While my newest novella, An Endless Hunger, is classified as horror, it borrows from one of my favorite genres: Film Noir. In the exposition of An Endless Hunger, a nameless stranger stands beneath a pool of light in a stark, stormy night. Across the street a taxi cab pulls up and out steps the focus of his obsession: Anna, a prostitute who has no idea the kind of client she’s just landed. The story moves through the gritty, rain-slick streets of New York City to the protagonist’s dimly-lit subterranean hole where murder and madness combine into a jarring series of events. A series of jumbled memories and flashbacks reveal the main character’s shattered reality and his absolute lack of control.
The story is driven by his ruthless obsession with past lovers and victims, including his newest captive, Anna, the young call girl. There is no turning back for any of the characters, no exit in sight. The events are like an avalanche gaining momentum until they finally crash. The story begins with a taxi ride and ends in a taxi ride. There is no happy ending, no neat and tidy answer for the maddening journey through the protagonist’s bleak mind. Like a Noir film, the world of An Endless Hunger is evil, institutions are corrupt, women are untrustworthy, and reality is nothing but a shadow lingering in a dark alley.
Noir, a term meaning “dark” or “black” cinema, was first used by French critics to describe a genre of American suspense film of the 1940’s and 1950’s whose urban, often nighttime settings and fatalistic themes suggested an unstable world full of danger and moral corruption.As a film student, I watched a great many Noir films in college. I found them fascinating.
The oblique lighting and off balance compositions typical of the visual style of such films reflected the ambiance of disillusionment and bitter realism. Film noir films are saturated in cynicism, distrust, malice and lust, exhibiting deadly violence and unbridled obsession. Characters in such films are complex, calculating, and very often sarcastic. They are mysterious and cruel and suffer from intense alienation and paranoia. The noir individual represents the perspective of normality beset by the twists of fate of an inconsistent and chaotic universe. The existentialist quality of Film noir stems from cultural paranoia and fear.
During the 1940’s, the world was on the verge of anarchy. The conceivable danger of the atomic bomb, and after 1949 the threat of nuclear war compounded with the horrors of World War II, as well as the guilt, caused many Americans to become weary and suspicious of the government. This lack of faith and fear also affected Hollywood, resulting in film noir, a distinctly American cinematographic movement. Moreover, changes within the film industry helped to perpetuate and enlarge the noir cycle after the war.
The gradual disappearance of the “B” pictures and block booking after the Paramount Decision obliged major studios to produce less expensive films that would interest the exhibitors as well as mesmerize the audiences. Film noir was being profitably promoted on the basis of sensationalism and violent content, and soon attained favorable reviews as well as excellent audience response. New technical advances such as high speed lenses, smaller camera dollies, fine grain negatives and portable power supplies allowed film-makers to shoot on location, consequently giving nor films superior appeal. Location shots were a welcomed change from stiff and unrealistic sets. Consequently, location camera work became an efficient and economical way for film-makers to produce films and avoid the expenses of lavish sets.
Foreign directors such as: Fritz Lang, Max Ophulus, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and others were soon bedazzled by the complexities of Film noir. In the style of German Expressionism, film noir utilizes low key lighting and photography, a chiaroscuro frame, bizarre camera angles, exotic locales, and the use of shadows to denote the obscure obsessions and demented phobias of its protagonists. Noir films are usually urban and American in setting, and there is an Existentialist assumption that no metaphysical coercion is at work, so that a character’s demise is totally a result of his obsessions, paranoia, or lack of self control.
Noir characters exhibit a duality uncommon to Hollywood prior to film noir. They are not the “good-guys” or the “bad guys.” Each character is complex and mysterious, often eccentric and withdrawn. They travel a world shrouded in darkness, a world where evil is omnipresent and trust is dangerous. The city of darkness closes in on them in their moments of weakness. As the great existentialist philosopher, Camus, states, “At any street corner, the absurd may strike a man in the face.” Fate in film noir is a synonym for fatality, as is obsession. Obsessive personalities in noir movies exhibit compulsive behavior, and fits of irrationality. A good example of obsession can be observed in Orson Welles’ 1941 movie, Citizen Kane, in which a reporter’s obsession with a dead millionaire’s last words, begins a wild goose chase for the legendary word “Rosebud,” thus instigating the plot engine.
Billy Wilder’s corrosive, but sophisticated thriller, Double Indemnity (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock’s perturbed mystery Stangers on a Train (1951) are excellent examples of hard core Noir. Their bleak cinematography and infinite plot twists make them classic models of noir. Both pictures were written (at least in part) by Raymond Chandler, an American writer of hard-boiled detective novels, who along with Dashiell Hammett, set the style for mainstream American detective fiction.
In the film Double Indemnity all the sinister elements of noir combine to create the “perfect” murder. As the screen fades in from black we see the silhouette of a man walking towards us. He is limping, in crutches, and moving swiftly towards the unsuspecting audience. His eerie form becoming larger and larger foreshadowing the gruesome events to come. We are then transported to the dark city streets, where alienation and despair flourish. A mysterious man wearing a long overcoat runs across the deserted street, enters a building, rushes into a room, and lights a cigarette (in the escapist Freudian fashion.) He is troubled, disheveled; uneasy. The film unfolds in a series of flashbacks as the dying insurance salesman speaks into the dictaphone, confessing to his friend, an insurance investigator who is hot on his trail. Many typical traits of film noir are present: the venality of both the main characters, the voice over narration, the somber urban setting, and the doomed romance.
In the making of the trailer for An Endless Hunger, I went with voice over narration and chose to film in some of the dingiest corners of NYC. The influence this genre of movie making has had on my psyche is keenly felt when the main character extols, “I slipped in with a dozen weary passengers. I leaned on a pole as the train lurched forward. The fluorescents gave everyone a sickly color and their faces under that light looked even more disturbed, more tired and dead, as if the people of this city were merely hosts, their bodies vessels for something else altogether more sinister.”