Monday, November 30, 2009

The British Also Made Film Noir

Thanks to my friend and colleague Peter Andrews for this excellent, in-depth article.

There is an assumption that film noir is a uniquely American phenomenon of the 1940’s and 1950’s, but similar content and stylistic elements exist in some British films of the same period. ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘The Third Man’ are key examples.

For the purpose of this article, noir is defined both as a style and subject matter. While the content is not as unified as in Westerns, for example, noir generally focuses on the criminal. However, they are not traditional detective stories where solving crime provides the primary plot, instead the films focus on the processes of crime; physical and, more importantly, psychological. In addition, films noir are possessed of a distinctive visual style, drawing heavily on expressionistic art and cinema of the 1920s and 30s. Almost as unique as the lighting, is the disjointed timing used in some noirs, where there are numerous flashbacks or past-tense first person narration. Noir is also easily categorised by its dialogue, which is drawn heavily from the hard-boiled school of authors like Dashiell Hammet, James Cain and Raymond Chandler.

There are almost as many problems categorising a film as “British Noir” as there are defining the genre itself; there are many films that have British actors and a British director but are funded with American money, and made to American production codes, especially true of Hitchcock’s noir-thrillers such as ‘Suspicion’ (1941). Indeed, while ‘The Third Man’ features an American producer (David O. Selznick) and an American actor (Joseph Cotten) it still remains distinctively British because of the European setting, the source material (a screenplay by Grahame Greene) and director Carol Reed. Almost everything about ‘Brighton’ Rock is British, from the source material (also by Greene), through to the actors and the locations and is therefore easily classifiable as a British noir.

‘The Third Man’ contains both the style and themes of more general film noir, but the plot does not focus on criminal psychology to the same extent as many American films despite the rather mournful monologue of the racketeer that opens the film. This means that the film could be viewed more as a traditional detective film, as the primary plot in the film is the amateur detective solving the apparent murder of Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But the film is a marriage of film noir and this traditional genre because the film takes a decidedly different path when one finds out that Lime is alive, and the focus shifts to on an ongoing process of crime and the psychology of the three main characters, more akin to a generic noir film. However, because of this confusion, the film is more significant for its noir style, with heavy use of the techniques mentioned earlier.

Many of the first scenes are shot in daylight, with little in the way of low-key lighting. This is not isolated in terms of the genre; with films ‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945) and ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) having similar lighting throughout portions of the film which contain primarily melodrama, whereas the noir elements coincide with psychological repercussions of crime. In ‘The Third Man’ it is when his suspicions over Harry Lime’s ‘death’ dominate Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) that the film noir elements appear. For instance, when Holly is first informed by the porter that Harry was killed and hints that the road accident was not entirely accidental; the scene is shot in a classic German Expressionistic style.

While not as dimly lit as in many noir films, the odd angle used by the cinematographer Robert Krasker using the repetitious architecture of the stairs for an effect that makes it difficult to perceive depth, bearing a resemblance to a flat-perspective modernist painting. It is characteristic of film noir that the shadow of the character is much more significant and dominating than the character themselves.

Later on, when Holly’s suspicions are realised, and just after Harry is revealed, the film takes these elements to their extremes, best shown in the following shot;

The exaggerated shadows here are the only representation of the antagonist on screen, and disconcerting angles lend to an atmosphere of confusion and mistrust on the part of the audience. The increased use of Expressionist techniques in moments of high-drama and paranoia are commonly used in film noir, from both Britain and America.

The use of shadows in this way is strongly influenced by the German Expressionist style. The following comparison of ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’ (1940) and ‘Suspicion’ show the style being used in very similar ways to create a sense of foreboding and fear in both American and British film as well as the classic Expressionist style.

The visual noir elements in ‘Brighton Rock’ seem to be less self-consciously expressionistic than ‘The Third Man’ and so the film fits into the British noir canon through its emphasis on crime, rather than its stylistics. However, it does have many shots that are characteristic of the noir style, as is shown in the following comparison;

The first image is of Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) from ‘Brighton Rock’, and the second is Al Roberts (Tom Neal) from the opening scene of ‘Detour’ (1945). In the latter film, the shadowed face and lit eyes is accompanied by a soliloquy where the protagonist recounts his guilt. In the former, Pinkie is about to push his previously trusted associate from the landing to his death. However, despite the differences in setting and character, the low-key lighting brings the viewers attention to the determined and melancholic eyes. In ‘Brighton Rock’, the link between areas of high tension in the plot and an increase in film noir style is less apparent than ‘The Third Man’; although the film’s climax on the pier is fittingly more noir in style than the rest of the film.

Another stylistic element of film noir is the dialogue, which is derived from hard-boiled detective stories. While this is less prevalent in British film noir, similar lines of dialogue are still evident throughout ‘The Third Man’ often containing the same witty and sarcastic tone that characterises the appearances of characters such as Philip Marlowe in the ‘Big Sleep’;

“Not much to tell...I’m 38, I went to college. I can still speak English, when the job demands it...I used to work for the District Attorney’s office...I was fired for insubordination. I always seemed to rate pretty highly on that.”
(Philip Marlowe [Humphrey Bogart], ‘The Big Sleep’, 1946)

“I’m just a hack who drinks too much and falls in love with pretty girls.”
(Holly Martins [Joseph Cotton], ‘The Third Man’, 1949).

However, it is important to say that British films are not characterised by this hard-boiled dialogue, with many films that broadly fit the category of British film noir do not contain this style of wit, whereas most American noirs seem to.

It is interesting to note that neither of the films focussed on here contain flashbacks, distorted timelines or first person narration in the way that many American film noirs do to provide a sense of overwhelming and fatalistic nihilism. They do exist in British dark cinema, for instance in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ (1940), a film with many noir elements, is introduced by a first-person narration of the ruins of a stately home, the force behind the plot is a long dead woman and the film ends with the house fire apparent from the initial narration, which in conjunction does add a portion of the fatalism that is abound in American film noir. However, again, this does not occur in the majority of the British noirs.

As well as similarities in style, the primary content of British noir is the focus on criminal psychology, as in American noir, with comparisons drawn between ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘Force of Evil’ (1948). Indeed, the opening sequences of these films are similar in tone, with the general above board dealings in Wall Street described in ‘Force of Evil’ and the resort town of Brighton shown in the British film; but both go on to describe the underbelly of racketeering that are apparently prevalent in each environment.

However, despite the description of racketeering, the focus is not on the crimes committed by the criminals, but instead on the focus of the psychological repercussions of the crime on both innocent parties and the criminals themselves. ‘Brighton Rock’ charts the decline in mental state of the young upstart gangster Pinkie, who seems to remain coolly callous under all circumstances but is, in reality, largely afraid and insecure, whereas ‘Force of Evil’ concentrates the corruption and accompanying guilt of ruthless lawyer, Joe Morse (John Garfield).

Pinkie’s insecurity is surreal and intense, bordering on madness, and is reminiscent of the guilt that haunts Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945). In that film, the phrase “I love you Johnny” repeats over and over in his head, while everything in Cross’ bare apartment begins to look sinister and images flash across the screen. In that film, Chris murders when his vibrancy and masculinity is questioned. Conversely, Pinkie is a murderous thug in an attempt to appear both older and more masculine. Pinkie assumes the world is constantly judging and laughing at him; when his gang are joking together the camera quickly cuts to a close-up of a doll’s face, while the laughing carries on and Pinkie is visibly disturbed; threatening Cubitt (Nigel Stock) to reassert his masculinity. When Pinkie talks to Rose (Carol Marsh) there is a baby wailing in the background which lends a sinister surrealism to the scene, where the aggressive talk of Pinkie is juxtaposed against this infant; dramatically showing the depth of his feelings of inadequacy.

Tensions such as this are common within film noir, and are the focus of much of the academic literature written about the genre. It is commonly suggested that film noir is a darkened reflection of the anxieties surrounding its themes in a 1940s and 50’s America that no longer had the comfort of Depression and war propaganda; and the same is true of Britain, where the darkness that was evident in earlier films that are harder to characterise as noir is increased as the war ended and concerns over how individuals and society will function after such turmoil.

For instance, ‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) is a film that is, technically, about a girl being killed and the suspicion placed at washed-up screenwriter Dix Steele’s (Humphrey Bogart) door. However, as the crime element is so small it is usually read as a film that deals with the post-war preoccupation with masculinity and the failure of relationships. Some interpretations view the film as dealing with the returning serviceman and his inability to find a place within American society; citing Dix’s often violent temperament. Tension over the war is evident in the ‘The Third Man’ in which the character ‘Baron’ Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) states that Harry Lime did “things that were unthinkable before the war”, and that these actions are common in the divided and occupied Vienna. This deals with the inability of a whole community to adjust to a life without war. The bombed out houses throughout the film will be reminiscent of any of the British towns ruined in the war and the implications of crime developing from unstable post-war situations seems like it would resonate with the British public in this time.

Other tensions surround the role of masculinity in modern capitalist society where increasingly their independence is not valued in careers. In American film noir, we see this in ‘Force Of Evil’ where the older brother – a self-made criminal entrepreneur – is effectively forced into a larger racket and he winds up dead for not complying with the corporation. ‘Brighton Rock’ contains Pinkie’s little gang being forced into self destruction by trying to muscle in on an area controlled by a more established and bourgeois gang. Both films can, therefore, correctly be interpreted as an anti-corporate message that explores the fears of the powerless individual inside a faceless, established group. The spectre of the corporation is not as great in the British psyche, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 had affected all free markets and Greene – the original author of the novel Brighton Rock in 1938 – wanted to offer the “sensational action that would provoke anxieties appropriate to the Depression”. By his ineffective and immature nature, Pinkie is emasculated by this larger gang and – by implication – corporations.

The seeming failure of the traditional relationship is also brought into stark relief in both American and British noir, as is evident in ‘In A Lonely Place’ and ‘The Third Man’. In both cases, the relationship offers the possibility of a happy life far beyond of the instability of the post-war environment, but in both cases the relationship fails to materialise. In ‘The Third Man’, in a scene that would in any other genre lead to a happy ending, Holly Martins waits for Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) to appear, but in the dysfunctional world of film noir, he is snubbed and she walks off leaving both to continue on with no hope of a happy relationship. ‘In A Lonely Place’, however, culminates in the fight of the lovers who are not meant to be together – a lack of trust tearing them apart – and Dix leaving his apartment. The implication in both films is that in the modern world, the classic fairytale ending becomes less and less likely. In ‘Brighton Rock’, Pinkie and Rose’s marriage is a mockery of the term, where Pinkie uses his boyish good looks to attract Rose solely to stop her giving evidence – by doing so, Pinkie assumes the role associated with the femme fatale in American film noir – and then proceeds to deride and abuse her throughout the rest of the film, even convincing her to commit suicide.

However, the subject of race is curiously absent from British films noir, with none of the British films described here having any character of a racial minority. It is an interesting cultural difference that where the reliable but stereotypical African-American that occasionally appears in the American film noir and dark cinema such as Sam (Dooley Wilson) in ‘Casablanca’ (1940) and Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) in ‘Mildred Pierce’ is replaced in British film noir by the stereotyped honest working class person, such as Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) in ‘The Third Man’ or Ethel (Heather Angel) in ‘Suspicion’.

In conclusion, it is apparent that the same stylistic influences played upon both British and American crime films in the 1940s and 1950s. That is not to say they are without differences in style but they are most definitively films noir because of the visual style and focus on crime. Also the anxieties that fuelled the move towards the dark style seem to resonate with the British films as well, although race is less important in the British case. It seems logical therefore, that the two should be treated as part of the same cinematic movement, rather than describe film noir as an exclusively American phenomenon.

by Peter Andrews


Chartier, Jean-Paul, 1946, “Americans Also Make Noir Films” in Silver & Ursini (eds.), 1996, Film Noir Reader pp. 20-23, New York: Limelight Editions.

Naremore, James, 1998, More Than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts, University of California Press.

Mellen, Joan, 1994, “Film Noir”, in Crowdus & Asner (eds.) The Political Companion to American Film, pp 137-144, Lake View Press.

Polan, Dana, 1993, In A Lonely Place, British film Institute Publishing.

Silver, Alain and Ward, Elizabeth, 1992, Film Noir: An Encyclopaedic Reference To The American Style, Overlook Press.

Schrader, Paul, 1972, “Notes on Film Noir” in Silver & Ursini (eds.), 1996, Film Noir Reader pp. 53-63, New York: Limelight Editions.

1 comment:

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Lo Neil,

Put my contribution to The Peckinpah Blog-o-thon up, Can't wait to read what you've got to say.