Film Noir: A Study in Narrative Openings, Part 1

by Donato Totaro Volume 11, Issue 10 / October 2007 40 minutes (9878 words)

Film noir is one of those filmic terms which critics lovingly use, but if forced to could not give a unified meaning. Like other borrowed terms (mise en scène, genre, realism), when applied to film the definition becomes hazy. Film noir has been referred to as a genre, a cycle, a movement, a mood, and a style. In a more recent study James Naremore refers to film noir as belonging to a history of “ideas” tied to “commercial strategies and aesthetic ideologies,” an idea we have “projected into the past” (as a retro genre term, like horror, which is usually referred to critically prior to its use by the industry as a term, i.e. pre-1930). Those referring to it as a genre are inclusive, stretching the definition to include contemporary films (Chinatown, Roman Polanski, 1974, Night Moves, Arthur Penn, 1975, Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan, 1981, Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh, 1991), The Last Seduction, John Dahl, 1994, The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer, 1995, Bound, Andy, Larry Wachowski, 1996, L.A. Confidential, Curt Hanson, 1997, and The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma, 2006); those referring to it as a cycle or movement are exclusive, restricting the films to a specific period (usually somewhere between the years 1940 and 1960). Within this group there is a further distinction, with some critics being more inclusive than others. When defined as a mood the films are selected cross generically (The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder, 1945/The Problem Picture, Leave Her to Heaven, John Stahl, 1945/Melodrama, Val Lewton’s nine RKO films from 1942 to 1946/Horror, Pursued, Raoul Walsh, 1947/Western, Beat the Devil, John Huston, 1954/Comedy, Bladerunner, Ridley Scott, 1982/Science Fiction, Sin City, Tarantino/Rodriguez 2005/Science-Fiction/Animation. If one were to make a list of every film referred to as film noir by one critic or another the total would certainly exceed 300.

My predilection is to define film noir as a specific period, a movement, between the years 1940 and 1958, which gives weighted balance to social/cultural issues and industry factors (post-World War 2 malaise/uncertainty, changes in the family structure, Cold War paranioa, exodus of German/Austrian talent to the US during the rise of Nazism, etc.). There is little reason to go over this area since it has been treaded over to death. It is important, however, in my structural account of film noir openings, to discuss it in an historical context. I have decided to narrow my area of study to the years 1940 to 1950 –which could be considered as the classic period (or moment) of film noir. My reason here is that this period is more representative of the classic film noir because it remains closer to its original sources and impetus and had not yet attained the status of retro/neo-noir. (See Paul Schrader’s seminal article on the film noir for a list of the motivational factors and phases.)

Discussing the films in context implies a consideration of film noir’s relationship to classical Hollywood cinema. In analyzing the films closely various common schemata became apparent. Contextualizing them only seemed natural.

My decision to study film noir openings was not approached a priori but discovered itself when a concerted viewing of over forty film noir revealed a pattern of forceful and emphatic openings. Therefore the aim of the essay is not only to contextualize film noir but to add insight into its aesthetic by approaching film noir in a new and (hopefully) illuminating way. I will elaborate on my definition of “opening” a little later.

To define film noir as classical or anti-classical is a risky endeavor. A case in point is David Bordwell’s writings on the subject. According to his unbiased sampling of 100 classical films only 20% of classical cinema employs the flashback, and usually for brief exposition (The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p.42). How does film noir fit in to this model? Realizing Bordwell’s shifting paradigm which allows for large variances of “bound alternatives,” both linear and non-linear narrative structures are to be considered as part of the classical style. [1]

This is understandable, since both linear and non linear narrative structure have appeared in classical cinema, but it is also apparent that the flashback structure is used more often, and elaborately, in the film noir. Hence it is a schemata more common to the film noir than, say, the comedy. Does this make film noir less classical?

Bordwell discusses film noir under the section “Bounds of Difference” and lists four ways in which film noir is seen to challenge classical cinema (The Hollywood Classical Cinema, p.76). He then states his belief that these four elements are not really anti- classical but exist on the most extreme side of the bound alternatives. He concludes: “These films blend causal unity with a new realistic and generic motivation, and the result no more subverts the classical film than crime fiction undercuts the orthodox novel” (p.77). In his book Narration in the Fiction Film he is even clearer on this:

In sum, film noir is not outside the pale, as many of its admirers prefer to think. It is a clearly codified option within classicism, a unified set of syuzhet tactics and stylistic features no more disruptive of classical principles than the conventions of genres like the musical or the melodrama (p.198).

I agree with Bordwell in this respect. Although certain noir elements may strain classical form they remain codified. Therefore the motivation for the deviant schemata still falls under one of the four pertaining to classical cinema: compositional, realistic, intertextual, or artistic (The Hollywood Classical Cinema, p.19). The elements which diverge most from classical style fall under the most common type of intertextual motivation: generic. Hence a typical downbeat noir ending is no more anti-classical than the song and dance which interupts the narrative in a musical or the direct camera address in the 1930s ‘Anarchistic comedy’ (according to Henry Jenkins, a form of comedy derived from the ‘Vaudeville Aesthetic’).

So why is it that film noir is seen by many as a challenge to classical style? The answer lies in an earlier comment: that most noir schemata exist on the most extreme side of the ‘bound alternative.’ Take for example film noir’s consistent and complex use of the flashback, its (at times) baffling narrative structure, its intricate and symbol laden lighting patterns, compositions, and camera movements, its ambiguous morality, and its assault on clearly defined story/character motivation. These elements remain within the bounds of classicism because they are motivated realistically and generically, but they appear anti-classical because they counter the dominant style and hence force the spectator to work harder by searching for less used or more complex schemata. Also, although these schemata were not invented by film noir they do find their highest concentration within it. To quote Bordwell:

Of course, the classical style defines certain spectatorial activities as salient, and the historical dominance of that style has so accustomed us to the activities that audiences may find other schemata more burdensome (Classical, p.8).

Bordwell’s inclusive system may lead one to ask the question, if indeed classicism encompasses such broad stylistic variance then is it really saying anything as a classification? Defining classical cinema is not an easy task. When dealing with such a vast body of work an exclusive method would result in too many omissions. The inclusive method, while saying less about individual films, remains the only system capable of managing such a vast undertaking. I have accepted Bordwell’s system, faults and all, because of its implications. Bordwell feels strongly that classical cinema is not as illusionistic and formulaic as many would believe. Watching classical cinema involves the spectator in an active process where deductions and inferences are made based on incoming information. This is a participation necessary to the completion of the artwork. Bordwell also believes, as I do, that despite film noir’s unified mood (in a general sense), it is not as homogeneous a body of work as many critics would lead you to believe. An example is the fine essay by J.A. Place and L.S. Peterson, “Some Visual Motifs of the Film Noir which tends to homogenize the visual style of film noir (concentrating on lighting and composition), while acknowledging that they are ‘diverse films’ that can not be grouped together through “pat political or sociological explanations” (p. 325).

Bordwell’s definition of classicism ranges far enough to include the baroque/mannerist strain of any art form. Other genre critics, notably Jack Shadoian in Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film and Tom Schatz in Hollywood Genres have discussed the evolutional quality inherent in film cycles and genres. Each genre/cycle has various stages it undergoes, from the formative stage where conventions are realized, to the classical stage where they are honed and perfected, to a baroque stage where formal and stylistic experimentation occurs, to a final reflexive and parodic stage. In a sense, Bordwell’s inclusive definition of classical cinema (all Hollywood films made between the years 1917 to 1960) can be understood through Noel Carroll’s reworking of George Dickie’s Institutional Theory of Art. Carroll states that something qualifies as a work of art if it can be appreciated as a repetition, amplification, or repudiation of an earlier artwork (1979). With respect to Bordwell any film which repeats, amplifies, or repudiates classicism, while remaining within the said parameters, belongs within the classical style. In effect, this becomes the bound alternative.

In discussing classical narration Bordwell says: “Typically, the opening and closing of the film are the most self conscious, omniscient, and communicative passages” (Narration in Fiction Film, p.160). Keeping in mind film noir’s tenuous relationship with classicism I aim to discuss the noir opening and how it is an amplification of the typical classical opening. All openings in classical narration are important, but in film noir they seem to take on an added importance, thereby remaining within the classical paradigm but amplifying it. The importance may rest on several levels: dramatic (quickly pulling us into the diegesis), narrational (retarding/withholding information or setting the story in motion), stylistic (setting the tone for the balance of the film), and thematic (revealing the themes and currents underlying the film). Marc Vernet describes the opening of film noirs as being marked by a disarming ‘quietude’ which seems paradoxical when compared to the violence and brutality which follows. “Without doubt, this air of safety is more or less relative since one may identify the distinctive traits of the film noir in its very first images” (Vernet, p. 3). Of course not all film noirs come shooting out of the starting gate. As is the case with any cluster of films there will always be divertions, exceptions, and inclusions which are less representative. To quote Jack Shadoian:

The gangster/crime genre is an involved system of family relationships. Specific films tend to violate, extend, adapt, and sometimes dismiss the conventions that in part color and motor them even as they are evoked and put into play. (p. x)

Returning to the earlier discussion of Bordwell’s broad definition of classicism, if you replace the words “gangster/crime genre” with “classical Hollywood cinema” this quote serves the Bordwell/Carroll parallelism of repetition, amplification, and repudiation very well.

Before beginning the analysis a definition of what I mean by “opening” is in order. In trying to come up with a working definition I attempted to keep it as simple and sensible as possible by allowing the openings to describe themselves. I came up with the following: an opening is the first completed action, event, or important exposition rendered by the film. For example, the train ambush in White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), the murders in The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1948), and The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946), the hired killing in This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942), and the pardoning of Roy Earle in High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941). Although the variances are great in terms of length (from 45 seconds to 17 minutes) and manner of assembly (one shot/several shots, one scene/several scenes) they are almost always clearly demarcated by fades, dissolves, or wipes and usually have a microcosmic Aristotlean structure (beginning, middle, and end and, yes Godard, in that order).

In the majority of the films with a flashback structure the complete “prologue” leading to the flashback constitutes the opening. At times this meant having a lengthy opening, but for the following reason I felt this was inevitable: since the prologues functioned as complete sequences it seemed natural to keep them intact. Subsequently (with the exception of Knock on Any Door, Nicholas Ray, 1949) I could not find a comfortable “out” point. What would become of the remaining portion of the prologue? The most difficult film to establish an opening for was Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). The brief 35 second murder scene which opens the film may appear to be a cohesive scene, an opening, but the manner in which it fuses to the next scene, in tone and temporal order, suggests otherwise; and, once the subsequent scene begins it must be followed to its conclusion: the beginning of the flashback.

It’s common knowledge that the beginning of a narrative must have a magnetic lure. In discussing the insulation and “public privacy” accorded to us by the darkened theatre house V.F. Perkins suggests that film is self consciously aware of the psychological distance between the film world and the real world “…by allowing the spectator time at the beginning and end of the movie to shed and reassume his self consciousness” (Perkins, p.134). Indeed many films draw us into their world with slow, inviting camera movements, usually beginning from afar and then moving forward (sometimes in conjunction with dissolves), often literally bringing us into the diegesis through the frame of a window or door: The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935), Journey Into Fear (Norman Foster, 1943), The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948), Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945), Nocturne (Edwin L. Marin, 1946), Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947), Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). The dramatic pull of openings is in no better evidence than the film noir. Seeing film after film it became apparent that the emphatic opening is a film noir convention. (And my study did not include The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946), and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)! Based on my findings the openings can be divided into four general types:

Group A consists of films with a flashback structure. It is subdivided into two types: the framed flashback (Group A1), where we begin in the present, go to an extended flashback and then return to the conclusion in the present (the classic A B A structure), and the interspersed flashback (Group A2), where the narrative oscillates between the present and the past. The majority of the framed flashbacks are of the A B A variety. The transitions from present to past and back are clearly demarcated by a dissolve, wipe, or fade, and from a story standpoint we never actually leave the initial location (a police station in D.O.A., Rudolph Maté, 1949, The Dark Past, Rudolph Maté, 1948, and Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk, 1944, an armored truck in Criss Cross, Robert Siodmak, 1949, and a swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder, 1950) because the flashback has taken place inside a character’s mind. Although cued subjectively, by the lead protagonist, once the flashback begins the narration takes on an objective or omniscient point of view. As Bordwell says:

Character memory is simply a convenient immediate motivation for a shift in chronology; once the shift is accomplished, there are no constant cues to remind us that we are supposedly in someone’s mind. (Classical, p.43)

The variances within the second type, the interspersed, depend on the number of times the narration returns to the present. The slight variances from the A B A model will be mentioned in context.

The films from Group B1 maintain a linear narrative in accordance with classical Hollywood style. All the openings are revelatory in some way. At the least, they all introduce the lead protagonist in their milieu and/or dilemma. Many of them go further by revealing important emotional and psychological character traits and a few go a step further by interweaving them with the theme(s) of the film. In classical Hollywood style (if you want a message call Western Union) this is motivated by the need to start and move the story forward (narrationally).

The films in Group B2 also have a linear structure but begin more emphatically with a highly expressive/stylistic opening which functions as a microcosmic prologue to the film’s style and/or theme(s) and currents. In these openings thematic and stylistic revelation dominate over character/story revelation.

Since space prohibits a close reading of all the openings I have selected one or two representative films from each group which I will discuss in depth in Part 1 of the essay (The Dark Past, Sorry, Wrong Number, This Gun For Hire, White Heat, The Set-Up, The Letter), and will then continue with a greater sampling of films treated in less detail, in the second part of this essay (Journey Into Fear, Murder, My Sweet, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Body and Soul, Criss Cross, Champion, D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard, Laura, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, Out of the Past, Knock On Any Door, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Cornered, Scarlet Street, Gilda, The Stranger, The Big Sleep, The Lady From Shanghai, Key Largo, Caught, The Spiral Staircase, Notorious, The Dark Mirror, and The Asphalt Jungle. The thrust of my analysis will be to describe the action and formal elements of the opening and interpret them in terms of stylistic and thematic intent. Broken down, there are general questions I asked of all the openings: what can we infer from them and what is the driving motivation behind them? For the latter question I was guided by Bordwell’s system: 1) compositional: common sense elements which are required for a particular narrative to function, for example, “a story involving a theft requires a cause for the theft and an object to be stolen” (p. 19) 2) realistic: the plausability factor 3) intertextual: factors relating to the conventions operating within that type of art, with generic being the most common, and 4) artistic: when aspects of the art form call attention to itself through technical virtuosity, showmanship, or strategies that expose the ‘invisibility’ of classical style through reflexivity, parody, etc. (Classical, p.21-23). In support of and in addition to these motivational factors I employed a triad of broad semantic and syntactical parameters: narrational (when an element relates directly to the plot and its ordering), sensational (an element which is less concerned with plot than spectacle and exploitation), and reverberational (elements which are laid out for the expressed purpose of setting up (or foreshadowing) a mood, atmosphere, tone, or motif). [2] I am also indebted to the theoretical insights of E.H. Gombrich, Noel Carroll, and V.F. Perkins. Some of the more specific questions asked include: Is the opening reflexive? Does it have a symbolic or structural link to the conclusion? What is the relationship between directorial and generic style? From group A1 have selected Rudolph Mate’s The Dark Past (framed flashback) and Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number (interspersed flashbacks).

Case Studies. Group A1: Framed Flashback

The Dark Past (Rudolph Maté, 1948)
Length of Opening: 6’30”

Description: The film begins with a series of dissolves from an overhead shot of the city, to tall buildings, to a crowd of people. The images are cued by L.J. Cobb’s (Dr. Andrew Collins) voice-over narration. The camera follows people boarding a bus. The V.O. comments on the routine daily activities we all must endure. Inside the bus the camera tracks left to right along the faces of the passengers while the V.O. interprets their thoughts. As the bus stops and passengers disembark the V.O. informs us “this is where I work.” Cut to an optical point of view [3] tracking shot toward a building. Several police officers greet Dr. Collins/camera as they walk by. Two dissolves bring us into the police station. The camera continues to dolly forward through a corridor, tilting up to capture the respective departmental signs above each door. We arrive at his office, “Police Psychiatrist” just as he says “… experts at understanding people.” The camera tilts down from the sign, the door opens and the camera enters the room. Moments later the doctor enters the frame to pick up a sheet of paper from his desk, ending, for the moment, the subjective narration. As the doctor and police officer speak Dr. Collins looks out the window at a new group of prisoners being escorted into the precinct (seen as his POV). His V.O. begins and bridges a cut to the viewing room. As each prisoner is identified he externalizes their thoughts in V.O. The fourth prisoner, an 18 year old, catches his interest. After he analyzes the young prisoner we shift back to objective narration and he attempts to convince the arresting officer that the young prisoner be sent to the psychiatric ward. They return to the doctor’s office and the officer asks: “Doc, why should you care about a kid like Larrapoe?” To prove his point the doctor begins to relate the story of Al Walker (William Holden), an infamous criminal. The camera dollies in slightly to the seated doctor and his voice bridges the dissolve to the flashback: “Wasn’t too long ago, not more than a couple of years ….”

Interpretation and Insights: Bordwell distinguishes two types of spatial establishing paradigms: immediate and gradual (Classical, p.63). The former begins within the locale, usually on a small detail, then pulls back to reveal the entire space. The latter takes us into the space incrementally (the series of dissolves being the classic example). The Dark Past establishes its location gradually.

This opening is important stylistically and thematically. Stylistically the subjective POV shot which brings us into the police station and into his office primes us for the film’s most important and impressive scene, Al Walker’s surrealist/subjective recollection of the childhood incident which triggered his Oedipal Complex. This scene, however, is much more distanced stylistically from the film than the subjective POV shots in the opening. The subjective strategy in the opening is similar to the opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1932).

The oscillating point of view in the opening primes us for the rest of the film. The point of view in the opening shifts from subjective to objective. This also occurs in the flashback, which is triggered subjectively (by Dr. Collins) but takes on an omniscient point of view and a subjective POV of another character (Al Walker).

We can infer many of the film’s themes from the opening. Its documentary tone (partly on location photography, V.O. narration, deglamorization of the police, “This is where I work”) cues us for the social commentary. One of the film’s most blatant statements is the need to recognize the individual within the mass.

At two points in the opening the V.O. narration interprets the thoughts and feelings of various people. From this we can infer the subsequent importance that psychoanalysis will play in solving the story’s obstacle (Al Walker’s Oedipal block) and the significance placed on psychiatry as a means of correcting and preventing deviant social behavior. Dr. Collins places the burden of such control squarely on the back of society. From this vantage the motivation for the opening is narrational, slightly artistic (didactic) and also reverberational, since many of the film’s themes are established in the opening.

Comparing the opening of The Dark Past with that of Maté’s other film noir, D.O.A., becomes interesting because it exposes the link between form and content. Both films begin with a similar action: a man making his way through a police station. In The Dark Past the camera POV is subjective. In D.O.A. it is not; instead the camera follows the man from behind his back. The reason for this strategy is to keep the man’s identity unknown, thereby emphasizing the theme of fate and coincidental tragedy. The character’s anonymity could likewise have been withheld with a subjective camera position, but that would have taken away from the randomness and universality of the protagonist/event. Therefore the camera style which opens D.O.A. indicates the film’s central theme: fate and chance happening. In The Dark Past we need a character to lead us. Dr. Collins becomes our authority figure (as he says, “It takes an expert to catch another expert”), informing us and convincing us of the importance of society’s role in the prevention and reformation of crime and criminals.

Group A2: Interspersed Flashbacks

Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)
Length of Opening: 9’15” (After a 25 sec. intertitle prologue)

Description: The film begins with a dissolve from the prologue to a shot of the city at night. A subsequent dissolve brings us into a dark, deserted office. The camera dollies toward a door; the words “Henry J. Stevenson Vice President” become visible. Another dissolve brings us inside the room. The camera continues to dolly forward toward the desk; on it rests a telephone, with its receiver off. There is a dissolve to another location. Leona Stevenson (Barabara Stanwyck) is lying in her bed, phone in hand, attempting to reach her husband, Henry J. Stevenson (Burt Lancaster). The camera pans to her night table as she reaches for a cigarette and lighter (a marriage photo and small clock are visible). Her behavior toward the operator is forceful, demanding, and impatient. Before hanging up she accidently connects into another line. The camera dollies to a close up as she realizes that the two men are planning a murder. Before the victim’s address is given the connection is lost. Leona hangs up. Cut to a medium shot. She graps the phone again and calls the operator, insisting that the operator trace the call. She reaches for a tissue paper on her other night table; the camera pans with her but remains on the table long enough to reveal a crowd of medicine bottles. Cut back to Leona. The camera now becomes assertive. (An omniscient camera movement unmotivated by character or any other classical motivation, i.e. reframe, follow a character, a moving vehicle, etc.) It dollies to her open window, across the length of her room (dissolve) down her staircase, and to a bell high up on the downstairs wall which she uses to summon her servants. Throughout this assertive camera movement we hear her offscreen voice complaining that she has been left alone for the night and that nobody cares for her. We cut back to Leona. She receives a phone call from her father in Chicago. A painting of her father bridges a dissolve to him. The camera pans around the den while they talk. He tells her daughter that the house is like a morgue without her, meanwhile there is a party going on in the next room. After their talk we dissolve to a clock in Leona’s room and to another location.

Interpretation and Insights: This powerful opening is extremely evocative of the film’s themes and primes us, with its visual style, for the harrowing conclusion. The use of the mobile camera is its most striking feature. However, it is not used for showmanship but to enhance the character’s mental and physical claustrophobia, her isolation, to complement the dialogue, and to expose subtle visual clues. For example, one of the several clues overheard by Leona about the murder plan is that it is to take place at 11:15 PM because the 11:15 train that passes on the nearby bridge will camouflage any screams. After the disturbing phone call the camera leaves her bedside and tracks to the open window. It is dark, but visible in the distance is a lit bridge. The camera continues to dolly across her room and then down the staircase leading to the bell on the wall. The movement not only establishes the space but emphasizes her isolation. It is simply mirroring her emotional state as she complains to the operator about her loneliness.

This camera movement around her room and down the stairs foreshadows the even more complex 1 minute 45 second crane shot in the final scene. The shot opens on a clock. It pans to a close up of Leona on her bed. She is talking frantically on the phone. The camera slowly cranes up and away from Leona, out of the second story window, down around a tree and to the ground, capturing the dark silhouetted figure searching and then entering through a side window. Litvak employs the Bazinian schemata of the moving camera to maintain the “integrity” of spatial unity. However, in this case its function is not to suggest the “ambiguity” of reality but rather to stress its very reality –a killer stalking its helpless victim. Rather than crosscutting, the uninterrupted camera movement from Leona in her deathbed to the killer visualizes the exact distance between them, augmenting the suspense by showing us both the spatial and temporal contiguity of killer/victim, life/death.

Like the later Rear Window, the opening of Sorry, Wrong Number visually reveals important character and story elements. Within the first few moments we infer that she is married (the photo), bedridden and ill (the medicine bottles), alone and isolated (the slow tracking shots), and wholly dependent on the telephone.

The moving camera captures her physical isolation in her immediate spatial environment; the telephone captures her emotional as well as physical isolation from the outside world. The operator, her link to the world, the police officer, society’s symbol of protection, and her father, her own personal protector, all prove utterly useless in realizing her pleas for help. (Her father says that the conversation she overheard was probably a radio program, a reflexive allusion to Lucille Fletcher’s original radio play.) It is no coincidence that she is murdered while on the telephone with her husband.

According to Nöel Carroll, one of the reasons why movies hold such a powerful attraction for audiences is because of its “erotetic” (question/answer model) narrative (1985). Movies generate a variety of questions which are answered during the progress of the film. This question/answer model engages the audience in an inductive process whereby they must absorb incoming information and infer what may happen. Carroll distinguishes between two of many types: the micro question and the macro question. A micro question is one which is answered in the same scene or in one of the immediately succeeding scenes. A macro question remains unanswered for the majority of the film, often until the final scene. The most obvious example being Citizen Kane‘s “Rosebud.”

The opening of Sorry, Wrong Number poses one of each. The micro question –where did Henry J Stevenson go after work?– is answered in the subsequent scene (the first flashback). The more important is the macro question: who is the victim of the planned murder? Although the conclusive answer only comes toward the end, we are certainly encouraged to infer a guess. The opening provides two noteworthy clues: the visual emphasis on Leona’s isolation and helplessness, and the pointed delineation of her overbearing, domineering nature, her illness, and her wealth: plenty enough motivation for murder in the film noir world!

Group B1: Linear

This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942)
Length of the opening: 6’00”

Description: The film begins with a fade in to a dingy hotel room, an immediate establishing of the space. A man, Raven (Alan Ladd), is lying on his bed. The camera is at a slight low angle. In the foreground hangs a coat and just below an alarm clock on a night table. The alarm clock rings. Raven awakens, shuts the alarm and sits up on his bed. Diegetic piano music is heard. He looks at his watch, removes a letter from his coat pocket and checks an address (insert shot). Cut back to a low angle medium shot of Raven. After securing that his gun is loaded he places it and the letter inside his briefcase and begins to leave. The sound of the window shutting draws his attention to a kitten. He pours the kitten some milk then leaves to wash his hands. In the meantime a young maid enters. The kitten spills a can, prodding the maid to frighten the kitten. Raven returns; angered, he slaps the maid and forces her out of the room. He pats the kitten then gets up to leave. Two dissolves later he is entering an apartment building. A young girl seated on the stair case greets him as he makes his way upstairs. He meets with a man, a blackmailer who is under the impression that Raven is there to give him money in exchange for an incriminating letter. A woman is also present. She leaves the room. After listening to the man ramble Raven removes the gun from his briefcase and shoots the man once. The woman enters the room. Raven remarks, “They said he’d be alone.” She runs back into the bedroom but Raven shoots her once through the door. He checks to make sure she is dead, confirms the letter, places it in his briefcase and leaves. In the hallway the innocent girl says, “Mister, I dropped my ball.” Two shot counter shots lengthen the moment. Raven makes a movement to go into his briefcase for his gun, stops, and decides to retrieve the ball. The scene fades out.

Interpretation and Insights: Here is an example of film noir excelling within the classical paradigm. This opening has all the earmarks of the classical Hollywood sequence: clearly demarcated scenes (in the hotel room, in the apartment, and in the hallway), transitions (fade in and fade out) and one completed action, culminating in a beginning, middle, and end. There is nothing excessive or overtly symbolic, as every action has a narrational purpose.

However, the opening remains richly evocative of noir character, environment, and visual and aural schemata. The noir visual look is established as early as the first shot of the film. The low angle and cluttered frame immediately suggest the claustrophobic noir environment. Several of the subsequent shots are again framed from a low angle, emphasizing the enclosing ceiling and walls. The room, replete with harsh shadows (they seem painted), murky walls and chipped plaster, characterizes the ‘seedy’ noir world. The deathly still aura lingering within the room foreshadows the impending murder. Not even the repetitive piano music can cut through the aura of silence.

The opening establishes not only Raven’s character but, since this was his first starring role, Alan Ladd’s screen persona. Raven, the hired killer, is awaken by an alarm clock: just another day at the office. His demeanor is quiet and gestures graceful and calculated. A loner, Raven has a stronger affinity for cats than humans. (As he says later, “they’re on their own, they don’t need anybody.”) He is the consumate professional, always turning in a “neat” performance. While the blackmailer rambles on Raven remains silent. Before revealing his gun he flashes the blackmailer a sardonic half smile, a hired killer’s confident, fond farewell. Raven’s professionalism and “neatness” is evident in his style: one bullet per victim. He is thorough, making sure that the woman is stone cold dead and that the letter is authentic before leaving. On the way out he is interrupted by the young girl. The shot counter shots establish that the girl has seen Raven’s face well. The completist, Raven contemplates killing her but decides against it. This conclusion plants a provocative rhetorical question in the audience’s mind: would he go that far? As Willard Cates (Laird Cregar) later finds out, Raven is a man you do not want to double cross. By the end of the opening Raven’s (and Ladd’s) screen persona is indelibly carved: the laconic “cold angel” with boyish good looks masking a tough, uncomprimising interior.

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
Length of Opening: 4’10”

Description: The film begins with a series of dissolves from macro to micro: an aerial pan of the city, to a “California Highway State Line” sign, to a long shot of a train. From the train there is a L-R swish pan capturing a car in transit. Cut to the interior of the car. Four men are seated in the car. James Cagney (Cody Jarrett) is in the front passenger side. The camera dollies in slightly to frame on Cody. He nudges the driver, motioning him to speed up. Three cuts ensue, from the car to the train and back to the car. The camera pans to follow the car screeching around a bend. Cut to a head on shot of the train as it chugs past the camera left. The scene momentarily changes to the interior of the train to observe the other half of Cody’s gang at work. The scene returns to the exterior. The men quickly exit the car and execute their respective duties. In the ensuing shots the train comes to a halt, the mail compartment is dynamited open and the heist a success except for a few casualties. Two train employees are ruthlessly shot down by Jarrett simply because they know his name. After the second man is shot he falls onto a lever, which accidentally releases hot steam into the face of one of Cody’s men. Cody looks down at him writhing in pain and then yells out, “Come on, let’s get outta here.” He runs off screen right and the other men pick up the injured man. There is a dissolve to a radio newsman reporting the hold up.

Interpretation and Insights: The motivation for this opening is narrational (animates the narrative) and compositional (logical causal factors). In the first few shots director Raoul Walsh relies heavily on audience’s mental set. Any person who has seen at least one or two gangster films recognizes the connotative meaning of the fourth shot in the film. The car, the dress code of the four men and the presence of James Cagney cue us into the crime milieu. This shot, in combination with the previous shot of the train, are all we need to infer that a hold up is in progress.

This fourth shot is the most important single shot in the opening. Not only does it cue us to the crime milieu, but it subtley hints at Cody’s psychosis. Cody is framed in medium shot. He looks at his watch. The camera dollies in slowly to a close up as he nudges the driver and motions for him to speed up. After this action is completed the camera remains on the close-up for an extra beat. Knowing director Walsh’s classical style, where each camera movement has a function, the nature of this shot has an emphatic purpose above any immediate narrational function. For example, the lingering close up may inform us that this character is the leader of this gang, but, being James Cagney in 1949, the audience undoubtedly know this already. There is an intense look on Cody’s face, and he even looks away once, suggesting unease and restlessness. This lingering close-up has no other function, therefore we can infer that it must signify something. I will submit that this is a subtle nuance but, is it too subtle for Hollywood? In the Carrollian sense this opening challenges us, at this early point, to infer Cody’s psychosis (or in the least his viciousness) from the close up and Cody’s behavior during the hold up.

If interpreted in a certain way, the opening can be seen as a reflexive commentary. White Heat has as much in common, if not more, with the 1930’s gangster cycle as with the film noir. Cody Jarrett, like Roy Earle in High Sierra, is a throwback to the prohibition era: a man behind the times; it is 1949 and the gangster collective has given away to the individualistic noir anti-hero. The train hold up is reminiscent of the era of the western, when train hold ups were common. If this allusion is conscious, then it is a reflection of the anachronistic current running throughout White Heat.

I will now move on to the two examples from Group B2 (linear/powerfully emphatic), The Set Up and The Letter.

Group B2: Linear/Powerfully Emphatic

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)
Length of the Opening: 5’45”

Description: (There is a title sequence of a boxing fight. All that is visible are the boxer’s legs. One of the fighters collapses to the canvas. Fade out.) Fade in. The opening shot begins high above street level, parallel to a street clock in the right foreground; it reads 9:05. On the extreme right we see a hotel’s neon sign. On the street level in the background is another huge sign: “Paradise City” (the wrestling/boxing arena). The camera cranes forward past the clock and toward street level. Another neon sign becomes visible: “Dreamland.” On the soundtrack we hear jazz music and a loud teenager selling the evening paper complete with fight card. There is a cut to a man selling only fight cards. (From his drawl we can correctly infer that he is an ex-boxer.) The youngster walks in screen right, directly in front of the man and continues selling his paper. The camera dollies in to a two shot. The man pleads: “Hey, I gotta make a buck too.” The brash youngster replies: “Ah, go take a walk.” Cut to the dejected man. Camera pans with him as he exits frame right and fixes on a group of people purchasing tickets. The central figures are a blind man and his male companion. Camera pans with them left as they enter the arena. Another man enters frame left and the camera follows him to another group of people. A quick reframe settles on a shot of two women. The following conversation takes place:

First Woman (without hat): I don’t know why I let George talk me into coming.
Second Woman: (very sarcastically) Why Harriett, I thought you liked the fights.
First Woman: Like them, last time I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time.

The camera reframes right (the corner of the building) to another shot of two men standing at the fight poster discussing who to place bets on. Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) age is the butt of a joke. They exit frame left and the camera turns slightly and dollies in to the poster. The Stoker Thompson vs. Tiger Nelson fight line commands center frame. An arm enters frame left and strikes a match over Thompson’s name. Camera reframes left to follow the match to the cigarette. Another two shot, of a short, balding man and a taller, sweaty and unkept man. (The taller man is Tiny, Stoker’s manager and the other Red, his corner man.) They enter the “Ringside Cafe.” Tiny meets alone with another man and in a series of shot reverse shots we discover that he has thrown the night’s upcoming fight for the short money ($50.00). Tiny and Red leave the cafe. Tiny cheats Red on his cut by telling him that their share was only $30.00. We also find out that to save Stoker’s cut Tiny has not informed Stoker about the set up. Red remains unsettled at the idea of Stoker being kept in the dark. The camera follows them to a point then dollies in quickly to Stoker Thompson’s name on the fight poster. (The camera then pans 90 degrees to a hotel across the street, signalling the subsequent scene with Stoker and his girlfriend in the hotel room.)

Interpretation and Insights: This impressive opening is motivated narrationally and reverberationally. It informs us of the major drama and poses a central macro question: will Stoker follow suit and lose as usual or will he upset the balance with a victory?

One of the interesting features of this opening is that it introduces several minor but key characters. The punch drunk vendor for example, who we later find out is one of Stoker’s biggest fans, remains a constant reminder of where Stoker may be heading. More importantly perhaps are the host of characters who will reappear during the fight scene as key spectators. Throughout the fight scene there are reaction cuts to the spectators. Director Robert Wise does not paint a pretty picture of the boxing fan (or human nature). Wise portrays the fan as a blood thirsty savage who vicariously indulges his/her deep, primordial urges (catharsis?). For example, the blind man, who has the fight recounted to him blow by blow by his friend, remarks in a viscious tone: “Why don’t he work on that eye.’ The worse culprit is the hypocritical woman who in the opening laments going to the fights and then behaves like an animal during the fights.

Whereas most of the noir openings introduce the lead character in the flesh, in The Set Up Stoker’s presence is felt equally strong through other means: his name on the fight poster, the people who discuss him, and the punch drunk vendor.

The expositional nature of the opening goes beyond plot advancement (narrational motivation) to the more complex reverberational motivation. Most of the film’s themes are echoed within the opening: corruption, lost dreams, father time, and the cruel and hypocritical side of human nature. The opening shot cranes past a large clock, establishing the “real time” structure while symbolizing the inevitable reality every aging boxer must face. Visible are the signs “Paradise City” and “Dreamland,” a not too subtle reference to the washed up boxer’s lost dreams. The punch drunk vendor trying to eke out a living selling fight cards is overshadowed by the aggressive youngster, exposing the capitalist version of Social Darwinism. Stoker’s manager Tiny has a highly dubious moral and ethical system. Not only does he cheat Red, in all likelihood his only friend, but his fighter. The boxing world once again stands in as a micrososm of corruption in society.

The first few shots establish the space of the film: hotel, fight arena, and cafe. Outside of a few scenes with Stoker’s girlfriend Julie, the film is confined to this area. Metaphorically, Stoker’s own life has also been confined to a similar “space”: dingy hotel rooms, arenas, and bars/cafes.

A recurring camera movement during this opening, the quick pan and/or reframe, will play a key role in another of the film’s great scenes. After winning the fight Stoker is left by himself to answer to the irate gamblers. He tries to elude them but is eventually cornered in a dark alley. He struggles but is pinned to the ground by several men. The leader, Little Boy, gives the signal to commence the savage beating and the camera quickly pans to a shadowed reflection of a jazz band on a nearby wall, the frenzied music standing in for the beating. (This exact same tactic is used in The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) and, with variation, by Sam Fuller in Underworld USA, 1961.)

An unusual feature of the film is its strict accordance to “real time.” The film is 72 minutes. The credits last just under one minute. The clock in the opening shot reads 9:05. The final shot cranes back past the same clock, now reading 10:16, perfectly accounting for the remaining 71 minutes of screen/story time.

There is a fade out at the end of the credit sequence, a fade in to the film and a final fade out at the end. (Since the credit sequence is bridged by fades it is temporally distanced from the film and hence its action –a boxer being knocked out– serves as a metaphor for Stoker’s less than successful boxing career.) Outside of these three fades all other transitions in the film are straight cuts. At that period in the evolution of the language of film style the fade/dissolve/wipe were common transitional schemata depicting varying time lapses. The unadorned cut was used to join shots which succeeded each other in continuous temporal order. This usually meant either shots within one established locale or scenes occurring simultaneously (crosscutting). Being a former editor Robert Wise was as conscious of this as anyone. Therefore, to emphasize the temporal structure of the film (screen time=story time) Wise begins and ends on a clock and uses the ‘straight’ cut exclusively. I can not be sure, but would be willing to bet that The Set-Up is the only Hollywood film of the 1940’s not to employ a fade, dissolve, or wipe (excluding the beginning and end).

What intrigues me the most about this realistically motivated aesthetic choice is the rhetorical question of whether or not the audience at that time consciously made the connection between the exclusive use of the cut and the temporal structure of the film. It is obvious that this was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker’s, but how did the audience react? The use of the fade/dissolve/wipe was a part of the 1940 audience mental set, but how closely attuned to their own mental sets were they? They could perceive their presence but how about their absence? Were they conscious of the lack of a fade, dissolve, and wipe and accord that to the strategy of real time, or was it something they felt intuitively? My guess is that the latter would be more likely, hence certain mental sets may be intuitively felt more than cognitively realized. In fact I would say that, on a cognitive level, the opening and closing shots of the clock trigger the temporal strategy of the film more than the exclusive use of the cut. (That is, to an average viewer.)

On one of my viewings of The Set-Up I kept track of the cuts and counted 630. Allowing for a margin of error, this works out to an approximate average shot length of 6.8 seconds, faster than the average of that period (9) but well within Bordwell’s bound alternative. My brief research reveals the limitations of such studies. The 6.8 ASL might persuade someone who hasn’t seen the film to infer that The Set-Up does not employ much mise en scène (long takes, depth of field, mobile camera, intricate blocking) but rather that it derives more of its stylistic meaning from the editing. The cutting in The Set-Up is excellent, and used for more than just moving the story along, but the ASL does not reveal that a great percentage of the cuts, (approx. 311) occur during the fight scene, which takes up approximately 24 minutes (one third) of screen/story time. Away from the fight scene –and fight scenes are always cut quickly– the ASL is much higher. Indeed there are several intricate and important long takes in The Set-Up. Therefore the ASL is not always an accurate indication of shooting style for someone who has not seen the film in question. A better assessment of the film’s statistical measures would be a scene by scene average, which would then reveal precisely where and when the average shot length varies.

The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)
Length of the Opening: 15’45”

Description: Although the opening lasts 15’45” I will only describe the most important section, the first 5’45”. The film begins with a night shot of the moon. The shot dissolve to a sign –“Rubber Co. Singapore, Plantation No. 1”– and then to a tree trunk. The camera tilts down the trunk to a bucket collecting sap. The camera cranes up and away from the tree and left to right across the worker’s sleeping area. Workers are seen lying on hammocks, sleeping, resting, playing chess, etc. The camera cranes up to a second level and continues over the straw roof; (Dissolve) the camera is still tracking L-R. A cottage is visible in the background. A gunshot is heard. A man stumbles out of the door onto the front porch; a woman is seen following behind him. A second gunshot is heard and (cut) to dogs awakening to the sound. Three shots of the workers ensue. The third gunshot is followed by a closer shot of the incident. The man, in the foreground, falls down below the frame while the woman (Bette Davis as Leslie Crosby), dressed in black, follows him down the stairs, emptying out the revolver. She slowly brings her gun hand down and drops the gun. The camera dollies in to a close-up. Her face is still, emotionless. Cut to the disturbed workers. The fourth shot is a close-up of a man looking out from behind bamboo bars. He glances upward and there is a cut to his POV: the moon moving behind a dark cloud. Cut back to the close-up. The frame is now considerably darker and growing increasingly darker. Cut to a medium shot of Leslie, also in high angle and in partial darkness. Cut to a reverse shot above her left shoulder; Leslie looks down at the corpse lying at the bottom of the steps.

During the course of the shot the light pattern and intensity alters according to the position of the moon and the clouds. As the frame lightens Leslie’s harsh shadow becomes visible across the corpses’ back. She turns quickly and glances up to the sky. Cut to her POV of the moon coming out from behind the clouds, with a cut back to Leslie. She returns her attention to the corpse. Cut to a frontal shot. The back lighting casts her in a semi-silhouette. Cut back to the reverse shot; Leslie exits frame left (up the stairs). Cut to a servant running toward the cottage and stopping at the sight of the corpse. Leslie invites the servant into the cottage. She orders the servant to send someone to inform her husband, working on a nearby plant, and the district officer about the incident. The servant remains in the living room. Leslie walks to her bedroom, opens the Venetian doors and calmly shuts them behind her. The camera remains fixed on the Venetian doors long enough to capture the nuance as Leslie turns the lights on. This brings us up to the 3’45” mark of the opening. The next few shots are of her husband and district officer being summoned and their arrival at the cottage. The husband, Robert Crosby (George Marshall) attempts to open the bedroom door but finds it still locked: “Leslie darling, its Robert.” Seconds later the door slowly opens and Leslie cautiously exits the room. My reason for ending at this point will soon become apparent.

Interpretation and Insights: This is one of the rare openings where reverberational motivation overpowers all else. The murder, which triggers the story and sets the drama in gear, is secondary to the overlaying symbolism. The symbolism centers on the timeless theme of the doppelgänger, a common motif in expressionism and film noir. It pervades the entire film and is animated in a variety of interesting ways (to varying degrees of originality and subtlety).

The moon, the image on which the film opens and closes, is used as a symbol of both oncoming death and the imminent duality of human nature. Its position in relation to the clouds establishes the light/dark, good/evil patterning which dominates the film in nearly every facet: actual shifts in lighting intensity, lighting patterns, chiaroscuro, clothing, characters, and narrative structure. In one way or another these elements are established in the opening.

The opening and closing scenes of the film mirror each other. One begins and the other ends with a shot of the moon; also, the death of Mr. Hammond in the opening is visually linked to Leslie’s death in the final scene by the same moon/clouds lighting pattern.

The shift in light intensity within a continuous shot occurs several times in the opening (close-up of the worker behind the bamboo bars, the reverse shot of Leslie, the Venetian doors) and is repeated throughout the film. Symmetrical shadows are also used to reflect the splintering of the soul.

The light/dark patterning is also reflected in the clothing. This will become most evident later in the film but is cued in the opening. During the murder Leslie is wearing a long, dark dress. The victim, Mr. Hammond, is wearing a dark top and white trousers. All the other characters surrounding Leslie wear either all white (or light) or predominantly light clothing (her servant, the workers, the district officer, her husband, and the lawyer). Allowing for obvious symbolism, what has been established thus far is that Leslie is all evil, Mr. Hammond “grey” and the others all good. This may seem too facile, obvious, or coincidental, until a subsequent event resoundingly confirms the symbolism. Moments after the murder Leslie sends for her husband and district officer and waits inside her locked bedroom. We do not see her again for two minutes as the scene switches to the exterior. In story time this intervening period is not long, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. Her husband arrives and she exits the bedroom. Leslie is now wearing a white blouse and a black skirt, the reversal of Mr. Hammond’s clothing pattern. I did not detect this subtle change until the fourth or fifth viewing. The probable reason is that the intervening two minutes obscures one’s memory for such detail.

The color coded symbolism becomes obvious in the scenes between Leslie and Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard): Leslie dressed in white and Mrs. Hammond in black. Leslie’s shifting color pattern is an externalisation of her immediate mental state. It is no coincidence that the final two shots of the film are of a veil hanging over a chair and of the moon.

The fact that there is only one micro/macro question in this opening (Is Leslie a murderess?) is emblematic of its motivational factor. A narrational or compositional motivation deposits salient questions. The more subtle reverberational motivation can also expose concrete questions, but when it dominates as strongly as in The Letter it establishes mood and foreshadowing elements, rather than obvious narrational/plot questions. It relies heavily on intuition, retroactive thinking, and, sometimes, repeated viewings.

Part 2

Endnotes

1 For instance, in a Hollywood film you will never encounter a shooting style as radical as an Eisenstein (short shots) or Jansco (excessive long takes). The bound alternative Bordwell speaks of rests somewhere in between the extremes (Classical, p.62).

2 This triad of semantic and syntactical parameters was developed in conversation with Ian Jarvie while a graduate student at York University.

3 A subjective camera shot is described by Edward Branigan as “a shot in which the camera assumes the position of a subject in order to show us what the subject sees” (p.103). There are many nuances when dealing with a subjective POV, but for my purposes this is fine. Branigan calls this an optical POV. Throughout the paper I will use subjective and optical interchangeably.

For complete bibliographic references see end of Part 2.

Film Noir: A Study in Narrative Openings, Part 1

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 11, Issue 10 / October 2007 Essays film noirfilm style