PBS Film Noir Documentary

Below are the notes I took from viewing this documentary. However, to sum it all up I learnt what made some of the classic films of the genre more successful, the typical aspects of a film noir as well as the important contextual details of the time period of when they were made. Furthermore I now have a list of iconic directors and actors in the genre that can help form a basis of a wider watching list.

Detour 1945 Ulmer: MPAA refused to give it a rating because the murderer did not face justice, so the ending had to be changed. Lays out a blueprint for how the noir genre works. The character has secure life until his wife leaves for Hollywood. This initiates a journey wherein myth like fashion is taken away by a messenger until dying and taking the identity of a dead man. He picks up a woman who knows his identity and threats to turn him in. The man is on a downward spiral from which he cannot emerge.

French called the genre film noir- meaning black film, potentially due to the fact that many people will die.

Force of Evil 1948 Polonsky: About two brothers- very real to everyday life. Directed by Polonsky who says you make the film according to your mood and the way you feel- a sense of jeopardy in life. Great noir asks the question why did this happen to me- for no reason at all (Morris).

Out of the Past 1947 Tourneur: The noir idea is that we don’t know what’s going on but we know it’s bad. The more the hero struggles and falls into the pit of despair.

Prohibition had an impact on noir on making the world feel unsafe away from the world of the private eye.

James Cain was not interested in motion pictures initially but he became one of the most iconic writers of the genre- “he wrote with a meat cleaver”. A man would fall in love with a woman and then kill her husband.

The Hayes Codes created a line of which the genre was not allowed to cross. This actually helped because they had to make the censored messages more subtle. Janey Place believed that the genre was dominated by sexually deviant women, which was a dangerous figure- unlike the rest of Hollywood. The man is merely her tool and not what she seeks. The woman would often be filmed from a low angle- giving her more power. Love in the genre usually takes the form of obsession- making it more deadly.

Light sources themselves become part of the content of the scene. The lights were seen as less important because they wanted to focus on the characters/actors. This meant the scene was left to the audience’s imagination. A common technique was to use a Venetian blind. The bland environment created a psychological sense of isolation.

Fritz Lang did an early series of ‘gangster’ films. The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari used fake sets and lighting effects as well as shadows of objects. The wide angle lens/visual feel in the background added to the isolation. The foreground actor would be very close to the character without looking at the background character. This is not an issue for the audience because they can see both characters clearly.

Gun Crazy 1950 (Lewis) used a two long mile shot to detail a bank robbery. It was done in 3 hours and general citizens thought it was a real robbery. Films often ensured they used city scenery in order to make the film feel more realistic and claustrophobic.

Film noir helped detailed the time where the world shifted from the Second World War into the Cold War. The mood of the country moved from anxiety to togetherness. Some saw this as an end of film noir but in reality, it was just a genre shift. The invention of the colour film brought more reality into the world (for example Body Heat or Chinatown). Despite this change, the basic human problems are life are still very much the same.


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