Film Noir literally means ‘Black Film’. This term was first coined by French film critic Nino Frank, who noticed a trend in the darkness of themes in many American films that constituted wartime cinema.
Classic film noir developed during the 1940’s during and after World War two, taking advantage of the post war zeitgeist of anxiety, pessimism and suspicion. Mistrust, fear, paranoia, and bleakness is obvious in noir, it reflects the cold war period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present.
The categorisation of noir is very difficult to propose, The term ‘Film Noir’ was not recognised in the industry or by the audiences in the 1940’s, for example it was much easier to recognise a Western or Gangster movie as a genre.
There have been many crucial disagreements about which category if any, film noir comes under, for example: *Higham, Greenberg and *Paul Kerr refer to film noir as a genre; *Raymond Durgnat sees it as defined more by ‘mood’ and ‘tone’; Janey Place describes it as a movement; *Jon Tuska says that ‘noir is both a screen style and a perspective on human existence and society’
A film noir will always be very dark and shot in cold rainy cities with very limited palette other than greys, blacks and whites. They are usually shot in city underside locations at night. The narratives are frequently complex, there will be voice overs and flash backs often adding to the maze like and confusing. You rarely know where the story is going or ‘who dun it’ until very near the end. There will be expressionistic lighting, shadows cast on faces eg: through venetian blinds, and they will frequently have disorienting visual schemes and the dialogue will be sexually charged and feature classic noir characters. The classic characteristics of a Male personality in a film noir is moody, melancholy, cynical and hard hearted. He will almost always fall for the heartless, double crossing, mysterious and manipulative ‘Femme Fatal’
He will also be involved with the other classic noir characters including : petty criminals, sociopaths, gangsters, villains and the innocent ‘girl next door’ character.
Some of the first film noirs are as follows
* Maltese Falcon (1941)
* Murder, My Sweet (1944)
* Double Indemnity (1944)
* Laura (1944)
* The Woman In The Window (1944)
When Kathie Moffett (Greer) shoots her admirer, Whit Sterling (Douglas), a big time gambler, and absconds with $40,000 of his money, Sterling hires a private detective Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) to find her. Bailey leaves New York and catches up with Kathie in Mexico. Kathie denies taking the money and after falling for her charms, Bailey notifies Sterling that he could not find her. The film has a fair amount of double crossing Bailey double crossing Stirling and Kathie double crossing both men. She is the classic ‘Femme Fatal’I have decided on a ten minute scene in which Jeff Bailey meets Kathie Moffett for the first time.
The scene begins with a voice over from Bailey, he tells us (the audience) that he will wait in a cafï¿½ until he finds her. The cafï¿½ he chooses is very dark and dismal, he sits at a table alone with his untouched drink and waits. The only thing keeping him awake is the music drifting into the cafï¿½ from a theatre next door.
She then appears at the entrance to the cafï¿½, she is dressed all in white and Bailey (a complete contrast in appearance, wearing a dark suit) is mesmerised by her luminescence. The sun is shining behind her and as soon as she enters the room it becomes far brighter.
Kathie sits alone at a table and orders a drink, she then lights a cigarette. Bailey, watching from a nearby table is no longer wishing to investigate her, he is fascinated by this female, the $40,000 and Whit Stirling are forgotten as this vision of beauty sits before him. His voice over descriptions of Kathie were now becoming increasingly romantic and he was powerless to stop it.
Bailey rises from his seat and approaches the table at which Kathie is seated at,(physically reducing the distance between them) just as he is about to pass her he drops something (in order to make conversation with her) He stops to retrieve what he has dropped, but as he rises a Mexican man appears.
As Bailey is so close to the table the man assumes that they are together, he asks them if he could speak with them both. They share a glance, although it is short it is quite intense, Kathie signals with her eyes that Bailey may join her at the table. The man offers his services as a guide to Acapulco, Bailey listens to the man who is advising them that he knows the place very well and can show them the best places to visit. Kathie who is fast becoming irritated by the man booms ‘I don’t need a guide’ the man continues with the pitch but aims it more at Bailey. Bailey who senses Kathie’s annoyance, humours the man and purchases a gift for Kathie from him, a pair of earrings.
The man leaves, but before Bailey can Michelle Solley offer the gift to Kathie she says she doesn’t wear them. Bailey is now most uncomfortable and is hunched in his seat, looking down and playing nervously with the earrings. Kathie continues to look at Bailey she continues to smoke her cigarette in a seductive fashion and then raises her wine glass to her mouth very slowly to take a sip, when she lowers the glass she licks her lips looking straight into Baileys eyes and then smiles. Bailey attempts a conversation with her, he tells her how lonely it is when you don’t have anyone to share the scenery with, Kathie suggests he goes home, Once again she puffs on her cigarette and licks her lips, this time She strokes her wine glass very delicately letting Bailey know that she is quite enjoying his attempts at flirting with her.
Kathie leaves her unfinished drink on the table and stands to leave, Bailey remains seated looking dis-heartened by his lack of triumph in chatting up this attractive woman. Kathie recommends a local bar where there is live music, Bailey still looking down at the earrings thinks he has missed out, Kathie’s last comment before leaving was ‘ I sometimes go there ‘ as she walks away the cafï¿½ again becomes darker, as Kathie * The shimmering, white-clad image of radiant perfection, disappeared Bailey was left alone to wonder whether he would see her again.
Throughout their affair, Bailey would always leave it to Kathie to decide when and where they met, he was powerless to controls the events that happened. In an early part of their relationship, in a voice over he says ‘ Every night I went to meet her, how did I know she’d ever show up’
This scene showed a strong male private investigator set out on a specific task, he was reduced to a nervous quivering boy, as a result of lust and romance. The classic ‘Femme Fatal’ had him exactly where she wanted him.
Kathie is controlling the meeting, and the audience can see this through Bailey’s eyes. The atmosphere is tense and very uncomfortable.
* Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg: ‘Hollywood In The Forties’ Tanivy Press, London (1986) pg 75.
* Paul Kerr: ‘ Out Of What Past?’ The ‘B’ Film Noir, Screen Education Nos 32-3 (Autumn-Winter 1979-80) pg 45.
* Raymond Durgnat: ‘Paint It Black’ Cinema (UK), Nos 6-7 (1970)
* Janey Place: ‘Women in Film Noir’ E. Ann Kaplan, BFI, London (1970) pg 37.
* Jon Tuska: ‘Dark Cinema’ Greenwood Press, Westport (1984) pg xv.
* Laura Mulvey’s Article: ‘Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema’ (Autumn 1975) vol.16 no.3.