fred macmurray as walter neff

Film Noir is often innovated in narrative techniques. Double Indemnity is marked by two temporal movements: of real time and remembered time. The film opens with Walter Neff (MacMurray) arriving at his office in the middle of the night and delivering into a dictating machine his confession for killing a man— for money (pause) and for a woman. These words trigger a flashback that is occasionally narrated by his voice– over confession. Gradually the narrative brings real time and memory together, while the unusual juxtaposition of temporalities gives the spectator a premonition of what will occur/has occurred in the flashback story. Finally, they meet as Neff is about to die from the gunshot would he suffered at the end of his flashback.

Scarlet Street another tale of allurement and murder–and a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 French film La Chienne the novelty (under Production Code rules) is that the Murderer gets away with it, while another man dies in the electric chair for the crime. Because of this apparent breach of the Code, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, tried to stop the film from screening there. In an affidavit supporting the film, Joseph L. Breen of the Production Code Administration wrote, “It was our contention and belief that in this particular motion picture, the murderer was adequately punished by a higher power, working through his own conscience, which drove him to become a social outcast and a hopeless derelict.”

poster scarlet street

In Detour the male protagonist’s voice over persistently addresses an impersonal “you” giving the spectator the impression that he or she is the person spoken to–and assumes that the listener is smug, unsympathetic, and unbelieving. A B picture, produced by one of Hollywood’s small companies, that has become a Film Noir classic, Detour is significant in part because its genre traits shine through so strongly, unmediated by the presence of familiar stars. The man feels passive, controlled by fate and women’s ambitions. His crimes are committed accidentally but out of deep anger and resentment.

Voice–over and flashback were persistent stylistic and narrative elements of Film Noir, While Double Indemnity carefully clues the spectator to who is speaking, when, and from where, other films use voice–over and flashback temporality more ambiguously. often we need to inquire about the motives of narrative voices, how much they know and whether they are telling the truth, when and to whom they are speaking. If the dominant Hollywood style provided all the information spectators would need to follow the narrative, Film Noir seems to emphasize narrative gaps, and even the possibility of narratives that can deceive. Invisible Storytellers, a study of voice–over narration by Sarah Kozloff, shows that its occurrence in Hollywood films is closely linked to the rise and decline of the Film Noir movement. Besides Double Indemnity and Detour, voice–over is a key narrative aspect of Mildred Pierce, Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai, and Out of the Past, among Film Noir works already noted, as well as many others.

joan crawford eve arden

The enduring critical question is how useful it is to apply the Film Noir label broadly to films of the postwar era. Mildred Pierce, for example, clearly demonstrates elements of Film Noir in its narrative structure (such as its use of the flashback) and parts of its visual style, but these aspects should not obscure the work’s important status as a women’s melodrama, where the issues of female representation are considerably different from Film Noir’s typical concerns with male protagonists lured by the femme fatale. it is even more dubious to count such films as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) or, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) as Film Noir, if such designation deflects attention from these works as part of their primary genres, respectively private eye and crime. The same holds true for another postwar classic from a small company, Gun Crazy (1950), directed by Joseph H. Lewis. This film about an adventure seeking couple who launch a crime spree contains few Film Noir aspects, but it is revealing to see from Production Code records how the code enforcement agency pushed the work in a Film Noir direction by proposing changes that would make the man more of an “unwilling victim” of the woman’s desire for wealth, no matter how this is obtained. The original release title of Gun Crazy was Deadly is the Female.

Though it broke with stylistic norms, the Film Noir movement was still very much a product of the system. With few exceptions, Film Noir works came out of the studio production process. A significant aspect of the postwar era, however, was a desire on the part of filmmakers to break not only with old norms but with the system itself: to set up as independent producers of their own work.

Film Noir Images

m mills
Michael Mills