Frankly, My Dear, Search This Blog

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Anatomy of a Film Noir

Okay, so this here is going to be my submission for the Film Noir Contest at (once I finish this nervous prattle) I joined the contest maybe about two weeks ago, so I've had a lot of time to think it over... you'd think. Maybe I was a bit gallant into just jumping into this contest, though I figured I'd have plenty of time to do a little research and watch some film noir and all of that fun stuff.

But you've heard me say it and I'll say it again: the end of August is always quite busy for me, and I probably should have taken that into consideration upon entering the contest. But it looked fun, and I was all what the heck, why not? and yeah....

Now here you find me on my last day to enter for this contest, and I'm going to tell you right now that this post is probably not going to contend quite well. I don't know how many people have entered, but I know there are at least two others and they probably know a lot more about film noir then I do and their posts are probably going to be a thousand times better and this is going to really suck (no, I'm not fishing for compliments). I'm usually quite confident in my writing ability (not to be arrogant or anything), but this time I'm just...

The thing is in many ways, especially when it comes to my writing, I am a perfectionist (here is one of those cases where I share a habit of that every so lovely Lucille Ball), and this is probably far from perfect. But oh, well. (I seriously wish this was "last season" at Film Classics. That topic was the screwball comedy, and I would've done quite a bit better with it.)

Okay, okay, okay. You're tired of me rattling on here and I'd better get on with it. So I was not confident enough in my movie reviewing skills, so I decided to take the plunge (why not? I'm already making a fool of myself) and do an anatomy of your average film noir, and all the little things that make it film noir... and all of that... and... yes.

Well, voting for this will begin tomorrow (I'll also post a little reminder in tomorrow's post with a link to do voting and all of that)... so if you can bring yourself to vote for this way too humble contribution, you know what to do. (More on that tomorrow).


Here's a spiffy little banner made by yours truly for the event. To try and win you all over. I chose Rita Hayworth from "Gilda" because it happens to be one of my first - and favorite - film noir.

The room is dimly lit as expected. He sits on the table making his way through the pack of cigarettes. The moonlight slips through the Venetian blinds, casting its shadow across his fedora- framed face. He stubs out the cigarette and reaches for a new one. The fiery ember of the match glows like a small beacon of light in the dark room as he holds it up to the cigarette and lets out a big cloud of smoke.

Suddenly, the door opens a crack and a little bit of light from the outside world dares to sneak in with her. She stands in the light for a moment, projecting a silhouette of her figure before his eyes. Quietly, he draws the cigarette away from his lips and says something smart. She shuts the door behind her and takes soft, swift steps toward him.

Now she stands in the glow of the moonlight. The striped shadows from the blinds obscure her face, but most of it becomes revealed  - full lips covered in rouge, and eyes downcast and lined with kohl, hair soft and in silky waves around her face. She says something smarter, then takes the cigarette out of his fingers and places it to her own lips. She blows smoke into his face with a smirk, then returns it to its rightful owner with rings of smeared lipstick on the cigarette.

This is a typical scene from a film noir movie. You may call it a cliche, but almost every film noir has got it and if the movie is any good, it becomes something less than stereotypical but something special and enchanting. It has all the ingredients. The leading man. He may have suave, cool exterior with a fedora on his head and a cigarette in his hand, but the fact remains that we're always watching out for him. We know how gullible he is and how he will succumb to the feet of the femme fatale - or, otherwise known as the curvaceous shadow across the room. She's more clever than him, you, and me combined. 

Film noir is an enchanting genre of film. It's the type you watch on a dark night. Not to scare yourself, but more or less to entice yourself. Each type of genre has a way of pulling you in - splashy musicals do so with big, obnoxious song and dance routines. Screwball comedy usually has the main players land up in some sort of a wild situation (maybe chasing after a leopard). However, film noir is a lot more subtle as it drags you in. It usually starts with the femme fatale.

We all like the guys, but let's face it: it's the femme fatale that really has us on the edge of our seats. As soon as she walks into the room under the shadows of those Venetian blinds, you know she's going to be trouble. You can tell by the way her lips curl up at the ends, or maybe it's something in her eyes, or maybe it's the fact you know you're watching film noir. But, if played right, the femme fatale will nearly fool you. When I first watched Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck actually had me nearly liking the Phyllis Dietrichson character. I knew she was bad and I knew she was going to get Fred MacMurrary into some awful trouble. Yet, you almost want it to be that it's not so. You almost think that the guy, that he's doing the right thing by helping her out.

We're both rotten.
Only, you're a little more rotten.

Phyllis was really the perfect femme fatale. For those of you that are not familiar with "Double Indemnity" (though I can imagine there are not that many of you),  it stars Barbara Stanwyck as the fatale in mention and Fred MacMurray as Walter, the victim of her trap. It's pretty simple enough: Phyllis lures Walter into her web and ties him up quite awfully.... basically, she gets him to murder her husband. The results can only be dangerous.

femme fatale, noun - 
an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into difficult, dangerous, or disastrous situations; siren. []

Walter gets trapped pretty bad, as characters of his type usually do. The femme fatale have a mysterious attitude, but we know their tricks and why they do it (and in many cases, we know where it roots from), so we often feel like we know them better than their victims. Though us viewers often land up in the same boat as the Walter, he is usually a character without much depth. He's a nice guy, an ordinary Joe. The femme fatale makes him doing things he'd never consider, and suddenly he finds himself with a bullet in his side or a gun at someone's head, or something really awful or exciting like that.

Another good example of the femme fatale is Gilda from the movie of the same name. Played by Rita Hayworth, she is one of my favorite "hate to love" fatales. Though she does not exactly make Glenn Ford's character kill for her, she does emotionally drain him inside and out all while "putting the blame on Mame" for doing so.  Gilda also dressed as the perfect fatale, particularly in that famous scene where she is dancing in the  gravity defying, shiny black dress and tossing her perfectly conditioned hair.

A very crucial moment of the average film noir is when the fatale and her victim first meet. In "Double Indemnity", Fred MacMurrary walks into the room, looks up the grand staircase and finds Barbara Stanwyck in a towel with a bracelet around her ankle.

In "Gilda", Glenn Ford happens to walk into the room just as Rita is dancing about the room and flipping that hair. Once she comes up for air, she meets eyes with her victim for the first time.

This is a essential moment. And from now on, it doesn't matter if he's married or she's married or whatever else may stand in their way, you know they're going to (very drastically) land up together. Or rather, she's going to jump on him like a spider (in the words of Mammy to Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind").

When one thinks of the stereotypical film noir, these movies and these key players and moments and all of that comes to mind. Though film noir is not always limited to a femme fatale and her prey. Really, any other dark film with dark lighting and a breath of fatality in the air can be considered a film noir. Let's take a look at some less stereotypical film noir --

A very good example is the 1950 "Sunset Boulevard", with William Holden and Gloria Swanson. I really hope all of you have seen this because it is such an enticingly wonderful movie that really draws you in and everyone should see it. Basically, Bill Holden plays a scriptwriter who finds himself living in the home of aging film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who wants him to take an idea she has for a comeback film and write a great script for it. This little task finds Holden's doomed character in a backwards love triangle... Norma's got designs on his character (as he discovers one painful New Year's Eve), but she's not really his type.

Too bad for him.

Once again, you have a victim and a femme fatale. Though Holden does make a great performance as the stereotypical victim, Gloria Swanson's Norma is not your usual femme fatale. She draws Holden into her trap in ways he didn't expect and nearly blackmails him into staying with her at the mansion. That's why I consider Norma Desmond a total femme fatale. Whether Holden's character likes it or not, he gets stuck in Norma's trap, and things get a little dangerous to say the least.

Mr. DeMille? She's ready for her close up.

Swanson's Norma may go completely against the typical typecasting for a femme fatale (sultry, cool, a little brazen), but a lot of the characteristics of the typical femme fatale exists in this character. For example - she's cunning and tricky. Though her methods may be different (she pulls on Bill Holden's emotions; Phyllis Dietrichson seduced Walter), she does land up trapping her prey.

They call "Mildred Pierce", the 1945 drama that won Joan Crawford the Oscar for the title character of the same name, film noir. The femme fatale can be identified in Ann Blyth as Veda, Mildred's selfish daughter who wreaks havoc for Joan Crawford -- who, in this case, is the victim. It is completed with low key lighting and a dark tone.

Mildred is compelled to love the conniving Veda because she is, above all, her daughter.

The dark, dimly lit lighting of a film noir cinches the deal. Take my the little tidbit I wrote earlier in the post -- this scene would not have the same dramatic effect if filmed in the regular black and white. Instead, a sharp, crisp contrast between the two shades (with a little gray in between), usually splitting a character's face into two, hams up the drama. Shadows are also often utilized - silhouettes add mystery and suspense. The smoke coming from the character's cigarettes add a smoky, clouded feel into already dark room. Select lighting on the femme fatale's eyes was also a commonly used trick.

Alan Ladd striking a sinister pose in a classic example of using lighting for an effect

We can learn a lot from the character and what role they will play in the movie from the first moment they appear on screen - and more importantly, the way they are lit. A character may be lit from the bottom to give a menacing look, or may be lit from behind to look vague or moody. Spotlighting the femme fatale's eyes are another commonly used trick.

To wrap up this post, let's take a quick look at the most familiar actors and actresses of the film noir genre. We can usually find
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Barbara Stanwyck
  • On occasion, Rita Hayworth
  • Robert Mitchum
  • James Cagney
  • Joan Crawford
in film noir.

Does film noir still exist? To stretch the term, there are films that have been made post-Golden Era that people like to consider film noir.... femme fatale and all. However, the core of true film noir will always be in the 1940's and 50's, when it was at it's peek of highest popularity.... and besides. They don't make them like they used to.

Film noir is really such an enticing, attractive style of film making. It offers us a different escape into the movie world - a world where there are really no happily ever afters and instead moody, manipulative characters who travel down darkly lit streets and damp alleyways into their own deathly fates. 

 Though I have not yet really journeyed far into this genre, researching and preparing for writing this post  have got me excited about watching more from this particular era of film making. I hope you've enjoyed my little two cents on the subject.


Okay, that's all, folks. Polls open tomorrow and I'm inviting everyone to check out the other posts and cast your votes. I tried my hardest on this.... and well, I hope it wasn't too awful.

Thanks for bearing with me. :)


Anonymous said...

That was a very well written piece. I particularly liked the beginning, where you so adequately described the scene. In fact, I wish you had started the post with it. No need to excuse yourself for the text, as it was great.
By the way, do you intend to pursue a writing career? 'Cause you're really very good at it.

David said...

Hello Rianna,

A seriously well written and amazing post! I'm so glad you wrote this one up - film noir is my favorite movie genre, and you portrayed it beautifully.

Gilda is definitely among my favorite film noirs, along with the Big Sleep and Notorious. I'm looking forward to all your next posts (definitely going to watch this blog), you have quite a talent! ;-)

Take care,

Meredith said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, as you talked about several of my favorite films and/or actors!

Natalie said...

Well, Rianna, thanks for officially smashing my chances of placing even sort of decently in the film noir contest. ;) That was amazing and a half. Bravo!

Rianna said...

classicmovies - I'm glad you enjoyed it. :) ... That's a wonderful compliment to me, particularly because I most certainly would consider a writing career! Thank you ;)

David - Thank you!!! I really enjoyed "Notorious", it's one of my favorite films. I guess in my nervousness over writing this post it slipped my mind... but it's truly one of my favorites. And by the way, thank you for hosting! :)

Meredith - Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

Natalie - Aww! But are you kidding?? I haven't read your post for this yet but I'm sure it will be wonderful times ten - and much, much better than mine. Can't wait to read yours. ;)

Unknown said...

I adored the way you started the post, the way you described the scene, you write so beautifully! And I've been meaning to watch Sunset Boulevard for ages, now I want to even more!

Natalie said...

Yes. I was kidding. :) I can't wait for the contest to start! :)

Rianna said...

Maria Sofia - Thank you so much!!! :) And yes, you should watch it, it's a really good movie. ;)

Natalie - Me either ;)

Kevyn Knox said...

Good piece on the genre. It is nice to see someone so young so in love with classic film. So many younger people today just stick up their noses at anything made before 1980, let alone anything prior to 1950. Judging from your writing you have an obvious love for classic cinema. Keep up the great work.

Rianna said...

Thanks :) And I totally understand what you mean. A lot of kids my age probably think film noir is French cinema! Part of the reason I started blogging was to have a classic film community to interact with because my friends unfortunately don't share my love for the classics (which, of course, I can't understand)... anyhow, each to their own, I guess. Thanks for the comment! :)

jatin said...

There was some really refined use of words, nice to read..... u gained the interest of the reader, JK rowling of tomorrow for sure.
Although I haven's seen this movie , but now i'm agog to watch it.
Great piece of work.

Rianna said...

Thank you!!!! I can only hope so :) You should really see it and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Sharat said...

Rianna, unlike you am not good at writing or expressing myself. Your blog has really impressed me young lady. I am fifty plus so I may call you that. Your writing truly delights,it is well researched and very mature. As a techie kind of a guy I must say that your blog is really neat the visuals, the layout and the technology used very refined . Brilliant work keep at it . regards Sharat

Post a Comment

I love getting comments and appreciate them so much. Comments don't require moderator's approval but I will remove your comment if it is spam or offensive. Thank you.