Sunday, September 02, 2007

More Film Noirs*

I have been catching up with these old hollywood film noirs. So much so that colour and brightness have started to hurt my eyes.

All four films here were produced by the RKO pictures which specialised in these kinds of films. Of course at that time the producers there didn't know they were making any "film-noir." They were just short on budget so they couldn't afford to make wide-screen costume musicals or historical dramas. The reason they chose to light the set in that particular way was more to do with economics than with conscious design. In the same way there are also the actors who became associated with the genre. One of them of course was Robert Mitchum with his sleepy eyes, droppy shoulders and "baby I don't care" fatalistic attitude (an actual dialogue from the unforgettable Out of the Past.) Three out of four of these films has Robert Mitchum in the lead or supporting roles. He is not really a great actor (except perhaps for his performance in The Night of the Hunter, one of my all time favourites) but he fits these roles really well.
Then there was also this German influence. Before the war a large group of extremely talented filmmakers and technicians emigrated from Germany (most of them Jewish) and found themselves working in Hollywood. Soon enough they were assigned movies dealing with these subjects since more established directors wouldn't touch them. They brought with them not only the technical know-how about the expressionist lighting but also bleakness, fatalism and gloom. Otto Preminger, who directed Angel Face, was from Vienna. He also made the other quintessential film-noir Laura and a few other great films too. He is one of my favourites.

Most of these films were profitable for the studios but only in a relative sense. They were in general looked down upon by serious viewers and critics mostly because of the sensational subject they dealt in. It was actually the french film critics who found thematic and stylistic continuity in these films and grouped them together under "film-noir." Unfortunately the term now has become somewhat meaningless because of overuse. These days any underlit scene is called "noirish" which is certainly not correct.

More than the basics of style what I love about these films is the daring they show when dealing with questions of class and gender relations in the American society of the time.

I won't write about the individual films here, will just direct to the wonderful internet resource noir of the week, which actually discusses all these four films including a host of others. The wikipedia articles on film-noir and the history of RKO pictures are also quite good.


To close off the post, some of my favourite film noirs (from the ones I have seen so far, limited to only one by each director)

1. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
2. The Third Man (Carol Reed)
3. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
4. Laura (Otto Preminger)
5. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
6. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
7. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles)
8. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)
9. The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
10. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)

*There is some confusion about the correct English plural form but I prefer this one to films noir.

4 comments:

puccinio said...

Well I still maintain it's Films Noir.

By the way great collection.

Films Noir are one of America's most indigineous film modes alongside the screwball comedy and the Film Musical.

And I was thrilled to bits when you put ''In A Lonely Place'' there, that's one of the finest American films ever made. The director Nicholas Ray is also one of the great geniuses of American cinema.

Good selection except for ''The Killing'' which like it's director I have always found over-rated. Robert Siodmak's ''The Killers' however based on the classic Hemingway story...well that's-a-spicy-meatball!

Other great Noir Films include ''Detour''one of the creepiest films of this kind, ''Shadow of a Doubt'' by Hithcock as well as his ''Strangers on a Train'', as well as ''Beat the Devil'' one of the great Noir parodies by it's greatest star - Bogart.

To me any Film Noir with Bogart is automatically halfway to classic status. That man was made for it.

However there's something that I have to say...

Films Noir were mostly made by directors on a B-Movie budget but it gave them a lot of freedom since producers weren't looking over their shoulders so they managed to work in critical messages as well as political statements in their movies which their audiences were able to get.

''Sweet Smell of Success'' was about Red Scare America as was Abraham Polonsky's ''Force of Evil'', Jules Dassin's ''Thieves Highway'' and practically any Sam Fuller film. So it's not a case that directors weren't aware of what they were saying.

Enjoy...

Alok said...

About it being the indigenous film modes -- it is true the story and the settings are steeped in americana in every sense, specially the hardboiled dialogues but when it comes to style and mood it was definitely the contribution of immigrant directors, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz and so many technicians who made sure that restrictions in lighting and set design could be turned into great artistic possibilities.

I haven't seen quite a few of those political films you have mentioned Force or Evil or Thieves Highway, also Pickup on South Street which I want to see next. The only Sam Fuller film I have seen so far, and I saw it only recently, is Shock Corridor. It is a strange film, a self consciously pulp film which also has a nasty political bite.

puccinio said...

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About it being the indigenous film modes -- it is true the story and the settings are steeped in americana in every sense, specially the hardboiled dialogues but when it comes to style and mood it was definitely the contribution of immigrant directors, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz and so many technicians who made sure that restrictions in lighting and set design could be turned into great artistic possibilities.
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The German techies and those guys you mentione were important but again thats ignoring the influence of the Warner Bros' gangster films on the genres which were practically proto-Noir and the film which influenced Noir the most - Citizen Kane - was directed by a man American to the core.

And then directors like Vidor, Ford, Walsh and Hawks and of course Alfred H. were extremely influential as well.

In the fifties, Noir cinema was greatly influenced by Italian Neo-Realism as well...Hitchcock's - The Wrong Man - is a good example.

The French New Wave were lucky to have three pools of influences - German Silent Cinema, Golden Age Hollywood and Italian NeoRealism as well as their native 30's cinema of Renoir and Vigo.

Alok said...

Welles was definitely the most stylish of them all. The baroque, feverish, overheated style of lighting, camera angles and acting... I don't know if he was consciously aware of the expressionist tradition.

With Hitchcock it is clearer. He apprenticed in Germany and even started his career in the ufa studios. In the beginning of his career he was even called the English Fritz Lang. Of course later Lang was called The German Hitchcock! Hitchcock did however preferred a more realistic approach of surface normalty, more greyer shades than high contrast black and white and also comparatively less self-conscious framing and camera angles.

These films are certainly "American" no doubt about that. It is because so many different factors came and fused together just at the right time and place that so many classics got made.