Film Noir (literally ‘black film or cinema’) was coined by French film critics (first by Nino Frank in 1946) who noticed the trend of ‘dark’ and downbeat looks and themes in many American crime and detective films released in France after World War II.
These films included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Laura (1944). These movies were a big contrast to Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are often found in noir, reflecting the ‘chilly’ Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. Happy endings were rare in noirs.
Women in Film Noir are usually seen as femme fatales (and, sometimes, there is an angelic ‘savior’ figure). Many critics see these portrayals as an attempt to keep women confined to expected roles, a sort of backlash against the independence women who had joined the workforce during World War II had gained. John and Stephanie Blaser’s essay, FILM NOIR‘S PROGRESSIVE PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN, argues that the femme fatale in Film Noir creates an image of the powerful and fearless independent woman.
Some characteristics of Film Noir:
- disillusioned male character
- femme fatale
- betrayal and love triangles
- gritty urban environments
- rain-slicked streets
- smoke, shadows, fan blades to give sense of doom
- most exterior scenes are shot at night
- use of horizontal patterns and light [e.g. shadows, blinds, bars on windows or prison doors]
- use of low-key lighting and harsh shadows
What to Look For:
As you watch films noir, pay attention to:
- dim lighting
- horizontal shadows
- rain-slicked streets
- urban settings
- femme fatales
- gritty realism
- camera angles that enhance sense of foreboding
The Woman in the Window
The Woman in the Window (1944) is a tale about a mild-mannered professor, Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who gets caught up in a murder/blackmail plot with Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), whose portrait is on display next door to his social club. This movie contains many of the elements of a classic Film Noir—a femme fatale, murder, intrigue, stylistic elements such as the rainy exterior shots, nighttime setting, urban location, and details that add a sense of foreboding.
The film also departs from some Film Noir traditions. For example, the male lead is not necessarily a disillusioned man or a returning war veteran; Richard Wanley is middle-aged and practical (he declines an invitation to a burlesque show and hesitates to get involved with Alice even though he finds her attractive). He might complain about boredom, but the affection he shows to his wife and son in the opening and their prominently displayed photographs indicate he is a dedicated family man. This devotion to family also prevents a love triangle from developing; the male-female relations in the film are situational rather than passionate.
The Woman in the Window also departs from Film Noir standards with its ending. The dream sequence offers up an unexpected resolution, which is in contrast with the typical Noir ending with the hero’s demise or imprisonment.
So, here we arrive at one of the debates among film scholars, critics, and fans: Is Film Noir a genre or a style of filmmaking? Does it have thematic and narrative conventions like Westerns, War, or Horror films? Or, is it a visual style made up of particular camera angles, lighting, and locations? Some suggest it is both a genre and a style.
Why should modern filmgoers care about movies that were made nearly 70 years ago? The compelling storytelling is one reason; these films tend to have plot twists and unexpected moments that keep the viewer guessing. Another reason to get familiar with the Film Noir genre is to better enjoy modern films that pay homage to Noir. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is often labeled a neo-Noir. Even children’s programming plays with Film Noir—the Sam Spud gag on Between the Lions is a nod to the Sam Spade films inspired by the Ellery Queen detective novels.
The director of The Woman in the Window was born in Vienna, Austria in 1890. He studied graphic design and fine art in Vienna and Paris before enlisting in the Austrian army during World War I. Lang was severely injured in the war in 1916 and spent some of his convalescence writing scenes for a movie. He didn’t get a full start in the movie business until after the war. In 1918, he was sent home suffering from “shell shock,” or post-traumatic stress disorder as it is labeled today.
His background in art and anxiety related to the trauma of war often combine in Lang’s work to show a beautiful if nightmarish world. Lang is a master at establishing mood and conveying a sense of growing doom and paranoia. In The Woman in the Window, the scenes where Wanley disposes of the body and has several run-ins with possible witnesses along the way heighten the tension and Edward G. Robinson’s furtive glances around and in the mirror give the character believability.
His silent film Metropolis was the most expensive silent film of 1927. The film is an expressionistic science fiction tale of a future torn by class divisions. The 1931 film M centers on a series of child murders and vigilante justice. Both are visually stunning and images from the films revisit the mind after viewing.
Exterior shot—scene taking place outside.
Low key lighting—lighting in a film that does not provide total illumination of the subject, adding to the feeling of suspense.
Points to ponder:
- Do you think Film Noir is a genre, a style, or both? Why?
- What are some of the characteristics of Film Noir you found in this week’s film? Would you consider this week’s film a true example of Film Noir?
- Why do we, as a culture, have periods were we seem to gravitate toward certain genres? I.e. Film Noir being popular after World War II, Westerns in the 1950s, Horror in the 1970s and early 1980s and currently?
Next week, we will talk about Inception.