The major period of film (noir) production is usually taken to run from The Maltese Falcon 1941 to Touch of Evil in 1958” Describe the major stylistic characteristics of the cycle paying particular attention to moral ambiguity, the noir ‘look’, gender, violence and the city.
I will examine the stylistic characteristics of film noir including moral ambiguity, the noir ‘look’, gender, violence and the city. To do this I will make reference to The Maltese Falcon, which begins the noir period, Double Indemnity and A Touch of Evil, the film that ends this era.
Film Noir is the cinematic term used to describe movies made in Hollywood during the early 1940’s and late 1950’s. Film noir of this period is commonly associated with low-key black and white visuals and is said to be inspired by German Expressionist cinematography. The noir genre usually depicts a world of crime and darkness with central protagonists whose thoughts and motives are defined by ambition, lust and greed.
Based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon marks the beginning of the Noir Period and is set in San Francisco in 1941. Centered on the murder of investigator Archer the story quickly evolves into the hunt for a valuable falcon.
Gender is a major defining characteristic in film noir and can be seen in all of the above-mentioned films. Gender presents itself in the form of the femme fatale and a male protagonist. The female character/ femme fatale can be described as being “deadly to man” a direct translation from the French term. The femme fatale may often lead to the falling of the male character. The femme fatale is characteristically a seductive woman “whose charms ensnare her lovers in the bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations”. The female figure pushes the male and tests his limits to see how far he can go. Adulterous affairs are also a main theme of gender and often involve the femme fatale.
Gender in The Maltese Falcon is presented in the form of the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Presenting herself as Miss Ruth Wonderly who we later identify as Brigid O’Shaughnessy the character played by Mary Astor is a true to life femme fatale using her looks and charisma to get what she wants. In her first appearance Miss Wonderly claims to be looking for her sister who has disappeared and is involved with a man called Floyd Thursby. Miss Wonderly wants to find Thursby in the hope that her sister may be with him. After receiving a tip off Archer follows her hoping to get her sister back but ends up being murdered. Instead the news of Archers murder spreads quickly and business partner Spade played by Humphrey Bogart asks his secretary to go to see Mrs. Archer.
The femme fatale does however lose her charm and sense of authority when at the end of the film Spade stands up to her and threatens her future by suggesting that he is going to turn her into the police. Insulted by this prospect Brigid tries her charm but it is too late as she is soon taken away by Detective Polhaus. Angered by the fact that she killed Archer, Spade is strong and no words or flirting can help Brigid now.
Violence and intimidation are also central to this film. From the initial murders of Archer and Thursby to Cairo holding Spade at gunpoint, O’Shaughnessy beating up Cairo and the murder of Captain Jacobi the violence continues throughout.
Lighting is central to this film and provides a stark contrast between interior and exterior settings. The majority of the outdoor scenes are filmed during the nighttime with figures being cast in dark shadows. Street lamps are also used. This type of lighting highlights the serious mood throughout the film.
Moral ambiguity is essential to this film. Of the three films I have studied it is perhaps the most corrupt with characters even betting against their own. Wilmur is set to take the blame for the murders of Archer and Thursby whilst his colleagues Cairo and Gutman get the Falcon. Wilmur has little choice in this decision as he is simply offered up by his colleagues and given no say in the matter.
In the end Spade is left all alone. His plans have worked and he has the statue. He may have lost the girl but he has been left with “The stuff that dreams are made of.”
The Maltese Falcon is not the only film of the period that is centered on manipulation and the quest for an falcon. Murder my Sweet shows a similar theme with the search for and the mission to find a jade necklace with many more movies following on with the same theme.
Set in LA in 1944 Double Indemnity has examples of all the above film noir characteristics. The femme fatale is presented in the form of Mrs Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwych) who cons insurance broker Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) into committing fraud and murder. From their very first encounter she has him under her wrath with her “ankle bracelet’ and charm and the tales of her abusive husband – oil worker Mr Dietrichson. Casually mentioning the possibility for life insurance on her husband, Phyllis Dietrichson starts on her mission to kill her husband. Suspecting the fraud Neff is at first taken back but it is not long before he suggests, “you’re going to do it and I’m the one to help you”. Having conned Mr Dietrichson into signing the insurance forms they start having secret meetings in supermarkets finalising the plans for the murder. Set backs along the way including Mr Dietrichsons broken leg threaten the plans but on the 15 June it all goes ahead. The day is planned perfectly with both Neff and Phyllis covering their steps along the way. With plans to have Mr Dietrichson die in a train accident Walter puts a similar navy suit to the one Dietrichson is wearing on the day. Checking in his car he covers his alibis and steps along the way. Hiding in the back seat of the Dietrichson’s car he waits for the signal of the horn blowing 3 times before he rises up and strangles Mr Dietrichson. The plan has started to unfold and it is now time to continue with the train set up. Acting as Mr Dietrichson Walter boards the train and using his cigar smoking as a distraction sends a fellow passenger off to get him some while he jumps off the back. Disposing of the body on the tracks Phyllis and Walter make it look like Mr Dietrichson had simply fallen off.
Their plan has gone perfectly and now Walter has got the girl but not for long. Insurance brokers Keyes and Norton question the accident and suggest a possible suicide motive. As the investigation continues the murder plans are unveiled.
It is not long before Walter finds out about Phyllis’s relationship with her stepdaughter’s boyfriend Nino and her suspected involvement in the death of the late Mrs Dietrichson. Finding out the truth makes Walter realise his mistakes and it is then he realises how it all went wrong. In his final confession he admits “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman”. Admitting his part in the murder Walter admits “it was a crazy story with a crazy twist to it one you didn’t figure out.” And enforcing the fact he could have gotten away with it he says, “you know why you couldn’t figure out this one Keyes. Because the guy you were looking for was too close, he was right across the desk from you”.
Trapped in a plan of murder Walter was vulnerable and at the end this is clear. He thought he could get the woman but she was using him by being a characteristic “femme fatale”
Violence is also prevalent in Double Indemnity apart from the obvious violent streak where Mr Dietrichson is murdered there is violence throughout from a violent marriage to a violent boy friend and a violent end for both Walter and Phyllis.
The excuse used for murdering husband Mr Dietrichson is that he is violent towards Philis who although not obviously threatened physically she is controlled by her husband who expects her to sit at home and knit all day and ignores her when he is present. Step daughter Lola’s boyfriend is also violent and shows similar characteristics to her controlling father. Phyllis can also be viewed as having a sneaky violent streak if what is said by Lola about her involvement with the late Mrs Dietrichsons death is true.
The true violence is seen towards the end of the film however when Phyllis lies in wait with a gun. Expecting trouble she is prepared and when threatened by Walter she shoots him. However her emotions get in the way when she cannot bring herself to fire a second shot and this results in her death at the hands of Walter who takes the gun. At this stage Walters strength emerges and he is no longer vulnerable to her female charm. From this moment he is powerful and regains control over the situation.
The noir look is clear in the film from the use of shadows to the presence of certain props. In many noir films the characters smoke and drink whiskey and this film is no different. The drinking of bourbon is first evident in the scene where Phyllis calls to Walters’s apartment and they drink and talk about their plans. The smoking of cigarettes can be seen throughout including the final scene of the film where Keyes lights up for Walter to have one last smoke. Shadows are evident portraying the dark noir look. In the scene at the house when the insurance forms are being signed Mr Dietricson disappears up the stairs. With his body out of sight the shadow can be seen moving upwards conveying his ascent up the stairs. During Walter and Phyllis’s final encounter shadows also play a major role. Sitting in a dark room Phyllis settles down for the night with only the light of a cigarette and the shadows from the streetlights to brighten the room. The darkness conveys her mood at the time and it is then that the evil approaches and the stand off between her and Walter begins. This is in a stark contrast to the first day they met at the house when the sun was shining. This conveyed a different situation and the lust felt in the first encounter compared to the anger in this final scene.
Moral ambiguity also plays a part in noir films. In this film we have The Insurance Salesman setting up insurance fraud. He doesn’t appear to have any worries about this issue even though he is essentially committing fraud against his own practice. Also we have the set up of Nino for the murder of Mr Dietrichson. While many would have issues with others taking the blame Walter is just happy to have his name in the clear. Stepdaughter Lola is also morally ambiguous in her set up of Phyllis. While the viewer will never know the truth about the circumstances around the late Mrs Dietrichson’s death Lola is quick to volunteer her step mother’s involvement.
Centred around the Mexican Border in 1958 Touch of Evil begins with newly weds Mike and Susie Vargas who are celebrating their first night out in “her country” America. After the explosion involving a car, which kills a US developer, Lawyer Mike Vargas is drawn into the murder investigation after a Mexican national is convicted of the crime. A touch of Evil is generally accepted as being the last in the Noir Genre although some have argued that Odds against tomorrow (1959) and Psycho (1960) mark the end of the epitaph.
Unlike other noir movies this film is not lead by a femme fatale. Instead the character of Susie Vargas is a portrayed as an independent female who is not afraid to be on her own while her husband is off fighting crime. She has no ulterior motive unlike the characters of Mrs Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Her independence is however threatened when she falls the victim of a set up involving the Grandi family. She is not out to get people or trick instead she is the victim. Unless you count the prostitutes who the cops are using for information there are no female characters in this film that have any control over the men. While there is no female femme fatale in this film the character of Hank Quinlan is so manipulative and corrupt and used to getting what he wants that he could in fact be considered to be a “femme fatale” character.
Moral ambiguity plays a big part in the film and can be seen throughout. At the beginning of the film Mexican Sanchez is set up for the dynamite found in his apartment despite there being none there where Vargas checked. This incident leads Vargas to believe that Hank Quinlan may have been involved in planting evidence in other cases. The series of set ups is central throughout the film and is used again later when Cop Hank Quinlan murders Uncle Joe whilst Susie is drugged on the bed in the same room. This leads to her arrest and despite protesting innocence she is taken without question that she is guilty. Set ups in this movie were not frowned on and could in fact be considered by some to be common practice.
Violence and intimidation are central to this film. From the initial murder of US property developer to the final demesne of Hank Quinlan violence can be seen throughout taking with it other victims along the way. The initial intimidation can be seen when Susie Vargas is handed a note by The Grandi brothers who then lead her to Uncle Joe who tries his best to scare her. Speaking Spanish to an American woman is also intimidating and with no idea of what they were saying she was isolated and alone. Leaving she returns to her husband who suggests staying in a Motel out of town.
Mexicans who try to throw acid in his face but hit a poster instead also intimidate Mike Vargas. Later on in the film the Grandi brothers intimidate the motel worker who is portrayed as being stupid and naïve as their plan to kidnap Susie Vargas is unveiled. Intimidating him with their leather jackets and authoritative attitudes he is afraid to step in and tell them who’s boss. In the end Hank Quinlan meets his maker in a set up between Vargas and Menzies. Menzies agrees to meet Quinlan and wearing a wire his aim is to get a confession. The plan goes awry however when Quinlan discovers the wire and shoots Menzies. In the stand off that follows between Quinlan and Vargas it seems to be that Vargas will be shot however Menzies returns with one final shot taking down Quinlan and his manipulative ways.
Unlike the above films Touch of Evil is different in terms of location. This movie gets out of the city as we see Susie Vargas travelling down a country road to the Motel.
The Noir Look is also present in this film with the recognised props of cigarettes and bourbon being used in many scenes. Lighting is also used in this film and is even seen as a method of intimidation. Whilst undressing Susie who is clearly visible in the light is teased and tormented by a shadow in the darkness shining a flashlight in her direction.
From the street lamp lighting, the moral ambiguity and the femme fatale to the violence and corruption the above films all fit into the category of film noir and are prime examples that represent the era. From a Falcon, to an insurance claim and the quest for innocence the motives were all different but in the end these films all share the same characteristics that define them in this genre.