Temptationâ€”in the form of a beautiful seductress, paranoid
desperation or just a need for cashâ€”can lead apparently
normal people to commit crimes that shock even
themselves. When their stories are told in black-and-white
movies with sharp contrast, sharper angles and a cynicism at
odds with the superficial optimism demanded by Hollywood,
we call them film noir.
Film noir grew out of the political and economic turmoil
between the two world wars. It resulted when German film
directors, influenced by the German expressionist art
movement, came to America to escape Hitler and met the
stripped-down fiction style of Hemingway and the cynicism
of the hardboiled detective tradition.
Noir means black in French, and these movies are blackâ€”
in lack of color, in lack of optimism and in a mood of fear
and impending doom.
The look was dictated in part by economic necessity during
the Depression. Much of the shooting was done in black-
and-white, at night, on city streets, in empty warehouses and
on deserted highways.
The films made money with a low initial outlay, which led to
their popularity with the studios that made them as well as
Early directors associated with film noir include Fritz Lang,
Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger.
Lang, an Austrian aristocrat, directed Metropolis (1926) and
M (1931) before leaving Germany. In America, he directed
Fury (1936), Scarlett Street (1945) and The Big Heat
(1953). His studies in art and psychology informed his films.
Wilder's background was in law and journalism. He wrote
and directed films in Berlin until the rise of Hitler sent him to
the U.S. where he became one of the most varied and
successful of Hollywood film directors. He directed over 50
films and won six Oscars. His works include two
outstanding examples of noir, Double Indemnity (1944) and
Sunset Boulevard (1960).
Preminger, an Austrian, studied law but was more interested
in acting. At age 27, he was tapped to head the State
Theatre in Vienna, but turned it down because it meant
becoming a Catholic. Moving to Hollywood to work for
20th Century Fox, he directed the noir classic Laura, starring
Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. It was so successful, he
directed more noir films featuring men obsessed by seductive
By the beginning of the 50s, however, theater owners in the
middle of the country were complaining that the dark
depictions of city life were frightening away their audiences.
The age of noir ended, though the elements have influenced
numerous films since.
(above); Lang (left)
and Wilder (right)
with typical noir