film noir.This is a term coined by French film critics in 1946 to designate a particular type of American thriller film. After the liberation of France in 1944, which saw the lifting of the ban (imposed by the occupying Germans) of the importation of American films, French screens were inundated with Hollywood products, including a new type of thriller. By analogy with the label given by the French to categorize hard-boiled detective novelsroman noirthe term film noir was coined to define this new-looking film. The film noir, predominantly a B movie, is often referred to as a sub-genre of the crime thriller or gangster moviealthough as a style it can also be found in other genres (for example, melodrama, western). This is why other critics see film noir as a movement rather than a genre. These critics point to the fact that, like all other film movements, film noir emerged from a period of political instability: 1941-58, the time of the Second World War and the Cold War. In the United States this was a time of repressed insecurity and paranoia: the American dream seemed in tatters and American national identity under severe strain. As a result of the war women had moved into the workforce and had expanded their horizons beyond the domestic sphere; at the same time men were removed from that spherewhich they had controlledto go and fight. The men's return to peacetime was a period of maladjustment: what had 'their' women been up to? where was their role at work and in the political culture generally? and what had they fought the war for, only to find the United States involved in a new kind of hostility based in suspicion and paranoia? So the question of national identity was also bound up with the question of masculine identity.
Rather than a genre or movement it might be safer to say that film noir is above all a visual style which came about as a result of political circumstance and cross-fertilization. The various claims, therefore, to a single heritage are not really in order. The French claimed a first with Marcel Carne's Le Jour se leve (1939)a very dark film; the Americans believed they had strong claims to the honour with their thriller films of the 1940s (for example, arguably the first one, John Huston's Maltese Falcon, 1941). Certainly the visual codes given to express the deep pessimism of the French poetic realist films of the latter part of the 1930s (exemplified by the work _of Carne, Julien Duvivier and Jean Renoir) were in part antecedents to the film noir. But so too was the 1920s German expressionist style in so far as the distorted effects created by lighting, setting and use of shadows reflected inner turmoil and alienation so associated with film noir. However, it would be political events that would complete the cross-fertilization. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the threat of war increased and anti-Semitic pogroms continued, a considerable number of European film-makers and technicians fled to America, more particularly Hollywood. The most significant impact was made by the emigre film-makers who had worked in Germany and who were associated in one way or another with German expressionism. Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, Richard Siodmark, Otto Preminger, Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls are but the most famous names.
There are three main characteristics of the film noir which emanate from its primary founding on the principle of contrastive lighting: chiaroscuro (clair-obscur/light-dark)the highly stylized visual style which is matched by the stylized narrative which is matched in turn by the stylized stereotypesparticularly of women. The essential ingredients of a film noir are its specific location or setting, its low-key lighting, a particular kind of psychology associated with the protagonist, and a sense of social malaise, pessimism, suspicion and gloom (not surprising given the political conjuncture of the time). The setting is city-bound and generallv a composite of rain--washed streets and interiors (both dimly lit), tightly framed shots often with extreme camera anglesall reminiscent of German expressionism. The cityscape is fraught with danger and corruption, the shadowy, ill-lit streets reflecting the blurred moral and intellectual values as well as the difficulty in discerning truth. Characters are similarly unclear, as is evidenced by the way their bodies are lit and framed: half in the shadows, fragmented. The net effect is one of claustrophobia, underscoring the sense of malaise and tension. The protagonist (according to classic canons the 'hero' is a male) is often side-lighted to enhance the profile from one side and leaving the other half of the face in the dark, thus pointing to the moral ambiguity of this main character who is neither a knight in shining armour nor completely bad (interestingly the prototype for this characterization goes back at least as far as Edward G. Robinson's gangster portrayal in Little Caesar, Mervyn LeRoy, 1930). He usually mistreats or ignores his 'woman' (either the wife, very much tucked away out of the city, or the moll with the golden heart who invariably sees the 'truth') and gets hooked on a femme fatale who, more often than not according to the preferred reading, is the perpetrator of all his troubles (see Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder, and Murder My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk, both 1944). This 'hero' is often obsessive and neurotic and equally capable of betrayal of his femme fatale. The ambiguity of his character is paralleled by the contortions of the plot, whose complexities seem unresolvable, particularly by the hero, who, until the very end, seems confused and unclear about what is happening. In this respect, film noir is about power relations and sexual identity. The power the femme fatale exerts over the hero is his own doing, because he has over-invested in his construction of her sexuality at the expense of his own subjectivity. He has allowed her to be on top because of his own insecurities about who he is.
But that's only half the story, because film noir is not so clear-cut in its misogyny. Film noir gives a very central role to the femme fatale and privileges her as active, intelligent, powerful, dominant and in charge of her own sexuality - at least until the end of the film when she pays for it (through death or submission to the patriarchal system). In this respect, she constitutes a break with classic Hollywood cinema's representation of woman (as mother/whore, wife/mistresspassive). These women are interested only in themselves (as the frequent reflections of them in mirrors attest) and in getting enough money, by all means foul, to guarantee their independence. By being in contradiction with the ideological construct of women, such an image construction makes readings against the grain eminently possible. As Janey Place (1980, 37) says, as far as these women are concerned, 'It is not their inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous and above all, exciting sexuality'. These women are symbols of 'unnatural' phallic power: toting guns and cigarette holders like the best of the mento get what they want. They move about easily in traditionally male spaces, bars, etc. They might even dress like men with their very tailored suits with broad shoulderpads; or they might slink out of the shadows, thigh-first, dressed in clinging sequinned evening gownseither way they are mysterious, ambiguous and deadly (guns and looks can kill). In both instances they are empowered by their sexuality. (Examples are Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang, 1944; Gilda Charles Vidor, 1946; Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich, 1955).
Ultimately film noir is not about investigating a murder, although it might at first appear to be. Generally speaking, in the film noir the woman is central to the intrigue and it is therefore she who becomes the object of the male's investigation. But, as you will have guessed, it is less her role in the intrigue that is under investigation, much more her sexuality because it is that which threatens the male quest for resolution. The ideological contradiction she opens up by being a strong, active, sexually expressive female must be closed off, contained. That is the diegetic trajectory and visual strategy of film noir. However, there are obvious difficulties in containing this woman. And this is reflected by the narrative strategies inherent in film noir. There is, as Gledhill (1980, 14) points out, a proliferation of points of view. Whose voice do we hear through these multiple discourses each telling a story? Who has the voice of author/ity? The devices used in film noirvoice-over and flashbacks (which primarily privilege the male point of view), diegetic narratives issued by different characters (the woman, the police, the private eye)are just so many discourses vying for dominance. In the end, film noir is about which voice is going to gain control over the storytelling andin the endcontrol over the image of the woman (Gledhill, 1980, 17). This struggle occurs both between men and between the man and the woman, but, more importantly what this struggle foregrounds is the fact that the woman's image is just that: a male constructwhich 'suggests another place behind the image where woman might be' (Gledhill, 1980, 17). Food for feminist thought, but not the director's cut! There has to be closurewhich means implicitly a closing-off of the ideological contradictions that such a suggestion makes plain. And in the end, closure does occur, but at a price. It is the male voice (that of the Symbolic Order, the Law of the Father) that completes the investigation (see Imaginary/Symbolic). However, as the multiplicity of points of view that prevailed until the closing moments show, guilt is not easily ascribed to only one person. Because of the lack of clarity it is not quite so easy to 'Put the blame on Mame, boys'.
There are contextual reasons for this struggle for dominance. As Janey Place (1980, 36) says, myths do not only mediate dominant ideology, they are also 'responsive to the repressed needs of culture'. Thus, in film noir this construction and subsequent destruction of the sexually assertive woman must be viewed within the economic and political climate of the 1940s and 1950s. I have already mentioned the repressed insecurity and paranoia respective to the political climate of those two decades. On the economic front, thanks to the Second World War, women went into work in the 1940s in huge numbers to help the war effortand in many cases did so by replacing 'their' men who were at war. By the end of the war, these formerly independent women were being pushed back into the family and the domestic sphere. The film noir challenged the family by its absence and so did the film noir woman who, as sexually independent, contributed to the instability of the world in which the male protagonist found himself. The 1940s film noir was, then, an expression of male concern at women's growing economic and sexual independence and a fear of the men's own place in society once they returned from war. The 1950s film noir functioned to reassert the value of family life not just so that the men could get their jobs back but so that national identity, so much under siege in postwar United States, could be reasserted. We see here how film noir articulated the repressed needs of American culture. Furthermore, the masochistic sexual fantasies implicit in the threat the femme fatale poses for the male protagonist are, in this respect, tied up with questions of (male) identity. But they are 'nothing' really in relation to the sadistic closures designed for the woman: death, being outcast or being reintegrated into the family. [from Hayward, Key Concepts]