At the advent of the twentieth century, film bought into existence a new era within art and architecture. In the beginning, architectural and artistic expression concentrated on the interpretation of two dimensional imageries into three dimensional forms. Film however became a medium which could connect and interact with architectural thought. Through motion, film could create a ‘interpretation of space’ that was crucial to architectural theories. This lead to the portrayal of the real elements of the society as the camera could record the passage of bodies.
The ideas inherent in film noir have unique positions on both the urban situations and the perception of the space it contains. In portraying the city in a manner particularly sensitive to impression of life and to certain atrocities that actually exist the film noir style is well adapted to issuing a president for modern architecture and providing an investigation into the city itself.
Through the investigation of the filmic narrative and the exposition of the visual aesthetic innate in Carol Reed’s 1949 film, “The Third Man,” this presentation has been designed to explore the connection between film noir and architecture.
Many of Film Noir’s specific styles, including stark b & w pictures with low-key lighting elements find their roots in the German Expressionism. After the First World War, Germany was isolated from the rest of the world. Foreign films were banned in Germany, increasing the demand for more domestic films. Due to this isolation, German Expressionism flourished in the early 1920s and became widely acknowledged in the international film industry. In their work, expressionists asserted their feelings of discontent with the existing order and their intention for a revolutionary change.
Through visual arts Expressionists created a look of the emotional and psychological-state-of-being, by use of wry images and abstract figures. They desired to bring the human subconscious to attention without the use of literal symbols, generating an emotional reaction to their art.
Expressionism was evident in German Architecture in the same period as it had a major influence on the architecture of the time. Many expressionist architects were part of the first World War and their experiences, combined with the political turmoil and social disorder lead in a romantic socialist agenda and utopian outlook. To sparkle an emotional effect, the architecture had distortion of form and used symbolic expression of inner experiences and subservience of realism. The architecture had tendencies more toward gothic than classical and the conception of architecture was viewed as a work of art.
Even expressionism in German Films is considered as ‘new creativity’ in filmmaking which doors to new ideas all over the world. The main theme of German expressionist films lies at the basis of Film Noir which is the exterior distorted in order to reflect the conflict of the characters in that world. To reflect their inner feelings and internal anguish.
The Expressionists were profoundly interested in the emotion of horror and one of the first of the expressionist films was Nosferatu (1922) which was an unauthorised adaptation of the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. The film was directed by F.W. Murnau who succeeded in bringing his craft to life by using low key cinematography style which bought more attention to darkness than light. Here is one of Nosferatu’s most iconic shot of the shadow of the vampire walking up the stairs. Inspite of being minimalist it invokes a response of horror and fear.
The Production ideology of German expressionist films was the use of studios for aspects of shooting and the pure idea of giving the audience what they wanted beyond conventional film structure and design. The intricate designs in expressionism was a result of the environment that gave rise to what reflect the mood of the characters. Directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Carol Reed popularised the Expressionist style to crime thrillers and dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism’s influence on modern filmmaking. German expressionist films had a short span as survived and flourished for only 10 years due to the changing economic & social conditions of Germany. The movement came to an end when the currency stabilised and it became cheaper to purchase films abroad. The UFA collapsed and the German studios began to form relations with studios in the United States which led to their influence in genres of early sci-fi, horror and and most evidently Film Noir.
A wide range of films in the early 40’s in America reflected the insecurities of the time period and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals which was inspired by the significant movement of German expressionist cinema. Melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disambiguity, moral-corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia are readily evident in noir, reflecting the ‘chilly’ Cold War period when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present.
Film Noir literally meaning ‘black film or cinema was coined by French film critics, first by Nino Frank in 1946, who noticed the trend of how ‘dark’, downbeat and black, the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France such as the Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), Laura (1944), Sunset Blvd (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946)
The primary moods of classic film noir were Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia. Corrupt characters and villains, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, crooks, murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists often lead morally, ambiguous low-lives of violent crime and corruption. The females in film noir were usually femme fatales, they are mysterious, double-crossing, gorgeous, unloving, unreliable, irresponsible, manipulative and desperate women.
Film noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, deep-focus or depth of field camera work, disorienting visual schemes, jarring editing or juxtaposition of elements, ominous shadows, skewed camera angles, usually vertical or diagonal rather than horizontal, and unbalanced or moody compositions. This low key lighting style used in Film noir is termed as ‘Chiaroscuro’ an Italian word for light and dark, the treatment of contrasting elements in the creation of an artistic work like in film noir, the use of equal parts of light and shadow, revealing only a portion of the picture at a time. In other words – symbolically, exposing and concealing simultaneously
Film noir used architecture, and urban and domestic spaces as the real and imaginary universes in which the characters develop and expose paradoxes. A-symmetries are especially popular in film noir architecture, perhaps because they echo the individuality and complications of the films’ characters. The city as described and explored by film noir consists of contrasts and ambiguities and is a structured system of alienation and exploitation and filled with anxiety. The architecture, however, encourages us not to rely on milestones of greatness, progress and confidence.
It is also helpful to realise that Film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film referring to a distinct historical period of film history used to express a certain style in filmmaking. So different kind of genres can be made in a film noir way. For example, The Film noir of Science fiction is Blade Runner. Infact Film Noir was labeled as “such” only after the classic period. Early noir film-makers were not conscious of this designation and their films would be categorised as ‘noirs’.
The Third Man a timeless classic is a great example of film noir which transcends the noir style to become one of the landmarks of world cinema. In Third Man director Carol Reed has used many Noir- tropes like stark shadows, extensive night scenes, a confused protagonist and tilted camera angles. The films hallmark is Robert Krasker’s cinematography with tilted cameras and surreal shadows photographed in narrow nocturnal streets of Vienna.
The first wide shot of Vienna is a classic element of the film Noir where the opening scene features a view of the city. This wide shot is very similar to the opening scene of his previous film ‘Odd Man Out’ which has the aerial view of Belfast where the film is based.
In relation to the city in which it was filmed Third man shows a filmic environment built on the aesthetic foundations of German Expressionism however it can be also seen as a visual document of the bombed-out fabric of late 1940s Vienna. From the very beginning it establishes its Noir qualities in its locations and photography. The city to the protagonist – Holly Martins an outsider, is rather confusing and hostile. Fredric Braker the director of the documentary, “Shadowing the Third Man” emphasizes that this is typical of Noir style, which dwells on the “city as a trap” and a labyrinth which is “dark, confusing and hostile, filled with dead ends, and above all threatening”
Richard Misek in his article about ‘The Wrong Geometries in The Third Man’ has provided a counter-point to the popular fascination with The Third Man’s locations, focusing instead on how the film diverges from its setting, and how it abstracts and re-orientates the city’s spaces. The specific site of divergence which he has explored is that of the ’line’.
In the beginning of the film we see a shot that is both an index of a physical object i.e. a zither and an abstraction of that object into a series of parallel lines. By means of mise en scène and lighting, The Third Man transforms Vienna into networks of lines. This is evident throughout the film where the camera is placed in positions that emphasise the line – for example, on top of a suspension bridge or at the centre of a Ferris wheel – and frame shots so as to draw attention to lines, that in most films would have been compositionally insignificant.
In a scene where Holly martins stands in the doorway of Anna’s dressing room, the frame of the door divides the rectangular frame of the shot into segments with mathematical precision. Later, when Anna and Holly walk home to her apartment, the frame is dissected by a beam of a collapsed pillar. Reed and Krasker’s famous Dutch angled shots continually transform physical details including doorways, windows and staircases into lattices of diagonals. Paul Schrader observes that in classical film noir it is the sharp angles of the city not the movements of the characters that have compositional priority. The same is true in The Third Man, a film whose visual style owes much to noir: Holly and Anna walk behind the collapsed pillar, not in front of it.
Sometimes the existing lines are enhanced by the light – for example, the beveling on the side of a building or the receding rails of a tram-line and sometimes they create new lines. In The Third Man’s nocturnal exteriors, shadow and light are so sharply defined that the borders between them also take on an architectural form, competing with the lines of buildings and streets to inscribe space.
Line is further emphasized by the camera’s immobility. Camera movement in The Third Man is generally restricted to minor reframings and discreet tracks into and out of characters’ faces. Even in chase sequences, the camera is stationary showcasing the complex urban topography that the characters must negotiate.
The disorientating potential of multiple vanishing points is taken to an extreme in a low-angle shot of the street outside Anna’s apartment. Like much of Vienna’s innenstadt, Schreyvogelgasse, the street in which this shot was filmed, is built on a steep gradient. On one side, a row of houses resists the incline of the hill and clings to horizontality; on the other side, there is a sheer drop to another street with a different gradient. Krasker’s cinematography transforms this improbable place into a seemingly impossible space.
The startling image of Schreyvogelgasse highlights the fact that even the basic standard of spatial orientation, which is ‘a stable horizon’, is absent from The Third Man. Carol Reed in an interview says that – “I shot most of the film with a wide-angle lens that distorted the buildings and emphasized the wet cobble-stone streets. But the angle of vision was just to suggest that something crooked was going on, I don’t think it’s a very good idea. I haven’t used it much since”
The above examples draw attention to the fact that the lines in The Third Man do not create a graphic, two-dimensional aesthetic like that of a comic book drawn in black ink on white paper. Rather, they exist in three dimensions: the film’s diagonals are also orthogonals. These lines have an x-axis, a y-axis, and a z-axis. As well as crossing the plane of the screen, they recede within the frame towards a vanishing point. Reed and Krasker emphasize the z-axis through their use of wide-angle lenses, which allow lines to maintain their sharpness from foreground to background.
Richard Misek also points out that certain images which disturb perspectival vision. Well this is because their vanishing points are outside the frame. The orthogonals converge off-screen, decentering the composition: they exert a centrifugal force on the eye, drawing it to visually inaccessible off-screen spaces. Often there is more than one external vanishing point, and orthogonals compete to draw our attention in divergent off-screen directions. Like Holly, we too are not sure where to look.
The film’s exterior wide shots are so consistently Dutch angled that ultimately they turn the entire city into a vertiginous space. They not only reflect the point of view of a character who cannot see straight, but also form an integral element of the film’s architectural structure.
The entire film is predicated on the absence of a visible horizontal axis. The emphasis on wanting to express a new, dirtier and grittier side of film and film characters isn’t just reflected through camera angels and lighting, but also how these filming techniques are used against the architecture. Grand architectural structures that (before this genre) would have been shot in grand, epic ways now are shot with harsh contrasting shadows and lights. Also sets for the events that unfold during the story change from the previous iterations that follow. For example, an action scene is filmed in the architectural ruins of previously grand buildings. The main protagonist flees the antagonists across the rubble of demolished buildings. This could represent how the character’s world and preconceptions of what’s happening is crumbling around him and he hides within the rubble of those preconceived thoughts.
Another scene that uses the decaying architecture in a similar way is the scene where Orson Welles is standing on the worn down ruins of an old building, unaware he is walking into a trap. The dilapidated structures could foreshadow how his world and his grand ideas for his future is slowly crumbling around him.
Graham Greene uses the unforgettable location of the Ferries Wheel for the crucial turning point in the story about Harry Lime. At the very beginning, Holly had heard from Harry’s Porter that in Vienna things were upside down, Hell was in the sky and Heaven below. So it should not have surprised him that at its highest point Harry would reveal the depths of his infami. It is a crucial scene, the only one in which Holly and Harry face each other and talk, but narratively and visually it is a dead-end.
The compositional decisions made by Reed to Photograph the architecture of the Sewers contributes to the tension of the chase as they create disorientation. The sewers also show the other side of the city; it contrasts to what people can see. Holly embodies linearity though out the film where as Harry, by contrast, embodies non-linearity. He is an insider, a central figure in Vienna’s underground network of black marketeers. He has a detailed knowledge of the city’s urban spaces, moving freely from one occupied zone to another through a network of intersecting sewers. He follows oblique paths that contradict the mapped urban geometry of the city streets, and surfaces in seemingly unconnected locations across the city: a bridge, a square, an amusement park.
Finally, in the last scene the narrative resolution of Harry’s death is transformed into a graphic resolution. The funeral ceremony finishes, and Holly waits at the side of the road as Anna approaches. After over a hundred minutes of “wrong geometries”, The Third Man concludes with a shot in which the horizon is horizontal, the composition is symmetrical and at last there is a vanishing point exactly where it should be that is in the centre of the screen.
Like a typical Noir film Third Man has a sense of confusion and ambiguity running throughout the film and this has been largely achieved by the architecture and cinematography which makes the audience believe that nothing is what it seems. The shots of the breathtaking architecture of Vienna’s buildings are followed by disturbing shots of immense rubble that is the result of the bombing and helps keep, the, that like the once beautiful Vienna that now lies in ruins, the morals of people are uncertain and corrupt, like the Viennese sewers, the dirt runs down -deep and this is further emphasised when the voice-over finishes the narration while introducing ‘present day Vienna’ and its post-war racketeering rage.
A genre as important and memorable as Film Noir can never be forgotten, not only for its place in Hollywood for two decades but for how it influenced film in the decades after.
Elements of Film Noir to this day can still be seen in both American and foreign cinema, but with updated technologies and themes that were not around in the 1940s and 1950s, they cannot be truly viewed as part of the Film Noir era.
Films following the classic era are now known as Neo-Noir. Most Neo-Noir films are shot in color and do not always follow the visual style that defined the classic era, but use many themes and plots from Film Noir. Many modern film directors, including Christopher Nolan (Memento and The Batman Trilogy) Roman Polanski (Chinatown) Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and many more, have had and still continue to have heavy influences of Film Noir in their films.