Consistently alternating patches of dark shadows and bright sunlight, windows with symmetrically arranged grills, smoke rising from the cigarette held by a surreptitious femme fatale who just broke the protagonist’s heart to drive away in a fast car with another man. These are some images that come to mind when the phrase film noir is casually thrown around in a discussion.
Online searching tells us that the word ‘noir’ is French for ‘dark’,and hence used by some French film critics to circle out the motion pictures that were too grotesque for the everyday family audience. ‘Dark film’ today can imply a wide range of cinema from Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ to Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ and Nolan’s ‘Memento’.
What have these films with brutally violent, psychologically intense and morally unforgiving narratives got to do with an old black and white French genre? Does the impact of film noir continue to persist, or is it an act of mere generalisation to barge in any film with a visible moral dilemma under the umbrella of ‘neo-noir’? These are questions that this article will attempt to throw light on.
Setting aside lucid descriptions such as the one provided at the beginning of this article, there have been very few and conflicting definitions of film noir. French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton jotted down five features common to all noir films: oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent and cruel.
Paul Schrader, screenwriter and critic (known for writing the screenplay in Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver) in his essay confined film noir to be limited to the years between 1941 to 1958, when Hollywood narratives became gradually engrossed in darkness and corruption of character and theme.
Based on the themes and ideations of what film noir is about, various films entirely unrelated to the age and canon could be considered the precursor to the genre. It includes Fritz Lang’s ‘M’, a German film released in 1930. Therefore, it is impossible to locate where this kind of cinema began.
The word noir was first used by French film critics to point to radical films surrounding working-class life. Those critics associated these films with modern Gothic novels (the legacy of which goes as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
In France, the fascination with America was high as the people who were just out of the repressive years of Occupation seemed to sense freedom and enjoyment in exploring the American lifestyle. France also had a highly developed reception for cinema with film clubs and journals, taken very seriously. Thus, the idea of American film noir sprang out of the various minds of French film studies, which saw in a host of new American films a certain rebellion against existing economic conditions.
American films such as ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Lost Weekend’ were recognized as exemplary specimens of the style. These films are considered noir films even today. However, ‘Double Indemnity’ a film highly recommended today as noir was barely considered one by the critics of its time.
Films like ‘Woman in the Window’ and ‘Laura’ explored to the maximum the effects of dream-like sequences, with a professor of psychology finding himself lost between dreams and reality in the former and a man in love with a dead woman seeing her standing in front of him, in the latter. The dream sequences, telling of the surrealist inspiration of the genre, have been kept alive up to this day in relatively recent films like ‘The Big Lebowski’.
While the original canon of noir cinema seemed to have terminated in the early sixties, it can be said that the genre still continued to exist and exert influence. During the rise of the French New Wave, noir films were viewed in film clubs and societies, in retrospect and were paid tribute to by such greats as Godard (in his film ‘Breathless’ among others) and Truffaut.
The technicality of noir is usually described along the following lines. High contrast black and white scenes, various flashbacks shot compositions that break apart from the usual and balanced, and camera angles that are often steep. While this might be the general idea in collective memory, it is hardly true that all or even most noir films are confined to this standard.
In every period, elements of art and culture form a superstructure that stands above the base, which consists of the modes of production, in this case: the kinds of camera and shooting equipment, the structure and hierarchy of film studios, et cetera.
In the early years of noir, the overwhelming majority of films were produced in large production houses, which employed their own musicians, photographers and designers. Thus each production house developed its own characteristic features visible in its cinema.
Speaking of technicality, there was hardly any monotony in style. Noir films included those shot in the studio as well as those shot in location, with a varying range of colour contrast and camera focus.
Evolution in technology
Technology evolved with the years, and films inspired by the noir school began to show newer stylistic features. Newer tools such as DI (Digital Intermediate), CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and sturdy Steadicams revolutionised not only the filming process but also the resultant film output.
‘Layer Cake’ starring Daniel Craig, masterfully implements CGI, in the scene where the protagonist dreams about drugs getting blended with his reality while he stands in a medical store. ‘Atomic Blonde’ makes use of various modern technological equipment to produce fight scenes and chase sequences that were impossible in the days of the years of core noir.
Somewhere between indefinite references in otherwise unrelated films to fully-fledged neo-noir films, the spirit of noir still exists. Somewhere between highly expensive statuettes resembling those from the sets of ‘Maltese Falcon’ and music albums such as Carla Simon’s ‘Film Noir’, the cultural zeitgeist still holds imprints that film noir left behind, even if some of the references aren’t conscious tributes but mere commercial gimmicks.
Noir embodies the undying themes of modernism that arose after the First World War, and as long as those conflicts still exist, one may predict that noir will remain. However, as British critic Raymond Durgnat argues, noir is a “perennial” style that rises beyond the boundaries of politics and nationality and can be moulded in accordance with the setting.
Perhaps it is this nature of noir that is the reason for the genre that began as a radical offshoot with working-class sensibilities to have become a perfectly saleable commodity with noir-themed perfumes being available in the market
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