History & Influence of Film Noir

Film Noir: Style or Story?

(Donning a fedora and backed up by three hefty, but short videos of sinister film noir scenes,
Eddie Muller sheds light on this dark subject aboard the TCM Classic Cruise, Dec. 8-13.
Known as the "Czar of Noir", Muller is author of several books and
president and founder of the Film Noir Foundation.)

During a session on the history and influence of film noir, Eddie Muller posed the question, “Is film noir a genre or is it a style?” He said that some people believe it is a genre anchored in story, while others think it is about style— shadowy black and white films, accentuated with venetian blinds, fedora hats, dark streets and other noir components. He indicated that he thinks film noir is primarily about the story.

Film noir is either a crime thriller or a murder drama, Muller said. The crime thriller is a movie in which the people committing the crimes are professional criminals, such as in The Asphalt Jungle. The main characters in a murder drama are amateurs. He said this is the true, hard-core noir and gave Double Indemnity as an example. “When amateurs are involved, that’s when it gets interesting.”

Depending on the individual noir story, the characters may include a private detective or some other investigator, who may or may not be the protagonist, and a femme fatale. Usually, there is a sense of foreboding or futility and one or more of the characters exhibit a cynical attitude. He also said that some of the noir films cross into other genres. Examples of noir can be found even in screwball comedies and westerns.

Muller talked about the genre being the "anti-myth", noting that noir conclusions are contrary to the Hollywood myth of happily-ever-after endings. He said that Hollywood had created a myth where it was believed that, “If everyone played fair and square, everything would work out in the end.” He humorously added that, “Film noir is filled with characters who could not wait that long.”

On a more serious note, he spoke about the influence of writers Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett on the genre. He explained the impact of German Expressionism, which began in the 1920s and was later introduced in the U.S. by directors, some of whom had worked at the German film studio, Ufa. German Expressionism uses external visual style to illuminate the internal nature of the characters and to enhance the mood of the film through lighting, wardrobe, scene selection and other elements.

Muller believes that the first film noir is either The Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Stranger On The Third Floor (1940), mainly because of this film’s distinguishing noir style characteristics. However, he believes Double Indemnity (1944), which “killed at the box office”, to be the film that started the organic, artistic film noir movement.

Muller said that 1944 was a pivotal year with several other classic noir films being produced, including Laura, The Woman in the Window, Phantom Lady and Murder My Sweet. Suddenly, actors wanted to play villains. The trend peaked in 1949 with each studio producing 8-10 film noirs a year.

The age of film noir lasted into the 1950s and has been said to have ended with Orson Welles’s film, Touch of Evil (1958). Muller spoke briefly about neo-noir films such as Mulholland Drive and The Man Who Wasn’t There, both produced in 2001.

During the presentation, Muller showed three short videos, each a montage of film noir scenes. The most popular one with the audience was Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. It can be viewed on the Film Noir Foundation’s website. Another video showed only scenes from films with settings in the San Francisco area, the location of the Foundation's annual Noir City Festival, where the video will be shown in early 2014.

The Film Noir Foundation is responsible for the recent restoration of Too Late For Tears (1949), which will premiere at the Noir City 12 Festival on January 25, 2014.

During the cruise, Muller introduced several noir films that were shown in the ship’s theaters, including Double Indemnity.

—Mary McCord, Editor
   Classic Film Watch
   Posted Jan. 5, 2014



About Eddie Muller:
Eddie Muller is a writer who is founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation. He has written several books on film noir: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir; Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir; and The Art of Noir. He is also known for his commentaries on Fox's film noir DVD series.

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