Classifying a Film as Noir Through Themes

Introduction

The topic this paper assesses is the use of certain themes in film noir of the 1950s; namely the themes of wealth and the ever-present strain on the protagonists to attain wealth or sustain financial stability and security. This topic is important because it explains the motivations of the characters’ actions in noir films. The plot is almost driven by the protagonists’ need to find some sort of sustainable income, whether it be legal or not. This drive for security or chase for wealth arouses hasty and irrational behavior that leads to a series of traumatic events. The dreadful circumstances the protagonists’ actions put them in is what gives film noir its niche. Assessing the theme of wealth and security, understanding the motives behind the characters is important because it helps the audience understand why the film ended the way it did- with an unfortunate finale. To helps define the films as film noir, I will be analyzing Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Background and Review of Film Noir

It draws credence to understand the genre of film noir before applying this definition to films. The genre first appeared in post-WWI Hollywood in the early 1940s and lagged off in the late 1950s.[1] Noir films at the time were not referred to as film noir mostly because the genre itself was not defined at its genesis. John Huston most likely was not aware he was directing a noir film when he made The Maltese Falcon (1941). The dark ambiance and bleak aesthetic owed much of its inspiration from wartime and post-wartime moods. The style of film noir takes from already established genres and directorial style and themes.

Film noir draws a bit from German expressionism which employed “highly stylized and artificial mise-en-scene that deployed unreal sets of distorted appearances”.[2] Similar to German expressionism, film noir expresses the crazy world of a disturbed mind. However, much of what makes a certain movie noir can be traced back to Hollywood cinema a few decades prior. Although film noir epitomizes violence and crime, it is not a crime drama. Film noir is however influenced by American crime and gangster films of the 1930s such as Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) because of the morals that crime films attempted to demonstrate: “crime doesn’t pay”[3]– which parallels with the tragic ends of protagonists in film noir. Along with concluding the story with the fall and/or death of the protagonist, the audience is trained throughout the movie to sympathize with the main character, whom is often a villain. Furthermore, this technique is used in film noir which is an antithesis of classic Hollywood conventions: “a logical development of the action, a clear distinction between good and evil, well defined characters, sharp motives, scenes more showy than authentically violent, a beautiful heroine and an honest hero.”[4] Instead of trusting traditional figures in society, like policeman, film noir requests a different moral and value system from the audience. Policeman are crooks and corrupt, the heroine is seductive and dangerous, the classic hero is instead a criminal and activity engages in underground activities.[5]

Film noir is greater described by its style and aesthetic. This genre adheres to a black and white coloring. Film noir employs the same techniques and visual styles as other movies such as “angle, composition, lighting, montage, depth, movement, ect.”[6] It is greater distinguished by a certain scene or setting or character.[7] For example, deep focus was used in many John Alton films, and although it is a common convention, it was used to signify alienation of a character – a theme of film noir.[8] It is also through the coupling of other prevalent heavy themes that common conventions can be manipulated to accentuate film noir’s aesthetic.  Asphalt Jungle seems like another crime drama until the scene where the main character, Joe Gillis collapses and dies right after attaining his dream ranch. Sunset Boulevard seems like another psychological drama until both characters meet untimely ends whether it is regarding their career or their lives. It is the brutal scenes that create an uneasy and black mood that helps define film noir. It is through the violent ends that distinguish a film noir. “A film noir is a film of death,”[9] however it is not a crime documentary. Furthermore, by creating a contradiction in motives and events, and evoking anguish and insecurity within the characters of the film and the audience, film noir greater distinguishes its genre. Utilizing death, the layering of psychological motives, a consistent anxiety, and other heavier themes like complex motives and raw emotions, film noir creates its niche.

Thesis

Sunset Boulevard[10] and Asphalt Jungle[11] contributed to the evolution of film noir by emphasizing the protagonists’ intense anxiety about financial stability, or lack of financial security, which ultimately leads to their demise. Furthermore, these anxieties and concerns are brought on by underlying psychological motives that drive the protagonist to meet their untimely ends. In Sunset Boulevard, the protagonist Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) is a small-time writer on the straights of destitution. To add to his worry of career success, the bank is constantly chasing after him to claim his car because of his failure to pay. This constant fear of losing his car and ability to chase his career is what leads him to seek financial stability; furthermore, this chase is what leads to his demise. In Asphalt Jungle, Dix Handley (played by Sterling Hayden) is a small-time crook, and he is motivated to gain financial security to be able to buy back his horse farm back in Kentucky that his father lost during the Great Depression. This dream to buy back his childhood home is what motivates him to commit a crime. This chase again is what leads to his end. To expand on this, I will dive into the motives and goals of each protagonist for each movie. I will then explain how their goals cause each character to agonize about their financial standing, and in turn that anxiety is what motivates them to find financial security through any means necessary. Consequently, it is these violent actions they take to secure their finances that ultimately lead to their demise.

Analysis

In the film Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis is a small-time writer for a movie studio. He had recent small success with one script, however his luck turned sour quickly and he is finding a hard time writing something that the studio wants. This misfortune leaves him with little money and lots of debt, especially his car- which he views as his legs of freedom. It was while he was being chased by debt collectors that he stumbled upon Norma Desmond’s (a forgotten silent movie star living in a dangerous fantasy world) home. She then hires Joe to edit a talkie film she wrote starring none other than her. She pays him handsomely and clothes him with lavish suits and gold trinkets. Joe’s motivation to become a writer and to be financial stable enough to afford his car and freedom is exactly what motivates him to stay with Norma and work on her film.

This is Joe Gillis dressed in a suit Norma bought for him. This shows the length at which he will go to secure his finance to gain freedom from the debt collectors. He allows himself to be Norma’s puppet.

This examination of what people will pay to be independent is the heart of Joe’s dilemma. He is so adamant to keep his car (freedom) that he submits himself to Norma’s will and wishes. This submission is a prison in and of itself. Yes, he avoided losing his car, however he found himself in a different kind of prison: one that is emotionally unstable and violently calls for his companionship constantly. Freedom is an example of the heavy themes film noir is defined by. This psychological dive into people’s dreams and hopes and how that leads to irrational and uneasy decisions is what turns a melodrama into film noir.[12] Moreover, it is this constant anxiety that Joe has about leaving Norma, and her many threats and attempts at suicide, that keeps Joe imprisoned. When Joe finally realizes he is in fact not free, he gives back all of his clothes and gifts and decides living on the straights of destitution is a far better prison than being entrapped in Norma’s fantasy. This decision to gain his freedom, gain his dream leads to a fatal gunshot and his untimely death. When it was originally viewed, audiences experienced that constant anxiety with Joe; the audiences felt almost relieved when he was dead because Joe’s character continued to narrate after he was killed.[13] This contradicting feeling is what film noir hinges on. It feeds off dark, twisted ends that are caused by the violent decisions of the characters. One example of this tone is the opening shot of the film. As the introduction grain fades, the audience is met with blaring, frantic string music and cut to action scenes of police and ambulance cars racing to Norma’s house. The scene unfolds to Joe’s body floating face down in the pool- dead. Through this track, Joe’s voice over narrates the happenings in a matter-of-fact deliverance, adding to the bleakness of the scene.

The looming angle of the shot, juxtaposed with the context and lack of color introduces the dark tones of the movie and helps define the film as noir.

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis met his violent end because of this fear of losing freedom, however in his chase for freedom, he ends up a prisoner of his own dreams. This is one defining characteristic of film noir, and in treating the character in such a cruel and unfortunate way, Sunset Boulevard earns the categorization of film noir.

Much like Sunset Boulevard, Asphalt Jungle exemplifies film noir. In Asphalt Jungle, the protagonist Dix Handley has a dream of owning his childhood ranch that his father lost in the Great Depression. He too is downtrodden and finds an opportunity to become financially stable enough to afford his childhood home. This goal not only motivates him to become a small-time crook, but to involve himself in a big-time bank robbery. He joins other gang members and criminals in this convoluted plan to steal a million dollars’ worth of jewels from a bank. The plan goes sour when members of the group conspire against one another. This leads to a shootout, the death of a member, and a bullet wound for Dix. Dix however ignores the wound and stays focused on the plan to sell the diamonds for money. It is this ever-growing anxiety of financial stability that motivates Dix to carry through a bullet wound and betrayal. Bleeding out and close to death, Dix drives his way to his childhood home, relentless to achieve is his goal. Through lighting, dialogue, and other cinematic techniques, the audience experiences this anxiety with Dix; although he is ultimately a criminal, the audience continues to root for her with fear however because of his failing condition. This mood is exemplified through other characters too. As the cops conclude their investigation they pinpoint the head boss of the scheme, Alonzo Emmerich played by Louis Calhern. Before the cops take him away, he receded in his office to writer an apology letter to his wife. He then tears up the letter and the scene switches to quick shots from Emmerich opening a drawer to the torn-up letter, followed by the cops screaming his name before a loud gunshot blares through. What heightens the agonizing tone is the juxtaposition of the torn-up letter and the gunshot which could symbolize the death and surrender of all hopes and anything good.

This lonely shot of the letter coupled with a blaring gunshot helps emphasizes the desolate tone and genre of film noir.

This uneasy tone is heightened as Dix draws near to the ranch. The audience is left with a final scene of quick relief and then sudden dismay. Dix crawls his way to the open field of the ranch only to meet his unfortunate end and die while being picked at by the ranch animals.

This final shot’s composition and the mise-en-scene helps create a contradiction within the scene. The audience is presented with this beautiful pasture and fluffy clouds, while the dark figure of death lays still on the grass being picked at by horses and mules.

Again, this contradiction in the motives and events is what categorizes Asphalt Jungle as film noir.[14] Dix has this pure desire to go back home to happiness and to do this he must become a thief and find means to achieve his goal in the criminal world. His dream motivates him to act violently and irrationally, and ultimately leads to his demise. Furthermore, it is this that constitutes Asphalt Jungle as a film noir.

Conclusion

Defining a genre is difficult. Film noir is especially difficult because it employs familiar plots types and conventional techniques to express misfortune in a dark and uneasy manner. Sunset Boulevard and Asphalt Jungle both work into the genre of film noir because of their ability to express this uneasy contradiction and anxiety using conventional techniques and plot types. Furthermore, the depth of psychological analysis is integral to the two movies’ categorization as film noir. This could be a further exploration into how these two movies fit into the genre of film noir. The human psyche is also an extremely important tenant of film noir. Another exploration that would greater solidify this argument for these two movies would be the use of the femme fatal in these two movies. The women in both films were depicted in evil lighting, blaming them for the root of the characters’ demise. The femme fatal is another important aspect of film noir that defines it as so,[15] and the exploration of this is applicable to both Asphalt Jungle and Sunset Boulevard.

[1] Ian Brooks, Film Noir: A Critical introduction (New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 12.

[2] Brooks, Film Noir: A Critical introduction, 38.

[3] Brooks, Film Noir: A Critical introduction, 84.

[4] Borde Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton, “Towards a definition of film noir.” Film Noir Reader 1 (1996): 24.

[5] Raymond and Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of film noir”, 25.

[6] Alain Silver, “Introduction”, Film Noir Reader 1 (1996): 4.

[7] Raymond and Chaumeton, “Towards a definition of Film Noir”, 18.

[8] Bruce Crowther, Film Noir: Reflection in a Dark Mirror (New York, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989), 62.

[9] Raymond and Chaumeton, “Towards a definition of Film Noir”, 19.

[10] Billy Wilder, dir., Sunset Boulevard 1950; Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures.

[11] John Huston, dir., Asphalt Jungle 1950; Hollywood, CA: Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer.

[12]Alain Silver, “Introduction”, 4.

[13] William Brogdon, “Sunset Boulevard,” Variety Movie Reviews no. 113 (April 19, 1950).

[14] Raymond and Chaumeton, “Towards a definition of Film Noir”, 25.

[15] Walker- Morrison, Deborah. “Sex ratio, socio-sexuality, and the emergence of the femme fatale in classic French and American film noir.” Film and History 45, no 1 (2015).