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 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.