Film Noir and Neo Noir Investigation
By Ben Wyre
Film Noir is an artistic movement expressed through film that began in the early 1940s in response to 1939; World War II. The particular movement reflected on the cultural context of America, representing attitudes felt by many through Hollywood crime dramas. These attitudes were comprised of paranoia, fled fascism, criminality and nihilism. A prime example of Film Noir is Billy Wilder’s 1944 crime drama ‘Double Indemnity’, a film about an insurance rep who lets himself be talked into an insurance fraud scheme by a charming housewife. This artistic movement lost relevance to society as war had not been experienced for so long, meaning people had not undergone significant pain and loss until 1962; the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the first war to be broadcasted for families to watch from home, screening disturbing and controversial images to people across the world. Thus these attitudes from Film Noir were rejuvenated in a movement known as Neo Noir (‘new’ noir). This movement upheld the same values of Film Noir except in a more civilised manner through means of technological advancement and a deeper understanding of camerawork and film. Neo Noir is now approximately a 44-year old style of film still being used today by western contemporary society. An example of Neo Noir is Nash Edgerton’s 2008 Australian thriller ‘The Square’, a film that depicts of a man whose life begins to unravel when his mistress brings him a bag of cash. Over a period of 74 years from the 1940s, these film styles have made subtle yet noteworthy changes. In contrasting the two films even though ‘The Square’ is an Australian production and is not American, its origin does not have an impact on the comparison because Australia is a country that is influenced by western developed nations, such as America and their trends represented in the media. There are also characteristics of these film styles, which remain unchanged such as the Femme fatale, materialism and the dominance of men over women. In spite of that, changes that have occurred include the variation of camera angles and shots, transitions, lighting sources and the complexity of the narrative. Arguably, these changes were made as a result of society and their values and expectations constantly changing throughout time. Thus it can be said that these film styles were created so that these societies would be able to escape from reality, and relate to characters that face the very same issues as themselves.
The technology of film had only been existent for practically 50 years during the time when directors were producing projects in the 1940s. It may then be said that they were inexperienced in comparison to people making films in the 1970s and today. This ideology is supported in Wilder’s crime drama as his film consists of long-lasting, steady and still segments. This is evidently present in this 56 second-shot (10:03 – 11:00 minutes in):
(Still from ‘Double Indemnity 1944)
In this scene, the insurance rap (Walter) has came to Mr Dietrichson’s home to discuss with his wife other types of insurance he has available for Mr Dietrichson. The camerawork merely rests in this position for almost the entire scene, giving no implication of positioning the audience to respond to an intended statement or idea. There are also no other shots in this scene. However in Edgerton’s film, there is a greater variation of shots and camerawork within a scene. This is shown in this 128 second-scene (13:02 – 15:10):
(Still from ‘The Square’ 2008)
This is the scene where Carla (Ray’s mistress) shows Ray a large sum of cash and insists on running away together and starting a new life. Camera angles and shots within this scene are adjusted in 19 different shots all of which position the audience to respond to their scheme in a specific manner. Thus it may be to debatable to state that during this time, directors of Neo Noir have grown to utilise a wide range of shots in one sole scene.
Another subtle change that has been made over the years after the Film Noir movement is the types of transitions and light sources. A particular transition hardly ever used in film is the iris transition. The iris transition is when a circular masking closes the picture to a black screen. An iris transition was initially just simply used for silent films following the Lumiere Brothers’ inventing of film in 1928.This has been utilised in Wilder’s film where Walter gets himself prepared to kill Phyllis if need be, and the camera focuses in on his handgun so that the audience will notice it. This transition abides to be absent in Edgerton’s film. Also in ‘Double Indemnity’, the only discernible sources of light are but the car’s lights and the street lamps; these stay apparent during the transitions between segments. One of these is a dissolve transition where an example can be seen in one of the opening shots (22:17) shown here:
(Still from ‘Double Indemnity’ 1944)
This shot reveals the overlapping of two images as the one in focus begins to fade. As for films such as Edgerton’s ‘The Square’, Edgerton’s crew are able to manipulate lighting with a greater variety of sources because the technology is more advanced. This is demonstrated through their utilisation of a method known as three-point lighting. Three-point lighting is when a cinematographer uses three separate positions when filming, allowing them to illuminate the shot’s subject whilst controlling the shading and shadows produced by direct lighting. An example of this is in this shot (29:04):
In this shot it is perceivable that the cinematographer has used a key light, a light that gleams upon the subject and functions as its principal illuminator. This is perceivable as the subject of the girl’s facial expression is revealed and easily discernible to the human eye. This enables the audience to better notice the girl’s prostrated expression as she realises that her boyfriend is about to set fire to a house with an elderly woman inside. It is through the advancement of technology that cinematographers and directors have been able to demonstrate a more sophisticated knowledge of transitions and lighting in a way found appreciative to public audiences.
The intricacy of the narrative is an element of film, which has significantly developed over the ensuing years the Film Noir phenomenon. The narrative aspect of film at first in the 1940s was intentionally simplistic and considered easily comprehensible by the public. This was done in order to avoid confusion in the audience, as confusion often lead to a disdain of the production. In Wilder’s film, the narrative of the film is a reasonably archetypal one for Film Noir as it revolves around criminal act and materialistic desires for wealth and women. These characteristics of narrative were found to be intelligible by audiences as they were able to relate to them through the attitudes of 1940s America and experiences such as The Great Depression. In The Great Depression the economy went into an economic recession, thus causing a decade of high unemployment, poverty, low profits and deflation. Ironically during this time, the cinema was extremely popular because the people affected wanted to briefly escape from reality. This is supported as Will Hays stated in 1934 that, “No medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot and political turmoil in other countries”. Therefore it is reasonable as to why materialistic ideologies rose because of husbands being unable to supply for their families and satisfy their wives’ expectations. In Edgerton’s film the narrative is somewhat more complex in terms of the amount of conflicts going on within the story. This is shown as the story branches out too many different characters and their dissensions with one another. For example, this is shown in one of the concluding scenes (displayed here):
(Still from ‘The Square’ 2008)
In this scene, Ray is led to believe that a blackmailer possesses information against him regarding the murdering of one of his co-workers. However this idea of Ray’s is soon changed when in fact it is Ray’s boss who found out that Barney, another fellow co-worker of Ray, had been having an affair with one of the ladies at work and Ray was merely called over to be informed. For a Film Noir oriented audience this would most likely be confusing as they are more used to the narrative being uncomplicated and only having one or two conflicts. It may be conceived that Neo Noir is more intricate in the narrative form because contemporary society has grown to appreciate convoluted plotlines in recent years.
The sensation of film is a sensation, which is constantly changing through time. The sensationalism of film was arguably first appreciated in the 1940s with the concept of Film Noir. This occurred as a result of the movement being comprised of certain ideologies such as psychosis and cynicism as well as leftist views. Society cultivated to truly be obliged for Film Noir as they recovered from losses made in the preceding year with World War II. Film Noir conveyed these ideologies through the amount of technology they had in the 1940s. The technology available limited them to black and white images and a few different transitions between shots. However as society is a thing that is constantly adapting through time alongside the advancement of technology, Film Noir lost its applicability to modern times. Film Noir was replaced by a similar phenomenon heavily influenced by it, which was Neo Noir. Neo Noir could be described as the reincarnation of Film Noir as it still upheld delinquent and defeatist attitudes. As Film Noir’s content was unerring in its representation of the cultural context of America and their values and attitudes, audiences of Neo Noir grew to expect a similar if not the same deliverance. Neo Noir arrived roughly in the late 1960s through a war subsequent to World War II, which was the Vietnam War. Thus just like for Film Noir, the general public were very fond of Neo Noir as they were able to relate to its concepts. Therefore it may be said that Neo Noir did indeed satisfy society’s expectations derived from the Film Noir movement. As society was then far more pioneering in the field of technology, they were able to create film better than before both technically and symbolically. As an example, they did this through a developed knowledge of camerawork and understood that certain actions made by the cameraman influenced the response made by the audience. Many other aspects of film such as the aesthetic were improved as a result of higher quality graphics and colour. Neo Noir is feasibly still existent today because as technology has advanced drastically, society has grown to become secular and independent. By saying this, it is meant that a proportion of people today have gone to the extent that they are starting to abandon ideas of God and focusing more on man’s ability to control the universe with information and technology.
By Ben Wyre