Among the many movies on my list of to-be-seen film noirs (based on academic lists) was The House on 92nd Street. And what a disappointment it was to discover that there is nothing noir in this movie. The movie begins as a documentary about the secret Project 79 (about the atom bombs) and turns into a spy/crime movie. But, there is not even a hint of noir in it, except that it is made in black and white like all the movies of that period. Why it is NOT a film noir? First of all, the hero is member of the FBI he is not an antihero, he is paragon of morality and patriotism. He is a real hero, while in film noir, there is no hero. There is antihero, perplexed, puzzled, often, guilty as everyone else, or even the killer. Second, the FBI does it’s job the best possible way. In film noir, the representative of the police are morally corrupted or the police has marginal part in the story. Ad for the femme fatale, you can just forget about her. All in all, The House on 92nd Street is an interesting movie to be watched for many reasons, but noir is not one of them.
Yesterday, I watched Fear in the Night (1947) and I Wake Up Screaming (1941). However, I am a little bit disappointed by the movies. The stories are just average, as for the visual effects nothing new in I Wake up Screaming, while Fear in the Night has few interesting things. For example, the nightmare scenes, the hypnosis, and the hexagonal mirror room, but, I feel like even that is not enough. Also, the femme fatale in I Wake Up Screaming is not that fatal, while Fear in the Night doesn’t even have a femme fatale :(. Then, again, I’ve been watching so many noir movies recently, that I am getting very picky even about small details. I guess that’s what happens when you have too much of the good stuff.
Another day, another film noir watched. Today, it was Night and the City (1950). I loved the movie, it has great plot, but, my most memorable impression is the way they have used the light sources (lamps, neon light, etc) to guide the viewers attention. Talking here would do us no good. So, let’s look at some pictures from the movie.
In the picture above there are three light sources that we can see, the two lamps and the reflection from the pot. There serve to guide our attention to the action, in this case, the burning pot. A second after Mary (the dark silhouette in the picture) enters the room, she runs to help the guy with the burning pot.
Now, this is what I call a beautiful image. The light looks like the moon and we see a romantic image of Mary. The image suggests her loneliness, we can sense her despair for the loved one, Harry Fabian. Also, notice how well the image is balanced with the dark part on the left side.
On the left we have a neon silver-fox on the right is Harry. The neon silver-fox here suggests that the action will move in that direction and, indeed, this can be seen in the next image:
What do we have here? Two lamps forming a diagonal with the shadow that is partially covering Harry (on the left). They are pointing towards Harry. However, the lamp in the middle, the brightest source in the photography, keeps our attention to the two guys talking about Harry and the 1000 pounds award. Now, that is what I call photography.
There are many other interesting uses of light in Night and the City, but, I am leaving it up to you to discover them.
Btw, as I was browsing the Internet I found this essay about the Night and the City, it’s quite interesting, take a look if you have time.
Today was my day of Kubrick’s film noir. I watched The Killing and, just, finished watching Killer’s Kiss.
Killer’s Kiss was Kubrick second movie and was made on rather low budget ($40,000). However, it is full of beautiful photography of old Manhattan and old New York. Also, there are many remarkable scenes in the movie but my favorite one is the scene with the ballerina:
It is one of the most ingenious tricks of Kubrick. While Gloria is telling the long story about her sister (the ballerina), instead of showing us the two people that are having the conversation, which would have been quite boring, Kubrick is showing us the ballerina. But, he is doing more then just showing us the ballerina. The ballerina is dancing the Dance of Death. She is performing a short ballet that is accompanying the story being told. The lightning and the photography is immaculate. It is one of my favorite film-noir scene. What is your favorite film-noir scene?
Is there a film buff that hasn’t heard about Kubrick? I know, it is a silly question to be asked. Well, I just finished watching The Killing by one and only Stanley Kubrick. And, you bet, it is a masterpiece.
Several men are organizing a racetrack robbery. It is the most complex robbery, every detail has to be planned, every minute counts and Kubrick does his best in building the tension. As a maestro conducts an orchestra so does Kubrick sets up the rhythm of the movie, by repeating images, repeating scenes, and repeating sequences he creates the visual rhythm of the movie. We can feel the pulse of the movie as the adrenalin in our veins rises. The movie stirs an emotional turmoil in us and it is easy to loose track of what is happening. But, Kubrick knows his audience and cleverly he balances the fast pace of the movie with the slow and steady third-person omniscient narrator. The role of the narrator here is to guide us and to help us stay on track with the movie. It is probably one of the rare cases where third person narrator works excellently in a movie. That’s all from me. I am leaving it up to you to watch the movie and admire the work of the master.
Just finished watching The Third Man (1949) directed by Carol Reed.
Summary (no spoilers)
Holly Martens goes to Vienna to meet his friend Harry, however, when he arrives there he learns that Harry died in a car accident. The police does not care much about the accident because Harry was a bad man and they are glad he is dead and they advice Holly to go back to America. And, of course, as a good antihero in a film noir, Holly disobeys the orders from the police and start questioning around. And this fits well into the plot of film noir, an antihero has to take justice in his hands because no one else is willing to do so. I won’t discuss the rest of the movie, because I don’t want to steal your pleasure of watching the movie. However, I will add one more thing. The femme fatale in this movie is more passive then usual and she does not fit well into her usual role in film noir. I would say she is a little bit stubborn and disobeys the role expected of her in film noir. It is up to you to watch the movie and decide whether the femme fatale fulfills her role or not.
The first book that focused on film noir is Panorama du Film Noir Americain by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton. Of course, I haven’t read the whole book, because I don’t know French, but I have read the except “Towards a Definition of Film Noir” published in the Film Noir Reader. And, in this blog post , I will give a summary of the essay including my comments.
First, I will have to provide the definition of “series” according to Borde and Chaumeton.
“A series can be defined as a group of motion pictures from one country sharing certain traits (style, atmosphere, subject matter …) strongly enough to mark them unequivocally and to give them, over time, an unmistakable character.”
Defining film noir as a “group of motion pictures from one country” is at least problematic, because it puts the country of origin before the “certain traits” that make the series. And it is the latter that defines the series and gives it an unequivocal characteristic, not the former. The country of origin is important in studying any series, because it helps understand the political, social, and cultural factors that influenced or even enabled the series to arise. However, there is no reason to restrict the genre to one country. For example, although film noir originated in the USA and most of the films were American, there are noir films that are not American, e.g. Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler), Le Doulos (The Finger Man), and The Third Man to name a few.
The authors recognize that the presence of crime is the primary characteristic of film noir; however, crime is also the most prominent characteristic of “crime documentary”, so there has to be distinction between the two. They continue by noting that the main difference is in the focus. Documentary-style crime movies focus on the murder from the point of view of the police officials, i.e. from without, while, the focus in film noir is from within, i.e. from the point of view of the criminals. It is true that the focus in film noir is different from the focus in crime-documentaries, however to limit the focus only to the point of view of the criminals is too narrow. Indeed, in Phantom Lady great part of the story is shown through Kansas’s view, who is the antihero and the femme fatale, in The Maltese Falcon the story is seen from the point of view of the private detective, Samuel Spade, who is also the antihero, and in The Lady from Shanghai, the story is told form the perspective of Mike O’Hara, who is the hero, or better to say the antihero of the story. Thus, in film noir, the point of view is always from the perspective of the antihero and the police has a marginal role in the storytelling.
Another characteristic of film noir is the lack of moral determinism. While in crime-documentaries the hero is always “a righteous men, brave and incorruptible” in film noir, there is no hero in the classical sense of the word, the lead character is equally likely to be a corrupted as the villain, and even the lead character can be the murderer. Thus, in film noir the traditional hero is replaced by the antihero. However, the motto “Crime does not pay” always wins in the end.
And last characteristic of film noir is the femme fatale. She is beautiful, dangerous, seductive, an,d usually, she is the one that involves the antihero into the plot and, normally, into danger. One exception is Phantom Lady, where the femme fatale is the antihero in the movie and she attracts the villains to trouble and eventually to their death. The femme fatale is the symbol of violent and dark eroticism typical for the film noir.
To summarize, the main characteristics of film noir, according to Borde and Chaumeton are crime as a central theme but with with focus from within vs. without; lack of moral determinism, i.e. there is no clear separation between good and bad, the moral framework of the environment throws a dark shade on everyone; and the last characteristic is the femme fatale.
Although, the essay “Towards a Definition of Film Noir” gives a good starting point for the theory of film noir, it focuses only on the plot and does not discuss the visual elements that give film noir that noir feeling.