Title: WHAT WAS THE FIRST FILM NOIR ?
Classic Movie Man - November 28, 2007 05:29 PM (GMT)
Which movie would you nominate as the first film noir or does such a movie exist ? I tend to think of noir as a style than specific type of movie. For me the style goes back to the late 1910s, probably most of the elements are there in The Maltese Falcon (1941) even though its "hero" isn't trapped as many noir protagonists are. So what do you think ?
Geoffies - November 28, 2007 05:38 PM (GMT)
24 HOURS (1931) is a great example of what could be called "noir". Set in a strange snow-bound Manhattan with most of the action taking place during the night. It stars Clive Brook, Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins.
Not a film many would have seen but it has been reviewed some time back.
Duke - November 29, 2007 05:39 AM (GMT)
I've seen several people discuss the merits of noir being a style or a genre. I don't really know what to make of them. Film Noir is both a style and a genre. It was a uniquely American thing resulting from the influence of German film makers fleeing Nazi Germany, combined with a rebellion to the traditional unrealistic Hollywood movie. The war brought about a feeling of cynicism and mistrust in authority which Noir presented on the screen.
The visual style sprang from German expressionism, among others. There was also a definite plot style including the inability to avoid fate. Once you fell to the weakness of greed or sexual obsession you were doomed. Nothing you could do changed your fate. You'd only watch as all your efforts failed until your ultimate end. See how it was handled in Brute Force. In The Killing the main character is urged to flee while the stolen loot blows in the wind. His response? "What's the use?". After all his plans failed in order, he knew he was doomed. He just waited for the police. It was all he could do.
Besides fate there were other key plot devices. None of them came together before 1941 and that's the year most film scholars give as the begining of film noir. You can find earlier films with partial noir elements, especially those from Germany, but most consider it to have originated here in 1941 with High Sierra.
markbeckuaf - November 30, 2007 04:53 AM (GMT)
I've also heard a case made for THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR from 1940, with Peter Lorre, but that doesn't have *all* of the elements either. I'm pretty loose with my definition of "noir" though, and I think there is a case to be made for some proto-noir stuff, such as I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG and NIGHT COURT, both from the early 30's.
Duke - November 30, 2007 07:31 AM (GMT)
It's true the definition of film noir is pretty loose. No one actually set out to make a noir film at the time. Directors (mostly) were responding to films they saw and liked, latching on to certain aspects for their own movies. Many years after the era was over the french noticed we had produced a bunch of unique movies and started calling them noir. Sure makes them hard to define since no one had a rulebook to follow. The movies are all over the map in terms of noir elements.
I've got a few books where they analyzed noir films and decided only 4 or 5 true noirs were ever made. Pictures that had all the noir bases covered. That's probably true if you hold them to a very strict definition. Then you have places that call any detective caper a film noir including modern things like Chinatown and U-Turn which are clearly ourside the time frame.
I personally look at the noir aspects to see how many are in the film. If it basically fits in without violating any important criteria, then to me it's film noir.
I basically keep my own list since I've never found a very good one elsewhere. There aren't all that many movies on it either. Of course I've not seen anywhere near all the movies that are candidates but enough to generalize and know most lists are poor. For instance almost every list I've seen includes Pickup on South Street. I love that movie but it isn't film noir. It has a happy ending, the female is honorable and not out to manipulate men, the main character has a change of heart and does a self sacrificing act. He is redeemed. All that totally violates the film noir doctrine. In noir there is no redemption, no happy ending, and everyone is acting selfishly out of greed.
So I guess each person probably has their own definition of Film Noir and the movies that fit within it. Some of those could very well be before 1941.
precoder - December 1, 2007 01:48 AM (GMT)
Good posts Duke ...
I'm in general agreement. Noir is such a loosely defined genre especially since that type of cinema was produced without self-recognition. The term "noir" was assigned later as was similarly "screwball comedy". Precursor elements surely exist in films earlier than 1941 and likewise screwball elements well prior to it's generally assigned 1934 origin ...
Noir to me, are dark and broody urban films, usually lower budget black and white dramas that focus on a pulpy murder mystery or crime case. The characters usually seem gangsteresque and hard-boiled, shadowed under fedoras and trench coats and with lots of secrets. They can run in real-time or in flashback and can also be characterized by having a voice-over narrative, dictating thoughts exclusively to the viewer ...
I understand Orson Welles studied "The Sin Of Nora Moran" (Majestic 1933) specifically as a "precursor type" because it contained so much of the oneiric surrealism he wanted to achieve with "Citizen Kane" in 1941. Claustrophobic, procedural and haunting themes that climax after twisting and bending the plot to near madness, and then leave almost everyone unredeemed and unfulfilled (not to mention dead) in the end ...
markbeckuaf - December 1, 2007 03:04 AM (GMT)
^^I just had to say I really dig that term you used, "gangsteresque"! :)
Duke - December 1, 2007 05:31 AM (GMT)
Thanks for the kind words precoder.
Before I got really interested in film noir I thought of them as old B&W detective movies with lots of hard boiled dialog. It was funny to see the reality. There are very few noirs with detectives. Kiss Me Deadly and Maltese Falcon are there but not many more. Detectives tend to have some qualities of self sacrifice and ethics, which violate the main criteria of film noir. By and large the noir world consists of weak and greedy men led astray by femme fatales or petty crooks trying to get rich. No one has any ethics or they wouldn't be there to start with.
Extreme cynicism along with a nihilistic view of the world and relationships are very much a part of the noir genre too. In fact, they are probably the defining traits of a noir film. More than the harsh photography or fedora hats, it is the attitude of the film that makes it noir.
I'd love to see both yours and Mark's list of noir films. Why not post them?
precoder - December 1, 2007 08:14 AM (GMT)
Well ... "Double Indemnity" quickly comes to mind. But I should humbly point out, I am not a film noir aficionado. I don't watch a lot of those. I actually prefer the silents, the precoders and the musical comedies. I would probably call "The Spiral Staircase", "Sorry Wrong Number" and even "The Heiress" noiry, even if they truly may not be, so I'm not an expert on those ... I've yet to see Joan Bennett or Gloria Grahame in any ... That should tell you something ...
Maybe I stereotype film genre's, but I don't know that self-sacrifice or ethics entirely violate noir criteria. Or even the prerequisite unhappy outcome. It's a very broad brushstroke, this dark underworld, but it seeks some light. Guilt plays heavy in noir. That prevailing tension brought on by feelings of guilt. And then the denials. To convey the guilt to the audience, there must be some intrinsic moral balance, some inkling of righteousness to offset the criminal aspect. I like the sleuthy crime solving detective element ... The Philip Marlowe ...
A television series I remember, "Kolchak The Night Stalker" had noir appeal. He typed fantastic newspaper columns that could never be published because they'd never be believed. And everything happened in the dark ...
Benji ... B)
EMB - December 1, 2007 01:03 PM (GMT)
Depends on what you think 'noir' should be. Visually, a few early gangster films--SCARFACE comes to mind--were early progenitors of the style. But it wasn't until Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON in '41 that one can see that style developing, with the necessary bleakness, sordid human nature, and cynicism take root. But it would blossom quickly, with THIS GUN FOR HIRE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY cementing the aesthetic. When one lists the best noirs--from BRUTE FORCE to THE NAKED CITY, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, KISS ME DEADLY, among others--one understands what noir is supposed to be about. There is room left for variants--CAPE FEAR is noir in its fashion, as are later works like BLADE RUNNER and DARK CITY--but a film must be more than about criminals, cops, assorted riff-raff, and lurid goings-on to be noir. A nor film has to have a certain look, a style that puts it squarely in the genre, visually as well as in spirit.
Duke - December 1, 2007 06:21 PM (GMT)
Most film noir certainly had a look Ed. They viewed lighting and photography as an integral part of the movie and used it to carry the story. Each scene had a carefully crafted look that highlighted the emotional state of the characters. Venetian blinds were often used to cast dark bars across the face, representing the personal prison that character created for themselves. Showing they were trapped. Stark backlighting was used to wash out details and leave only dark silhouettes of people. This stripping away of individualism was a way ro show people pay no attention to relationships. For instance if a man and woman were talking in silhouette they may appear to be lovers but the photography was telling you they could be talking to anyone. One was using the other for personal gain.
Camera angles were extreme and usually very low or very high, throwing the audience off balance and used to highlight the confused mental state of the characters.
All this (and much more) gave those films a unique look. Problem is, it wasn't exclusively used for film noir. I was watching Dead Reckoning again the other day. It has some great noir style photography but nothing else about the movie was the least noir. No one would ever include it in that category. So it isn't enough for a film to have stark expressionistic photography. A huge number of movies have it that are in no way related to film noir. Noir also has to have certain plot elements too.