film noir

film noir
   It is easy to identify STANLEY KUBRICK’s KILLER’S KISS (1955) and THE KILLING (1956) as examples of the kind of noir films that reflect the corruption of a postwar world. The term film noir was not in common use in the film industry itself at the time. It was not until the 1960s that the term gained widespread currency. Film actress MARIE WINDSOR has since said that, after a number of film noir pictures were made, the term became generally known. At the time she was making The Killing, she added, she thought she was just making a routine gangster film.
   Kubrick began making films just as the trend in American cinema known as film noir was nearing its end. Postwar French reviewers had noticed “the new mood of cynicism, pessimism, and darkness that had crept into American cinema,” writes Paul Schrader in one of the most influential essays on film noir in English. Never before had Hollywood films “dared to take such a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life. ” The new pessimistic tinge exhibited by several American movies in this period grew out of disillusionment resulting from the war, a disillusionment that would continue into the cold war, the period of uncertainty that was the war’s aftermath. The world was gloomier and more complicated than it had ever been before. This disillusionment, Schrader maintains, was often mirrored in melodramas in which a serviceman returns home from the war to encounter a society that has grown corrupt. Moreover, as film director Michael Cristofer (Original Sin) observes: “Born of the post–World War II culture, film noir owed much to the disillusioned cinematic artists” who began to emerge in Hollywood at the time. The American cinema co-opted their pessimistic vision, “married it to the Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s, blurred the edges between good and evil, and created a dark, menacing, paranoid universe in which many a film hero was drawn and then destroyed by forces he could not understand or control. ” Noir films often are preoccupied with the past and therefore make frequent use of flashbacks intended to show how the characters must confront the past if they are to cope with the present.
   Also in keeping with the conventions of film noir is an air of spare, unvarnished realism, typified by the stark, documentary quality of the cinematography, especially in grim scenes that take place at night, often in murkily lit rooms, alleys, and side streets. In essence, the sinister nightmare world of film noir is one of seedy motels, boarding houses, shabby bars, and cafes, a night world of distorted shapes, where rain glistens on windows and windshields and faces are barred with shadows that suggest some imprisonment of body or soul. “There is nothing the protagonist can do,” comments Schrader. “The city will outlast and negate even his best efforts. ” (This is why the hero of Killer’s Kiss flees the city at film’s end. ) It is a world in which a woman with a past can encounter a man with no future in the insulated atmosphere of a tawdry cocktail lounge. The heroine is often discovered propped against a piano, singing an insolent dirge. The hero is a cynic who has been pushed around once too often by life. As the seductive temptress Mona Stevens in the 1948 noir film Pitfall observes, “If you want to feel completely out of step with the rest of the world, sit around a cocktail lounge in the afternoon. ”
   Schrader rightly contends that film noir is not a separate movie genre, since it depends on the conventions of established genres, such as the gangster film and the science fiction film. Hence, it is necessary to “approach the body of films made during the noir cycle as . . . expressions of pre-existing genres. ” Noir films were frequently shot on a tight shooting schedule and a low budget. Still, many noteworthy examples of film noir, including Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, were turned out under these conditions. Foster Hirsch, in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, writes that the trend prospered between the early 1940s to the late 1950s. To be more precise, the outer limits of the cycle stretch from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Furthermore, the low-budget, high-quality thrillers that surfaced in the 1940s had a profound influence on the crime film throughout the later 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the term film noir has continued to be applied to certain movies that have been influenced by the noir tradition in succeeding decades.
   Hirsch states that Killer’s Kiss is steeped in noir conventions. Boxing arenas figure prominently in noir films because they provide visual metaphors of enclosure and entrapment. The hero of Killer’s Kiss is a prizefighter; the packed, smoke-filled arena in which he loses his last bout is an image of his destiny, as Hirsch explains: “The beating that he gets within the tight, fixed frame of the ring reflects the kind of battering that is doled out to him in the outside world. ”With the eye of a born filmmaker, Hirsch writes, Kubrick chose his settings effectively: “a smoky gym where the boxer trains, a dance hall where the heroine works, a bizarre mannequin factory where the climactic fight is staged. . . . True to noir tradition, the story begins at the end, and is told in flashback, with the beleaguered hero serving as the narrator of his own downfall. ”
   Kubrick’s next film, The Killing, is a far more accomplished noir film; it is a tough, tightly knit crime thriller about a racetrack robbery carried out by a group of small-time crooks led by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden); they hope to pull off one last big job to solve all of their individual financial crises. In his book on film noir, Arthur Lyons writes that in The Killing “a combination of bad luck and personality flaws brings about the destruction of the gang and foils what would have been the perfect crime. . . . Such fatalism is typical of film noir. ” As producer Amy LaBowitz puts it,“I feel a general sense that life is unforgiving in noir films. You can make one mistake-just one—and you’re finished. ” Putting it another way, film director Martin Scorsese notes in his documentary, A Personal Journey Through American Movies, “There is no reprieve in film noir; you pay for your sins. ” The Killing proves the rule. The Killing and Killer’s Kiss came toward the end of the film noir cycle. “After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions,” Schrader opines, “the later noir films finally got down to the root causes” of the disillusionment of the period; the loss of heroic conventions, personal integrity, and finally psychic stability. The last films of the trend seemed to be painfully aware that “they stood at the end of a long tradition based on despair and disintegration and did not shy away from the fact. ” Furthermore, The Killing also reflects another element of film noir that Schrader points out as endemic to that type of movie: it utilizes a complex scheme of flashbacks to reinforce a sense of hopelessness and lost time in a disoriented world.
   It is Schrader who has pointed out the triple theme inherent in these films: “a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future. The noir hero dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful at that, he retreats into the past. Thus film noir’s techniques emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity. ” This analysis of film noir could well serve as a description of the way that Dr. Strangelove, in crystallizing humanity’s fears of the future, is rooted in Kubrick’s earlier pictures. This sardonic science fiction film shares with other noir films what Hirsch calls “a bleak vision of human destiny and a sense of man as the victim of forces he is unable to control. ” All of the films mentioned above show how the corrupt world of today (Killer’s Kiss,The Killing) will lead to the dark, forbidding world of tomorrow (Dr. Strangelove). For Kubrick’s vision suggests that humankind’s failure to cooperate in mastering the world of the present can only lead to humanity’s being mastered by the world of the future. And this is precisely what happens in Dr. Strangelove. It is clear, then, that the tenets of film noir were conducive to Kubrick’s developing personal vision in the first part of his career.
   ■ Christopher, Nicholas, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), pp. 1–32;
   ■ Cristofer, Michael, “Lost Hollywood: Film Noir,” Premiere 14, no. 7 (March 2001), 58–59;
   ■ Gifford, Barry, Out of the Past: Film Noir (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), pp. 1–32;
   ■ Giannetti, Louis, and Scott Eyman, “Film Noir,” in Flashback: A Brief History of Film (Upper Saddle River, N. J. : Prentice Hall, 2001), pp. 220–223;
   ■ Hirsch, Foster, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (New York: Da Capo, 1983), pp. 85–86, 136–138;
   ■ ———,Detours and Lost Highways:A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight, 1999), pp. 1–20;
   ■ Lyons, Arthur, Death on the Cheap: Film Noir and the Low Budget Film (New York: Da Capo, 2000), pp. 9–10;
   ■ Naremore, James, More than Night: Film Noir (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 155–58;
   ■ Schrader, Paul, “Notes on Noir,” in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1998), pp. 53–63.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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