Film Noir: The Accidental Genre

Paper by Elizabeth Slover.

Film noir is a genre of film that came out during the first few years after World War II, specifically within the forties and the fifties. It was not sought out to be a genre, meaning filmmakers had no idea that they were producing films under this genre, but emerged as one when foreign French film critics referred to such films as “film noirs” in 1946 (Maestu). This is actually where its name originates from: it means “black film” in French. It is deemed this name because of its overall crude characteristics, which are dark in both physique and moral. Film noir films parallel the United State’s emotional state after the war: pessimistic, hopeless, and lost. The citizens of America had a very difficult time adjusting to life after the war, especially the soldiers as much had changed since they last were home. This led to hostility within families, between spouses, and led to crime. America began to adopt even more of a Capitalist economy and, thus, inequality inevitably reigned supreme (Lewis). Film noir is a depiction of the postwar American ambiance and changed the film industry forever.

The Hollywood film industry was the only film industry to be fully developed enough to continue working during World War II. This is why the World War II time period was Hollywood’s most stable and lucrative; there was no competition to see it falter (Maestu). Their ratings exponentially increased, along with the reputations of its actors and actresses. Films during this time depicted the war in a positive light. Filmmakers were careful to sensor negative content that showed any sort of causality, whether it be psychological or physical. Hollywood, also, sent many of its actors and actresses across the country in order to promote war bonds to support the war. The film industry took on more of a rhetorical role, rather than one of entertainment.

The United States was deeply impacted by the incident of Pearl Harbor, for example. It was the only attack on American soil during World War II and came completely unexpected. It was a normal day on the Hawaiian naval base until hundreds of Japanese planes killed more than 2,400 Americans, damaged eight Naval ships, and destroying over one hundred planes. The United States felt a great betrayal because they previously had a good relationship with Japan. The United States supplied Japan with resources through their Tripartite Pact yet the Japanese went behind the U.S.’s back in sending some of those resources to Italy and Germany during World War II (Robinson). The Cold War furthered this deep despair as the two leading countries of the world clashed ideally, as the United States believed in capitalism and democracy and the Soviet Union in communism and authoritarianism. This war is characterized by its propaganda, in which the U.S. fought hard to prevent leaking domestically (“Cold”).
The role of women has, also, changed in effect of the war. Because so much effort was needed to support the war and the soldiers fighting it, women were brought into the workforce. This gave them a new sense of identity, one of independence. They could sustain themselves with the money they were making. A man was no longer necessary. This allowed for women to live without a man and even be hesitant to commit themselves to one as it would involve them surrendering their newfound freedom. This was a scary thing for many American men, especially those returning from the war. Many studios that produced film noirs would actually hire women as more than just an actress, but as writers. This was new in the film industry as most women were only allowed to write for much lighter films, if that. (Lewis)

In attempting to fight Communist ideals, the pressure was on for Hollywood to create films that evidently opposed Communism, which only caused problems for the film studio. It began to come under suspicion to the House Un-American Activities Committee (“Cold”). HUAC had already been in effect since the 1930s but had not really done any damage until 1947, which is the year that they started holding official court hearings. Hollywood was HUAC’s main target as members of their Screen Actors Guild were accused of housing Communist management and writing stories strategically laced with Communist ideals in order to persuade audiences into blindly following. The same began to happen to Paramount, as well, except Paramount bravely stood up against these ridiculous accusations and was the first to end the lawsuits in 1948. This leveled the Big Five and the Little Three, changing the entire game that is the film industry (Maestu).

The film industry adopted film noir’s iconic pessimism in order to be more realistic and parallel the United State’s’ attitude after World War II. This is why narrative patterns such as the voice over, the flashback, and the restricted point of view were introduced (Maestu). Film noirs are, also, known for its realistic characters, most of which are “depicted as if floating in a moral and physical void” (Lewis, pg. 203). The men are not glamorous like the lucky few who succeeded after World War II, but were cynical and rugged, usually unemployed or with unpleasant jobs. Many of them alter their entire lives for the worse just based on one single choice that they make. This forces them to never be able to access their past again or be trapped in it for eternity (Lewis). On the other hand, women have taken on a new role; one with more independence and power: the femme fatale. They represented the new woman that the war created: an independent one. Femme fatales are beautiful and use that to their advantage. They are provocative in order to use sex as a means to an end, unlike men, who more often than not falter because of the sex (Maestu). These women are, also, oddly turned on by committing crime, even that of murder. If anything, it gives them more of a sexual thrill than sex itself. To serve as a contrast to the femme fatale, a more innocent woman is, also, shown in film noir. They are most obviously attracted to the noir male protagonist but are never chosen (Lewis).

Film noir is characterized by its innovative visual techniques, especially that of lighting; many of which originating from 1920s Germany (Lewis). Traditional lighting of film, specially within the 1940s and the 1950s, would incorporate high-key lighting. High-key lighting is associated with a lighter mood as it “creates a low amount of contrast between the brighter and darker areas of a particular shot” (Dupaix). This helps to focus on characters and settings and depict them in a more attractive way. This is the opposite of what film noir does. Film noir utilizes a lighting scheme called low-key lighting. It creates suspense and eeriness through its intensified shadows and made it harder to identify characters and settings – the polar opposite of what traditional lighting wanted to do. Key lights were, also, often placed on the ground so that the characters are shown at a creepy angle and their shadow looms just behind them.

Camera positioning is essential to film noir, as well. To begin, one “requirement of noir photography was a greater ‘depth of field’” (Nichols). Close and medium shots were used in order to carry the focus into the background. This way, all of the objects, including the characters, would be in sharp focus. There were two different strategies to create this effect: the first being the increase of light that enters the camera lens and the second being the usage of a lens with a wider focal length. The second is more closely connected with the typical film noir as it would, also, distort the characters’ faces, adding yet another level of eeriness. Another new strategy came about during the film noir era: night-for-night shooting. Most film noir films were set at night on rugged streets and for the first time, these films were actually shot at night. This was made possible by a technical advance in filmstock that allowed for night-for-night shooting. Before this innovation, night scenes were shot day-for-night, meaning they were shot during the day but edited in order for the scene to look as if it is occurring at night. Orson Welles was the first to utilize several of these strategies in his film, Citizen Kane, which was extremely influential in film noir.

Film noir, also, utilized a new way of organizing stage properties and scenery within its films. A specific tactic used is called mise en scene, but in a more untraditional sense. Film noir changed the classical mise en scene of perfectly shot scenes by using off-angle compositions and placing irregular props to make the environment within the scene seem like one that lacks safety.

Shot in 1944, Double Indemnity was one of the first film noirs to be given so much attention and the first of Billy Wilder’s films that made it obvious he was a director of talent. This film’s protagonist is named Walter Neff. As an insurance representative, he is a part of the working class and depicts a realistic person of postwar United States. Like most noir heroes, he falls because of a woman and because of money and like a realistic postwar American man, he is frustrated with his day-to-day career while others are living lives of luxury. One of the most famous quotes of this film is evidence of this as he mourns over his decisions in saying “I killed him for the money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman” (Double). The femme fatale of this film is Phyllis, the woman who changes Walter’s life for the worse. She, like most femme fatale characters, feels a deep sexual pleasure in committing murder as she whispers to Walter “Aren’t you going to kiss me?” just after the murder (Double). The character in opposition of Phyllis is her step daughter. She is young and innocent and a better choice for Walter, but inevitably, he wants Phyllis and the thrill that comes along with seeing her. Most of the scenes were shot at night, such as the murder scene and the scenes in which Walter and Phyllis sneak over to see each other after the murder. This shows a use of the night-for-night filming. Many shadows were, also, shown in suspenseful scenes such as these in order to create an even deeper anxiety in the audience. Double Indemnity, lastly, chose to utilize in medias res, meaning it began in the middle of the story. The opening scene shows Walter’s narrative, speaking of the murder he committed. The film eventually works its way back to this scene and shows what happened directly before and afterwards, solving the puzzle that the audience was given. Double Indemnity was a film noir of pure genius as it utilized very new technologies and techniques and inspired other filmmakers to follow in suit, thus altering the film industry.

Sunset Blvd. was a very popular film noir as it contains many characteristics true to the genre although it, also, strays from the typical noir a bit. Again, the protagonist reflects the average American man during this time period: struggling with unemployment. Joe Gillis was previously a screenwriter but recently, has not been able to find another screenwriting job. He is lucky to find Norma Desmond, who hires him to write a screenplay for a film she has thought of. Although he is not sexually attracted to Norma like the typical noir hero would be, Joe chooses her over the young and ambitious Betty Schaefer because she offers him the comfort of wealth. Norma is the femme fatale who changes Joe’s life. She keeps him locked up in her mansion until she shoots him to death. Joe had to die in order to stop the femme fatale, as noir heroes do. Another interesting part of this film noir is its beginning: it began at the end, showing Joe’s floating body in Norma’s pool. It slowly went over the rest of the story then looped right back to the end. Many scenes were shot at night, including the scene in which Walter stopped at a liquor store to get Norma her cigarettes. Mise en scene was, also, heavily utilized in Sunset Blvd., especially in Norma’s house. One would expect her mansion to be classy but instead, she has clutter everywhere, including photos of herself covering the walls and the tables. This is a house of chaos, unlike the traditional mise en scene’s scenes that resemble Renaissance paintings. Sunset Blvd., although very different than other films of its genre, succeeds in being a film noir and challenges previous film industry regulations.
Kiss Me Deadly will be the last film noir that I will address as it is the most recent film within this paper. Mr. Hammer, the protagonist, fits the film noir hero classification to a t. Although he showers himself in glamorous things like his high-end suits, gelled-up hair, and expensive car, he is a rugged man. He is a private investigator that uses his license to break up married couples and does so in a very unethical way: initiating an affair with the wife while his so-called secretary initiated an affair with the husband. They play both in order to gain the most profit. His secretary serves as contrast to the femme fatale character. She deeply cares about Mr. Hammer and is always there to support him, but of course, like all noir heroes, Mr. Hammer is more attracted to the femme fatale: Christina’s roommate. He risks his very life in order to prevent her from hurting anyone. Kiss Me Deadly, like all film noirs, used low-key lighting, as well. A prime example is at the beginning of the film, when Mr. Hammer is shown driving. The frame lacks light as it is shot using the low-key lighting technique. Kiss Me Deadly, also, heavily utilized the shooting tactic of night-for-night as most of its scenes took place at night. Even the scenes that took place during the day and were shot during the day, were done with minimal brightness in order to carry out the gloomy ambiance that is film noir (Kiss). All that is included in Kiss Me Deadly is typical of film noir and is new to the film industry as before, such crime of passion would never be allowed; films like this altered the industry.

Film noir, the accidental genre, serves to be more important than originally perceived. Although it was not even sought after, the genre served to be influential to the film industry as it utilized new techniques never thought of before. For example, shots are wider than before, closer shots are utilized, and narratives are spoken. Lighting was, also, always kept bright before film noir, but in film noir, the opposite occurred. Darker scenes were shot to parallel film noir’s dark and deeply troubled characters. Ones that commit crime in order to better their lives but ultimately, ruin their lives because of that initial decision. Ones that were not allowed to be in film after the scandals that occurred previously with crazed actors. Ones that were previously censored to not be able to commit crimes of passion or pursue perverted actions. All of this is change is meant to depict a postwar America, which is characterized as being pessimistic due to the array of changes and inequality that the war brought. The film noir genre completely altered the film industry through its new innovations, technologies, and techniques.

Works Cited

“Cold War Influences on American Culture, Politics, and Economics.” Shads Blog., 05 Dec. 2009.
Web. 24 June 2016.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Paramount,
1944. Amazon Video.
Dupaix, Air. “Lighting.” Film 110., 2010. Web. 24 June 2016.
Kiss Me Deadly. Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perf. Ralph Meeker and Albert Dekker. Parklane Pictures Inc.,
1955. Amazon Video. Web.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. First ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Maestu, Nicolas. “Unit 11: Post-war Problems: HUAC, Paramount Decrees, Television / Film Noir.”
pag. Film Studies 104: American Film to 1960s. Santa Barbara City College, Film and
Media Studies Department. Web. 21 June 2016.
Nichols, Bill. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Berkeley: U of California, 1976. Print.
Robinson, Bruce. “Pearl Harbor: A Rude Awakening.” BBC., 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 June 2016.
Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Paramount, 1950.
Amazon Video.


About this entry