During the world wars many parts of the world missed the thrill of American films. France, being a contributor to both wars, was shielded from American films. Following World War II, on the fall of Hitler, American films were available. After the liberation of France in 1944, the ban on importation was lifted and Hollywood products inundated French screens. The French, seeing the films they had missed witnessed the dark-cynical attitudes and pessimism that had crept into the American cinema. Film noir is a French term, baptized in Paris, for black film. Film Noir is not a genre, but rather represents the tone, mood or style of a film. Due to the darkness evident in the Hollywood crime dramas, corrupt characters and fatal themes, French critics influenced by Nino Frank applied the term to Hollywood films.
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The film noir period stretches from 1940 to 1950 and is regarded both as Hollywood’s best periods and least known period. It portrayed the world of dark and slick cities, and crime and corruption in the forties and fifties. The moods featured were melancholy, bleakness, ambiguity, desperation and paranoia. Examples of films produced during the film noir period, according to the National Film Registry noirs, include: The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage (1947), The Naked City (1948), Fear in the Night (1947), Out of the Past (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) etc. Film noir can be divided into three phases. The first, 1941-1946, was the phase of private eye and solidarity. Films associated with this period are: The Maltese Falcon, Laura, The Dark Mirror etc. The second phase, 1945-1949, was the phase where films were centered on the problems of crime in the streets, corruption and police routine. Films in this era include: Kiss of Death, Boomerang, Raw Deal, Dead Reckoning etc. The final phase, 1949-1953, was the phase of films filled with socio-path tendencies, psychotic actions and suicidal impulse. These films included: White Heat, Gun Crazy, D.O.A., and They Live by Night, Where the Sidewalk Ends etc. (Schrader, 1972, p. 12).
The characters are seen by the camera’s eye as immersed in a fight for their survival, pursuing lifestyles that are misogynistic and duplicitous. They are hard-hearted, cynical and disillusioned; especially the male characters. The female characters were portrayed as promiscuous, seductive and double-dealing. She would seduce and manipulate the male character into becoming the fall guy, at the end she would die. Some of the male stars include: Robert Mitchum, Fred MacMurray and Humphrey Bogart. The female stars include: Mary Astor, Veronica Lake, Jane Greer, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner (Cohan & Hark, 1993, p. 66).
The film noir period was marred with Hollywood’s depiction of masculinity. Hollywood films accorded men a high status compared to their women counterparts. The values of masculinity were the dominant social values forging the American economic power. During the film noir period, Hollywood stopped investing its male heroes with triumphant values and social responsibility. Instead, Hollywood’s male heroes acted as solitary repositories of ideals lost in the society. The male hero embodied a wider view of the dynamic nature of the American culture (Smedley, 2011, p.151). Film noir emphasizes on the destruction rather than the redemption of the characters. They also emphasized on the dark, brutal and sadistic sides of the human experience. They were usually shot in gloomy grays, whites and blacks (Naremore, 2008, p. 66).
The Noir heroes share qualities such as moral ambiguity, alienation from the society at large and constant smoking as depicted by the hard-boiled detective; the stereotypical noir hero. They range from mere drifters to professors, including conflicted detectives, cops, government agents, private eyes and socio-paths (Hayward, 2006, p.133). For example, John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) by Tony Garnett, Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944) by Lang and Humphrey Bogart (as private eye Sam Spade) in The Maltese Falcon (Hare, 2003, p. 96). The most popular heroes of film noir include: Mike Hammer played by Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly, Jeff Bailey played by Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, Private eye Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, Private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939), Walter Neff played by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944), Officer Hollis played by Jack Webb in He Walked by Night (1947), Joe Sullivan played by Dennis O’Keefe in Raw Deal (1948), Joseph C. Gills played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958), Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Stranger on a Train (1951), Orson Welles as Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai and Dana Andrews as Detective Mark McPherson in Laura among others (Scott, 2011, p. 4).
Some of the most famous and prominent directors of film noir include: Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Citizen Kane (1941), Journey into Fear (1943) and Touch of Evil (1958), Otto Preminger in Laura (1944), John Huston in The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep (1946), Anthony Mann in Raw Deal (1948), Carol Reed in The Third Man (1949) and D.O.A. (1949), Fritz Lang in Magnum Opus (1931), The Big Heat (1953), Scarlet Street (1945) and Human Desire (1954), Robert Siodmak in Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City and The File on Thelma Jordan, Michael Curtis in Private Detective, Mildred Pierce, Life With Father and Bright Leaf, Edgar Ulmer in Detour (1945), Douglas Sirk in Shockproof (1949) and Magnificent obsession (1954), and Henry Hathaway in Kiss of Death (1947) and Niagara (1953) (Internet Movie Database, 2011).
In regards to the above, some of the greatest of early and classic film noir include: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Notorious (1946), Out of the Past (1947), The Lady From Shanghai (1948), Beyond the Forest (1949), Gun Crazy (1949), The Third Man (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), and Vertigo (1958).
Recently, film noirs have been released in this modern era and have been refurbished for present day fashion. The directors have employed balance, significance, coherence and satisfaction to develop filmmaking (Perkins, 1993, p.116). These are referred to as “Post-Noirs” and include, among others: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Naked Kiss (1964), Bonnie And Clyde (1967), Chinatown (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Blade Runner (1982), Pulp Fiction (1994), Collateral (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Sin City (2005), and The Departed (2006). Cinema is about illusion; making present what is absent. It creates a sense of reality out of selected sounds and images. Film noir captured this and today’s filmgoers and filmmakers are fascinated by film noir which is reflected by the recent trends in American cinema (Corrigan, 2007, p 63).
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