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Before Film-Noir: Proto-Noir

proto-noir precursors to noir film noir

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#41 Marianne


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Posted 06 March 2016 - 11:50 PM

This discussion thread for proto-noir, like the Film Noir to Neo-Noir discussion thread, is based on ideas taken from the Summer of Darkness, HEYMOE, VanHazard, and me (Marianne). This discussion thread is a way to continue applying what we learned in Dr. Edwards’s course, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir (aka Summer of Darkness: Investigating Film Noir).


We are updating the list of film noir characteristics to start an investigation of proto-noir. Please use as many or as few characteristics as you like to discuss proto-noir and how a particular film could presage the coming classic period of film noir. We’re working on defining proto-noir and all its subcategories and on compiling a list of proto-noir films. I hope the discussion includes reactions to seeing some of the films.


Also included (below the list of characteristics) is a list of proto-noir films; we will be adding titles to the list. The running list is alphabetized in its entirety. I will alternate between the film list alphabetized by decade and the list alphabetized in its entirety.


Characteristics borrowed from film noir to define proto-noir:

1.  Unusual narration or plot development

2.  Flashbacks

3.  Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder)

4.  Femme fatale and/or homme fatale

5.  The instrument of fate

6.  Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst)

7.  Violence or the threat of violence

8.  Urban and nighttime settings

9.  Greed

10. Betrayal

11. Philosophical themes involving alienation, loneliness

12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia)

13. Allusion to postwar or wartime themes

14. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, or intense or muted color or tinting added to black and white films (In either case, the technique is used to enhance the mood and/or the emotional content.)

15. Unusual camera and/or lighting techniques

16. European or U.S. film influenced by European styles (for example, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and so on)

17. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on)

18. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good”


List of alphabetized proto-noir titles (note that some of these films may be hard to find):

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), dir. Michael Curtiz

La bête humaine (1938), dir. Jean Renoir

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), dir. Robert Wiene

City for Conquest (1940), dir. Anatole Litvak

Crime and Punishment (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Dangerous to Know (1938), dir Robert Florey

The Devil Is a Woman (1935), dir. Josef von Sternberg

The Docks of New York (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Fury (1936), dir. Fritz Lang

The Glass Key (1935), dir. Frank Tuttle

G Men (1935), dir. William Keighley

Heat Lightning (1934), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James Whale

Le jour se lève (1939), dir. Michel Carné

The Kennel Murder Case (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

The Last Command (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg

The Letter (1940), dir. William Wyler

Little Caesar (1931), dir. Mervyn LeRoy

M (1931), dir. Fritz Lang

The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

Private Detective 62 (1933), dir. Michael Curtiz

The Roaring Twenties (1939), dir. Raoul Walsh

Sabotage (1936), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Scarface (1932), dir. Howard Hawks and Richard Rossan

Shanghai Express (1932), dir. Josef von Sternberg

Smart Money (1931), dir. Alfred E. Green

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), dir. Boris Ingster

They Drive by Night (1940), dir. Raoul Walsh

The Thin Man (1934), dir. W. S. Van Dyke

Thunderbolt (1929), dir. Josef von Sternberg

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), dir. Michael Curtiz

Underworld (1927), dir. Josef von Sternberg

You and Me (1938), dir. Fritz Lang

You Only Live Once (1937), dir. Fritz Lang

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