Hitchcock and Film Noir


Film Noir was a movement and genre of crime films made by Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. It consisted most often of a murder, sometimes accompanied by a robbery; an investigation, not always by the police; and a fallen world, usually a dark city in which both the police and public officials were corrupt. Its protagonist, if not guilty of the crime, is drawn irrevocably into it. Like other genres, Film Noir had its conventions: chiaroscuro photography; expressionistic camera work; voice-overs; flashbacks always depicting a troubled past; amnesia; nightclubs; and femme fatales.

Before this period, Hollywood made four types of crime films: gangster films; police procedurals; whodunits featuring super sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto; and comic whodunits in the spirit of The Thin Man series.

Hollywood became conscious of Film Noir with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and critics referred to the new type as “red-blooded melodramas.” But it was a French critic, Nino Frank, who dubbed it “Film Noir.” Because of the Nazi occupation of France (1940 – 1945), the French had not seen a Hollywood film for five years.  Frank associated Hollywood with innocence: Shirley Temple; Fred and Ginger; Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; Andy Hardy; Deanna Durbin saving the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Screwball Comedies. Suddenly the screen was dark. Frank equated this new type of film with a group of French crime novels Series Noirs. His nomenclature stuck.

As always with a new genre, the question arises, When did Film Noir actually begin? The Maltese Falcon (1941), the third and most accurate film version of the 1930 Dashiell Hammett novel, receives the most votes. The hero, Sam Spade, has been sleeping with the wife of his recently-murdered partner, then commences an affair with a new female client who turns out to be the murderer. Can you imagine Perry Mason behaving in this way? However, earlier Film Noir candidates include Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), The Letter (1940), You Only Live Once (1937) and M (1931), the latter two directed by Fritz Lang, one of Hitchcock’s greatest cinematic rivals.

To my mind, and I am not alone, the palm goes to Alfred Hitchcock with his silent film, The Lodger (1926).

The Lodger was such a success that it elevated Hitchcock from an unknown to England’s most distinguished director. It has all the elements of Film Noir: innovative expressive camera work, a dark London in terror of a Jack-the-Ripper style serial killer, a young protagonist who by his mysterious behavior and interest in the crimes quickly comes under suspicion by those in his boarding house–one of whom is a detective.

During his long career, Hitchcock worked in a number of genres, including a screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1940). But in retrospect, The Lodger became what we think of as the first Hitchcockian Film, the psychological thriller. Hitchcock the master of suspense had created a genre of his own in only his third film.

Blackmail (1929), his tenth film, became the second Hitchcockian masterwork. This film enters even deeper into the Noir world because the protagonist, Alice, is the murderer. From this point on, Hitchcock worked primarily in his own genre. Murder (1930) followed, and then a series of superb films which became known as The British Six: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); The Thirty-nine Steps (1935); The Secret Agent (1936); Sabotage (1936); Young and Innocent (1937); and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Among these films, Sabotage best fits the Noir type. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, it features the owner of a local cinema who is also an underground terrorist. Engaged to plant a time bomb in the heart of London on Lord Mayor’s Day, he gives the bomb to his wife’s schoolboy brother simply as a package to be delivered. The bomb is set to go off at noon, and there is great suspense cutting back and forth between a clock and delays which keep the bomb in the boy’s hands. He does not deliver it in time. Outraged by her brother’s fate, the terrorist’s wife takes revenge by stabbing him to death with a carving knife.

In Hitchcock’s world, for female killers, scissors and carving knives are the weapons of choice.

After The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock signed a contract with David O. Selznick and moved to Hollywood. For many years, anti-Hollywood snobs used to say The British Six were far superior to anything Hitchcock ever did in Hollywood. I don’t think anyone in his right mind can make that claim after Hitchcock’s achievements in the 1950s.

In Hollywood, the majority of Hitchcock’s films make use of Film Noir conventions well enough to qualify for Eddie Muller’s TCM Saturday Night Noir Alley. Two of them, Shadow of a Doubt (1941) and Strangers on a Train (1951) are pure Noir. But the greatest of all Hitchcock’s Film Noirs—and the greatest film he ever made (received opinion of cinema critics worldwide)—is Vertigo (1958). Because Vertigo is a Hitchcock film and because it is beautifully filmed in technicolor, Noiristas often overlook it. And yet!!!

Foster Hirsch, in The Dark Side of the Screen, claims the genre has three types of protagonists: the investigator, the victim, and the psychopath. In Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson is all three. Here the dark city becomes San Francisco and its Peninsula but the film treats it as nothing but a beautiful labyrinth leading to death. The character of its heroine, Judy Barton, is the most well-developed of any femme fatale in the two decades of Film Noir. She aids the villain of the piece, Gavin Elster in the killing of his wife, Madeleine. But unlike other femme fatales, she falls in love with her victim and becomes a victim herself.

And so Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense out-Noirs all others in the genre, even perhaps his chief rival, Double Indemnity. That Billy Wilder soon after he made Double Indemnity saw the connection between “red-blooded melodrama” and Hitchcock, he declared, “I wanted to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock!”




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