Paul Schrader in his essay Notes On Film Noir (1972) argues that Film Noir can be divided into three broad phases.
- (1941-46) is of the private eye or lone wolf.
- (1945-49) is post war with a focus on political corruption, crime in the streets and police routine.
- (1949-53) the final phase covered psychotic action and suicidal impulse. Schrader states:
“taken as a whole period, film noir achieved an unusually high level or artistry.”
I would concur and add that by the end of the third phase that level of artistry had only just begun. Schrader also mentions
“film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption.”
This statement may have been true in 1972 (when his essay was written) at a time when Film Noir was considered a style rather than a genre, however today it would be challenging to argue that Noir is only defined by tone. If an audience was to arrive at a Film Noir that contained no corruption or crime theme they could be disappointed and perhaps think the film to be falsely advertised. That said it would be interesting to see how a film like this might work.
Film Noir started out just as a style:
“because it worked out its conflicts visually rather than thematically, because it was aware of its own identity, it was able to create artistic solutions to sociological problems.”
Today it is widely recognized as a genre. The naming originated from a French term that simply meant black film. This referred to a set of conventions and styles including dark content, corruption and despair with typical scenes in the stories often taking place in alleys, bars, cabs and things of the night. A motif and common character key to Film Noir is the Femme Fatale. The Femme Fatale is a character usually dressed to kill; both figuratively and literally. A beautiful seductress in sexy dress, high heels, and red lipstick (most of the films are black and white, but I imagine the lipstick red). Her love always comes at a great price. This problem of love at a high cost is faced by all the leading men in these three films.
The Lady From Shanghai (1946) contributed to cementing the standard in what makes todays Film Noir. It contains murder, a typical Femme Fatale, dark scenes with a contrast or tone lighting design paying attention to shadows and a hero helplessly in love with a woman who is ultimately a terrible choice for him. It opens with dramatic almost dirge like music and credits superimposed over water. Dark ships in shadow dissolve into the long shadows of a horse driven carriage where Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) rides as Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) begins in voice over and then transitions into talking to Hayworth, offering her a cigarette (everyone seems to smoke in Film Noir). It’s not long before villains of the night attack Hayworth and Orson steps up as the hero fighting them off.
Only minutes into the story we see numerous Film Noir components. Champagne blonde Hayworth with a low cut dress, thick mascara and lipstick. Cigarettes and smoking in abundance, a fight, and a gun. Orson is offered a job, but declines. Hayworth in her come hither voice says “I’ll make it worth your while”. Welles isn’t interested at first, but upon a second meeting accepts the offer.
A voyeuristic sequence of Hayworth swimming brings George Grisby over in a motor boat. He boards the ship and introduces himself to Welles as Bannister’s partner. The topic of murder comes up almost immediately. “Heard you killed a man...Would you kill again.” asks George. Hayworth, dripping from her swim asks Orson for help. Hayworth makes a pass at Orson and he slaps her. She lights a cigarette. After and exchange Orson finally succumbs to her and they kiss. George sees them and Hayworth says “now he know about us” and Orson replies “I wish I did.” meaning he is falling for her and knows he’s in trouble.
Welles wants to take Hayworth away. He asks her if $5000 would be enough to get them started. Where would he get $5000? Grisby’s invites Welles to his office where a proposition awaits. The proposition to Welles is sign a confession to the murder of Grisby and Grisby will pay him $5000. Grisby explains the loophole in the law. Orson can’t be charged for the murder he confesses to because there is no body. Grisby would get the insurance money because Orson said he murdered him. It is interesting to note how late in the story this murder plot happens compared to Blood Simple which happens at the top of the movie. The variation in Breathless is that there is no murder plot, but still the crime of murder. The murder happens and Michelle reacts.