Week 4, January 29th
Film Noir:
Readings: Thompson & Bordwell p 100 German Expressionism, Film
Noir and the Hollywood Studio system pp. 215-216.
Supplementary reading: Corrigan, Timothy, White, Patricia, with
Meta Mazaj, Critical Visions in Film Theory; Classical and
Contemporary Readings Part 5 Genre Classifying Stories Thomas
Schatz Film Genre and the Genre Film” pp454-464; Commoli J-L; and
Narboni, J., “Cinema/Ideology/ Criticism” pp478-487 and Rick
Altman “A Semantic/ Syntactic/ Pragmatic Approach to Film Genre”
pp 488-496
Screening: Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang; The Big Sleep (1946)
Howard Hawks; Rebel without a Cause (1955) Nicholas Ray.
www.filmnoirstudies.com/more/index.asp An excellent noir site with
good links.
The Big Combo 1955
Introduction: The Origins of Film Noir
French scholars Raymonde Borde and Etienne
Chaumeton book titled Panorama du Film Noir
Americain (1955).
But writer Nino Frank was among the first to
speak of “dark film”, identifying some of the
stylistic characteristics, themes and motifs now
indelibly attached to the film noir ascription.
Similar to the Roman Noir exhibiting these qualities in
the narrative:
a) violence
b) nightmarish
c) weird and erotic
d) characters expressing a certain ambivalence
e) exotic sensuality
f) alienation , obsession and estrangement.
Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct
Rita Hayworth Gilda
Joan Bennett Scarlet Street
Jane Greer Out of the Past (1947)
D.O.A. (1950)
Foster Hirsch Detours and Lost Highways: A Map
of Neo-Noir New York: Limelight Editions, 1999
R. Barton Palmer. Hollywood Dark Cinema The
American Film Noir Twayne Publishing, 1994.
Alain Silver (Editor), James Ursini (Editor). Film
Noir Reader Limelight Editions, 1996
Key films defining the ‘genre’
1) John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941)
(based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett)
2) Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944)
3) Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944)
4) Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity(1944)
5) Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944)
Carole Lombard 1908-1942
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Noir Traits
Raymond Durgnat’s essay “Paint it Black: The
Family Tree of Film Noir” published in a 1970
Issue of British Journal Cinema lists several
characteristics for films noir.
1) Crime as social criticism with its attendant sub
a) Prohibition and the gangster era (1930’s)
b) A corrupt penal system (judiciary, jails etc.)
c) The fight game
d) Juvenile delinquency
2) Gangsters
3) People on the run (heroes and bad guys)
4) Private eyes and adventurers
5) Middle class (bourgeois) murder
6) Portraits and doubles
7) Sexual Pathology
8) Psychopaths
9) Hostages to fortune
10) Blacks and Reds (fascists and communists)
11) Grand Guignol, horror and fantasy.
Grand Guignol
Oscar Metenier
Theatre du Grand-Guignol-"big puppet show“ took its
name from the popular French
puppet character Guignol,
whose original incarnation was
as an outspoken social
commentator, a spokesperson
for the Canuts, or silk workers,
of Lyon. Early Guignol puppet
shows were frequently
censored by Napoleon III's
police force.
Grand Guignol
“Fear of 'the other' appeared at the
in countless
variations: fear of the proletariat,
fear of the unknown, fear of the
foreign, fear of contagion (for all
the blood spilled, sperm ejaculated,
and sweat dripped there, the GrandGuignol had to feel some degree of
nostalgia for cleanliness).”
Agnes Peirron
Trans. Deborah Treisman
Noir Defined
Wexman (p140) describes noir as “dark
melodramas of psychological dislocation and
Noir is “an attitude as well as a style.”
“Nightmare hallucinations of indecipherable
complications, a pervasive sense of fear and
helplessness in the face of human malevolence.”
Is film noir a genre?
“The kind or type of a work of art, from the
French, meaning “kind” or “genus.” Literary
genres include the novel and the sonnet. Musical
genres include the concerto and the symphony.
Film genres include Westerns and horror movies.
(American Heritage Dictionary)
Film Genres
“Film genres are various forms or identifiable types,
categories, classifications or groups of films that are
recurring and have similar, familiar or instantlyrecognizable patterns, syntax, filmic techniques or
conventions - that include one or more of the following:
settings (and props), content and subject matter, themes,
mood, period, plot, central narrative events, motifs,
styles, structures, situations, recurring icons (e.g., sixguns and ten-gallon hats in Westerns), stock characters
(or characterizations), and stars. Many films straddle
several film genres.” Tom Dirks
Film Genres continued
Major Genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime,
Drama,Gangster, Epics, Historical, Horror,
Musical, Science Fiction, War, Westerns
Sub Genres: biographical (biopics), women's film
(chick flicks), detective, mystery, disaster, fantasy,
film noir, guy (buddy) films, melodrama
(women's weepers), road, romance, sports,
supernatural, suspense, thrillers.
Minor Genres
Aviation films, buddy films, caper films, chase films,
espionage films, "fallen" woman films, jungle films,
legal films, martial arts films, medical films, military
films, parody films, police films, political films,
prison films, religious films, slasher films,
swashbucklers, erotic and pornographic films, (snuff
films), zombie.
Paul Shrader identifies four, catalytic elements of film
1. War and post-war disillusion—a delayed reaction to
the ‘dirty 30’s’
2. the depression that preceded the outbreak of war in
3. Post-war realism
4. The German influence (Film Noir Reader)
The origins of classical film noir may be found in
30’s gangster movies such as Scarface; the French
Poetic realism of Marcel Carne and Duvivier;
Sternbergian melodrama and most importantly
German Expressionist film, particularly the Dr
Mabuse cycle of Fritz Lang. Durgnat and Shrader
Cinematic stylistics of Film Noir
1) Scenes are lit for night; gangsters, privates eyes
and other characters may be sitting in an office at
midday but the shades are pulled and the lights
may be dimmed or off altogether. Ceiling lights
are typically hung low and floor lights are often
not more than 5’ high. Schrader states that “one
always has the felling that if the lights were
suddenly flipped on the characters would shrink
from the scene like Count Dracula at Sunrise.”
2)German Expressionism
3) Oblique and vertical lines are preferred to
horizontal (c.w. Griffith and Ford as archetypical
American directors). Lighting is often jagged,
framed through slits (Think Mabuse and Dr
Caligari here.)
4) Actors and context/setting are often given equal
weight and emphasis. The figures are often
coextensive with the architecture or lighting
giving a fatalistic, hopeless mood that the city
will outlast and swallow up those who live in it.
5) Compositional tension is preferred to the
expression and representation of physical action.
6) Almost a Freudian attachment to water…..empty
street in noir films are always glistening with rain.
Docks and Piers alleyways used as principal
rendezvous points for nefarious business to take
7) Romantic narration a strong feeling of lost time
temps perdu or an irretrievable past leading to a
sense of predetermined fate and hopelessness
8) Complex multi-layered diegeses and
chronological ordering of events to reinforce the
feeling/moods associated with hopelessness and
lost time.
9) “a passion for the past and present but also a fear for the
future” Film noirs techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia,
lack of clear priorities and ultimately insecurity and
alienation. Schrader argues further that “all of these selfdoubts” are sublimated (submerged is his term) into
“mannerism and style.” He cites the arch hard boiled
novelist Raymond Chandler “It is not a very fragrant
world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers
with tough minds and a cold spirit of detachment can make
very interesting patterns out of it.”
Film Noir: Three phases
Phase 1: 1941-1946
The era/phase of the private eye, loner figure:
Chandler, Hammett, Bogart and Bacall, Ladd and
Casablanca, Gaslight, The Maltese Falcon,
Laura, The Lost Weekend, Murder my Sweet,
Scarlet Street, To Have and Have not, The
Postman Always Rings Twice.
Phase 2: 1945-1949
Wilder/Chandler collaboration Double
Indemnity with Fred MacMurray
A realist urbanism with titles such as: The
Killers, House on 92nd Street, Raw Deal, Cry of
the City, Union Station.
Phase 3 1949-1953
Exhibiting psychological action and suicidal
impulses. Schrader suggests that in this time the
“noir hero seemingly under the weight of ten years
of despair started to go bananas.” (59)
This third phase represents the crème of noir with
films that are “the most aesthetically and
psychologically compelling”. Titles such as White
Heat, Out of the Past, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and
The Big Heat.
The Maltese Falcon
Screening clip: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon,
1941) based on the novel of the same title by
Dashiell Hammett which introduces to public
consciousness the character of private eye Sam
Spade played by the inimitable Humphrey Bogart
a famous character actor from the 40’s who is
featured in a documentary trailer on this DVD.
Scarlet Street 1945
Scarlet Street (1945), an important example of
film noir directed by Fritz Lang. Like Hitchcock,
Lang had some training in art before he immersed
himself in film and this education is evident in
many of his films.
Based on La Chienne (1931) by Jean Renoir,
Edward G. Robinson plays the part of
Christopher Cross
Joan Bennett plays the vampish Kitty
Dan Duryea as her rakish beau Johnnie

Film History and Criticism II 4