Written by David Kociemba

USA, 1941. 101 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond. Music: Adolph Deutsch; Cinematography: Arthur Edeson; Production Design: Robert Haas; Produced by: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis; Based on a Novel by: Dashiell Hammett; Written by: John Huston; Directed by: John Huston.

The pleasure of films noirs is in the active reading of them. We make our own way through these confusing, baroque worlds filled with existential crises. In navigating these rich swathes of word and shadow, we become like the private detective so often found in them: bewildered, besieged, and maybe even a bit enamored with the glorious crassness of it all. Those pleasures show up in the tradition of criticism around this… Well, that’s where the problems begin, really. What is this thing we call film noir?

Its first scholars were so evidently fans that later writers have argued that they presented no coherent theory of film noir. These were just films that they liked. Paul Schrader suggested that it’s more like a movement, such as the French New Wave or Italian neo-realism. Others have likened it to a cycle of films. Of course, other genres have been significantly limited by their time period, such as classical Greek tragedies or Passion Plays.

But is it a genre? Can it be an independent genre when there are noir Westerns and even noir comedies? (Robert Porfirio’s example of the latter is Unfaithfully Yours.) Of course, if Hamlet’s directions to his company of players are any indication, genres have been interbreeding for quite some time.

Raymond Durgnat presented another solution. He wrote that film noir, unlike other genres, “takes us into the realms of classification by motif and tone.” Actually, tone plays an important role in defining many genres. Comedies have been defined as a form of storytelling that generates laughter, anarchy, and disruption simultaneously with understanding it as a narrative that moves towards harmony, integration, and a happy ending. Many genres are defined by motif and tone as well as other criteria, such as setting or archetypes.

So, what is the tone of films noirs? Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton stated that, “The conclusion is simple: the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir. All films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. The aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation.”

Alfred Appel agrees, writing that despair, loneliness, and dread define its tone. Films noirs work when they present “a vision that touches an audience most intimately because it assures that their suppressed impulses and fears are shared human responses.”

As with horror, comedy, the musical, suspense, and melodrama, these writers argue that film noir is importantly defined by particular patterns of audience response. You know you’re in a horror movie when you flinch or cover your eyes, a comedy when you bust a gut, a musical when your toes start tapping, a suspense film when you’re on the edge of your seat, or a melodrama when your tears have been successfully jerked. We take what we need from film noir, according to James Naremore, in a manner similar to the connection between horror’s great cycles and periods of social disruption.

Other writers have privileged the visual look of the film noir in attempting to understand it. Joel Greenberg and Charles Hingham provided a very evocative description in their book on 1940s filmmaking: “A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or be murdered… here is a world where it is always night, always foggy or wet, filled with gun shots and sobs, where men wear turneddown brims on their hats and women loom in fur coats, guns thrust deep into pockets…. And above all, shadow upon shadow upon shadow… every shot in glistening low-key, so that rain always glittered across windows or windscreens like quicksilver, furs shone with a faint halo, faces were barred deeply with those shadows that usually symbolized some imprisonment of body or soul.” Essentially, we know it when we see it.

Paul Kerr, however, looks to industry history to explain why film noir got its start in the early 1940s and virtually ended by 1960. Authors had been content to explain its generation holistically, referencing everything from a national optimism challenged by the events of the 1930s and fears of the new post-war order to the mordant sensibilities of German émigrés to finding influences in Citizen Kane, French poetic realism, German expressionism, and the financial success of the hard-boiled novel.

For Kerr, this more philosophical approach was a short cut. Film noir is a response to the increasing prominence of Technicolor, access to new filming and lighting technologies, the pursuit of product differentiation in the face of television, and the space opened up for B-movies as a result of industry distribution practices.

He writes, “Technicolor process demanded ‘high key effects, with brilliant lighting and sparkling definition’ as a very condition of its existence. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that a cinema of ‘low-key effects, with sombre, heavy shadows’ flourished in counterpart to it.… for Technicolor, faster film necessitated stronger floodlighting throughout the late 1930s, the 1940s and into the 1950s; floodlighting which in turn made for a flatter image and a marked lack of contrast. For black and white, on the other hand, the introduction of faster film stock allowed a decrease in lighting levels and aperture openings commensurate with previous impractical chiaroscuro effects. Single source lighting became steadily more feasible and was attractively economic—cheap on both power and labour.

“Apart from colour, perhaps the most important technological development in the late 1930s was the introduction of a new range of Fresnel lenses which, for the first time, made it possible to place large diameter lenses close to a powerful light source without loss of focus…. [T]he new fast black and white stock opened the way for smaller lighting units—such as Babys or Krieg Lilliputs— which permitted lower lighting levels….

“The only new 35mm camera introduced in the 1940s in any quantity was the Cunningham Combat Camera, a lightweight affair which allowed cinematographers to move more easily whilst filming and to set up in what would previously have been inaccessible positions. Even more appropriate for hand-held and high or low angle shooting, however, was the Arriflex, which was captured from German cameramen…. So-called Tolandesque deep focus was therefore only technologically possible from 1938 when the new fast 1232 Super XX Panchromatic Stock could be combined with Duarc light, 25mm wide-angle lenses and considerably reduced apertures. Wideangle lenses were extensively used thereafter until they were somewhat anachronised by the advent of wide screens in 1953 and the accommodation to television standards later in that decade.”

For Kerr, some of the motives behind film noir were similar to the motives behind the techniques creating post-war blockbuster spectacles. The desire to distinguish B cinematic product from early television’s filmed plays and serial entertainments was an important influence on what was made. (In addition, it’s widely acknowledged that the film industry used color, production values, 3D, wide screens, and epic or ‘adult’ themes to give its top-line products brand separation from television.) The cultural conditions of the time are necessary conditions for explaining film noir, but not sufficient to explain the work. The history of the intersections between industry practices and technological innovation must be an important part of that conversation.

Finally, some authors have sought to explain film noir by noting its archetypes, especially the detective and the femme fatale. Raymond Chandler, in “The Simple Art of Murder,” wrote the most evocative of this type of criticism:

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in. Such is my faith.”

David Kociemba serves as the president of the affiliated faculty union at Emerson College, and has taught at four other area colleges and universities. His research and teaching interests range from images of disability to experimental video art to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition, he has taught the principles and practice of parliamentary debate at College Academy and the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club.

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