Were Alfred Hitchcock Films Film Noir? #1

Are the films of Alfred Hitchcock to be considered as Film Noir?

At the risk of offending the many film students, film noir fans, Hitchcockians, Wellesians, noirists and all the other afficianados the globe over ... we'd hazard the answer to the question Were Alfred Hitchcock Films Film Noir? is NOPE.

This is because Alfred Hitchcock's films inhabit a place of their own, and are broader in style and type than film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock's films could be described as crime, thriller, suspense, drama, gothic horror, psychological thriller, and a bunch of other definitions on top of those. And it is this breadth of styles that suggests that while Hitchcock may have made many film noirs, this wasn't an essential part of his style.

Hitchcock is there and he is not. He's represented well in all the Halls of Noir, but none of his films ever come into the category of true classic all-time favourite noir.

Or do they?

True, film noir uses uses a lot of these elements and plays on them in different ways, but noir is much more limited, and is pretty much restricted to the 1940s and 1950s. For film noir, there needs to not just be crime, but a psychological element too. There needs to be paranoia, and this usually extends more than Alfred Hitchcock shows. Finally, Hitchcock also liked glamour, light and colour, whereas noir tends to be drab, downbeat and essentially black and white. 

The wrongly-accused male, or the case of mistaken identity, these are fine Hitchcock themes. Amnesia, false memory, paranoia, or some impending or unforseen doom that defies explanation, these are also common to film noir and to an extent many of Hitchcock's films, although Hitchcock's film subjects went far beyond these.

There are many connections in fact, so many that Hitchcock can be seen best as adjacent to film noir for several decades, always present but never fully taking part.
What's more, Hitchcock admired Cornell Woolrich and used several of his stories on his weekly TV show, but he only adapted one Woolrich story into a feature film, and that was Rear Window (1954), which on one hand is a mystery thriller, but has huge commonalities with film noir.

Cornell Woolrich is key to this question of Alfred Hitchcock and film noir. Woolrich was admired for his ability to create suspense and terror, and many film noirs use plot devices and ideas that were first used by Woolrich.  While Hitchcock and Woolrich may have been kindred spirits in their obsession with paranoia, misidentity and the mistrust of authority, Hitchcock's work spans a much greater range.

Could it be said then that film noir owes more to Hitchcock then Hitchcock owes to film noir?

It's a fair suggestion, esepcially if you break down the list of Alfred Hitchcock films that could be classed as film noir. It's odd, but Hitchcock didn't leave any of those classic, surefire, do-or-die 100% film noirs that we have grown to identify as holding prime positions in the canon. But then Alfred Hitchcock was his very own canon, and he didn't sit well anywhere, other than in the affcetions of audiences. Neither The Birds (1963) nor Psycho (1960), for example, are simply classifiable as horror, and yet that is where they generally sit, for structural reasons.

Either way we certainly don't see enough Salvador Dali in film, and this is the sort of amazing treat that Hitchcock can offer that just raises him into his own universe. Incidentally, we don't see psychiatric advisors often given such prominence either, in our movies' credit sequences!

In terms of that dark crossover suburb in which Alfred Hitchcock meets film noir, there are the many feature films to consider. There can certainly be said to be strong film noir elements, overtones, characters and tropes in the following black and white pictures:
  • Strangers on a Train

  • Shadow of a Doubt

  • Notorious

  • I Confess

  • The Paradine Case

  • Rebecca

  • Suspicion

  • Spellbound

Of the colour films made by Alfred Hitchcock, film noir elements remain in:

  • Rear Window

  • Rope (1948)

  • Dial M For Murder

  • North by Northwest

  • Vertigo

  • Marnie (1964)

  • Psycho

A lot of Alfred Hitchcock films do not have a femme fatale, but rather it is an homme fatale that is the focus. Think of Sean Connery as Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964). Also Gregory Peck in Spellbound is a male replica of the hysterical female, so beloved of the era's women's pictures and many of its film noirs.

Hitchcock's films have a certain slickness to them too, and that kind of loses a bit of the noir "B" level feel, and you sense that someone is always in strong control of the film. In many noirs, the hand of the director is not so evident, and the films exude feelings of chaos, loss of direction, despair, feverishness, and accelerating fate that just drags the audience in, and sometimes fast.

Surely I Confess (1953) has to be a film noir ... with photography like this?

It is probably a signature quality for film noir in fact that the audience should have that feeling of  having lost their bearings, and that is not at all the Hitchock feel - Hitchcock's style being a control, which keadfs the audience by the hand.

So there is no Hitchcock film which actually feels like fully classic noir, you know . . . like The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, The Killers, and any of many from that supericonic list.

But there are Hitchcock films that are absolutely in the noir family. Still, so much of this is really subjective, and worth digging into deeper, farther, darker and harder.

Were Alfred Hitchcock Films Film Noir? #2




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