Origins of Film Noir

Origins of Film Noir


Welcome to Filmmaker IQ – today we dive into seedy underbelly of Film Noir. Film Noir, it’s a term coined by French
Film Critic Nino Frank in 1946 which literally translates into “Black Film.” But defining
what makes a film FILM NOIR isn’t so easy. The stereotypical film noir features a fedora
sporting gumshoe and a femme fatale being chased in urban landscape. But there are many
noirs that don’t have private eyes or killer dammes and take place in the suburbs. Unlike gangster films, there are no character requirement for noir. Nor is there location requirement
as in a Western. No far fetched Science Fiction, No song and dance as in musicals, and certainly
no super heroes with magic powers. So without a rigid definition – noir may be
best to described as a feeling through visual styling of low key lighting and story conventions. Since there is so little to define noir, understanding
it requires us to look at noir in the context of history and technology. We’ll pick up the story in the 1930s – the
Great Depression Era in American history. Building on advancements in filmmaking in
the 20s that added sound, better black and white photography, and smaller and more controllable
lighting the Big 5 Hollywood Studios were honing their production and distribution methods.
It was boom times for film – Going to the movies was a way for an economically devastated
country to escape their troubles and by 1939 there were 15,000 movie theaters in the United
States, more than the number of banks. The 30s was also the beginning of Technicolor
in motion pictures – bringing beautiful color to the blockbuster films like Wizard of Oz
and Gone with the Wind. But the technology of color was still relatively young and the
three strip color process required massive amounts of lighting – these epics were expensive
and took a long time to make. Rather than sink all their eggs into the financial
success of these blockbuster spectacles, the studios used “Block Booking” a system
which was perfected by Adoph Zukor and Paramount during the silent era. Here’s how it worked. In order for independent
theater operators to get the rights to showing the big A-list films, they would have to buy
blocks of films from the studio which included the A-list films as well as a mix of less
desirable B-list films often shown at the bottom a double feature. At the height studio
era, these blocks could include up to a hundred films – an year’s worth – purchased blindly
by the theaters before they even went into production. By leveraging their power over the A-list
movies, the studio was able to guarantee a profit on the B movies because they were being
charged at a flat rate.. The more B films they made, regardless of quality, the more
money they could make so long as they kept the cost down. They needed a lot of stories to tell, Gangster
films, westerns, sci-fi, horror, and of course, pulp fiction crime stories- which would serve
the basis for many film noir. Even though quality wasn’t the top priority
for the executives, no filmmaker sets out to make a bad film. And because their financial
success was relatively insured, a certain level of experimentation was allowed. Through
this low budget studio filmmaking the film noir style emerged especially for the crime
genre, based greatly on German expressionism brought over by artists escaping the Nazi
threat in Europe and pursuing a career in Hollywood. That Nazi threat would materialize into the
Second World War. The carnage had left many feeling disillusioned and numb – a common
theme in film noir. The war also advanced filmmaking technique as many of the cinematographers
returning to Hollywood had served in the military as documentary filmmakers. The war brought
better technology, they had faster more light sensitive film, better and more compact lighting
instruments and weren’t afraid of shooting on real locations – all of which contributing
to the look and feel of film noir. These filmmakers were dealing with serious
issues of murder, sex, and crime but they were bound by the Motion Picture Production
Code commonly called the Hays code which censored taboo subjects. This forced the filmmakers
to be more suggestive rather than explicit in their filmmaking – hiding the ugly business
in the shadows of the scene. These forces culminated into the classic era
of film noir – studios padding their blocks with low budget b-fims, low key lighting greatly
influenced by German Expressionism, characters with a sense of nihilism caused by the lead
up to and aftermath world war two, and a restrictive production code. But as with anything the world keeps changing
and the era would come to an end. In 1948, the Supreme Court of the United States
put an end to Block Booking in the court decision United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc. et
al using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Studios immediately cut back on the number of B-movies
produced as their distribution method had to change- how B-movies were made and their
audiences would change along with it. Many filmmakers were laid off, but they found work
in a new medium – Television. Television kept audiences at home and away
from the movie theaters and established a new style. I Love Lucy which used a lighting
setup devised by Karl Fruend of Metropolis fame, eliminated shadows on set so that footage
from a live multi-camera production could be cut seemlessly. This flat even lighting
look created for technical purposes ironically by one of the great cinematographers from
the German expressionist era was a stark contrast to the moodiness of noir lighting and it became
a stylistic norm, copied by television shows even to this day. Film continued to battle television for audiences
introducing widescreen aspect ratios, higher budgets, and more risque material which ultimately
led to the abandonment of the Hays Code by the late 60s. In terms of technology, color film continued
to advance so by the end of the 50s, color film was becoming much more practical. The
techniques of using harsh backlighting in film noir to create separation in black and
white film wasn’t as necessary as differences in color could easily provide that same sense
of distance with color productions. There’s no better way to get a sense of
film noir than to look at a few defining films of the classic era. Let’s start with what
many consider is the first true “noir” film: Stranger on the Third floor from 1940 Directed by Boris Ingster, written by Frank
Partos and Nathaniel West and lensed by Nicolas Musuraca, Stranger on the Third floor tells
a story of a newspaper reporter whose court testimony was used to convict a murder suspect.
But he’s having doubts about the conviction especially after he finds his neighbor dead
under similar circumstances. Masuraca’s visual style in this B-film would define the
look of film noir- especially notable is a brilliant German Expressionist inspired dream
sequence as the reporter imagines his own false conviction. I’m telling you I didn’t do it. Ladies and
Gentlemen, you’re the jury. Please believe me, I’m innocent. There was a man in the hall
– a stranger he…. Why aren’t you listening to me? Please you honor! They’re not listening. Make them hear me – they’ve got to. Defendent will refrain. I didn’t kill him, I didn’t! You can’t convict
me! Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, have you
reached a verdict? GUILTY! But I’m not guilty. The stranger killed him.
There! There he is. Another essential noir: Double Indemnity directed
by Billy Wilder in 1944 Photographed by John F. Seitz and written
by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity tells the story of an insurance
salesman involved in a murder plot on his lover’s husband. Though certainly not a
B-movie in production and cost- both Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were A-list
celebrities, you can see a lot of the elements of film noir coming into play, as Billy Wilder
brought his German Expressionism influences to Seitz’s cinematography. Hello baby. Anybody else in the house? Nobody, why? What’s that music? Radio up the street. Just like the first time I came here isn’t
it? We were talking about automobile insurance. We were thinking about murder, I was thinking
about that anklet. What are you thinking about now? Moving in the 50s is Joseph Lewis’s The
Big Combo released in 1955 Written by Philip Yordan and Photographed
by John Alton, the Big Combo was a low budget B-picture that defied many of the taboos of
the time including violence, sex, and homosexual characters. It tells the story of police lieutenant
Diamond’s unwavering pursuit of a sadistic crime boss Mr. Brown. Extremely Controversial
at the time was this suggestive scene where Mr. Brown demonstrates his mastery over his
girlfriend Susan. Susan tell me c’mon – what’s bothering you? I hate and despise you. Susan. What are you trying to do, drive me
bats? What do you want Susan, tell me. I’ll give you anything you want, tell me. Nothing Nothing. Coming in at the tail end of the classic Film
Noir period is Orson Welle’s 1958 film Touch of Evil Cinematography by Russell Metty and written
by Orson Welles, A Touch of Evil takes place in a small border town where a car bomb has
killed a prominent building contractor. Mexican Narcotics Officer Mike Vargas played by Charlton
Heston, visiting on his honeymoon, gets entangled with an investigation led by a crooked cop
Captain Hank Quinlan played by Orson Welles. Even though the forces that created the elements
of film noir may have changed, like a certain style of music, film noir will never completely
go away. After the classic era, noir elements would find their way into all genres and budgets
– an endless well that filmmakers continue to draw from. Forget it Jake it’s Chinatown It seems you feel our work is not a benefit
to the public. Replicants are like any other machine. They’re
either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem. May I ask you a personal question? Sure. Have you ever retired a human by mistake? Sombody phone Guiness, I think we have a record here… You are confused aren’t you? Frightened – it’s
alright, I can help you. Who is this? I’m a doctor.Now you must listen to me. You
have lost your memory. There was an experiment. Something went wrong, your memory was erased.
Do you understand me? No I don’t understand. What the hell is going
on here? Just listen, there are people coming for you
even as we speak. You must not let them find you. You must leave now. Hello? Are you there? No hay banda! There is no band. This is all a tape recording. No hay banda
and yet we hear a band. If we want to hear a clarinet – listen. They got this guy in Germany. Fritz something
or other. Or maybe is Verner – anyway. He’s got this theory: you want to test something
you know scientifically – how the planets go around the sun, what sunspots are made
of, why the water comes out of the tap, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you look
at it, your looking changes it. You can’t know reality what happened or what would have
happened if you hadn’t stuck in your goddamn snoze Excuse me miss, wonder if you could help me.
Looking for somebody. Problem is a night like this everybody’s looking
for somebody stranger. It’s not like that. The name is Nancy. Eyes to the stage pilgrim, she’s just warming
up. I took Gotham’s white knight and I brought
him down to our level. It wasn’t hard, you see madness as you know is like gravity, all
it takes is a little push. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface
of everything that is film noir – it’s a massive and important style made possible
by compact lighting technology, faster film, German Expressionism, a studio system’s
appetite for low budget films, and the part in each of us that loves a dark story. It’s
all connected, every bit of it contributing to the well of our shared past and understanding
– so use it, let it inform your filmmaking and go make something great. I’m John Hess
and I’ll see you at FilmmakerIQ.com

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Thematically, Christopher Nolan has a lot of film noir influences in his body of work from Memento to Insomnia.

  2. These videos are superb . I think with some youtube publicity this channel could get a stable 50000 views per vid

  3. Thanks for posting. Liked it. Favorite in that genre is Blade Runner and The Big Sleep. Seems like the dialogue in noir is as interesting as the themes. There are some great lines in The Big Sleep.

  4. This video was better than expected. Thank you for the posive advice at the end, and the editing in the begining was top notch!

  5. Great presentation john. Been following you on FB for a while and watching your videos here and there. Always a pleasure to see your view. 

  6. Please can you do a video on the history of gangster or crime movies would love to learn about them and you seem to explain movies well

  7. I gather you make these videos for film students, maybe? I'm no film student, just a big fan of movies, and your vids are great. Loves me some noir. You mentioned Batman fims; the better of the Batman-related TV shows are also heavy on noir, including "Batman: The Animated Series" from the 1990s and the current "Gotham". TAS especially, since animation means you can exaggerate the noirish elements like crazy. Both series also deliberately play with anachronistic technology to you can't really figure out what decade it's supposed to be. In Gotham people have cell phones but they are all driving 1980s cars (like a Scorsese gangster film), and in TAS the designs are all art deco and there are computers with black and white monitors.

  8. I'm sure you guys are very aware of how immeasurable and priceless your contribution to students everywhere is and how much you give back by providing us with these brilliant and concise tutorials. Thank you. 

  9. I have never commented on a video ever.! Even though Im using YouTube for quite a few years now.. But you sir..you just made me want to thank you..not a film student.. But great lover of film.! Please keep doing the great job.. We need people like you.

  10. What was the first film that showcased the stereotypical monologue backed by piano and saxophone?

    "It was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But on the 12th floor of the ACME building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. Guy Noir, private eye."

  11. Wow ,"Mr. John P Hess."
    My IQ actually increasing after watching Youtube?
    Thanks and the "Femme fatales" so fricken hot, just stunning!

  12. hot diamonds, cold hard cash dirty coppers, clean getaways stand up guys, low down rats two-timing dames, only one way out
    This is film noir. " What's your angle, sister? "

  13. Let's put the word "noir" to rest . . . the overuse, misuse, and pretentious use is irritating, even though here it DOES apply, let us declare that this word will now be out of style, along with "genre" and other flapdoodle. Anyone else feel the same?

  14. Funnily enough Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which ironically takes place in the heyday of noir), and even The Big Lebowski have major elements of noir woven in the fabric of its narrative

  15. The latter day examples seem more horror than noir. There is a difference. Also, the more modern, the more overstated and obvious seems to be the rule.

  16. How'd you de-sat your skin tones without taking away from the color of your tie? Was that just an automated post-production thing, or is there a trick to manipulating the color saturation with the lighting?

  17. at 11:26, you say, "coming in on the tail-end" after the famous tail-end scene from the "Big Combo" is played. Well timed?

  18. I was constantly wondering if you're going to show Sin City and sure enough there it was. Keep up the good work. Cheers 🙂

  19. Apart from the really nice lighting, it's a bonus that we don't get to see the autocue reflected in your glasses…

  20. I have in depth posts on my Blog about why this genre is affiliated with so many French Words.

    http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-french-history-of-femme-fatale.html

    http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-mysteries-of-gotham.html

  21. Motion picture production code is abbreviated as MPPC, so is the motion picture patents company. Not surprising, they are both annoying.

  22. I find Film Noir very satisfying, and find it works very naturally with other genres such as Sci-fi, Crime, Period Pieces, Comic Book movies. Many of my favourite films are noir or influenced by it, such as Blade Runner, Chinatown, LA Confidential, Brazil, Dark City, The Third Man. There's something about that is malleable and doesn't date.

  23. So, would Casablanca be considered Noir? It used low lighting, was made as part of the studio system, I think it was originally considered a B-List movie, had a hard-bitten protagonist, and a forbidden love affair. But it's also a patriotic romance, so would this still fit?

  24. I’ve heard someone refer to film noir as a “cycle” rather than a “genre” and I think that works better. If film noir is a genre, why do we count anything from the 60’s onwards as “neo-noir”? How do you define it? Calling it a “cycle” places it in a historical context and removes some ambiguity.

  25. https://youtu.be/fZdeWdmEsrc this is my recent short film in filmnoir style, which was appreciated by roger deakins

  26. Film Noir is also a vert flexible genre. It can incorporate elements of other genres, as shown by the two examples of Blade Runner (SF) and The Dark Knight (comic).
    One of my favotire type of Noir is Western Noir, like the movies No Country For Old Men and Hell Or High Water.

  27. Man this is the third time I've watched this one all the way through and it gets better every time. On a channel of truly exceptional videos, this is one of the best.

  28. Great video. I'm posting this on my Facebook movie page. I made my, crazy classic movie page on Facebook as a way for me to save links like old film Noir movies and total b-movies, and not have to subject my friends on Facebook to see all these posts. It's not a very popular page but I got about a hundred sixty followers. So I think this video is a good educational tool for anyone who doesn't know about film Noir. Really well done and great history

  29. What about M? It's a German film released in 1931 staring Peter Lorre. I'd say it ticks all the boxes for film noir.

  30. In the French usage and meaning film noir means "dark film" not black film. Dark doings in big cities, psychologically and/or of the heart, criminal of course, and after dark. ✌

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