The notion “film noir” appeared during the time between the Great Depression and Cold War. It reflected the mood of that day America. This genre includes films from 1940s till 1950s, which were telling the story of difficult and pessimistic modernity with its criminal world. It was the time of cynicism and hopeless pessimism that penetrated into American cinematography. Such dull mood was particularly typical for detective thrillers. In the post-war years in the Hollywood films the lighting became darker, the characters – more vicious, the intonation – more hopeless and the plots more fatalistic…
Films noir became popular as they embrace important themes and motifs. In particular, they describe the life of people in the cruel world. Moreover, there is typical only for them the craft and way of reality reflection. Films noir were made for entertainment and were profitable. They described fear, disappointment and solitude of American society long before the Second World War. Surely, the events of the Second World War also influenced the themes of these films. So, the generation of this genre could begin with immigration of the European directors that created a new film. The names of the first film noir directors should be mentioned: Jules Dassin, Fritz Lang and Abraham Polonsky.
“Black” films are not a separate genre in cinematography. They can be described as reflection of the mood or vision of the world. These films received such name only after the classic period. Film directors did not even use any terminology like “noir”.
There are several typical features of the films noir. First of all, melancholy, estrangement, paranoia, guilt, crimes and moral decadence are the main themes. The main characters were anti-heroes who were portrayed in the roles of detectives, police officers, criminals, political figures or villains. These heroes did not have moral values because of tedious and difficult life full of crimes, murders or corruption. They were cynical and cool-headed, often reserved and dangerous. They tried hard to survive in this world.
The setting usually develops around cruel, cynical, disillusioned male hero, who meets licentious, attractive, amoral woman. This femme fatale uses all her charm and seduces the main hero, which leads to his moral decadence. It usually happens after a cruel murder. However, femme fatale was of two types. The first one is a reliable and loving woman. The second one is seductive, witty, amoral and rapacious woman. Usually, the main hero tries to leave his dark past and strive for better future. Thus, he often has to make his choice. He meets all the wishes of femme fatale. Such deeds of the main hero usually lead to a murder or crime. The only reason for such devotion is distorted love or passion. Femme fatale with her arch and dangerous actions leads to decline of the man.
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The plot of such films is often complicated and intricate. The narrative is often supported by music and interrupted by frequent flashbacks. There are truculent and smart dialogues between the heroes. Voice-over narration often confuses spectators, because it intensifies the situation. Spectators do not know whom to believe: the heroes or voice-over narration. Furthermore, films noir were usually shot in black and white or grey colors, which reproduce the dark sides of heroes. Special attention was given to cameras, especially to lighting, menacing shadows, entangled camera angles, constant smoke, etc. The action usually took place in the night urban areas with deep shadows, wet roads and gloomy parks or alleys, in cheap flats or hotel rooms, abandoned plants, etc. Besides, there appears a special image of cool detective. He is cynic and reserved; his actions and thoughts allow him to be detached from the world of emotions and romanticism.
One of the most popular films noir is Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston. The spectators are left with depressed impression having watched the film. This film is a mixture of a thriller, detective story and romance. Maltese Falcon has twisted and intricate plot which begins with a lie. Bridgid O'Shaughnessy comes to private detectives Sam Spade and Miles Archer with her problem. Thus, she turns to be always lying and entangling the reason of her addressing Sam Spade. The story develops with a sudden murder of Miles Archer.
Sam Spade is an independent detective, cool-headed and wily; his dialogues are sharp and smart; he has his own ethics and seems to be living according his rules. It seems as if he follows the wishes of Bridgid O'Shaughnessy, but he has his own plan and set of actions. Finally, despite his romantic feelings towards this woman, Sam calls the police and hands them a murderer.
All the heroes were trying to find out where the black bird is. Some of them have been trying to find it for fifteen years. The others were searching for it, because it could solve this tangled situation. Unfortunately, statuette appears to be a fake. Nobody makes profit of the situation.
The character of femme fatale is one of the most interesting in this film. Mary Astor plays irresistibly. At first she appears to be a gentle unprotected woman who needs defense and support. But, as the plot develops, the audience watches her transformation into a cunning deceitful woman who is capable of a murder.
Maltese Falcon is a typical film noir. It has all the features characteristic of that genre. All the characters are pursuing their personal goal and are able to use all the methods to achieve it. The only positive hero in the film is Spade’s secretary, who has no interest in that case. She seems to be the only person whom Spade can trust. The others are playing their own intriguing parts.
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Another well-known film noir is Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder. Except for this stunning film noir, Billy Wilder also directed many other famous films. Among them are numerous comedies and love stories. They are: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Seven-Year Itch, The Lost Weekend and others.
Double Indemnity has an exciting and fascinating plot, which grasps attention of the audience and keeps it in tension till the end of the film. The book Double Indemnity, written by James M. Cain in 1935, was a background for this marvelous film. The film tells the story about Walter Neff, successful insurance representative, who becomes engaged in love and crime affair with Phyllis Dietrichson. They make up a plan to kill her husband and get a double indemnity. However, according to the rules of genre the things do not go the way they were planned.
The film and the book have much in common as well as some differences. The main difference about the book and the film is the names of the heroes. Moreover, in the novel Lola’s boyfriend, who is better known to the reader as Barton Keyes, tells his story and the way he got acquainted with the widow. That’s how the reader gets to know about Phyllis’ dark past and murders. In the film, on the contrary, Nino appears several times and the spectator does not know much about him, just about his connection with Phyllis. Furthermore, in the book it is written that insurance salesman feels attraction to Lola while in the film there is nothing said about this.
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Finally, the endings are different. The novel ends up with Huff’s confession which he was writing for five days and later sent to Keyes. They had an agreement and Keyes let him go. He was sailing near Mexico shores knowing that he was never able to come back to America. He noticed that he was not alone. Phyllis was behind him. Now, she was not as beautiful and charming as at first sight. She reflected those killed children and others murders. It was ‘Irrawaddy cobra’ – the way Keyes called her. They had no future and they were thinking of suicide.
The film ends up with Walter’s confession he was making in Keyes’ office. He told about everything and that he killed Phyllis. He hoped to die before anyone would know the truth. Thus, Keyes came early to his office. He called the police and ambulance.
The film has an interesting beginning. It starts as if from the end. The voice-over narration makes the atmosphere more tense and suspicious. Femme fatale is an incredibly beautiful woman – an angel from the outside and evil inside. Neff did not even know that she could be so cruel and cunning.
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Double Indemnity is a perfect film noir. It embraces all the features of the genre. The structure of narration is very unique. The hero confesses of a murder. Thus, the story keeps attention of the audience till the end of the film. Moreover, we become witnesses of planning and performing of an ‘ideal’ crime. Additionally, the great play of the main heroes, constant feeling of depression, work of camera and shadows allow to create the atmosphere of deadlock.
Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity are considered to be the first of the finest films noir. They possess much in common as belong to the same genre. First of all, similar use of lighting and shadows can be observed. Femme fatale characters are marvelous. They follow the rules of the genre. Women in these films are menacing, arch, perfidious and mercenary. They are as well beautiful and attractive, seductive and alluring. Bridgid and Phyllis manage to rule men and make them satisfy their wishes. Consequently, men degrade and become victims.
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The background and setting in these films noir play their role. The music, voice-over narration, scenes in the dark streets or rooms, smoke and shadows are vital for making the atmosphere exciting and thrilling. Lies and deception make lives of the main heroes doomed. Pessimism, melancholy, murders and moral decline is what unites them.
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