03 Influences on Noir

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Notes from Allan Silver’s Film Noir

Gothic Romance

Gothic romance as a literary tradition originated in the late 18th century as part of the European revival of Gothicism in the arts and a shift in taste that embraced the wild, morbid and supernatural, a new preoccupation with death, solitude the horrific and terrifying.

A key gothic setting is the ruin or the labrynthian mansion with its secret, shadowy passageways and locked rooms containing dark secrets.

Modern gothic continues tradition with the imperiled victim heroine, often recently married to a man she is attracted to yet frightened by, at its center.

Her paranoia includes  the feeling that the past is haunting her and repeating itself—first gothic noir was Rebecca

German Expressionism

Origins of German Expressionism lay deep in the Gothic Romantic movement in European culture

Expressionism was a cross-cultural movement encompassing music, dance, painting, sculpture,, architecture, design, literature, theater and film and lasted roughly between 1906 + 1924/

In essence it was a philosophical and artistic critique of bourgeois rationalism; an attempt to express the distortions, alienation, fragmentation and dislocation, the ‘irrationality’ of modern life

Expressionism was concerned to represent subjective experience: states of mind, feelings, ideas, perceptions, dreams and visions: often paranoid states.

The protagonists of many Expressionist films (including Caligari) are tormented or imbalanced

Expressionism created an embracing mood and texture, dependent on a distinct visual style that used high contrast, chiaroscuro lighting where shafts of intense light contrast starkly with deep, black shadows and where space is fractured into an assortment of unstable lines and surfaces, often fragmented into twisted angles

Overall, expressionist cinema used a highly designed and carefully composed mise-en-scene that was anti-naturalistic; additionally we find a complex narration—displaced, decentered narratives nested in frame tales, split or doubled stories, voice overs and flashback narration

Gangster Film

Gangster is a man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge … another archetypical American dreamer whose actions live out the contradictions of capitalism, the price of being a successful American individualist.

The Gangster represented a dissident tradition which presented lower class and ethnically marginalized American interests in the 20s and 30s.  Noir continues this tradition to the extent that if often features similar characters and their desire for cultural and economic inclusion BUT is distinct as the protagonist is concerned: where the gangster is self-assured and assertive, a public who represents the pleasure of conspicuous consumption, the Noir hero is doom laden, small time, un-heroic: he does not dominate his environment but is victim to it.

Hard-boiled Fiction

Work of hard-boiled fiction writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cane, was often used in Film Noir.  Some writers produced original scripts for Hollywood.

H.B. writing was a development of 19th century dime novels where writers developed a vernacular style and promoted working class attitudes and values expressive of an American republican democracy: the writing formed a part of what became known as ‘pulp fiction’, named because the stories were produced on cheap wood pulp paper.

The father of such fiction is said to be Dashiell Hammett.  His progeny, Raymond Chandler suggested that “he took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley.”  Hammett developed a terse, tough, understated vernacular idiom that kept close to the rhythms of ordinary speech; his stories are often narrated by a first person in short declarative sentences that convey the urgency of reportage .  It’s essentially a radio aesthetic.

Such stories describe an emphatically masculine world, concentrating on male ambitions and lusts, fears and paranoia.  Most common protagonists were a private eye or a loner–very different people than those that populated British detective fiction.  Cain goes so far as to people his stories with men driven to criminality.  In all cases, the men are gripped by fatal passions to women that dominate their lives–the femme fatale.

(Alan Silver, Film Noir)

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