Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Brief Primer on Film Noir - Part One: The Formal Visual Elements

As many of you know, I have been creating collage paintings based on film noir imagery. Film noir is one of the most enduring and beloved of film genres. The term "Film Noir" was coined after the fact, much the same way many art "movements" were coined by art historians after the so called "movement" was largely over. During WWII many American films were not available in France. In 1946 there was a retrospective in Paris of American Hollywood films and the Parisian critics called the style "film noir", or "black film", which may be more correctly interpreted as "dark film". But what exactly is film noir, and where did it come from?

German expressionism was an art movement in Germany starting at the turn of the 20th century, and encompassed painting, theater, music, literature, and the brand new medium of film. It sought to express emotion and subjective experience by the using symbolism, exaggeration, and distortion. The style reached it’s apex in Berlin during the 1920's. A few of the most famous expressionist films are "Metropolis", "M", and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (my personal favorite!).

"Metropolis" poster 
"Metropolis" by Fritz Lang
"M'  by Fritz Lang

"M"  by Fritz Lang 

"The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari" by  Robert Wiene

"The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari" by  Robert Wiene

Then those nasty kill-joys, the Nazi’s came into power. Expressionist artists of all types  were proclaimed “degenerate” and their work was confiscated, destroyed, their careers were derailed and many times their very lives were in danger. On top of that, many were also Jewish, Catholic or queer. Unsurprisingly they made efforts to flee to safer locations as soon as they could. Along with this exodus, a number of film makers wound up in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Studio System was in force at the time, which had a tiered system of movie production costs and qualities. While epic movies got a lot of funding and top star billing, crime and detective movies where considered of a lower budgetary class, sometimes even B movies. They were pot-boilers, and often cranked out quickly.

A number of the new immigrant film makers were assigned to these films. Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger are the most famous. German expressionist film was film brought to a high art and were far more sophisticated and considered than anything that was typically produced in the United States at that time. These directors used their techniques and sensibilities developed in Germany in the new crime dramas. This was not fully appreciated at the time; crime and detective movies ran under the radar and attracted no critical praise. But the superior film making techniques made the movies more popular and is what has made so many of these films gain popularity over the decades.

The techniques used included deep focus cinematography, extreme camera angles, dramatic lighting shone from raked angles, and chiaroscuro (which is an painterly technique developed during the Renaissance where use of deep variations of light and dark is used to enhance mood and create dramatic effect).
"Out of the Past"  by Jacques Tourneur  

"Out of the Past"  by Jacques Tourneur 

"The Racket" by John Cromwell and Mel Ferrer

The ultimate example of chiaroscuro; Caravaggio!

Caravaggio "Judith Decapitating Holofernes" 1599

The fact that the movies were often low budget productions actually helped make the movies better. The famously dark lighting covered up cheap productions. Dramatic lighting made up for lack of funding for expensive special effects and uninteresting sets. There was more of a dependence on exciting scripts and clever dialogue. The rushed timetables forced productions to be fast, tight, and efficient. And because they weren’t considered important, they were often under the radar of producers and the Motion Picture Production Code! 

The visual style of film noir is my primary concern when I create an artwork. I consider the masters of noir my teachers as well as my inspiration. Even when I am dealing with an image that hasn’t come directly from a film noir, I still infuse it with the elements of film noir. For example, the image below is based on a Torchy Blane movie "Chinatown" from 1939. While Torchy Blane movies may have involved detectives, reporters and solving crime, they are light comedy adventure films, and most definitely not "dark"!
Leslie Peterson Sapp, "Objective II" 30"x48" 

Aside from the formal artistic elements of noir, I am also inspired by the stories and style. I will write about that in my next blog post, "A Brief Primer on Film Noir - Part Two: Oh, the Drama!"