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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Film Noir and the Latest New Announcements

With the best of the summer now behind us, I hope to return to a more regular schedule for these columns. To start things off, the recent release of a number of films noir has prompted me to provide some background on this movement. (Much of the information presented is drawn from the film noir books of Alain Silver.) I'll also be providing some recommendations concerning titles already available on DVD and reviews of Image's Too Late for Tears and Warner Bros.' Film Noir Classic Collection. Naturally, there's also the regular update on new classic announcements to round out this week's column.


Film Noir

The term "film noir" is usually attributed to cinema enthusiast Nino Frank in 1946, and arose because French critics identified a number of American films reaching France after World War II as having common themes and styles. Many of these films were based on the novels of the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain - detective fiction that the French called "noir", or black. Hence the "film noir" designation. Since that time, film noir has continued to pique the imagination of film critics and analysts. Debates still rage over whether film noir is a genre or a style or a movement, whether it has an auteurist component, whether it has a Eurocentric basis because of the many European expatriate directors who worked on such films in America, whether certain more recent films can be correctly identified as film noir, and so on. One has only to scan through the many film noir books on the film literature shelves of any good bookstore to appreciate the various points of view and heated positions on them that abound. Like much of film literature in the academic rather than pop realm, one must be prepared for needlessly obtuse writing in many instances. Generally, however, one cannot go wrong with some of the efforts edited by Alain Silver and his co-workers. His Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style in association with Elizabeth Ward, and The Noir Style in association with James Ursini are excellent starting points. Of course, one can always look to Barry Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride for a more informal approach and one that generally derides the convolutions of excessive academic analysis - a point of view with which I and any true lover of classic films have a certain sympathy.

Ultimately, it's not very important whether one chooses to call film noir a genre or a style or a cycle or whatever. After all, it's the enjoyment of the films that's paramount. Personally, however, I lean towards referring to such films as a cycle. There were a number of factors present in the years between the two World Wars that gradually converged, allowing individual film noirs to blossom. The end of the Second World War provided the conditions appropriate for such films to reach their zenith. As a result, the main film noir cycle is usually taken to be the period from 1945 to 1957, although there were certainly important films noir released both before and after those years.

Among the various factors, hard-boiled detective fiction has already been mentioned. The likes of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe who sprang from the pens of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler respectively were world-weary men who saw themselves as constantly at odds with society, suspicious of or disillusioned by its members whether they be representatives of a corruptible law enforcement establishment or untrustworthy clients with supposed injustices needing correction. This disillusionment is one of the main characteristics of film noir. Films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) owe most of their film noir pedigree to this factor. The hard-boiled detective also introduced the dominance of the urban environment to such films.

A second important factor was the American gangster phenomenon along with its criminal organizations. The gangster films of the late 1920s/early 1930s and the genre's revitalization in the late 1930s/early 1940s provide some of the titles that are commonly regarded as early examples of film noir today - City Streets (1931), Beast of the City (1932), High Sierra (1941), and This Gun for Hire (1942). One might ask, why these titles and not numerous other gangster films of the same era? The answer lies in film noir's concentration on fate and its often unexpected intervention in the otherwise rational order of everyday life. The protagonist in High Sierra, for example, is driven to his doom by such twists of fortune rather than some excess of his own.

The third key factor was the influx into the United States of foreign filmmakers before and during World War II that provided one of the main components of film noir - its visual style. The likes of Joseph von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger introduced the components of German expressionism that can subsequently be found in virtually all films noir - from low-key photography to moving cameras, shots from unusual angles, reflected lighting taking advantage of wet surfaces or shiny objects, and so on. Some of these directors' early American films are considered film noir examples (von Sternberg's Underworld [1927] and Thunderbolt [1929], and Lang's Fury [1936] and You Only Live Once [1937]) and many of their later ones are key entries in the genre (Wilder's Double Indemnity [1944], Preminger's Laura [1944], Siodmak's Phantom Lady [1944], and Ulmer's Detour [1945]. The interesting thing is that even when these directors were not involved, the style they introduced seemed to dominate no matter what the studio or who the filmmaker. RKO, for example, was the studio that became most identified with film noir. One may perhaps attribute this to its experience with the making of Citizen Kane (1941), for that collaboration between director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland (which owed much to German expressionism) seems to have inspired the studio's filmmakers to utilize that duo's lighting and camera techniques in RKO's later films.

With an expressionist style, the disillusionment of the hard-boiled detective and powerless gangster, and their natural urban setting as key ingredients combining to create many of the early film noir classics, the end of World War II added another class of disillusioned individuals - the veterans returning to civilian life. Many were unable to deal with the return easily, due to the emotional and sometimes physical changes that combat had caused. Relatively speaking, society was unchanged, but these individuals were greatly altered so that what had seemed acceptable before, now seemed irrelevant or even perverse. Further such individuals were often ordinary men, distinct from the larger-than-life detective and gangster figures that had dominated film noir to that point. The theme of an ordinary guy out of step with society was manifest in tales rooted in alienation and obsession that provided all sorts of grist for the film noir mill.

The end of the war also saw the rise of other contributing factors including McCarthyism and the threat of nuclear war (both providing the atmosphere of fear that film noir often portrayed), the demise of the B picture (with block booking no longer possible, films had to stand on their own merits and film noir contained the ingredients for films that appealed to audiences and hence pulled in the exhibitors' interest), and technical advances in the film industry (the location shooting that characterized much of film noir benefited from advances in film stock and more portable camera equipment and power supplies). As a result the years 1945 and 1946 are often viewed as denoting the real beginning of the film noir cycle. The cycle's heyday would last until 1957.


A Film Noir Listing

The following chronological listing of film noir covers the period up to 1965. Films released thereafter which have occasioned debate as to whether they should be classified as film noir include, among others, the likes of Point Blank (1967), Marlowe (1969), Dirty Harry (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Body Heat (1981), and The Grifters (1991). Included in the listing are a number of B titles from the likes of Monogram, Eagle Lion (EL), Film Classics FC), and PRC, although it is likely incomplete in this respect. Of course, many of such films are open to debate as to whether they're real film noirs or simply cheaply made suspense films or whodunits. Included also are several westerns with noir sensibilities (such as Pursued [1947] or Colorado Territory [1948, a western remake of High Sierra]). For the 474 titles listed, the year 1947 has the most releases with 54, but it or any of the two or three years before or after offer strong credentials to be the year with the highest caliber of noir releases. RKO was the most prolific distributor with 62 releases, closely followed by United Artists with 59. Note that those films available on or announced for DVD in Region 1 are highlighted in Yellow. Titles on DVD in Region 2 but not in Region 1 are highlighted in Green. The DVD company source is noted. For those titles in the public domain and available from multiple companies, only the source known or believed to supply the best-looking version is listed. Recommendations are provided for those releases offering a superior mix of film quality and DVD presentation.

Click here for the Film Noir Listing (zipped Word.doc file)


On to Part Two

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