Film Noir.

Melodarama And Film Noir Differences.

All narratives are constructed. Film genre theorists apply the rules of literary genre to film but there remains considerable debate as to how films should be categorised. Essentially, there are two types of film, fiction and non-fiction. Films within these classifications can be subcategorised into genres and further characterised as sub-genres. Genres of films can be defined in four ways; the Idealist method judges films by prearranged standards; the Empirical method where the film is compared to its predecessors; the Apriori method uses generic elements identified in advance and the Social Conventions method is based on popular accord as to the genre of the film itself. (Keith 2007) Iconography, setting, characters, narrative, style, theme and audience response are the key elements of Genre. (Genre Elements 2012) Applying the ‘Apriori’ method this essay examines the elements of genre and further compares and contrasts them in two different genres of film, Melodrama and Film Noir then argues that the classification of films into subgenres is a matter of personal choice.

In Film Theory ‘Melodrama’ can be loosely defined as a film that embellishes plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions. Though Douglas Sirk (1900–1987) directed comedy, western, and war films, he was most distinguished for his convoluted melodramas that exposed unpleasant emotional turmoil lurking beneath the smokescreen of American upper-middle-class life; “Guilt, repressed lust, greed, and moral emptiness motivate the characters in his films”. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online 2012). “Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal In Paris (1946), There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written On The Wind (1956), Imitation Of Life (1959) – these have been long acknowledged as unadulterated masterpieces”. (Sheehan 2004) ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959) achieved great commercial success in the waning years of the sub-genre of Melodrama known as ‘woman’s film’ (Heung 1987). The film’s true theme is captured in its final scene when Sara Jane cries over her mother’s coffin. The image is the characteristic melodramatic depiction of Sirk’s women constricted and alienated in terms of gender and race. Sirk used the term melodrama to describe a form of drama characterized by high emotion and its affective qualities in an unambiguous and rather ironic manner in order to articulate his own distaste for their overtly sentimental plots. (Film Reference 2012). In the quintessential melodrama ‘Imitation of Life’, we witness the lives of four women and their attempts to make their existence more than mere imitations of life. Two unmarried mothers of young girls, one Negro, one White, befriend each other and together they struggle to live in 1950’s New York City; a realm over which they have no control. This melodramatic “woman’s film” was aimed mostly at female audiences; it presents a significant formula for female happiness to its viewers. It suggests that happiness for women is only found in “more natural” domestic roles as mother and wife; “To women who rebel against the limitations placed on them because of sex or race, it recommends the path of least resistance, acceptance of society’s view of women (and women of colour) as different and inferior.” (Lavender 1998).

The film’s colour design submits an attempt to create a complete iconography with which the emotional patterns of the characters are imitated. The use of wide-angle lenses create space between characters who are emotionally separated; “The depth of space created by Sirk’s use of wide angle lenses also establishes a sense of receding boundaries in the world the characters inhabit” (Fischer 1991). All of Sirk’s melodramas involve the destruction of cosmopolitan women living in ultra-modern, upper-class, and wealthy but tortured lives. This setting in a multi-coloured pastiche of life suggests to the female viewer that money does not solve all problems; “it is a vivid example of Sirk’s turning towards a heraldic mode of signification”. (Stern 1991). Imitation of Life is unquestionably a pronounced example of melodramatic mise-en-scene as every detail of the film is extreme. The colours brashly indicate the emotional state of the characters, the music is appropriately majestic to clearly direct the emotional response required from the audience and; “the themes of love, death, social status, loose morals and despair are all principles of the genre”. (Caldwell 2008)

Throughout the film, as with all of Sirk’s melodramatic work, the characters actions and identity can be established from the mise-en-scene. Sirk’s films are disturbing because the characters are real people besieged in life’s perplexities and the characters in ‘Imitation of Life’ are no exception. “These characters abandon true human connections, including with themselves, for material goods and the sake of appearances”. (Camper 2006) Perhaps the most distinguishing element is the gulf between how the characters see themselves and how they are seen by the viewer. They cope with the problems of life, love, death and circumstance in their melodramatic world but the forces are beyond their control. The plot hinges on the hope of a miracle that never occurs in a way the audience expected. Sirk was not one for happy endings; “These happy endings all express the weak and sly promise that the world is not rotten and out of joint but meaningful and ultimately in excellent condition. One could follow these thoughts endlessly through Dante, Molière, and Calderon and even in the grandiose, celestial, operetta-like ending of the second part of Faust”. (Limmer 1973).

Most interestingly in Sirk’s work is how forces of repression are signalled through his imagery. His mise en scène is as crucial to his films as narrative form, his often baroque visual style points to the ways in which human ambition is largely determined by the mood of its environment. Homes are havens that turn to prisons, loved ones become emotional enemies, and Objects that are meant to be comforts become onerous. Character’s traumas become the rational consequences of the uncontrollable world around them.

Themes of failure haunt Sirk’s movies. “Drama used to be the belief in guilt, and in a higher order. This absolutely cruel didactic is impossible, unacceptable for us moderns. But melodrama has kept it. (Gallagher 1999). He further claims there are only two Sirk themes: characters who successfully impose their Wills despite pain (white melodrama), and characters who are dominated by their Wills, who like Faust sell out to lust (black melodrama).

Screenings of Sirk masterpieces are turned into emotional-strength tests for audiences, whether motivated by the urge to show off one’s emotional sensibility or an ill-advised loyalty to the tortured protagonist it remains that seeing Sirk’s films often becomes more about the audience response than about the films themselves. In his article for the Museum Of The Moving Image; ‘Tears Without Laughter’ Chris Fujiwara, Author and Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival writes; “To get down to specifics, four types of laughter are almost unavoidable at screenings of Sirk’s best-known films” (Fujiwara 2008)  He identifies these as Pop, trash and camp laughter; laughter against strong image; emotion disavowing laughter and finally ideologically knowing laughter. This laughter, he concludes, detached Sirk from his audience; “Ignoring the detachment makes Sirk an idiot. Denying the emotion makes him a cynical mass-culture satirist.” (Fujiwara 2008)

Film Noir is a series of films of the 1940s and 1950s exploring the darker aspects of modernity and usually set in the criminal world or exploring the fallouts of a criminal act. It is unlikely that the film makers of this era were intentionally making Film Noir movies but merely appealing to a growing demand for subversive dramas depicting the fragility of the human experience. Love, lust and greed destroying lives are the main component of the Film Noir plot but such films were already in abundance in the 1930s. Films such as Josef von Sternberg’s gangland melodrama Underworld (1927), Lewis Milestone’s The Racket (1928), Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931) and one of the most influential post-war films that helped to launch the entire genre in the 1930s was German director Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse (1922). World War II had a deep influence on the creation of new more modern style gangster films and the emergence of European Directors (Fritz Lang (Austrian), Alfred Hitchcock (British), Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (Russian-American), John Ford (Irish-American) and Michael Curtiz (Hungarian-American) to name but a few) brought with them a new darker style and sense of ominousness to American filmmaking. However, Film Noir flourished to more than just gangster films and in the 1940s some psychological dramas such as Rebecca (1940), Shadow of A Doubt (1942), The Spiral Staircase (1945), and The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946) were also classed as legitimate adherents to the rules of the Genre. By the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s the genre transformed to deal with social issues of the era such as Alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947), Anti-Semitism in Crossfire (1947), White Slavery in Border Incident (1949) and Community terrorism in The Wild One (1953). Yet all of these films and many more can also be neatly placed into other mainstream genres such as Westerns, Horror, Romance or Thrillers. The rather basic rules of the genre are vague and opinions vary as to which films actually are valid genre adherents. In 1968 the basic rules of the genre are simply defined as; “These films centered on a world of darkness and violence, with a central figure whose motives are usually greed, lust, and ambition, whose world is filled with fear.” (Higman and Greenberg 1968). The more modern view varies as in a recent BBC Documentary (Sweet, The Rules Of Film Noir 2009) in which Matthew Sweet, film and television critic for the Independent on Sunday Newspaper states; “They’re rules about plot and character; about femmes fatales and doomed guys in fedora hats; about stark lighting that slices up the image into shards of black and white”. Werner Hertzog, considered one of the greatest figures of the New German Cinema, claims that Film Noir is far from being dead and is a genre that reflects the moods and demands of its audience; “There are times where you have an abundance of film noir, and times when there are few, but now, with a depression coming at us, we will see more film noirs than before.” (Sweet, Why The Recession Will Lead To A Renaissance In Film Noir 2009). His words were prophetic with the revival of the genre brought to its heights with the Oscar laden The Artist (2011) Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (France) who acknowledges Film Noir as a deep influence in his work; “In 1993 Hazanavicius was working at Canal Plus which owned most of the post-1948 Warner Bros. film library. With co-director Dominique Mézerette, he dove into this trove and created La Classe Américaine, comprising Warner’s clips from the 1950s…” (Corliss 2012).

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is considered “the first major Film Noir of the classic era” (Davis 2004) as it fits the criteria of a type of crime film featuring; “cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background”. (Webster Dictionary 2012). The story concerns a San Francisco private detective’s dealings with three deceitful characters that compete to obtain a fabulous jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon. Low key lighting and inventive angles, sometimes low to the ground revealing the ceiling, a technique also used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941), so not necessarily exclusive to Film Noir. Bogart’s interpretation of Sam Spade became the archetype for private detectives in the Film Noir genre. The ‘femme fatale’, (Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy) is “an alluring or mysterious and seductive woman, especially one who causes men to love her to their own distress”, (Penguin Dictionary 2012). There is no shortage of twists and turns, double-cross in the storyline which are also prerequisites of the Noir genre. Urban settings, with the action taking place in bars, dimly lit alleyways and sleazy neon lit streets, nightclubs where the characters seem to function best at night and in heavy rain or fog.

The comparisons between Melodrama and Film Noir are conspicuous. The plots and characters in both genres are embellished to appeal to the emotions of the viewer. Both genres expose unpleasant aspects of the human experience, (The seven deadly sins, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride). The settings are invariably beyond normality and the characters are perpetually struggling to effect change in their lives. The common use of unique angles and visual techniques or mise en scene to imitate the inner feelings of the characters. Few of the characters in both genres are totally virtuous and many are lacking in any one or more of the seven virtues chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. This lacking, in the female characters will lead to the inevitable ultimate destruction of the female. The music is used in both genres to provoke audience reaction. Furthermore, the division between how the characters see themselves and how they are seen by the viewer and the lack of control they have over their environment are also common threads. The pointless hope of a miracle to change the scenario, the absence of happy endings for all involved, the characters are invariably failures in their endeavours, the imposing of will of one over another, the creation of audience nervous laughter at the predicament, characters functioning in shadowy or heavily colourised places are all further common elements of both genres.

The only tangible difference between ‘Imitation of Life’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is the use of colour. One can legitimately ask; “Is ‘Imitation Of Life’ a colourised film noir or a melodrama and equally ask is the Maltese Falcon a black and white melodrama?

It is a matter of personal choice.


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Camper, Fred. The Films of Douglas Sirk: The   Epistemologist of Despair . 04 14, 2006.   (accessed 03 06, 2012).

Corliss, Richard. “Michel Hazanavicius’ Warmup for The   Artist.” Time Magazine, 02 17, 2012.

Davis, Blair. “Horror Meets Noir: The Evolution of   Cinematic Style, 1931–1958.” In Horror Film: Creating and Marketing   Fear, by Steffen Hantke. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Fischer, Lucy. Imitation of Life – Douglas Sirk   (Director). Edited by Lucy Fischer. North Carolina: Rutger Films In   Print., 1991.

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Gallagher, Tag. “White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk.” Senses   Of Cinema, 1999.

Genre Elements. Genre Elements. 2012.   (accessed 03 04, 2012).

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Limmer, Wolfgang. “Suddentsche Zeitung.” Translation   by Virginia Soukup, 11 1973: 17-18.

Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia   Britannica. 2012. (accessed 03   02, 2012).

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Stern, Michael. “Commentaries On Imitation Of   Life.” In Douglas Sirk, 279. North Carolina: Rutger Films In   Print, 1991.

The Rules Of Film Noir. Produced by Elaine Donnelly   Pieper. Performed by Matthew Sweet. 2009.

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About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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