Film noir, the art of portraying desperation on screen, is known for many emblematic elements like crime, violence, femme fatale, long cheesy monologues, peculiar angles, and most importantly, shadows. While noir is often cited as the inspiration for many genres, films, and directors, its own origins are rarely discussed, and to learn more about that, we’ll have to travel back to 1920s Germany.
German Expressionism and Film Noir
A few thousand miles away, the Germans were doing something different. Film in its early days, especially in America, was tasked with portraying reality as accurately as possible: from the early short documentary films in the 1890s to the impressive achievements of D. W. Griffith’s films in the 1920s. German Expressionism however focused on inner emotions.
Instead of portraying reality as it was, these films opted to portray what their characters were experiencing inside, and the result was shadowy, macabre, and often nightmarish.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis, M—these films were dark and shot in high contrast and in very theatrical fashions, almost as if the sets were themselves characters in the movie. The protagonists were always a little twisted, so naturally, when their emotions and innermost feelings were portrayed on screen, the result looked like the embodiment of a nightmare.
German Expressionism would begin to fade away at the beginning of the 1930s as the Nazis were taking control, but some of its pioneers, faced with the choice to either make propaganda films or flee, chose the latter and went to America, where they would integrate into the Hollywood system and influence a whole movement of films. These are some of the most remarkable American film noirs influenced by German Expressionism.
1. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang, a German director born in 1890, was one of the pioneers of German Expressionism. He made Dr. Mabuse the Gambler in 1922, followed by the classic Metropolis in 1927, and M in 1931 with Peter Lorre–a German actor who would himself move to America in the 1930s and star in some of the most iconic noir films ever made. Upon his arrival to the States, he would sign with one of the big four studios of the time called MGM.
Released in 1953, Fritz’s The Big Heat tells the story of a private investigator who sets out on a mission to help a fellow officer only to find himself tangled up in a web of crime. Glenn Ford, an actor who starred in many quintessential noirs, starts in the film. A brilliant narrative that distorts the tropes of the genre meets the influences of director Fritz Lang resulting in an almost claustrophobic rendering: while many of the film’s scenes take place in open streets, the way they are shot, the way the camera moves, and the emblematic obsession with shadows make The Big Heat a charmingly ghastly affair.
2. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951)
Kirk Douglas is one of the biggest names of film noir, and Hollywood history in general. Written, directed, and produced by the great Billy Wilder, another great director to escape the clutches of Nazi Germany, Ace in the Hole puts Douglas in the shoes of Chuck Tatum, a journalist in decline, who will stoop to wickedness to get as much as he can out of an event to regain his status in the newspaper business. A man has become trapped in a mine after the cave collapsed, and Chuck attempts to manipulate the local police force, the newspapers, the public, and everyone around him to keep the man trapped as long as possible as he takes advantage of the story and creates a big event that could’ve been solved easily.
Ace in the Hole is one of the few film noirs that deal with crimes that go past a bunch of shooting and looting and actually dive into the human psyche, dissecting its unquenchable thirst for more and its unending greed. The film thrives in its script, performances, and plot progression. As angsty as it is captivating, inspired by the horror and nightmarish tales of German Expressionism, where characters thrive in their twisted moralities, this film rewards those strong enough to get through it. Originally a critical and financial failure, this film’s status grew exponentially throughout the years. It is now regarded as one of the best films Billy Wilder ever made and one of the masterpieces of the genre.
3. Sweet Smell of Success by Alexander Mackendrick (1957)
Sweet Smell of Success tells the story of Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis), a press agent under the complete power and control of columnist J. J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster). As the former fails to complete a job for his boss, he becomes more and more indebted to him, surrendering to the ever-growing power and influence of J. J. The job is to interrupt a relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a guitar player in a jazz band, something the boss wants to do stealthily and without his sister’s knowledge to retain her love and respect, and something he does through his subject, Sidney Falco. As the job gets more and more complicated, and as certain unwelcome parties enter the play, we are treated to a thorough character study of both men, who are in the end, more similar than different.
J. J. Hunsecker is the most interesting and frightening villain in film noir, a man whose influence reaches over everything and anything, a cultivated gangster, and as director Alexander Mackendrick describes him a scholarly brute. Burt Lancaster, the actor who played him, is almost as fear-inspiring as he is. All of the actors and crew who worked alongside him in Sweet Smell of Success were very intimidated by him, and the director utilized that to emphasize the absolute power his character possesses. He went as far as painting the inside of his glasses with Vaseline so that his eyes were not always focused on one thing, giving him a blank gaze. He also shot his character from a low angle with the lights directly above him, so that his glasses cast a shadow over his face. This effect works perfectly in portraying a man that is the very depiction of danger, to whom morality is nothing more than a tool to be used sparingly, and whose subjects are treated with animalistic brutality.
4. Touch of Evil by Orson Welles (1958)
Touch of Evil was directed by Orson Welles, the same man who gave us Citizen Kane in 1941, and it stars himself, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh. Its plot revolves around a Mexican cop that goes by the name of Miguel Vargas, who after witnessing a car bombing on the American side of the border, begins an investigation that leads him to the conclusion that American police captain Hank Quinlan is planting evidence to frame an innocent man, a predicament that jeopardizes both himself and his new bride.
Orson Welles directs this film with all of the control and perfectionism that he was known for, and his performance as Hank is one of the best of his acting career. He is vile, depraved, and weary, portraying the features of the most dangerous kind of man. You can see the influence of German Expressionism all over this film, from its morally ambiguous protagonist to its generous use of shadows and peculiar angles.
5. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)
Double Indemnity tells the story of Walter Neff and Barbara Dietrichson, played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, two strangers who fall in love and plot the murder of Barbara’s husband for freedom and financial gain. Double Indemnity is both familiar and unexpectedly original, it contains everything that makes noir what it is, but at the same time, it has something of its own, a special ingredient that sets it apart from the rest of the bunch.
The film’s method of narration is what defines it the most. Most film noirs follow a strictly methodical linear pattern, the events of the story unfold as the story advances, in one way, with no shortcuts, no turns, just straight-ahead, but for Double Indemnity, the story is told as a confession from the protagonist who had just come back from the film’s final and climatic point. This allows for the celebrated monologues of the genre to be both abundant and justified and provides a different and refreshing take on the usually-fixed method of narration noir utilizes.
Again, made by German immigrant and iconic director Billy Wilder, the influence of German Expressionism is felt throughout the film: from the way the story consistently becomes ever more perverse as Walter and Barbara’s dreams and plans grow greedier and eviler, to how scenes are shot with a focus on shadow and theatricality. Double Indemnity feels like the spiritual successor of something made in 1920s Berlin, mixing its roots with 1930s America’s great crime stories.
6. Film Noir by Abraham Polonsky: Force of Evil (1948)
Decades after the end of the classical noir period, it is very interesting to look back on the genre and notice how its themes gradually evolved from mere entertainment and crime melodramas to more serious and pressing issues. Film noir is a direct product of the Depression era in 1930s America. The crises of that period are naturally reflected in cinema and literature.
With a rather short runtime of 79 minutes, Force of Evil’s plot moves at an exceptionally fast pace. The film revolves around young lawyer Joe Morse (played by John Garfield) whose boss devises a meticulous plan to take over all the number rackets in New York, one of which is owned by his brother. As Joe tries to deal with his job and boss while also attempting to save his hard-headed brother, and as things gradually evolve into a gang war, the film treats contemporary issues of crime and corruption while offering an elaborate tragedy with poetic dialogue and a handful of biblical references.
Force of Evil features an amazing script and fascinating performances that are complemented by gorgeous cinematography by George Barnes, a professional from the days of the silent era of the 1920s. Barnes’ work shines in the final scene and offers one of the best and moodiest sequences in noir history; coupled with a poetic inner monologue that could even be understood as a stream of consciousness. The camera moves to accompany Joe’s reflections that drip with pessimistic futility in shots that give the impression that they were conceived with geometric precision, proudly displaying their German Expressionism roots.