Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Legacy of Film Noir: Part 1

What is Film Noir?

The Big Sleep (1946)
All the more seductive for its elusive nature, most scholars and critics continue to battle out their definitions as to what constitutes film noir. Essentially film noir is a cinematic term, first coined by French film critics, to describe the emerging trend of black and white American crime and detective films that first evolved in the 1940s and made their way onto French cinema screens in the years following World War Two. Whatever its scholarly definition, at Colebrooke Row we're huge fans of film noir, especially early classics such as Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, a black, moody thriller about a mild-mannered painter's unpunished and unsuspected murder of an amoral femme fatale. And the nightmarishly-dark, rapid-paced D.O.A, from cinematographer-director Rudolph Mate. Who couldn't fall in love with a movie that opens with the eerie line "I want to report a murder - mine?"

Although infinitely stylish and enormously watchable in themselves, classic noir films are so compelling because they cleverly explored the European post-war sentiment of disquiet, pessimism and misgiving and combined it with the USA’s penchant for ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction which celebrated the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and John Huston.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

With this balance in place, film noir carefully scales the terrain of fear, mistrust and bleakness and allows it to collide with moral ambiguity and sexual motivation.  Protagonists were often anti-heroes: the down-and-outs, conflicted detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, killers, crooks and politicians all of whom were absorbed in a gloomy underworld of corruption. In particular, the male figures of film noir were cynical and brooding, struggling to survive - and in the end, ultimately losing. For a period fraught with tension and insecurity, this bleak offering very much reflected the true feeling of the time and the jaded perspectives of such characters ultimately conveyed post-war society’s sense of injustice and moral conflict. Perhaps this is why there is rarely an optimistic or happy ending to a film noir, and this served as a refreshing alternative to the optimism of musicals and comedies that Hollywood were churning out at the time. 

The Film Noir Style 

With the argument around solidly defining film noir as a genre still prevalent, film noir can be more accurately described as a visual style or ‘look’ with low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions underpinning its output. In this sense, film noir is a mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. Whatever it is – it’s instantly recognisable and that’s what makes it classic.

The roots of this style are in German expressionism - an artistic movement of the 1910s and 1920s which incorporated theatre, photography, painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as cinema. The opportunities offered by the fast growing Hollywood film industry, and later by the threat of Nazi power, led to the emigration of numerous important filmmakers working in Germany, many of whom had been directly involved in the Expressionist movement. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Fritz Lang's M (1931), Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) arose from this era. In particular, films from German directors, such as F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst, and Robert Wiene, were noted for their stark camera angles and movements, chiaroscuro lighting and shadowy, high-contrast images - all elements of later film noir set design  that were used to enhance mood.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Metropolis (1927)

During the filming of a film noir, the camera rolls and rolls, often in time with the whirring mind of the protagonist. The camera angles were usually angular and skewed to convey disorienting visual schemes. Jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, circling cigarette smoke and unbalanced or moody compositions were effective and often-employed tropes. Most of all, disorientation is key: shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects, such as during the strangulation scene in Strangers on a Train were a great way to convey perplexity.

Film noir story locations were often in murky and dark streets, dimly-lit and low rent apartments and hotel rooms of big cities, or abandoned warehouses. Interior settings took place in rooms which were defined by their dark, claustrophobic, gloomy appearances and venetian blinds with low-key or single-source lighting. Exteriors were often urban night scenes with deep shadows, dark alleyways, rain-slicked or mean streets with flashing neon lights. 

The Third Man (1949)

Pickup On South Street (1953)

Just like a successful film noir, a successful bar has clever lighting. It encourages intimacy, with shadowy images sprung from strategically placed candles and clever overhead lamps. Most notably it creates atmosphere and no one knows the importance of that better than film noir. During the initial design stage of Colebrooke Row it was really integral to our visual aesthetic that our love of film noir happily married with our delight in the Italian cafĂ© style and culture.
Indeed, it is the lighting which really forms the crux of film noir aesthetics. To mirror the elliptical and twisting storylines of the film, lighting was used to trace themes: doomed love, brutality and moral corruption were emphasised by the shadowy, gloomy and grey lighting which produced a toxic atmosphere of sex and oppression. Lighting also played a huge part in characterisation; if a character had vertical shadow lines cast across them this meant they were a threat, and if the lines were horizontal it meant that they were threatened.

The Big Combo
Kiss Me Deadly (1955
The Big Combo (1955)

Colebrooke Row and the Couple Silhouette 

Studying the film noir lighting in detail inspired both the lighting in the bar and the shadowy silhouette of a film noir couple projected beyond the staircase of the bar. The relationship between the male and female protagonists in film noir is scintillating. Glamorous and alluring, these central figures were often caught in their own double binds and their existential bitterness is both compelling and disarming to watch. Drowning outside of the social mainstream, they came to represent America’s stylised vision of itself.

Film noir had many famous duos, and particularly popular were Alan Ladd and Vernonica Lake who were first matched in This Gun For Hire in 1942 and starred again together in The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Raymond Chandler. It was gorgeous couplings such as these that inspired the Colebrooke homage to the film noir silhouette. 

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