There is a tome on my desk. The Dark Page: Books That Inspired American Film Noir, 1940-1949. It was published in 2007 and was written by Kevin Johnson with a foreword from screenwriter Paul Schrader. It is beautiful and its pages drip with film and literary references, long-forgotten book covers and film posters, and it offers fascinating insights into this key period in Hollywood history. To wrap up our recent look at the 1940s I’d like to examine the origins of film noir.
I adore film noir. I adore what it stands for and I adore the sheer ferocity and breadth of its output. As a concept film noir is misunderstood, probably because we think we know what it means, and what captures its essence. If I asked you to name three iconic examples of film noir I am sure you could. I am also sure that if you knew that my examples would include Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science fiction classic from 1956, you might be surprised. Actually, I am not alone in my view. In his introduction to The Dark Page Paul Schrader also cites this film as a classic example. And he should know, he penned Taxi Driver.
In the early 1940s, filmmaking took a different course to that which audiences were used to experiencing. Out went the melodramas of the 1930s and in came darkness, shadow and weird camera angles. Global audiences had manifestly different experiences of this new style. In the US, American cinema-goers drifted unknowingly, albeit consciously into film noir. Films in the early 1930s were upbeat, a response to the Great Depression. Gradually though, given the shadow cast by WWII, the majority of film output at the turn of the 1940s was dominated by war stories. War stories and war films are dark. War is horrific and unforgiving yet it is also dominated by a sense of good and bad. Or at least it was in the 1940s, less so, perhaps, now. Hollywood output during this time was characterised by darkness, shadow and raw emotion, but also by right and wrong. The drift into film noir is subtle but one clear difference is that noir blurs the lines between right and wrong. You are never entirely sure who to believe and who to cheer for. That can make watching films in this style uncomfortable as they force us to engage on a different level. Fatalism dominates film noir, as do ordinary characters, people like you, people like me. No superheroes, no archetypal bad guys up against dashing and clever good guys. What you get is a view into your own world. That means you are forced to confront your own susceptibility to the events that occur on screen. Cinema trends in the US drifted audiences from the feel-good stories of the 1930s, to film noir of the 1940s via a diet of war stories.
In France, the heartland of WWII, there was no such drift. From the point of German occupation in 1940 American films were banned. When they returned they looked completely different from what French audiences were used to seeing. The term film noir was born out of the French reaction to their new cinema diet.
The term, as I mentioned, is commonly misunderstood. Firstly it probably isn’t a genre, but rather a style and examples of its use can be found in virtually every genre, from westerns to science fiction films. Secondly, for a film to be noir it does not have to contain a detective, despite the vast quantity of films that adhere to this rule. Thirdly, its existence as a style was relatively short, lasting just 20 years. What went before was an antecedent and what came after looked completely different. For a start, what came after was in colour. This is where the debate gets quickly to its purist roots.
For a film to be noir, it must be in black and white. Discuss.
We could probably fill these pages with a debate about this one issue, but it is worth reflecting on it for a while. Modern versions of noir stories, LA Confidential is a good example, have their film interpretations filmed in colour. Films from the 1940s did not. The Dark Page is full of the book covers and film posters of the time and they are in colour, but the films themselves were shot in black and white. The industry was not immune to the economic realities of the age and towards the end of the 1940s, the US Justice Department ruled that film studios could not own film theatres. During the divestiture that followed the opportunity for independent film producers was enormous. Film theatres were suddenly independent and could screen whatever they wanted, rather than what the studios dictated. Before this happened the studios which were most successful were those that had pursued noir stories. Only MGM refused to follow the trend and was still producing the feel-good films of the 1930s well into the next decade. The others saw the potential of noir and the quality of the output in the early 1940s was astonishingly high. Following the Justice Department’s ruling the quality dropped, and by quality, I mean production quality, not enjoyment factor. Independent producers looked at what was popular and they copied it. What they did, however, was to spend considerably less money which means that vast proportions of noir films are low budget productions without the big acting names of the 1930s. It meant filming schedules were shorter and this led to stories that were fast-paced and filmed quickly, often from weird or non-conventional camera angles. It meant filmmakers got very creative.
Sadly, or perhaps happily depending on your view, this extraordinary period of creativity did not last. By the 1950s cinema audiences had plummeted thanks to the affordability of televisions. The response of the studios was to drive a nail through the beating heart of noir. Out went fast-paced dark stories and in came widescreen and colour. With them, they brought musicals and westerns. In a way, it is hard to argue with. Westerns look much better in colour.
The Dark Page is a window into my favourite period of film and literary history. A period when the rawness of the story was brutally exposed on-screen. It is also a reminder of the power of black and white. When you want to strip a story down to its purest, and usually most uncomfortable form, there is no substitute for black and white. Despair and fatalism do not work as well in colour. It is probably why Spielberg used black and white for Schindler’s List and is definitely why the first of the four film versions of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) is the best.