In ‘Interpreting Media’ we watched the film “The Night of the Hunter”, 1955, directed by Charles Laughton. I decided to further analyse this film, but upon my research found two other film noir movies that showed similar features as the fil we studied in class. These were ‘Gilda’, directed by Charles Vidor, 1956 and ‘Double Indemnity’ directed by Billy Wilder in 1944. These films were all made with classic film noir style which interested as I had never learnt about it before.
In the early 1940’s to late 1950’s, in the United States of America, a film genre emerged that reflected the society in which it was made called film noir. However at the time the film makers were unaware they were making films to a specific genre, because of this, film noir is often thought of as more of a style, tone and mood rather than a specific genre.
Classic film noirs were made during and after World War II, so there was great fear and mistrust among American society arguably relating to factors such as post-war disillusionment, traditional gender role struggles, communist threats, the Cold War period and the threat of nuclear annihilation. These films counter balanced the optimism of Hollywood musicals and comedies.
Many classic film noir films tapped into a dark hidden world of American Society and contained themes of greed and corruption and nearly always had bleak endings and doomed male protagonists. The femme fatale archetype was created in film noir. The Femme Fatale character was an independent, manipulative and duplicitous, not to mention gorgeous female who often traps the often-weak male protagonists. This portrayal can arguably be linked to American Society as women started becoming more independent and their desire for more power in society was increasing, causing shifts in gender equality.
After the war many people found it hard to trust others, especially foreigners. There was a lot of mistrust and disillusionment among American society. Communist threats had been building for some time and came to the forefront as one of society’s biggest fears during the late 1940’s and 1950’s in America, and became known as the red scare. During this time, McCarthyism grew in popularity. McCarthyism was a campaign in 1950 to 1954 against alleged communists in the Government and many other institutions that was carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Often the accused lost their jobs or were blacklisted, however many didn’t actually belong to the Communist Party. McCarthyism grew so much in popularity In America as it opposed communism and its values, and it tried to get rid of the communists in society, who society feared the most. In Hollywood, a group called the Hollywood Ten, consisting of 10 motion picture producers, directors and screenwriters appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, refused to answer questions regarding their possible communist affiliations, and after spending time in prison were blacklisting by many Hollywood Studios. After this, during the rise of McCarthyism many more people from the film industry were blacklisted from the Hollywood Studios. This resulted in many of them working undercover, with many becoming involved with Film Noir’s as they were small budget, often independent films, where the blacklisted professionals could work under aliases.
Features and themes of classic film noir reflected the building fear of communism during this time, mainly through lighting and characters. Lighting in film noir was very different to the A film big budget Hollywood films that were being produced at the time, designed to keep societies spirits up, such as musicals and pro-war dramas. Film noir films represented a darker side of life; they had harsh lighting, with many different and interestingly angled lighting techniques, chiaroscuro lighting, which had high contrast of light and dark and often lighting through window blinds creating harsh lines on a characters face. This type of lighting in Noir was influenced by German Expressionism. German expressionism was a style of film common in Germany in the 1920s, it was characterised by dramatic lighting, distorted sets and symbolic actions and characters. The influence of immigrants from Germany to America certainly influenced film noir as it helped German Expressionism to grow in Hollywood. An example of someone who influenced this is Billy Wilder, an Austrian born filmmaker, screenwriter and producer who made many classic film noirs, such as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.
An example of style of lighting in classic film noir is ‘Gilda’. There are many shots in which the sinister character Ballin is just a silhouette or his face is half covered in black. This lighting technique is symbolic of the mistrust and indecisiveness within the world of noir. This same type of lighting effect is also seen when Gilda walks up the stairs and within the frame, she is in complete shadow. She is being very deceitful to Ballin at the time and the lighting emphasizes the idea that she cannot be trusted.
Classic Film noirs also reflected post-war disillusionment, mistrust, and the rising fears of communism in American Society and fear of foreigners through their archetypal characters. Film noirs archetypal characters included dodgy cops and insurance brokers, corrupt figures of power with an ulterior motive and characters whose looks could be deceiving. For example in the film ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1955, Charles Laughton) the main character is a Preacher, a figure of power who is completely corrupt, he’s murdered many women , however at first the townspeople trust him because he is a Preacher. This supports the theme in film noir that looks can be deceiving and people are not to be trusted (even the most trustworthy such as a man of god), as he is completely untrustworthy, deceitful and evil. This is emphasized by the dialogue, with Preacher being described as, “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.”
Most characters were untrustworthy and the villains in film noirs were often German or Russian as they were from countries whose ideology the American society feared the most. In ‘Gilda’, Ballin is also a corrupt figure of power that is later shown to be untrustworthy as he turns out to be a Nazi sympathizer, helping the Germans, who were the common enemy of the time.
During World War II, many of the men in America were away at war, so around 350,00 women, who traditionally only had jobs as Nurses, Teachers or secretaries, moved out into the workforce, working in many of the factories producing weaponry and machinery. In 1945, 1 out of every 4 married women worked outside of home. This led to many women feeling more independent and empowered and it helped boost America’s economy after the great depression. However when the war finished and the men returned back to their jobs, many of these woman with newfound independence went straight back to being a housewife. (Some women enjoyed this newfound independence and did remain in the workforce.)
These strong, independent women of society were reflected in Film Noir by the Femme Fatale archetype. A Femme Fatale was a woman who was beautiful, alluring, seductive and charismatic however she was also scheming, manipulative and deadly to the men who got in her way or often helped her get her way. The femme fatale archetype represented the women that men in American Society at this time feared would take over their jobs and creates major shifts in gender equality.
An example of a Femme Fatale is Phyllis from the film ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944, Billy Wilder). Phyllis is beautiful, and hooks Walter Neff in from the first moment they meet. Phyllis knows exactly what she wants and knows exactly how to manipulate Walter in getting her way. Phyllis’s behaviour shows common traits of a femme fatale in Film Noirs, such as being deceitful, alluring and deadly to the men she meets. In society at the time this behaviour was an exaggerated expression of the behaviour of the newly empowered working women.
Another example of a Femme Fatale is Gilda from the film ‘Gilda’ (1946, Charles Vidor). She is also beautiful, alluring and manipulative. For example, from the moment Gilda enters the nightclub; all the men can’t keep their eyes of her and are hooked on her from the moment she first arrives. She is also deceitful, lying to Ballin about her history with Johnny. However Gilda is not a typical Femme Fatale because she also sings and dances, which showed off the talents of the actress, Rita Hayworth, but was not typical of Film Noir at this time.
Film noir is a genre that reflects American society of the 1940’s and 50’s. Through lighting and characters is reflects the fears of society and mistrust and disillusionment at the time, and it also reflects the position of women at the time as they were becoming more and more independent.