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Are Film Noir and Neo Noir Comparable?
"The Maltese Falcon was produced three times before I did it, never with very much success, so I decided on a radical procedure: to follow the book rather than depart from it. This was practically an unheard of thing to do with any picture taken from a novel, and marks the beginning of a great epoch in picture making." - John Houston, Director (Boggs, 346)
The Maltese Falcon opened new doors to filmmaking. It was 1941, and not many people had seen a movie quite like this. There was a detective who abused his clients and discovered things "the hard way". Every scene took place at night, and the women were not very faithful or honest. This was the beginning of film noir. The 40's and 50's were the days of dark secrets, long coats, private eyes and femme fatales.
The term film noir was coined from the french to describe Hollywood films which portrayed the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption, in which the heroes and villains are cynical, insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure or apathetic about the future (Katz, 452). "While film noir has its roots in hard-boiled detective fiction, it can take the form of either a private-eye story or a crime film without a private eye". (Dick, 96)
The 80's brought about a re-enactment of film noir called pseudo-noir (Also referred to as neo noir and post noir). Blue Velvet is a good example of neo noir. But the 80's were not the 40's and 50's. There was no Hayes Production Code to censor violence, sex or any other objectionable material. Another major factor for movies of the 80's was that whey were filmed in color. Although The Maltese Falcon and Blue Velvet are film noir respectively, times have changed dramatically from one audience to another. Some critics have argued that film noir can never be done again because the 40's and 50's are no longer in existence. But neo noir is aiming towards the same goal as film noir did to the original audiences. The same film techniques and mood factors have the same intent for each movie, but modern neo-noir approaches emotional disturbances in a more graphic manner. Today's audiences require a more demanding display of psychological dementia, aesthetic film techniques and on-screen violence to propose the same mood that original film noir did to the older audiences. The Question that demands answering is "Can film noir be done today?" It's a valid argument that demands a lot of explaining to answer correctly.
During the inception of film noir, Freud was a major influence on the psychological aspects of the main characters. Sex and aggression were two very good proprietors of the storylines and characters' actions. Due to the Hayes Code, sex and aggression had to be displayed through actions hinting towards the characters' preferences. For example, the Maltese Falcon is actually a phallic symbol for the ultimate male sex object. Peter Lorre speaks and acts like a homosexual. The Fat Man is Cairo's lover, played by Sydney Greenstreet. Together they go on a quest for the Maltese Falcon; the one who can fulfill their fantasies. During their scenes together, they pat each other reassuringly and give respectful glances to one another in a queer manner. Alas, when the Falcon is retrieved, they hold it in reverence and stroke its features in questionable ways.
When they find out the falcon statue is not a real one, it symbolizes that the man they found was not as good as they believed. So, they go on a quest to another country in search of the perfect man. They ask Sam Spade to join them, since he "is a man of many resources", but he refuses - which is also refusing their sexual preferences.
Phallic symbolism and Freud's sex and aggression theory is used in Blue Velvet with Dennis Hopper's character Frank. Sexual tension is built with explicit details of his abusive nature on Dorothy. He uses scissors to cut her clothes off which symbolizes his phallic insecurities. He uses aggression techniques during his sexual endeavors stabilizing Freud's theory that sex and aggression are the major influences of human behavior.
Mentioning the influence of Frued is not the only psychological application for these films' characters. Alfred Adler did a good job defining the personality type of Sam Spade. Spade's lifestyle is a dominant one. He tries to always have the advantage and be the leader. He takes what he wants with authority, regardless of the circumstances of his actions put onto others. This style of life is unhealthy for him in the end and is likely to cause ulcers. But regardless of the
circumstances, his dominant behavior is the most effective means for him to relieve his anxiety.
Aesthetically, film noir used many film techniques to engulf the viewer in its' dark world. The interplay of light and dark elements in film noir is accomplished by high-contrast photography and shadowy, low-key lighting. This creates a "monolinear world of white and black" contrasts. (Dick, 96) The mood is accomplished with "deep-focus cinematography... sequence shots; disorienting mis-en-scene... claustrophobic framing... and a complex narrative structure, characterized by flashbacks and/or a convoluted temporal sequencing of events." (Belton, 188)
The Maltese Falcon has every scene take place during the night. Canted shots display a world gone awry. When Spade stands at the fence that Archer fell to his death from, the canted shot defines Spade's moment of disorientation to Archer's death. The use of black and white easily contrasts the lighting from dark blacks to light grays.
"Purists argue that true film noir is shot in black and white, but a film shot in color can stimulate the nighttime look of film noir and even approximate black and white dichotomy." (Dick, 100) Light and dark dichotomy has hardly been done better than David Lynch did with Blue Velvet. Scenes shot at night are dark and seemingly without contrasting colors. But in reality the colors are very vivid and rich while at the same time very dark. Blue velvet dresses, darkly lit red shoes and lipstick, and black outfits help give the contrasting of light and dark objects in color, while at the same time it contrasts each item as significantly as if it was done in black and white.
The "temporal sequencing" of Blue Velvet is a perfect example of film noir's technique. We only see what Jeffery sees. The claustrophobic scene with Jeffery witnessing Frank abusing Dorothy as he hides in the closet does a good job at giving answers to who's ear it is and who cut it. At the same time, it makes you wonder who Frank is, where he's from and why he does what he does. The answers are never given to the viewer with whistles and bells like a typical Hollywood movie. Instead, it can only be found by deductive reasoning based on what Jeffery sees. He never tells any body what he sees. We never know what he's thinking as each clue unfolds. This is certainly a "convoluted temporal sequencing of events."
Just as Sam Spade never knows where the real Maltese Falcon is lying, so does Jeffery never find out the full mystery behind the ear. Both movies are film noir in that the mystery is never fully solved. Not all explanations are given to the audience.
Another argument about neo noir not being film noir is the use of on-screen violence. With the loss of the Hayes Production Code came the gain of on-screen liberalism. A boom of free-spirited sex and violence in movies helped harden audiences to its sensitivity of on-screen sex and violence. Film noir basically vanished with the Hayes Code. There is no longer tension on the screen with meek and "moody" violence. Instead, the violence is displayed in a balletic tandem of falling bodies and spurting guts.
In The Maltese Falcon, Archer is shot by an unknown assailant and falls dramatically over a fence, plunging to his unseen death. In Blue Velvet, Frank opens the closet door only to be introduced to a snub-nosed .38, further dramatized by a SLO-MO extreme closeup of his brains flying out of the back of his head. In 1941, no one had seen a movie with someone being shot in the head. People at that time didn't NEED to see the violence to feel the emotional impact of the bullet's target being hit. But by the time 1986 rolls along, movies used their free will of moviemaking to show whatever came to mind to blow away the minds of those seeing the visual feasts of extreme violence. No longer would an animated bending over and slow fall to the ground make the viewer gasp with shock and dismay. Instead, the same effect would be created with a falling backward slow motion shot of a man's brains falling out of his head.
Film noir was created in part to make audiences uneasy about the mis-en-scene and murders. They need to feel tension mounting scene after scene. They needed to not know what the main character may do next. But over time, these new ideas are used repeatedly to the point of tiresomeness. A cop hitting his suspect no longer becomes a mystery. It no longer holds the suspense of the viewer. By 1986, it's time to make a seemingly innocent person plunge farther into the depths of noir-ish darkness. He must not only hurt the guilty, but also hit the innocent. This will make newer audiences gasp with uncertainty. This will cause an uneasy mis-en-scene.
Watching The Maltese Falcon today is amusing and entertaining - but little more than that. In 1941 it did to moviegoers what Blue Velvet does today. It made them feel uneasy. It exposed them to new ideas to who a main character could be. Today, Sam Spade is a hard-boiled detective who uses aggression to get what he wants, and it makes us laugh. In 1986 Blue Velvet showed us Jeffery Beaumont; an "innocent" young man who finds a world outside of his own that initiates him into discovering his darker side. His gradual shifts from a harmless young man to a sadist and finally to becoming a murderer makes us feel uneasy. His escapades into the mystery of the ear doesn't make us laugh. It disturbs us as easily as it intrigues us.
It's true to say that film noir can't be made today. It can't be done because the newer generation of people who watch movies have already seen what has been done with old-time film noir movies. In those days, it was a new and fresh approach to storytelling on the screen. The Hayes Code helped filmmakers to become more creative with symbolic and unspoken sexual tendencies. It was filmed in black and white. No one really wants to see a movie in black and white if it can be done in color. But neo noir builds the viewer's attention and holds the suspense in the same way that film noir did to the first generation of viewers. It's done in color, but color can easily approximate the contrasts of black and white while still satisfying modern moviegoers.
The question is: "Can film noir be done today?" The only way to answer this question correctly is to look at it from two perspectives. Each perspective will bring about a different conclusion. In terms of making a movie in black and white with the exact same conditions of the 40's and 50's while at the same time getting the same reactions from those who watch it as the original audience did, it can't be done. Neo noir fails at its attempts to become film noir from that perspective. However, if you view it as being a mood movie, where neo noir makes those watching it feel the same emotions that film noir did in the past with its use of the same film techniques of low-key lighting and disturbing mis-en-scene for the modern audience, then yes it is film noir. If film noir is a movie based on mood, neo noir is the film noir for this generation. Maybe 40 years from now Blue Velvet will seem as funny and old-time to those who watch it as The Maltese Falcon seems today. That's a disturbing thought...
Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and New York Center for Visual History, 1994.
Dick, Bernard F. Anatomy of Film - second edition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Boggs, Joseph M. Art of Watching Films, The - fourth edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996.
Katz, Ephraim. Film Encyclopedia, The - second edition New York: HarperPerennial Press, 1994.