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film noir movement by examining two films from the genre made at two different times within the movement. This will first mean looking at definitions of what classifies a film as noir and then looking at conventions of the movement such as: story, character and setting. This will explore how production value expresses the story and acts as an important filmic tool. The first movie to be discussed is Double Indemnity; the second film will be Bound. There will also be mention of other films where warranted to prove that noir in its new forms of neo-noir and independent story-telling still exists as a movement within American cinema.
Film Noir as Genre
Before defining the term genre within the filmic context, one must look to one's self for the social, personal and psychological rules in which decisions and expectations are born. Thomas Schatz simply states, "a genre film involved familiar, essentially one-dimensional characters acting out a predictable story pattern within a familiar setting" (6). Within film history there is a distinction between genre and non-genre films. Genre films work within a reality the public can understand. John Ford was famous for saying of genre "the secret is to make films that please the public and also allow the director to reveal his personality" (Schatz 9). Still it was the Hollywood production system that formed the genre formula as variations of theme and character allowed filming to remain within practical parameters of budget and talent. By controlling the film's environment, they could control the expenses. As a result, many films of this era have the same feel. Still with this in mind, the success of genre remains in the hands of the director or the auteur (author) of the film as each work becomes a unique creation over and over as the studios mass-produced them. In other words, genres resulted from the material conditions of commercial filmmaking itself. Stories continued, varied and repeated as long as there was an audience.
Genre is essentially a narrative framework and can be analyzed by breaking down this construct in terms of its fundamental structural components of: plot, character, setting, thematics and style. Each genre film has a buy-in with the audience, as the film must play by the rules of what the participants expect. Borde and Chaumeton explain, "categories are formed discursively, through a process of metaphoric association that creates networks of relationships" (xiv). It is because genre uses iconography or the "process of narrative and visual coding that results from the repetition of a popular film story" (Schatz 22) that genre becomes common within the human experience. In this way subconsciously the audience picks up on cues to communicate which genre such as Western, Slapstick or Gangster is being presented.
In other words, film noir is not really a genre but fits into the classification of being part of this way of storytelling. Film noir is more about style and the feeling of a film done in this technique. It is specific. Its rules are very strict as to what makes a film noir or "black." The term genre is very broad and can encompass many different themes of storytelling or in turn, creates sub-genres. These ideas can lead to mass confusion as many refer to film noir as a genre when really it is just a social way of describing films or a way of portraying content. This social description is incorrect. How an audience member may diffuse this can vary. For example, many classify George Lucas's Star Wars as a Science Fiction movie when others may see it as a Western.
The late Gerald Mast describes, "the noir world was a dark place, psychologically and morally as well as cinematographically" (297). The word 'noir' is the French word for black and French film critics started the term film noir "who noticed the trend of how dark and black the looks and themes of many American crime and detective films were after the war" (Dirks 1). Borde and Chaumeton comment as well that film noir is defined by artistic style and sociological phenomenon and sometimes acts as the anti-genre as noir "inverts Hollywood formulas: place of straightforward narratives with clearly motivated characters" (xv). This in turn invents uncertainty and a feeling of suspense for the audience. Borde and Chaumeton see film noir as an intermingling of social realism, an erotic treatment of violence and feeling of psychological disorientation that only emphasizes more the building of the plot.
Dirks agrees that the overall genre of film noir is not genre at all but "a mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film" (1). Film noir gets its foundation or basis from the literary world of crime fiction published during the 1930s and 1940s. All of this is conveyed on the screen by strategic lighting to enhance mood and heighten suspense. Dirks categorizes film noir as an offshoot or sub-genre of the generic crime/gangster and detective/mystery sagas of the 1930s, some based on real people such as Al Capone. The immediate source of film noir is obviously the hard-boiled detective novel of the American or English origin (Borde and Chaumeton 15). Most of Hollywood studios, however, stuck to simple adaptations of pulp novels. Robert Piluso discusses film noir as "arising as an American psycho-cultural response to World War II, these shadowy, strange stories were syntheses of humor, mystery, gangster and detective genres" (1). Dirks takes the definition of film noir further. He describes the moods of film noir being as "melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia" (2). The characters come from the underworld, gloomy and violent. They are lowlifes questioning morality. Much of what drives the story is told in flashback as a literary device. Dialogue also plays a huge role in driving the film noir story especially in sexual innuendo like the discussion of traffic laws found in Double Indemnity (Bugwin 1). Film noir stories carry a punch but also have many distinctive characteristics that define the theme of the stories.
Noir Conventions: Story, Characters and Setting
Story and Characters
As expressed above film noir transcends story lines during the era of 1930s and 1940s out of this come more specific formulas of narration like the hard-boiled detective series or gangster stories. Schatz comments even a film like Citizen Kane can be considered film noir as it displays mysterious qualities of character that carry suspense.
When film noir can be found in the hard-boiled detective story it usually involves, "a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character who encounters a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme-fatale" (Dirks 1). The detective's main motivation from the beginning is the act of puzzle solving which becomes redirected or manipulated by the outside force of the femme fatale's affection or attention. In so many ways, he knows that staying away from her is the best course of action but he is enthralled by her sexual power. Her sexual overtones and flirtation have the potential to destroy the hero's intentions of solving the mystery. He loses his focus as he falls deeper on her under spell. Such magnetism can be seen in films like Double Indemnity where the hero is talked into committing murder for the femme fatale because he lusts her. He wants her for sexual gratification. The element of crime in these stories is "usually an isolated act of moral and social aberration" (Schatz 124). Unlike before, this crime can happen across social and economic lines, from the urban back alley to the upper crust suburban mansion. Still the detective is striving to redeem himself from either a troubled past or a guilty conscious. He knows better than to fall under her spell but he cannot resist her beauty, as she is unattainable. He is a loner and on the outside of society because of his past mistakes but also he has seen too much to think anything good of the world.
As a result, the character of detective is seen as the anti-hero because of his attitude toward society and his rejection of being responsible in such an environment. Despite this, he still feels compelled to search for the truth behind the mystery. This in turn, drives the suspense of the story as the audience waits for the detective to discover pieces of the puzzle. It is due to these factors, he struggles to survive the situation. Most likely, his best intentions usually end in his own demise as he becomes completely wrapped up in his pursuit. The more truth he discovers, the closer he gets to losing everything including his own life. Borde and Chaumeton thoughts on the detective story vary as "underlined irrational character of criminal motivation with ambivalent feelings" (19). This does not mean he is the criminal but that he thinks sinful thoughts and because he is outside of society means that the law does not apply to his methods of conduct. This serves as the character's primary downfall as conflict…[continue]
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