Better Off Dead: the Essence of Film Noir

What is film noir? Robert Castle offers a primer with some choice examples of the genre.

Film noir is an agreed upon label for certain types of movies made between 1940 and 1960. But what is it that makes a film noir? The elements are varied and, often, not agreed upon. I have chosen one of my favorite websites, Tom Dirks’s Filmsite.org to summarize these elements.

Noir stories are developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character. This character encounters a woman, the femme fatale, who is treacherous, double-dealing, and irresistibly appealing. Against his better judgement, the man follows the femme to his own destruction. The storylines are twisted, non-linear,  elliptical, mazelike. . .you get the idea. Most importantly, the films are marked by expressionistic lighting, skewed camera angles, interior settings, and a general claustrophobic feeling.

Among the four to five hundred films labeled noir, a handful qualify as pure expressions of a style that depicts the most sustained pessimistic vision of human behavior in any of the arts. 

Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, is told to us in a flashback.  Mortally wounded Walter Nef (Fred MacMurray) tells the story of his personal destruction into a dictaphone at his place of work, an insurance company. For Nef, his redeeming act is a confession to Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), his boss and father figure. 

Walter’s a man of latent decency. His weakness for Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)--he’s attracted initially by her bare leg and an ankle bracelet, small but effective charms--leads to a plan to murder her husband where he hopes to get Phyllis a big payoff.

It seems the more he learns about her, the more difficult it becomes to extract himself from her clutches. She may have killed her first husband. Still, he’s compelled to “go to the end of the line” with her even if it means they must die: “I never knew death could smell like honeysuckle,” he says after the first visit to her house.

Death, or the attraction to it, is the noir hero’s real love. Sure, he desires the woman, but the fatal attraction is the feeling of being taken from the mundane--like Nef’s world where he seems overqualified to sell insurance policies--into the more exciting one of sex and violence. 

Detour (1945), differs from our other films noir for several reasons. It was shot in six days with $30,000 by a director who never sniffed an A-picture budget; in fact, Edward Ulmer’s production didn’t come close to what was spent on a typical studio B-picture. The spareness and rapidity of the production ultimately makes Detour into something like the distilled essence of film noir.

Its story told in flashback by Al Roberts (Tom Neal), who is hitchhiking across the country to reunite with his girlfriend on the West Coast. In Arizona, he gets a ride from a man named Haskell, who dies of a heart attack. Roberts decides to bury him and assume his identity. He picks up a female hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who lets on quickly that she knows Roberts isn’t Haskell. She then blackmails him in posing as Haskell's long-lost son to collect an inheritance.

Vera fits the femme fatale definition because Roberts cannot break away from her, despite several opportunities to escape. Yet she seems less attractive than domineering. She’s not controlling him through her feminine charm and beauty (which, come to think of it, seems tawdry). Nef’s attraction to her is more about her availability and his bad judgement.

And Roberts' judgement is suspect prior to meeting Vera. Why should he assume Haskell's identity unless he killed him and his story cannot be trusted? The audience's knowledge of what happens comes completely from Roberts, who is an unreliable narrator. In Detour, we can't even trust what we're watching.

Two of noir’s most alluring women emerge from The Killers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947). In the former, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) schemes with gang leader Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) to keep all the money from a heist, at the same time luring the Swede (Burt Lancaster) to protect her from Colfax by making him believe she'll run off with him and the money. The Swede has already served jail time once for her on a stolen jewelry rap, and our fatalistic noir hero will soon become the victim once more. 

In fact, the Swede is killed in the first fifteen minutes of the film, which tells, in flashback, the story of his betrayal by Kitty. The Killers comes together like pieces of a puzzle in a fashion structurally similar to that of Citizen Kane, which some critics have labeled noir. Kitty and Colfax are eventually tracked down by a insurance investigator, who recovers the money, saving customers a few measly cents.

The reduction of lives to dollars and cents in The Killers echoes the way Walter Nef will have Mr. Dietrichson’s “accidental” death pay off twice the amount in Double Indemnity. Even in Detour, the doomed couple try to cash in on Haskell’s life through his father’s will.

Perhaps no femme fatale equals Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past. On one hand, she’s the ultimate survivor, betraying her gambler boyfriend, Whit (Kirk Douglas) for Jeff Balley (Robert Mitchum) in Mexico. When she’s hunted down, she comes back to Whit, however, leaving Jeff to suffer his wrath and, ultimately, take the rap for a murder.

More than most noir protagonists, Jeff seems the most conscious of what has overcome him. He sacrificed his relationship with Ann (Virginia Huston) because he understands that his desire for Kathy can only end in death. He deliberately drives toward a police road block, provoking a gun fight where both of them die in a scene that is reminiscent of Walter and Phyllis’ final moments together in Double Indemnity, when they mortally wound each other.

All these films use flashbacks to recount their fatal, if fateful, events, yet D.O.A. (1950) presents the narrative as told by a murdered man himself, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien). He walks into a police station:

        Frank Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
        Homicide Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
        Frank Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
        Homicide Captain: Who was murdered?
        Frank Bigelow: I was.

O’Brien's character created The Killers’ narrative because of his sympathy for the victim, the Swede, who was already dead before he was killed. Here, as victim, a living dead man, O’Brien relates the tale of his last seventy-two hours, and then dies, like Walter Nef and Al Roberts, inexorably.

Frank Bigelow tries to create meaning within the context of his impending death by hunting his murderer. After a fantastic story involving shipments of radioactive chemicals (the “big” aspect of his name), we learn that Frank was poisoned because he notarized a bill of purchase (the “low”).

Yet, his fate seems determined less by these plots or other mundane actions than by his reluctance to commit to and marry his secretary/girlfriend, Paula (Pamela Britton). Moreover, he’s poisoned while on vacation alone in San Francisco (to avoid Paula’s nagging question: when are they getting married?) and in the midst of trying to pickup a woman at a bar. Instead of a femme fatale, D.O.A. uses his flight from a regular relationship to initate his downfall.

What could be worse than Frank Bigelow's predicament? In Sunset Blvd. (1950), narrator Joe Gillis (William Holden) starts by telling us how he ended up floating in a swimming pool, riddled with bullets. Our narrator is speaking from a world beyond our own, an act that in this darkest of noir films proves to be a formality.

Sunset Blvd. takes film noir to the heights of its thematic expression: the femme fatale is no longer a woman but the movie-making industry. Joe was shot, yes, but in reality he was poisoned--not by the viscous chemical that found its way into Frank's drink, but by Norma Desmond.

Faded, used up, thrown away, forgotten, Norma will not go away. She still wants her close-up. Everyone fondly remembers how beautiful she once was. Who wouldn’t want those old days to return? Her chauffeur ex-husband (Erich von Stroheim) shields her from the reality that nobody cares anymore. Cecil B. DeMille refrains from telling her that his office called to get her car, not make a movie with her.

Joe comes west from Ohio to strike it rich in Hollywood. All his hard work barely rates him five minutes to pitch a screenplay to a producer. Soon, the collection agency comes after his car, the last symbol of his autonomy. When he fortuitously finds and hides out at Norma's mansion, he’s drawn into an affair with her after becoming her personal script doctor.

Joe collaborates with Norma, knowing it is fruitless, but romances her all the same. Yet she refuses to let him leave. His affair dooms his attempt to write the great American screenplay with Betty Schaefer because he’s too far gone with Norma. She won't give him up, and he’s a dead man. Like the allure of Joe's Hollywood dreams, Norma--i.e., the moviemaking business--is all-consuming.

Noir has little new territory to explore. It has produced some great works--The Big Heat (1953), Love Me Deadly (1955), The Killing (1956), Touch of Evil (1958)--and will continue to do so, but likely with less emotional impact. The genre has seen better days, days when its pessimism was livelier; more authentic. After the 1950s, maybe noir was better left alone to itself, fading like Norma Desmond, but not as crassly forgotten.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Tim Zatzariny Jr. May 08, 2012 at 07:59 PM
"Detour" was shot on a set left over from another film.
Dan Hall May 10, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Great Article. Based on your definition, what modern (post 1960) films fit the mold? Chinatown, Blood Simple, Angel Heart, No Way Out...other?
Tim Zatzariny Jr. May 10, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Dan, anything made in the 1960s would be considered neo-noir. The film noir era is generally considered to be the early 1940s to the late 1950s. "Blood Simple" is a great neo-noir. One of my favorites is "The Grifters" with John Cusack and Angelica Huston.
Robert Castle May 10, 2012 at 02:19 AM
The Usual Suspects comes to mind. Body Heat began what is called neo-noir. Chinatown is a reminder that film noir never died. It had a sequel: The Two Jakes. I'll be writing about these films soon.
Matt Skoufalos May 10, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Hi Bob -- wondering whether you think "Inception" qualifies? To my thinking, it hits many of the canon characteristics you describe above.


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