"...Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything."
A lone figure on a dark, rain-slicked street, a woman silhouetted, her face filled with darkness and deception, a shadow of a doubt distorted across the ceiling of a deserted living room; these are the pigments of Noir. Images of bright futures and happy childhoods are not welcome here in the Big City, where crime runs rampant and everybody's dirty in some way. The innocent Jefferson Smith or George Bailey cannot survive here, for Life is not as simple as it used to be, and resolutions are definitely not as easy to come by.
The term "Film Noir" means different things for different people. Some consider it to be a genre, some a time period. Some consider films such as Chinatown or Body Heat to be Noir, where others dismiss them as either knock off or Neo-Noir. Like evolution vs. creationism and Macintosh vs. PC, this argument will continue indefinitely. Why? Well, just as the characters within, Film Noir's boundaries are not black and white but a hazy landscape of gray. Be that as it may, certain films conclusively define themselves as Noir. Stagecoach is not but Scarlet Street is, Bringing Up Baby is not but The Big Heat is. What sets these films apart? Is it the recurring themes of loneliness or hopelessness? Do the roles of violence and isolation play a hand? Whatever the reason, certain films have it and others do not. Two such films that do have it, classically demonstrating many "Noir-ish" themes and techniques, are The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
These two films share much of Film Noir's trademarks, both on a technical level and a thematic level. They both adhere to the characteristic darkness that the critics love, and they both star the ultimate Noir Hero: Humphrey Bogart.
The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston in 1941, is what many consider to be the first true Noir. Although certain aspects are rooted in Citizen Kane (released the same year), the Classical form of this pseudo-genre emerged with this detective story based on Dashiell Hammett's novel. In short, this tale of mystery follows detective Samuel Spade through the case that killed his partner and ultimately causes him to make a very hard choice between his duty and his emotion. Humphrey Bogart plays the character of Spade to perfection, creating what is to become the template for all Noir heroes to come. Mary Astor plays Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a deceptively complex woman caught in the throes of passion and greed. Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet fill out a superb supporting cast, each creating characters that transcend this film into future generations (Jabba the hut and Greedo respectively in Star Wars). This film ranks number 23 on the American Film Institute's top 100 list.
The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks in 1946, is not on the list, but still retains its position as a Classic Film Noir. Regarded by many as one of the most confusing films of all time, This foray into the Los Angeles underworld follows Humphrey Bogart again, this time as a similarly hard-nosed detective named Phillip Marlowe. Based on Raymond Chandler's pulp novel of the same name, The Big Sleep leads the audience down a convoluted passageway, dimly lit and very dangerous, with only Marlowe as a guide. Lauren Bacall makes herself known as the perfect match to Bogart, meeting his Stone face with a burning fire thinly veiled in ice. The two are truly amazing on the screen together, firing off lines that the average man wouldn't be able to think of until hours later faster than we the audience could ever hope to do.
Both films, while they differ in several ways, have many core similarities. Looking past superficial plot points, both films share themes of corruption and isolation, set in a world devoid of total purity or goodness and filled with characters destined to be alone. The Big Sleep is a bit lighter in the sense that Bogart and Bacall end up together in the end (unlike Ms. O'Shaughnessy's sudden departure in The Maltese Falcon), but even then, nothing is overtly bright. We are not rewarded with a "couple kissing" shot in the last reel and we see no sunshine pour through the windows to brighten our day. Yes they are together (wonderfully foreshadowed by the two cigarettes in the ashtray during the beginning credits (has there ever been a more perfect representation of Noir characters than a cigarettes in an ashtray?)) but he's caused a man's death and they're both covering for her sister's crime of murder. These are clearly flawed characters, basically good but definitely not pure.
In The Maltese Falcon, the prized statuette turns out to be nothing more than a fake made of lead. As an audience, we react to this with a feeling of letdown. Here we are, watching and enjoying a search for this mythical icon of wealth, and we finally discover it only to be disappointed. Chances are, Kasper Gutman will never find the real Falcon, and chances are Brigid O'Shaughnessy will never see Sam Spade again. All that the film has worked up to make the audience care about is thrown away in the last ten minutes. All we are left with is "the stuff dreams are made of" and a detective saving face. This final act of Spade, turning Ms. O'Shaughnessy over to the police, is perhaps the clearest example of the Noir hero's drive. He clearly has some guidelines, but it is more likely to originate from his own code than that of the law. Marlowe chooses a similar path, withholding information about Carmen Sternwood for the sake of Vivian, supporting such a notion of self-ethics wholeheartedly.
Perhaps one of the most notable scenes in either film is the Horse Racing conversation between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. This shockingly shallow analogy made many an audience member gasp in disbelief upon first viewing, marking this as one of film's raciest moments for many years (apparently this scene was shot after principal photography had wrapped since word came back to Hawks that more Bogart/Bacall screen time was desperately wanted). The "subtle" masking of the obvious underlying sexuality in this scene is what drives a large number of Noir. Thanks in part to the production code, which strictly prohibited anything having to do with anything; the screenwriters forced themselves to think of interesting metaphors and substitutions in place of the content they could not bring to the screen. For instance, although The Big Sleep as a novel involved prostitution, pornography, and heavy drug use as key aspects of plot. Hollywood couldn't discuss such subjects with the general public on an explicit level. So, a team of screenwriters (which included acclaimed novelist William Faulkner) developed an intricate mask to hide all questionable subject matter behind. The result: an exponential increase in complexity. Side effect: leagues of witty dialogue, clever allusions, and tongue-in-cheek humor. This racy conversation makes up a large part of Noir style. Where would the Hero be without his quick lines and double entendres? Certainly not in the idolized status that Bogart is today.
Undoubtedly, another major aspect of Noir is the Femme Fatale: The black widow. While the female leads in these two films are not quite as baaaad as other Noir women tend to be, two out of the three are murderers. The only relatively innocent one, Bacall, who only suffers from blackmail, gambling, and a bad temper, certainly makes up for her lack of conventional evil with serious attitude. It is downright fun watching the Hard Boiled Marlowe go up against Vivian Rutledge. They command each other's attention, and demand each other's baiting. We are indeed a far cry from the female leads of Chaplin pictures or Lillian Gish.
These two films do not only conform to typical Noir characteristics in a thematic or motif way but in technical aspect as well. Abundant use of odd camera angles, low-key lighting, deep focus, and claustrophobic framing permeate each film equally. Taking Root in the German Expressionism movement of the 1930s with films such as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and M, the lighting is both an aspect of mise en scene and a character unto itself. In many ways, the lighting tells the story just as well as the narrative. Both films feature exquisite lighting, yielding well-defined shadows (recall the floor of the Spade & Archer offices in the first scene of The Maltese Falcon), and beautiful contrasting images (several shots of smoke from Bogart's cigarette in both films really stand out). While not always as naturalistic as comedies or westerns, this dark and moody lighting technique is a key Noir characteristic and used brilliantly in both films.
Positioning of the camera and framing of each scene is also very deliberate. Notice how often we see Sam Spade's back, usually in the center of the screen. We are truly living through this character, seeing what he sees (and little more). As Spade finds his partner dead at the bottom of a cliff, a wonderful low-angle shot displays Bogart's face as he immediately starts his mind at work, but we also see people in the second story of the building behind him, watching the show. This deep focus is evident throughout most of both pictures, many times revealing something new to the repeat viewer. This attention to detail on a shot-by-shot basis, obviously showcased with Citizen Kane, also plays a major role in Noir, since the director uses this subconsciously perceived technique to foreshadow, give background on a character, or give character to a background.
Perhaps the most important or significant aspect of these two films in the context of Film Noir style and form is the Hero: Humphrey Bogart. His performance in these two roles locked his position of both Ultimate Man and Classical Noir Hero for generations to come. Rigid posture, stone cold face, tight lips, either a smart remark or witty come-on always ready on his tongue, nice suit, nicer hat, and enough nerve to stare down a fish all radiate with his presence. No matter how much pressure is riding on his shoulders, there's no sweat on his brown or waver in his voice. Women want him and men want to be him. He oozes style and character.
This pinnacle of virility stands for everything Heroic in a Film Noir. He's not morally perfect, having his fair share of vices, but he has underlying morals and ultimately good intentions. Sure he may take a C-note here and there, but if it comes down to it, he's not down with the wrong bet. He is the ultimate detective: courageous, smart, savvy, quick on his feet, and obsessed with his job. This obsession gets in the way however, relegating him to a life of solitude. His preoccupation with "the case" concerns him more than emotions of love more often than not. This is illustrated in a scene from The Big Sleep where he is driving Vivian Rutledge home. He stops to talk to her about what she knows and they end up in a kiss. Although he clearly has feelings for her, he continues with his questioning, forcing restraint upon him until the job is done. This would be the time where James Bond would forget work for an hour and have another cigarette, but Phillip Marlowe cannot because he is driven. This drive is too strong for love the majority of the time, perhaps causing some loneliness in him as well. It is not until the very end of the film, when the heavies have either been killed or arrested, when he addresses Vivian in terms of love. Of course, we will never see emotions of love or loneliness, as it is kept behind the stalwart image of his face.
One should take into consideration that perhaps the reason why Spade and Marlowe hold so much classicism is that they're fairly smart. Many of the male leads in Noir tend to be not quite as smart as the female. Spade/Marlowe defy this phenomenon by not getting trapped by the Femme Fatale but instead recognizing their ruse and using it to his benefit. He knows your hand, and he immediately has a plan. In many ways therefore, he is better than the average Noir lead, but that is what makes him a Hero.
In that case, is the Hero what makes these films stand out as top forms of the genre? Undoubtedly Bogart does play a role, but he is merely a piece of a much larger puzzle. Surely a character such as Phillip Marlowe would not be nearly as well orchestrated in a movie less stylish than The Big Sleep. The magic of the Maltese Falcon just wouldn't hold the same mysticism had it been the Brazilian Coconut instead. As it always is, it takes a team of good artists to make a good movie.
In truth, the magic of these two films lies not with how the characters fit the stereotypes, but how they diverge from them. They're close enough to fit the role, but different enough to stand out. That can be said on a broader scale for other aspects of these films as well. In many ways they fit the classical Noir mold very well, but again they differ somewhat, calling attention to not only what's different, but also to what's the same. By not framing the narrative in a flashback or narration, we're eager to find out how it resolves (even if it turns out to be just as pointless). The Hero is smarter than average, and the Femmes are a bit less Fatale than average, but the plots in which they're involved balance their roles out.
In many ways, each film is exactly like the other. If we take these resemblances and view them independent of the work they were created on, we have a template for Film Noir. Obviously these are not "just like" every other Film Noir out there, but they come very close, doing an excellent job of encapsulating all the major themes of alienation, loneliness, and hopelessness within riveting tales of murder and intrigue, set in a rogue town filled with rogue people. Who can we trust in such a Dark City late at night? We need a man who is not afraid or ignorant, a man neither tarnished nor polished. We need a man who is a Hero, A man who is everything.