It's not just a "Film Noir"

by Peter Blundell

The last recording of The Cinematologists’ Podcast was at the Electric Palace, Hastings and discussed Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). As usual, it was a stimulating evening. The film was illuminatingly introduced by the guys and the audience discussion was very thought-provoking. So much so that I had a few more thoughts that I am going to share….

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

1.  A “classic film noir” but no-one knew that’s what they were making

The film is very often described as “a classic film noir” – including in the Electric Palace’s publicity for the evening. This is fair enough: much of the look and the feel of the film places it under that banner. Generally, of course, we often introduce and discuss films in terms of their genre.

However, film noir is bit of a special case as, unlike many others, it was not a “self-conscious” genre. At least not in 1950. Nicholas Ray didn’t know he was making a “film noir”. He wasn’t working within any awareness of it as a framework.

The very term betrays its origins within French film criticism and its coining is usually credited to Nino Frank around 1946. French critics like Frank started noticing similarities in style and story between a whole range of American films of the period and dubbed them “films noir”. In fact, it has been suggested that French critics only became of aware of these similarities because they watched a huge backlog of US films very quickly – almost back-to-back -  once the Nazi occupation (when Hollywood films had been banned) was over!

Anyway, the point is that the term “film noir” was unknown in the US until the late 1960s when critics, then audiences and then film-makers began embracing it. At the time there was no awareness of its “existence” – nobody had grouped the films together. 

The key thing to realise, therefore, is that if Nicholas Ray had been assigned a “western” or a “horror” to direct in 1950 he would have had a reasonable understanding, by then, of that genre’s store cupboard of possible ingredients - in terms of character-types, incident, iconography etc -that he could deploy, mix, ignore or twist. He could also be confident that his audience also had a set of expectations about each genre that he could rely on and use. We could therefore talk confidently about how the film reflects this conscious awareness.

This wasn’t true of the films we now call “film noir”. When talking about "film noir" it is too easy for any of us to forget this and start saying things like “Ray here is using the tropes of noir film…” as if film-makers of the period were consciously working within a known framework

I am not saying that this type of thing was explicitly said in the recording of the podcast but it does frequently happen in the discussion of "film noirs", including In a Lonely Place. (Maybe I am just over-aware of the dangers of these assumptions because I am conditioned by years of teaching film and trying to encourage students not to be too simplistic about noir.)

Thinking about the preceding points I have realised that maybe I am in danger of over-stating the case. Nicholas Ray in 1950 would no doubt have seen many of the previous films now classified as noir – in fact he made some of them (and Bogart, of course, had starred in quite a few of the others!) So perhaps, not necessarily at a conscious level, he could be seen as working within a possible field of influence, let us call it…

2.    It’s not just a "film noir"

I think in general a focus on genre can sometimes lead to a reductive “checklist” approach to a film like this. We get bogged down in concentrating on the elements that fit the template of expectations and conventions associated with that genre. This can be very illuminating. In a film like In a Lonely Place it leads us back to questions of context – the original noir films are particularly associated with a very historically specific mood of anxiety and dislocation stemming from a complex of post-war factors: the damaged men returning from battlefields; women liberated by war-time employment, the emergent cold war and McCarthyite paranoia and so on. We can certainly detect traces of all these in the film.

However, it does mean that some of the discussion of the film tends to only focus on its “noir”-ness and downplays or ignores features of the film that don’t fit the template.

The case of In a Lonely Place I think there is a lot more to uncover and discover about the film than just its noir status. As with so many (all?) films there is all sorts of hybridity going on – mixing the elements of other genres like romance, romantic comedy (even “screwball comedy”), “suspense” (which is how the film was described in its publicity at the time), procedural crime etc.  There is a signal focus too on the idea of a dangerous man (a “homme fatale”) which is rarely found in the rest of the films usually assigned to the noir label.

This is part of a bigger question of how useful genre is as a way of approaching any film.

2.    A product of not just its time but its industry

In the end, of course, genres don’t make films, film companies do (at least in the commercial sector). A film, even in 1950, is an expensive risk and therefore the films that are made can be usefully understood as attempts to minimise the chances of them making a loss.

We can, therefore, identify the factors about In a Lonely Place that enabled it to be made:  Ray’s track record as a reliable director, Bogart’s huge fan-base and a popular novel as its (distant) source. These are the sorts of elements that enabled the making of many Hollywood films of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. However, I would argue that two factors about the American film industry in 1950 made it possible for this film specifically to exist and to exist in its actual surprising final form (the downbeat ending, the “anti-hero” protagonist etc).

One would be the breakup of the Studio System. Thanks to US Government anti-trust legislation (the 1948 Paramount Decrees) the old majors were withdrawing from the factory-style production they’d practiced for years. Stars, directors and others were being released from their old restrictive studio contracts and some were using their power and money to start their own independent production companies. Which is exactly what Bogart did in forming Santana Productions (named after his yacht).

in_a_lonely_place.jpg

One of Santana’s films was, of course, In a Lonely Place. Bogart chose the film, the director (an old friend, apparently) and approved the script. Ray and Bogart were therefore enjoying a degree of creative autonomy (cushioned by Bogart’s bankability and loyal audience) relatively unknown in the studio era. They could try new things such as challenging star and story expectations.

Incidentally, a few small independent film production companies had existed in the studio system era – mostly surviving by providing the low-budget B-pictures that went with the majors’ A-pictures in double bills. Interestingly, these “poverty row” companies are sometimes seen as one of the cradles of what would become known as “film noir”. Also, to give another example to Dario’s (on the podcast) list of links between "film noir" and the French Nouvelle Vague, Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to one such B-picture company making “proto-noir”-  Monogram Pictures.

Secondly, in parallel there was also the accelerating decline of the cinema audience. In 1946 weekly US attendances had peaked at 83m per week. By 1950 it was down to 60m and dropping. The main reason of course was the effects of TV (by 1950 The Ed Sullivan Show was already 2 years’ old). As is well known the history of Hollywood ever since (or at least until recently) has been the history of attempts to draw people away from their sofas by doing things that TV couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Famous examples from the 1950s include the transition to colour, experiments like 3-D and smell-vision etc and, eventually, the development of teen-pics aimed at the section of the audience who were still turning up to the cinemas (which, of course, Ray would benefit from a few years later with Rebel without a Cause).

In the case of In a Lonely Place it could be an early example of writers, directors and producers realising that one way to try to compete with TV is to provide something more challenging, downbeat and “adult” than the safe and sanitised “family entertainment” TV provided. (I wonder too if there was an awareness that amongst the audience were many men who had returned from the horrors of war who wouldn’t be satisfied with glamour or simple escapism?).

These two industrial factors combine in a freedom and push for something different that results in such an interesting and odd film which in some ways prefigures some of the even more challenging films of the 1960s (starting with Psycho).

3.    The Gaze of Laurel Grey

Academic discussion of gender and film is still very much dominated by Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In it she argued that Hollywood and its cinematography adopted a “male gaze” at their female characters:

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

This can be seen in countless films up until the present day, including many films falling under the film noir label. For instance, in Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) when our hapless protagonist Walter first encounters femme fatale Phyllis the camera cuts to his point-of-view of her semi-clad body and then her legs coming downstairs.

Picture1.jpg
Picture2.jpg

Against this background, one of the interesting things about In a Lonely Place is how powerful and independent Laurel’s gaze is, especially in the first half of the film.

There’s the way Laurel returns Dix’s appraising gaze that first night. There’s also the way she turns and stares at him in the police station the next morning – long, hard and with self-possession.  It feels quite unusual to have a female character be so in control and bold in their looking (and, apparently deriving some “visual pleasure” from it).

Picture7.jpg
Picture8.jpg

4.    A rare example of direct address

There is also a very interesting moment that I hadn’t really appreciated until I saw it again on the big Electric Cinema screen. When Mildred, the doomed hat-check girl,  begins telling Dix the story of Althea Bruce at his apartment the camera cuts to a Point-of View (POV) shot from Dix’s position. The protagonist’s POV is a standard device in Hollywood films, attempting to build audience identification with the “hero” – literally seeing things through their eyes.

Picture6.jpg

However, in this case the object being viewed is not just being looked at– they are talking directly to the protagonist which means that Mildred is directly addressing the camera and thereby us. This is interesting because it is such a rare example – I was always taught that directors of the “classic period” avoided it (except in comedies) because it breaks the 4th wall, reminds the audience of the camera etc. (This supercut https://vimeo.com/60845952 shows examples and nearly all are from the 1960s on, except – interestingly a moment from Sunset Boulevard). Maybe this is another example of Ray flexing his creative freedoms in a new post-studio era?

5.   An architect’s eye

Profiles of Ray often point out that he studied architecture (with Frank Lloyd Wright) and that the visual design (“mise-en-scene” as those French critics called it) of his films often showed a careful attention to how sets and their décor can be used to create mood and give the audience subtle clues to characters and relationships.

One example is the design of Dix’s apartment and its extraordinary metal grilles – internally and externally.

Picture3.jpg
Picture5.jpg

More generally, throughout the film are countless shots of gates, grid patterns, plaids and checks – all perhaps communicating a sense of entrapment and the barriers between characters. Which actually brings us back full circle. Grids, bars, barriers are often seen as one of the key visual motifs of “classic film noir”!

Peter Blundell taught Film Studies in Further and Adult Education and recently retired as Curriculum Leader for Media as Sussex Downs College, Lewes.  He tweets as @peterablu and is on Instagram as thirstierwater.

If you are interested in writing for The Cinematologists Blog please email us at cinematologists@gmail.com with your idea.