The History Of Film Noir

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Calcutta 1947
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The Origines

The noir films occurred in America during the war, and continued to be made during the forties and fifties, but it did not come out of nothing. The noirs were inspired both by literature and previous film history along with the sociohistory of the period it grew out of. In America in the thirties there was a literary tradition called hard-boiled novels. These were crime novels and so called pulp fiction, and very popular. The American hard-boiled fictions represented a completely different world and a different kind of detective than those found in english and earlier detective stories; both content and style were differentiated. This kind of fiction added a new tradition of realism to the detective fiction. The hero was as much an anti-hero, the action was taken down on the streets, it was violent, and the language was cut short and it was often marked by verbal wit. Instead of upper-class "detectives", we are now introduced to the proletarian tough guy detective that are walking the mean streets, and often he finds himself on the edge of law and crime. Contemporary America is described as an urban and industrialized area where people are in the hands of naturalistic drives. Many of these works were adapted to the screen, such as the works of Hammet, Chandler, Cain and McCoy to mention some, and many of the authors were hired by Hollywood as screenwriters. Obviously thishard-boiled fiction had a considerable influence on the film noirs.Another thing that influenced the noir was the film traditions of German expressionism of the twenties and French poetic realism of the thirties. The German expressionism was a expressionistic and conventionalized film style, where the aesthetics were marked by distortions and exaggerations. It had a world wide influence and the filmmakers of America sought to integrate this popular stylistic style in their own movies. 
The French poetic realism was a film style where poetic conventionalization were combined with realistic topics and milieus. Also the american gangster movies were an inspiration for the film noir. All of these movie styles have in common the description of a dark and fatalistic image of the world. This is something we find in thefilm noir as well. From these movements the film noir could gather inspiration, and alongside this, Hollywood received quite a lot of émigrés with roots in these movie milieus in Europe during the prewar years. The émigrés took jobs in different parts of the american movie industry, both as technicians and as directors. Thus they also made a contribution to the society and heritage that film noir emerged from.
In a Lonely Place 1950
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The Noir Aesthetics

Even though the "noir style" did not represent something completely new within Hollywood film making I find it necessary to give an introduction to the noir aesthetics, because this is something that thenoirs have in common. Even if the stylistics had been used in earlier movies, the combinations of these expressions and techniques was to some extent new in american movies and to the american audience. One of the techniques used was the low-key lighting which causes the effect of obscuring the action, and deglamourizing the star so that the composition becomes more important than the actor. Earlier American movies had focused on the star. The use of night and shadows emphasizes the cold and the darkness in the noirs. The change of focus from the actors and movement in the image to the compository excitement underline a fatalistic and hopeless mood. This mood is also fortified through a complex narration, often disjuncted and fragmented. To do this flashbacks are often used, which emphasizes the feeling of lost time and despair. According to Paul Schrader time is manipulated because the form stands above the content. In the narration voice-over is also often used , and in connection we sometimes get to see the end of the film in its beginning. This is also an unconventional use of the time notion that call forth a feeling of predestination and irrevocable past.

The wide-angle cinematography participated in making the space distorted and the audience disoriented. In film noir we also find a repeated use of an image composition where the lines no longer are horizontal, but vertical and sloping. This gives an unsettling impression. In the noirs the world often seems like a prison, something that these images along with the use of image metaphors like sun blinds help to underline. We also find an extended use of extreme low and high-angle perspectives.

All of these stylistic elements served to disorient the spectators and create a mood of uneasiness, alienation and loneliness in the movies. Thus, the dark and uneasy visual expression of the film noirsemphasize the themes.

Mildred Pierce 1945
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Women In Film Noir

Generally in art there are two archetypal female characters; the whoreand the Madonna. In film noir we are introduced to both of these women: the dark, sexual and active spider woman and the maternal virgin. To give a meaningful presentation of the women's role in film noir I will first give you a short reminder of how the traditional family was viewed, and which values it represented in the world of movies in the forties and fifties.The institution of the family reveals significant social values and beliefs. It functions as an ideological cornerstone of our society with its embodiment of traditional values. It represents the framework for reproduction, because marriage is the only institution that legitimates reproduction. Marriage at the same time both legitimates and conceals sexuality. Married couples are the only ones that are allowed to enjoy the erotic, but they are rarely presented as sexual partners or in any other ways erotisized. With breeding follows the upbringing of children which responsibility traditionally is lain on women. From a feminist point of view these practices of oppressing women are seen to be legitimated by this representation of the family institution. This image of the family, where the man is the family's head and ruler, is also a legitimizing model of a hierarchical and authoritarian society. Here the family can be seen as a metaphor of society on a larger scale. Thus the representation of the family institution in movies contributes to legitimize different social values, among other things the value of the family institution as a social unit, the ruler role of the man, the domestic role of women, and the total dependence of children.

In film noir the family relations are not normal. In some ways the noirsare based on the absence of the family. If a family, or more likely family relations are represented they are often broken up, filled with mutual hatred or in other ways perverted. The movies often concern themselves with what the loss of these family values and satisfactions can lead to. Marriages in film noir are often described as boring and sterile or non sexual. Because of this twisted family life, both men and women seek satisfaction outside marriage in film noir. This satisfaction is not only sexual, but also an attempt to reassure and find themselves in this confused and threatening society, an escape from the frustrating routine in an alienated existence. The violation of the marriages and traditional family values often results in destruction for the violators. In this manner both pleasure and death await outside the family institution. The family represents an antithesis to thefemme fatale. I think that instead of showing and offering women an alternative to the traditional family life, film noir shows what happens if one chooses to stand outside the traditional values of the patriarchal system.

The dark, strong femme fatale of noir is the main female character in these movies. These women are given not only sexual powers, but also ambitions. They are longing or looking for independence, often economic, and freedom, often from relationships with men. These women that are masters and possessors of their own sexuality represent a danger to the males. She is--because of her ambitions and independence--a threat to the patriarchal system. On account of this she gives the males a feeling of alienation from his environment, and she must be punished for this to restore the patriarchal balance. Thefemme fatale is promiscuous, exiting, intelligent and narcissist while her opposite is the boring, but stable wife and mother. The virgin is capable of total devotion to the male, something that the sexual woman is not. The former is thus described as the ideal role for women, and it fits in well with patriarchy.

The sexual women's power and strength are visually expressed in the films, both through the iconography of the image, and through the visual style. It is often the woman that dominates and controls the camera, both because of her own strength and because of the male heroes attraction to her. Thus other participants become static within the image. But in the end when she is destroyed, she also loses her physical motion in the picture.
The dress code is also applied as her appearance defines her moral transformation. In Mildred Pierce for instance, she is dressed up in more manly clothes during the film and her own development. These women also use for example cigarettes and guns for phallic symbols, something I view as an extension of their bid for masculine powers. Filmaticly, the woman that represents an alternative to the dark world of film noir is often placed outside this world.

The spider woman uses her sexual powers in the quest for reaching her own ambitions. The mere possession of such ambitions is unheard of for a woman, and represents a danger to the male. She is a dangerous woman and the males own sexuality along with the patriarchal system are threatened. The only way to control her is to destroy her, something that happens in most noirs. Even though she is destroyed, it is her vital, deadly strength we remember.

Rififi 1955
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The Male Protagonist

In film noir the male protagonist is often a detective or an otherwise social alienated individual. Sometimes the male heroes are featured as amnesiacs, a situation that absolutely creates a feeling of social estrangement and disillusionment. These hard-boiled heroes are anti-social loners that are subject to existential angst. The environments they live and work in are dark and scary metropolises, often red-light districts, or otherwise dehumanizing environments, like large desolate office buildings. They are experiencing anonymity through their large scale surroundings. The tough guy is often marked by an excellent gift of verbal wit, even if they are not always given the strongest intellect; this is a heritage from the hard-boiled novels. Their worlds are dominated by crime, corruption and cruelty. The protagonist often gets tangled up in some of these activities himself, in addition to his interest in the erotic. Thus, he lives in a distorting world.The men are, as well as the women, portrayed as stereotypes. As a result of this they are not allowed to live their lives in alternative ways anymore than women. The patriarchal order that is surrounding them, and that they in addition to women are trying to upheave, represents a certain set of rules they have to follow and live up to. As it seems, the patriarchy is asking for quite a bit. The struggle to keeping women in their place also keeps the men in their places. The men can not show much emotion in order to upheaval their masculinity, (to be emotional is regarded a female virtue), and they have to work alone and be successful in what they do (something Oedipal). They have to seek meaning in activity, not in contemplation which also is regarded a female virtue. Their position within the patriarchal system provides them with purpose in life; to work, provide, protect and serve and protect the patriarchy. The first three virtues must be seen in the context of the family and the masculine.

The existence led by men in film noir is one of toil and loneliness. The actual choices men have in life are either to become a family man, which is the accepted thing to do, or not. Because of the way women are defined in these films, life as a married man would doom him to a domestic life, with a dull domestic woman. There would never be excitement or individual thought. So, the male must do all the thinking, and becomes surrounded by a deading conformity. For thefilm noir men and women are all the same: they are nobody. This must produce a non-interesting heterosexual relationship. So the reason is clear why the male protagonists becomes obsessed and fascinated with the femme fatale. A life outside this patriarchal determined role is a life of destruction in a closed and claustrophobic world. He is victimized by society, and perhaps also by a woman, and expresses the awareness of the loss of the fixed ties that bind a man to a community. The similarities between different male protagonists in different films are underlined by the mere fact that most noirheroes/actors were cast against type.

The sexuality of the hard-boiled hero is a question often brought up infilm noir research. A consequence of the noir females masculine characteristics is that feminine characteristics are attributed to the male. This is why the noir male is humiliated and reduced. Because of an underlying misogynous attitude, females are not suitable objects, except for the women that make the noir male dull, and who offers an existence without emotional and sexual commitment. At the same time as women do not represent a tempting alternative, patriarchy has made homo sexuality taboo. What remains for the male hero is male friendship. (In America male bonding intensified during the war). It's a tough world.
Out of the Past 1947
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Film Noir And Contemporary America

The national identity of a country is based on different myths and ideologies. In the nineteenth century pre-industrialized America, democratic equality was based on the universal ownership of property. At this time America was an agrarian society, and this ideology led-- among other things--to the westward expansion. During the early twentieth century America changed from an agrarian to an industrialized society. In the 1920s, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in the country. Even if the way of living changed and people formerly owned property now received pay-checks, the myths stayed the same. It was only after the Depression that these myths disappeared. Film noir shows a transitional stage in American ideology, when the American identity changes from being pre-industrial to a mass consumer society with an industrialized corporate state. At this point in American history there were no new myths available, and the national identity was in crises. During the war America saw a massive mobilization, and one of the driving powers behind this was the common goal of the nation. The national unity was one of the powers behind this mobilization, the country work as a group instead of as individuals. This prospect of unity disappeared in peacetime, and led to disillusionment in postwar America Film noir can be seen as both a screen style, and a perspective on human existence and society. Its narrative structures incorporate a dark world view that is the result of a confrontation with nihilism. The cause of nihilism, in short, appears when peoples ideals are shattered. In the twentieth century tradition could not cope with the social development, and this causes a moral problem (which is easy spotted in film noir).
This is what happened to the American population in the 1940s. Earlier the Americans had been free individuals and masters of their own destiny, but in postwar America people became tied up by an economic and political system out of their control. Fortune seemed to control the field. Nietzsche said that, if a world view one has put down effort to preserve and that one has believed in, is falsified, it will give man the suspicion that all perceptions of the world are false. From this it is not short step to take in order to say that the basis of human existence is irrational and order is an illusion, a thought, or truth, most people are not strong enough to handle. A way to fight the anxiety these thoughts, or knowledge, create is to hide oneself in the quest for material wealth or power. 
At this point my thoughts go to the affluent mass consuming society of the United States. Another thought is that maybe the country as a whole, not just its bourgeoisie, tried to fight nihilism with materialism, for the willingness to annihilate the world before giving up its political system must be called nihilism. I think it can be safe to say that film noir is an American attempt to engage this phenomenon.

The themes of film noir touch many aspects of life, but they all revolves around the destined being. The protagonists are hostages of fate and seem partly unfree and powerless. Fate runs the shop, and the heroes of film noir are willing to buy. They act as if they are masters of their own lives, but still let it show that they know they are not. The male hero is disillusioned and alienated from his surroundings.
I think that this is something the audience could relate to in the forties and fifties. The new society of gigantic cooperation's created a feeling of powerlessness among the workers. He who had been his own boss earlier in this own small scale business , now had become one of many pay-check collectors. This alienated mood in film noir can be seen as a reaction to the large, impersonal, dehumanizing cooperation's of the new consumer society. I view the hard-boiled heroes disillusionment as a reaction to contemporary Americas loss of old myths and identity.

The way women are presented in film noir I find rooted in the fact that in America during World War II women had won access to the economic sphere, which field had formerly been exclusively for men. This creates a problem, not only in the noir world, but also in the real one. The females patriotic duty in the work force, led to a redefinition of their place within culture. A consequence of this was a confusion in regard to the traditional conception of sexual roles and sexual identity, an identity that had been non-practicing during the war because of the separation of the sexes. The female entry to the male dominated world made the American male lose track of his position within a society he formerly controlled. The war dislocated men from their former sense of being the prime movers of culture.

The family, or absence of it, in film noir is valuated with negativity. It is possible to view the family as a metaphor for the larger society, and its negative value as social discontent. In film noirs the rebellion against a traditional valued institution like the family often ends with destruction.

Movements within the medium of film--like the German expressionism--occur as an answer to a national crises. If the noirphenomenon is seen as a movement--and it partly is--so did film noir. In postwar America there are threats like the Red scare, the resent emerged from global war, extended borders, widespread crime and violence, and the possibility of annihilation. 
Personally, I would call this a crisis. Film noir tries to deal with this crisis in its own way. It shows the dark and desperate mood of this era, even though some people threw themselves into the materialistic race to forget. 
I think the audience of the time were distressed watching noirs, because they could identify with these movies. Still, I do not think that the noirs are not so much rebelling against contemporary America, as trying to get it back together. I do not think that noirs offer alternatives, but that they show what happens if one defies the traditions (i.e. the view of women and family). America at the time was confused and film noirs were merely searching for answers.

Pickup 1951
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Film, Censorship And Historic Research

The relations between film and culture, or film and ideology, have been found in various ways. One of these is to view film as mirrors of the dominant culture in which they are made. In this aspect movies are attributed documentary qualities, and a reflectionary relationship is created between movies and society. Applying this theory a problem occurs; i.e. both optimistic musicals and film noirs were made in America in the forties. Which of these are the accurate reflection of American society? The conclusion must be that the use of this mirror term or reflection metaphor is just not good enough. It is unsatisfactory because it overlooks the many variables that movie making consists of. To make a movie one has to deal with a system of selection and combination, both different and competing cultural aspects, and industrial and institutional factors have influence on a movie production. A feature film does not reflect the truth; it shows a constructed and narrated world. In order to create this world, it has to regard the conventions, rules, myths and ideologies of the society from which it was born. In addition the medium itself has restrictions.There are more satisfactory methods to use in the analysis of film and culture. The use of methods from other fields of research have added valuable tools to the field of film research. In general there are two ways of approaching the relation between film and culture; textual andcontextual. The textual approach to the film medium concentrates on the film text to read the cultural function of film. This method tends to focus on similarities and typical texts rather then the opposite, and this gives the method structuralist tendencies. It also tends to work by tracing the mythologies and ideologies in the film back to sources within the culture; it is based on the assumption that the film text consists of certain determined rules, and that the culture author this text. An example of this approach is the work of Paul Schrader on film noir, and the way the subject of women in noir has been treated. A contextual approach on the other hand is more interested in the analysis of outside determinants in the film industry, such as cultural, political, institutional and industrial factors. All of these factors are elements that have influence on the production of a movie, and a movie text. In the study of film and culture the best result would perhaps come from combining these two techniques since both deal with themes relevant to these studies.

Film institutions have political interests that determine which films are made, and which films are seen by an audience. One of the reasons for this is found in peoples identification with the nation. Nationalism functions as a tool to value the nation over the individual, so that if one accepts this nationalism one subordinates oneself to the nation. The idea of the nation sets a set of rules of ethics and moral, and thus defines what is American (in this case). If one possesses this identification one can gain political power. In this aspect it becomes important to control the arts, (because art are representations of the nation), so that it have coherence with this idea. Art--in this case movies--can represent different viewpoints on the desirable homogeneous image of the nation state. This multiplicity is of course not wanted, and thus there are tried methods of controlling this.

In America in the forties and fifties, measures taken to prevent un-national activities. Within movie production there was the Production Code and a bit later, HUAC. The Production Code was a set of censorship regulations governing the Hollywood productions. It laid down rules for what the movies were permitted to show. It labeled issues like nudity, the use of drugs, homo sexuality and so on taboo. Still film noir deals with several of these subjects, its messages are hidden within the movies. Sometimes this prohibited material is showed off screen, cast in another form with the message barely concealed, or in other ways disguised. In this manner there existed a Hollywood self censorship. In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee started their investigation of the film industry. This committee won political influence, and the questioning of the status quo was labeled un-American. This was a subject dealt with by the film noirs.

Sunset Boulevard 1950
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Conclusion

In the previous pages I have tried to discuss the film noir phenomenon rom a cultural perspective, and I am sure you will agree; it is an enormous task. But on the basis of what I have done so far, I will say that the answer to the question asked in the title--Does Film Noirmirror the culture of contemporary America?-- is both positive and negative. Negative in the sense that to use the mirror metaphor in research concerning film and culture is not adequate. 
In addition there will never be only one culture stream in a country. There may be a main current, but in postwar America this is difficult to determine. 
So, even if film noir does not mirror contemporary American culture, it certainly dealt with subjects closely related to american society at that time.
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