Archive for category Film Noir
I originally wrote this post for Noir Journal as a guest writer. It’s a great site to check out Noir literature and film.
There is no way to dig into this film’s juicy noir center without giving away some of its surprises so if you’ve never seen it before: some spoilers follow.
If I had to pick one film as an example of a film noir – Out of the Past would be it. It doesn’t just graze each element; it hits all of them – dead center, point blank. When it comes to film noir, if it’s not the leader of the pack – it’s got to be in the top three.
Out of the Past is shot beautifully in black and white. The cinematography doesn’t call attention to itself but helps establish a doomed mood by playing with shadows and light in every scene. Not only will shadows cross and fall over characters appropriately but smoke is also used to create visual tension. Hardly a scene goes by without the characters lighting and smoking cigarettes.
Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Whit (Kirk Douglas) are the heaviest smokers. Jeff especially, is often surrounded in a smokey fog which helps establish his precarious situation. The smoking isn’t always in the background either. When we first meet Joe Stephanos, he lights his cigarette and flicks the lit match at “the kid” at the gas station to get his attention. After one confrontation, Jeff tosses his smoldering cigarette onto the carpet as he leaves the room – to punctuate his exit with a badass exclamation point. At one point Whit offer’s Jeff a cigarette to which Jeff holds up his cigarette and replies, “smoking.” Which is also one of this film’s many great lines of sharp noir dialog.
As the opening credits roll away, we’re placed in the backseat of Joe Stephanos’ dark (presumably black) car. This film opens telling us, we’re about to be taken for a ride. We don’t know who Stephanos is yet but he’s clad in a black fedora and trench coat. He seems like trouble.
He pulls into Jeff Bailey’s gas station and soon, we know he’s trouble because this is when he flicks the lit match at the gas station attendant and asks, “Where’s Bailey?” The attendant is noticeably cautious and points to the outskirts of town. So Stephanos goes across the street to wait at the diner. While waiting, he gets the gossip about Jeff from Marny who runs the diner – who he calls “the ham-slinger” in a small but definitive noir touch.
Next we meet Jeff while he’s fishing with his girlfriend Ann, next to a tranquil, idyllic lake. We’re given the idea that Jeff Bailey leads a quiet peaceful life but we learn he’s traveled a lot – “one place too many.” He loves his girlfriend Ann, a blonde girl-next-door type who is so trusting and so nice that she’s almost unreal. Jeff and Ann are discussing their hopes to get married when the attendant shows up and Jeff returns to his gas station to meet Stephanos.
Stephanos is a henchman for Jeff’s former boss – Whit Sterling. Apparently, this boss just “wants to talk” but it’s clear Jeff feels he has to go back or he’ll never be free. He wants to tie up the loose ends of his past so he can move on (marry Ann, run his gas station and just be left alone). So, he meets Ann to explain the truth.. For starters, his name isn’t Jeff Bailey – it’s Jeff Markham.
Again, we go for a ride. This time we tag along with Jeff as he drives while explaining/confessing his past to Ann – on the way to see his old boss. Through flashbacks narrated by Jeff, we learn why Jeff changed his name and went into hiding. Voice-over narration is very common in noir films. (Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder My Sweet – are predecessors to Out of the Past that use this technique.)
A few years ago, as a detective in New York, Jeff and his partner were hired by Whit Sterling to bring back Whit’s girlfriend Kathie – who shot Whit, stole $40,000 and ran off. Jeff quickly locates her in Acapulco…but he falls in love with her and they run off together until Jeff’s partner catches up with them. All of a sudden, Kathie kills his partner and Jeff finds out that yes, she did steal the money. Kathie runs off leaving Jeff to bury her victim. He changed his name and tried to start over…until Stephanos stumbled upon him, pumping gas for a living in the small town of Bridgeport, CA
As Jeff finishes his story, we’re back in the present and Jeff pulls up to Whit Sterling’s mansion. His girlfriend Ann isn’t the least bit bothered by any of his story and watches pensively as Jeff walks up to the gate which, in another common noir image, looks just like prison bars.
Now we meet Whit again – for the first time outside of the flashbacks. Whit is a very rich gambler, trying to hide his money from the IRS. He doesn’t believe in paying taxes. He explains, it’s “against my nature.” He’s always smiling, even when he’s at his maddest but it actually makes him even more frightening. He seems like the type who always knows something he’s not telling anyone else.
Then, Kathie (Jane Greer) appears. She ran right back to Whit. Jeff at one point tells her she’s “like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.” Kathie is beautiful but is a perfect Femme Fatale – she cares about herself and only herself and it is dangerous to get in her way. She uses her beauty and sexuality to control men and get what she wants. She lies to everyone in some way, at some point. Jeff now hates her.
As for Whit – he seems not to care about the past but Jeff knows better. All Whit says he wants is for Jeff to help him get some tax documents away from a lawyer. That’s it. So Jeff, feeling forced, agrees.
Now this is where the plot gets confusing which is also common in classic film noirs. Often, rather than being totally concerned with explaining the story, they’re concerned with showing us the dark side of people. New characters are introduced. We meet blackmailers, more henchmen, another femme fatale – and Jeff figures out Whit’s intention. Jeff’s being set-up. Whit is going to frame him for a murder. Jeff figures it out but his “timing was a bit off.”
Jeff, like most noir detectives, is very street smart and plays by his own rules. He may have been forced into Whit’s employ but he’s nobody’s fool. In the end, it’s Kathie who really screws things up for him. Her quick-fix answer to everything is always murder and there’s no one left to take the blame for anything. So in the end, Kathie traps Jeff again…but Jeff has other plans. Can he escape her or his past or is it too late?
I mentioned that Out of the Past hits every mark when it comes to being a film noir. But there is one area some critics and historians have called attention to as being atypical. They bring our attention to the multiple settings and say that most noirs take place in the gritty, dirty underbelly of a city. That is often true – but Out of the Past is bookmarked by two of the most common noir cities of all – New York and San Francisco. All of Jeff’s troubles begin when he meets Whit for the first time as a detective in New York. Later, Jeff’s old partner, Fischer, stumbles into Jeff and Kathie in San Francisco. This leads to the murder of the partner, Jeff’s escape into hiding and Kathie’s return to Whit. A few years later when Jeff is called back into Whit’s service – he spends one chaotic night in San Francisco – trying to stay one step ahead of the frame Whit’s constructing around him. Maybe it is odd to see idyllic settings like Acapulco or the sweet, small town of Bridgeport, CA in a noir – but they serve an important purpose that goes straight to the core of noir values. No matter where you are – bad things can happen and no one is to be trusted.
The dialog in this movie is exceptional for noir style. Rather than a few great lines, every scene has something cynical and gritty to take away from it. Someone could probably write a noir quote book just from this film. This exchange is not only a great example of Out of the Past’s noir script; it is also a good illustration of the perspective of so many noir “heros.”
Kathie: Oh, Jeff…I don’t want to die.
Jeff: Neither do I baby, but if I have to I’m going to die last.
This is a great film for anyone who loves Noir and/or classic film – it’s a wonderful example of both.
I usually write about a single movie and actually, that’s what I started with but I kept rambling on about Film Noir so I decided to dedicate the post to it entirely. Warning: This post just kept getting longer and longer.
If you’re not quite sure what film noir is or means, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Even the experts can’t seem to agree on it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? Is it a movement or a period? There are some fascinating and convincing arguments for all of the above. It’s one of my favorite film topics because no one can agree – it sparks some good articles, essays and books because naturally, everyone thinks they’re right. I’m no different…so, here’s my two cents…
First, to define exactly what a genre is. Here’s a definition straight from Dictionary.com:
Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
Naturally, after I looked that up I was curious to see their definition of Film Noir:
Film Noir: a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
(This illustrates my earlier point completely – they’re technically calling a film noir “a motion picture” – they avoided the debate by not saying “a style” or “a genre” or “a movement”…cracks me up)
Anyways, I agree with their genre definition. With that said, I personally believe that Film Noir is a sub-genre. It’s not an out and out genre all by itself – like Drama, Comedy, Musical, Western, Romance, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, etc.
Instead, a Film Noir is like an off-shoot of the big genres. Using the genre definition above – a film noir does have a particular form, content and technique so it does meet the definition BUT – no one set out to make film noirs in the 40s and 50s. They were making mysteries and thrillers and detective films and dramas…no one making these films set out to make “a film noir.” That term wasn’t coined until AFTER many of the movies we call Film Noirs were produced.
So, in other words, Film Noirs can be classified as a genre because they all share specific characteristics but they were originally classified in other genres – and still hold to those other genre’s definitions. Thus, I call them a sub-genre.
Now, if you don’t know, you’re probably wondering where the term came from and why it was after many of the movies were made. This historical aspect is a big part of why I love them so much. They were an unintentional byproduct of the time and along with Westerns, are the only other uniquely American genre.
During WWII, American films were banned in Nazi-occupied France. Once the war ended, the French and the very influential French film critics got to see the whole backlog of American movies they missed during the war. Rather than seeing the movies spread out over several months and years the way American audiences did, the French saw them in rapid succession. Because of this, they picked up on something that no one in America did. During the War, many of our films became dark – and they became dark in all senses of that word. The French critics began referring to these films as “noir” which is the French word for black.
So how were these films “noir”?
These are general explanations. Obviously each film is unique and follows these “rules” a little differently or follows some and not others but, in general, this is how it is:
If you’re like your films with a happy ending, Film Noirs are not where you’ll find them. The stories always have a criminal element. Murder and blackmail are the most common plot devices. The characters are often just one step ahead of the law – trying to frame each other or come up with an acceptable ‘fall guy.’ Often, the plot in these stories can be very convoluted – the plot doesn’t always matter. In a detective story for example, traditionally the story is all about how it happened and the plot is very important. But in a detective film that’s also a noir, the story is more about why. Noirs tend to be very interested in psychology or human behavior.
The settings are almost always urban – the cities are concrete jungles: cold, callous and unforgiving. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the most common. Most scenes take place at night, in the dark because that’s when the characters of Noir come out. Their business is always transacted at night. During the day, they’re inside. The only sunlight to be seen comes in through the blinds, casting prison-like bar shadows over everyone. This leads to the next noir characteristic….entrapment.
Noir characters are often trapped somehow. Sometimes they’re forced to do the things they do or feel they have no choice. Usually, they accept their fate – often they know or at least sense that they’re doomed.
Another popular theme is greed. People do bad things for money. These films like to show that.
Noirs have an extremely distinct style. Most of them are in black and white which adds to their sinister look and feel. The lighting is done in a way to create many shadows. Noirs are heavy on symbolism. One character might always be in the light, another might always be in a shadow. I mentioned blinds casting prison bar shadows earlier. Also, wrought-iron fences or gates cast bars over the characters – we’re constantly bombarded with imagery that tells us, they’re trapped or there’s no way out. The characters have distinct styles too. The men always smoke and usually drink heavily. The smoke adds to the visual style – clouding out whatever speck of light makes its way into a scene. The men usually wear suits, often pinstriped. When they go out, they wear a trench coat and a fedora. The women dress elegantly – gowns, gloves, jewels, impeccable hair and make-up. The script is full of razor-sharp wit, dripping with cynicism.
Common Noir Characters:
Femme Fatale: Definitely the most famous character type. So famous, the French coined a term for her too: “The Fatal Woman.” She’s beautiful, mysterious and can make normally level-headed men, fall for her instantly. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants and men are there to do her bidding. She’s cold and calculating. Every move she makes is for herself. The men who fall for her, figure it out way too late. They’re bad people but feminist film theorists make some good points that the Femme Fatales were some of the first strong women on the silver screen. When all the men were overseas, the women went out, got jobs and kept things running. They became stronger members of society than they ever were before. The Femme Fatales aren’t good but they are independent women. Some theorize, these strong women helped make these movies even more unsettling to the men in the audiences. These women were out in the world with the men – they weren’t home baking, cleaning or raising children.Duped Man: This is one of the guys that falls for the Femme Fatale. He’s a regular guy who crosses paths with a gorgeous woman. She gets him to do something for her and soon, he’s in too deep to ever get out. At first, he loves her – soon, he knows he’s been ‘a sap.’
Tough Guy: This is the other guy that falls for the Femme Fatale but unlike the duped man, this guy – often a detective, is a little too smart to fall all the way. He’s very smart. It’s clear he’s had a hard life where he needed to be smarter and tougher than the other guy. His past is always mysterious and usually implied to be questionable. He doesn’t trust anyone completely and is often a man of few words. When he does speak, it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. Deep down, he might be a good guy but something or someone has led him astray. Now he’s just trying to survive. He hopes to get out but doesn’t put much stock in hope.
Rich Sophisticated Bad Guy: The ‘boss’ of the henchmen is quite often a rich and sophisticated man. Like the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the rich guy uses his money to get others to do his bidding. He’s charming and charismatic – but definitely evil or at least no good.
Nice Girl: She’s usually the girlfriend of either the tough guy or duped man. She often represents an unattainable peaceful life. These guys love her but feel bad for dragging her into their mess of a life. Then the Femme Fatale comes along and she gets brushed aside. Ever faithful, she waits for her guy to see the light but often is left behind. She’s too good for them and they know it.
Hired Gun: Usually a very young guy – inexperienced but quick to put a bullet in someone to prove he’s tough. The real ‘tough guys’ have fun pushing this kid around. But, this kid is usually psychopathic. He isn’t really tough or smart – he just wants people to think he is and tries way too hard. He’s only dangerous because he’s trying to prove himself. If he’s not a young guy, he’s still not really any good. He’s like a big dumb henchman and often gets killed off or made to play the fall guy.
As I mentioned, Noir scripts are full of razor-sharp lines. Here are a few of my favorites:
Out of the Past (1947)
Kathie Moffat: I don’t want to die.
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.
Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.
Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.
Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation…
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?
Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.
Waldo Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.
Waldo Lydecker: My dear, either you were born on a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?
Walter Neff: I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.
Johnny Farrell: Pardon me, but your husband is showing.