From the Citizen Kane to The Dark Knight, explore the principles and classic films under film noir
Nathan Fulgado, Writer
Out of the Past Robert Mitchum and Virginia Huston in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947)
In the 1930s and early 40s, the world was reeling from the consequences of the Great Depression, while fighting World War II. Propaganda films were to play a crucial role in lifting people’s spirits in the dark times that befell them. The films that followed the propaganda films were those that reflected the disillusionment of the people, with soldiers returning in body bags, and women losing the jobs they procured while the men were serving the country. These movies also reflected the cynicism of Americans, for example, in the movie Blue Dahlia, where a sailor returns home to find his wife kissing another man.
The elements of film noir were best described by legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). According to him, film noir comprises four crucial elements: World War II and post war disillusionment, post war realism, German influence, and hard-boiled tradition.
Film noir is probably the most confusing genre in cinema, or is it even a genre? It fits the description of a tone or mood of the film or a visual style, but the evolution of ‘black cinema’ has given us such a wide array of masterpieces, that the term film noir warrants a place in the category of critics’ favourite film genres. The elements of film noir were best described by legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). According to him, film noir comprises four crucial elements: World War II and post war disillusionment, post war realism, German influence, and hard-boiled tradition.
Post-World War II, Americans were clamouring for a sense of realism in the movies they watched, unlike the high-class melodramas offered until then (Sunrise, Pandora’s Box). This reflected the post-war realism that had seeped into cinema. This also led to the use of actual locations as settings, instead of studios. The influx of Eastern Europeans and Germans during World War II had an influence on American cinema too, especially in terms of aesthetics. They brought along expressionist lighting, which used artificial studio lighting to create shadows, oblique and vertical lines, and irregular light patterns. These aesthetics became a staple for movies directed by Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and even Francis Ford Coppola in his infamous The Godfather trilogy. The final element was the inspiration from fiction. The hard-boiled tradition of curating a tough main character with a cynical outlook and approach was common for both authors and screenwriters, which led to a series of book adaptations. One of the best examples of a noir film coming from this hard-boiled tradition is Double Indemnity, with the script written by Raymond Chandler from James M. Cain's book of the same name.
Two directors that defined the early inception of film noir as a genre were Billy Wilder and Orson Welles. While the likes of Fritz Lang and Nicholas Ray existed in the category, Welles and Wilder were the cornerstones of film noir, with two incredible films that are still atop many critics’ best movies of all time. In Double Indemnity, Wilder takes you on a journey of a woman who wishes for her husband to perish, and executes a plan with an insurance agent to receive payment on the ‘double indemnity’ clause, which doubles the amount paid in the insurance settlement in case of an accidental death. The infusion of a crime drama with something as generic as an insurance clause became a staple of film noir, as seen in classics such as The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet and even the 2005 neo-noir crime film Sin City. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ magnum opus, the death of a newspaper baron triggers a chain of memories revisited in determining Charlie Kane’s ‘Rosebud’. The movie (Citizen Kane) is a vanguard of film noir, with its visual innovations - deep shadows, unorthodox camera angles, nightmarish montages – would go on to become film noir conventions.
Guy Pearce, Memento (2002), Christopher Nolan, Picture Courtesy: Pinterest
In the second half of the 20th century, Billy Wilder was making films with Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn became the most sought-after talent in Hollywood, with movies like My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wilder achieved another notch in his belt with the comedy Some Like it Hot. The fusion of comedy with the noir genre made it one of the most risqué and accomplished movies of the 20th century. Film noir kept evolving in the 60s, with Alfred Hitchcock entering the scene with Psycho. The brilliantly edited shower scene, an explosion of Einsteinian montage, the vertiginous angle as Norman Bates carries his mother down to the cellar, the cross-cutting between the sister's search through the Gothic house for Mrs. Bates and the tense confrontation in the motel office between Norman and the murdered victim's fiancé; all of these shots involve a rigorous and self-conscious use of editing, camera movement, and camera placement that demonstrates Hitchcock's virtuosity and the elements of noir.
The Godfather isn’t exactly a film noir, but it has elements of neo-noir, such as the use of colour to signify danger, the lighting only on one side of the face to highlight the conflict between good and evil, and the ambiguity of Michael Corleone’s character arc, from a good man to mafia boss.
Film noir was taken to a whole new level in the 70s. After Hitchcock widened the space to experiment with genre with Psycho, the 70s gave rise to neo-noir, which fused the classic elements of noir with more murkier stories and violent twists. The 70s were defined by Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather trilogy. The former was a noirish biopic, a magnificently visceral and vivid biopic of the rise and fall of a suicidally-macho prize-fighter. The latter, with its dark atmosphere and the emphasis on the protagonist’s insomnia, and the femme fatale characteristics of Cybill Shepherd’s character added layers of darkness, making it more noir than simply arbitrary and certainly psychotic. The Godfather isn’t exactly a film noir, but it has elements of neo-noir, such as the use of colour to signify danger, the lighting only on one side of the face to highlight the conflict between good and evil, and the ambiguity of Michael Corleone’s character arc, from a good man to mafia boss. These elements of noir became a fixation on directors of crime dramas, and are seen even today in television shows like Miami Vice, True Detective, Fargo and Better Call Saul.
Along came Ridley Scott with Blade Runner, a science-fiction classic in 1982. With Blade Runner, Scott pushed the boundaries of neo-noir, by infusing the elements of noir with science-fiction. Hailed for its production design depicting a decaying future, a distressed protagonist and its cult fame, Blade Runner is a leading example of neo-noir cinema. In the 90s, there came an advent of cop/federal agent dramas. Directors like Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers did not refrain from infusing the elements of neo noir into their movies, as seen in Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster plays a federal agent, interacting with Anthony Hopkins in his terrific portrayal of Hannibal Lector, in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s use of bloody, gory violence, deeply flawed characters and dark setting and The Matrix provides the viewer with all the characteristics of a typical film noir: the setting of this first sequence is shot at night; it is dark and gloomy. We see a group of police officers in uniforms storming a building in order to arrest one woman. Not until that very ‘fugitive on the run’ fights back and escapes by implementing some rather incredulous astonishing fighting, we realize that this movie is not going to be in the past but in the future. The Matrix is often referred to as a futuristic film noir, utopian science-fiction movie – a movie, which is innovative in its design and its visual effects.
Bollywood has stuck its toe in the neo-noir pond, with movies like Manorama Six Feet Under, No Smoking and Johnny Gaddar. The classic film noir genre was explored with Guru Dutt’s Baazi, and the Manoj Kumar starrer Wo Kaun Thi.
The neo-noir of the 2000s begins with Christopher Nolan. With Memento, he explored the life of an anterograde amnesiac in his pursuit for vindication for the rape and murder of his wife. In the Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan created the perfect anti-hero in Batman, who avenges the crimes against Gotham City by battling some of the most iconic villains of all time, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane. Scorsese stuck to his neo-noir roots by delivering two blockbusters starring Leonardo Di Caprio, The Departed and Shutter Island.
Aaranya Kaandam (2010) Picture courtesy: The News Minute
Bollywood has stuck its toe in the neo-noir pond, with movies like Manorama Six Feet Under, No Smoking and Johnny Gaddar. The classic film noir genre was explored with Guru Dutt’s Baazi, and the Manoj Kumar starrer Wo Kaun Thi. The best neo-noir movie in Indian cinema comes from Tamil Nadu, in the form of Aaranya Kandam (the Jungle Chapter). The movie bagged two National Awards and was critically acclaimed by audiences and film critics, and would’ve made Tarantino proud. The music composer Yuvan Shankar Raja, as well, who has effectively employed two elements — silence and the yesteryear hits of his father Ilayaraja, which can be likened to a leitmotif — to create the atmosphere of the gangster-ridden north Chennai. The director Thyagarajan Kumararaja complimented the use of violence with a shadowy lighting, complex plot, and the genius use of a femme fatale who traps the protagonist to save him from the conniving villain, which has drawn comparison to Carrie Ann Moss’ Natalie in Nolan’s Memento and Susan Alexander Kane (portrayed by Dorothy Comingore), in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
The evolution of noir, from Welles and Wilder to Tarantino and Nolan, has produced some truly iconic films that will be remembered for generations to come. The storytelling ability of these magnificent directors has aided in the evolution of noir and vice versa, to capture the cynicism and eeriness of human nature is spectacular, to say the least. To define noir is so difficult due to the inability to classify a film as noir or not, but it unintentionally aids the mystique of movies that use the elements of noir, making it not just confusing, but generating utterly beautiful and brilliant cinema.