mabuse series (written and directed by legendary filmmaker and noir pioneer Fritz Lang) exemplified the early formations of the American Film noir movement. It is here that American directors and foreign transplants such as the impeccable Otto Preminger (Laura, Whirlpool) and the oh-my-gosh-his-IMDB-page-is-out-of-control Billy Wilder established what would be the single most associated film noir element: its lighting. The German directors used strange shadows and near pitch black to create foreboding and depressing scenes that physically dominated the screen. The classic “Venetian blinds that look like prison bars” look came out around this time, and would go on to be emulated and spoofed for decades.

The noir movement in the United States produced dozens of amazing films that still stand the test of time. Many of these films involve morally ambiguous detectives or low level criminals determined to get what they want, no matter the cost. In some films like Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller 1953) the protagonist is a criminal, in some like Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945), they are the victim. The common thread that unites them all, however, is crime. Whether its a love triangle in Mildred Pierce or a missing friend in Austria (The Third Man), crime is the great equalizer. Almost all the leading men in Hollywood during the 30’s through the 50’s took a crack at the noir genre, including Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Peter Lorre, Fred MacMurray, Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, and William Holden. The same few ladies would show up time and again, sometimes playing the femme fatale, sometimes the seductress, sometimes the victim. Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth all lent their talents, and looks, to some of the genre’s finest.

The next question, though, may be “What isn’t noir”? Alfred Hitchcock isn’t noir. Gangster films like 1932’s Scarface (yeah, there is an older, better one) aren’t noir. After that though, it gets a bit muddled. Some consider WWII espionage films noir, although most don’t. Courtroom dramas are sometimes considered noirs, although films like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution, both of which came towards the end of the classic noir period, shouldn’t be considered noirs. What happened to the noir during the late 50s? Well, they didn’t directly go out of style, they instead went through a bit of a renaissance abroad, in the form of crime films of the French New Wave. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut (the team responsible for the impeccable Breathless) adapted the noir for themselves. In Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a wannabe gangster who emulates the gestures of Humphrey Bogart’s tough guy, and lives a life to back up these affectations. He even pauses in front of a movie poster for Bogart’s The Harder They Fall, confronting his own internal projection. In fact, Breathless pays homage to many noir films, including Whirlpool and The Maltese Falcon. Far from stealing, however, these directors adapted the tropes of the noir movement to build off and make into a unique genre.

Contemporary noirs like Brick use many of the iconic themes and styles of the noir movement, adapted to suit modern locales and characters. Even The Big Lebowski, upon close inspection, is a noir. There are also future noirs, like Blade Runner, and, to a lesser extent, I, Robot. Both feature grizzled detectives on the hunt for a killer through the alleys and rooftops of noir-ish cities.

Well, what have we really learned about noirs? They started around the 1920’s with the German Expressionist movement, and the classical period died around the mid 1950’s, giving way to the French New Wave, where directors like Jean-Pierre Melville turned them into crime pics during the 50’s and 60’s. You can almost bet on a beautiful woman, a flawed but sympathetic protagonist, and a lot of bad guys. I haven’t said too much about the genre itself, but hopefully I have steered you in the right direction. With the release of L.A. Noire you should be able to piece together the rest.

My Noir Must See List:

Early Days:

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler  Fritz Lang spins a web of villainy with Dr. Mabuse, a master-criminal who murders and cheats his way towards the control of Berlin. A masterful use of film without sound, its a thrilling, tight pre-Noir crime drama that succeeds in every way.

M  Another Fritz Lang entry features Noir mainstay Peter Lorre as a child-murderer on the run from a city and its police. A dark entry that shows the beginnings of the Noir genre, this film ought to be a good transition into the classical period.


The Classics:

The Maltese Falcon  Humphrey Bogart stars in the quintessential noir film as flawed detective Sam Spade, a private eye investigating his partner’s murder and a mysterious bird figurine. Marlowe has all his tricks on display in this one, and the terrific supporting cast (including Lorre) fill out a pretty complete noir. Directed by John Huston, 1941 (Not a bad stretch for Bogey, Casablanca would be released the following year).

Laura  Otto Preminger brings his deft touch to the surprisingly tense Laura, with Gene Tierney playing the titular character. I won’t spoil anything, just trust me that if you like noir, this one’s for you. Clifton Webb steals the film with his performance as Waldo Lydecker.

Touch of Evil A late entry into the noir period, Touch of Evil begins with Welles famous crane opening, where for minutes on end we follow a car and a couple on foot as they cross the border into Mexico. This movie really starts with a bang, and it only gets better. A fat, sweaty Welles stars as a corrupt law official in this noir of the West.

The French Ones:

Breathless Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece revolves around a small time crook (former boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo) on the lam after he kills a police officer. He soon reconnects with former lover Patricia, played by the sexy-with-short-hair Jean Seberg, who joins him briefly in his escape. One of my all-time favorites, regardless of genre.

Le Samourai Jean-Pierre Melville (seriously, why do they all have hyphenated names) directs this smart crime drama about a lone assassin that runs into a bit of trouble during an assignment. Melville also directed two heist films, the underrated Bob the Gambler and the even more spectacular Le Circle Rouge.


The Other Ones:

The Big Lebowski  The Coen brothers at their strangest, and certainly most quotable. The former cult movie that became a culture mainstay, Lebowski represents a strange, seedy, not very glamorous L.A. Noir that is rife with comic gold. It’s Gold, Jerry! John Goodman’s Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak gets all the laughs, but the film really is about Jeff Bridge’s Lebowski, who drinks, smokes, and fornicates his way through an increasing convoluted mystery.

Brick Joseph Gordon-Levitt reminds us how much he has grown up in the surprisingly hard-hitting noir. Did we mention all the characters are in high school? I guess that is kinda important. Still, definitely a noir, pretty widely loved.

Blade Runner  If I have to explain this one to you, you should be ashamed. Go see it if you haven’t. That is all.