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British film noir

Posted by keith1942 on March 10, 2011

Pinkie in Brighton Rock

These are notes from a course at the National Media Museum, which explored this genre. Film noir itself is a tricky term. Unlike other genres, say the western; this is a post-film construction by critics. In the 1940s audiences did not go to see noir movies, but crime thrillers, melodramas and even gangster films. Predictably, critical opinion is divided both as the character of noir and which films to include or exclude. As a working definition let me quote from The Movie Book of Film Noir [Edited Ian Cameron, 1992): “Concentrated in the ten years that followed World War II and characterised above all by its atmosphere and its urban settings, film noir gave a broadly pessimistic treatment to melodrama and to crime movies. In a world that should have felt liberated by victory, failure, or the threat of it, haunted the petty criminal, the potential fall guy, the tired gumshoe and the two-bit femme fatale.” Many of my favourite noirs are happily covered by this definition.

If the Hollywood film noir is a site for argument and even controversy, then the British parallel is less explored, less clearly defined, but also provokes a certain amount of disagreement. There are crossovers, including the period, though I find examples of UK noir films in the 1960s. There are common influences, especially from German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism. And there is a parallel source in some cases, 1930s and 1940s British crime fiction, like US pulp fiction, produced fairly cheaply and appealing to a fairly particular audience whiles failing to win much critical approbation.

British noir’s often show a concern with contemporary social problems, whereas Hollywood tended to privilege the personal rather than the political. The many films by Michael Relph and Basil Dearden often focus on the social problem. Yet they frequently display noir sensibilities. In The Blue Lamp (1949) there is a concern with the contemporary problem of juvenile or youth crime. One particular sequence in which Tom (Dirk Bogarde) plays with his gun is intensely nourish. In Frieda (1947) a German émigré is confronted by the dark world she hoped to have left behind when confronted with newsreels about the concentration camps. She walks out the cinema into a street that is full of shadow, stylised walls of posters and angular camera positions.

British films tend to depend more on locations and lack the intense stylised feel of the Hollywood noir. This becomes clear when comparing They Made Me A Fugitive (Cavalcanti, 1947) with Brighton Rock (the Boulting Brothers, 1947). The former film is predominately studio based, and many sequences parallel the style of US noir. The latter relies to a degree on excellent location work and there are far fewer moments of intense shadow and angularity.

They Made Me a Fugitive also raises the issue of the femme fatale. Ubiquitous in Hollywood noirs the dangerous and fatal woman is rarer in the British variety. Thus in Cavalcanti’s film Sally is an abused woman but she is clearly not designing one. The two minor women characters, Ellen and Mrs Fenshaw are more scheming but not central to the narrative. William Everson suggests that British films are more influenced by French Poetic Realism than by Hollywood noir: that would certainly appear to apply to the films’ heroines.

Whilst film noir offers the wise racking dialogue that crosses over with the private eye film and the newspaper film, the British variant tends more to the sardonic. There is less an air of cynicism than of fatalism. And there is a distinct gothic strand. British noir seems to b e closer to the horror genre than in Hollywood. And these echoes of C19th stories of old dark houses, dark corners and in-explicable events appear frequently. A key film for both the horror and noir genres is Dead of Night (1945).  One tale in the film, [directed by Robert Hamer] presents the story of malign influence on a husband from his wife’s gift of an antique mirror. Within it he sees an older room where a terrible crime took place. His attempt to repeat the crime is thwarted by the strength of his wife {Googie Withers). Both Hollywood and British Cinema posses strong, independent actresses in this period. But the strength of the Hollywood character seems to tend towards the qualities of a siren. British noir has a number of positive women characters, notably Ida in Brighton Rock.

Exploring individual films with highlight some of these tendencies and to what extent they might typify British noir.



One Response to “British film noir

  1. […] we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location […]

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