The main element that combines the films of the Film Noir era together is their common theme. The theme has no specific definition, as the many different Film Noir productions vary in plotlines, but they mainly focus on the citizens of the lower-classes and crime underworld. The stories of Film Noir are stories of everyday people, with a sense of realism that a vast majority of the audience can relate to. This common theme can be traced back to post-World War II Italy, and the rise of a new movement called Italian Neorealism.
Italian Neorealism was birthed in Italy at the end of World War II. Italian filmmakers, as a response to the chaos and turmoil and horrific economic conditions that afflicted the country, began to focus their films on the everyday struggles of lower-class citizens. Directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, in an attempt to capture these struggles in its truest form, shot their films on low budgets with unknown, non-professional actors.
The first major film of this movement is Open City (1945), directed by Rossellini. Filmed in the time directly after the Nazi Occupation of Italy, Rossellini shot mostly outdoors amidst the destruction of the war to attempt to portray the most realistic story possible. Set in the final days of the Nazi Occupation in 1944, Open City tells the story of a small underground resistance movement against the Nazis. Among the resistance force is a priest named Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), who assisted by transmitting messages. When the resistance is betrayed, German Soldier capture the priest and another member of the resistance, Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero). They interrogate both with extreme violence, torturing and killing Giorgio as the priest watched, and later executing the priest. As with the other films in the Neorealism movement, the actors who played the characters in Open City were non-professional at the time of filming. These actors had more than likely faced the oppression that the film was trying to capture, which added to the realism of the film.
Another recognized Neorealism film is De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). The story is very minimalist, following a man named Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) wandering the streets to find his stolen bicycle, only to attempt to steal another bicycle and be caught and labeled as a thief himself. But the execution of the story provides a very realistic look at the conditions of post-war Italy. The bicycle was a symbol of hope for Antonio, who had been offered a job as long as he owned a back. Soon after he gets the job, his bicycle is stolen. The events of the film as Antonio searches for his stolen property show the degree of desperation that the Italian people were facing in the recovery of World War II. As with the rest of the Neorealist movement, the actors were completely non-professional. The lead actor, Maggiorani, was a factory worker before getting the role. All the scenes were shot on location, giving an even more realistic feel to the film.
The critical successes of the films of the Neorealist movement created a new audience for stories of lower-class struggles. But the movement quickly fell apart in the early 1950s, as Italy began to show positive signs of recovery and the demand for more positive films, influenced by the American Cinema, soon phased out the movement completely. Still, Italian Neorealism impacted several film schools, including the French New Wave and Film Noir.
While Film Noir strayed away from the execution of style that Italian Neorealist used, such as using non-professional actor, Film Noir did take away the appeal of lower working class struggles. An example of this is the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich. The film follows the life of a private eye named Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), working to catch everyday crooks. Aside from his career, Hammer is a normal, working class citizen who deals primarily with even lower class people. The events that unfold in the plot lead Hammer to a close encounter with death after picking up a hitchhiker named Christina (Cloris Leachman). Hammer seeks vengeance by pursuing the case to of who murdered Christina and attempted murder on his own life. While the actors in Kiss Me Deadly, were not non-professional, it did follow the Italian Neorealist method of shooting on location, giving a realistic appeal to the film. It also highlighted the struggles of the working class at the time, though symbolically, with undertones about the Cold War and the paranoia it caused. The macguffin of the film, a small, hot container with a glowing substance inside, was a metaphor for the fears of the Cold War.
Unlike Film Noir, Italian Neorealism was a movement that eventually met its end. But it is impossible to ignore its impact on the films that followed. Audiences for the first time were given a truly emotional, realistic view of the toils and trials that the working class and impoverished face on an everyday basis. It painted a picture of these people as being more than just one of a larger group – it made them individuals. These films were something that these people could relate to, and were successful because of their realism. Film Noir imitated this realism and focus on the working class to gain success in its own way, mixing the themes that Italian Neorealism brought to light with the stylistic elements of German Expressionism to create one of the most influential film genres in recent history. Film Noir continues to evolve, even in modern films, keeping the ideas of Film Noir, and, in effect, Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism, alive and well over the decades.
– John Abbott