In 1941 John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon arrived in the film world. This signalled the arrival of a highly influential movement which was later termed Film Noir. In the opening credits of the film we see a shot of the mysterious Falcon statue that the characters lust for within the film. It projects a malevolent and ominous shadow onto the wall behind it.
This shadow seems to pour out from this film, escaping through the cracks, into the succeeding film movement. It laces its way through the numerous wisps of cigarette smoke, underneath the constraints of the censorship laws and into the hard-boiled themes of noir. Out of this shadow emerges the beautiful but deadly femme fatale. She lures the male protagonist into this world of darkness, corruption and danger.
The shadow grows, weaving its way from the pessimism and danger of the characters, into the portrayals of despair and hopelessness in this dark period in history. This shadow however, predates The Maltese Falcon; it had already begun to usurp the hard-boiled attitudes of the American depression in the form of the crime novel by such writers as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. This ominous shadow represents a growing national fear of the changing position of women and the threat that she posed to men. The shadow suggests that nothing in the noir world is safe or stable especially its women. As Janey Place and Lowell Peterson explain the
"film noir moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair and nihilism constitute a world view not expressed in dialogue or plot, but through style."
The style of film noir show its characters in unstable and dangerous environments and the images it creates are designed to disorientate and destabilise its viewers. The dark visuals that define noir are created through such traits as low-key lighting, wonderful chiaroscuro effects, off balance composition, jarring mise-en-scène and ‘Choker close-ups.’ Today, Film noir continues to be major influence in cinema echoes of its themes and visual style are very much evident in a number of recent films such as Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005), The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006), and The Missing Person (Noel Bushel, 2009).
The Maltese Falcon sees private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) plunged into a world of crime and deceit following the murder of his partner. Sam must trace the whereabouts of a priceless statue in order to trap the criminals including the mysterious Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor).
In the film we are met with numerous visually enthralling sequences. Huston creates a terrifying world through clever use of low-key lighting and cluttered frame compositions. Most of the film takes place indoors and this sets up the sense of confinement in that the characters are trapped in the noir world. The first space we are invited into is Sam Spade and Miles Archer’s (Jerome Cowan) crowded office. In this sequence, Huston crams all of the characters into the frame with wide-angle shots. These shots not only hint that there is an incomprehensible amount going on under the surface of the narrative but it physically pulls the audience into this dangerous world. In the first encounter between Sam and Brigid in her hotel room, we can see the danger that surrounds Brigid. Below is an example of the way venetian blinds are manipulated for dramatic effect. The shadows trap Sam and signal to the audience that he is now part of this dangerous world.
The most distinctive image of the film is arguably the final image of Brigid. Sam has handed her over to the police and they guide her into the elevator. The caged door of the elevator is pulled in front of her that imprisons her in her fate. Brigid receives the justice she deserves and trapped in contemplation of her sins eternally. This common in noir; the guilty woman who threatens the status of the male hero must be punished in order to re-establish the male order. Very disturbing.
Rian Johnson’s celebrated Brick has many echoes in narrative. A high school private eye, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), takes on the investigation of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) by forcing his way into the dangerous underworld of high school crime to get answers. Along the way he encounters the mysterious Laura Dannon (Nora Angela Zehetner) and the dangerous villain, The Pin (Lukas Haas). Like Sam Spade, Brendan must beat the criminals at their own game in order to avenge the death of Emily.
Jerold J. Abrams describes the end of Touch of Evil in which the action moves from the archetypal noir city setting and into Mexico “giving noir a new kind of danger.” This could explain why Johnson chose to place Brick in the context of a high school. The dangerous world of city crime in the 1940s and 1950s could well be a high school world in the twenty first century. Johnson has a whole new area to explore visually but does through by referencing the past.
Johnston makes good use of colour in Brick to revisit the past and the legacy therein of film noir. The shades of the scenes in Brick are often washed out and bleak. This conveys the mood and tone of the world Brendan inhabits, full of lies and torment. Characters are frequently filmed against backdrops of bricked or cement buildings which not only make reference to the urban locations of the classic film noirs but also further the impression of dull colours that conquer the scenes. A great deal of the action centres around a storm drain where Emily was found.
In considering the colour scheme here, it is hard to escape thoughts of the black-and-white heritage of film noir. This is shown through the dark water, grey cement and natural lighting reflected on the wet ground. This location exemplifies the way that settings can have an oppressive effect on the narrative. The storm drain has connotations of dampness, sewers and corruption. It is also a recurring image that haunts dreams of our protagonist, Brendan. A particular good example of this image is when Tugg (Noah Fleiss) shoots Dode (Noah Segan) in a violent rage. This is in the form of a wide-angle shot and condenses all of the action into one scene, something we have saw utilised in The Maltese Falcon. This pulls the audience into the world and promotes an uncomfortable viewing position. Another scene where Johnson hints at the black-and-white roots of the genre is when The Pin and Tugg have their battle near the end of the film. The Pin and his accomplice are dressed in black and occupy one side of the frame whilst Tugg and his sidekick are dressed in white and remain on the other side of the frame. Brendan stands in between both sides in grey shades. This scene is interesting in conveying the many layers of the dangerous noir world and helps in the characterisation of Brendan. The scene clearly expresses the fact that Brendan “doesn’t like being told whose side he’s on.”
Johnson renews the expressionistic techniques of film noir to create atmosphere that conveys certain things to the audience about characters. The frame often appears cluttered and off balance. When Brendan first meets Laura at her party he enters a library and she follows closely behind. This sequence is shot from an interesting perspective that shows the bars of the banisters in the library. It demonstrates the danger surrounding Laura and the physical entrapment she will impose on Brendan. In a similar way to The Maltese Falcon the film also gives the impression of claustrophobic interiors for instance, the low ceiling at The Pins headquarters. Andrew Spicer writes;
"Postmodern cultural practices characteristically employ la mode retro which appropriates past forms through direct revival, allusion and hybridity where different styles are used together in a new mixture"
This demonstrates the way that Johnson is referencing past while drawing on the present. He creates a hybrid between a contemporary high school teen drama and film noir. He alludes to film noirs through the visual style he employs. There is a great deal of freedom in the manipulation of style especially on a low budget. There are many other scenes in Brick that seem to be very reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon and appear in the form of homage to the genre.
The villains in both films are captured stylistically to emphasise their evil. Kasper Gutman is played by Sydney Greenstreet. The Maltese Falcon constantly shoots him from unflattering low-angle shots to emphasise his grotesque and corrupt nature. The Pin (Lukas Haas) appears stylistically dressed in an old fashioned black suit with a pocket watch. He has one shoe that is twice the size as the other and he walks around with a cane. This suggests that he has some sort of disability and is symbolic of his crippled and corrupt nature. At a specific point he is shot in a highly stylistic low-key lighting shot. His face becomes distorted in the shadows and we are literally shown his dark side.
The encounter Sam has with the District Attorney in The Maltese Falcon is almost identical to the scene Brendan has with the Vice Principal in Brick. Both protagonists tell their superiors that they will need freedom from the law over the course of the film in order for them to ensnare the villains. An interesting level of film noir here is the feeling that even the people who represent the law are corrupt. The principal tells Brendan that if he doesn’t get a “fall guy” then Brendan will be taken as it. The D.A. hints that Sam will be blamed if he does not tell them who killed Archer or Thursby. Both sequences clearly display the hard boiled tradition and influence from writer such as Hammett. This is shown through the hard-boiled, fast paced and witty dialogue by both Sam and Brendan.
Finally, I would like to consider the role of the female within film noir and explore how this has been revisited and renewed. Richard Dyer writes:
"...women in film noir are above all else unknowable. It is not so much their evil unknowability (and attractiveness) that makes them fatal for the hero. To the degree that culture is defined by men, what is, and is known, is male. Film noir thus starkly divides the world into that which is unknown and unknowable (female) and, again by inference only, that which is known (male)."
Dyer is expressing that it is the mysterious nature of the woman that both make her attractive to the hero and that also make her dangerous to him. As with most other aspects in film noir, the femme fatale’s danger is made evident visually. Costume is the most important aspect in highlighting the danger of the woman in both films. Exchanges between protagonists and femme fatale are very similar. When we first meet Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon she is wearing a hat with a net hanging over it. This creates an interesting shadow over her eyes and urges the audience to be weary of her. On the next occasion we see her she is draped in a long dressing gown with vertical stripes. The stripes physically confine the star and hint at the fate that will come to her in the end. Sam seems wary of her all along, describing her pretence as a “school-girl act.” Johnston is arguably taking this literally in his portrayal of Laura. She of course, is a school girl in the context of the story but is much more dangerous than meets the eye. In Brick Laura is depicted wearing the colour red on numerous occasions. At the first encounter Brendan has with her at the Halloween party she is dressed in a red Geisha-like dress. The very fact she is in costume suggests that she is not what she seems to be and to colour red acts as a warning.
The final scenes of both films contain the confrontation of the femme fatale. In both films there is a constant change in angles and movement which suggests it is very unclear who has the power in the situation. Both Brendan and Sam discover the truth about the evils committed by their female companions and hand them over to the police. Brigid accepts her fate of imprisonment, teary eyed, therefore the power is restored in the male. Laura however, seems to keep hold of her fatal power. Athough Brendan has handed her over to the vice principal she hurts him by revealing that the Emily’s unborn baby was in fact his. Brendan is destroyed as woman he loved has died, thus the fatal women retains her power!
The final image of Brick sees Laura walking away in from Brendan’s point of view and although the sky is oppressively cloudy, almost claustrophobically so, Laura seems to get away with her crime. The wide-angle shot suggests her freedom but more importantly reveals to the audience that the femme fatale is back and she’s pissed.
Tired of being punished, she dons her dominatrix hat and starts getting even.
Joanne Kerr April 2010 ©