The Introduction Of Film Noir: How Did Directors Become Smugglers & Changed American Cinema

The previous article taught us how directors used high-tech methods to create illusions. Today, we will talk about the style of filmmaking where high-tech or low-tech never really mattered. Some directors built a vision so powerful that it became more than convincing. It was the master filmmakers who made low-tech films that can travel an impossible distance. In “A Personal Journey Through American Movies,” Scorsese described some of the most vibrant approaches made by pioneering Hollywood directors. This brings us to today’s discussion: how these directors became smugglers in filmmaking.


How Did Hollywood Directors Become Smugglers?

Jacques Tourneur, son of the great French director Maurice Tourneur, was assigned to a small “B” grade film named “Cat People” (1942). In that film, he projected low-tech with a significant vision that created a grand illusion. Jacques neither had any budget nor today’s technology, yet he brilliantly presented the darkness in the frame. He believed that the dark had a life of its own, so he decided not to show the vicious creature threatening his protagonist. Although he suggested the creature’s presence simply by projecting “an ominous shadow play.” There were some background scores of growling and nothing else, creating an authentic ambiance for the audience to feel the threat. So, what drove Tourneur to such a vision?

As Martin Scorsese stated, Hollywood always had a set of rules about narrative codes or technical tools, and we have also seen how filmmakers adjusted to these limitations. But when the financial stakes were minimal, the cracks in the system started to open up. Less money always meant more freedom; the “B” film world was often more accessible for experimenting and innovation. This is how directors of the 40s found out they could explore more in a small-budget movie than in any prestigious film with a big house. Small budget projects used fewer executives to monitor their work so the filmmakers could introduce unusual styles. In this way, all the Hollywood directors unitedly transformed themselves into smugglers; they cheated and somehow got away with it.


How Tourneur Introduced Horror With Such Low-Budget Productions

At RKO, Tourneur had Val Lewton as his producer. Lewton used to work extensively on the scripts he produced, but he never interfered with the director’s work on the set. He never even set foot on the set, so the director was left to choose the device of his own will. This is what happened with Tourneur too. He introduced his directorial finesse with whatever he believed fit. Scorsese said his characters were moved by forces they didn’t even understand. He added that “Cat People” was as crucial as “Citizen Kane” in developing a more mature American cinema. Tourneur’s theory was straightforward; when spectators sat in a darkened theater and recognized their insecurity with the protagonist on the screen, they would accept the most unbelievable situations. In simpler words, they would follow the director wherever he wanted to take them.

Things were never the same after Tourneur opened up this new feeling of insecurity. Many directors had mastered the vision and used their methods to recreate these emotions. In his 1948 classic “Letter From An Unknown Woman,” Max Ophuls installed a carnival of illusions, an imaginary journey for a fictional romance. Ophuls’ camera and heroine synced in an eternal motion, where you as an audience can feel the anxiety and the intensity. Some freeze-frame shots would give you the comfort of happiness for a brief moment, but as soon as the hero departs, a cold reality shatters in the eyes of the heroine. This playfulness with dark emotions makes filmmaking way more intriguing than ever before.


Ophuls was one of the finest directors who explored these darker territories, along with Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and AndrĂ© De Toth. For most of them, crime was just another chapter of daily life. It should never be treated differently within the urban world, like in the old gangster movies. According to them, a criminal mindset is as natural as anything in human life. Fritz Lang once said violence is a definite point in a script as it has a “dramaturgical reason” to be there. In reality, people don’t believe in punishment after they are dead. So, what do people fear the most? It is always the physical pain that comes only from violence.

How Did Film Noir Transform These Darker Territories of Filmmaking?

The French initially coined the name “Film Noir” in 1946 when they discovered the Hollywood productions they missed during the German occupation. Martin Scorsese said, “Film noir was not a specific genre like gangster films, but a mood. For example, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 noir “Detour” only established some of the most vibrant styles by relying on his resourcefulness. He shot the entire film within six days, with a budget of merely 20,000 dollars. There were severe limitations, yet he made a crime thriller with intense drama, one of many reasons why Ulmer has become such an inspiration over the years to low-budget filmmakers. He could not even afford any special effects; instead, he repeatedly let some shots go in and out of focus to establish the idea that his protagonist is going through turmoil. Film Noir spoke of how quickly a man could lose everything if he deviated from his path. In Scorsese’s term, Film Noir showed how an ordinary man lured by the prospect of sinful pleasures ended up suffering hellish retribution.


Film Noir, in reality, revealed the darker sides of American urban life. It talked about rogue cops, white-collar criminals, and Femme Fatale. The streets became more dangerous than ever, and no one could take anything for granted. Andre De Toth beautifully demonstrated the idea behind this horrifying reality. He said we should admit that everyone has done something terrible at some point in their lives. Andre De Toth’s filmmaking was based on honesty, and this most straightforward approach changed the age-old concept of America. For extended periods, people here believed that, whatever you do, you can always have a second chance in life. But, in his 1954 classic “Crime Wave,” Andre De Toth showed that there is no reprieve in Film Noir; you can only keep paying up for your sins. Actress Ida Lupino became a director in 1949. She and her husband, Collier Young, produced some film noirs that forced the audience to experience the trauma of the heroines from the inside.

Anthony Mann’s treatment was a bit different from all the maestros. His 1948 classic, “T-Men,” is mainly played with extreme black and white contrasts. Here, ace cinematographer John Alton deserves credit, as he established the fundamental means of film noir. He combined realism and expressionism, using real locations and elaborate shadow play. Alton even isolated the light source, which helped him gain a deeper perspective. He was a master who explored all the reachable possibilities in low-budget films. He once said that the prettiest music is sad, and the most beautiful photography is low-key with rich blacks.



Hollywood directors not only smuggled within film noirs, some even attacked the system head-on. Next time, we will discuss the directors who worked in more complete or pure genres. Now, let’s take a moment and think about how a filmmaker’s strong vision can produce the perfect illusion.

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Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy
Shovan Roy is a creative content writer. Formerly he used to write film reviews on an international film festival website named Beyond the Curve International Film Festival. He also interviewed global directors. He also interviewed one of the characters from the show 'Trailer Park Boys', Mr. Bernard Robichaud, platformed in Netflix. Shovan tends to write through the third person narrative and he loves to do psychoanalysis. He can't say that he has mastered it but that is some sort of hobby of his. Film is a platform where he loves to spend most of his time learning.

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