Earlier this week, I attended a most interesting lecture delivered by Kevin Courrier at the Revue Cinema on the femmes fatales of film noir. I was expecting to see and hear lots about my favourites from the classic noirs of the 1940s and 50s. But though Courrier made reference to them, he spent more time tracing their origins in 1920s and 30s European and pre-Code Hollywood films, and then documenting their survival beyond the classic period and into contemporary cinema. I suspect that Courrier took this tack because the emphasis of his previous lectures was on the classic period⎯this week’s lecture, though the first I’d attended, was the third in a five-part series on film noir. In any event, this before-and-after focus proved very thought-provoking, causing me to reevaluate my perceptions of the more contemporary films with which I was familiar, and introducing me to a number of early films that I hadn’t encountered before.
Although I’d seen some of the more recent films from which Courrier showed clips, I’d never really thought of them as noirs. This made me realize that my definition of noir in fiction is much broader than it is in film. With the former, I’m attentive to theme and character as well as style, whereas with film, for me, it’s all about how it looks. If it’s not gritty black and white with plenty of hats and cigarettes, noir doesn’t even occur to me. I recognize that this is a ridiculously narrow view, and I’m glad to have been jolted out of it.
With respect to the early films⎯the silent films and the pre-Code talkies⎯they were mostly new to me. I was intrigued to see demonstrated the extent to which the aesthetic of film noir was inspired by German Expressionist film, and the psychoanalytic themes by European film more broadly. And I was fascinated by the powerfully sexual and independent women featured in them and in the pre-Code Hollywood films. Courrier put forward a convincing case that the femmes fatales of film noir wouldn’t have come into being without those precursors, but that they were also, perhaps paradoxically, a product of censorship. The adoption of the Hays Code in the U.S., which became obligatory and was rigidly enforced as of 1934, meant that women on film could not thereafter be depicted enjoying the same sexual freedoms as before. But the ingenuity required to communicate obliquely what could no longer be presented openly pushed filmmakers to new heights of creativity such that sublimation became a hallmark of noir.
I came away from the lecture keen to further explore the pre-Code era and the transition to noir, armed with a long list of films with which to begin. For your weekend viewing pleasure, I’ve posted clips from some of those films below.
Heretofore, my acquaintance with the work of German filmmaker F.W. Murnau was limited to his masterful Nosferatu (I’m plotting a future post on the copyright litigation that that film provoked between Murnau and the widow of Bram Stoker). Now I can add his 1927 film Sunrise to my list. Here’s a famous scene from it featuring Margaret Livingstone as a mesmerizing femme fatale, along with one of the best depictions ever of the evil temptations of big city life:
This clip from a documentary on sexuality and censorship in early cinema not only provides glimpses of actress Louise Brooks in her most famous role as Lulu in the 1929 German film Pandora’s Box, but also a bit of context on the film industry of the time in the U.S. and Europe, and a strong sense that Brooks was as fascinating a character off screen as on:
Barbara Stanwyk is, of course, a familiar face to any fan of film noir from her starring roles in such classics as Double Indemnity. But her career began pre-Code, and her performance in the 1933 film Baby Face is, according to Courrier, the gateway that hooks many viewers on pre-Code Hollywood films. So perhaps this is the one with which to begin: