In our short film we employed several different characteristics that are typical of film noir that we have discussed over the course of the semester in order to create our own distinctly “noir” film. Our approach to this was really to pile as many noir elements into the story as we could, which perhaps was not the best thing to do. I think it would have been better for the narrative to focus strongly on one or two elements instead of a bunch. That way, we could make sure we were doing justice to those specific noir elements and build around them. The corruption theme within our film seemed particularly forced and we were unable to create enough of a backstory for the characters Julia or Richard to make it work convincingly.
In spite of these problems, we did have several elements that worked out pretty well considering our time and experience restraints. One element was our use of voiceover. Voiceover is a very typical characteristic of film noir, used most notably in the classic noir film Double Indemnity. Voiceover is an easy way to convey information and I think we used it well to convey the backstory as well as Brian’s thoughts and feelings towards Julia and the situation she had gotten him into. As J. P. Telotte writes in “Noir Narration,” “in this [technique of voiceover], the narrative can insert some significant information from the past or set up a context for present events…” (15). In our case, the voiceover functioned as both a way to show significant information from the past, such as Julia’s, Richard’s and Brian’s relationships to each other and to give context as to why Brian was holed up in his room staring at a blank television screen.
The femme fatale character also worked well enough, though I think having more screen time to build up her backstory and deviousness would have been beneficial. Though it wasn’t entirely clear that Julia really used her sexual appeal to manipulate the men around her, she still exhibited a key characteristic of film noir femmes fatales: her ambition and ruthless in order to achieve it. As Dickos writes in “Women as Seen in the Film Noir”, “three things motivate the femme fatale: a lust for exciting sex, a desire for wealth and the power it brings, and a need to control everything and everyone around her” (162). Our character Julia doesn’t portray a lust for exciting sex, nor especially a desire for wealth, but she does have a need to control everyone around her. I believe we exemplified this pretty well, as she is pulling both male characters along on strings throughout the entire lab scene and again in Brian’s apartment. She knows what she is doing and, as long as she is in control, she has no qualms about it. Although it would have been more convincing if we had shown more of Julia’s backstory, I think we pulled off an adequate femme fatale character.
Our film really helped me to zero in on what we believe noir to be, and figure out how to write and tell a convincing noir story, as well as put a set together in a noir style.
Brick is an interesting type of neo-noir, in that it ascribes to many elements of classic and neo-noir, but the setting and characters are largely different than what is typically expected out of the genre.
Brick includes a significant amount of violence; the main character Brendan can be seen getting the crap beaten out of him at several points throughout the film and the scene where Tug viciously beats The Pin to death is particularly memorable. Violence is a key element in the classic noir and neo-noir films we have seen thus far and this film bears no exception. Dickos says that “neo-noir is generally more violent, and more graphically violent at that, than the classic film noir ever was” (238). This is applicable to Brick as well, as there is a lot of blood and vicious beating throughout the film that we see firsthand (that is, nothing is left off-screen as it was in classic noir).
Brick also involves a femme fatale character in Laura, who is working behind-the-scenes the whole time and was behind setting Emily up to take the fall for her crime of stealing the brick of heroin. She also uses her sex appeal to get what she wants; she kisses Brendan to try and get him to trust her but ultimately it doesn’t work.
Dickos quotes Rich in his article, saying that “[neo-noir’s] power stems from those end-of-the-line dramas in which nobody could be trusted and not even the final frame held any explanation” (236). This explanation applies very well to Brick in that we as an audience are left guessing the truth of this entanglement even to the very end of the film, where Laura suggests to Brendan that Emily was carrying his child. In addition, we really can’t trust anyone except Brendan because we don’t know their motives or what their connections are in the drug plot.
These are typical elements of noir that we have analyzed so far, but the setting and characters in the film are quite different than other films we have watched. Brick is set in a Californian suburb, mostly at a high school and the characters are all high school kids or young adults. This offers me, being close to that age, a sympathetic view of the characters and I find it a bit incredulous that high schoolers could be wrapped up in all this drug and murder business at such a young age. Typical classic noir and neo-noir usually involve a grimy city setting and older characters, so in that way Brick is very unique.
Upon watching Unforgiven, I noticed several different film noir elements which added to the uncommon and interesting genre of the “western noir”. One is the typical hard-boiled main character of William Munny. He is a gruff, gritty old guy who lives by a set of morals (up until the end anyway), reminiscent of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Another element is the sense of hopelessness which is common within film noir. I argue that the sense of hopelessness and despair doesn’t truly reveal itself until the end of the film when Munny kills the people in the saloon. Up until this point, he had lived by the set of morals his dead wife had instilled in him, but after killing those five people, he is irredeemable. The audience feels the hopeless futility in this fact. Such film noir elements being incorporated into a western genre allows for a whole new set of ideas to be brought forth in a western context. Braudy says that “the joy in genre is to see what can be dared in the creation of a new form or the creative destruction and complication of an old one” (666). With the addition of film noir elements, Unforgiven broaches the topic of unrestrained abuse of women by cowboys in the 1800s, something that other westerns didn’t revolve around as this one did. In this way, Unforgiven is able to build off the basis of a typical western and add an extra layer delving into contemporary issues while still within the Old West.
One scene from Double Indemnity is the beginning scene where we see Walter Neff collapsed in his office chair, dictating the details of his crime, while he is bleeding out from a gunshot wound. This scene embodies noir elements because it strongly employs the sense of hopelessness and despair, since Neff is dying, and also employs the flashbacks (through his dictation) which are so common in film noir.
Another scene is from Layer Cake where Morty cruelly beats up Freddie. The “violent death” is a common trope of film noir and this is definitely a violent act, as he viciously beats him to the ground and then pours boiling-hot tea over him.
A story involving a corrupt detective and how his protege uncovers his scheming in a shadowy crime-filled city.
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is a rather unique movie compared to the other film noirs we have seen so far. Although it has a significant basis in noir, it also extends above and beyond the traditional noir plot to include other elements which the audience would find intriguing. As we discussed in class, Touch of Evil was one of the last film noirs to be made, in 1958, so most everyone already was familiar with the genre and they were able to build on the audience’s expectations. For example, Touch of Evil deals significantly with corruption in the police force, with Captain Quinlan’s chronic planting of evidence. Once Vargas figures out Quinlan has been doing this for a long time, he becomes one of the driving antagonists of the film. We haven’t seen any other film noirs deal so heavily with this inside corruption. There is also a fair bit of tension between the Mexican and American characters in the film, as the film takes place on the border and they are pitted against each other. Namely, the American police (and Vargas) are in a struggle against the Mexican Grandi and his nefarious gang. This type of racial tension isn’t very prominent in the other film noirs we’ve seen. Since Touch of Evil was made so late, I think Welles chose to focus on issues (such as police corruption and Mexican/American tension) that were more prevalent and pressing in 1958 rather than make another film noir that hearkened back to the early 40’s.
The character of Bridget Gregory in the movie The Last Seduction shows her to be the ultimate femme fatale character, encompassing all three of the classic femme fatale traits from the Christopher’s “Women as Seen in the Film Noir” that we talked about in class. Within the other movies we watched, the femme fatale characters only desired one of three things: “lust for exciting sex, a desire for wealth and the power it brings, [or] a need to control everything and everyone around her” (Christopher, 162). As we discussed earlier, Brigid from The Maltese Falcon wanted money and Gilda from Gilda wanted control (over Johnny). However, Bridget Gregory is interesting because she wants (and gets) all three of these things. She achieves her “lust for exciting sex” through her relationship with Mike and the numerous places they have sex, such as outside the bar (33 minutes) and in the high school gym (47 minutes). Bridget also achieves her desire for wealth quite early in the movie, when she runs off with the money from the drug deal (10 minutes). She spends the entire movie struggling to keep it by fending off her husband who is trying to track her down. At one point, she is even sleeping naked covered in the money she stole, a sure sign of her newly-acquired affluence. Thirdly, she achieves her need to control throughout the entire movie. She is always pulling strings, especially with Mike. She pretends to get in a fight with Mike in order to convince him to murder Clay (1 hour 43 minutes) She also bakes cookies for Clay’s hired watchman so that she can put nails behind his wheel to pop his tire (1 hour 31 minutes). Bridget’s easy and blasé attainment of all these different desires shows that she is a powerful femme fatale and a force to be reckoned with.
The femme fatale character in film noir is an important element within this genre, though not essential. Femme fatales can be found in the characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon and Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity. These women often complicate the protagonist’s life, using their emotions and femininity for their own gain. In Double Indemnity, Dietrichson convinces protagonist Walter Neff to help murder her husband, promising him her love in return for this deed. However, it soon becomes clear that Dietrichson never really loved Neff and instead used him as a way to get rid of her husband. Such devious female characters weren’t new in the 1940’s, however. This type of character can be found in classic mythology as well. The Greek sorceress Circe ensnared Odysseus and his men through her feminine guile (and magic), turning many of them into swine and keeping them on her island for an entire year, thus preventing their return back home. As Christopher notes, the femme fatale of noir could often be “…a Circe—spinning webs of deceit and leading [the protagonist] directly to danger” (7). This dangerous quality so common of femme fatale characters can also be exemplified within Brigid O’Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon. She attempts to toy with the protagonist Sam Spade. After being cornered for her lies, O’Shaughnessy acts blustery, shy and submissive: traits of a stereotypical “proper” woman of the 1940’s and 50’s. Spade doesn’t buy into this act, but her attempts to distort his perception of her shows how cunning she is.
On a separate note, although femme fatales play vital roles in many films, they are not necessary for a film noir to work. For example, in The Asphalt Jungle there are no femme fatales to speak of. The few female characters in this film are rather good-natured and have no deceptive elements to them.