In recent decades both film scholars and fans of vintage cinema have championed two unique film movements. One of these is the so-called “pre-code” school of films, pictures created before the censorship guidelines caused movies to become much more circumspect. The other movement, which has been of great public interest much longer than “pre-code”, would be the sub-genre known as “film noir.”
“Film Noir” is an appellation created by French film critics and scholars to describe a type of film which combines a dark visual style, often violent action set against the backdrop of a criminal milieu, and a Greek tragedy-like study of flawed men and women who seem to participate in their own downfalls. These will be due to unhappy, frequently inescapable circumstances, a basic weakness, and character flaws which together aid in bringing about the character’s demise.
There was never a plan by Hollywood or anywhere else to create a category named “film noir.” Rather, after World War II ended and France was no longer removed from the rest of the western world by German occupation, many American crime novels and the films based upon those novels or created in a style similar to the novels, were imported to France. The French could see a pattern in looking at the films as a whole that those watching the films one at a time could not.
The American films looked like, had many similar tropes and conventions and shared the same bleak outlook on a world where nobody could end up a winner. The novels were mostly imported by the same publishing house, which uniformly packaged them in black covers. They were dubbed “Serie Noir” or black novels. It made sense to label the films based on those novels, and those akin in feeling and form, “film noir” or black film.
While the often lively “pre-code” films were pinned to a very specific place (Hollywood) and period of time (1930 to mid-1934), film noir was a different matter. These somber films were the products of the aftermath of one world war and the drifting descent towards another, the same economic catastrophe which produced the “pre-code” films, the rise of several fascist governments in the wake of that disaster, and the displacement of many talented individuals that followed that disaster within a disaster.
Oddly enough, three countries (the U.S, France, and Germany), two of which were at severe odds with the third, would unwittingly unite to create this form. Often troubled times give birth to the best of films and the chance to comment on those times often marks the cinema at its best. “Film Noir” is an example of this trend and was a long time coming into the world. Below are 20+ films that pointed and lead the way to film noir.
1. Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922)/The Testment of Dr. Mabuse (1933) Directed by Fritz Lang
Those looking for the roots of film noir might well go back to the very first German films of the post-World War I period but a better starting point could not be found than a man who was not only a major influence in creating the noir style but who would direct several great films noir after the movement’s style was cemented. That man is Fritz Lang. Though many know him best for his science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1926), he was truly at his best with the dark tales of crime and espionage which he wove in the silent and early talkies he made while still working in Germany.
A magnum opus would be the original two-part/four-hour Dr. Mabuse and its sequel of a decade later (the original film was adapted from a serialized novel by French author Norbert Jacques, showing the cross-pollenization of the genre even from the start).
Film noir often examines society’s ills from the perspective of a criminal vantage point and this one is a prime example. Dr. Mabuse (Lang regular Rudolph Klein-Rogge), a seemingly respectable physician, is secretly a criminal mastermind who manipulates not only individuals but entire countries via a dazzling array of disguises, bold plotting, and utter ruthlessness and disregard for the lives of any and all.
Though he might be thought of as a super-villain, it is clear that he is a symptom of a very chaotic and confused place and time. Indeed, the subtitles of the sections of the first films are “pictures of our times” and “men of our times.” Lang and writer-wife Thea von Harbou fill the picture dissolute aristocratic socialites, cocaine-addicted henchmen, shady officials, and other assorted types out for little good.
The sequel drives this home. In it, Mabuse somehow manages to overcome both confinement and death to wreak havoc on a Germany now more than ever ready for some major abuse. His new plans include ruining water supplies and crops on a massive scale. They are combined with a vivid portrayal of the criminal underworld of Germany at the time that shows that Mabuse is in his element.
Too bad the criminals actually in charge of the Germany didn’t find any of this amusing. Lang claimed that the Nazis hated the film but still wanted him as their star state film director. His response was to flee the country the same day the offer was made. Thankfully, there will be more of him later.
2. Warning Shadows (1923) Directed by Arthur Robinson
Shadows are always a large part of film noir. There are the intense shadows that hide things in the dark and/or comment on the darkness of characters or situations. There are also shadows that hide in the hearts of characters and compel them to carry out acts that light won’t tolerate. Though Warning Shadows is set in the Eighteenth Century, and films noir are contemporary by nature, it still has a noir feel to it.
The plot sees a travelling magician arriving out of the blue in order to put on a shadow play for the dinner guests of a great house. The young master of the house is already upset over the presence of his wife’s four old flames.
The shadow play only reinforces his feelings and pushes him to the edge, with results that are far from pretty. The quality of angst, a feeling of fear so extreme that it evokes violent action and reaction, is a German gift to the film noir world. The Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is the international poster child for angst and Warning Shadows could well be its film counterpart.
3. The Secrets of a Soul (1926)/Pandora’s Box (1928)/Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) All Directed by G.W. Pabst
What a pity Georg Wilhelm Pabst was trapped in Germany throughout World War II. Had he gotten to Hollywood, he might have unleashed some mighty films noir. As it is, he created some excellent forerunners. Thanks to the (deserved) cult surrounding American actress Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl are well known to modern film fans and scholars.
In both Brooks portrays a woman living outside the bounds of respectable society. In the first she is a totally amoral beauty whose passive presence seems to cause all around her to implode, much to her complete indifference, until the forces of her own karma conspire to finally consume her as well. In the second, the daughter of a prominent pharmacist is seduced and impregnated by her father’s degenerate assistant and is sent to a nightmarish reform school.
Escaping with a friend they wind up having to submit to the degradation of selling themselves (though it’s still better then the reform school). As with many noir films, the characters aren’t condemned by the film makers but observed. Their fates are largely a combination of bad circumstance, bad judgment, a flawed society and flawed characters. The Secrets of a Soul, with no Louise Brooks, isn’t as well known but it is a remarkable film and an influence on film noir. A prominent scientist (Werner Krauss) is losing his mind. He is fixated on knives coupled with an illogical urge to kill his wife.
This simple story is told from the scientist’s deranged point of view with every expressionistic camera device possible along with heavy use of ideas and concepts from the great psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, ideas that would figure into a many a film noir. Pabst obviously saw that Weimar Germany was a social order on the brink of disaster. He wasn’t afraid to create films about characters in a state of moral drift lost in a landscape without a moral compass—not at all unlike the films to come later in the noir cycle.
4. Variete (1925) Directed by E.A. DuPont/Asphalt (1929) Directed by Joe May
The plot of both films: an unscrupulous woman lures a man on the straight and narrow to ruin. It might be easier to count the films noir that don’t contain some variation of this plot. Variete story is set in a seedy, run down carnival. Its owner (Emil Jannings ) is enticed by the amoral young woman (Lya da Puti) in the trapeze act and leaves his wife and child only to drift into lethal jealousy and criminal behavior.
Dupont, didn’t become the great director his silent films seemed to promise but he makes this film a visual wonder. The look is also paramount in Asphalt, by one of the last German silent directors. Like DuPont, he also fled to Hollywood and kept working without hitting such promising heights again.
Asphalt tells the story of an improbably innocent young policeman (Gustave Frolich), the pride of a family whose members have been in the police for generations, who is assigned to escort a beautiful and seductive jewel thief to jail.
Anyone who has ever seen a film noir can more or less predict what happens thereafter but it was new then and modified expressionistic camerawork, especially in the last reels, gives a true taste of things to come. There the women would be called femmes fatale, a French term perfectly illustrated by the Germans.
5. Underworld (1927)/Thunderbolt (1929) Directed by Josef von Sternberg
One of the most interesting aspects of film noir is that it is a sub-genre with both substance and style. Many a book has concentrated on the thematic content of film noir but the look of film noir defines it as well. A common conception is that the basic look was an adaptation of the German expressionist camerawork of the 1920s and early 30s. This is true enough but there was a definite filter in between that gave film noir a more naturalistic, less extreme look than those films.
A great case can be made that the films of Josef von Sternberg might be that filter. Anyone who knows the Hollywood films of the late 1920s and 30s surely knows that no other films ever had quite the visual impact, the very look of a Sternberg picture. The director had several obsessions but none were more pressing than observing the interplay of light and shadow, the very essence of film noir to come.
His finest films were bacchanals of black, white and all tones of gray and, when left to his devices, he chose material to match the visuals. Sternberg did not believe in innocence. His universe was populated by the knowing, who accepted the vicissitudes of fate with an ironic resignation, fools who clung to outmoded values, and freaks of all descriptions who were often accompanied by troublesome obsessions.
To most, Sternberg’s famed pictures with Marlene Dietrich are the summation of him as a film maker but he did have a career before directing her in 1930’s The Blue Angel and many who have seen these films consider them to be his masterworks. One of his biggest hits was Underworld, a visual stunner that won screenwriter Ben Hecht one of the first Academy Awards. Underworld can truly be considered to be the blueprint for the crime films of the early talkie era.
The plot concerns a big league gangster riding for a fall in his profession thanks to his excesses and an even sharper fall in his personal life due to the developing feelings between his once faithful moll and the upper class gent gone to seed who he almost literally scraped off the sidewalk.
The story wasn’t that original even then but Sternberg created a stunning milieu, another world of darkness and shadow where crime and criminals hold sway—much like the eventual world of film noir. The fact that he also imbued normally plain actors such as George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, and Clive Brooks with a magnetism none of them ordinarily possessed shows how much Dietrich did indeed owe him.
Bancroft plays the title role in Thunderbolt, a death row inmate who decides of kill another prisoner for being in love with his girl. It, too, was a hit but difficult to find today. However, in look and in tone it was noir before its time.
6. Little Caesar (1930) Directed by Mervyn Leroy/The Public Enemy (1931) Directed by William Wellman/Scarface (1930-32) Directed by Howard Hawks
These three films are the holy trinity of 1930s gangster films, but many overlook the fact that these films raise issues about American society that weren’t, as common thinking goes, solved by the end of the Great Depression and the subsequent start of World War II.
The basic plot of all three is the same, though the execution certainly isn’t. Basically, a nasty little punk, of no real value to society and pretty much a loss as a human being, wants to be “big” and scratches, claws, cheats, robs, bullies, and murders his way to the top of the criminal world, where he finds only a kind of cheap satisfaction before basic character flaws and a willful obtuseness to the fact that there is always someone out there who envies and/or hates him and will gladly go even lower than he, brings about his downfall.
Each film features a star-making turn from its lead player: Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, Paul Muni in Scarface, and James Cagney in The Public Enemy. The choice of each also says something of the films themselves and how the study of the characters is handled. Robinson, by far the oldest of the three, and Muni were cultured gentlemen who had created notable careers on both the Yiddish and Broadway stages before going into film.
Robinson’s Rico and Muni’s Tony Camonte are both performances that obviously show a lot of thought and observation. Both actors find reasons for why their characters have pursued the directions in life that they have: Rico, a tiny man, is the owner of a Napoleon complex. Camonte is a just a step up the evolutionary ladder from the apes (and Muni bravely adopts an ape-like visage), which leads him to believe that violence is the only way to achieve the promise of the neon sign outside his window flashing “the world is yours.”
Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, is a hustling young man determined to escape from the tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood into which he had been born, Cagney surely knew types like this and gives a very instinctive performance.
Unlike the other two films, which present their main characters as grown men, The Public Enemy opens by showing Robbins with his best friend and literal partner in crime as kids. They are juvenile delinquents in all but official fact. However, they don’t come from unusual poverty or criminal backgrounds. In fact, Tom’s much hated dad is a cop! The film seems to say, with a good amount of basis in reality, that some people are just bad eggs from the start and keep getting worse from there.
Whereas Little Caesar, taken from a novel by W.R. Burnett, a key literary figure in noir, posits that a good part of Rico’s fall is due to the fact that he’s a closet case secretly in love with his old partner, now a dancer (ironically, this character was based on actor George Raft, who has a key supporting role in Scarface!), and Scarface makes it alarmingly clear that Camonte’s feelings for his sister are far from familial, indicating another type of fatal character flaw,
Tom Powers is mostly something from the gutter who bit off a lot more than he could chew. All three characters, though, will have spiritual sons in the noir era.