As much as This Gun For Hire and High Sierra changed the concepts of story content, it was only one of the elements that would come to define noir. Another aspect would be the artistic use of shadows and lighting. This technique was the hallmark of Val Lewton, the producer that RKO had brought in to make low budget horror films in 1942. His corroboration with director Jacques Tourneur on The Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie got the attention of creative types throughout Hollywood. Both films were made with very small budgets, were popular and made a chunk of money for RKO. While neither film is considered noir, they nevertheless showed what could be achieved with the creative use of lighting and shadows to create atmosphere. European films had always been more expressive in their style and Tourneur certainly learned from his father, a French director of some acclaim. It would all come together for Tourneur when he was promoted to the ranks of the “A” directors at RKO and given the opportunity to direct Out Of The Past . He not only had a good cast to work with but also a generous budget. The result of course is a film that is universally recognized as one of the defining films of the genre.
It’s worth noting that the films that were seminal in fostering noir were being made at the likes of Paramount, Warner Bros. and RKO, studios that allowed a level of freedom among creative types. Meanwhile at Hollywood’s largest studio, MGM, boss Louis B. Mayer never seemed to comprehend the changes occurring around him. He continued to champion the “wholesome” stories and structured production methods that carried them through the previous decade. He held firm to his belief that star power was the most important factor to a film’s appeal and the director’s role was secondary. It would be some years and take a new head of production (Dore Shary) before MGM would embraced noir.
In 1944 director Billy Wilder melded the dark story of a James M. Cain novel with creative lighting and camera work to create a moody atmosphere for what would be Double Indemnity. Wilder was among a group of European emigre directors whose German Expressionism style would find its way into Hollywood. Wilder not only brought together the elements of both story and style but he shot the film extensively at locations around Los Angeles that brought realism to the film. (See Los Angeles, backdrop to noir) These would be among the defining aspects of noir. Like This Gun For Hire and High Sierra viewers were confronted with immoral characters and had to make judgements. Like the two earlier films, the ending of Double Indemnity provided no resolution. When Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best film, screenplay and directing, you could say it was the affirmation of noir. For the next fifteen years or so the genre would flourish.
In the early 50s economic forces were also changing Hollywood. The U.S. Justice Department had forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theater ownership. This provided an opening for independent producers who now had far greater access to distribute their films. This spurred production of the low budget crime dramas that defined noir and filled the now independent theater screens. Columbia and Universal studios, neither of which had owned any theaters, also seized the opportunity to devote much of their production for this profit formula.
Film noir had largely transitioned from the “A” studio productions of the 40s to the low budget films of the early 50’s. That’s not to say they weren’t as good. Quite to the contrary, the low budget, tight shooting schedules fostered a creativeness in the directors that became adept at the genre. The same constraints required stories to be concise and fast paced. There was no place for extraneous romance or melodrama. The actors of these films would be made up largely by a group of newcomers as well as the second tier players cut loose by the studios in their austerity moves. This also benefited film noir with characters seemingly the average Joe’s that noir was all about. This time period would be the high point of genre.
THE END OF FILM NOIR
By the mid 50s television was having a serious financial impact on the studios as
theater attendance fell. The studio’s response was to give theater goers what they
could not get on the small screen. The studios adopted wide screen formats and theaters
had been converted to run them. They were making fewer films and putting more resources
into epic type of motion pictures, lavish musicals and biblical tales full of pageantry
and all in vivid color. Even westerns benefited from this new focus as their expansive
backdrops were enhanced in color and that genre prospered. This ultimately meant
less room for noir. With longer running films came an end to the double feature
which in turn meant less demand for the accompanying “B” films, a large portion of
which had been noirs. In addition, many of the low budget producers had switched
their emphasis to sci-
By 1960 nearly all theatrical releases were in color which effectively meant the
end of noir. There would still be a trickle of film noirs -
During the noir era about 250 noir films were made in Hollywood (depending on the criteria one uses). Some of the better known films like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, D.O.A. and Out Of The Past endured on late night television or in revival theaters. But the vast majority of noirs had been tucked away in film vaults, warehouses or in someone’s closet. Television had moved beyond the need for old black and white films and there simply were no other outlets. For 30 years film noir would be of interest primarily to serious minded film devotees or those associated with the cinema arts. There would be books written on the subject, but for most of the public, even those that claim an interest in films, film noir was an abstract term. It was like discussing an historic event in which you have to rely on the words of those privileged enough to have access to the artifacts. But that would change as technology emerged that would bring a resurgence to the genre.
By the late 1980s cable television was bringing an abundance of programing choices to most American homes. Expanding cable networks were hungry for content and for some movie channels the libraries of old films,including noirs were tailor made. They were cheap and could fill time. This provided a small opening for many long forgotten films. Additionally, the VCR had become a standard feature of most homes and the film rental business came into existence. While this provided the public access to an ever increasing variety of films, the vast majority of noirs never made it to video cassette.
A convergence of factors in the 1990s would finally open the trove of film noirs to a public that had never seen them or had long forgotten about them. As cable networks refined their offerings, several networks began to feature noirs in depth. The development of the DVD changed the economics of providing content. The Internet of course facilitated the growing interest of film noir as every fan, critic and casual observer was able to share their opinion. The feasibility of streaming video has made available an additional number of films that could would not have found their way to DVD.
Despite the enormous amount of money spent on creative talent in Hollywood -