06/04/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Dial N for Noir

Lady in the Lake poster

Recently, I happened to see The Blue Dahlia, a 1946 black and white noir film, starring Alan Ladd and written by Raymond Chandler. The film had an interesting plotline and some excellent performances, though the final twist seemed lame and not at all jaw popping. Still, watching a 40s film in the present day has its own charms and I did enjoy it.

the maltese falcon

Still from Warner Bros. film The Maltese Falcon showing Humphrey Bogart as Spade confronting Mary Astor as Brigid.

Back in the 40s, film noir ruled the roost. These films even made big stars out of their cast. In fact, the first Hollywood film appearances of heartthrobs Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston (if you discount his role in the almost unheard-of amateurish Peer Gynt) were in the noir genre. For Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, 1946 was a good year. Lancaster made his debut with The Killers, while Douglas made his in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Charlton Heston's first big screen debut is said to have happened with Dark City, a 1950s film noir. Female stars left their mark on the genre too, notably the signature roles played by Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth (the former in The Killers and the latter in Gilda). Humphrey Bogart rose to greater fame and stardom after The Maltese Falcon, one of the top noir films ever.

Defining 'Noir'

Wait, what's a film noir? In a 1996 article for Film Quarterly titled "American Film Noir - The History of an Idea", James Naremore writes, "It has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term." This can't be truer. There exist varied definitions of film noir as different cinema historians look at it differently. Peter Labuza, a film historian, discusses here: "What is Noir?".

"You can trace the roots of early film noir to a mix of hard-boiled detective fiction and German expressionist elements. "

You can trace the roots of early film noir to a mix of hard-boiled detective fiction and German expressionist elements. Though the term film noir itself came into existence much in later in 1946, the films that are today noted as exemplary of this genre were released between the late 1930s and 1959. Back in that era though, they were simply referred to as melodramas.

Nino Frank, an Italian-born French film critic and writer, is credited for first using the term film noir (taken from French to mean "black" film or "dark" film) in 1946 in relation to US crime dramas, though there is some evidence that French film reviews and newspaper articles often used the term in the late 1930s.

Early Noir

There were a few common characteristics in the early noir films: a number of them showed the streets of America in a different light (literally!), had a male lead with a cynical, devil-may-care attitude, a femme fatale, forbidden love and an underlying theme of crime and suspense. Darkly lit alleys, sparsely populated rain-soaked streets and stylish hats were common visual elements (as this Guardian article says, you can't have a film noir without guns, dames, and hats).

Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and several others not only went on to become commercial successes but also gained critical acclaim in the years to come. These were the big budget ones produced by the likes of Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox or Warner Brothers.

There were also plenty of low-budget and lesser known ones. The book Encyclopedia of Film Noir (Greenwood Press, 2007) has painstakingly put together a comprehensive list of noir films belonging to all these categories.

Works of writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, David Goodis, and Cornell Woolrich were adapted into noir films, including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Bride Wore Black, High Sierra, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Johnny Angel and Lady in the Lake.

The Emergence of Neo Noir

After the early and mid-50s, however, the big studios ditched film noir and it was appropriated by low budget B-movie studios. Many of the works produced by these studios pretty much faded into obscurity.

"As Indian filmmakers polish their craft, push boundaries and explore diverse thriller plotlines, we as film fanatics can look forward to some exciting times ahead."

Later, in the 1970s, the theme of noir was revisited and given a modern twist, giving rise to a new genre of films - neo noir. Neo noir, however, metamorphosed into something else gradually, so much so that today it has little in common with classic noir, except for perhaps a touch of crime. Prime examples of neo noir include the 1974 masterpiece Chinatown (though many would argue that it fits in the film noir genre as well), Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), Se7en (1995) and Memento (2000).

European and Asian noir

Besides Hollywood, film noir and neo noir are quite popular in Europe and Asia. Denmark and Norway were, in fact, pioneers in noir fiction; in early 1908, a fictional detective Knut Gribb was created by the Norwegian writer Sven Elvestad.

Ossessione (Obsession; 1943) directed by Luchino Visconti, which was his first film, is also the first filmed adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Jean-Luc Godard made À Bout de Soufflé in 1960. Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows) in 1938 was directed by Marcel Carné. Drunken Angel (1948) directed by Akira Kurosawa, though essentially, a yakuza film can also be categorised under noir.

China's recent neo noir outing Black Coal Thin Ice set in rural snowy Northeast China won the Golden Bear award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival in 2014 and also won in the Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Best Screenwriter categories at the 2015 Asian Awards.

In film and TV, Nordic noir, as Scandinavian noir is also known, has gone on to command a worldwide fan following. The website Nordic Noir showcases some of the best works in this area.

The Indian Scenario

Despite its reputation of being the world's largest producer of films, India sadly did not contribute much to noir or neo noir cinema. Some would say popular films of the black and white era such as Mahal (1949), Madhumati (1958), Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Gumnaam (1965), and Johny Mera Naam (1970) can classify as noir but that is a topic open to debate.

manorama six feet under

Manorama Six Feet Under poster. Credit: Shemaroo Entertainment

Thankfully, in recent years, we are witnessing a change. Navdeep Singh's Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) is a fine example of Indian neo noir cinema with a tightly written script and excellent performances by its cast. The filmmaker drew inspiration from Roman Polanski's Chinatown and didn't hesitate to acknowledge this. The film paid a meta tribute of sorts by featuring on the protagonist's TV the sequence where the character Jack Gittes played by Jack Nicholson gets his nose slashed.

Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Johnny Gaddaar (2007), and the more recent Badlapur (2015) are Hindi neo noir thrillers made by Sriram Raghavan. In the South, Aaranya Kandam (Tamil; 2010) and Drishyam (Malayalam; 2013) are neat examples of neo noir.

Anurag Kashyap's upcoming retro noir saga Bombay Velvet is eagerly being anticipated by cinephiles, for the auteur's films always have something distinctive to offer.

As Indian filmmakers polish their craft, push boundaries and explore diverse thriller plotlines, we as film fanatics can look forward to some exciting times ahead.

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