Film in popular culture was under scrutiny from cultural theorists during the 1930s and 1940s. It was suggested that film lacked originality and authenticity because of the way in which organisations, such as Hollywood, were producing art by using generic formulas (Grant, 2007:5). This repetition of conventions, characters and settings was typical of the Hollywood genre system (Palmer, 1994:1). This system enabled Hollywood to make films cheaply and competitively, which was criticised further by cultural theorists because the organisation was mainly motivated by profit (Grant, 2007:7).
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Genre films were at the forefront of the American ideal as films were an important feature of American culture. They represented an expression of the spirit of the time and worked as an inexpensive form of entertainment (Grant, 2007:5). The generic formulas were liked and accepted which was beneficial for both consumer and institution as the Hollywood studio could cater to a large audience (Palmer, 1994:2).
However, the poor economic conditions of America in the 1930s meant that cinemas had to entice their audience with a more modern form of storytelling and representation (Palmer, 1994:3). Whilst the typical Hollywood film had to follow certain principles of narrative, the film noir was able to push the boundary of conventional storytelling.
The visual stylisation, storyline and dark themes describe the essence of the noir film. These conventions will be discussed with examples from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) at the beginning of the noir period and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) towards the end.
The distinct elements that form the noir were largely due to the contributions of those in film production. During the early 1930s directors, actors and cinematographers who were involved in German expressionist cinema moved to Hollywood (Grant, 2007:25).
The stylistic qualities of noirs were heavily influenced by expressionism; German silent films were admired by the Hollywood film industry (Silver, 2004:11). The artistic roots in German expressionism are portrayed in the use of common stylistic conventions such as chiaroscuro lighting, distorted camera angles and the use of symbolic designs (Silver, 2004:11).
The most visible feature of the noir style is low-key lighting; cinematographers manipulated contrasts of light and shade between day exteriors and realistic night scenes through the use of curtains or venetian blinds (Silver, 2004:16). Dramatic use of lighting was used to create tension and confirm beliefs that the noir world was uncomfortable and corrupt. In Double Indemnity the establishing scene already implies this as Walter Neff begins to confess his crimes, while his face is in shade suggesting that he is ashamed.
A less apparent feature, though crucial in terms of its expressionist value, was the use of distorted camera angles. Each camera angle was used specifically to create a dramatic and symbolic meaning. Low angles were pivotal in creating the feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia, for example when ceilings of interior settings were visible in the frame (Silver, 2004:16). Double Indemnity continues to provoke uneasy feelings with low angled shots in the initial scene suggesting that Neff is trapped with no other option but to confess.
The use of high angles creates disequilibrium, for example when a city street is visible far below out of a window (Silver, 2004:16). This type of feeling is also expressed by dimly lit alleyways and shadowy pedestrians in the urban landscape (Silver, 2004:16). The noir style frequently makes use of shadow and unbalanced compositions (Telotte, 1989:17). Off-angle compositions of characters in the frame were used to create the suggestion of an unstable world (Spicer, 2002:47). In Touch of Evil, Spicer (2002:62) suggests that Orson Welles is able to draw the audience into a state of confusion by not including any stabilising balance of scenes.
Touch of Evil was produced after the film noir description was established which suggests that the noir features in this film were used more deliberately. The expressionist style had been developed by using scenes of limitless darkness to create a sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia (Spicer, 2002:61). Welles primarily uses night scenes, which allows characters and shadows to merge together creating a sinister atmosphere. Vargas is unsuccessfully attacked with acid by a shadowy figure.
Hank Quinlan’s own corruption is symbolised in Touch of Evil as he falls to his death into floating waste (Silver, 2004:169). Similarly, visual symbolism is used in Double Indemnity as Wilder carefully constructs a mise-en-scène to provoke meaning that may not always be obvious. The character of Phyllis Dietrichson is given primary importance both in style when she makes spectacular entrances and in the narrative when she manipulates those close to her.
Both Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil share similarities in their visual styles which are heavily influenced by German expressionism. The expressionist style also influences the narrative and themes of noirs. Some of the themes that are expressed in the films are developed through the narrative. Noir stories challenge the conventional linear narrative of other Hollywood films and explicitly state points of view (Telotte, 1989:3). Strategies used are the voice-over, the third person flashback style, and the subjective camera technique (Telotte, 1989:12).
The voice-over narrative technique enables the audience to experience situations through the protagonist. The first person narration allows the audience to identify with the character or narrator even if they are morally wrong (Silver, 2004:20). Telotte (1989:16) suggests that ‘the “I” whose most basic purpose is to provide us with a privileged and personal ‘eye’ on the world’.
Flashbacks are used to introduce the past which is presented from the narrator’s point of view (Silver, 2004:16). This is clear during Double Indemnity as Neff takes the role of narrator in flashbacks through to the present day. The first person voice-over is used as he retells the crime story on the Dictaphone but third person is used in the flashback scenes. Telotte (1989:45) suggests that Dictaphone narration is used to avoid speaking directly, which conforms to the noir ideology of tricks, lies and communication difficulties.
There is frequent use of the subjective camera in noirs which emphasises points of view (Telotte, 1989:17). Welles uses this technique in Touch of Evil in confrontation during interrogations between Quinlan and Vargas where the audience is constantly deciding who is the dominant figure.
Noir films were generally marketed as detective, thrillers or crime melodramas. Audiences were unaware that they were watching anything that was different from the Hollywood genre system. It was only the French critics who coined this term as the films’ dark qualities went unnoticed by audience and industry (Palmer, 1994:6). However, these films followed the crime detective formula as most, including Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil, were based on crime fiction novels. Double Indemnity was an innovative film and perhaps therefore a more authentic film noir. By comparison, Touch of Evil was rewritten into a much darker version that deliberately played on the noir styles. Silver (2004:15) states that noir relies on the element of style not just the content and that narratives are complex and not just icons.
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Literature of the time contained existentialism and psychological matters that promoted the importance of the past reflecting on present actions. This was particularly meaningful given the circumstances of America during the World War and the Depression (Silver, 2004:15). Grant (2007:26) suggests that noirs ‘depict a sense of post-war disillusionment and was a delayed reaction to the enforced optimism of popular culture during the Depression and war years’.
The intended purpose of Hollywood narratives was to confirm the beliefs and values of the audience. Hollywood took a conservative stance within society both socially and politically. Films had to follow censorship regulations where certain principles had to be followed such as poetic justice, unsuccessful villains and restricted sexual liaisons (Palmer, 1994:4). Film noirs, for the most part, complied with these regulations given that they were unnoticeably different. However, they did touch on certain non-traditional themes such as sexual and criminal violations (Palmer, 1994:9).
The French critic Nino Frank (cited in Palmer, 1994:8) described noir having ‘rendered obsolete the traditional detective film’ because noirs focussed on the psychology of the characters rather than the actual crime and criminal.
According to Silver (2004:15), important themes in film noir were classified as ‘the haunted past’ and ‘the fatalistic nightmare’. The haunted past suggests the protagonist’s escape from a traumatic incident as in Touch of Evil or, crimes committed out of passion as in Double Indemnity. Past and present circumstances are mixed within the narrative; the past is real and inescapable and the protagonist has to confront it to seek redemption. This is featured in both Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil. The second theme is the fatalistic nightmare which is based on causality where present events lead to an inevitable conclusion. Good intentions of characters can be overridden when certain factors are taken into consideration. Double Indemnity uses chance and opportunity to commit crime, whereas the structure of society affects situations in Touch of Evil.
Confusion was another theme in noir. It gives a sense of ambiguity to the narrative and a sense of nightmare to the atmosphere. This is conveyed in Touch of Evil when Susan Vargas is resting in the motel and a group of Mexican youths take over which leaves the audience questioning what happened exactly.
Noirs present a bleak vision of contemporary life that was populated by criminals and immoral people; all of which opposed the American ideal (Palmer, 1994:6). The protagonists are mostly male and reflect the disruption to the traditional male role that was caused by the war and post-war readjustments thereafter. Females were characterised as both domestic and bland or as femme fatales. Male powerlessness is demonstrated next to the femme fatale which was a common feeling in post-war society (Grant, 2007:26). However, post-feminist critics suggest that Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity was a strong woman in a male-dominated world where she had to use any kind of weapon, including sexuality, to become an equal (Silver, 2004:16). But ultimately, the femme fatale corrupts the protagonist.
The themes in Touch of Evil also promote the sense of corruption: drug dealing, sex trade and gambling. Touch of evil represents the conflict between true justice and the ‘prevailing norms of justice’. It has a theme of good versus evil where the moral Vargas can progress through the noir world of corrupt police officers such as Quinlan (Conard, 2006:43). Unlike Neff in Double Indemnity, Quinlan is deeply flawed already. Noirs involve moral decision making, the ethics of knowing what is morally right but finding alternatives more attractive. For example, in Double Indemnity a manipulated insurance salesman plots with a married woman to murder her husband to gain financial rewards (Conard, 2006:42).
Double Indemnity contains adultery, cold-blooded killing, insurance fraud and criminal activity that are blamed on a female, which went against the contemporary censorship rules of the time. However, Neff and Dietrichson’s ‘inescapable fatality’ that draws them into crime seems to agree with those rules (Palmer, 1994:9). This is proven as Neff begins his narrations suggesting that crime does not pay (Double Indemnity, 2005): “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?”
The noir categorisation occurred because of the interaction between style, narrative and theme attributions. Noirs were able to branch away from the standard Hollywood product in such a way that it still catered to a large audience but unknowingly contained influences from European cinema. The impact that German expressionism had on Hollywood was remarkable and it is clear that the expressionistic style influenced many subsequent films.
Double Indemnity, the earlier film, was a good example of innovative style both in appearance and narrative and was extremely influential. Touch of Evil was made towards the end of the noir period and deliberately used noir features but to an excessive degree.
Noirs were considered to be a new type of detective crime thriller that subtly changed from the standard Hollywood genre film. They were still able to maintain the industry’s principles by allowing a moral outcome but incorporating a more complex body to the story. These themes reflected the feelings of the American people towards their own society which made the films acceptable. The audience’s need for a new way of expressing the story was met by a different, experimental narrative technique which heightened the impact of the dark qualities in the themes. These influences together with the dramatic, expressionist style established the film noir and give it a unique element in Hollywood.
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