If you are tired of being exposed to lousy movies full of sex, violence, ear-blasting noise, and floods of gratuitous special effects, 40-something actors who dress (and act) like teenagers, and predictable story lines, turn to William Park’s definitive book What Is Film Noir? for a reminder of what artful and truly adult entertainment films can provide.
In the early 70’s I had the good fortune to take a two-semester film course with the noted film critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, then renowned as the American exponent of the auteur school of film criticism, which holds that cinema is an art form to be appropriately developed by the director. This was my first systematic exposure to a class of films crafted by artists working in a recognizable style and reflecting a recognizable atmosphere and ethos. This class of films is the subject of Park’s book.
William Park, professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College and holding degrees in English literature from Princeton and Columbia, has written on a wide variety of subjects, including English and American poetry, rococo art, and cinema criticism. The topic of film noir offers Park an abundance of material, since over the last 50 years much has been written about its impact on cinema, its relationship to literature, and (most important from my point of view) its relationship to American culture.
Park himself lays it out nicely:
Film noir consists of a fallible protagonist, a crime, an investigation, and a contemporary setting. In literature, such a combination is nothing new, and film history reveals early examples, notably in the work of Hitchcock and Lang. But it did not become a type, that is, a group of recognizably similar films, until the early 1940s. Its production declined in the 1960s, but the 1970s and the elimination of the Production Code gave it new life, immediately recognized by critics as “neo-noir.” . . .
Components of the style existed in the silent era, notably in the German films of the 1920s, but Orson Welles brought them together in Citizen Kane (1941). Its combination of chiaroscuro, depth of focus, oblique camera angles, a disjointed and fragmented narrative, all supporting an appropriately gloomy world view, initiated the style. It suited the new genre of film noir perfectly and was used in hundreds of crime films throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, popular usage of the term film noir as any urban crime film of the era is understandable, if not entirely accurate. . . .
The style of film noir, its gloomy outlook, its narrative conventions, may be seen and felt in all of Hollywood’s genres from the 1940s well into the 1950s. As such it was the dominant or period style of World War II and the immediate post-war decade, primarily but not exclusively in Hollywood.
Park’s book is not simply an introduction to noir. In many ways it is the definitive encyclopedia of the genre. Park clearly views film noir as an art and perhaps one of those easiest to identify, classify, and enjoy, because it deals with human frailty and normally—although not always—with redemption and some type of justice.
Park quotes film critic Roger Ebert’s description of film noir as “a movie where an ordinary guy indulges the weak side of his character, and hell opens beneath his feet.”
He then explains that “film noir can be defined by a subject, a locale and a character”:
Its subject is crime, almost always a murder, but sometimes a theft. Its locale is the contemporary world, usually the city at night. Its character is a fallible or tarnished man or woman. From these givens, from the situation, an investigation almost always ensues which further involves the protagonist as it unravels the web of misadventures.
As for the protagonist, Park points out that he is often a cop, though he may also be a private eye, reporter, returning veteran, or even an amnesiac. Part of the attraction of noir is the very ordinariness of the people portrayed, whether victims, perpetrators, or pursuers of the criminals. Anyone can identify with one or more of them—as sinners, do-gooders, or simply victims of circumstance.
William Park identifies what he calls “Gothic Women’s Film and Psychological Melodrama,” featuring protagonists such as Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, and the queen of this subgenre, Joan Crawford. (Perhaps the most familiar of these movies is Sunset Boulevard.) He dedicates a chapter to perhaps the greatest director ever, Alfred Hitchcock. Park describes Vertigo as “not only Hitchcock’s most profound work; it is also the consummate film noir . . . it lacks one ingredient, namely black and white photography. . . . In every other aspect of genre and style it is super abundant.”
Perhaps for most cineastes, nothing identifies film noir as immediately as the photography. Citing an article by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, Park lists many of the classic elements:
High contrast or chiaroscuro, that is, shadows and areas of darkness juxtaposed to more lighted areas. Key lighting, that is, a point of light on one subject or face. Slats of light: the Venetian blind effect. . . . Night scenes. Wide angle photography. Depth of focus. Hallucinatory dissolves. Dream montages. Strange camera angles.
Of course, many of these techniques are still in use today.
Other genres or subgenres exist within the greater category of film noir—social-problem films, rogue-cop films, etc.—but I will let the reader investigate for himself. Some of the most outstanding directors and actors did their best work in noir. In film noir, the morals are biblical, as are the respective judgments meted out to the guilty and the innocent.
These films open up the viewer to a grimy and curiously appealing view of American life in its seamier sectors from 1942 up to 1958. After reading Park’s book, you may be inspired to go out and buy a fedora.
[What Is Film Noir?, by William Park (Bucknell University Press) 213 pp., $60.00]