Paint it Black... FILM NOIR
Updated: Oct 14
For those who are not familiar with Film Noir, it is a typical cinematographic genre of crime stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s mainly, born in black and white cinema. Its aesthetic was of high contrast and a predominance of shades, hence the Noir or Black in French where the name arose, for the same reason it is known as Black Gender in Spanish. The characters in their stories are bad or corrupt, the good guys end up being victims or they're just good in quotes.
Let's talk about the context, the time of the 30s to the 50s of the twentieth century, were marked by the great economic depression of 29, causing severe economic problems that led to social problems, of course.
The cities in countries like the USA, were populated at high speed which generated a rapid degradation in society. In addition to this, there were two world wars and all the infinity of problems that this entails. In the large urbanizations of the USA, industrialization attracted a migration from rural areas and foreigners who came fleeing the war that is developing on the other side of the Atlantic. These situations, among others, gave rise to criminal associations that corrupted some institutions such as the police. This is the context of Cinema Noir, the era of the original Batman, for instance.
Aesthetics is always linked to psychology and in the case of Film Noir it is a recurring darkness, which reflects the dark state of its characters. Characters who are on the edge of what is legal or correct, even those who are theoretically good. In a classic Noir story there are a series of constant characters, like the typical run-down detective, who carries a load of personal and psychological problems, who necessarily lives trapped in some vice and maintains contacts with the underworld between the underworld and the police, that in these stories they are generally corrupt. Virtually all the characters in a story of this type are bad, some are ambiguous; They switch sides on the fly and sometimes have an unexpected outburst of kindness, and the good guys end up dead, scammed, or heartbroken.
Femme Fatal and the kind prostitute
The woman in Film Noir is the cornerstone of most of the stories with the detective, a relationship of perverse and tragic domination grows between them. There are two types of very recurring main female characters in these stories, characters who deliberately change the course of events or influence their outcome: the Femme Fatal and the Prostitute.
The figure of the prostitute is sometimes bad and sometimes good, generally a faithful lap for the main character, she is tough because she lives in a difficult world, but she manages to keep something good inside.
La Femme Fatale, another French term, the Fatal Woman, is indispensable in a history of the noir genre. It is the sensual content of the story, it is desire personified. Although there are other eroticized characters, Ella accumulates all the sexual load of the plot, either implicit or explicit like Sharon Stone in Low instincts. He uses his attractiveness to manipulate and sex to control.
The main character, who is regularly a man, will be frustrated until he consummates a dominator-dominated relationship, sex included, with the fatal woman. Believing himself to be dominating, little by little he will fall into the Femme game, but when he discovers it he will have lost everything.
The people manipulated by the Femme, who knows she is irresistible, are almost always men who will perform dangerous acts to please her; they will steal, cheat or murder for it. The Femme fatal is sex and it is death and its manipulations are little more than a tool of revenge. La Femme fatal is not born, it is made, its origin is a traumatic event that hardened her heart, like an abuse in childhood, a scam that ruined her family; even a love affair or a combination of the above. If she was affected when she was very young, when she grows up and if she is attractive, she will learn to manipulate with her charm and take revenge on those who hurt her.
When we talk about women in film noir, my mind inevitably draws the figure of Ava Gardner, sitting on a table, illuminated by a metal lamp hanging from the ceiling. A tight black dress, of course, her perfect porcelain face, with a slight indentation on her chin. It's The Killers, a movie based on the Ernest Hemingway short story.
The aesthetics of this film had such an impact on me that it was the seed of my animated short El Delfín Muerto (The Dead Dolphin), released in Buenos Aires in 2019. I remember sitting down to write the story of my short accompanied by a drink and listening to "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones. It took ten years to realize that project, after seeing the movie.
We can talk about much newer actresses and movies like Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential, for those of us who were teenagers in the 90s it goes without saying anything about Kim Basinger or Sharon Stone, who in Basic Instincts is the essence and the limit of the fatal woman, a praying mantis that when the main character becomes entangled with her he will lose head hopelessly. The interrogation scene where she crosses her legs in the short white dress, exposing her vagina was forever etched in popular culture. But I'll talk about that in another post.
The detective is not always one
The detective an almost inevitable character. The great investigator, cunning, intelligent, vicious,
close to the lower circles. In most of the stories he has debts with shady characters in society, he flees from a stormy past, many times he was a war hero, in the First World War for example, or an ex-policeman. He is not always a investigator by profession, sometimes he can be a professor or a doctor trying to figure something out on his own. As in Suddenly, Last Summer, a great movie inspired by a Tennessee Williams story where even he himself put his hand into the script. The Plot is gripping, a millionaire widow from New Orleans, secretly in love with her son, who died last summer in Europe in rare conditions, persuades the director of a bankrupt hospital to have her best doctor perform a lobotomy on her niece, who was in the company of his son when he died. Besides, the woman feels jealous towards her niece. The doctor, who is brilliant, takes the role of the detective, because when he sees her he falls in love with the millionaire's niece and, how could he not, if she is a young Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps the most beautiful eyes on the screen, the sequence cannot be missed. by Liz Taylor in a white bathing suit. I understand that the story was written by Tennessee Williams after her sister underwent a lobotomy, authorized by her parents, leaving her mentally disabled forever.
The narrator and the city
They can be considered characters in themselves. The narrator is generally the introspective voice of the main character and is usually a dialogue with the viewer and not a description of the events. It is a calm, cynical, sarcastic and mocking voice. A hopeless voice that mocks itself and resigns itself to human evil. He does not complain about his bad fortune or the darkness of the world, he simply inhabits it and understands it.
In relation to the city as one more character, many black film productions usually bear the name of the city to place us in the middle of a great human agglomeration. Places where class separation has been established and there are people in complicated situations who are pushed to perform illicit acts out of desperation and others out of pleasure. There is also an accumulation of power in the political and business class that may be above the law. We also see institutions that were crumbling in many forms of corruption. Then there are the dark areas such as alleys, neighborhoods, tunnels or sewers and rooftops in cities with large buildings like those in the north of the USA. If we remember a movie based on a classic comic The Spirit (with a secondary role of Scarlett Johansson, who likes to appear in these films and that they fit her well) where the main character refers to The City as a being he cares for.
There is an endless list of titles in this genre. An indelible example is the narrator on Sunset Boulevard, this gem of a movie begins with the narration of the main character, who floats drowned face down in the pool of a Californian mansion. This is how cinema earns the name of seventh art. The subject is a film scriptwriter come to less (to be a true work of the genre) and narrates the events until the moment of his death. He flees from the mafia with whom he has debts, we are in a time when the scriptwriters and most of the people involved in the cinema were employees of an industry with all its letters, with salaries and fixed working hours, working in large similar studios to warehouses of factories like Warner or MGM. The character flees from the underworld and manages to hide in a Californian mansion, the typical Spanish Revival architectural mansion. Once lush, the place is inhabited by a former silent film star who fell into oblivion when the talkies arrived, and his butler. Both solemnly celebrate the funeral of a chimpanzee. The once movie star lives in a fantasy world in which she is still the great movie diva. The screenwriter feels he has found a gold mine, to rip off the old millionaire despite her distrustful butler. But things are never what they seem in genre noir. A classic, I've said it before; a jewel.
In this year I saw Fedora a kind of continuation of this classic, little famous film by the same director, it is in color and set in Greece. Interesting as the plot is, it doesn't quite match the genius of Sunset Boulevard. An aging screenwriter seeks to regain success with a big star named Fedora who disappeared from the world of cinema. The actress lives in Greece in the villa of a countess, which can only be accessed by boat. The town is inhabited by the Countess, the housekeeper, Fedora, and a guy who acts as a driver, butler, bodyguard and other functions. In addition, a bearded doctor wearing an earring is always present and is widely criticized for his experimental processes. This group, it seems, keeps Fedora isolated and drugged. Again we see the resource of the announced death, because at the beginning of the film we see Fedora throwing himself in front of the train that arrives at a rural terminal.
Another classic is the Maltese Falcon, which I only saw once and to be honest I don't quite remember the story, but broadly speaking it is about a stolen figurine, which is the Maltese Falcon. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, the famous protagonist of Casablanca: nasal voice, white suit and cigarette in hand.
Casablanca could also be pigeonholed in the genre of Noir, although I doubt that it is considered that way. With the second war as a backdrop, a love story with Ingrid Bergman takes place in Casablanca (Morocco), as far as love is allowed in the Noir genre, that is, tragic, sad, impossible, bad. Rick (Bogart) owns Rick's Cafe, a place where all sorts of low-level characters converge, including corrupt French officials, Nazis, thieves and more. There is trafficking in false passports and papers of people seeking to flee the war in a semi-neutral Morocco, so to speak. Talking about Casablanca is talking about a classic, a generator of images and phrases from popular culture such as "we will always have Paris". In that Casablanca, Ilsa appears, an ex-love of Rick, who left him and broke his heart in Paris , needs help and is accompanied by her husband, a leader of the Czech resistance against the Nazis. We are left with the image of the mist and a twin-engine plane, one of those made of iron and rivets, which should already leave, and Rick convincing Ilsa to get on the plane with her injured husband and leave for Lisbon telling her that if she stayed with him (Rick), he would regret "maybe not today maybe not tomorrow, but for the rest of your days" and "We will always have Paris." As a note and not of little importance, the script was written on the fly, it was practically written one day and filmed the next, even the end was unexpected for the characters. A rather romantic story but the environment makes me think that it is Noir, even the city becomes a character so much that it gives the title of the film.
I don't know if it should be included here but the original version of Cape Fear, with Gregory Peck, maintains the essence of film noir. A lawyer whose client was sent to prison for years and once out looks for the lawyer, who leads a dream life. An attractive wife, a daughter and a great house, plus a career on the rise. The ex-convict psychologically torments the character by staying close to his family, without violating any law. In the remake of the 90s Robert de Niro is the ex-con and the lawyer is Nick Nolte, his daughter is Juliette Lewis. Although it is a more Hitchcockian story for psychological terror, the original version I put on the Noir side for its gloomy aesthetic.
The genre has been in force to a greater or lesser extent since its appearance, or let's say categorization, until the present.
Works of this type have been made in all countries where there has been or was a film industry, such as in Mexico in the so-called golden age of Mexican cinema, or in France, Germany, England, Italy and Japan.
I recently saw Eve, a Joseph Losey film, the story that takes place in Venice, it has compelling images such as a funeral procession on the canals, with black gondolas adorned with flowers and a skull crossed by bones, escorted by more gondolas with people crying and a musical band. In addition there is a sequence of brick passageways and alleys, probably in Treviso, the mainland part of Venice. A writer is the main character, he lives in a village that can only be reached by boat. He is about to marry his girlfriend, a woman from a wealthy family in Rome (as I recall). One rainy night Eva arrives in a boat with a man and they take refuge in the writer's villa. When the writer returns home and finds them, he is attracted to her, whom he had seen in a casino. Eva gets rid of her lover and stays with the writer, thus beginning a destructive relationship charged with eroticism, although we only see one Jeanne Moreau nipple in the entire film.
Speaking of Jeanne Moreau we have Elevator to the Cadalso, a 1957 French film by Louise Malle, set in Paris. A businessman, once a soldier, murders his boss in complicity with his lover, the boss's wife. The subject by an absurd error is trapped in the elevator of the building, the employee of a store across the street and her boyfriend, a petty thug steal the car of the businessman and commit another crime in a roadside motel. The police are looking for the businessman but to try him for this crime and not for the one he actually committed, which unleashes a series of entanglements and confusion. Good story and movie.
Jazz is the symbiotic music of film noir. That reminds me of The Man with the Golden Arm, with Frank Sinatra as the main character and an irresistible, short-haired blonde Kim Novak. Sinatra lives with a woman in a wheelchair who blames him for this situation, causing a car accident. Sinatra is a talented drummer who cannot consolidate himself as his addictions prevent him from doing so, and he also lives in debt to the mafia. Kim Novak is Frank's super sexy friend who works as a hostess in a nightclub. The figure of Kim Novak leads us to think that she is the Femme Fatal but the story will take a turn.
In an upcoming ARTicle I will address some contemporary films of the genre considered Neo Noir that range from animation to Punk or Cyber punk like Blade Runner. My short film The Dead Dolphin falls into the Neo Noir genre. If you are interested, click on the link and for only 99 cents USD you can see it as many times as you want for two days and you will be supporting this all-terrain artist to continue creating with everything that is within his reach. I have another project in the pipeline in this style, set in the Nazi-occupied Czech Republic. That project is an adaptation of a short story I wrote and posted on Amazon (The Prague Watchmaker and Other Brief Insanities).
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