Film Noir to Neo Noir

Murphy 1 Rachel Murphy Professor Charlotte E. Howell Film 2700 12 November 2012 Word Count: 1411 Film Noir to Neo-Noir: A Shift in Cultural Tides Film noir of the 1940s captivated audiences through its distinct form of storytelling. Strongly influenced by German Expressionism, these films have a definitive look and style that still resonates with modern audiences today. Like other classical Hollywood genres, film noir sought to bring to light tensions felt within society, namely those that affected men following World War II.
Neo-noir films pay a great deal less attention to social commentary. Like film noir of the past, neo-noir elevates style over narrative; however, the genre has seen significant changes in regards to narrative, the disappearance of the femme fatale, and the prevalence of onscreen violence due to shifting cultural tides. In observing examples of film noir and its contemporary version, neo-noir, it is clear several elements in regards to the style and overall “feel” of these films have virtually remained the same throughout the years.
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir, Drive, a sense of otherworldliness is portrayed through several night scenes, intense shadows, and an overall dark rather downtrodden mood to the film. The scenes in the film take place at night and invariably in an urban setting. All of these elements are Murphy 2 extremely typical of classic film noir as well as German Expressionism. Drive’s narrative unfolds with surprisingly little dialogue. Instead Refn focused scenes on the mood, further strengthening the style of the film. Similarly, Curtis Hanson’s L. A.

Confidential keeps with traditional film noir in elevating the style of the movie above its narrative. This is done through the heavy emphasis of the urban cityscape. As the title suggests, Los Angeles, is a major component within the film. The peppy, orange-filled paradise portrayal of L. A. in the film’s opening scene sharply contrasts the corrupt, crime-ridden town shown throughout the rest of the film. In addition, voice-overs and flashbacks, typical elements of film noir, are extensively used. The genre has seen great changes in regards to its social commentary, however.
Noir films of the 1940s strongly reflected the social climate of the time. In several respects, film noir can be seen as the male equivalent to melodrama. Just as women dealt with the crisis of femininity in post-war years, men also struggled with their masculinity as well as adjusting to their new roles in an ever-changing society. After World War II, many Americans, especially men who had experienced the atrocities of war firsthand, took on a more cynical outlook on the world. Film noir of the 1940s sought to bring these feelings of isolation and changing attitudes to light.
Like many men returning from the war, the heroes were disenchanted and often very isolated. In many respects, their fate is predetermined. In Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the audience gains a sense that John Garfield’s character, Frank’s, fate is already sealed as soon as he first plots, and eventually carries out the murder of Cora’s husband. This action clearly serves as a marker in the downward spiral of Frank’s life. Similarly, in Billy Wilder’s Murphy 3 Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray’s character, Walter, irrevocably alters the course of his life when he gives in to Phyllis’s pleas to murder her husband.
In both of these instances, the motivation behind this clearly immoral acts is lust. Both protagonists seem somewhat helpless against these forces. Both films also end with little doubt as to the fate of the protagonists. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the film ends with Frank awaiting his punishment on death row. Similarly, Wilder’s Double Indemnity ends with Walter, critically injured from a gunshot wound inflicted by Phyllis, confessing his role in her husband’s murder. This clearly reflects upon the attitudes of males during the 1940s as helpless against the imposing forces of an oppressive society.
Neo-noir films differ from their film noir counterparts because they are no longer reflective on social and cultural tensions. This is simply because the tension is not as widespread or heavily felt in today’s society. In the ending of Refn’s Drive, the nameless driver, though stabbed in the abdomen, clearly lives. It left up to the viewer to decide what kind of life he will lead in the future. In Hanson’s L. A. Confidential, the future of the city is somewhat unclear, but both protagonists in the film are met with at least somewhat happy endings.
The male protagonists in neo-noir films are also much more strong-willed. Their actions, though at times extreme, are seen as justified to the viewer and made by the protagonist alone. Unlike earlier noir films, the protagonists are at least somewhat in control of their future. This turn within the genre clearly reflects changing attitudes within society, as the helplessness and isolation men felt after the war is no longer felt on such a large scale. Murphy 4 The influence of culture on the content of noir films is especially evident in the disappearance of femme fatale in neo-noir films.
The 1940s marked a major shift in gender roles with the start of World War II. As men left for war, women took up jobs in the workforce and in factories in order to help with the war effort. This brought about a new sense of independence for women. When men returned home from the war, however, this shift was not necessarily seen in a positive light. The emergence of the femme fatale in film noir clearly reflects that in the eyes of men, women’s changing roles in society often presented a threat to perceived masculinity as well as established gender roles of the day.
The femme fatale of noir films is invariably portrayed in a negative light. She is in most cases seen as the major driving force behind the protagonist’s tragic end. Furthermore, the protagonist is usually helpless against the advances of these women. Femme fatales, such as Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Phyllis in Double Indemnity, are almost always met with an end even more bleak than that of the protagonist. In these two films, the femme fatales are both killed with little thought. Neo-noir films, however, approach female characters in a much more favorable light.
The relationships between protagonists and these women are based on love, rather than mere lust. Thus, the actions of the protagonists appear often more justified. This can be accredited to the changing cultural tides since the 1940s. Women’s independence is generally no longer seen as a threat to male masculinity and thus is virtually extinct thematically in neo noir films. This is especially evident in Drive as well. The nameless driver’s love interest, Irene, is characterized by her innocence rather than her sexuality. Murphy 5 Even in L. A.
Confidential, Lynn, a prostitute, has a relationship with one of the protagonists, however, the relationship is based on love rather than lust. Film noir arguably would not translate well to modern audiences if not for its integration of onscreen violence. Like German Expressionism, 1940s film noir drew a definitive reaction of discomfort and psychological unease from its audiences. In Double Indemnity, the scene in which Phyllis’s husband is murdered is brief and little is shown. The audience is shown only Phyllis’s cold, detached expression while her husband is murdered next to her in the passenger seat.
In the 1940s, filmmakers didn’t necessarily need to show Phyllis’s husband being murdered in order to elicit a strong psychological reaction from audiences. With the abrogation of the Hay’s Code, however, audiences have become somewhat desensitized to the mere implication of violence. L. A. Confidential and Drive both use violence as a means of eliciting this same reaction. Perhaps the most memorable scene in Drive occurs in an elevator where the driver, in order to protect himself and Irene, not only kills a man, but proceeds to unleash all of his anger by stomping the man’s head into a gruesome, bloody pulp.
In L. A. Confidential, numerous murder scenes and uncomfortable police interrogations illustrate how violence is now used in neo noir to elicit the strong emotional and psychological discomfort that typified 1940s noir. Certainly the strongest influence on the evolution of film noir has been societal and cultural changes throughout time. These changes have served, however, to maintain film noir’s relevance with contemporary audiences while still keeping with specific attention to the overall “feel” of the film and high level of stylization.

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