Film noir is a unique movie style that has had a lasting influence on the movie industry, establishing a variety of stylistic tropes and plot devices that many directors still use today. Showing 1946’s The Big Sleep as a reference, classics enthusiast Julia Mazur introduced KCDC students to the intrigues of this cinematic subset and what it can offer as a movie- watching experience.
The style, inspired by German expressionism, originated in France during the 1940s and 50s as a way to describe American crime and corruption. It paints a vivid picture for viewers, playing up and stylizing the drama to make the story more engaging.
Indeed, it’s easy to feel the settings, which make full use of lighting, shadows, “disorienting visual schemes,” and, of course, rain to communicate drama and create a “dark, dirty feeling,” not only about the situation but everybody involved in it.
This is particularly evident in the use of cigarettes to build tension between characters, typically the anti-hero protagonist and the femme fatale. Smoking, while also a cultural norm during film noir’s height, “creates a situation [that allows for] non-physical contact,” as Julia explained. This builds the tension between the characters and drives the plot along. It’s such a useful tool that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s silhouettes are smoking in the background of The Big Sleep’s opening credits.
Tension like this helps to reflect the overall plot. Julia talked about how a character gets caught in a negative situation from which they hope to escape, but instead are responsible for exacerbating the problem. For example, Bogart’s character Philip Marlowe explains that he kept pushing a case because “too many people told [him] to stop.” This was, of course, as Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge had to untie Marlowe after he’d been abducted.
Because of its focus on difficult circumstances, film noir focuses less on the conclusion and more on the process that characters take to reach that conclusion. Thus, plenty of time is spent following suspects and engaging in witty banter to uncover truths and untruths.
This all comes together to speak to the “dark and inhumane side of human nature,” according to Julia. There’s a strong current of cynicism that uses the style’s characteristics to thumb its nose at the seedier side of American culture, which is not as hidden as many would like to think.
Andrew Carpenter is a freelance writer who loves to travel in order to learn something about everything. D.C. has become the perfect microcosm for tempering Andrew’s wanderlust and for exploring the best of what people have to offer.