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Film Noir Essay, Research Paper

Film noir is one of the most beloved and popular "period" film genres of the late twentieth century, although at the time that the movies comprising the genre were made, the term film noir was unknown. Essentially, it mean "black film" — a variation on the nineteenth-century French critical term roman noir, or "black novel" — referring to any number of doom-laden, deeply psychological crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. At the time they were made, the movies were simply gangster films or mysteries, with no consciously perceived qualities separating them from other movies. French critics originally used the designation film noir to define films of the 1930s, such as Jean Renoir's La Chienne (later remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the classic film noir Scarlet Street); but it applied equally well to a particular brand of American film and was accepted by the American critical establishment of the late 1950s and beyond as suitably defining the genre — really a sub-genre of the crime movie. Today, there are whole festivals of film noir shown at revival and repertory theaters and on television, a great irony for a genre that was defined with a term that American producers and critics of the era would scarcely have understood. The development of film noir was a gradual one, coming long after the end of the classic Hollywood gangster movie cycle. Crime movies of the 1920s and 1930s had their psychological sides — from The Last Mile to Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage to The Petrified Forest, it was possible to find films about criminals whose motivations were as fascinating as their crimes. Even The Roaring Twenties, with James Cagney, at the tail-end of Warner Bros.' gangster-movie cycle, featured an anti-hero whose psychology allowed for an acceptance of death — after surviving World War I, the early gang wars, and the end of Prohibition. And a few such films, most notably Fritz Lang's M (starring a young Peter Lorre), focused as much on the psychology of the criminal mind as it did on its story of a manhunt for a murderer of young children. But these relatively sophisticated works were the exception rather than the rule, and most crime films of the 1930s were, at best, well-made shoot-'em-ups laced with fanciful police/detective procedural material. Film noir as a defined genre began during the early 1940s, with films that dwelt on the darker side of the psychology of pursuers and the criminals alike — indeed, sometimes, as in the case of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946), the sequence of crimes that set up the plot was difficult to discern. The first true film noir, according to many scholars, was H. Bruce Humberstone's I Wake Up Screaming, based on a novel by Steve Fisher and starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar — the title reeks of nightmarish fear, but the actual noir elements lay in the doom-laden sadism of Cregar's character, an obsessive, sadistic homicide detective who torments the two suspects (Mature, Grable) in the murder of an actress. The film tells the story of the murder and the investigation, but its real power lays in its ability to make the viewer feel as trapped as the two suspects — they find themselves trapped in a dark psychological and legal web woven by the disturbed police detective. The viewer feels each shock, as the strands of the web are pulled and yanked tighter, as strongly as the characters themselves. It becomes clear only minutes into the film that we are in the presence of something dangerous and unhealthy; even in the 1990s, watching this movie — which FoxVideo has wisely made available on videocassette — is an unsettling experience. Although nobody was consciously emulating I Wake Up Screaming, it established what became known as standard film noir attributes — the gritty urban setting populated by characters who seem lost or psychologically wounded and surrounded by threats that are as much imagined as real, with the law and a higher justice always looming just out of frame waiting to destroy them. I Wake Up Screaming adds the further twist of portraying the representative of the law as a dark, threatening force embodying injustice. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) is also frequently cited as a pioneering film noir, but its psychology is somewhat more muted than that of Humberstone's movie. Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade, however, moves through a world recognizable to film noir fans, filled with murderously obsessive men and women, police officers whose dedication borders on sadism, women whose sexuality is scarcely in control — and is consciously used for destructive purposes — and at its center a hero who constantly struggles with his own worst impulses. Another movie from the same period that seemed to define the birth of the genre was Frank Tuttle's This Gun For Hire(1941), based on Graham Greene's story A Gun For Sale, starring Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and the ubiquitous Laird Cregar. The story of a murder for hire was unconventional by Hollywood standards, but Ladd brought a depth of humanity and despair to his portrayal of the hired killer that audiences found irresistible — and his mix of psychosis and nobility made him a most extraordinary anti-hero in Hollywood, contrasting well with the pathetic whimperings of Laird Cregar's go-between and Tully Marshall's traitorous industrialist. The origins of film noir during this era, against the backdrop of the outbreak of World War II, were no accident. The coming of war to Europe darkened the mood of United States in ways that the Great Depression, in all but its worst days, had not. The United States had survived the Depression, but suddenly the world seemed to be turning even more threatening than it had been during the depths of that upheaval — democratically elected leaders in Germany were cavalierly planning the conquest of Europe and the deaths of millions, and the only other comparable players on the international scene were dictators in the Soviet Union and Japan; England and France, whose affairs this country wanted no part of in any case, were hamstrung; and the United States, whose previous foray into international politics during World War I had ended in disaster for the President and the Congress involved, was incapable of acting. Making matters worse was the fact that the outbreak of World War II coincided with the end of the last vestiges of unemployment from the Depression. Film noir was a reaction to the darker sides of reality in 1941. At the time, the movies were also ripe for a new brand of hero, and a new range of characters. The imposition of the Production Code, censoring the content of films from 1933 onward, had the effect of cleaning and polishing the surfaces of characters and plots, more than their authors, actors, and directors might have liked. Actors like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and even John Wayne (check out his portrayal of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach) had managed to bring some dark facets to their work, but only in very limited fashion. Generally, movies were less than fully dimensional after eight years of self-imposed censorship. When film noir came along during the early 1940s, showing off sides of human behavior that previously had been ignored, the public responded most enthusiastically. The war also helped in another respect — many of the works that followed would not have passed the censors in the 1930s, but after American entry into World War II, standards loosened as the movie industry recognized that the world was a more violent and dangerous place. And a new generation of writers arrived in Hollywood to avail themselves of this freedom. The work of author Cornell Woolrich, in particular, served as a benchmark for these dark psychological dramas. A deeply disturbed but talented writer who suffered from chronic depression and an obsession with his own mother and who was also a homosexual, Woolrich was one of the most popular writers of crime fiction of the early 1940s; his work was widely published in pulp magazines as well as in novel form. His story Black Friday and novels such as Phantom Lady and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes became the basis for several important films during the early 1940s, and he provided the story that subsequently was turned into Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. On a more mainstream level, Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely) found their services in demand as well, as never before, and in the 1940s they would finally see their characters' darkest sides brought to the screen reasonably intact. Film noir was the first genre in which the dangers to the characters were as much psychological as physical. Audiences seemed to respond well to this new phenomenon, and the success of This Gun For Hire and I Wake Up Screaming, in particular, heralded an era of dark detective dramas and mysteries populated by strange, doom-obsessed characters: Phantom Lady, Deadline At Dawn, The Woman In the Window, Scarlet Street, Murder My Sweet, The Lost Weekend, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Pitfall, Dead Reckoning, The Dark Corner, Edge of Doom, Force Of Evil, Kiss of Death, The Asphalt Jungle, They Live By Night, D.O.A. Their titles alone speak volumes about the movies. The typical story might involve a man who commits one seemingly innocent act of indiscretion — getting a little too drunk, doing a favor for some stranger (usually a woman), or failing to do some favor for a stranger — and finds himself caught up in a life-threatening dilemma. In The Dark Corner, Mark Stevens finds himself being followed by a private detective and assaulted and framed for a murder he didn't commit, all at the behest of a man (Clifton Webb) he scarcely knows or remembers, who has his own warped motivations for revenge. In Deadline At Dawn, the only feature film to be directed by renowned theatrical director Harold Clurman, sailor Bill Williams, visiting New York on leave, awakens after having had too much to drink and learns that the woman he was with — whom he discovered was trying to rob him — has been strangled, and that he can be tied to the victim by any number of clues and witnesses. In Pitfall, insurance company investigator Dick Powell gives one break to a seemingly harmless and vulnerable woman (Lizabeth Scott) and this leads to his involvement in fraud, violence, blackmail, and murder. And in D.O.A., perhaps the darkest of all film noir, businessman Edmond O'Brien learns that he has been given a lethal, slow-acting poison that will kill him in 24 hours and spends that time trying to find out why it was done, only to learn that he has been murdered all because he notarized a bill-of-sale for a man he'd never met before, which made him a potential witness in a fraud and murder case. In other examples of the genre, the participants are anything but innocent. Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), for example, which is also one of the most romantic movies in the film noir category, everybody involved in the plot — at first a who-dunnit which evolves into a who-was-it-done-to as well — (except for one servant) is a potential suspect, and everyone has a hand in setting up the circumstances of the murder. Even the police detective, played by Dana Andrews, is so deeply engrossed in his work that he fails to recognize the savagery and sadism that color his actions and motivations. Andrews, Preminger, and Laura star Gene Tierney would explore the character traits of this duty obsessed detective more fully in 1950, with the far-less romantic Where The Sidewalk Ends, in which Andrews portrays a police detective who inadvertently frames himself for murder — ironically, one of the few crimes that he is accused of which he is not guilty. Another brilliant example of the genre is Abraham Polonsky's Force Of Evil (1948), the only example of left-wing film noir known to have emerged from Hollywood. The product of an independent organization called Enterprise Studios, Force of Evil stars John Garfield as a successful Wall Street businessman fronting for the head of a syndicate that plans to wreck the numbers rackets in New York and take them over as a legal lottery — but to do this, he must wreck the life of his estranged brother, a small-time numbers banker. Garfield is destroyed when he tries to act on his one decent impulse, to save his brother's financial well-being, which costs the brother (brilliantly played by Thomas Gomez) his life in the process. The "force of evil" mentioned in the title is capitalism and the greed of the system, but despite this bit of subtle politicking, the movie is never preachy and moves with such grace and so dazzling a clip, that it is often compared to Citizen Kane. And in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle(1950), everyone is guilty, and everyone gets caught or killed — knowing that doesn't diminish the appeal of the movie, because how they get caught and killed is what the film is really about. Even Samuel Goldwyn, known for making high-profile films designed to appeal to the widest possible audiences (The Best Years of Our Lives, Hans Christian Andersen etc.), released a film noir, Edge of Doom, which proved to be one of the most somber and bizarre examples of the genre. Farley Granger, who would do much better in Side Street, plays a poor boy from Boston who accidentally kills a priest and spends the rest of the movie trying to escape his guilt and his pursuit by another priest (Dana Andrews). The appeal of film noir lasted well into the 1950s, long after the end of the world war that heralded its birth. The longevity of the genre can be attributed first to its flexibility — unlike westerns, crime films as such never really go out of style, and the different manifestations of crime offer a rich selection of subject matter. Toward the end of the 1940s, as juvenile delinquency was once again becoming a major issue, Universal released City Across The River (based on Irving Shulman's five million copy bestseller The Amboy Dukes), about street gangs in Brooklyn's Brownsville section. And in the 1950s, even the Red Scare manifested itself in film noir, in one of the finest crime thrillers of the decade, Samuel Fuller's Pickup On South Street (1953), in which a small-time pick-pocket (Richard Widmark) finds himself up to his neck in enemy spies and F.B.I. men when he steals a woman's wallet that contains a valuable piece of microfilm — Thelma Ritter (who, rather extraordinarily for a player in a "B"-picture of this kind, received an Oscar nomination) nearly steals the picture as an aging go-between who sacrifices herself to keep the spies from gaining on their target. Interest in film noir waned only when television destroyed the market for this form of low-to-middle budget movie, and the final nail was hammered into the genre's coffin when color photography became standard for Hollywood films. It was extraordinarily difficult, if not entirely impossible, to shoot stories of this kind in color with anything resembling the menace that black-and-white permitted — color as it was used in those days was too distracting and, of necessity, created images that were too bright. Film noir, however, didn't die entirely as a genre or as a field of study. In France, filmmakers such as Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob Le Flambeur) and New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) were heavily influenced by the American genre, and transplanted American blacklistee Jules Dassin also made one classic film noir, Riffifi, in France. And occasionally, a picture such as Andrew and Virginia Stone's Cry Terror or Phil Karlson's Key Witness — both dating from the early 1960's — would emerge from Hollywood, but these films were very rare, and neither one was successful enough to lead to any follow-up efforts. Additionally, as Hollywood films became more glitzy, movie buffs and film students turned increasingly to older forms and were drawn to the eerie ambience and zeitgeist of film noir. Indeed, the entire American fixation on film noir dates from the 1960s, as viewers and students — looking for something more than The Sound of Music or even the James Bond films could offer — began taking these old crime movies very seriously and studying them in ways that would have astonished their makers. Well into the 1970s and 1980s, one could find the influence of film noir in fine mysteries such as Burt Lancaster and Roland Kibbee's The Midnight Man(1974) and John Huston's Prizzi's Honor (1985). The 1990s, and crime films such as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), continue to see movies influenced heavily by the old form of the genre.

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