Shades of Gray

Noir means, of course, “black”; and it refers not only to the dark moods and bleak tone of American crime dramas of the ’40s and ’50s, but also to the impenetrable slabs of shadow that surround the violence and betrayal on screen.  Much of what made noir what it is had to do with these blocks of darkness, intersected by shards of light, flashes of illumination, clouds of smoke, and half-caught glimpses of faces, eyes, hands holding guns.  It’s a visual hallmark as distinct and unforgettable as any in cinema, and what elevates noir from a tendency to a full-blown style.

I won’t rehash here all of the origins of the style, other than to not that much of it came from Europe by way of German expressionism, with its stark dichotomies of darkness and light and its theatrical use of washes of gray and black, and French romanticism, where the monochromatic palette was used to create a sumptuous range of tonal variation even when no color was actually depicted.  Many others have observed that black and white photography conjures a feeling all its own, rather than instilling scenes with the existing meaning that we associate with the ‘realism’ of color photography; but curiously, that has been reversed.  Color is so ubiquitous now that we think of it as the default setting of cinema, and filming in black and white now bears connotations of its own, placing it within a particular framework whether it fits the style at all.  It’s as if our collective memory stops at a certain point in history seeing the world in a certain way; we make the mistake of thinking that black and white was how everyone saw the world until around 1960.  It’s the same trick of the mind that makes us both perceive and portray ancient Rome as an austere place of pure marble whites, when it’s just that the riotous colors of those temples and halls wore off over time.

Because of an imperfect understanding of both the economics and the technology of the past, we tend to think of black and white film stock as being the default of the time.  That’s not entirely accurate; color film has been around since the birth of photography and in its current state since the early 1930s.  A handful of noir films, including InfernoLeave Her to HeavenHouse of Bamboo, and Violent Saturday were even made in color.  But it was expensive, and audiences weren’t quite accustomed to it; and directors and cinematographers had a liking for the deep moods they could portray through the use of black-and-white film.  (Alfred Hitchcock, as was his wont, was the wild card here.  He dabbled in noir, most notably with Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train, without ever fully embracing it; but Rope, arguably one of his most noir efforts, was in vivid and unforgettable color, while Psycho, the movie that arguably killed off the genre for good, was in pure black and white, by then a throwback gesture.)

The flattening of the wide range of colors in real life into infinite shades of black and gray had a curious effect, making the real look fake and the fake look real.  One of the odd manifestations of this process, as we’ve discussed before, is the odd creation of a false cultural memory:  everyone seems so nattily dressed in these films, in hats and ties and suits with sharp lapels, that we recall the period as one were even the hustlers and hoodlums of the underworld were clothes horses.  While it’s true that casual dress was a whole different beast than what it is today, it’s a mistake to think this; contemporary audiences didn’t need reminding which characters on the screen were meant to be read as ‘real gentlemen’, with money and good breeding, and which ones were low-down trash in cheap suits trying to fool people into thinking they were respectable.  But we do.  Our eyes, alien to class signifiers at the time and fooled by the slick photography and lack of color, don’t see the gaudy touches on the hoods, the unpolished shoes and frayed collars on the strivers, the cheap ties and worn cuffs and rings of sweat that gave away people who worked for a living.  We may have been fooled, but audiences of the time weren’t.

A similar effect can be seen in a lot of contemporary period films.  In many movies where there’s not enough money or care in the set decoration, the props that are used are period-appropriate, but everything — cars, clothes, buildings, consumer goods — looks like stuff that was bought new in whatever year the film is supposed to have been set in.  This is particularly fatal in noir-era evocations; the Great Depression, followed by the half-decade of rationing during the Second World War, ensured that no one but the very, very rich and connected had access to new items for over ten years.  The number of people in 2010 who looked as if everything they owned was bought in 2010 was fairly small; the number of people in 1940 who looked as if everything they owned was bought in 1940 was practically nonexistent.  You can see historical evidence of this in the famed 1944 noir Double Indemnity; a scene where Walter and Phyllis plot their next move in the aisles of a grocery store looks entirely artificial, because the grocery store set had to be built from scratch.  Rationing meant that all the real grocery stores looked paltry and picked-over, with one nearly-empty shelf after another.

This was the genius of the directors and cinematographers of noir:  not just their ability to make something out of nothing, or to reveal the depths of the human soul in a shadow falling across a woman’s face, but to reveal and conceal at the same time, to do — much in the same way the noir writers did turning a ridiculously artificial patter into the most natural-sounding thing in the world — things that made the contrived seem inevitable.  In their world, humanity, like an underwater orchid, lives for only a few hours in total darkness, and the day is so washed out and cruel that it looks imaginary.  Only the night is real.


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