Film Noir Files – How Hitchcock Solidified (And Then Ended) The Classic Noir Era
The Master of…Noir?
In relation to the classic noir era (early 1940’s to the late 1950’s), is Alfred Hitchcock considered among its major contributors? It’s no doubt that Hitch saw his biggest string of commercial and artistic success during this time, and he often delved in the same kind of crime-thriller stories that noir did. But in the conversation of “great noir directors,” is his name one of the first to be mentioned? He certainly had the biggest celebrity compared to the likes of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, or Otto Preminger. The only one that comes closest to his popularity was Billy Wilder, but even Wilder wasn’t the kind of pop culture phenomenon that Hitchcock was. How many stars do you know can be recognized from their profile alone?
The debate of whether Hitchcock was a “noir director” is about as loose and arbitrary as noir itself. Most people categorize film noir as low budget productions, B-films, where the dirty – sometimes lurid – material is the main attraction. In contrast, Hitchcock was a big time studio director. He worked with big budgets, large sets, and had A-list stars on his roster. Noir was often gritty whereas Hitchcock’s work had an air of glamour. Although his characters would be involved in dangerous and suspense filled stories, there was just as much effort placed in making Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant look as fabulous as possible.
In the book Film Noir: The Directors (edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini), writer Geoff Fordham says of Hitchcock:
“There is considerable debate among film critics and commentators about the extent to which Hitchcock can be considered a noir director, if at all, and therefore which of his movies should be thought of as falling within the noir canon. Some studies view him as a major contributor to the development of noir style, while others merely acknowledge his influence.” – (pg. 131)
Hitchcock and noir will forever be tied due to their reliance on style. It’s well known that Hitch put heavy emphasis on style and structure, and in a lot of ways noir encompassed that same kind of approach. There’s the famous line about noir: “I know it when I see it.” The visual aesthetic of noir is clearly distinguishable. The dark shadows, the odd camera angles, the nighttime settings – nearly every noir film encompasses one of these ingredients (if not all). Hitchcock utilized these stylings to amplify the suspense of his narratives. While there may be a debate about whether or not Hitchcock was a noir director, it would be foolish to think that he didn’t make use of noir techniques. The two go hand in hand, and it’s no surprise that his career would flourish just as the noir era came to prominence.
Two Strangers Meet on a Train…
We can look up and down Hitchcock’s career during these two decades and point out how he incorporated noir in each installment. Perhaps one of the most complete examples of his contribution is seen in Strangers on a Train (1951). Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith (with Raymond Chandler contributing to the screenplay) the story tells of a chance encounter between tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and an odd man named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) while traveling on a train. After exchanging minor pleasantries, Bruno brings up a disturbing offer: since both of them are dealing with people they hate (Guy with his wife, Bruno with his father), Bruno suggests swapping murders. Bruno would kill Guy’s wife and in return Guy would kill Bruno’s father, that way each of them can offer an alibi while having no ties to the murdered parties. Guy brushes it off as a joke, but when Bruno actually goes through with his end of the bargain, Guy finds himself stuck in an increasingly sticky situation.
It’s an ingenious premise, and Hitchcock molds the narrative with great tension. Farley Granger was excellent in his role as a man caught between a rock and a hard place. With his thin frame and soft features, Granger made for the perfect sap lost in circumstances beyond his control. This wouldn’t be the first time that he’s played this kind of character. See his work in the noir films They Live by Night (1948), Side Street (1949), or Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and you can see a pattern arising.
As Bruno, Robert Walker delivers a quirky, almost flamboyant performance as the psychotic socialite. What makes Bruno so disturbing is how graceful he is with what he’s doing. The talk of murder is as easy to him as the weather, and when Guy refuses to kill his father, Bruno displays the hurt and disappointment of a jilted lover. Of course, Bruno wouldn’t be a classic Hitchcock character without some concerning relationship with his mother, and the one here is true to form. See the scene where Bruno takes a glance at the dark painting his mother finished – his immediate reaction seems to come from left field. Walker’s performance is a star making one, and it’s a sad tragedy that he would die a mere eight months after he completed filming, at the age of thirty-two.
Hitchcock’s direction (along with Robert Burks’ black and white cinematography) captures the mood of Strangers on a Train in noir fashion. As Guy tries to escape Bruno’s presence, the camera places Bruno in the far background like a stalking predator. The extended scene in which Bruno hunts and then kills Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) at a carnival is a tour de force. With no dialogue, we watch as Bruno follows Miriam from her home to the carnival to the middle of a nearby lake, and finally onto a little island where the murder takes place, climaxing in a shot where we see her get strangled through the reflection of her glasses. It’s a suspenseful sequence that slowly builds to this dramatic shot.
One of the major themes of noir is paranoia. All throughout Strangers on a Train, Guy deals not only with the paranoia of Bruno following him step by step, but also with the paranoia of the authorities trying to track down those responsible for Miriam’s murder. Hitchcock makes great use of shadow and light to express this feeling. During a meeting with Bruno across the street from his home, Guy spots a police cruiser pull up. Instinctively, Guy hides beyond a gate with Bruno to avoid being seen. The shot, lit with heavy shadows, places the bars of the gate across Guy’s face, as though he were a criminal. The fact that he hides behind the gate with Bruno suggests that Guy is being pulled into Bruno’s world against his will.
Regardless of whether Hitchcock is a “noir director” doesn’t negate the fact that he routinely delved into noir material to build a body of work that is distinctively his own. Through his skill as a storyteller and his popularity in the mainstream, he took noir out of the B-movie landscape and brought it into the limelight. The classic noir era owes a lot to Hitch for its lasting influence. Knowing that, it’s a shame that he would also help end it.
A Woman, A Shower, and a Knife
For as much as Alfred Hitchcock helped solidify the noir era, he would also be a major reason for its disappearance by the end of the 1950s. It was already in decline as the decade moved toward the latter half, as the rise of television and the emergence of big screen innovations (such as CinemaScope) drew the attention of audiences. The deathblow would come in 1960, when Hitchcock (of all people) made a little known film called Psycho.
What makes Psycho so fascinating is that it begins as a prototypical noir. A woman going on the run with a bag full of stolen cash can be pulled straight out of the classic noir handbook. The opening scene, in which we see two people in an illicit affair inside of a hotel room can be compared to the doomed romances of Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). The sense of desperation and distrust of authority are all there. It’s not until we arrive at The Bates Motel that Hitchcock tossed all noir tropes out of the window, rearranging the rules of not only crime films, but of cinematic storytelling entirely.
It’s hard to imagine how big of a splash Psycho made with the public now that we are so far removed from its release. But make no mistake, what Hitchcock did was a game changer. He would alter how films were told and marketed. Once Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) kills Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) a third of the way into the story, everything would be different, and there would be no going back. The depictions of sex, violence, and madness would make way for films that didn’t have room for restraint or suggestion. Even the presence of a flushing toilet (the first time on screen) was a big deal. Noir benefited from the Hays Production Code by working around the rules, by adding subtext and double entendre. Psycho ended all that by basically taking what was once implied and pushing it out to the forefront. Peeping Tom (1960) technically did it first, but Psycho is the one that left the massive cultural footprint.
In his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (1st Edition), Eddie Muller writes:
“Psycho was an astonishing landmark in the history of cinema. A generation of movie-watchers who came of age in the Seventies and Eighties, when the bloodletting of slasher movies became standard adolescent fare, and MTV provided a daily visual and aural assault, can’t comprehend the impact Psycho had when it was first released…As far as “classic film noir” is concerned, Psycho was the film that brought down the curtain on that now-lost world.” – (pg. 191)
Psycho was so big, in fact, that Hitchcock himself never truly recovered. Yes, he would make The Birds (1963), but despite the popularity of that film, Hitchcock would never again have the same kind of consistent string of success as he did in the ‘40s and ‘50s. By the time the ‘60s ended, Hitchcock – along with classic film noir – was pretty much out of style, clearing the path for the New American Cinema that would come soon after.
A Love/Hate Relationship
It’s fascinating to think that Alfred Hitchcock, the man who helped make noir an everlasting film form, would also be partially responsible for ending it. It’s easy to assume that one would not have been successful if it hadn’t been for the other. Perhaps it’s better the way things turned out. The classic film noir era was special partially because of the time it was set, and Hitchcock was special because he challenged conventions to make something completely different. The two exist in conjunction with one another, and their legacies will be felt for as long as cinema is around.