Sample Lecture- The Noir Detective (Cont.)- Early Noir

Lecture Notes:
A History of the Detective Film in American Cinema– Week 5 – Class 1)
The Noir Detective (Cont.) – Early Noir

Assigned Texts for Lecture:

Jon Tuska, “Interlude: Film Noir,” from The Detective in Hollywood (Course Packet)

Phillipa Gates, “The Hardboiled Detective,” from Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film (Course Packet)

I. Today we will:
a. Briefly review noir’s literary origins (covered in previous class)
b. Discuss cinematic precursors, and provide clips
c. Highlight the shift from the “Transitional Detective” to the “Noir Detective” in Hollywood
d. Look at noir’s psychoanalytic framework
e. Discuss the “3 types” of noir narratives and “pleasures of transgression”
f. Examine the “Americanization” of characters in noir
g. Discuss noir’s reluctance to fully problematize issues of male identity
II. The Hardboiled Novel
a. Arose as a response to the “stylization” of the classical detective novel.
b. Increased sense of realism
c. Chandler & Hammett (as we have already observed) = The fathers
d. These inspired film noir
i. Which was itself a kind of response to the Classical Hollywood method of film making
ii. Much more gritty and realistic, yet just as stylized
III. Noir Films: General Observations, Reminders
a. Influences
i. German Expressionism – Post WWI Germany
1. Giving shape to psychological states
2. High contrast – Shadows
3. Distortions and exaggerations
4. M (1931) – Lang – Show clip:
5. Read: Thomas Elsaesser quote: “in the existence of that famous ‘Expressionist’ genre, the film noir, combining the haunted screen of the early 1920s with the lure of the sinful metropolis Berlin of the late 1920s (the femme fatales, Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich) mixed with the angst of German émigrés during the 1930s and 40s as they contemplated personal tragedies and national disaster.”
ii. French Poetic Realism
1. Emerged in the 30s
2. Roots in realist literature
3. Working class milieus – Represented “contemporary social conditions
a. Low key lighting
b. Rainy streets
c. At night
4. Pépé le Moko (1937) – Duvivier – Show clip from trailer:
IV. Hollywood’s Prior Avoidance
a. Avoided hardboiled fiction in the 30s because of themes of sex and violence
i. These posed obvious problems with regard to the Production Code
b. Whereas Classical Hollywood films began with the death of a character, and the reconstruction of that death, the film noir is more concerned with issues of what the character was like when she or he was alive, and why they are dead, and who is responsible for their death.
c. Hollywood had previously focused on the “Transitional Detective”
i. Here, sexual themes were often mitigated
ii. Toned down violence
iii. Comic overtones
iv. This all changes in the 1940s
v. This change is, in some ways, related to the “proliferation of Freudian psychoanalysis” (Gates 81) in American culture and film
V. Psychoanalytic Framework
a. Crime is no longer a “social problem”
i. It is not a symptom of larger groups
ii. It is attributed to individuals
iii. Foundations in the internal impulses of criminals – Criminal behavior is often linked to character’s personal psychological problems
iv. This allowed for a kind of “circumvention” of the Production Code
1. Audiences familiar with these concepts could “decode” the messages being conveyed through these films – The presence of Freudian psychoanalysis in the cultural zeitgeist made coded messages clear for audiences “in the know”
v. Themes of castration in Spellbound (1945), Gilda (1946), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) all suggest a certain quality of unease.(Silverman)
1. Cultural myth, and reality appear to clash
2. Overall, themes of castration are common in noir
a. There is kind of a “divided masculinity” operating here.
i. The noir detective is not so much detecting a mystery, as he is, ideas of own masculinity (Gates 83).
VI. Three Types of Noir Narrative
a. These types offer the audience, “different senses of pleasure” (Gates 84)
i. The three types are:
1. The Investigative Thriller: Detective protagonist who works against the villains
2. The Male Suspense Thriller: Protagonist that is inferior to the criminals
3. The Criminal Adventure Thriller: The protagonist himself becomes a kind of villain
ii. Fundamental appeal lies in simultaneous alignment with the law and transgression of it
1. In terms of “pleasures of transgression”:
a. The detective-hero offers the least pleasure
b. The victim-hero more
c. The criminal-hero the most
iii. Overall the noir hero is a victim of societal notions of a white male paternalistic hegemony, and of “independent and predatory women” (Ibid.)
iv. In this sense, the importance of “plot” is mitigated
v. Whereas the “Classical Detective” sought to restore order to society, the “Noir Detective” seeks to restore order to perceptions of masculinity – Questions of plot were back grounded
vi. The hardboiled detective is unable to restore equilibrium to his own culture because no equilibrium existed beforehand
VII. Americanization
a. Americanization of characters occurred in literature in the 20s and 30s, however, this did not occur in film until the 40s
b. There was a distinct shift from “British” notions of the detective
c. Detectives of the 40s began to represent quintessentially American values
d. “American looking” detectives succeeded British actors –William Powell, Tom Conway, and Basil Rathbone were replaced by American looking actors like Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, and Humphrey Bogart
i. Examples
1. Show clip: The Thin Man Trailer (1934)-
2. Show clip: The Big Sleep Trailer (1946) –
e. Associations of Bogart, in particular, with earlier gangster roles contributed to a sense of masculinity that was challenged by the films’ subject matter
i. Hence, Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon (1941) and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) constitute a much more ambiguous figure than the “transitional” and “classical” detectives that preceded them.
VIII. Noir’s Reluctance to Engage in a Fully “Problematic” Representation of Male Identity
a. Noir films maintained a certain conservative outlook
i. Although “resistant” to male dominated ideologies, they did not entirely oppose them
1. The noir anti-hero was usually punished for his transgressions
2. No matter how corrupt society was portrayed, the noir detective essentially upheld its values
3. At the same time, the very fact that the noir hero challenged ideas of masculinity was revolutionary
4. While Classical Hollywood films sought escapism, noir delighted in languishing in uncertainty
5. Thus, it offered vicarious pleasures to its audience

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