Film Noir

One of the most stylish and effective films I’ve recently seen is The Man Who Wasn’t There, starring Billy Bob Thornton. Set in 1949, it tells the story of Ed Crane, a small-town barber, who doesn’t enjoy his job, discovers his best friend has made him a cuckold, yet faces life with an eerie impassivity.
One day he cuts the hair of a travelling salesman, whose dodgy toupee, sales pitch & general demeanour would raise the suspicions of the average person, but Crane is not average. He convinces himself that the salesman’s proposition is a good one. Like a trusting child, he’s eager to buy into a new-fangled technology, dry cleaning, for the measly sum of $10,000. Now, how can he get his hands on that kind of money? He thinks of a way. This is where things start to go inexorably, inextricably and ineffugibly downhill, in the manner of a Greek tragedy.

Except that the genre is known as Film Noir. Instead of the unities of time, place and action, as in Greek drama, the classic Noir format involves a lot of cigarette-smoking; a major police investigation with various false trails and little real progress; a rugged hero who usually shows little emotion, but whose facial bone-structure shows up well in studio lighting;—and black & white photography.

Amongst the bonus features on the DVD version of The Man Who Wasn’t There you find an interview with the cinematographer Roger Deakins, who waxes lyrical about black-&-white. He lists a number of films which have influenced him, including In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart. So I watched that too. It’s set in Hollywood, where Bogart plays a much sought-after screenwriter, whose artistic temperament can sometimes flare up in violence. Naturally there is lots of cigarette-smoking. It becomes a major prop in the foreplay of seduction—placing a fresh-lighted cigarette in the young lady’s mouth, for instance. Studio lighting contributes to showing Bogart at his most handsome, and, at certain points in the plot, his most ugly. The dénouement depends on the bumbling police investigation reaching its conclusion too late; failing to prevent the tragedy careering headlong towards its ineffugible* conclusion.

Now we cut to some on-location stills, in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, England. On several Spring days, I’ve been out walking, amidst April showers, taking my new camera along. It is lovely to be surrounded by nature, embedded in its substance and depth. Every picture I snapped was gorgeous with fresh greens, but portrayed something flat and disappointing. So on a hunch I tried black-and-white.

Click here, or the picture above, for a Flickr-hosted slide show.

Why does black-and-white, “grayscale” to be precise, give a better sense of depth? What makes it more exciting, crisper? Is it merely my imagination? Well, as for the latter, without imagination there is no seeing at all. “I Am a Camera”, said Christopher Isherwood, but he lied for poetic effect. We are better than the camera. We must not surrender to its offer of colourful cornucopias. The more realistic the artificial representation appears, the more we let imagination doze, and pretend we are seeing the real thing. Paradoxically, the stylized artificiality of Film Noir frees the imagination and touches our soul; whereas the realism of colour movies, especially in 3D as in the recent conversion of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), keeps the imagination shackled and earthbound, in mechanical fear and primitive wonder.

You may disagree, and if you do, Variety Magazine is on your side; but to me, less is more.
* Ineffugible: my new favourite word, from Rupert Brooke. See comment #21 on previous post.

When running the slide show it’s best to click Options and make sure the three square boxes are unchecked. You can click a round box to select slow, medium or fast.


9 thoughts on “Film Noir

  1. I absolutely love that movie! The plot, the characters, the dialogue, and of course, as you said, the indispensable use of black & white. Color would have completely ruined that movie. The black & white brings out such a rich texture of everything, perhaps because the eye can focus on it in a purer form.

    There's something always a bit more “abstract” about black & white too. I'm convinced that one of the reasons they've never been able to successfully bring back The Twilight Zone series is because somehow the show just doesn't work in color. The black & white and the cheap sets somehow give it a more conceptual feel that works well with the idea of the show. The remakes come off like cheesy soap operas with low budgets and bad acting. Of course, it probably doesn't help that Rod Serling is dead either.

    With Black & White it's all about how it's done too, though. The Coen Brother's have always been good with cinematography to begin with. Darren Aronofky's Pi (another recent b&w film), on the other hand, looks like crap by comparison. Instead of The Man Who Wasn't There's rich texture, the contrast is up so high that it looks like you're staring at ink blots at some points. It comes off seeming like he used black & white just to be “artsy” without really understanding it's advantages.

    As for Titanic in 3-D, I really can't think of anything more pointless than that, although I haven't seen it in 3-D and don't plan to. The movie itself was also a beautiful-looking film and I've always liked it, but this re-release comes off like a director obsessed with his latest toy and also looking for any old cash cows he might be able to dust off and squeeze a few last drops out of their dried up udders.


  2. In my humble opinion, black and white makes you use your imagination to conceptualize the color of the scene. It gives you something to think about, even subconsciously, and engages your brain in a way that color films and pictures do not.


  3. I grew up in an only-black-and-white period (photos and films). I never really took to colour. But we had to accept it when non-colour became hard to get (and more expensive for cameras).

    My favourite Titanic film is “A Night To Remember”, based on Walter Lord's book. Only true facts, and a black-and-white masterpiece.

    I've seen and enjoyed many of the “Film Noir” genre without knowing they were classified as such. An addition of colour to them often diminishes their cinematographic beauty and intensity.

    Your photos are superb!


  4. The Artist was mostly black and white, and silent.

    While it did eventually incorporate color and sound, it was separated from other recent films by it's lack of color and sound.

    I have found that younger audiences are put off by B&W. I am proud of the fact that I brought my daughter up to appreciate old films, even silent films. She has tried to get her friends interested, often to no avail.

    I love it, and appreciate when it is used, although it is used less and less today.


  5. Thank you for bringing back, in my mind and heart, the memory of Abel Gance's 1927 silent, black and white masterpiece, “Napoléon”. I saw it in Toronto, January 4, 1983. Carmine Coppola, who had composed the background music, (with “La Marseillaise” repeated many times), directed himself the Milan Philharmonic Orchestra, on that evening. What a tremendous experience! Afterwards, I bought the LP, with the book illustrating many scenes of the magnificent film.

    And now, with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I will listen to the music again and review the pages of Napoleon's life, lifting my glass many times to your good health.

    Merci de tout coeur. À votre santé,Vincent!


  6. I enjoyed the slideshow very much! I'm liking taking monochromatic shots a lot lately; more so than ever. For some things, of course, it has to be color but I too love to photograph the woods in black and white: ferns, trees, mosses – always preferable to capture in black and white.

    I didn't at all enjoy Titanic in 3D. Though I am a closeted fan of the original film. It had me at the sketch scene. ;-)


  7. We seem to be all in agreement on these matters of artistic integrity. Thanks for these comments which amplify and illustrate further the thesis which I tried to set out as starkly as possible (as befits a limited palette!)

    The slideshow just happened, and I did add one or two more during the usual flurry of editing just after a new post is published. But it's stable now, Rev. Energies are now on the next post, “Bach & Blackbird” which has some necessary complexities in the structure that need as much attention to balance the counterpoint as a sonata, or a theme and variations.

    John, you do have to watch the movie now. You won't regret it. And I assume what you all mean by “the movie” is The Man Who Wasn't There, rather than its role model, In a Lonely Place. And I'm sure you are right, because in this case the son is greater than the father, and it makes us proud that cinematography can improve. If not “us” then “me” for I find it so much easier to appreciate the old than the new-fangled…

    . . . donc l'idée de Napoléon m'attire beaucoup, chère Claude! Must I watch this too? I must! I've added it to my rental list at LoveFilm, but it went into the list of “reserved” along with 30 others, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Billy Budd and the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I was luckier with “A Night to Remember”. I missed it when it came out first. I was a fan of Kenneth More in those days – all those war films! – but must have been at boarding school & missed the chance.

    Gina, yes! You can look at shots to imagine them monochromatic, and then sometimes they'll insist on colour, as in late afternoon clouds i saw yesterday. And as for Titanic in 3D, I've enjoyed Cameron's Titanic as it was. It always seemed a bit too 3D already, or was it that my brain subliminally detected certain special effects, and spat them out?

    Charles, yes, The Artist was an astonishing achievement, it made me applaud. My younger daughter has sadly not followed my old-fashioned tastes, but she's only 23. My elder son and daughter are in many ways more old-fashioned than I. They wrinkle their noses at plastic, or anything that couldn't be produced with peasant technology.

    As for Pi and the Twilight Zone, Bryan, thanks for the warning, though the latter wouldn't be on my horizon anyway.


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