Why are we still obsessed with film noir?

Genre writer Paul Duncan explains why we still can't get enough of the dark and shady movies from the middle of the last century.

August 14, 2016

When actress Mary Astor walked into the office of private investigators Miles Archer and Sam Spade, in an early scene from The Maltese Falcon (1941), neither the actors nor the directors realised what was being set in motion. The actual plot – with Archer killed and Spade looking to avenge him, becoming part of an overall scheme to recover a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette – was merely the start, as the movie is now considered a landmark entry into the genre known as film noir.

In Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade we have the flawed outsider hero, in Astor’s character the dangerous woman or femme fatale, and in everyone else the greed and deceit we recognise as the worst traits of society – each of these qualities became key staples in film noir. The impact of the genre on the film world has been so crucial that writer Paul Duncan has explored the cinematic impact of film noir in his new book Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favourites.

“Some people describe it as a movement or style of cinematography,” explains Duncan, “while others look at it as a certain period of black and white films, dating from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. It can also be recognised by the feeling you get when you watch a movie, and you may notice something strange or unsettling. The truth is, there is no right and wrong here, and no one distinct definition. All of these reasons are valid.” filmnoir3 This can make the idea of film noir seem ambiguous, with film students and industry experts having debated the term for years. Allegedly, it was French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton who first coined the term back in 1955, as they analysed the output of American cinema from the period preceding the end of the Second World War to the present. 

The idea of a ‘black film’ seemed appropriate for the movies being made that evoked such feelings of bleakness and despair, presented characters with shady, questionable motives, and shunned the glossy Hollywood studio feel, instead embracing the reality and harshness of the outside world.

Does that mean it was the onset of war and its after-effects that prompted this development? Duncan agrees that it was a contributor, but argues that other influences had been in place much earlier, beginning his list with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

“There is a certain cinematographic, expressionistic style there, which was very important, and one of the earliest examples of the exaggerated imagery you associate with film noir,” he says. “It was made at a time when there was an influx of expatriate filmmakers in Hollywood, mainly from Germany, such as directors like Fritz Lang, but some from France, and increasing amounts with the rise of Hitler and so on.

"They brought with them that very distinct style of filmmaking, and later on you have the effects of the war itself, with those feelings of unease, of trauma, or being uncertain of the world. With the war there was also the introduction of lightweight cameras, the idea being that they were portable, and this meant that directors could experiment, filming from unusual angles. All of these factors combined to give us the traits we now recognise as film noir.” filmnoir1 For many, The Maltese Falcon, is perhaps where their own personal noir journey begins. When Bogart’s Spade warns another man, “People lose teeth talking like that,” the hero’s tough, no-nonsense attitude is clear to see. This type of character is common in film noir, and as Duncan points out, he usually took the form of a private eye or investigative journalist.

In fact, this character could be anyone in a position to question the overall authority. Towards the end of the war and the following years, when the feeling was one of uncertainty and suspicion, with the belief that perhaps there was little else worth fighting for, Hollywood began to shine the spotlight on America itself. That meant we had the private investigator who had quit the police force because of too much red tape, or it was the newspaper reporter looking for corrupt politicians. This was a hero not reliant on any governing institution, or approving of one.

Duncan explores the dynamic of the leading man with film noir’s female characters, and where his problems may stem from. “Whoever the central character is, there are always two female protagonists – one will be pure, with good intentions, and the other will be bad, the femme fatale,” he explains. “It’s the interaction within that triangle that makes the drama of the film. But it’s unsettling, as you never know who he will end up with or how it will turn out. It’s a cinema of unease, not knowing what is going to happen and fearing for what will happen."filmnoir2 Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, 1976) proposes that the second period of film noir takes place from 1945-1949, when filming swapped the studio for the outside world, and in which less romantic heroes such as Burt Lancaster or Richard Conte would focus on street crime and corruption. In his third phase, from 1949-1953, he says that “the weight of 10 years despair” had by this time fully engulfed the genre, making it acceptable for a criminal or psychotic killer to be the protagonist, with actors such as James Cagney coming to the fore, at his neurotic best in movies like Gun Crazy (1950).

“It shows you things which are perhaps in your sub-conscious, and maybe you’ve thought about it or had nightmares, but here you would see it on the screen,” Duncan confirms. But while such movies as The Big Combo (1955) or Foreign Intrigue (1956) may have marked an end to the period in the minds of some, Duncan’s book shows how its characteristics filtered into other films later on, with certain techniques employed by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), and even recent filmmakers taking note.

“Beyond the classic period of the 1940s and 1950s, you get what is known as neo noir, which describes the newer noir films,” Duncan says. “What we’ve done, for the first time in a photographic book, is combine film noir and neo noir, so you follow all the way through from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to the 2011 Ryan Gosling film Drive. Each selected film explains the importance of each film and how it fits in historically with the genre.”filmnoir4 So is there a reason why the genre never really went away? “In the 1970s, there was a big resurgence,” Duncan argues. “There were films like Taxi Driver, The Driver and many others, and I believe this was due to the Vietnam War, which had an influence similar to that of the Second World War. In Taxi Driver, the central character, Travis Bickle, has returned from the war and he’s a disturbed individual, which gives him the potential to be a killer. It’s an extension of that expressionistic style, if you like, as it exaggerates what is inside people.” And perhaps it is that glimpse into the darker side that keeps us coming back for more. 

 Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favourites is published by Taschen, AED 179. taschen.com