NOIR NOW: WHEN IT FELT GOOD TO BE BAD
Film noir, a particular genre of movie storytelling, wasn’t given its label until the 1970s. Before then these types of films were merely referred to as melodramas. Enough time and distance finally passed so these movies could be looked upon as primarily very much a particular style, of presentation, low lighting, shadows, and desperate, shifty players, who were always of questionable character. The unique lighting was derived from the German Expressionists whose primary timeframe was pre-World War II, 1930s.
The need to label this particular style, most dominant from 1940 to 1958, was born out of the second Golden Age of film making. In the first Golden Age, the 1930s, filmmakers were still experimenting with the new art form and it was too soon to label films with anything too exotic. All they had then were westerns, war pictures, prison pictures, and so forth. They used simple, clear labels.
Jerry Lewis, after making so many movies it gave him a heart attack, wrote a tome, The Total Film-maker, which became the dog eared Bible of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and the rest of the bearded, film school wunderkinds of the 1970s Golden age. Lewis, as their mentor, made them extremely aware they were creating art and with every frame there was potential for great technique and meaning.
As a result, film criticism itself blasted off like it was the space program and many new film terms were adopted. No splice of film went unexamined after the 1970s when these very self-aware directors started putting out their fare. Film school enrollment exploded with both the filmmakers and their film critic classmates expounding on their products.
What was written about film noir in the 1970s was definitive and important. Twenty plus odd years of aesthetic distance helped film historians identify, clarify, and most importantly, label film noir with a name.
More labels came after. Everything after 1958 is considered neo noir, especially if filmed in color. Film soleil is film noir with sunshine. The consensus that film noir is mostly about the technical style continues to dominate analysis of the genre and much has been written about the darkness of the characters as well. Yet there is more. So much more this period of this particular film genre says about history and says about, not just our society, but how we as individuals feel on the inside and how we may choose to live our very lives.
What we may have missed out on in the excitement of being in the middle of viewing new creations being released into theaters firsthand, like in the 40s and 50s. Or even what we may have missed by not being in the throes of labeling an art that had been around for a while, like in the 70s, we can make up for by having the longitudinal insight to be able to see what was really going on in America in a collective sub consciousness way. Also to see how those things were expressed through this fascinating movie genre.
The year the American public was the most insatiable in its appetite to consume film noir movies was 1946. One might ask why 1946? The answer could be World War II ended in 1945 and there was right after a deliberate plan to put America back into place. Primarily that core of American Society, which is very backbone the American Family.
Rosie the Riveter had to give her job to a man. Get out of the factory. Put on an apron and go back into the kitchen. If she didn’t, the man would not be the head of the family. The hierarchy of the family would be askew. Society as a whole then would be messed up. The sky would eventually fall. Many, many movies were made in the second half of the 1940s that sent the not so subtle message that women needed to buckle under and let the father dictate the future of the family…or there might be no family. If there was no family then there would be no society, and then no America and so then why was the war fought?
Much has been written about Meet me in St. Louis, in particular as a proclaimer of this very agenda. If the American family was not restored to the pinnacle of its idealized form, how could we justify all that was sacrificed in fighting for our freedom and the freedom of our nation’s friends?
However, the passion for film noir represents that deep down much of America wasn’t buying it. We were attacked at Pearl Harbor, which finally brought the United States into the war. We were going to be warriors, and supporters of warriors. We had to find our dark sides where we were selfish, driven, ambitious, strategic and most importantly…killers. We, as a nation, had to find our inner film noir character in order to go to war. We had to go dark, black even, become comfortable in the shadows, tighten our lips or ships would sink. We had to learn to sacrifice and be stingy. And we did it.
Then we won the war and the message was then about getting back to normal. But what was normal? The Great Depression that preceded the war –where the heads of households had trouble leading because they couldn’t be breadwinners? Plus, we had been to war or seen the pictures and films of war like never before. The devastation, the killing, the hunger – starvation even – and torture.
No. Americans couldn’t flip flop that easily. Their hearts well knew the darkness and the splintering of the family over great distances. They knew they were supposed to want things bright and shiny, yet they flocked in droves to the movie theaters to see the dark seamy sides of life they had been living themselves for years during the war. They had been living film noir. The films could not be produced fast enough to keep up with demand.
The production of film noir movies and its popularity continued through the 1950s. Forces in the culture increasingly put continued pressure on the creation of an idealized rigid family structure – a structure so stultifying, the only release from it could be gained by watching very selfish people walking around in the shadows on the big screen, while the consumer themselves sat in a darkened movie theater.
The American family had to have a father who had the last word on everything, a subdued housewife/mother, obedient children, all living in cookie cutter neighborhoods in the suburbs because America went to war to protect that perceived way of life – even though it didn’t exactly exist beforehand. Having actually been film noir characters during the war, having had to be so dark, needed justification.
And besides it felt cool to be legitimately bad.
A lot may have suspected they couldn’t do it. They suspected they lacked the tools to hold that kind of a family together. Some people were noir characters in reality. Other ones were noir characters in their souls,and didn’t have the guts to live it out. Instead, ill equipped as they were, they strove for the 1950s ideal, which was (is) all about conformity.
Besides the consumption of film noir to feel genuine to oneself, or to vicariously see what it was like to be so darkly driven, or to aide in the transition of having been a killer back to being a husband and father, there were other signs of leakage that it wasn’t easy to change into the pereived1950s family ideal.
Lucy wanted to work and was always trying to break into Ricky’s show, but that was a joke, right? It was laughable…women working outside of the home. Men found themselves having to hit the bar/lounge on the way home from the career battlefield and have a martini, before heading home to the domestic battlefield? Why were things more chaotic than on TV? Yes, there was leakage.
And unbelievable oppression of who an individual really was.
In the 1950 film noirs, all the women who had been strong powerful individuals before the war, or during the war, like Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck, were now suddenly playing victims – females terrified by a mere phone call. The message being: stay in line, stay in the kitchen – so to speak – or you might be brought in for questioning. At worst, you could be investigated and interrogated on television for un-American activities, or at best, judged by your neighbor.
The fictional noir characters on screen weren’t participating in this societal model in any way, shape or form. Whether they were the criminals, or the private dicks chasing them, or the showgirls, or the molls, or the mysterious widows, they were all refusing to play house. The morals police insisted all of the films prove that crime, and/or a lack of morals, were going to be punished in some way or another by the end of the film.
Many people obsessed on these characters because they remembered when they were in a war and they had to kill or be killed. That was a terrible pressure. Now, having to participate in a perfect family was also a lot of pressure.
Besides being entertained, watching a film noir was an exercise in exploring if one had chosen the wrong life to live, and if the idealized 1950s family lifestyle was as joyful as they were being led to believe.
Truthfully, there have been many parents who should not have been pressured into the 1950s happy families. Many people who should have only chased criminals and chorines might have been happy with only that. Some should have only hung at the racetrack and had dinner with friends. Or others should have spent time mostly talking on the telephone, dancing, and doing their nails.
There is no doubt a slew of people could tell you their parents would have been so much better off not trying to live the American Dream in a sheltered house surrounded by a white picket fence. They’ll tell you how much happier everyone would have been if their parents had just lived their whole lives like noir characters, rather than drag whiffs of it to the dinner table.
The pressure was so great to live in a perfect 1950s television family that by 1958 Americans finally believed they had the dream overall in the nation and film noir became far less popular as a form of relief from conformity.
That was until 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated, which showed there was a very healthy dose of the darkness still out there after all. The shock of Kennedy’s death blew the fantasy of how family life will protect you, and the nation, all to hell.
Soon after the late 40s and 50s, offspring of those who witnessed WWII, formed their own rebellion against the American Dream and, as hippies, tried and succeeded to an extent, to overthrow the establishment in which they were reared. They knew first hand it was hypocritical and oppressive.
They had been raised with morals and righteously believed a new lifestyle was the better, more moral way to live, not really seeing their own self-righteousness was a very similar offshoot from the same constricted pressure they learned at home growing up. But they did very much care about community. If they didn’t become Yuppies, they grew to be the guardians of the planet and animals. Being a conforming happy family still seem to fit in well with this alternative lifestyle.
It can also be argued that artists, designers, and most very creative people can also be very alternative in their lack of need for the 1950s family structure. Their creative drive is paramount to everything else. They get fulfillment through the results of their creative output and products.
The satisfaction creative artists and tree huggers derive from their passions denote an inner emotional world that, although still being alternative from the happy family tradition, are still pro social.
Noir characters, on the other hand, don’t live for others. They live self-righteously and selfishly. And the genre will never completely die because there are those who are not built for family life, creativity, or granola eating. These noir individuals will seek, consciously or not, justification for living life as who they are, in the shadows or not.
The inclination here might be to label them sociopathic, but that temptation is counter intelligent to the fact the gumshoes and cops, and their informants, are also very much noir characters. They are driven by their own inner worlds that may be about protecting the American family, and society etc., which doesn’t necessarily mean they want personally to live that conforming lifestyle.
Film noir characters are primarily emotion driven. Auteur Stanley Kubrick said only two emotions drive them: desire and threat. I would add adrenaline. Noir characters get bored easily. Adrenaline is a physical addiction and not necessarily a desire. They would never be happy living in the suburbs or hanging at the Mall of America.
Conformity and the traditional family structure might be sought out for those who need daily routine, for those who fear the tumultuousness of being around those who are selfishly driven. But as long as those in the burbs question their static lifestyles, and they wonder internally if the sacrifices they make for that peace are worth it, or worse, suspect they have given up their coolness for stability, there will always be noirs to serve the explorations of their own natures.
Thx to the late Suzanne Manders for her input into this article.