Brian W. Fairbanks-Writer/The Shadows of Film Noir (Part One)

Fleeing the mobsters he has double crossed, Harry Fabian runs through a virtual obstacle course of London’s back streets and alleys during a night in which the shadows seem to grow darker with his every footstep. The night itself seems to be his stalker; its shadows enveloping him like a closing coffin lid.

The scene is from Night and the City, the moody 1950 drama sometimes considered the definitive example of film noir, a genre that flourished in post W.W.II Hollywood, but named and first championed by French critics, most notably Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton whose 1955 book, Panorama du film americain, was the first major study devoted to the subject (Hirsch 9). Richard Widmark was pictured on the cover in a scene from the aforementioned film, and the choice was appropriate. With his gaunt face a mask of desperation, his lips wrapped around a cigarette as if it was a snorkel, and a lit match between the fingers that appear jittery even in a still photograph, Widmark’s Harry Fabian may be the archetypal noir “hero”: a man forever on the run, scheming for success, but, in the end, fighting simply to survive (128).

The film noir is, as critic Louis Giannetti points out, actually a subgenre, one that overlaps with other forms, especially gangster and private detective thrillers. The genre, named after a French word that literally means “black,” emphasizes the dark side of human existence. Its main characters are generally hard-boiled cynics who, if not living on the fringe of society, flirt with it, often with disastrous consequences. When innocence is present in film noir, it is rarely uncorrupted in this world of violence and despair. Greed, lust, murder, and sexual depravity are the principal themes in the genre, and the city, primarily at night, is the backdrop (91).

The visual style of noir is one of its most important and memorable attributes. Cinematographers have rarely been given the opportunity to be as creative in other genres as they have in this universe marked by anxiety and paranoia. Rain swept streets, menacing shadows, and faces lit, intermittently, by blinking neon signs, are common images, as are scenes photographed by a camera that seems to have been contaminated by the seedy milieus in which noir is often set.

“The visual compositions,” Giannetti writes, “are dynamic, jagged, off-balance” (92).

Film noir thrived in the 1940s but had its beginnings in the gangster films that the studios churned out in the wake of such box-office hits as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in 1931. Those films, however, were more optimistic, presenting characters such as James Cagney’s Tom Powers of the latter film who were determined to succeed at all costs. Only the final, fatal bullets that brought their lives to an end could dissuade them from conquering the world. The typical noir anti-hero has, in many cases, already accepted defeat and counts himself lucky if he at least manages to survive (Hirsch 60).

Noir's visual style can be traced back to German Expressionism, an artistic movement that emphasized exaggerated, frequently grotesque, nightmarish images painted in high-contrast lights and darks. Many of the directors who would make vital contributions to noir, including Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window), and Otto Preminger (Laura), were associated with the movement before fleeing Europe upon Hitler’s rise to power. The style wasn’t introduced to the cinema by noir, however, having already been evident in the silent thriller The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Lang’s futuristic 1926 classic Metropolis (Walker 26).

Italian Neo-realism also left a mark on noir by influencing the location shooting, documentary style narration, and less colorful characterizations that became commonplace in films of the genre’s later cycle. Literature had a major impact on setting the tone of these films, and writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, whose stories about hard drinking, chain smoking private detectives whose investigations took them into an immoral world of psychotic killers and femme fatales, often had their work adapted by filmmakers (Hirsch 28).