Visual Noir

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  • 7/27/2019 Visual Noir


    Above,silhouetted figures standingin rigid position become abstracted ModernManand Woman inthe finalsequence of The ig Combo The back lighting of heavysmoke and an ominously circling lightvisible inthe backgroundfurther abstracts the environmentinto a modem nether world. undiffusedlighting of Barbara Stanwyckin Double Indemnitycreates a hard-edged. mask like surfacebaauty. Bycom-parison, hard-boiled Fred MacMurray seems soft and vulnerable. . . ' .

    Some Visual Motifs of ilm oirJaney Place Lowell Peterson 1974)

    A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a suddendownpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up room,filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across thestreet. a man is waiting to murder or be murdered... shadow uponshadow upon shadow... every shot in glistening low-key, so thatrain always glittered across windows or windscreens likequicksilver, furs shone with a faint halo, faces were barred deeplywith those shadows that usually symbolized some imprisonment ofbody or soul.

    Joel Greenberg and Charles Higham.Hollywoodin the Forties

    Nearly every attempt to define film nair has agreed that visual style is theconsistent thread that unites the very diverse films that together comprise thisphenomenon . Indeed, no pat political or sociological explanations- postwardisillusionment, fear of the bomb, modern a1ienation --can coalesce in asatisfactory way such disparate yet essential film nair as Double Indemnity Laura Ina Lonely Place The Big Combo and Kiss Me Deadly The characteristic film noirmoods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world viewthat is expressed not through the films' terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through theirconfusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style.

    But how can we discuss style? Without the films before us it is difficult to iso-late the elements of the noir visual style and examine how they operate. Further-more, while film critics and students would like to speak of the shots and theimages, we often lack a language for communicating these visual ideas. This articleis an attempt to employ in a critical context the technical terminology commonl yused for fifty years by Hollywood directors and cameramen, in the hope that itmight be a good step toward the implementation of such a critical language. Thearticle is not meant to be either exhaustive or exacting. It is merely a discussion-with actual frame enlargements from the films-of some of the visual motifs of.the film nair style: why they are used, how they work, and what we can call them .


  • 7/27/2019 Visual Noir


    66 ILM NOIR READERhe Noir Photographic Style Antitraditional Lighting and

    CameraIn order to photograph a character in a.simple, basic lightingset-up, three dif-

    ferent kinds of light, called by some cinematographers the key light, i ll light,and back light, are required . The key light is the primary source of illumination,direc ted on the charac ter usually from high and to one side of the cam era. Thekey is generally a hard di rect light that produces sharply defined shadows . The illlight, placed near the camera, is a soft, diffused or indirect light that fills in theshadows created by the key. Finally, the back light is a direct light shining on theactor from behind, which adds interesting highlights and which has the effect ofgivinghim form by differentiatinghim from the background.

    The dominant lighting technique which had evolved by the early Forties ishigh-key lighting, in which the ratio of key light to ill light is small. Thus the in-tensity of the fill is great enough to soften the harsh shadows created by the key.

    This gives wha t was considered to be an impression of reality, in which the char-acter's face is attractively modeled , but without exaggerated or unnatural areas ofdarkness . Nair lighting is low-key. The ratio of key to ill light is great, creatingareas of high contras t and rich, black shadows. Unlike the even illumination ofhigh-key lightingwhich seeks to displayattractively allareas of the frame, the low-key nair style opposes light and dark, hidingfaces, rooms, urban landscapes and,by extension, motivations and tru e character in shadow and darkness whichcarry connotations of the mysterious and the unknown.

    The harsh lightingof the low-key noir style was even employed in the photog-raphy of the lead actresses, w hose close-ups are traditionally diffused yplacingeither spun glass or oth er diffusion over the key light, or glass diffusion or gauzeover the camera lens itself) in order to show the actress to her best advantage.Far removed from the feelingof softness and vulnerabilitycreated by these diffu-sion techniques, the nair heroines were shot in tough, unromantic close-ups of di-rect, undiffused light, which create a hard, statues que surface beauty that seemsmore seductive but less attainable, at once alluringand impenetrable.

    The common and most traditional placement of lights,then and now, is knownas the three-quarter lighting set-up', inwhich the key light is positioned highandabout forty-five degrees to one side in front of the -actor, and the ill is low andclose to the camera Because the attractive, .balanced, harmonious face thus pro-duced would have been antithetical to the depiction of the typical nair moods ofparanoia, delirium, and menace, the nair cinematographers placed their key, illand back light in every conceivable variation to produce the most strik ing and off-beat schemes of light and dark. The el imination of the ill produces areas of totalblack. Strange highlights are introduced, often on the faces of the sinister or de-mented. The key light may be moved behind and to one side of the actor and isthen called the kick light Or it can be moved below or high above the charac-

    Some Visual Motifsof Film Noir 67ters to create unnatural shadows and strange facial expressions. The actors mayplaya scene totally in shadow, or they may be silhouetted against an illuminatedbackground.

    Above all, it is the constant opposition of areas of light and dark t hat charac-terizes film nair cinematography. Small areas of light seem on the verge of beingcompletely overwhelmed by the darkness that now threatens them from all sides.Thus faces are shot low-key, interior sets are always dark, with forebodingshadow patterns facing the walls, and ext eriors are shot night-fo r-night. Nightscenes previous to film nair were most often shot day-for-night ; that is, thescene is photographed in bright daylight, but filters placed over the came ra lens,combined with a restriction of the amount of light entering the camera, c rea te theillusion of night. Night-for-night night scenes actually shot at night requiredthat artificial light sources be brought in to illuminate each area of light seen in theframe. The effect produced is one of the highest contrast, the sky rendered jetblack, as opposed to the gray sky of day-for-night. Although night-for-night be-comes quite a bit more costly and time-consuming to shoot than day-for-night,nearly every film nair, even of the cheapest B variety, used night-for-night exten-sivelyas an integral component of the nair look.

    Another requirement of nair photography was grea ter depth of field. It wasessential in many close or medium shots that focus be carried into the backgroundso that all objects and characters in the frame be in sharp focus, giving equalweight to each. The world of the film is thus made a closed universe, with eachcharacter seen as just another facet of an unheeding environment that will existunchanged long after his death; and the interaction between man and the forcesrepresented by that no;r environment is always clearly visible . Because of thecharacteristics of the camera lens, there are two methods for increasing depth offield: increasingthe amount of light-enteringthe lens,or usinga lens of wider focallength. Obviously, because of the low light levels involved in the shoo ting of low-key and night-for-night photography, wide-angle lenses were used in order to ob-tain the addit ional depth of field required .

    Beside their effect on depth of field, wide-angle lenses have certain distortingcharacteristics which, as no t photography developed , began to be used expres-sively As faces or objects come closer to the wide lens they tend to bulge out-ward . (The firs t shot of Quinlan in Touch of Evil is an ex treme example .) Thiseffect is.often used in nair films on close-ups of porcine gangsters or politicians, orto intensifythe look of terror on the hero's faceas the forces offate close inuponhim. These lenses also create the converse of the well-known end istancing ef-fects of the long, tele photo lenses: wide-angle has the effect of drawing theviewer into the picture, of including him in the world of the film and thus render-ing emotional or dramatic events more immediate.

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    68 69ILM NOIR RE DERhe Nair Directorial Style: Antitraditional Mise-en-sceneComplementary to the nair photographic style among the better-directed films

    is a mise en scene designed to unsettle, jar, and disorient the viewer in correlationwith the disorientation felt by the nairheroes . In particular, compositional balancewithin the frame is often disruptive and unnerving. Those traditionally harmonioustriangular three-shots and balanced two-shots, which are bor rowed from thecompositional principles of Renaissance painting, are seldom seen in the betterfilm nair. More common are bizarre, off-angle compositions of figures placed ir-regularly in the frame, which creat e a world that is never stable or safe, that is al-ways threateni ng to change drasticallyand unexpectedly. Claustrophobic framingdevices such as doors, windows , stairways,