The classical Film Noir era in Hollywood lasted from the 1940s to the late 1950s. There is no doubt as to Film Noir’s importance and impact in the history of the film, not only Hollywood style but also in European style cinema. But like any subject in history, Film Noir also has a beginning. Here, we will look at films, both foreign and domestic, that paved the way for Film Noir’s style in the decades leading up to World War II.
Many of Film Noir’s distinct styles, including black and white picture with low-key lighting elements, find their roots in the German Expressionism movement. German Expressionism began to grow in the years before World War I. After the Great War, Germany was isolated from the rest of the world. Foreign films were banned in Germany, increasing the demand for more domestic films. Due to this isolation, German Expressionism peaked in the early 1920s and became widely acknowledged in the international film industry.
German Expressionism in cinematography was born out of the larger Expressionist movement that had existed in the first decades of the 20th century throughout Germany and Austria. The Expressionist movement is known for its birth of a “renaissance in the graphic arts.” Many artists living in Germany during this time began to focus their craft on graphic art, most taking up printmaking. In their art, Expressionists sought to assert their feelings of “dissatisfaction with the existing order, and [their] desire to effect revolutionary change.” Expressionist used the visual arts to create a look into the emotional and psychological state of being by use of distorted images and irregular shapes. They sought to bring the human subconscious to view without the use of literal symbols, sparking an emotional reaction to their art.
As the Expressionist movement grew, it began to move beyond printed materials into theater and literature, and eventually into cinematography. Distorted images and irregularities made their way into German films to elicit an emotional connection between the film and the audience’s subconscious. Among the first of the Expressionist films was Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of the novel Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. The Expressionists were deeply interested in the emotion of horror, and director F.W. Murnau and screenplay writer Henrik Galeen succeeded in bringing their craft to life in Nosferatu. The cinematography style of the film brought more attention to darkness than light, with most shots containing low-key lighting effects. One of the most iconic shots of Nosferatu is one with the shadow of the vampire, played by Max Schreck, walking up a staircase. It is very minimalist, yet invokes a response of fear and horror. The darkness of the shadows is a symbol for the evilness of the vampire.
But the Expressionist movement was beginning to wane in Europe in the late 1920s, due to the rising tensions after the First World War. The German artists were beginning to be overshadowed by the rise of the Nazi Party, and some decided to relocate before the Nazis gained complete control. The rising power of Hollywood in the United States coerced most of the German filmmakers to emigrate to larger United States cities. The type of cinematography that the German Expressionists brought from overseas was beginning to find a new home in Hollywood films, and the foundation for Film Noir was beginning to take shape.
As more and more German filmmakers found a new home in the United States, the more their influences on Hollywood began to show. Among the relocated filmmakers who left a significant mark was Fritz Lang. Lang had enormous success in Germany, utilizing the techniques taught by the German Expressionists. The most famous films Lang directed during his time in Germany included Metropolis (1927) and his first “talking” film M (1931). M, which many consider Lang’s masterpiece, has many elements in its style and plot that would later serve to define Film Noir as a genre. M is a film about a child murderer named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and the hunt to find him by both police forces and the criminal underworld. As with most Film Noir films, the plot was centered around criminals in a positive light – an idea that was only beginning to be accepted by audiences the world over. Lang would soon leave Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, due to his Jewish heritage. He spent a small amount of time in Paris before eventually leaving Europe completely for the United States. Lang joined MGM studios and directed numerous films over the next couple of decades, and many of his films are recognized as being the first of Film Noir.
But perhaps the most important film to define Film Noir is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). The film itself is not categorized with Film Noir, but it was one of the last films to solidify the beginnings of the genre. Influenced heavily by the cinematic styles brought over by the German filmmakers, Citizen Kane is recognized heavily by its visual approach. Also, the plot is highly driven by multiple off-screen narrators and flashbacks to reveal the life of Charles Foster Kane, techniques that Film Noir drew upon greatly in the following years.
Beyond the cinematic techniques that inspired Film Noir are the genre’s literary influences. The literature that Film Noir directors and producers brought to the big screen helped to develop the type of stories that Film Noir was most successful in telling. Fictional American stories of crime and detective work told in pulp magazines during the 1930s were the first influences on Film Noir. One important writer from this era is Samuel Dashiell Hammett, a master of crime dramas and mysteries. Perhaps his most famous work is his novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). This novel would soon be brought to life in what most film historians regard as the first film of the Film Noir genre, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart as the main character, Sam Spade, and Mary Astor as the femme fatale, The Maltese Falcon brought the cinematographic influences of Expressionism and the popular crime dramas of the time together at last, creating what would be the backbone of Film Noir. Most Film Noir films would go on to follow The Maltese Falcon’s lead for the next two decades, cementing Film Noir as one of the most important genres in the history of film.
– John Abbott