Film Noir

The Genre That Never Sleeps…

By Reyshan Parker

Back to the Beginning:

The Inception of Film Noir

Long before Nino Frank ever coined the term “film noir” in 1946, its early influences were hard at work.  To most film noir critics the style got its start with the German expressionist movement, beginning in 1904.  The origins of German expressionism come from a place of discontent with the surrounding German society and social discomfort. Expressionism spanned the artistic domain encompassing all forms of art including, books, music, sculpture, painting, architecture, theatre, and film.

[1] “In essence it was a philosophical and artistic critique of bourgeois rationalism; an attempt to express the distortions, alienation, fragmentations and dislocation, the ‘irrationality’, of modern life. Expressionism was concerned to represent subjective experience: states of mind, feelings, ideas, perceptions, dreams and visions, often paranoid state.”

Like its future counterpart, the films of German expressionism dealt with the darker side of life. Some of the most notable influences on American noirs are, Robert Wiene’s, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligori, (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) 1919, and Der Student von Prag, (The Student of Prague) 1926.  These films created on low budgets set the tone for the innovations of American independent filmmakers of the 1940’s.  It can be said that it was not expressionism itself that influenced noir films but that is was the Wiemer cinema as a whole that was the actual connection between the two movements.

[2]“Expressionism created an embracing simmering (mood) and texture, dependent on distinct visual style that used high contrast, chiaroscuro lighting where shafts of intense light contrast starkly with deep, black shadows, and where space is fractured into an assortment of unstable lines and surfaces, often fragmented or twisted into odd angles.  Overall, expressionist cinema used a highly designed and carefully composed mise-en-scene that was anti-naturalistic.”

Pushing forward, the emergence of the ‘street film’ and the Urban Thriller is where noir films really began to take the form we recognize today as a classic film noir.  This was a departure from the Gothic like aesthetic that dominated the films of Wiemer, and a move towards a more urban representation of what the actual German populace was experiencing at the time.  This came to be known as Neue Sachlichkeit or the ‘New Objectivity’.  This new form of filmmaking took audiences into the dark city at night.  This alluring and provocative world surrounded by urban decay and shadowy figures began and were embodied by director Karl Grune, with his film entitle Die Strasse, (The Street) in 1923.  The film took its respectable middle class protagonist and thrust him into this world of shadows and double dealings,

“In these films one can perceive a proto-noir urban milieu consisting of deep shadows, rushing traffic, flashing lights and cast of underworld characters: black marketers, gamblers and con men, above all, the femme fatale who embodies the temptation and threat of illicit desire.”[3]

This trend embodied in a myriad of works including but not limited to, G.W. Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse, (The Joyless Street) 1923, Joe May’s Asphalt, 1928, and Von Sternberg’s, Der Blaue Engel, (The Blue Angel) 1930.

Fritz Lang, a noted director and filmmaker during this time, would play a large role in the movement of the street style to America. Having had great success with his series of urban crime thrillers, featuring a criminal mastermind named Dr. Mabuse, and scoring big with his best-known film M, which he paints the city as a labyrinth and forces his protagonist between the forces of the police and gangster.  He allows the audience to experience the inner emotions and dilemma of the character through his use of the POV,  “I use my camera in such a way to show things, whenever possible, from the view point of the protagonist; in that way my audience identifies itself with the character and thinks with him.” [4] It was innovative approaches like these that earned him and his contemporaries a reputation in the United States, where they would be greeted with open arms.

When the Nazi’s began their rise to power in 1933, many of the writers, directors, art designers and cinematographers, such as Billy Wilder, William Dieterle, and Otto Preminger, migrated to America in order to further their careers as the climate in Germany was growing less and less safe for the free thinking invocative filmmakers.  It is here that the seeds for American film noir are born.  As the new German filmmakers mixed their style with the Hollywood model of industrious filmmaking, a hybrid began to form.

[5]“Rather then direct transplantation, one is looking at a process of diffusion and re-appropriation where a modified Expressionism could be superimposed over existing generic conventions through a mise-en-scene, chiaroscuro lighting, minimalist sets, mobile camera work, and the use of fractured narratives.”

It is through this means that the expressionism collided with Hollywood. Expressionism however is not the only influence on film noir. In order to fully understand the origins of the style, a few more elements must be examined; French poetic realism and the great American novel.

From the period of 1933 to 1939 the French put out a series of films that could be seen as the stepping-stones between the German Expressionist films and what would become American film noir.  Seven films were made by French director Marcel Carne, the two most notable being, Quai des brumes, (Port of Shadows) 1938, and Le Jour se leve, (Daybreak) 1939.

[6]“The effect of French Poetic Realism on film noir is less appreciated, but Ginette Vincendeau has provided a cogent and persuasive case for its stylistic and thematic influence, which she argues, ‘filled the gap’ between German Expressionism and classical Hollywood cinema.”

Not surprisingly, these films were pulled from novelists of the time, most notably, Georges Simenon. His novels were of the detective genre and managed to encapsulate a wide range of readers, all of who were enthralled with his plots of crime and moral questionability.  It was Simenon who first adapted Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1939, under the name, Le Dernier Tournant or The Final Twist.

It is worth noting that before World War II, these films were actually reviewed by French critics who termed them as film noirs.  At the heart of these films are the characters. The style of French Poetic Realism films focused less on the action of the plots and more on the actual psychological demeanors of its leading characters. Like the ‘street films’ of Germany, the French applied the character traits that are inherent in film noir,

[7]“The dangers of desire were represented by the femme fatale, or ‘lost girl’, in her beret and shiny raincoat that transferred reflections of the night-time city onto her body as if she were all surface, without substance. The male protagonists tend to be confused, passive, divided and deeply introspective. The dominant actor was Jean Gabin, always marked as an outsider, romantic but possessed by self-destructive forces. Such was Gabin’s stature that he created a of male hero, a modern Everyman who is complex and ambivalent, both sexually and socially.  His tough masculine power is often outweighed by a ‘feminine’ sensitivity and vulnerability, a clear difference from his American counterparts, and his social status ambiguous or confused.”

The characters portrayed by Gabin are not unlike the characters of American cinema. Embodied as a solder or blue collar worker who often finds himself in such fatalist circumstance that he cannot escape and always ends up dying at the end of the films, either by his own hand or that of another; making the French Poetic films much more heavy, gloomy and depressing compared to that of their American counterpart. However, lighting style, iconography and character motifs correlate to make a solid foundation for the American cinema of the 1940’s.

Finally, we must look at the writing style of the American authors whose detective style novels where the precursors to some of Hollywood’s most classic film noirs.  Two of the most influential writers of the time were, Dashiell Hammett, whose novel The Maltese Falcon would become a best selling classic around the world and especially in France. Hammett, would later be approached by one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters John Huston, and in collaboration with Warner Bros, Huston would eventually come to direct the feature of the same title that now stands as an iconographic figure of the classic film noir canon.  The other novelist of the time, Raymond Chandler, would be crucial in developing the noir styles popularity, especially in France.

“A 1949 Chandler novel, The Little Sister, sold 17,000 hardcover copies in the United States and another 27,000 in the United Kingdom,, but achieved its highest figure in France with a total of 42,000. Chandler was also well received by French literary critics. The Little Sister was published in a cheap Seerie Noire edition, a series which included Dashiell Hammett and George Simenon. Chandler biographer Hiney states that ‘It was from this hugely popular crime publishing venture that the term ‘film noir’ was derived’”

Indeed Chandler seemed to embody his style of writing. It is said that he accomplished all of his work in an office not unlike those of his detective characters.  Sitting in a dark room accompanied only by a bottle of scotch, he tirelessly pounded out the dramas of his leading detective character Marlow,

[8]“The name is French, but the detective writer who inspired the concept was decidedly American, his prose marked by gripping realism from the seedy hotels, back alleys, dimly lit bars, main streets, country clubs, mansions, apartments, corporate board rooms and flophouses of America.  Raymond Chandler was an author who scared people with his unnerving manner of peeling off the outer layer of societies veneer and digging into the uncertainties of modern existence.”

His works may seem so real because he himself had walked the same streets, drank in the same bars and stayed in the same hotels as his illustrious characters.  Therefore, film noirs are linked esthetically to reality by the locations in which they are based.  A trend epitomized by Chandler himself.

These writers played a key role in influencing societies pre-occupation with the crime genre.  Without their preemptive works, the public would never have embraced the soon to come cinematic revolution in Hollywood.  Directors and producers might never have realized the potential for such richly dark character driven plots that would weave their way into popular culture.

I hope you enjoyed the article.

Please check out my Noir Bookstore, Novels and Graphic Novels here. 

–Reyshan Parker


[1] Spicer, 11

[2] Spicer, 11-12

[3] Spicer, 12

[4] Bogdavitch, 85

[5] Spicer, 14

[6] Spicer, 14

[7] Spicer, 16

[8] Hare, 7