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Dr. Rich Edwards

Into the Darkness Video Lecture #1: The Heist (Official Discussion Thread)

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Brilliant lecture, Richard!
On approaching to Film Noir I've recognized (at risk of being wrong) a departure from the films made in the 30's, which gives a distinctive range of stylistic and thematic aspects to films noir. Most likely owing to cultural, political and historical aspects that made this possible, as you cleverly pointed out on your lecture, we're able to identify a switch on lighting and camera movements. About the latter, film noir cinematography was nourished by the German Expressionist type of lighting. It conferred a new feeling: as it happened with the baroque painters (such as Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and so forth), they gave to painting a more dramatic effect by creating a strong contrast between light and darkness. The noir filmmakers appropriated this new lighting set-up and delivered new kinds of emotions. This lighting helped to highlight character expressions and to split a world between a two-toned moral states: the good and the bad, the bright and the dark. On camera movements, noir filmmakers picked up the innovations accomplished by Orson Welles and John Huston, mainly. They soon knew that, for instance, zooming from a medium shot to a close up on somebody's face would give a feeling of surprise or fear or acknowledgement. They soon knew that by bending the camera in a dutch angle would give an uncomfortable and uneasy feeling, convenient for dreamy sequences or dizzy situations. Like these, there were countless sets of camera tricks that enhance the body of films made at that time. 

Likewise, there was a departure in terms of plot settings, narrative and characters design, as well. Throughout film noir movies we recognize that characters were much more nuanced, filled with more contradictions, than the ones from the 30's. For example, you rather sympathize with Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra than with Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) in Scarface. Noir filmmakers tried to avoid one dimension characters, although Scarface is a magnificent movie. It seems that even the evilest villain displayed humanity at certain point. No wonder why some of us identify more with the obscure captain Hank Quinlan rather than with Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil.

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I'm taking this course primarily to figure out why I like film noir so much. Between this week's video lecture, the podcast, and Eddie Muller's excellent article, I'm starting to figure it out. "Suffering with style" and "empathize and sympathize" really spoke to me.

 

I was also intrigued by the discussion of genre, style, or movement. I have always called film noir a genre, but to call it a style really resonates with me as film noir always looks amazing. (And what are the film noir comedies? I'll need to see one of those!) But to call it a movement is truly fascinating. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the context in which that movement developed, both at the studios and in society, and why it petered out and periodically comes back.

 

And I'm already starting to see old favorites (and non-favorites) in a new light based on both the lecture and the message board discussions. Good, good stuff.

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I see film noir as a movement (a reaction to/reflection of cultural shifts) and style (cinematic tendencies and patterns in films with different narrative styles), but not a genre until later (when the films are purposefully created as films noir). The cynicism and defeat present in many films noir go hand-in-hand with post war cultural and psychological shifts. Both women, who lost the independence they had during the war, and men, mentally wounded in the war, craved different types of entertainment and film noir seems to have been the perfect reflection of this collective postwar disenchantment. This lends to the idea that it was a movement, as the cultural shifts created an environment for Hollywood to market this genre and capitalize on popular emotional changes in society. A great contemporary film that may (or may not) be considered film noir, which deals with the dark side of postwar America is Revolutionary Road (2008). While film noir as a style and movement can include a much wider array of films, film noir as a genre seems to be the perfect, realistic paradox to the “Leave it To Beaver” image that is projected back onto the postwar era. The stylistic tendencies, which we discussed at length last week, were numerous. Lighting and audio patterns are the most obvious to me, with the use of shadows being one of the most prevalent. I do not feel that film noir became a genre until directors and producers began purposefully creating films under the film noir label. As I have not yet seen enough films noir to properly analyze this transition, I don’t know what the implications were, but it is something I look forward to exploring further in the course.

               It’s very interesting that French critics, viewing this cultural shift from the outside, coined this term and saw the striking change in American films. One topic brought up in today’s lecture that is most interesting and is a pattern I have noticed in several films noir is that of femme fatale or “women casting their net and fatally contaminating the American male.” This is a striking and prevalent feature of the transition from style/movement to genre. While disturbing in many ways, the implications of continuously casting women as dangerous, deceptive, jealous, manipulative, and disloyal speaks to larger cultural ideals regarding gender at the time. This also highlights the idea that film noir was both reflective of national disenchantment and constructive, in that it reinforced prewar ideas about women, as women were being actively reconfined to the home. While films noir often casted women in either an evil or dependent role, they also reflected and constructed ideas of postwar masculinity. I believe both of these elements are important in assessing postwar films noir as a new genre, which reflected psychological shifts in the audience.

            All this being said, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that films produced in the immediate post war period are the only real films noir or that films noir can only reflect disenchantment in the immediate postwar era. Film noir as a style has roots well before the war (as is pointed out in the early European films we viewed last week) and influences films produced today. Film noir as a movement began before the war and includes this transition into a postwar genre. While film noir now seems to be a mix of all three, as this week’s lecture pointed out, I believe the techniques and stylistic tendencies are the most lasting and influential elements of film noir. 

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I think the films that emerged during WWII and post WWII were representative of a change in the American psyche.  During The Great Depression, we had all the screwball comedies, gangster movies and films like the 'Thin Man' series and adventure films like Captain Blood.  These were escapist films to entertain the masses while they forgot about their problems for a couple hours.  It seems though, no sooner than The Depression ended, the United States had entered WWII.  The new crop of films that emerged were more realistic, gritty and full of cynical characters who felt that they got the raw end of a deal, or were trying to avenge a crime, or what not.  These are the characters that audiences identified with--even if the "hero" wasn't a hero in the traditional sense.  There's a reason why bank robbers like John Dillinger were held up as heroes by the American people--the public was tired of being screwed.  Seeing these movie characters get revenge on someone that did them wrong was entertaining. 

 

I think film noir is considered a style.  These films have a certain aesthetic and vibe that separates it from other films.  While a detective film, like The Maltese Falcon can be considered a film noir, not all detective films fit into this category.  Detective films like The Thin Man and Footsteps in the Dark I would not consider film noir.  It's hard to put into words what makes something noir and what doesn't.  A film noir just has that specific noir atmosphere.  Even TCM's weekly schedule (which assigns a genre label to each film) doesn't list noir as a label.  The films for the Summer of Darkness schedule feature films labeled as suspense, drama and even romance. 

 

I agree with what the Instructor stated in his lecture about not wanting to over analyze the films too much to try and categorize them.  I think it's important to look at these films on their own and for what elements they feature. 

 

For me, when a film features the following, I think of it as noir:

-Typically a crime of some sort has been committed, or will be committed and it's up to the players in the film to solve the crime or keep it from being committed.

-A femme fatale, which usually involves some illicit romance of some sort.

-Detectives and police officers

-Lots of shadows

-Narration

-Urban setting

-black and white (although there are some color noirs, like Niagara) 

-Very simple settings and costumes, but more experimental camera work.

-Intense film scores

-The lead actor is usually pretty hardboiled and tough.  No wimpy leads in noir. 

 

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A few extra thoughts having reflected on it all a little bit.

 

I think it's right to look at American society in the 40s and ask what contributed to the tone of the films but I think it's also important to look at French society and the naming of  Films Noir.

 

1946, French society is in shock, close to terminal shock, defeat, occupation, collaboration, the idea of resistance being clung to as a panacea for the image and psyche of the country. The idea of good or at least normal men and women HAVING to do bad things  to survive which leads to the question of whether there are good men at all or just people who have the luck to find themselves in good circumstances as opposed to bad ones. A hell of a lot of guilt 

 

Then the flood gates open and they receive all the films they missed between 1939 (or 40 not sure) and 1946, all at once, no careful release strategy, not much of a french industry left to fill the cinemas. Just all this american culture, alien culture, victorious culture, all at once.  

 

Most of it would be Bambi, Casablanca, Westerns, musicals.  But in amongst it certain films strike a chord, possibly not with the whole audience, maybe just with some perceptive critics or a few cinema managers. They find a name for those movies that do that enable them to group together Bette Davis melodramas and John Huston detective stories in the same category.

 

I dont think Noir infected a huge proportion of american films during the war years, probably not enough for anyone american watching week by week to notice.  And I do think American society and their own experience of the war was vital too but i think there are good reasons why it was picked up on in france and became a critical darling (I'd imagine more people were still watching bambi etc even there)

 

 

That said I do really like the heist idea, it made me think of John Huston, or more specifically of the tough films Walter Huston was able to make in the early 30s, stuff like Kongo or Gabriel over the White house go places Noir was never able to. Huston is on record for wanting to give his father the chance to get back into the limelight, give him a chance to hit those heights. Thats what 'Treasure of the sierra Madre' is John Huston giving his dad the chance to shine in a tough psychologically draining movie. He works his dad into The Maltese Falcon.  I like the idea of John Huston figuring out how to tell these stories that his dad used to tell under the production code system.  Figuring out if you planned it right you could still tell a gritty story with balls.   Plus it makes it all a bit like the Asphalt Jungle and thats what movie fans want life to be like isn't it :)

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I think the films that emerged during WWII and post WWII were representative of a change in the American psyche.  During The Great Depression, we had all the screwball comedies, gangster movies and films like the 'Thin Man' series and adventure films like Captain Blood.  These were escapist films to entertain the masses while they forgot about their problems for a couple hours.  It seems though, no sooner than The Depression ended, the United States had entered WWII.  The new crop of films that emerged were more realistic, gritty and full of cynical characters who felt that they got the raw end of a deal, or were trying to avenge a crime, or what not.  These are the characters that audiences identified with--even if the "hero" wasn't a hero in the traditional sense.  There's a reason why bank robbers like John Dillinger were held up as heroes by the American people--the public was tired of being screwed.  Seeing these movie characters get revenge on someone that did them wrong was entertaining. 

 

 

This is valid to some extent, but we have to keep in mind that during the 'Noir period', many other genres were probably more popular. I believe there has never been a time where escapism was not the primary motive for most people to go and watch a movie. 

 

Also, the late twenties and early thirties definitely saw a swing towards more serious and darker films in the U.S. as well. Sex, violence and social engagement becoming more and more prevalent in film was actually the reason why the Production Code was invented and enforced.

 

Take a look at what directors like William Wellman (SAFE IN HELL, HEROES FOR SALE), Mervyn LeRoy (I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, HEAT LIGHTNING), Josef von Sternberg (DOCKS OF NEW YORK, THUNDERBOLT), Stephen Roberts (THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE),  and many others were doing at the turn of the twenties, and it's obvious the seed was already there, both in content and style. 

 

You could speculate the Breen office made an attempt to try and suppress a direction Hollywood already had taken, and forced the film makers to take a momentary pause in adding 'realism' to their films. But in the end Film Noir was perhaps inevitable from way before World War 2, and maybe even the Depression.

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I agree with what the Instructor stated in his lecture about not wanting to over analyze the films too much to try and categorize them.  I think it's important to look at these films on their own and for what elements they feature. 

 

For me, when a film features the following, I think of it as noir:

-Typically a crime of some sort has been committed, or will be committed and it's up to the players in the film to solve the crime or keep it from being committed.

-A femme fatale, which usually involves some illicit romance of some sort.

-Detectives and police officers

-Lots of shadows

-Narration

-Urban setting

-black and white (although there are some color noirs, like Niagara)

-Very simple settings and costumes, but more experimental camera work.

-Intense film scores

-The lead actor is usually pretty hardboiled and tough.  No wimpy leads in noir. 

 

Not a bad list, so let's start with that.  The crazy thing is, very few films noir has every one of these elements.  And for every one, I can think of an example that violates or excludes that element.  My favorite noir, Out of the Past, has more rural settings than urban.   Detour has one of the wimpiest (and whiniest) protagonists I have ever seen, but compensates with the toughest femme fatale I can think of.  The Hitch-Hiker (1953) has almost no female characters at all, much less a femme fatale. 

 

That is only one problem with defining Film Noir as a category (genre, style, or movement).  While you can't easily define film noir, as Potter Stewart once said, "I know it when I see it."

 

While I love those elements, the cinematography, the snappy dialog, the wicked women, and the convoluted plots, for me the defining element is attitude.  This may be just as supject to exceptions as any other.  But I think of cynicism and fatalism as the most essential attitudes of film noir.  The protaganist knows life isn't fair, and while he (or sometimes she) may reach for the brass ring, he knows he won't get it.  We occasionally get a happy ending (of sorts) in film noir, all too often the protagonist is doomed by his own flaws, especially his poor choices. 

 

Of course, some of my favorite films noir involve poor choices in women.  But who can blame these guys?  If I were Robert Mitchum I would have fallen for Jane Greer too (in Out of the Past).  I would have probably fallen for Rhonda Fleming in the same movie too, and she is probably worse.

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Not a bad list, so let's start with that.  The crazy thing is, very few films noir has every one of these elements.  And for every one, I can think of an example that violates or excludes that element.  My favorite noir, Out of the Past, has more rural settings than urban.   Detour has one of the wimpiest (and whiniest) protagonists I have ever seen, but compensates with the toughest femme fatale I can think of.  The Hitch-Hiker (1953) has almost no female characters at all, much less a femme fatale. 

 

That is only one problem with defining Film Noir as a category (genre, style, or movement).  While you can't easily define film noir, as Potter Stewart once said, "I know it when I see it."

 

While I love those elements, the cinematography, the snappy dialog, the wicked women, and the convoluted plots, for me the defining element is attitude.  This may be just as supject to exceptions as any other.  But I think of cynicism and fatalism as the most essential attitudes of film noir.  The protaganist knows life isn't fair, and while he (or sometimes she) may reach for the brass ring, he knows he won't get it.  We occasionally get a happy ending (of sorts) in film noir, all too often the protagonist is doomed by his own flaws, especially his poor choices. 

 

Of course, some of my favorite films noir involve poor choices in women.  But who can blame these guys?  If I were Robert Mitchum I would have fallen for Jane Greer too (in Out of the Past).  I would have probably fallen for Rhonda Fleming in the same movie too, and she is probably worse.

 

Well said.   What was missing from that list, that you noted,  was what motivates the noir protagonist.    War vets are common noir protagonist with disillusionment often being a core part of their persona.    Obsession takes on many forms from avenging the death of loved ones or friends (Cornered \ Ride the Pink Horse),   being enthralled by a women they know little about  (Laura, for both the killer and detective,  financial gain (Nightmare Alley,  and many of the caper noirs,   and cops out to get their man (The Big Heat,  The Racket).  

 

This combination of the visual noir style along with the inner workings of the various characters is what separates a noir from other styles \ genres.                 

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That is only one problem with defining Film Noir as a category (genre, style, or movement).  While you can't easily define film noir, as Potter Stewart once said, "I know it when I see it."

 

While I love those elements, the cinematography, the snappy dialog, the wicked women, and the convoluted plots, for me the defining element is attitude.  This may be just as supject to exceptions as any other.  But I think of cynicism and fatalism as the most essential attitudes of film noir.  The protaganist knows life isn't fair, and while he (or sometimes she) may reach for the brass ring, he knows he won't get it.  We occasionally get a happy ending (of sorts) in film noir, all too often the protagonist is doomed by his own flaws, especially his poor choices. 

 

 

 

I think the first paragraph is interesting because while someone may know it when they see it. Someone else may see the same film and not see it at all. Even the lecture said no two filmographies on Noir are going to be the same. So why is it that after all this time people can't completely agree on exactly what constitutes a Noir film. Besides enjoying the films I do find that one of things that is most fascinating. And perhaps when people classify noir they choose things that they notice and enjoy about those particular films. So maybe it is somewhat personal to a degree both in what we notice and how particular films speak to us.

 

As for your 2nd paragraph I don't have anything to add except well put and I agree especially with the 2 bolded words. 

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My opinion on who gets credit for "inspiring" film noir? The Nazis. First, they forced some of the best German expressionist directors to flee to Hollywood and then they cast a spell of dread and pessimism over the US in the 1940s. American are not by nature pessimistic so the Nazi influence was critical. Ironically, very few examples of film noir have any overt Nazi imagery. They are virtually never mentioned. But the sense of tension and anxiety looms nonetheless.

 

I think that this statement does not actually get at the influence for film noir. Yes, the Nazis did force several prominent directors to leave Germany, many of whom were either the best known German Expressionist directors or the students of those directors. However, those directors were driven out because they were Jewish. Their heritage and the continual threat to their safety by not just the Nazis, but by their neighbors as well, led them to flee Europe. They went to Hollywood because it was one of the safest places for Jews at that time. The pessimism and dread of film noir, I would argue, has less to do with the U.S.'s view at the start of the classical era (though it was a large portion of influence as Americans wished to see grittier work later on) and more to do with the danger of being Jewish in the late 1930s and beyond. As for your ironic statement that film noir has little or no mention of Nazis or any Nazi imagery, this is because Hollywood was one of the first places in the U.S. to be anti-Nazi. I would be very careful in the future about how you frame this, because it definitely came across as offensive to me. 

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Many people here have made excellent comments about the disillusionment permeating American culture in the wake of WWII.  That cannot be denied.  Often films and their storytelling are used to reflect and comment on social events or movements.  Vietnam war films are one example, as are other war films to come after the Persian Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Terror is a big issue now, yet another example of how movies are influenced by events.  One could probably even make the case about the resurgence of superhero films as a way to redefine or return to an idealistic sense of justice (even with our now-modernized and humanized heroes)

 

In addition to the social influences, I think the discussion in the lecture about film noir as a cinematic style is extremely important, and may simply go beyond low-key or high-contrast lighting, diagonal lines, and extreme angles (to represent the extreme anxiety of the conflict).  I found very interesting that even in the podcast about The Maltese Falcon they made mention that at the time Huston was making his film, Welles and Toland were making Citizen Kane.  Welles and Toland were risk-takers, and at this time in Hollywood, the DPs and camera operators were literally inventing new lenses and other accessories on the cameras to get what they wanted.  Each studio had a machine shop, and they would literally fabricate things as they went.  So, I think the technical vision and mechanical ability at the time is also an important contribution to what defines the film noir style, so now they could realize some of the visual ideas they had.

 

Second, let's not forget the technical influences coming from Europe.  While M is rightly cited as an example of the German Expressionism coming over, the technical advances were also being felt over here.  By the mid- to late-1950s, you had lighter European cameras beginning to be used in Hollywood, and especially in some films noir (think Welles's Touch of Evil) which also aided in infusing the already revolutionary visuals with a continuing sense of "newness."

 

I guess was has meant the most to me out of the first lecture and the podcast is that it made me look past the tropes and conventions that I have always thought about with film noir and consider why it happened.  Perhaps even more importantly, why is it still happening.  What does it say about us?

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But I think of cynicism and fatalism as the most essential attitudes of film noir.  The protaganist knows life isn't fair, and while he (or sometimes she) may reach for the brass ring, he knows he won't get it.  We occasionally get a happy ending (of sorts) in film noir, all too often the protagonist is doomed by his own flaws, especially his poor choices. 

 

I agree with you that cynicism and fatalism are huge players in film noir.  Life is not fair, and the protagonist cannot afford to be naive. Many of the times it is about the blunt realization that you don't get the brass ring.  The world is far more powerful than many of the characters and any attempt to contest that is often met with failure (the gravest sense is death) or in the best case maybe bringing a small bit of justice to those who deserve it.  

 

I don't know if I would agree that the protagonist is doomed by his own flaws.  That pushes the protagonist into a realm of a tragic hero (in the classic sense).  Certainly, the protagonist is not above the conflict and his choices (whom to trust, what preparations to make, ability to solve the mystery) drive not only the plot but the morality of the themes.  Many times, you see the protagonist have to overcome those flaws to ensure he survives.  True, there are some protagonists, like in The Letter from last week, where the protagonist (Bette Davis) makes decisions that lead to her death, but as a whole I think that is the exception more than the rule.  An interesting case comes into play when you look at a film noir like Sunset Boulevard.  SPOILER -- sorry.  There Joe makes a choice to surmount his faults and get away from Norma.  He is trying to make an ethical decision, one that preserves what little integrity he has left.  He is finally acting like a person.  And it gets him killed.  

 

Perhaps the best we can hope for is a protagonist that succeeds because he can overcome his flaws.  Anything else is icing on the cake.

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I find it difficult to "noir" as a genre.  It doesn't tie into the mythology, there isn't the myth of the opening of the west, so well established by directors like John Ford and films like the "Seachers".  It doesn't have the expectation to see specific look, white hat vs. black hat, (though westerns as a genre were never tied to that.  The precursor of it the detective/police story would be more of Charlie Chan, read Beggers and see how little Chan is in the center of the story, until the end when he pulls it all together.  "Noir" doesn't need the detective for that, it lets us in right at the beginning, as when Bogart kills his wife in "Conflict" (1945)  and mentions last seeing her with a rose pinned to her coat.  But the rose was given to her later by Greenstreet when she stopped by there.

 

I do see it as a style with the elements of cinemetography the angles, the shadows, bars and stripes, the voice over and flashback,  "The Stranger on the Third Floor" had most of the elements that we think of as the style of "noir", but all aren't needed to make "noir".  There is definately a style to "noir" especially that of bringing about your own distruction as Dr. Talbot does in "Nora Prentiss".  He knows he shouldn't take up with her, she tries over and over to get him to leave, but he does it anyways.  (Have to love the code, you know they are having an affair but in NYC they still have separate rooms).  Almost the definition of a Greek Tragedy, the seeds of their own destruction in themselves.

 

Mostly I see "noir" as a movement, the disillusionment of the post WWI era is back.  The country has gone through the Depression, and while it isn't over, the signs are starting, but why?  Amaments, industry developing because of war.  What had we gone through WWI for?  "The war to end all wars".  Yet, here we are, the world at war, almost everyone involved, the push to remain Neutral, America Firsters.  But also the knowledge that what was going on in China by the Japanese, in Europe by the Germans was bad and nothing had been learned.  (Just look at some pre-WWII Dr. Seuss cartoons and you see that we had a much better idea of what was happening than we liked to admit.)  

 

Then after the war, how man can treat his fellow man, in the Concentration Camps, War Crimes Tribunals, our ally the Soviet Union becomming our enemy and the question of loyalty and loyalty oaths.  The world no better than before, despite the fact that we can now get married, live in the suburbs, own a home and have the children of the baby boom.  Then after 1949 the Bomb and China, I can still remember "Duck and Cover" drills. 

 

The studio system had some things to do with this, "The Great Dictator" and Three Stooges films took on the axis, but it was not a lot, afraid of losing money in Germany and it's dominions, but the feelings of society comes through in the films of "noir".  The studios pull back from support of that, as they are losing on all fronts.  Losing the audience to TV, losing the distribution of films through their own theaters, beginning to lose the monopoly of their stars.  What could they offer that would bring the audience in, not "noir", that was seen at home watch the old Naked City  tv shows on youtube. 

 

Bright color, Technicolor, epic tales, casts of thousands, yes, DeMille had that before, but the studeos see this especially 70mm, Todd AO, Cinerama, Panavision.  Big stories, on the Big screen: Around the World in 80 Days, Spartacus, El Cid, Cleopatra.  Just as "noir" was meant for an audience, these even more so.  Something so different that you could not get on your small screen at home.  This changed the studeo from "noir" to the spectacle.

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Video lecture #1: The Heist

 

I wonder if director John Huston ever discussed film noir as it applied to his first film, "The Maltese Falcon" considering that at the time (1941 ) that genre had not yet been identified.

 

I have always thought of film noir in terms of style, and that the director was responsible for that feeling of darkness in film noir.

 

The professor said: 

If we consider noir a style, then we will need to be precise in what constitutes that style, and develop a vocabulary to describe the particular way filmmakers used the formal means of filmmaking to create a noir style. This will entail learning how noir films can be described through the manipulation of their formal elements like cinematography or lighting, set design, costume design, acting techniques, compositional strategies, props, narrative designs, sound design to evoke a world that has come to be known as film noir. A solid understanding of key film terms and the evolution of the classical Hollywood filmmaking techniques is a must if you want to talk precisely about what constitutes the noir style.

 

Going forward I will lean towards the "style" angle but at the same time honestly consider the other choices suggested by the professor:

 

"There is no general agreement as to what are the common elements that define these films because it depends on whether you consider film noir a genre, a style or a movement or cycle of films . . . 

Ultimately, determining whether film noir is a genre, a style, or a movement begs an interesting question: what if film noir is actually a combination of all three of these ideas?

 

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Great lecture and lots to think about. There are many great points made in other posts regarding the questions of how to attempt to classify these films so I will focus my comments on why the audience may have connected to these films in the period as well as why we continue to do so.

 

A great many films to that point in history and since for that matter, were hopeful in one respect or another. They had a hero to root for, an ideal to aspire to or at the very least, an innocent to feel sorry for and then make you feel uplifted when the "good guys" win. Feelings of clear justice emerge when "bad guys" lose. These films are appealing as people like a sense of hope and a greater good beyond their control that can somehow improve their own lives.

 

Then there is reality. Life is not perfect and not always fair. The good guys don't always win and you can't count on the bad guys to wear a black hat so you recognize them before it is too late. More to the point however is that these films give viewers the ability to find humanity in people that are not perfect. As they themselves in their daily lives may not have made the best choices but still want to feel like they are at the core a good person. At home and abroad during the war years, may people did things they may have felt were necessary at the time or simply gave in to feelings of despair and weakness only later to have guilt and regret. The characters in these films typically are flawed and have made poor choices for one reason or another. The "good guys and gals" in period vernacular, were among these flawed characters and that thinnest of threads of decency they demonstrated gave the audience the ability to see themselves perhaps a bit less critically as they were not alone. The symbolism of a big Hollywood Star being just like they are with the same struggles and human frailties were comforting. In many ways since they were portrayed more flawed or downright evil made their own transgressions seem more normal and not so bad. Life in the real world is not always black and white, good and evil it is lived more in the shades of gray. These films therefore, in essence, represent hope in a different light.

 

On a side note, Dr. Edwards remarks about the classic movie houses and how they also set a tone in the experience of these films. If you are unable to view one of these films in one of those houses, I would encourage you to seek out an opportunity to tour one in your area if it is available. In Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Conservancy offers a Theater Tour of the classic theater houses in downtown Los Angeles that can provide a unique view of what they look like and at the very least give you the vibe that existed when these films were originally shown. There may be similar offers in a city in your area.

 

 

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You bring up an intriguing point about John Huston.  Considering that "The Maltese Falcon" was one of the inaugural films in the noir style, I too wonder if the venerable Huston classified his 1941 debut hit as a part of the noir genre.  It may be that, with time and with a development of film noir, Huston recognized and agreed that "The Maltese Falcon" was a noir piece.  

 

I give Huston a great deal of credit for his daring force in making "The Maltese Falcon."  Not only was it his directorial debut, but he also risked a lot of themes that were not particularly PC in World War II era Hollywood.  Additionally, he cast Sydney Greenstreet, another debutant, as a major supporting character, which ultimately earned him an Oscar nomination.

 

I agree that directors tend to be responsible for the darkness presented in film noir, but here, I would say that Huston is only semi-responsible.  Since this is adapted from an equally dark American hard-boiled detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, I would say that Hammett is partly responsible as well.  The two genres closely coincide and in the case of film adaptations of hard-boiled novels, it seems that the themes of darkness are not all intentional on the part of the director, but also on the part of the original writer.

 

I see noir as a style, genre, and movement all in one.  To me, it embodies elements of all three of these ideas.  Looking at what you've said about style and also what Professor Edwards mentioned, I can't help but see that Edwards' reference to the "precise" nature of style in film noir causes a major conflict.  Yes, we must be precise in what constitutes the style of noir, but how can we be when noir itself is a highly varying style?  Sure, there are specific elements of noir that set it apart from other styles and genres, but as a whole, no one noir film is like the other.

 

Perhaps this is why it is harder to classify film noir as a "genre."  Since genres tend to be much more hyper-focused on the same several themes, it makes sense that fitting noir as a genre is difficult.  Because it is already difficult to classify noir as a style, classifying it as a genre becomes even more of a challenge since it lacks a cohesion that other styles and genres tend to possess. 

Video lecture #1: The Heist

 

I wonder if director John Huston ever discussed film noir as it applied to his first film, "The Maltese Falcon" considering that at the time (1941 ) that genre had not yet been identified.

 

I have always thought of film noir in terms of style, and that the director was responsible for that feeling of darkness in film noir.

 

The professor said: 

If we consider noir a style, then we will need to be precise in what constitutes that style, and develop a vocabulary to describe the particular way filmmakers used the formal means of filmmaking to create a noir style. This will entail learning how noir films can be described through the manipulation of their formal elements like cinematography or lighting, set design, costume design, acting techniques, compositional strategies, props, narrative designs, sound design to evoke a world that has come to be known as film noir. A solid understanding of key film terms and the evolution of the classical Hollywood filmmaking techniques is a must if you want to talk precisely about what constitutes the noir style.

 

Going forward I will lean towards the "style" angle but at the same time honestly consider the other choices suggested by the professor:

 

"There is no general agreement as to what are the common elements that define these films because it depends on whether you consider film noir a genre, a style or a movement or cycle of films . . . 

Ultimately, determining whether film noir is a genre, a style, or a movement begs an interesting question: what if film noir is actually a combination of all three of these ideas?

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Throughout film noir movies we recognize that characters were much more nuanced, filled with more contradictions, than the ones from the 30's. For example, you rather sympathize with Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra than with Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) in Scarface. Noir filmmakers tried to avoid one dimension characters, although Scarface is a magnificent movie. It seems that even the evilest villain displayed humanity at certain point. No wonder why some of us identify more with the obscure captain Hank Quinlan rather than with Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil.

 

That's one of the things Nino Frank pointed out in his essay: that films noir were a departure from the traditional police serials to a stronger psychological focus. The plot no longer hinged on finding out the solution to the crime, but on exploring the motives and psyches of all those involved. How do they interact with each other? What drives them to do what they do? I think that's why your observations about noir characters is bang on, and why chronologically anachronistic characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe still resonate with us today. The world they inhabit is long gone, but we still identify with their internal struggles and issues. They're not just caricatures, they're complex people who have issues (and Marlowe has more than a few if you read the books).

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I'm taking this course primarily to figure out why I like film noir so much. Between this week's video lecture, the podcast, and Eddie Muller's excellent article, I'm starting to figure it out. "Suffering with style" and "empathize and sympathize" really spoke to me.

 

I was also intrigued by the discussion of genre, style, or movement. I have always called film noir a genre, but to call it a style really resonates with me as film noir always looks amazing. (And what are the film noir comedies? I'll need to see one of those!) But to call it a movement is truly fascinating. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the context in which that movement developed, both at the studios and in society, and why it petered out and periodically comes back.

 

And I'm already starting to see old favorites (and non-favorites) in a new light based on both the lecture and the message board discussions. Good, good stuff.

DEADLINE AT DAWN is a sort of screwball film noir.

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Video Lecture #1: Style, Genre, Movement?

In the lecture, you (Rich Edwards) mention that you don’t like categories, and I feel the same way. Categorizing something seems to rob it of its individuality, distinctiveness, and singular contributions. But that’s what makes film noir so much fun to discuss. I’m not sure I know how to define film noir exactly, but I do think that angst is a crucial element. Without it, it would be difficult to categorize a film as noir. I wonder, too, if the attitudes that developed in response to twentieth-century events, especially economic collapse and two world wars, were crucial. All this leads me to believe—for now—that film noir is a style more than a genre or a movement. I hope to have a better idea about how to define film noir by the time that I finish this course!

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Boy, this is a tough and knowledgeable crowd :-) Point taken. FYI, I address the topic of jazz and its use and contributions to film noir in Video Lecture 2. 

 

But let's not focus too much on the music we selected for the video lectures. I am hoping we focus more on the main points of Lecture 1 (he says, as the saxophone fades in the background....)

This discussion on Jazz and film noir is actually fascinating to me because it is bringing out something very important to, if not film noir, then definitely neo-noir.  Noir already has a concern with how much we know about certain characters and how much the noir detective story is about a subject trying to literally piece together something out of the past.  I think neo-noirs take up this thread in really interesting ways. The kind of sexy arpeggiated jazz and trumpet instrumentals we associate with films noir did in fact come later with neo-noir.  I mostly think of Polanski's Chinatown (one of the best movies ever, right?).  Many neo-noirs will actually take up the themes of amneisa, memory, and notions of the past, and part of the task of harkening back to older noirs is including signifiers of the past.  And neo-noirs with sexy jazz scores (Chinatown, Bladerunner, LA Confidential) attempt to get at the past in this way.  It's a really interesting thread in noir that I'm excited about following, namely: how we use films to think about historical time.  When did we start thinking movies with Bogart had a soundtrack filled with sexy Jazz solos?  When did we start thinking that was what the past sounded like?  Like the noirish detectives making sense of reality out of little pieces and seeing what plays and what fits, how did we become amnesiacs ourselves? 

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Boy, this is a tough and knowledgeable crowd :-) Point taken. FYI, I address the topic of jazz and its use and contributions to film noir in Video Lecture 2. 

 

But let's not focus too much on the music we selected for the video lectures. I am hoping we focus more on the main points of Lecture 1 (he says, as the saxophone fades in the background....)

This discussion on Jazz and film noir is actually fascinating to me because it is bringing out something very important to, if not film noir, then definitely neo-noir.  Noir already has a concern with how much we know about certain characters and how much the noir detective story is about a subject trying to literally piece together something out of the past.  I think neo-noirs take up this thread in really interesting ways. The kind of sexy arpeggiated jazz and trumpet instrumentals we associate with films noir did in fact come later with neo-noir.  I mostly think of Polanski's Chinatown (one of the best movies ever, right?).  Many neo-noirs will actually take up the themes of amneisa, memory, and notions of the past, and part of the task of harkening back to older noirs is including signifiers of the past.  And neo-noirs with sexy jazz scores (Chinatown, Bladerunner, LA Confidential) attempt to get at the past in this way.  It's a really interesting thread in noir that I'm excited about following, namely: how we use films to think about historical time.  When did we start thinking movies with Bogart had a soundtrack filled with sexy Jazz solos?  When did we start thinking that was what the past sounded like?  Like the noirish detectives making sense of reality out of little pieces and seeing what plays and what fits, how did we become amnesiacs ourselves? 

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Well said.   What was missing from that list, that you noted,  was what motivates the noir protagonist.    War vets are common noir protagonist with disillusionment often being a core part of their persona.    Obsession takes on many forms from avenging the death of loved ones or friends (Cornered \ Ride the Pink Horse),   being enthralled by a women they know little about  (Laura, for both the killer and detective,  financial gain (Nightmare Alley,  and many of the caper noirs,   and cops out to get their man (The Big Heat,  The Racket).  

 

This combination of the visual noir style along with the inner workings of the various characters is what separates a noir from other styles \ genres.                 

I think you've hit something important about disillusionment being an important component of Noir protagonists. I knew that a lot of them seemed to have given up chasing something better, but I didn't know the word for it till I saw your post. 

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I agree with the instructor and not over analyze. At the end of the 8-9 weeks, I will be able to watch these movies armed with more education and appreciation. It will be like seeing some of them for the first time!

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This lecture has me seriously looking at which catagory films noir fit into. I feel that it is afilm movement that inspired its unique style and genre. It looks like nothing else being made in Hollywood at the time. 

 

Perhaps it is a diservice to put films noir is a neatly packaged box with a label. It's pretty fitting for it not to need a label. I will be interested to see how my perception changes throughout the course as I learn more about the histoy and legacy of film noir. 

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I find the jazz associated with noir funny too. I don't really hear it too much in the classic noirs, with the exception of Sweet Smell of Success, DOA, They Live by Night. The soundtracks of noirs seem less upbeat with the exception of The Third Man (Zither music) and I Wake up Screaming using Over the Rainbow. I think of more of classical music with noir, such as Laura, The Letter, High Sierra were not jazzy.

For that reason. I never associated jazz with film noir. When I think of Bogie noir movies saxaphone music never comes in mind for me. Whenever jazz was showed in noirs, they were actual musicians, like the Fisherman in DOA and they were EXCELLENT.

A side point, I always found that the noirs seemed less stereotypical for African Americans than other films at the time. That could go into another discussion Not to say sterotypes were not there. The maid in Out of the Past was dressed up when Robert Mitchum talked to her and she was out in a night club, not really a Mammy figure. Also there were noirs with African Americans in starring roles. Odds Agaisnt Tommorow had Harry Belafonte in a starring role, No Way Out discussed racism at the time and starred Sidney Potier,

 

This discussion on Jazz and film noir is actually fascinating to me because it is bringing out something very important to, if not film noir, then definitely neo-noir.  Noir already has a concern with how much we know about certain characters and how much the noir detective story is about a subject trying to literally piece together something out of the past.  I think neo-noirs take up this thread in really interesting ways. The kind of sexy arpeggiated jazz and trumpet instrumentals we associate with films noir did in fact come later with neo-noir.  I mostly think of Polanski's Chinatown (one of the best movies ever, right?).  Many neo-noirs will actually take up the themes of amneisa, memory, and notions of the past, and part of the task of harkening back to older noirs is including signifiers of the past.  And neo-noirs with sexy jazz scores (Chinatown, Bladerunner, LA Confidential) attempt to get at the past in this way.  It's a really interesting thread in noir that I'm excited about following, namely: how we use films to think about historical time.  When did we start thinking movies with Bogart had a soundtrack filled with sexy Jazz solos?  When did we start thinking that was what the past sounded like?  Like the noirish detectives making sense of reality out of little pieces and seeing what plays and what fits, how did we become amnesiacs ourselves?

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