Spolier Alert!



 Spoiler alert! We're about to discuss the ending of a lot of film noir movies! So stop reading now if you haven't seen any yet.


When talking about a movie to an audience that has not yet seen the movie, this phrase is used by a speaker to warn that they are about to reveal plot details that may be surprising or unexpected.

SPOILER ALERT!


The idea is that revealing certain plot details will detract from the natural viewing experience, so the warning serves as an opportunity for people to stop listening or reading.

Love in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Dix, played my Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle
The Classic Film Noir SPOLIER ALERT is in place here. Usual message: this film was made in 1950 so you've had 70 years to see it. There will be spoilers.

Domestically, he's a nightmare. He lives with the most charming young woman you've ever seen, and all he can do is sit and curse about how the universe has kicked him down.

She dotes on him. Him and his filthy vest and bum's battered hat.

This is the lost love life of Dix, the thug from down the tracks in The Asphalt Jungle.

He's tough about not doing the dishes and lives like a loser, hands clasped, angrily focusing on the negative, steaming about one day 'making it big'.

Then at work (Dix works as a thug) he bitches around there too, bullying and grumbling. With his colleagues, being touchy about everything is a point of homour with Dix. He enters the room in a stink and with a shitty stare, half asleep within angry thoughts.

Then he goes back home, hangdog, to find that the woman who loves him (flawed as she is for even doing so) is leaving him. Dix doesn't even know how to try and stop her. Just asks for her address, like the hulking big half-shaven confused-ass faced looking disappointment he is.

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 Carné 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

San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

San Francisco is something of an idée fixe in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941).


In fact the first words on the screen when the film begins are the words SAN FRANCISCO which precede the film's action.

It goes a bit deeper than that though!

Just as in the novel by Dashiel Hammet, The Maltese Falcon charts Sam Spade's disjointed and incoherent chase around the city in great detail, and with a weird accuracy that simply must be trying to make a point.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Bob le flambeur (1956)
Bob le flambeur (1956)
For the lover of film noir, and the dedicatee of American cinema, there is Jean-Pierre Melville's 1956 movie Bob le flambeur.

Mai oui, Bob le flambeur is a French film, but in many ways it could barely be more American.

It was made by director Jean-Pierre Melville who was obsesed with all things American, and who loved the gangster films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s so much, that he made many of his own.

In Bob Le Flambeur, we find is the first great hommage to noir, for Bob Le Flambeur is an outsider's view of American cinema, an attempt to make an American style film on foreign soil.  The story features many film noir elements — it is set in the criminal underworld of a big city, and features a loner who at various times works on both sides of the law, even though he is essntrially a crook. The urban settings and the odd camera angles will alos be familiar to viewers of classic film noir, as will be one of the main themes — a man undone because of a woman.

San Francisco Noir by Nathaniel Rich

San Francisco Nor by Nathaniel Rich
San Francisco Nor by Nathaniel Rich
San Francisco Noir -  The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present by Nathaniel Rich wears out a resepctable slab of shoe leather in tracking down some famous locations from movies ranging from The House Across the Bay (1940) to Twisted (2004).

The book revisits 41 movies, some of which are classic film noir, othres which might be better classed as late twentieth century crime shockers.

Although many of the locations are gone, or maybe didn't even exist in the first place (as in the case of The House on Telegraph Hill), San Francisco Noir doesn't linger too long on anyfilm, and offers much needed geographical analysis, as opposed to film criticism. 

The film criticism is there, but it's to the point, journalistic, and snappy.  This is from Nathaniel Rich's writing on Out of the Past (1947):

Rarely do movie stars have any difficulty faking a tear or a temper tantrum.  But few can convincingly act humble.  As Out of the Past's Kirk Douglas sai, "Making movies is a form of narcissism."  Robert Mitchum is the exception:  he was so skilled at self-deprecation that he convinced several generations of film  critics (another group not particularly inclined to humility_ that he was a bad actor.  His sleep-walk and his famously inert face—his eyes peering out as if from behind a mold of aspic—was readily misconstrued as a blank acting style.

Tropes Vs Richard Widmark in Film Noir #1

Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)
An article from 1975 by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema argues that although masculinity may be the normative from which femininity is described, masculinity in itself may not be one simple and unchallenged construction.

Masculinity in the movies still revolves around some pretty basic ideals — heroism — toughness — dominance — and in the body of the mainstream (superhero films, crime films, sci-fi, fantasy and comedy etc) the men will always outnumber women substantially.  The industry in fact prefers to remain stereotypical in its gender portrayal, and tends to be demeaning of women, giving them secondary roles, and usually the kind of tropes that feminists have highlighted in decades of criticism.

While this may be the case in the present day, the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s shows us that this was a time of crisis in the Hollywood representation of the male.

Often, commentators point to the sense of loss felt by men as they returned from World War 2 to find that women had left the home and were now running the workplace. This is one reason why in film noir, we just about always see what is called the weakened male lead.

All this means is that the men in film noir, are somehow diminished in terms of that normative portrayal. In Hollywood before film noir, and pretty much after the film noir era also, men engineer the happy ending, triumph over the baddies, and as it happens, the story told in most films, over most genres, is that the man gets the woman at the end, and that the whole thing has been one long mating ritual. It's rarely the other way around.

Tropes Vs Women in Film Noir

women in film noir
... who is she going to be today?
Sylvia Harvey in the book Woman's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir, in an essay titled Women in Film Noir, states that women in noir tend to conform to two types:  'the exciting childless whores, or the potentially childbearing sweethearts.'

Today I'd like to offer two more types of women who appear throughout the cycle of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s.  These will be the Female Seeker Hero and the Paranoid Woman.

There is a long established tendency not just in film but in all art to define women in relation to men. We all know about the film noir femme fatale but other female types are less discussed, so here is a quick look at them.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
Jane Wyatt and Lee J. Cobb

The Man Who Cheated Himself, 1950 film noir and available free from archive.org - directed by Felix E. Feist and starring Lee. J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt and John Dall.


For anyone who isn't only enjoying the film noir feel of skid row, but is actually living on skid row and can't afford to rent any movies, free film noir is an invaluable source of entertainment.  

Free in this instance just means free of copyright, but of course this generally means you can watch a bunch of these films on archive.org or on public uploads made to YouTube.

Directors beware. Failure to renew copyright can default your masterpiece to the List of Films in the Public Domain in the USA.

Where Does Poetic Realism Fit in to Film Noir?

If we are going to get anywhere with this film noir thing, we have to understand Poetic Realism.  For once, let's not got to WIKIPEDIA.  Instead, I'll try and call this one in pictures of Jean Gabin.

The story goes that when film noir surfaced in America in the early 1940s, it was the product of a mixing of current American themes with two stylistic strands from Europe, the first being German Expressionism and the second being Poetic Realism.

C'EST QUOI CE POETIC REALISM?

It's hard to define this topic of Poetic Realism however, without mentioning another whole heap of -isms, but that is what European art was always about.

It's the difference between movement and genre.  Genres have names like — thriller — comedy — action and adventure — romance — and so forth, and that's because genres are used to create and market certain expectations.

Isms however, such as Poetic Realism, are not so easy to market.  And film noir, if it is anything, is an ism, not a genre.

New York Confidential (1955)

The Kefauver Committee
Frank Castello appearing before the Kefauver Committee
In the wake of the televised Kefauver hearings which revealed the extent of organised crime in the USA to a fascinated public, Broderick Crawford stepped up to camera to play a leading member of a syndicate, in its Manhattan headquarters, in the movie New York Confidential.

The television broadcast of the Kefauver committee's hearings had attracted huge public interest and informed the public about issues of municipal corruption and organized crime.

An estimated 30 million Americans tuned in to watch the live proceedings in March 1951, and so it was no surprise that the popularity of these broadcasts would lead to a brief rash of exposé crime films.  It might have seemed like life was imitating the movies, but film noir fans will know that during the 1940s and 1950s, film noir had been prodding away at America's underbelly, and exposing a world of crime, deceit and greed.

The first one of these films was probably The Captive City (1952), which was produced with the blessing of senator Kefauver himself, who appears in the prologue and epilogue, informing viewers about the evils of organized crime.  Other notable examples of exposé films include Hoodlum Empire (1952) and The Turning Point (1952), but the best of them by far is New York Confidential (1955)