Saturday, 24 January 2009

The European Heritage of American Film Noir.

Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Degree Progamme of BA (Hons) European Film, Faculty of Humanities, Law & Social Science, The Manchester Metropolitan University – 25th April 2008

European Heritage of American Film Noir


It is popular mainstream opinion that Film Noir is distinctly an American cultural phenomenon. However, this is due to the dislocation and subsequent departure from Europe to America as Hitler took hold of power in Weimar Germany. This lead to an exodus from Europe through France, and on to Hollywood, of the key technicians and directors, that were involved in the Weimar Cinematic film industry. During this time, the early cinematic industry between France and Germany had already begun the cross fertilisation of styles, through Weimar’s influence on Poetic Realism, that characterises film noir. The aim of this dissertation is to investigate the cross fertilisation of thematics and styles between France and Germany, and show how this is later influential upon US Film Noir. In conclusion it will adduce that film noir is an example of an international cross-cultural exchange, but one that is rooted specifically in European culture and filmic practices.

Introductory Chapter

Leading up to World War Two, and the massive displacement of European personnel within its film industry, the Hollywood studio system inadvertently moved closer to a means of developing, to quite a large extent, hegemonic and monopolised control of a world-wide cinematic industry. Leading up to this point - which it is possible to situate as being around the start of the 1930’s and more specifically in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power in Germany) - culturally transferable products on an international level, such as film, only consisted of a few notable examples. These examples, one of which is central to the discussions in the following chapters – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Wiene, 1919) – brought the professionalism and their original use of visual styles (such as the metaphorical use of chiaroscuro lighting) of the European film industry to the attention of Hollywood creating the desire to effectively ‘trophy hunt’, as Fritz Lang called it, the talent to be found in Europe. The US Studio executives had the objective during these talent-raiding campaigns, as German scholar Thomas Elsaesser points out, of ‘defeat[ing] a rival in order to exploit them internationally.’
Directors and technicians, such as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder, who fled Germany during the 1930’s were known, collectively, as émigrés. Before looking at the role the émigrés played in the development of US Film Noir it is appropriate to highlight the characteristics of their film-making style as it was the innovative approaches they made that brought them to the attention of the US Studio executives. They took their influences from the gothic Neo-Romantic revival that was taking place in Vienna for their narrative themes, and the ‘innovative staging and lighting techniques of producer and director Max Reinhardt.’ The German directors just prior to the 1920’s had begun to develop a distinct style of film-making involving two major stylistics: chiaroscuro lighting – which involved frontal lighting and low-key lighting, contrasted with high-key lighting, and use of the close up, along with metaphorical and sometimes poetic use of shadows ; and ‘the stylization of expressionism.’ These technical aspects informed the narratives of such films by imbuing melodramatic elements with states of ‘spiritual isolation, anxiety and fear.’ These elements, crucial to US film noir’s characteristic motifs, were brought together in a manner that emphasised the Uncanny aspects of objects, people and places through the central motif of the Doppelganger which will be defined and elaborated upon in the following chapter.

Weimar Germany and Cinematic Aesthetics.

The role that the German émigrés played in the subsequent development of the classic US film noir genre during the 1940’s is widely accepted: one only has to look at the corpus of works by these directors within US Cinema of the 1940’s to see that the most widely referenced definitions of film noir were made by these directors; Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1944), Fritz Lang (The Woman In The Window, 1944, Scarlet Street, 1945, The Big Heat, 1953), Robert Siodmak (The Killers, 1946, The Spiral Staircase,1945, Criss Cross, 1949), Otto Preminger (Laura, 1944). Under the banner of the United States studio system these film noirs effectively situated classic noir firmly within the US tradition and iconography. French film critics after the war, due to the influx of these Hollywood noirs into French cinematic consciousness after the Occupation, coined the term film noir in 1946 specifically to denote what they saw as an American phenomenon and cultural product. This had what could be classed as two effects. On one hand it distanced European association with a rather ‘fiercely critical, and negative view of American society’ thus strengthening the projection of these films as being a distinctly American product. But on the other, Nino Franks associations of the term with connotations of temporality and spatiality, as pointed out by Edward Dimendberg , subtly opens up recognition of a distinctly European zeitgeist of modernist thought at work, as it effectively ‘flatter[s] precisely those (French) intellectuals whose (left-wing) political convictions and (surrealist) aesthetic predilections obliged them to pay this compliment in the first place. What emerges from this observation are subtle clues to US film noirs origins within Europe: namely European intellectual philosophy and cultural zeitgeists and filmic styles, as already stated earlier, that could be found in German Expressionism and its characteristics of spiritual isolation, anxiety and fear. It also alludes to aspects of 1930’s French Poetic Realism with its gloomy poetics signalling ‘a migration into French culture of Nietzschian philosophy.’ Before briefly outlining (as it will be discussed in more detail later) this aspect of French Poetic Realism, it is necessary to highlight its characteristics as with German Expressionism above.

French Poetic Realism

French Poetic Realism was a period of French cinema of the 1930’s, the first alleged instance of the term as applied to film, being to Pierre Chenal’s La Rue Sans Nom (1933). It provides another instance in which German émigrés entered a foreign cinematic industry during the displacement of European film-making personnel during the rise of Hitler to power in 1933. Although it signals a marked difference from the quintessential Expressionist film - in that Poetic Realism set designers, for instance, aimed to provide both ‘a naturalism and stylization’ – Ginette Vincendeau points out that French Poetic Realism has often been argued to the effect that it was itself a ‘German’ aesthetic. Whilst elsewhere, Temple and Witt state that its antecedents can be found in both French and German culture and cinema. It should be pointed out, however, that the influence of the émigrés within the French studio system was not an integral part in the development of Poetic Realism but rather an influential aspect of the work they had done before in their own industry. The core corpus of French Poetic Realist films were made by French film-makers such as Jean Renoir (La Bête humaine, 1938), Marcel Carné (Quai des brumes, 1938 and Le Jour se lève,1939), going back to earlier examples of Julien Duvivier’s La Belle Équipe (1936) and Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931).
Poetic Realism then, bore the hallmarks of Weimar Cinema, through appropriating its characteristics of ‘Expressionist’ lighting into softer chiaroscuro shades, due in part to the move toward panchromatic film away from orthochromatic film. As classic French film analyst Colin Crisp puts forward, this allowed Expressionism to ‘evolve into the textured surfaces, the gradations of grey, the rain-splashed night-time pavements of Poetic Realism.’ The genre’s core thematics concern narratives centred around a doom-laden male (Jean Gabin being the most iconic example), occupying spaces of urban environments that displayed a tendency for exterior night-time scenarios. Due to the attention to detail of recreating urban city environments such as Paris there is also a sense of authenticity to the settings, hence the use of the word ‘Realism’. The genres ‘poetic’ aspects then, lie in the portrayal of the romantic/pessimistic narrative of the doom-laden male, and his interaction with the everyday objects and environments he occupies. And what emerges, as Witt and Temple point out, is a poetic sense of duality between these everyday objects, people and places, and the romanticised/pessimistic protagonist (in a sense he is full of hope underpinned by a resigned outlook to an inevitable fate), examples of which can be found in the analysis of this very aspect in Le Jour se lève (Marcel Carne, 1939) by scholar Dudley Andrew. It is yet another genre that displays the narrative technique of flashbacks and framed stories in which temporal and spatial continuity are fragmented, thus echoing the connotations of Nino Franks definition of US Film Noir above.
From this brief analysis it is possible to glimpse aspects that determine a linear history of influence from German Expressionism and its Weimar antecedents (Straβessnfilms and Kammerspielfilms), to French Poetic Realism, through to US Film Noir. By exploring these glimpses into cinematic history, the discussion that follows will seek to strengthen these aspects and attempt to show that US Film Noir aesthetics are rooted in Europe. Through an analysis of US Film Noir’s use of Doppelgangers it will be shown that the main core thematic concern to the identity of an American film noir lies in the Neo-Romantic revival of it. This was subsequently expressed in German Expressionism and Weimar cinema, in an attempt to raise the status of film as an Art form, which had the effect of bringing it to the attention of the US studio executives. By looking at the influence of Robert Wiene and Paul Wegener’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and The Student of Prague (1913) respectively, upon Lang it is possible to see how these aspects were appropriated by him into a more Weimarian aesthetic – evidenced in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). This aesthetic influenced Poetic Realism which subsequently influenced US Film Noir. From this it is possible to view an evolutionary arc of noir thematics and stylizations that eventually lead from Lang’s Weimar films into some of the most notable quintessential US film noirs: The Woman in the Window, (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945) that he made during his US career. It will also be shown how the use of the Doppelganger presented opportunities for US film to explore the psychological aspects of its increasingly modernist society and the frailties of identity that modernism brought through another notable example of the Weimarian influence in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
French Poetic Realism will be discussed in line with Ginette Vincendeau’s, argument that Poetic Realism was the bridge between the German tradition and Hollywood , by showing how Poetic Realism is indebted to the German tradition of film-making – in particular Weimar Cinema’s Straβessnfilms. Through analysis of key Poetic Realist films (Quai des brumes, 1938, in particular, alongside La Chienne, 1931) alongside canonical Hollywood examples of Noir (Scarlet Street, 1945), it will be possible to address how Poetic Realisms provides a synergy of German cinema and Hollywood, thus strengthening the point that Poetic Realism acts as a bridge between the two. In conclusion to the above discussions, the question of whether US Film Noir is indeed a European rooted aesthetic will be addressed, and also look at the trans-cultural aspects of Noir in general.

The Lasting Influence of German Expressionism, Weimar Cinema, & the Doppelganger.

Historical scholarship on the period of the Weimar Republic in Germany has illustrated how the period of Weimar cinema has utilised the Doppelganger motif through both technical aspects and narrative/thematic formation. Lutz Koepnick, in reference to Lotte Eisner’s seminal work on the period of Weimar cinema, put forward that Expressionist film making ‘cherished the figure of the double in the hope of reviving the legacy of German Romanticism and its attraction toward the obscure and undetermined.’ In addition to this, Siegfred Kracauer (who put forward perhaps one of the most comprehensive studies of Weimar/Germanic cinema) investigated how the Doppelganger motif served to illustrate socio-psychological representations of the psyche of the German people during Weimar. The work of Dietrich Scheunemann, a highly regarded analyst of European Avant-Garde Film, in recent years elaborated on these studies suggesting that ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari continued with the revival of doubles and double visions of which Ewers, Meyrink and Wegener had made a highly successful ingredient of German cinema since 1913…[and that]…its return represents the renewal of an uncanny, gothic motif by neo-Romantic writers.’ Elsewhere, critic Andrew Spicer locates it in a similar position as that of the gothic romance and the ‘great tradition of blood melodramas.’ Alongside this analysis it is possible to see how the European Doppelganger motif serves to inform US Film Noir with one of its central characteristics: the fractured identity of the male protagonist.

Shadows of Caligarian Doppelgangers & US Film Noir.

By re-interpreting the readings of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Scheunemann effectively brings to light the foregrounding central motif of the Doppelganger displayed within Dr Caligari himself, and with Cesare, his somnambulist ‘victim’. He points out the duality of Dr Caligari by illustrating that he is aligned to the occult through the costume he adorns being dark, old-fashioned and different from the costumes of the society and environment in which he is placed (thus alienated from society), and also by the fact that he displays control over the esoteric forces of psychology, and that as the film progresses ‘he reveals himself to be a scientist at the same time, a therapist and director of an asylum.’ Scheunemann also goes on to show how the film foregrounds this motif by duplicating it, giving Cesare a Doppelganger – the dummy that takes his place when the authorities go to investigate the mysterious Dr Caligari and his somnambulist Cesare. In foregrounding this motif he points out how ‘Dr Caligari is a Doppelganger, an offspring of a gothic tale, a late descendent of nineteenth-century Romantic literature who are haunted by their shadows and alter egos, form dangerous alliances with magic forces, create artificial beings who eventually escape their control, and usually end in self destruction.’ This study also cites other examples of the Doppelganger motif occurring frequently throughout German cinema over the period 1913-1927 beginning in the work of Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (1913) and Der Golem (1915), to Waxworks (Birinsky/Leni, 1924), through to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). It was Wegener who initially began the trend by recognising films potentiality to explore the Doppelganger, through utilising the photo-illusionist qualities of film concerning the presentation of double images to its fullest capability as a way of elevating film in its own right to the status of Art. In The Student of Prague the protagonist sells his mirror image to a sorcerer, who in turn resurrects it into a murderous, evil double which inevitably brings down the protagonist played by Wegener himself. Whether through narrative devices or technical aspects it is clear that the motif was very central to Weimar era cinema.
The central motif of the Doppelganger cannot be underestimated concerning its later influence upon US Film Noir, for it is from these elements and the Expressionist exploration of the ‘instability and fluidity of identity’ that US Film Noir is characterised. This exploration of the Doppelganger motif also evoked the Uncanny, which emphasises the literary links of European Romanticism. The degree to which the Doppelganger is associated with this element is evident in the visual style and thematics of German Expressionism. Scheunemann’s analysis of the expressionist design of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari emphasises that it is through the expressionist design that a heightened perception of reality and a truthful projection of the uncanny nature of characters and events is introduced. Whilst this may be true, Scheunemann refrains from describing in more particular detail the nature of the Uncanny and what constitutes and evokes feelings of it. And as it is a very central element to the psychology of the protagonists found in later US Film Noir, it is necessary to define it more clearly, and alongside the definitions outlined above of the Doppelganger.

The Uncanny in US Noir.

Whilst not going too deep into this complex subject, which isn’t the overall aim of this discussion, Sigmund Freud points out that the Uncanny has been described by German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in his essay ‘On The Psychology of The Uncanny’(1906) in lexis that would appear very suitable for the exploration of the Doppelganger at hand. Jentsch suggests that the Uncanny ‘is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.’ As highlighted above, this is a central element concerning the Doppelganger motif: in the films above questions concerning whether a ‘character’ is animate or not frequently arise. Freud also goes on to further explore the associations of the double (in our case the Doppelganger) with the Uncanny by addressing E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman (1816). This was a short story of the Romantic period in which a repressed fear from childhood of the figure of The Sandman who steals the eyes of children who won’t go to sleep, is projected by Nathaniel (the protagonist) onto a double in the character of Coppelius. Coppelius has also created another double in the form of an automaton, which Nathaniel believes is real, this misrecognition eventually causing his death. Freud states in relation to this ‘…thus we have characters who are to be considered identical…[the relationship between them being]…accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another – by what we should call telepathy - so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings and experience in common with the other.’ This exactly describes the relationship of characters in Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922): each main character has a link to someone else in the film through uncanny feelings. Philosopher Milica Živković furthers the effect that the Doppelganger has upon a text by stating that ‘by attempting to transform the relations between the imaginary into the symbolic, the double hollows out the real, revealing its absence, its great other.’
Taking these elements into consideration regards US Film Noir it is possible to adduce that these elements become central features to the psychological exploration of the protagonists found at the heart of films that make up the corpus of film noirs in America throughout the 1940’s. Take for instance Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) which is perhaps the best example of the uncanny relationship of two characters of this era. Here we have the duality so central to the Doppelganger relationship outlined above, in Walter Neff and Barton Keyes, in which they mirror each others’ repressed homosexual relationship to one another, subtly ‘symbolised by the visual rhyme, running throughout the film, of Neff’s ritual lighting of Keyes’ cigar as Keyes fumbles each time for a match.’ As the film progresses we witness Neff go through what can be classed as the breakdown of identity into fractured masculinity, which is emphasised by the temporal and spatial disruptions of the narration, narrated by him through flashbacks. From the outset Neff’s duality, which is signalled by his relation between the Symbolic and the Imaginary, and uncanny nature is increasingly expressed during the progression of his confession to Keyes. Bearing in mind the discussion above concerning the Uncanny being evoked by the intellectual uncertainty whether an ‘object’ is alive or not, a good example of this, is as Neff takes a walk after securing his alibi since the staging of the ‘accident’ of Dietrichson, in his voiceover he says, “It sounds crazy Keyes but it’s true so help me…I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” The Uncanny that Neff evokes after this is more potent still, considering the fact that it is uttered through the temporal disruption of flashback. Neff therefore, displays the duality of identity that is found in the Weimar tradition motif of the Doppelganger, but also the evocation of the Uncanny that is attributed to it. The attempt by Neff to transform the imaginary and symbolic order, that is embarked upon through his fatal trajectory, also serves to compliment Živković’s exploration of the function of a double in texts, in that ultimately the attempt reveals his absence (his inexistence) when he states “It was the walk of a dead man.”
As illustrated in comparative analysis of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Double Indemnity, the after echoes of German Expressionism and Weimar Cinema in general, can be located in US Film Noir through the subjective aspects of the effects of doublings, which create shifting, unstable identities. However, through Lang’s straβenfilm Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) it is possible to see an expression of a more social realist aesthetic that can be found in his genre defining Hollywood Noirs, most notably The Woman In The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). The noir antecedents are encapsulated in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler by the title alone evoking duplicity of identity in that he is both a respectable doctor but also a gambler. This is emphasized by the fact that the character also frequently descends into the underbelly of a society that is a ‘world [that] is friendly and peaceful only at first glance. Below the surface, however, lurk black depths of danger and secrecy, malice and hate, rivalry and war.’ The tyrannical Doppelganger motif that wishes to control society through a Caligarian terror is also situated in Dr Mabuse in that he seeks to hypnotize his gambling opponents into losing vast sums of money. As critic David Fine points out, he is a master of the psyche and uses this to his advantage by evoking multiple identities such as: ‘psychoanalyst and asylum director, hypnotist…,stockbroker who uses his superhuman power to manipulate the market, controller of a counterfeit money ring, drunken sailor, and pleasure seeker in a gambling den, where exotic dancers entertain male guests, and visitors are offered the choice, “cards or cocaine.”’ The city then, is rendered as a ‘dark labyrinth’

Fritz Lang: Doppelgangers & Femme Fatale’s.

It has been noted in the introduction to this discourse that the femme fatale figure was initially represented in the straβenfilm as an embodiment of the temptation and threat of illicit desire. It is important to keep these two aspects in mind, along with the doubling that occurs, when considering Fritz Lang’s Hollywood noirs as they provide a clear linear route from a European rooted aesthetic. Through the character of Wanley in The Woman In The Window these aspects are expressed in quintessential noir style. The opening section of the film sees Wanley become fixated with the image of a beautiful woman hanging in the gallery next door to a bar in which he is heading to enjoy himself whilst his wife is away. In this particular sequence we see the male gaze doubly framed (as he looks through the glass window at the framed portrait) and fixated upon the object (the beautiful female) that will signal his fateful trajectory. Later this scene is repeated but in the frame appears the face of the real woman, the typical femme fatale, which gives an instance of doubling identities. Wanley then accepts an invitation to go back to her apartment wherein a struggle ensues between Wanley and Alice’s supposed lover. Alice comes to Wanley’s aid, as he is being strangled, handing him a pair of scissors with which Wanley stabs Claude killing him. Wanley then proceeds to dispose of the body. The progression of the film from here on takes on something of the Uncanny in that, as Fine points out, everyday objects, such as ‘hats, watches and clocks, windows, and mirrors signify something more, suggesting, as they recur, connections that carry meaning.’ : they effectively become more alive as signifiers. The Uncanny is again evoked through the doublings that occur: the blackmailer and the detective both shadowing Wanley throughout the film after the murder of Claude. But as these elements draw ever closer, Wanley finds his freedom increasingly compromised and restricted - which is expressed through claustrophobic mise-en-scene that evokes Lang’s Weimar aesthetics. Wanley takes his own life, but then wakes up in the Bar, and we realize that everything has been a dream (or nightmare), which evokes the use of the framing device found in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari but in a less ambiguous manner.
In the discussions above it stands that there is direct evidence of a Weimarian influence, not just on a periphery level, but on a level that actually informs the identity of US Film Noir. There are, of course, other European heritages and cultures to be explored that inform the basis from which US Film Noir has evolved, such as that of Modernist Art and German Expressionist theatre, which Eisner goes into significant detail. There is also the lasting influence on American crime novels of European Romanticism that is evident in the work of Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic detective/crime fiction novels that influenced Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Cornell Woolrich to name a few. Whilst this discussion has concentrated on the inception of the Doppelganger motif, there is also Lang’s ‘formal, perceptual, and narrative configurations from [his] last German film of the thirties [that] established a matrix for the delusional scenarios and media deceptions that later distinguish his American contribution to film noir.’ Robert Siodmak and Otto Preminger, as outlined in the introduction, also provide significant contributions to the core identity of US Film Noir. And this is not counting the contribution of Alfred Hitchcock in films such as Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Despite these additional aspects, along with the argument presented above that clearly shows a German-European heritage to US Film Noir, it could be argued that it was due to Hollywood’s historic monopolizing of the cinematic industry post-WWII, and the flight from Europe of many top directors and film technicians to America, that it is still within mainstream popular opinion that Film Noir is a distinctly American phenomenon. This was no doubt increased by the coinage of the term film noir by French critics at the influx of American films that took on darkly expressionist features. However, as Elsaesser suggests, this was merely the continuation of a ‘cultural politics of trading compliments’ that had been taking place since WWI that was built on an ‘historical imaginary.’ In a sense, the flip-side to this statement is that Europe recognised the American form as being European and by coining the term that has held so much currency since, effectively reclaimed the genre. The following discussion of French Poetic Realism will seek to further redress the balance and strengthen aspects addressed above, whilst also showing how Poetic Realism provides a bridge between Weimar cinema and US Film Noir in a linear line of evolution.

Poetic Realism: The Noir Bridge.

It is through analysis of a few key films that were made during the 1930’s in France that Poetic Realism’s influence can be found in the subsequent development of US Film Noir. As in the case of Weimar Cinema and German Expressionism outlined above, it can be argued that this influence extends past mere aesthetic shaping when considering that some key genre defining Hollywood Noir’s were actually the remakes of French films from the 1930’s: La Chienne (1931) and La Bète humaine (1938) were later remade by Lang as Scarlet Street (1945) and Human Desire (1954); Le Dernier Tournant (Chenal, 1939) was remade as The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946); whilst Le jour se lève (Carné, 1939) was remade by Anatole Litvak as The Long Night (1947). We also have to take into account that, as outlined above, many classic US Film Noir’s were made by émigrés such as Wilder with Double Indemnity (1944), and Siodmak with The Killers (1946). Elsewhere, Ginette Vincendeau highlights the transatlantic career of Jacques Tourneur and that his quintessential noir Out Of The Past (1947) being hailed by Leslie Halliwell as ‘a moody film noir, with Hollywood imitating French models.’ Thus, the case for a definite European heritage to America’s core identity within film noir, and one that passes through France, is already, it seems, extremely strong upon even a brief analysis. To analysis this more clearly it will be appropriate to turn to two key films of French Poetic Realism: Quai des brumes (Marcel Carné, 1938) and Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931). It is in these two films in which we can see an appropriation of Weimar thematic and stylization into French Poetic Realism (most notably in Quai des brumes) and an appropriation of a French Poetic Realist aesthetic being incorporated into the aesthetics of US Film Noir through the remake of La Chienne into Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945).

French Poetic Realism: A German Aesthetic?

Ginette Vincendeau points out that France did indeed have a pre-noir tradition during the 1930’s that can be defined by ‘it’s romantic/pessimist narratives, by the visual motifs of night-time city streets bathed in strong shadows and pools of light from street lamps, of patterned lighting on characters’ faces and bodies, and of sleazy locations, of which the night-club or bar – occasionally in exotic colonial locations – is the epitome.’ It is from the German straβenfilm that these elements take their influence and as has been noted by Spicer, ‘German cameramen and set designers were frequently employed’ to recreate the visual style of Poetic Realism. The deployment of the technical skills of the German technicians served Poetic Realism in a manner that explored the psychology of characters and their relationship to the everyday, but differed from the German aesthetic due to the fact French Cinema on the whole has a tendency toward realist aesthetics . The lighting techniques familiar to Weimarian cinema, for example, was used to create ‘the stimmung (the aura or shimmer of mood resonating from an object filmed) and the umwelt (the uniting and protective rays of light generating a recognition of objects and characters clustered in their discretely intimate environment, apart from the unknown and feared, apart from what is “out there”).’ American Noir scholar Dickos illustrates this by referring to Eisner’s account of it as a metaphysical force that emanates from the object/person filmed that is usually diffused by a light source, melancholy landscape or even a sunbeam. Taking this into consideration we can see the effect in Poetic Realism as an element that underscores sequences with romantic elements, and succeed in evoking the poetic. Consider, for example, the fog that imbues many scenes that are located around the harbour and the streetlife sequences (usually shot by night-time) in Quai des brumes: whilst creating a sense of the unknown around the harbour (which in itself is a location of departure and escape into a foreign land thus connoting the unknown), the fog itself acts as a metaphysical veil that hides the harbour (creating a myth of escape). It hangs around the streets as a metaphor for the unconscious, one that resonates with the lyrical and poetic speech of Jean Gabin. This has the effect of aligning him with the romantic/existential poet resigned to his fate, and also imbuing him with a brooding melancholy. This type of metaphorical lighting can be found throughout US Film Noir of the 1940’s in which darkness and shadows serve to fracture and reveal the psychological interiority of male protagonists. Take, for example, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street in which the character Christopher Cross walks down an ‘empty rain-slicked Manhattan street[s] illuminated by the white incandescent glow thrown by streetlights and lighted store windows. The wet streets are bathed in eerie light…[whilst]…the high-contrast black and white photography projects onto the scene the mind of the lonely man.’ It is essentially a Weimarian aesthetic that has been appropriated into Poetic Realist aesthetical concerns and subsequently been appropriated into US Film Noir.

Temporal & Spatial Dis-continuity.

Another defining characteristic of US Film Noir is its propensity to disrupt temporal and spatial continuity. Throughout the 1940’s this became one of the major characteristics of Film Noir in that it helped to reflect, in a modernist sense, the fragmentation of everyday life as experienced in a rapidly modernised society. The dislocation of experience of normal gender roles and familial relations (due to WWII and the loss of life which disrupted the family) was reflected in the aesthetic and ideological inclination to recall the past, reflect upon one’s actions and behaviour, in an attempt to re-assess the re-configured roles within society. So we find in US Film Noir narrative flashbacks, ellipses, and also, through the mise-en-scene, a use of shadow to divide the cinematic frame. Examples of this can be found in countless noirs: Double Indemnity (1945) for instance which is framed by a narration told in complete flashback; and Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) in which the locale of Bunker Hill is presented in ‘a montage sequence of shots [which] presents spatially disconnected views of Angels Flight and Clay Street, a jumble of images that fails to present the cohesion and integrity of Bunker Hill as a neighbourhood.’ It would seem then that the formal aspect of temporal and spatial discontinuity could also be found in Poetic Realism. And it is, as Turim points out: in Le jour se lève that we are given a framing story in which information is given that a man has killed and is holed up in a hotel room to recount how he became a murderer. And Turim goes on to note how ‘flashbacks become “causal” segments whose internal temporal structure is a linear progression narrating the jealousy, betrayal, and villainous taunting that turns the promise of an ideal romance sour.’ In Quai des brumes there is also the temporal aspect in which the past catches up with Gabin, a past from which he is trying to escape to the extent of taking on his own Doppelganger identity that we so often see in Film Noir. Through the role of his Doppelganger (the painter/artist identity that he adopts) we see Gabin express that he “…in general…paints things that are hidden behind other things.” Is that not the aim of Expressionist painters? It quite clearly is, taking into consideration the following quotation taken from an essay on Expressionism (Über den Expresssionismus in der Literatur, 1906), by Kasimir Edshmid, a fervent theorist of Expressionist art theory, ‘It is the hand of the artist which “through them grasps what is behind them” and allows us to know their real form, freed from the stifling constraints of a “false reality”.’ Maybe this is a tenuous linkage, but it certainly raises the possibility of it being an example of what Elsaesser has referred to, as noted earlier, of a “cultural politics of trading compliments.” This is strengthened in light of an influx of German technicians behind the Poetic Realist movement, and also that much previous evidence (as discussed) suggests the strong influence of Weimar art forms throughout Europe at the time.

The Arc of Noir: La Chienne (Renoir, 1931) & Scarlet Street (Lang, 1945)

To close this discussion, the case of La Chienne’s legacy should be highlighted. It effectively provides the point at which the arc of noir’s heritage can be traced from Weimar to Paris and on to Hollywood as Janice Morgan highlights in an extensive essay , and as has been argued above in a similar manner. In compliment to the above, it is through the poetic potency attributed to certain objects and that are foregrounded in La Chienne that Fritz Lang incorporates into Scarlet Street elemental aspects of Poetic Realism. This is done in a way that produces the same poetic agency of objects, albeit in a manner that places them as signifiers of fate and entrapment through a mise-en-scene of clocks, mirrors, doorways, frames and neon street signs.
Taking the noir landscape of entrapment and fatal trajectories into account, it could be argued that US Film Noir rests on a dual ideological purpose: on one hand, it acts as a means of didacticism in pointing to the prevails that befall those who delineate from the ‘patriarchal path’ ; and on the other, it acts as a social critique of American culture that by-passed the censors of the HAYS code, as Jonathon Munby. Taking this into account, in consideration of Scarlet Street and Le Chienne, it could therefore be argued that this ideological inflection is already present in the work of Renoir, by the fact Gabin dies at the end. Lang appropriates this into an American context, the end result being that Cross, rather than dying, has a mental breakdown.
It is hoped to have been displayed in the above discussion that the argument put forward by Vincendeau, regards Poetic Realism providing a bridge from Weimar aesthetics to the eventual evolution into the US Film Noir canon of the 1940’s, has been consolidated. By means of stylistic influence and ideological inflection, and the experience gained by the German exiles during 1930’s France of Poetic Realist aesthetics, they were able to consolidate the typical noir characteristics into the US studio system.


The point to be taken in regard to this discussion is that US Film Noir is indeed rooted within a European heritage. It is, essentially, an aesthetic that has travelled across the Modernist landscape that shaped Europe during the first half of the 20th Century, absorbing many different generic traits and styles. From early Weimar Germany to Poetic Realism, and on to Hollywood it has shown to be what Janice Morgan and Dudley Andrew claim is ‘an international popular art through and through…that is a multi-faceted, cross-cultural and highly intertextual phenomenon.’ It is a form of aesthetics that acts in a highly self-reflexive manner, to the extent that it comments upon its own fractured and multi-various identity, providing the perfect Art by which to investigate the socio-psychological constructions of society and cinema itself. In doing so it has become what Spicer and Elsaesser refer to as a “conceptual black hole” that seems to swallow many different genres and styles of cinema, endlessly producing differing modes and facets of itself, that make it ‘notoriously problematic’ in trying to define. But it is essentially an aesthetic that was born from recognising the potential that the revived Neo-Romantic Doppelganger offered for cinematic exploration. Without this, it could be argued, that Weimar Cinema could have evolved into something quite different. From the Doppelganger motif sprang the duplicity of psychological identity that, as has been shown, is a key characteristic of the evolution of Noir. The visual stylizations that came from the attempts to accent this duplicity, by using light metaphorically, subsequently became a key feature also. In taking these aspects and appropriating them into its own cinema with the help of Weimar technicians, and their experience gained from the straβenfilm, Poetic Realism became the point at which the first major appropriation of one cinematic aesthetic into another truly made its mark.
Added to this progression and trans-cultural aspect, is its evolution back into Europe during the 1950’s through the social noirs of France closely followed by the Nouvelle Vague. Through Jean-Pierre Melville’s avid cinephilia for all that was American, from the gangster B-Movies to the classic Film Noir identified in this discussion, he effectively reclaimed Noir back from America in true auteur style, and, in doing so, took film noir to even bleaker depths of existentialism. It can be argued that following WWII, Hollywood Noir found its entry back into Europe through a France that, in the ravaged European climate, had turned to existentialism as an everyday philosophy, displaying a Romantic nostalgia for optimism of a time before the war. This Romantic optimism, it could also be argued, lay in the recognition of a pre-war Europe within the Hollywood Noir’s that flooded France after the Liberation. And with Bob le Flambeur (1956), Melville set the foundation that influenced a new generation of film-makers worldwide, setting film noir on the path of the auteur, through the Nouvelle Vague era, which in turn would send film noir back to America on a neo-noir trajectory and the cinema of Quentin Tarantino.

Appendix: List of Films Cited

Weimar/German Expressionism

The Student of Prague (Paul Wegener, 1913)
Der Golem (Paul Wegener, 1915)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919)
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922)
Nosferatu (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922)
Waxworks (Leo Birinsky & Paul Leni, 1924)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Nosferatu (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922)

Poetic Realism
La Chienne (Jean Renoir, 1931)
La Rue Sans Nom (Pierre Chenal, 1933)
La Belle Équipe (Julien Duvivier, 1936)
Quai des brumes (Marcel Carné, 1938)
La Bête humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)
Le Jour se lève (Marcel Carné, 1939)
Le Dernier Tournant (Pierre Chenal, 1939)

Hollywood Film Noir
Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)
Shadow Of A Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
The Woman In The Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)
The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnet, 1946)
The Long Night (Anatole Litvak, 1947)
Out Of The Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
Act Of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948)
Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)
The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954)

French New Wave
Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)
À bout de soufflé (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the Glam/Punk songs "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst", "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire" and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque