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Five Classics of Film Noir

>As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton point out in Towards a Definition of Film Noir, prior to World War II convention dictated a beautiful heroine and an honest hero; we expected a clear line between good and bad, as well as clear motives, and the action should develop logically. But the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon set these expectations on their ears, creating a first installment in the dark and unpredictable film genre called film noir. This is no Superman with a chaste fiancee, but a flawed hero with a depraved, murderous, doped-up, or drunk heroine.

The difference is clear in one of the final scenes in The Maltese Falcon. The coveted black bird has been revealed a fake, and the crooks have fled. Sam Spade has called the police to tell them the entire story, and he’s left with Brigid O'Shaughnessy. There is no talk of running to some hideaway; he bluntly asks her why she killed his business partner, Miles Archer. At first she seems horrified by the question, but realizes she cannot pretend any longer.

As Borde and Chaumeton generalize of the entire genre, “a sense of dread persists until the final images”. There is no happy ending in sight. Brigid speaks low and flat, with her voice drained of emotion much like her soul seems to have been drained of life; the chaos has gone beyond all limits. She had wanted Thursby, her partner in crime, out of the picture so she could have the falcon to herself, as well as the subsequent reward. She had hired Archer to scare him off, but it didn’t work. She had killed Archer to frame it on Thursby. Then she needed a new protector, and came back to Sam.

But she loves Sam, and says she would have come back anyway. As an audience, we struggle between her ambivalence over her crimes and her love for Sam Spade. All the criminality, all the contradictions, have made us share in her experience, her sense of anguish. Sam loves her too, and we would like them to be together, despite their respective flaws, but our need for justice leaves us with a similar ambivalence; we could go either way, freedom or punishment.

We search her face for a hint of the dishonesty which has characterized her behavior up until now, but we cautiously surmise it seems to be gone. Spade’s voice is tense, he speaks quickly, suppressing all emotion, but we see it in his face; this is difficult for him, he loves her. This woman has murdered, lied, cheated, and played the whore. But a part of us wants her to go free, to live happily ever after with Spade.

We are disoriented and seem to have misplaced our moral compass, but that disorientation and alienation is the work, and the aim, of film noir.

In the film Double Indemnity, based on the James M. Cain novella of the same name, things were seldom as they seemed.

They hadn't seen each other that evening, but it could also be said they had never truly seen each other at all. They worked together on faith and hope; hoping the other person was someone they could trust and faith that other person really was. They were on a journey together, a journey which Walter Neff's co-worker and friend Barton Keyes had said ends only at the grave, but something stood between them; they had to depend on faith and hope because they didn't know each other well enough to have it another way.

Walter returned home, confident they had accomplished the perfect murder. Phyllis called from the drug store and wanted to see him, and he agreed. But before she arrived, Keyes payed Walter a visit; something was on his mind about this murder case and he wanted to bounce it off a friend. If Keyes happened to see Walter and Phyllis together, it might help him find the answer. But for now, Keyes has no reason to suspect his friend Walter Neff has conspired with Phyllis Dietrichson to kill her husband and collect the insurance money.

Keyes keeps his visit short and is headed for the drug store to get something for the indigestion this case has given him. He doesn't know the remedy is waiting in the hall, listening through the door. If Phyllis hadn't heard Keyes, and had interrupted the conversation, it would have been over. As Keyes leaves Walter's apartment, Phyllis ducks behind the door. Walter has come out of the apartment to see Keyes to the elevator, but also to keep watch for Phyllis. She tugs slightly at the door, letting Walter know she's there, so he remains by the door.

Keyes starts down the hall, but turns from the elevator and returns to Walther, not realizing Phyllis is there too. The movement could be seen as symbolic of how Keyes is unknowingly moving closer to the truth. A few steps more would reveal the woman standing behind the door, just as a few more steps in Keyes' logic can reveal that same woman's secret.

As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson point out in Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir, Barbara Stanwyck is lit in this scene with direct, undiffused lighting to give her Phyllis character a "hard-edged, mask-like surface beauty". This is the mask she always wears around Walter, and on the other side of the door, Walter appears soft and vulnerable.

The use of physical elements to convey psychological meaning was common in film noir. As such, the door in this scene gives insight to the entire film by representing the true nature of Walter and Phyllis' relationship. They stand in danger together, but at the same time they are separate. Right now it's just the door between them, but at other times it's the lies Phyllis has told Walter. Neither of them knows for certain who is on the other side of the door, but they've placed their entire trust in whoever it is. The door isn't all that separates them.

All the genre's defining elements are present in director Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour: confusion, fatalism, and claustrophobia, filmed in a style calculated to intensify the effect and so classically noir it verges on parody. Ulmer's film is one of the darkest of the film noir genre, more specifically, a dystopian example of the "road movie" (It Happened One Night is a popular example of the road movie genre).

The road is seldom clear in noir, and Al Roberts fumbles though the confusion like it's an unfamiliar road, like the "detour" of the film's name. But Roberts doesn't seem to be doing
the driving; it seems fate has taken the wheel and he is just a hitchhiker along for the ride. At first he struggles against it, but by the end he adopts a fatalistic attitude.
"I keep trying to forget what happened and wonder what my life might have been like if that car of Haskel's hadn't stopped. But one thing I don't have to wonder about, I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all." - Al Roberts
Much of Detour is framed by a diner scene where Roberts narrates the story, and these scenes are shot in classic noir style. The lighting is shuttered to primarily light Roberts' eyes, both drawing focus to the agony in his expression and creating a feeling of claustrophobia, a feeling echoed by cramped scenes in the car and the apartment he rents with the tough femme fatale, Vera. In these diner scenes, Roberts is isolated from those around him; activity continues all around, but the other characters are in a dim light and the shadows seem to wall them off. The camera zooms in on shots of Roberts' coffee cup, and we can almost taste the dregs at the bottom of it; a juke box, playing the song that spurs Roberts' tale, fills the frame as its music segues into the orchestra music from Roberts' past and the start of his story.

Edgar G. Ulmer got his start in film during the German Expressionism period of the 1920s where producers used abstract settings, lighting and shadow in place of lavish production budgets. So although Ulmer was accustomed to dealing with budget constraints, the fact "Detour" was filmed with one of the lowest budgets of its day makes the film's attention to style all the more remarkable.

In Rudolph Maté's 1950 film D.O.A. Frank Bigelow is looking for a murderer, his own. Bigelow has been poisoned and there is no antidote; he will have no more than one week to live. His urgent need to convict his murderer propels Bigelow's quest, as well as the pace of the film. It's a matter of life and death.

In a post-Hiroshima world (the film was released only five years after the tragedy of Hiroshima), society lives under a new and constant fear of nuclear fallout. While living his life unaware of danger, Frank Bigelo has been slipped a dose of "iridium", a toxin associated with radiation. He is "everyman" and his quest to track down and destroy the source of this poison could be said to represent post-War America's need to track down and destroy the source of a nuclear threat; the search for Frank Bigelo's murderer becomes the concern of every man, woman, and child who could fall prey to a similar poison from a less-personal hand.

But with typical noir cynicism we realize along with Bigalow that even if we destroy the source, it may already be too late.

While the search for a murderer creates the dramatic tension which binds this film together and propels the story forward, the individual scenes are what makes D.O.A. a classic example of film noir. Noir's roots in German Expressionism are evident in several scenes, but perhaps no example is as striking as the scenes within The Fisherman, the Beatnik nightclub where Bigalow is poisoned.

In the nightclub scene we see the odd closeups and camera angles typical of film noir, but the effect goes beyond film technique. The club patrons are frenzied, they're moving with unnatural responses to wild Jazz music. The musicians are bug-eyed and sweating, but it's more than that; they appear dangerous, possibly possessed. A mysterious figure with a checkered scarf exchanges Bigelow's drink for the poisoned version. We don't see the figure's face, but he is calm, quiet, and as such he stands out against the frenzied crowd. However the crowd is too frenzied to notice.

It isn't clear if the film intended to sound a warning against the threat of nuclear poisoning, but it doesn't take much to justify this argument. Frank Bigelow came into harm's way while performing his simple day to day duties as an accountant and notary. He wanted to have a little fun, but got caught up in the excitement and didn't notice the still, calm hand who brought an end to his life.

In director David Miller's 1952 film noir classic Sudden Fear, a clock's pendulum rhythmically sways and its shadow falls across Joan Crawford's face, shifting from side to side like her thoughts. Although we cannot see the thoughts within her mind, the shadow of the clock speaks of them: "Do I kill him before he kills me?"

The clock ticks away, measuring the seconds. She holds a written schedule in her hand. It forecasts the minutes before and after midnight tonight; I leave her house at a certain time, Irene goes to the garage to meet Jack at midnight but he isn't there. Jack comes to Irene's house while she's away, and there I shoot him with her gun. She returns when I am gone and is convicted of murder. Everything is in place, and everything is simple.

We see what she sees as she imagines each element of her plan. It ticks away like clockwork in her mind, each piece falling into place perfectly. In her mind, the plan is executed as void of emotion as the clock. The clock doesn't care about each minute it measures, and Myra Hudson doesn't care about each step in her plan. At least, not right now.

The shadow continues to tick across her face.

But when the time comes to put the plan into action, there is no clock to measure her steps. The pieces are falling into place, the clock of fate has been set in motion, but can she stop it? If her plan is discovered, he will surely kill her.

Myra tries to flee, but Jack sees her leaving Irene's apartment. A chase ensues and the shadows no longer tick away like a smooth running machine. The shadows are awkward, indecisive. Railings go this way and that, and the shadows are disorientating.

But this is film noir, and shadows are practically a character in the story.

In Dark City: The Film Noir Spencer Selby calls Sudden Fear one of the most stylish and refined woman-in-distress noirs. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Joan Crawford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Palance), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Best Costume Design.

Do you have a noir favorite? Is there some dark scene from a noir classic that stands out in your memory?

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