Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In the Dark Alley Way: Film Noir's Sordid Past


Society in the early half of the twentieth century was at a transition, revolutions were occurring all over the world and society began to change with the times. The archetypal twentieth century hero is the film noir hero this character is the antithesis of gallantry, a product of society, the hero mirrors everything we want to do and at the same time we are aghast at exactly what they are capable of doing. The new modern climate of urban landscapes meant that there needed to be something to represent exactly the new human condition, the new voice of the underdog who had lived through wars, were isolated in a city of millions, and barely just surviving. A wide array of actors have portrayed basically the same film noir character, a glaringly flawed and weak person yet very human in our eyes. One cannot talk about any character without mentioning relationships, and the most important relationship any film noir character has is the femme fatale, a seducer and executioner all wrapped into one sexy dress. It can be said that the only present day legacy of film noir is stylized violence, yet that's not true film noir has reinvented and burst out of its cocoon into a filmmaking method, and even though it does trade in style for substance, at times, it allows us to glimpse into our subconscious and pretend to be someone we're not.
Before the birthplace of the urban metropolis in the early part of the twentieth century people's view of the world was quite optimistic overall. The world wars going on in Europe and Asia, the widespread Depression, which engulfed the world, and the mass exodus of people out of the farmland and into the city all contributed to a general consensus by the public that the world didn't always offer a glass is half full scenario. The paranoia every person felt permeated through the literature, politics, and art of the day. Early film noir can be seen in the detective stories of people like Dashiell Hammett and the popular dime store pulp narratives of the time. When these stories were translated into film audiences were transported into realistic worlds populated by very realistic people. These films were true slices of life, barely ever ending in happy endings. And upon seeing these films Europeans added on to the new genre, introducing common noir ideals of violence and fishes out of water.
Film noir is a genre of many ideas, which shares its history with almost every new artistic medium of the twentieth century. James Naremore, an author and writer of such books as The Films of Vincente Minelli and various magazines, comments that the very American genre of film noir was technically born in France by those influenced by Hollywood and the surrealistic and existential movements of the day ("American" 4). Naremore notes that early noirs that laid the groundwork for what is termed film noir were very much in the vain of early french cinema and French new wave consisting of "a group of "poetic realist" melodramas set in an urban criminal milieu and featuring doomed protagonists who wore fedoras and behaved with sangfroid under pressure" ("American" 5).
The new auteurs like John Huston, who wrote the "Maltese Falcon", and Raymond Chandler, author of "The Big Sleep", two quintessential early film noirs, rewrote the classical narrative of the day and threw off the shackles of "sentimental humanism." Instead these films dealt with the criminal as the protagonist which made the films very "convoluted, harsh, and misogynistic" with puppets and puppeteers being present throughout the story (Naremore "American" 5).
Early noir's attempts to create this harsh realism of daily life was a breath of fresh air, being that they as Naremore says, were "curious, non-conformist, and as noir as one could desire" ("American" 7). Yet this characteristic of film noir was soon exploited by Hollywood and what was thought to be a fresh "zero-degree style" became as formulaic as every other genre (Naremore "American" 12). Film noir fulfilled in the public mind a visual playground where their isolation and stifled individuality could freely roam realistic worlds. Naremore notes that it "exerted a strong appeal to anyone who was wary of collective politics and inclined to treat social issues in terms of personal ethics" ("American" 13).
The public's response to noir varied depending on the climate of the era. Rebecca Stankowski of Purdue University Calumet has commented that during surges of American patriotism film noir wasn't a box office draw due to its anti-American portrayal of the nation. Yet no censorship board could hold back film noir for long and once a social injustice was brought to the attention of the public filmmakers rushed to put their spin on it (Stankowski 8). From its beginning as a crime movie to its creative takeover by Hollywood resulting in countless "B" movies to the present, film noir has secured a seat as a respectable genre.
Every genre to keep relevant with the times, has had to evolve and change with the culture. They were products of society and never the other way around. Lisa Hordness at the University at the Netherlands lists many social factors that contributed to noir's evolution. Starting in the earliest part of the century with the Depression to the World Wars and then the subsequent decades afterwards there were a myriad of changes and life for all Americans seemed to be changing for the better. Yet there were those uneasy with all the optimism, fearing that it was lulling society into a conformist state valuing materials instead of ideals (2). Everything in film noir symbolized some aspect of society. Be it how characters dressed, acted, or the decisions they make all revealed a unique fact about life in that era (Hordness 9-12). As Hordness says, the film noir story had a "dark world view" and a protagonist who had a constant "confrontation with nihilism." The ideals people once had were shattered and film noir made sure to capitalize on that. "Earlier the Americans had been free individuals and masters of their own destiny, but in postwar America people became tied up by an economic and political system out of their control. Fortune seemed to control the field" (13).
Film noir wasn't relegated to one period of time though; its style was set in stone but the themes it dealt with encompassed any generation of the twentieth century. Christopher Sharrett, a writer for USA Today magazine makes the point that as censorship began to lighten sex and sexuality in general began to be toyed with in films, film noir was at the forefront of this. Another aspect of true noir is "paranoia and perversity" which during film noirs beginnings were "unaddressed pathology in American life" (2).
Film noir's popularity in Hollywood and with the public Lloyd Shearer, a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, explains is because audiences craved the type of stories film noir produced and psychologist explain the publics love for the genre the same way they explain the love for any film genre, it was a way to escape our troubles and become someone even more troubled than us, it was "cathartic for pent-up emotions" (2). A sinister reason for our love for film noir is because we commit the act of transference as we watch, instead of the main character killing someone we are in fact the ones killing somebody, most often the person who agitates us the most in our lives (Shearer 1-2).
The new noir is quite different from its predecessor, as J.P. Telotte, a regular columnist at Film Quarterly, states the new noir is much more engaging, "It is a film that begins with a mystery and almost literally invites its viewers to play at guessing that mystery" (10-11). Yet with all its changes stories and plots have remained as constant in film noir as the escalation of violence and sexuality in the genre itself. The most common film noir story is the caper narrative, films like "Reservoir Dogs", "Usual Suspects", and "Pulp Fiction" all feature fringe characters plotting a crime which always goes horribly wrong. One can see this type of story in film noir as early as Billy Wilder's film "Double Indemnity" (Tolette 2-9). All these technical points have contributed in making film noir half of what it is, but there is another half, the story aspect, which deals exclusively with what exactly is presented to the audience in the theater.
One of the most common plot elements is the focus on a particular kind of hero. In almost no other genre is a protagonist more universally known as the film noir character. Yet the film noir character doesn't fit the conventional definition of a protagonist. They are usually never in control of the situation or the decisions they make, and constantly manipulated by everyone around them. The protagonist, a person who is most often living on the wrong side of the tracks, neither wants or gets sympathy, but we the audience root for them because they represent our less than nobler side. Although the film noir "hero" couldn't be farther from a chivalrous knight, they do follow a strict code. This code if tested leads the protagonist to do whatever must be done to uphold it, in a meaningless world that is all the hero has. Sacrifice is something which the protagonist must do to balance out whatever wrong has been done, but in the end the hero is usually worse off than he was before and the audience is left wondering just like in any real tragic situation "What just happened?"
Due to the influence of existential philosophy in film noir the genre's protagonist always had a loner attitude and alienation was a topic constantly covered by film noir. According to Stankowski these characters were in effect portraying the average citizen who believed there was no future due to wars and the constant threat of world annihilation. This increase in danger abroad was portrayed as danger within, man against man in a metropolis which became symbolic of the earth which had many different countries just as cities had just as many different types of residents (7-9).
In most circles it is pretty much agreed that the quintessential film noir hero is Sam Spade. As John Blaser at the University of California at Berkeley writes as an example, Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" when in the search for the falcon is not driven by a righteous motive to stop the bad guys or help the girl. He is driven by his loyalty to his partner, killed in the beginning of the movie. Although later detectives would show a bit of compassion the true film noir detective had none for anybody. The protagonist in these movies were doers, they had no patience to comb a crime scene for the tiniest piece of evidence. They relied on underworld connections and their fists to get them answers. In the end of all these films no protagonists were ever left with a smile on their face. Justice is not always served and the protagonist was worse off than when we first met him ("Outer" 2-5).
The hero in film noir is never rewarded for their good deed because a moral compass would be a liability in their field. And in fact the hero was almost always an accessory to the crime making vanquishing the enemy that much harder ("Film" 6). An example to this is in Chinatown as Jim Shepard of the New York Times states; all those against the main character, J.J. Gittes seem "omnipotent, malevolent and impregnable" (2). And just like the Maltese Falcon the protagonist calls in the police to arrest his client, but he has been tricked and his client gets killed by those very forces he allied with earlier, a perfect ending to a perfect film noir (2). The new crop of noir heroes Sharon Cobb, a writer for Creative Screenwriting magazine, states all have basically the same characteristics. Neo noir films represent man's subconscious fears, primal urges, and deep seeded nightmares. Tension is created not by committing violence but by the anticipation of violence. And there are no good guys or bad guys just a gray line, which all characters inhabit. The protagonist never does anything heroic in the end; there is always an ulterior motive and most of the time they are just trying not to get caught. Alienation and isolation is quite evident in the main characters. The protagonist, usually male, is under the constant influence of a woman and because of this he will ultimately be used and abused by her because of his association with her. Layers and layers of subplots and characters confuse the audience by the many directions the film takes within the story yet that is the type of tension which creates the most drama when characters and audiences alike think they've figured out what will happen next and they are sorely mistaken. Due to the subject matter and at times explicit content of neo noir these films are R rated (Cobb 35-37). A film noir character though just like any real person was a product of his environment and societies lack of interest in those fringe groups helped make those people possible.
The protagonist in isolation seeks out or is found by someone who "understands" them, and the union of the two soon spawns countless troubles for the protagonist and almost a wish from the protagonist to still have the comfort of anonymity. The relationship that most exemplifies this is between the protagonist and the femme fatale. The femme fatale is the modern day damsel in distress who inevitably uses and abuses the protagonist. She is a seducer leading the protagonist to their ultimate demise.
Women in film noir were mostly viewed as one-dimensional dishonest people yet they did fill other roles. Blaser argues that two most common ones are the "rejuvenating redeemer" and "The deadly seductress" each on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The redeemer encompasses all that society holds pure and true, "more of an ideal than an attainable reality" whereas the seductress is everything society holds taboo ("No" 6). Naremore expands by showing that another explanation of this is that the "good girl represents nature" and the "bad girl represents culture", meaning that all women are all pure and honest yet as times progress and society changes they're corrupted by the very things which runs society, wealth and power. They transformed into predators, femme fatales as they're known in film noir, and instead of claws they used their sexuality to artificially attract men to their death like lovely sirens. To understand this evolution one must examine earlier roles that women played, and that was as supporting characters, wives or mothers "submitting to the male hero." As a price for their new freedoms female characters were portrayed as every bit criminal as the average criminal, since she defied societies views on what was the traditional family and women's place in that society at that time, at the end she must be locked up or destroyed ("Straight" 7).
As the new millennium began to dawn a new femme fatale emerged though, Laura Schiff a columnist for Creative screenwriting writes that although women's portrayal as femme fatales has not really changed one important aspect has changed. Femme fatales were no longer crucified at the end of the film, they got away with the crime or if they didn't, audiences were at least rooting for her too (Schiff 28-30). Femme fatales in any film noir is as important as the protagonist, if nothing more but for the reason that she embodies complete and utter freedom from society.
Film noir was thought to be dead by the time the 1960's approached, people were tired of dark dreary backgrounds and helpless heroes, yet they did love the intrigue, violence, and sexual innuendo which were the core of all great film noirs. Yet with every new crop of neo noirs the violence and sexual content had to escalate, the public craved more and more, which unfortunately gave film noir the unfavorable reputation as being a genre which offers nothing but cheap thrills. They aren't though, if anything film noir's are psychological satires about what happens to characters overlooked by society and manipulated by people they thought they could trust. The shocking images are just there to remind people that we live in a, sometimes, cruel world.

Works Cited

Blaser, John. "Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

Blaser, John. "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

Blaser, John. "The Outer Limits of Film Noir." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

Cobb, Sharon Y. "Writing the new noir film." Creative Screenwriting September/October 2000:35-37.

Hordness, Lise. "Does Film Noir mirror the culture of Contemporary America?" From Revolution to Reconstruction. Department of Humanities Computing 9 April 2003.

Naremore, James. "American Film Noir: The history of an idea." Film Quarterly 49.2 (Winter 1995):12.

Naremore, James. "Straight down the line: making and remaking Double Indemnity." Film Comment 32.1 (Jan-Feb 1996):22.

Schiff, Laura. "Today's Femmes Fatales' Postmodern Make-over." Creative Screenwriting September/October 2000:26-30.

Sharrett, Christopher. "The endurance of Film Noir." USA Today July 1998:79.

Shearer, Lloyd. "Crime pays on the screen." New York Times Magazine August 5, 1945 pg. 22-24.

Shepard, Jim. "Jolting Noir with a Shot of Nihilism." The New York Times February 7, 1999, Sunday pg. 24.

Stankowski, Rebecca House. "Night of the Soul: American Film Noir." Studies in Popular Culture 9.1 (1986):61-83.

Telotte, J.P. "Fatal capers; strategy and enigma in film noir." Journal of Popular Film and Television 23.4 (Winter 1996):163.

Telotte, J.P. "Rounding up the Usual Suspects." Film Quarterly (Summer 1998):1-12.

1 comment:

ADRIAN said...

This should merit a publication, Rex. I suggest you should contribute it on Sense of Cinema.