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By Les Snell


We have always had the desire to tell a story. Cave paintings depict warriors battling mighty beasts that roamed the Prairies of the America’s, the forests of Europe and the African continent where it is said the first man walked and hence populated and eventually conquered the Neanderthal. Here in Australia, Aboriginal paintings tell the story of a nomadic existence. These ancient works also tell us the ancient struggle between good and evil, gods and monsters. The question is, why do we feel the need to tell a tale? Is it because the desire for something more, other than the banality of the day to day grind of existing, fuels our imagination, not only to be something else, but also the need to pass it on. For a community to exist in harmony, social order has to be established. Yet, why is man fascinated with the darker forces of human consciousness. Is the unknown more seductive? Of course it is ! Hence the reason why no other genre or style has had as much impact in the history of cinema as Film Noir.

What is Film Noir? Firstly, the term ‘Noir’ is the French word for Black. Put the two together and you get Black Film. The average video punter is aware of these films conveying something somewhat ominous, foreboding and sinister. Film Noir, though it was coined by French critics, didn’t originate in France. Now, here it can get a bit muddled because although Film Noir is distinctly American as a Big Mac or a Harley Davidson, it owes a lot to the German Expressionists directors such as F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst and an Austrian cinematographer called Karl Freund during the 0’s. During the late 0’s German and Austrian stars such as Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich migrated to the States and starred in many Film Noir movies. Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Fritz Lang all of whom were Austrians influenced the film makers of that era.

However, you cannot take anything away from the Yanks, they got through Prohibition, the Depression, they tamed the Wild Frontier and helped the allied forces defeat the Germans in the Second World War. Those troubled times shaped the American psyche. Their society was now taking a deep look into its core and realism became the theme for a new breed of writers (for without a story there is no film). Out of the ashes came the mobster genre, fast cars, willing gals and flying bullets capturing and fascinating the cinema going public. The film makers provided our forefathers a visual journey into the realm of the outsider. The pessimism of the time created the anti-hero, immortalising actors like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson as the quintessential gangsters. Those films were the entr�e for what was to come in the next two decades.

In Film Noir, we are drawn into the murky and deviant world of the outsider. A world that skirts around the fringes of structured society. The events often occur in the night, set in a seedy environment, a setting designed by the film makers to emphasise the central characters state of mind, ‘the darkness’.

Roger Westcombe said “the definitive Film Noir characteristic is fatalism”. For example in the film ‘Double Indemnity’, Barbara Stanwick seduced an average bloke played by Fred MacMurray (who was wanting more in life) to kill her husband for the insurance money. Due to the treacherous intent of both characters, their plot was doomed to fail because of the mistrust each had for the other.

The negative traits possessed of this genre show them to be loners, paranoid, corruptible, cynical, addictive to all measures of substance and physical abuse, sexual or the other. They are flawed and this is why we can relate to them, because they are mirroring our very own reality. The positive attributes they posses are, tough and fast thinking. They mind their own business unless provoked and are incredibly sexy. Attributes that not all of us in the real world possess, but sometimes, would like to.

I’ve stated that man has a need to tell a story. An indepth study of this was conducted by Abraham Maslow in his study of primates. He concluded that there is a hierarchy of need. Once he has attained the four preceding hierarchy of needs to exist comfortably in the world. He desires to be recognised for his achievements. He wants to be immortalised.

I’ve touched on the influence by the German and Austrian film makers in the way they tell a story and the volatile and somewhat unstable period in American history that fuelled an era of writers depicting a society within a society coexisting, a parallel universe. The theme to succeed, at any price, by the leading characters and villains also play a major role in the story of this genre. I was once told that when ever you come across a fork in the road you don’t necessarily have to take the easier path to get to where you want. Our characters always decide that the easier path is the road to financial freedom. I’m sure this anecdote has a lot to do with the subject matter of the dark film. However, what does constitute a true film noir and when did it truly begin?

140 to 15 has been universally agreed upon as the ‘Golden Age’ of film noir. Man’s desire for good or evil, his achievements etc have been explored in many genres, the western, horror and comedy. So why are they not in the film noir category? A lot of the films were shot in black and white and the theme that the story revolves around is taking the easy way out. This is where you can get confused, in order to classify this thing you have to decide whether or not film noir is a genre, a style or for that matter ‘a lubricant’. Film historians and critics have discussed, argued and debated on this issue.

My research on film noir can be defined in three categories. Listed in the above paragraph the first criteria (1) a genre similar to westerns, comedies or horror () a period tied to that era of the 40’s and late 50’s and () a cinematic style with its own unique look. It would be unfair not to mention that there are also purists out there that believe film noir cannot be in colour nor be a genre. Then, that would exclude my personal opinion, that the best film ever made other than Casablanca was Blade Runner. This brilliant film would fall short of the mark because it does not keep with the tradition of containing dark, shadowy images shot in black and white or scenes set in seedy run down city places of the 40’s and 50’s. Although the film does portray leading characters that are akin to Caligula or Nero with a touch of Caesar. They have seen it all and have done everything. But still fail to succeed. Another example is of two beautiful women. One, you would introduce to your mother (Sean

Young’s character) and the other, you wouldn’t ( the Darryl Hannah portrayal), because she would end up sleeping with her. (This attitude came about because women during the war in America found their true independence, they worked in jobs that men had a monopoly on).

The evolution of film noir came principally because of supply and demand. The building blocks to capitalism. The studios had to churn these films out because of

public demand, The suits funded these lesser projects with a limited budget. The private eye, the detective, etc, all pulp fiction or B-grade films, the term Hollywood used for the support for their main features.

The people who worked on them where in fact like Australia A, they were the Reserve grade. This was the turning point.

Those films were not subjected to the stringent eye of the executives, Without the strict guidelines the A team were able to experiment with their techniques and so they improvised. They didn’t have the huge and glamorous sets with the pampered stars who needed the beautifying lighting. They concentrated on the story and character development. This freedom gave Hollywood the cinematic look, that to this day, modern film makers are using. For six years the Germans put a stop to Hollywood films and when the war finally ended, the French were bombarded, they saw a change in the US method of story telling. From the perky optimistic, morally contrived scenario, to this new truth of human nature. The severe contrasts of the images of those films, paralleled the grimness of the period. I can just imagine the avent garde’s of the time, drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes whilst getting all excited with this style that resembled expressionism. They gave it a name and so film noir was born. The film revolution had begun and the domino effect occurred throughout Europe.

History has shown us that nothing lasts forever, like the fall of great men and their realms, film noir met its demise through modern technology and the changing of the time. Once televison became financially accessible to the mass, film noir became a thing of the past. Television sit-coms like ‘I love Lucy’ became the escapism for a new period ‘peace’. Tony Bennet once sung ‘It’s the good life’ which became the new theme of optimism and moral conscience which again took a hold in the American way. The dark side once again relegated to the fringes of human society.

Its resurrection during the years preceeding the Vietnam War indicate that the human spirit does have a conscience for it again, inspiring a new wave of writers to delve into the human consciousness, “Taxi Driver’ took us into the world of one man who felt that no one cared and that maybe he could make a difference. Neo-noir was re-introduced into our culture and for the next three decades the genre and style kept re-inventing itself with films such as ‘Body Heat’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘LA Confidential’.

So in conclusion, film noir captured the imagination of many for so long because…..

quite simply, man will always want more and some will go to great lengths to achieve this.


Film Noir by Hyde Flippo

Dark Cinema by Jon Tuska

Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia

What is this thing called noir by Roger Westcombe

The Maltese Falcon dir Howard Hawks

Blade Runner dir Ridley Scott


Film Noir by Hyde Flippo

Dark Cinema by Jon Tuska

Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia

What is this thing called noir by Roger Westcombe

The Maltese Falcon dir Howard Hawks

Blade Runner dir Ridley Scott

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