Le Quai des Brumes (1938)

Film noir may be associated with Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s but it didn't start there.  It came from Europe, and if you need evidence of this then look no further than Le Quai des Brumes, directed by Marcel CarnĂ© and released in 1938.

In terms of European influence on film noir, we often hear about the German expressionist style which took off in the 1920s, but also of note is a school of film-making which is exemplified in Le Quai des Brumes, that of Poetic Realism.

What that means is that the crummy back-alley feel of film noir, and the often impoverished urban settings and doomed romances of film noir, evolved in part from films like Le Quai des Brumes.  

There is also even poetry in Poetic Realism, quite often in the fanciful speeches made by the characters.  In Le Quai des Brumes, there are a few of these speeches, but the most notable are made by the actor Robert le Vigan, who plays a painter who muses for a good few minutes on art and existential angst.

Robert le Vigan, famous collabo and fascist sympathiser, musing on art and life in Le Quai des Brumes

But Le Quai des Brumes has more going for it than just that, in terms of good old film noir credentials.  If you consider its cynical, tough hero (played by French cinema legend Jean Gabin) and thr profound sense of dread and uncertainty which permeates the film, you begin to get a feel for how it (and films like it) came to inspire the noir canon.  That's even before you've looked at the stark shadows featured in many scenes and the complexities and anxieties of the mid-century urban experience that are revealed as the action tours the underbelly of the city.

Shot / Countershot and Shadow / Countershadow
Like many film noirs, Le Quai des Brumes opens with a place name - in this case Le HavreThe Maltese Falcon, City on a Hunt, Chinatown at Midnight, Shadow of a Woman and Nora Prentiss all open with the words San Fancisco printed or said, but if these films are tour guides, then like Le Quai des Brumes, they are of a demented and dangerous kind.

As in film noir, the characters of Le Quai des Brumes are misfits and double-crossers, and although we see many familiar public spaces, like a main street, or the fair, or the docks, these are places of violence and murder.

It appeared that the world wasn't quite ready for this level of noir in 1938, and while Le Quai des Brumes was widely enjoyed, the moral arbiters of the world were not ready for something that was so deparved that it focused not only on crime, but on a man who lies his way into bed with a woman, and a woman that is happy to be lied to for this end.  It is also a tragic tale, which makes a hero of an army deserter, something that was not popular when the war began, and so it was pulled from the cinemas for a while, despite winning a major French award.

Jean Gabin's character in Le Quai des Brumes is not an innocent man, but he is a moral hero, always standing up for what is right, despite his murky past.  And of course, in classic noir mode, it is this moral stance against the criminals of society that gets him into trouble.

Le Quai des Brumes was certainly well-made however.  The camera work, acting, direction and scene-setting are all top drawer and make it well worth watching today, as does the music, which is perfectly evocative of the hope, romance, hopelessness and menace the film presents.  

There is something else, and that is the fact that in Le Quai des Brumes there is a full on, genuine, wonderful, heartstring-tugging love story, showing two pure-hearted people loving each other with no malice or ulterior motives.  You don't often see that in film noir, but it is a great aspect of Le Quai des Brumes, the amazing hope expressed in the love story.

Perhaps that is down to the so-called Poetic Realism of the movie.  Either way, you can grab a sense of what that music is like by watching this trailer for Le Quai des Brumes:

The Birth of Film Noir

In Paris in the 1940s there were many cinema clubs at which audiences could view a good variety of films and then discuss them all night long.  

The Cinematheque was for many young people a place of learning as much as it was a place of entertainment, and although they were generally small, these clubs were popular because they weren't owned by any studios and didn't feature tiresome newsreels, or the more well-known presentations that packed out the larger movie-houses.

During the Occupation of France by the Nazis, the import of Hollywood films was banned, which meant that that the French missed out on an amazingly fertile period of Amercian cinema, and this included many of the early crime-thrillers we now call film noir.

After the war, these films arrived in France in quick succession, and it must have been a real feast, as the young French audiences of 1946 and 1947 caught up on nearly ten years of American cinema, including masterpieces by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the effects of this was that it was easier for these audiences to spot trends and recurring themes, and this was how film noir came to be first identified.  One other aspect of this was the birth of the idea of the auteur.  Again, this came about by dint of all of these films from America arriving in short succession, allowing audiences to quickly bracket what they were watching by director, as well as by theme.

Odd as it may sound, nobody in the 1940s went to the cinema as they do today saying 'let's go and see the new Woody Allen film . . . or the new Lars von Trier . . . ' because this was a convention that had not yet materialised.

But what we recognise today as film noir was immediately apparent in the films of the French New Wave.  Many of the French directors of the 1950s and 1960s had digested these American movies and this is clear in what they produced - films featuring suave men and powerful and attractive women, cigarette smoke, and a deep-set urban paranoia; all of these things came from the American films of the 1940s, images and ideas that the French new Wave directors very much enjoyed.

Film noir was a stylistic and thematic trend as opposed to a genre, and for many years, as I've said, the idea of film noir was known only to the French.  

In the late sixties however, the term began appearing in English and American film criticism, and one of the first times it was discussed at length in English-speaking criticism was in 1970 in an article called The Family Tree of Film Noir which was by by Raymond Durgnat.  This article contained what Durgnat identified as eleven film noir themes, and although he was helpful in defining the movement, it was a very broad article, which also created a little confusion.

In recation to this essay, and in 1972, a more coherent view of what film noir might be appeared in an essay by Paul Schrader called Notes on Film Noir, in which he pointed out that one of Raymond Durgnat's key concepts was that film noir was not a genre, but more of a movement, or a style.  He says:
"It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood."

Paul Schrader then went on to describe what he believed to be some of the key components of film noir, such as the strong contrasts in lighting, the use of voice-over narration and the flashback structures often employed.  He also pointed out noir's roots in German expressionism and French poetic realism and the hard-boiled tradition in American writing.
Raymond Durgnat, early essayist on film noir

With the contrast between Raymond Durgnat's rather vague description of what film noir was and what Schrader felt it to be ...  so began the debating about what was and what was not film noir.  

Some define film noir narrowly (Schrader) and others define it broadly (Durgnat). 

Most folks tend towards the Schrader side of things, because it was Paul Schrader who, in particular, restricted the trend to the 1940s and 1950s.  This means that a film like Scarface (1932) can definitely not be classed as film noir, despite what some like to argue.

Despite their now being hundreds of books (and blogs) on film noir there is still stuff to investigate in those films.  First, there is a political aspect of film noir, and its reaction to the HUAC hearings, and the influence the Production Code had on it.  Double Indemnity as an example was critical in addressing the Code.  It is incredible to think that all through the 1940s and 1950s, this Code dominated movie production.  Even when Billy Wilder came to make The Seven Year Itch in 1955, he was still severely restricted by the Code, which stated that adultery could not be shown in a comedy.

Then there are a lot of film noir women's pictures, about paranoia and about new gender roles - proving that there is still a lot to discuss.  

Even though this trend we call film noir is restricted to two decades in American cinema, there is still a lot of arguing to be had, not just about what is and isn't film noir, but what it said about the Amercian society of the day.

Paul Schrader's seminal essay Notes on Film Noir


Raymond Durgnat Online



How Did Walter Neff Change His Mind in Double Indemnity?

Few people in the golden age of the silver screen had screen-writing so neatly nailed as did Billy Wilder.  

A great example crossed my mind the other day when I was considering Double Indemnity (1944).  I recalled that when Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson first approaches Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, and she suggests that they get involved in a murder plot, he rejects her suggestion out of hand.  

And yet, only one and a half minutes of screen time passes, before he has changed his mind.

How did Billy Wilder achieve this, and to any convincing degree?  

I loaded the film to find out, and so began a masterclass in screenwriting economy.

Before I show you how it goes, I should warn you budding scriptwriters not to try this at home.  Such miraculous and tight storytelling is only safe in the hands of the masters of the 1940s and 1950s.  Films are generally an hour longer today than they were then anyway, so you maybe don't need these object lessons in brevity and control.



THE SCENE: Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) about 20 minutes in.

"You bet I'll get outta here, baby.  I'll get outta here but quick!"

After a flirtatious scene with Phyllis Dietrichson that turns sour on the sofa, Walter Neff leaves the house with the words, "You bet I'll get outta here, baby.  I'll get outta here but quick!"  She has suggested murder, but he won't have any of it.

Walter Neff leaves the Dietrichson place, daylight.

Then voice-over commences as Walter Neff leaves the Dietrichson place: "So I let her have it staright between the eyes.  She didn't fool me for a minute, not this time. I knew I had hold of a red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand off."

"Only I wanted it worse now."

The voice-over continues: "I stopped at a drive-in for a bottle of beer, the one I had wanted all along.  Only I wanted it worse now, to get rid of the sour taste of her iced tea, and everything that went with it."

Cut to: "I didn't want to go back to the office so I dropped by a bowling alley on Third and Western and rolled a few lines, to get my mind thinking about something else for a while."

"I didn't feel like eating dinner."
After the next cut it's dark and Walter Neff's car arrives home as the voice-over continues: "I didn't feel like eating dinner when I left, and I didn't feel like a show, so I drove home, put the car away, and went up to my apartment."

"I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker."
Then Walter Neff is inside his apartment.  The voice-over continues in classic film noir style: "It began to rain outside and I watched it get dark. I didn't even turn on the light.  That didn't help me either. I was all twisted up inside and I was still holding on to that red-hot poker.  And right then it came over me that I hadn't walked out on anything at all, that the hook was too strong, that this wasn't the end between her and me.  It was only the beginning."
Amazingly only 70 seconds of screen time have passed and Walter Neff has convincingly converted from morally outraged insurance agent to complicit murderer.  And the scene continues:
"So at eight o'clock the bell would ring and I'd know who it was without even having to think, as if it was the most natural thing in the world."  

As Neff answers the door, the voice-over quits and the dialogue begins again, with Phyllis Dietrichson saying: "Hello."


There can only be two further notes of significance.  The first is that the bottle of beer in the second cut represents Phyllis Dietrichson's body, which as Walter Neff says, he wants.  

Slightly more curious is the question as to why does Walter Neff say that he watched it get dark, when night had already fallen?

This is for the same reason that Neff says that it is raining outside.  Of course it never rains anywhere else other than outside, and so the implication is placed in the viewer's mind, that it is not only raining inside Walter Neff, but also that is where the darkness is falling.

Deep! But effective.

Fait accompli, and scriptwriting capacity at its height.  And that is ladies and gentlemen, how Billy Wilder had Walter Neff change his mind, in under 90 seconds of screen time.

Double Indemnity at Wikipedia

James M. Cain and the Boom of Sex and Violence in 1940s Film Noir

It hadn't always been that way.  Back in the very earliest days of cinema, the films themselves had been novelties, simplistic selections of short scenes, and  often quite random.  

On many occasions, the film wasn't even the main attraction, but having said that, the content of the films began to come to the attention of the more morally minded members of society.

A good example from this time might be Carmencita (1894), a 21 second film directed and produced by Edison employee William K.L. Dickson.

In the film, shot in New Jersey, a Spanish dancer named Carmencita was quite possibly the first female to appear in a US motion picture. In some states, the projection of this scandalous film was forbidden, however, because it revealed Carmencita's legs and undergarments as she twirled and danced - - making this one of the earliest cases of censorship in the moving picture industry.

Two of the great breakthrough films of 1903 were The Great Train Robbery, and the film which inspired it which was called A Daring Daylight Burglary, and which was made in Sheffield, in England.  

What was notable about these two films was that they were among the first to string several scenes together in a narrative fashion, and not only were they both huge hits, but you will see from the titles that they were also crime films.


Here is A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) which was ambitiously shot in three days at a cost of £25. It was massively successful in Britain and abroad and between 500 and 600 copies were sold, including an American order for 100 copies.  It was also extensively pirated in the US amd was the primary influence on Edwin S Porter's classic The Great Train Robbery (1903), the film which is said to have originated the American action movie.
The first tentative moves in the US towards an organised censoring of the movies against the combined threat of sex and violence came in 1908, with the setting up of the National Board of Censorship.  Inevitably, and because it was a voluntary board and was in the pay of the industry, the National Board of Censorship ran aground.  The Board had started in New York, and its standards didn't prove worthy of the entire US, and so a self-regulating body called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (it later became the MPAA) was set up in 1922, under the direction of the Postmaster General Will H. Hays - - hence its common name, the Hays Office.

Hays' office made a list of things that were not to appear in movies, such as nudity ('in fact or in silhouette'), ridicule of the clergy, and 'sex relationships between the white and black races'. Also on the list was the fact that no sympathy was to be shown for criminals, and special care was to be used in the display of firearms and crimes in general.

The list as such proved to be too narrow to satisfy Hays, and worse, Hays also lacked the power to enforce his judgements, and so in 1930 he was finally able to establish the Production Code, which was to affect everything that came out of Hollywood for the next quarter of a century.  The Code was to be a stick which was to regularly whip and bash film noir, more than any other type of film.  

The Production Code was announced as follows in the press of the day:
A new code of conduct was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distibutors Association at a meeting of the board of directors of that organisation yesterday, at their offices, 469 Fifth Avenue ... The new code is generally considered an outgrowth of severe criticism by prominent churchmen, who charge that the moral character of audiences is being under mined by the sort of action they see on the screen.

New York Times April 1930

In finishing, the New York Times summed the code up as follows:
  • Law, natural and human shall not be ridiculed, and
  • Sympathy shall not be created for the violaters of the law
Despite these efforts, movie makers didn't always stick the Production Code.  An example was witnessed in Howard Hughes' battle with many state censors in 1932, over the release of Howard Hawk's Scarface, which was a basic rendering of the Al Capone story.  

In 1934 however, a certain Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia moved the goalposts significantly towards heaven and began a wholesale boycott of cinema in toto, arguing that a huge proporation of what was shown was still about sex and violence.  

In June that year, 50,000 Catholics took the pledge at once, vowing never to go to the cinema - - and so a frightened movie industry set up a further department called The Production Code Administration Office, and from this point on producers became very careful that they submitted treatments and scripts long in advance of production.

One result of this was that James M. Cain suddenly found that his deal for his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice fell through, just when it was looking like being payday for him - - and the same happened in 1936 when his novel Double Indemnity was dropped, after initially finding itself in the middle of a five-way bidding deal. 

In both cases it was the report from the Hays Office that nixed the deal to bits, as these reports saw the deals and film treatments cancelled and canned.  Cain recorded the event as follows (quoted by Max Decharne in the book Hardboiled Hollywood):
That afternoon the Hays Office report came in, and it started 'Under no circumstances...' and ended up '...way shape or form.'  My agent asked me if I wanted to hear what was in between, and I told him I could guess.

Double Indemnity then, when it was finally filmed in 1944, was something of a breakthough picture for Hollywood, in that it showed the studios that the world was ready for tougher subjects, presented in the hard-boiled style.  In fcat, Double Indemnity possibly paved the way for the whole post-war film noir boom, and was maybe a part of a partial climb down in attitude from the Hays Office, which with the war raging over the world, was maybe obliged to take a more realistic attitude to violence.

James M. Cain was all of a sudden a filmable author, even though he received $10,000 less for the rights for Double Indemnity than he had been offered in 1936.  In the wake of the success of Double Indemnity (1944) however, adaptations of Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) were quick to follow, and all three of these turned out to be classic, seminal film noirs.

Cain was interviewed about this dark new trend in the movies in 1946, in an article for the New York Times entitled CRIME CERTAINLY PAYS ON THE SCREEN, in which he is quoted as saying the following:
The reason Hollywood is making so many of these so-called hard-boiled crime pictures is simply that the producers are now belatedly realzing that these stories make good movies.  the public is fed up with the old melodramatic type of hokum.
While melodrama continued to be as popular as ever, this quote from James M. Cain still suggests that there was a sudden boom in the 1940s of films that we now identify as film noir, and that among other factors, this might have been something to do with the production codes that had evolved in the previous decades.

This still from Double Indemnity shows all you see of the murder in the movie.  You don't see the act, and instead the camera focuses on Barbara Stanwyck's face, which glazes over with a cruel finality. 
The murder scene from DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
The body is removed from the vehicle in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Likewise, you don't see the body of the murder victim, other than in this split second shot as Fred MacMurray drags it from the car - - and you don't see the murderous, adulterous couple dumping the body either - - but instead you just see them staring at in horrific fascination.  

As with much in cinema, the audience probably felt they had seen the murder, but of course, thanks to the subtelties of Billy Wilder's direction, and the overall fear of the code - - they saw nothing at all.

James M. Cain at WIKIPEDIA

Image of James M. Cain by Herrick at de.wikipedia (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons and is found at this page

Image of Production Code cover leaf sourced at this page