Hollywood’s Return to Noir

Light and shadow, good and evil. Two polar opposites by nature, destined to be apart. But in the world of noir, they are one and the same. 

Currently, The Batman is playing in theaters and thousands are rushing to see the Dark Knight deliver justice to Gotham’s seedy underworld of organized crime. Leaning forward, as Batman emerges from the inky blackness of shadow into the deep glow of the fluorescent lights, with only the rain to accompany the slow footsteps of vengeance. Films about the dark knight have always varied in color and style. From the emergence of Tim Burton’s dark interpretation to Joel Schumacher’s neon-inspired jokey reimaging, only to beget Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. We have seen many different types of Batman, but we have never truly gotten to see him as the world’s greatest detective. A crime fighter that will track his prey through the shadows evaluating every clue, every thread that makes up a tapestry of mystery.

Writer/Director Matt Reeves introduces Batman to his greatest ally and tool. Noir Cinema.  

 The style of film noir started in Germany where the iconic low-key, black-and-white filming was being used in European cinema. It was the French critic Nino Frank who first coined the phrase “Film Noir,” which translates to “black” or “dark film” although initially dubbed “melodramas,” this style of film was embraced by Hollywood during the Great Depression and on into post-World War II. 

This is due to the attitudes and existentialist mindset of America in the wake of two major world-altering events, the emergence of McCarthyism and the growing threat of atomic warfare. This led Hollywood to embrace the idea of the Anti-Hero. With cynical protagonists filled with disillusionment and pessimism, launched into environments filled with fear, violence, and a sense of claustrophobia of the hard world. Combined with the use of awkward angles and using shadows to hide actors, the film style was immediately made an American cinematic legacy.

Noir started as crime and gangster films, then spread into erotic, science fiction, end even horror, not being bound by genre, but by its own style of storytelling. Classic images of noir included rain-soaked streets in the early morning hours; street lamps with shimmering halos; flashing neon signs on seedy taverns, diners, and apartment buildings; and endless streams of cigarette smoke wafting in and out of shadows. Such images would lose their indelibility with realistic lighting or color cinematography. 

The inherent subjectivity of Expressionism is also evident in film noir’s use of narration and flashbacks. An omniscient, metaphor-spouting narrator (often the central character, a world-weary private eye) frequently clarifies a characteristically labyrinthine noir plot or offers a subjective, jaded point of view. 

In other films—such as Wells’s Citizen Kane and Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, the denouement (often the death or downfall of the central character) is revealed in the opening scenes; flashbacks then tell of the circumstances that led to the tragic conclusion. Tension and suspense are increased by the use of all-knowing narrators and flashbacks, in that the audience is always aware of impending doom.

 The heroes of noir generally share certain qualities, such as moral ambiguity, a fatalistic outlook, and alienation from society. They also exhibit an existential acceptance of random, arbitrary occurrences as being the determining factors in life. Although the “hard-boiled detective” is the stereotypical noir hero, the central male characters in film noir range from drifters to college professors. The ethics that these characters espouse are often born more of personal code than true concern for their fellow man.

 For example, Humphrey Bogart (the actor perhaps most associated with the genre) as private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is emotionally indifferent to the murder of his partner and avenges his death primarily because “when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.”

 Such compassionless pragmatism is found in the noblest, as well as the most tarnished, of noir heroes. The weakest of such characters exhibit an abundance of tragic flaws, often including an uncontrollable lust for duplicitous women. 

Noir women are often characterized as “femme Fatales,” or “spider women;” in the words of one critic, they are “comfortable in the world of cheap dives, shadowy doorways, and mysterious settings.” Well aware of their sexual attractiveness, they cunningly and ruthlessly manipulate their male counterparts to gain power or wealth.

The success of this film style is not resistant to the development of technology and time. Many movies have adopted and improved the style through time. Movies such as Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” made waves as a noir set in color, breaking the literal color bar but telling an in-depth story of corruption and brutality. 

LOS ANGELES – JUNE 20: The movie “Chinatown”, directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Seen here, Jack Nicholson as J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray. Initial theatrical release June 20, 1974. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Later in 1982, Ridley Scott’s science-fiction drama Blade Runner (1982) revisited the use of set design to enhance the mood, an idea that can be traced back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

 Richard Tuggle’s Tightrope (1984) features film noir’s theme of disillusionment in a police officer who discovers he is as much an outsider as the criminal he is pursuing. 

Perhaps the best contemporary examples of the genre are Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), a bleak story of corrupt cops, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), a similarly dark story inspired by the crime novels of James M. Cain. Both films are presented in classic film noir style, the latter in black-and-white. Later examples include Sin City (2005) and Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and even Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Even today, we can see the use of this classic form with the writer/director Guillermo del Toro being nominated for an Oscar for his classic noir styled film Nightmare Alley, and the newly released The Batman, a movie written and filmed to emphasize the Dark Knight as the world’s best detective, in a dark bleak Gotham City. With only the sultry and lethal Catwoman to understand him.

 Despite the setting, no matter what the time, film noir is an American art form, and just like America, it draws all to its shores.  

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