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film noir and the banality of evil

FILMS NOIRS AND HOW THEY EMBODY THE BANALITY OF EVIL

Film noir is not easily defined. The term was used in France for the first time, literally meaning ‘black cinema’ in order to describe a certain set of Hollywood films that were noticeably darker than what we had seen before, starting from the early 40’s to the 50’s. The most iconic film noirs include Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Citizen Kane (1941).…

Those movies combine plot and stylistic elements common to various genres and any other movie : a crime, romance, humor, a fair amount of darkness, and other characteristics we’ll see later. Which is why, while some argue that it is a genre, others contend that film noir is more of sub-genre, a tone, a certain mood in the film, or even just a visual style. In addition, some films noirs cannot be defined only by those characteristics. As Paul Schrader points out in his essay Notes on Film Noir, “film of urban nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption.”

So how can we identify a film noir — that is, if we can? Do you only need a criminal smoking a cigarette in the shadows of a dim-lighted street for it to be a film noir? Or maybe it’s not about certain characteristics, but about the way humanity is depicted?

I — SHORT HISTORY

Film noir emerged from the popularity of American hard-boiled crime fiction novels, which were low-cost and extremely popular in the 1930’s, and that popularity caught the attention of Hollywood. In fact, crime novelists (Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich…) found work by writing film screenplays in the 1940’s ; they were first brought to the screen by European directors that had immigrated, like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak : all of them inspired by German expressionism (darkness, disillusionment, a direct answer to German history with films resembling the horror genre with Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1919 or Metropolis, 1926).

It was in the aftermath of the World War II, as many directors wanted to show a more mature and dark world, that movie audiences increasingly responded to these movies. The first big success was Billy Wilder’s adaption of James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity (1944), that sparked a wave of crime and murder dramas, with a particular dark and cynical take on existence. Like German Expressionism, films noirs are deeply linked with politics and history and people’s thirst for expression through art, when any other medium is limited.

II — FILM NOIR CHARACTERISTICS
its themes

The point is to embody the fears of the times, growing increasingly present in the american mindsets, during the Great Depression, then the world war that followed, and then a cold war era. The darkness of these films reflected the disenchantment of the times, pessimism and post-war disillusionment (doomed romanticism, cynicism…) depicted by the corrupt and oppressive world of film noir.

Obviously, the first theme is crime. Shadowy crime and mob underworlds, corruption. Conspiracy, plotting, betrayal — and mixing romance and murder doesn’t end well, as you can imagine, and there is no such thing as a perfect crime.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money — and a woman — and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

A haunted past and its weight on the character’s shoulders. A burden that they are trying to escape, a trauma, inner demons, prompting them to stay hidden in the shadows, but there is something looming that they will eventually have to face. That something looming can take many forms, but mostly, it’s just impending doom. Another theme of the film noir is the fatalistic nightmare, highlighted by a voice-over, a narrative tone. Films noirs revolve around causality and downfalls. It evolves in a deterministic universe, with an unavoidable outcome you can already foresee, also based on social status that will inevitably win over hope. Everything reflects Cold War-era attitudes, with protagonists put in desperate situations due to circumstances beyond their control.

its characters (or archetypes)

The standard film noir protagonist is a private eye or detective, mysterious, flawed, often embedded in morally ambiguous situations : criminal underworld, etc. They’ll probably be wearing a long trench coat and a fedora hat, smoking and drinking.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958) © Universal Studios

“With my brains and your looks, we could go places.” — the postman always rings twice (1946)

Then we have the femme fatale, a desirable, glamorous, duplicitous, predatory and lethal woman who knows how to charm people — men, into anything she wants. The doomed hero and the femme fatale are necessary to each other and to the story line, as they both navigate towards a fatalistic end, the femme fatale leading him into dangerous or compromising situations. These women are trapped in a patriarchal world and will find any way to free themselves, no matter the cost, and they will use any weapon they can find : including their sexuality.

 

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944) © paramount pictures Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a housewife convincing her insurance agent, Walter Neff, to help her murder her husband.

And where there is an investigator looking into a crime, there is a movie filled with supporting characters involved in what is the opposite of a law-abiding society. Mob bosses, gangsters, gamblers, boxers, nightclub performers.

What all these characters have in common, and what makes a film noir character, is a moral ambiguity, a persona with different shades of grey. They often struggle with moral dilemmas, what’s right or wrong, what is evil and what is not. But most importantly, the protagonists are average people. Husbands, housewives, insurance salesmen, screenwriters. Not professional gangsters and murderers but average citizens, flawed, corrupted, cupid. We are the main characters of films noirs. It is bleak and cynical, deconstructing the typical hero / villain narrative and a myth that only villains can be villains.

“you said the world’s bad. we can’t run away from the badness. and you’re right there… we must deal with the badness, make terms. “ — the lady from shanghai (1947) dir. Orson Welles

its visuals

This grim and pessimistic world is emphasized by different filming techniques and other noticeable aspects. A particular lightning, camera work, a special kind of dialogue…

First of all, the lightning is a key element. Initially it was to cover the fact that budgets were too low to do anything, but film noirs feature stark lightning and long shadows used for terror, creating heavy contrasts. It is dark and oppressive.

 

The Trial (1962) starring Anthony Hopkins. ©Les Acacias

Precise camera moves, meticulously crafted mises-en-scène and sculpted lighting effects to create an environment full of nightmarish paranoia, greed, lust, obsession. Multiple flashbacks and rapid cuts show that obsession with the past and that feeling of despair, and you always have to pay attention because you can’t see clearly. Everything is supposed to confuse the viewer with reflections, mirrored images, a sense of alienation, unreality, dramatic and absurd close ups.

“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder © Paramount

In addition to all of these unnerving visual effects, to a whole universe that puts you on the edge, you’ll find something fascinating about the dialogue. Matching the pace at which the situation escalates, there’s no time for nonsense and flowery speeches, everyone gets straight to the point. Just like shot fired, film noir has this quick back-and-forth between the characters, witty and sharp lines, each word full of multiple meanings and innuendos.

“You always have a very smooth explanation ready.”
“What do you want me to do? Stutter?” — the maltese falcon

III — ITS LEGACY AND WHY IT IS STILL RELEVANT TODAY

This darker portrayal of society in movies has obviously had a great impact on cinema today. Because the style of film noir is tied to a specific era, the genre is considered to have ended in the 1950’s. However, hundreds of films have embraced elements of film noir since then, and. More recent films influenced by film noir include both Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), L.A. Confidential (1997), Sin City (2005), and Taxi Driver (19) for example, labeled “neo-noir” for reproducing key elements of the style.

Most importantly, I decided to draw a parallel with what philosopher Hannah Arendt reported when she was covering the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961, finding that he was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, and ‘terrifyingly normal’ : films noirs, whether they belong to a genre, a sub-genre, a visual style, a tone — it doesn’t really matter, because the one thing we can learn from them is what they mean for society and humanity. Through rain soaked streets, seedy places, flickering street lamps and neon signs, corruption and hopelessness, these ‘heroes’ — again, average citizens, finding themselves torn by a psychological conflict, portray what’s inside of every one of us, what’s dark and evil, without making the characters out to be villains. In film noir, there are the people that know the truth, the one that investigate, and no real villains, because each character is on the brink of moral ambiguity. They’re not necessarily sympathetic though, like a compelling anti-hero, but they do raise questions.

Can one do evil without being evil?

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