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Cain (afterward coupled by Mickey Spillane, Horace McCoy, and Jim Thompson) -- whose books were also recurrently tailored in films noir. In the vein of the novels, these films were set apart by a subdued atmosphere and realistic violence, and they presented postwar American cynicism to the extent of nihilism by presuming the total and hopeless corruption of society and of everyone in it. Billy Wilder's acidic Double Indemnity (1944), which shocked Hollywood in the year of its release and was just about banned by the authorities, may be considered as the archetype for film noir, even though some critics trace the origins back to such rough but significantly less pessimistic films as This Gun for Hire, High Sierra, the Maltese Falcon, and Stranger on the Third Floor. Modified by Wilder and Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity is the squalid story of a Los Angeles insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) sexually ensnared by a client's wife into killing off her husband for his death reimbursement; it has been declared a film without a solitary trace of compassion or love.
Without a doubt, these are characters remarkably missing from all films noir, as conceivably they seemed not present from the postwar America which created them. Like Double Indemnity, these films succeeded upon the unembellished interpretation of greed, desire, and unkindness because their fundamental theme was the profundity of human immorality and the absolutely unheroic character of human beings -- lessons that were almost not taught but without doubt re-emphasized by the one of its kind horrors of World War II. Nearly everyone of the dark films of the late forties take the structure of crime melodramas for the reason that (as Dostoevsky and Dickens recognize) the devices of crime and criminal detection afford an ideal metaphor for dishonesty that cuts across conformist moral classes. These films are frequently set in southern California -- the geographical archetype for a social order in which the breach between anticipation and reality is determined through mass hallucination. The central characters are regularly unfeeling antiheroes who chase their foundation designs or basically drift aimlessly from side to side in sinister night worlds of the metropolitan American harsh world, but they are even more frequently decent people trapped in traps set for them by a crooked social order. In this concluding sense, film noir was immeasurably a cinema of moral nervousness of the kind experienced at various times in postwar Eastern Europe, most lately in Poland at the pinnacle of the Solidarity group -- i.e., a cinema about the environments of life enforced on truthful people in a untruthful, self-deluding society.
The moral unsteadiness of this world was rendered into a visual style by the expert noir cinematographers John Alton, Nicholas Musuraca, John F. Seitz, Lee Garmes, Tony Gaudio, Sol Polito, Ernest Haller, Lucien Ballard, and James Wong Howe. These technical masters turned into moral vagueness obviously real through what has been called anti-conventional cinematography. The method incorporated the all-encompassing use of wide-angle lenses, allowing even more and greater depth of field but causing animated deformation in close-ups; inconspicuous lighting and night-for-night filming (that is, essentially shooting night scenes at nighttime more willingly than in bright daylight with dark filters), both of which produce ruthless contrasts between the light and dark spheres of the frame, with dark outweighing, to match the moral disorder of the world; and pointed, unnatural set-ups. If all of this spears to be suggestive of the artificial studio modus operandi of German Expressionism, it ought to, for the reason that -- like the Universal horror phase of the thirties -- film noir was fashioned to a large degree by German and Eastern European emigres, a lot of whom had gained their basic training at UFA in the twenties and near the beginning of the thirties. The noir directors Lang, Siodmak, Wilder, Preminger, Brahm, Litvak, Ophuls, Dieterle, Sirk, Ulmer, and Bernhardt; the director-cinematographer Rudolph Mate; the cinematographers Karl Freund and John Alton; and the musicians Franz Waxman and Max Steiner had all been linked with or inclined by the UFA studio technique.
On the other hand, given its subject matter, film noir could barely break out of the general pragmatic predisposition of the postwar cinema, and noir directors recurrently shot outside shots on location. Such wartime modernizations as slighter camera dollies and moveable power packs, higher speed lenses and additionally sensitive, fine-grain film rolls cut down the logistics of position shooting and aided to generate for film noir a nearly standardized visual method. For this motive, it has become trendy to discuss film noir as a category (some consider it is a genre) of "idealistic" or "expressive" pragmatism; but its inheritance includes such a wide variety of cultural influences -- German Expressionism and shock exploitation, American gangster movies from the thirties, Sternbergian exoticism and self-indulgence, the graceful pragmatism of Carne, the case-hardened institution of American fiction, the forties cultural significance and fame of Freud, postwar American disenchantment (particularly a sagacity of sexual betrayal amongst GIs coming back home) and the flourish of cinematic practicality it created, cold war mistrust, and for sure, Citizen Kane -- that it is probably better to typify it as a cycle to a certain extent than to draw up the boundaries too rigidly.
Double Indemnity (1944), d. Billy Wilder, Paramount, 107 min., b&w, sc. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler from the novel by James M.…[continue]
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