The Evolution of Film Noir: A Look at Mood in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and “Touch of Evil” (1958)

By: Randy Krinsky

Filmmaker Paul Schrader once said that film noir is not a genre, at least not in the traditional since, as many film genres are defined by their settings, such as westerns or science fiction. Film noir is more distinctly defined in terms of tone and mood. Most would agree that the period of classic film noir lasted from The Maltese Falcon (dir. John Huston, 1941) to Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958).  During that time, the aesthetics of film noir evolved, including the style and cultural elements.

When discussing the two ends of the noir spectrum, The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil, it is easy to realize that the latter is a distinct departure from the style of the former.  Touch of Evil, referred to as “film noir’s epitaph” by Schrader, could even be considered an extreme when viewed against Huston’s earlier example.

Loosely based on Badge of Evil, a novel by Whit Masterson, Touch of Evil is a dark tale of murder and police corruption in a Mexican border town.  The story revolves around a murder caused by a car bomb, planted in Mexico, which explodes on American soil.  Police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a local legend due to his perfect arrest record, is on the case and quickly has his suspect in custody.  However, his corrupt practices are uncovered by the honest Mexican federal agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston).  Vargas convinces Quinlan’s partner and close friend, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), of Quinlan’s questionable procedures and has him agree to wear a wire to gather evidence against Quinlan.

Based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, is about San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his shadowy client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who involves Spade in a dangerous search for a mysterious black figurine, the Maltese Falcon.  Through deception and the murder of Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), O’Shaughnessy pits Spade against other treacherous parties also interested in obtaining the priceless figurine.

The Maltese Falcon contains stylistic influences of its “hard-boiled” writer, Dashiell Hammett, who infused his tough cynicism into the character of Sam Spade.  Later, as film noir transformed, these types of guarded tough-guy romantics became characters that were unable to atone for their shady actions and acted altogether unheroic.

The street-wise anti-hero Spade, of The Maltese Falcon, has been divided into two different characters in Touch of Evil, both on the side of right:  Mexican federal agent Mike Vargas and police captain Hank Quinlan.  Both men are imperfect, out for justice; however, the two men take distinctly dissimilar paths to achieving their goals.  Additionally, noir’s traditional femme fatale that is usually a source of danger to our protagonist is reversed.  To Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy can’t be trusted and, in fact, killed his partner.  In contrast, in Touch of Evil, the enigmatic brothel madame offers a source of sanctuary for Quinlan, while Vargas’s fair-skinned American wife poses a threat to Quinlan and could possibly be a cause of risk to Vargas, as well.

When watching these films, what permeates our memory is the mood, or the affective character of the mise-en-scene, that allows us to have a unique understanding of what we have viewed.  The setting, the sounds, the lighting, the shading, and the narrative; all unfolding and working to create a feeling of disorder and uncertainty.  When referring to these expressive aspects of film noir, there is a term used by film scholar Robert Sinnerbrink, himself citing the work of classic film historians Lotte H. Eisner and Béla Balázs, known as StimmungStimmung is a German expression which basically refers to a profounder understanding of what we would call a film’s mood.

Touch of Evil (1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Shown: Orson Welles

In Touch of Evil, Stimmung is stimulated by the film’s expressionistic uses of stark lighting, canted, high and low angles, leaping camera movements and angular shadows, suggestive of chaos and uncertainty.  The distinctly low-key lighting forms areas of high-contrast and deep, dark shadows.  This works to keep faces hidden, motivations secret, and conveys mysterious undertones.

In The Maltese Falcon, we see greediness, passion, and almost relatability to the morals of the protagonist.  Here, Stimmung is stirred by the film’s use of many eye-level shots, some low-angle views, and low-contrast lighting.  This cinematography evokes moral ambiguity in the characters and their actions, adding tension.  For both films, the end result wraps the narrative within an affective shroud that is consistent with each film’s mood.  As Sinnerbrink would put it, Stimmung embraces the harmony that is created between the expressiveness of a film and the affective receptiveness of the spectator.

In The Maltese Falcon, there is a scene, in the final sequence of the film, which richly illustrates the cinematic world conveyed by the predominant mood. The scene takes place inside Sam Spade’s apartment.  It begins immediately after two of the antagonists, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), have left the apartment, about an hour and a half into the film.  The scene ends when Spade hears the buzz at the door signaling the arrival of the police. It is a total of thirty-two shots, and lasts for approximately six and half minutes.  The scene is edited together through a series of straight cuts, and consists of mainly eye-level close shots with balanced, mid to low-key lighting producing light shadows.

Regarding the narrative, this scene relates Sam Spade’s commitment to the truth.  He is determined to unravel the lies and deceits of the still secretive Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  Even after everything that has unfolded, Sam still can’t be sure of her actions.  He must confront her and find out everything that she has done.  She is cunning and absolutely ruthless.  Sam pushes her for a confession, as he convinces her that once arrested, Gutman will talk and implicate them both.  He is relentless and finally Brigid admits to killing Miles.

The cinematic world depicted is Sam Spade’s apartment, a dimly naturally lit sanctuary pleasantly decorated with comfortable furniture; a stark contrast from the aura given off by the hard-boiled private detective.  This is indicative of his wanting to portray a harder, ambiguous persona in public, straddling the line between good and evil; however, privately, his true leanings are questionable as his morals and ethics do not coincide with the types of people with which he deals.

The first mood conveyed is one of uncertainty and doubt.  Intermittently throughout the scene, asynchronous string music is heard that is ominous and provides an emotional tone. The lighting is mid-to-low-key, providing some shadowing to the characters as Sam questions Brigid in an attempt to ascertain the truth about Miles’ murder.  As Sam conducts his quick-paced questioning, Brigid’s face is lit from the left side, leaving her right side lightly shadowed, indicative of her duplicitous nature.  Additionally, her eyes stay focused to her right, into the shadows, as she tries to talk her way around the fact that she’s a murderer.  She is in doubt over Sam’s intentions.  He says he must know the truth before the police arrive so he won’t be caught unaware, but she has misgivings about answering the questions.

Brigid was smoking a cigarette when the scene began; however, after Sam begins to seriously question her, she puts it out before becoming defensive.  The use of the cigarette is integral in film noir and an active element to the mise-en-scene.  For these films, sex is often associated with cigarettes as many of the femme fatales are depicted with cigarettes during sexually-charged scenes. In this scene, once she begins to question her skills at seducing Sam into letting her go, Brigid discards her cigarette and opts for a more emotional response, crying.

The second mood communicated is of disbelief.  The depiction of water or moisture is also an integral part of the mise-en-scene in film noir.  The visual style of noir maintains a connection to docks, piers, waterways, rain, rain-soaked streets, or even tears.  Noticeable in sharp focus are the watered eyes of Brigid as she struggles with the realization that Sam is going to turn her in for murder.  Even when she is in the background, with Sam in the foreground explaining why he can’t let her go, the camera is sharply focused on her and her facial expressions.

As this realization begins to take hold, the lighting adds an additional reinforcement to the disbelief that Brigid is experiencing. The natural lighting in the scene is provided by draped windows located behind Sam and Brigid.  The light enters the room through the semi-transparent drapes but at odd angles that are representative of prison bars when splayed across the walls behind them.  This adds a disturbing nature to the incredulous mood; Brigid is going to prison, or worse.  This lighting technique is another classic element of film noir. Though usually lit for night, noir prefers slanted lines to fragment the light causing it to enter a room in peculiar shapes.  These shapes can often appear as prison bars or other claustrophobic frames as the shadows work to isolate characters from each other, from closely-held emotions, or from the safety of stability.

This scene unites most of the concepts of classical noir in regards to mood.  The classic femme fatale, Brigid, secretive and ruthless, fails in her attempt to manipulate and seduce Sam.  His streetwise mentality and strong sense of self-preservation made him keenly aware that she was up to no good.  The interaction between the two characters puts the viewer in a dark, uncertain mood; shadowy, never knowing just what the truth is, what’s real, and who is in control.  In the end, noir has a way of allowing the femme fatale to be uncovered as a true danger, using their own evil nature to lead to their eventual downfall.

There is a similar scene in Touch of Evil, released at the end of the classic noir period, that doesn’t involve the femme fatale, but the discovery of truth, with the specter of uncertainty looming in a moody locale under questionable circumstances.  This scene nonetheless captures the essential mood of this later period of classic noir.

Like The Maltese Falcon, near the end of Touch of Evil, during the long final refinery sequence, there is a scene that depicts most vividly the cinematic world expressed by the prevailing mood of the film.  This moody scene begins also a little over an hour and a half into the film.  The scene mostly unfolds in shadowy medium two-shots and close-shots transitioned together with a series of quick straight cuts.  There are many canted angles indicative of the state of confusion and disbelief being experienced. The character of Quinlan can't understand why Menzies is questioning him; Menzies can't believe his oldest friend is corrupt.  The canted angles extend to shots of Vargas, as well, suggestive of his mad scramble to maintain his distance yet still be close enough to get a good recording, knowing that, at any minute, this whole affair could turn bad.

Menzies has drawn Quinlan out from the sanctuary of Madame Tanya’s (Marlene Dietrich) brothel and leads him into the old run-down refinery area.  Narratively, the scene works to establish the guilt of Captain Quinlan.  His best friend and partner, Menzies needs to confront him about his corrupt practices and the questionable death of mobster, ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  Menzies is upset that he has been played for a patsy all these years by Quinlan. Vargas has convinced Menzies to wear a hidden microphone so that he, hidden away safely nearby, can record any incriminating statements Quinlan may make when confronted with his corruption.

The cinematic world depicted is that of an old run down refinery area, complete with old gantry, oil derricks, and other machinery.  It is an obscure forbidding locale, shadowy; the perfect location for Menzies to bring Quinlan to get him to admit to his alleged corruptive practices.  They are bridge-like walkways, bathed in shadows, with massive old machinery and equipment towering in the background.  The scenery evokes a mood of isolation.

There is a water-filled ravine that passes through the area.  What was once a place of hope and prosperity, a source of success and fulfillment, is now old and neglected, barely useful.  This mirrors Captain Quinlan, once a great lawman, now jaded by the murder of his wife, and who must resort to planting evidence to convict those he suspects of wrongdoing.  This location is the perfect place for Menzies to confront Quinlan as it is where hopes and dreams are crushed, much as Menzies opinion of Quinlan is crushed and Quinlan’s stature is diminished. The affective elements saturate this cinematic world; dark, foreboding, and unstable.

The first mood conveyed is one of secrecy and danger.  The cinematographer uses low-key lighting and dark shadows to evoke this mood.  Earlier in the film, we see many low-angle shots allowing Quinlan’s imposing frame to dominate the smaller Menzies, asserting  his authority; he believes what he’s doing is right. In this scene, however, after he has been confronted with planting evidence and committing murder, the camera sees Quinlan numerous times from high-angles, enclosed by the large refinery equipment and oil derricks; the framing in these shots result in him appearing isolated and eliciting a feeling of being trapped, small, and diminished in stature and authority.  Similarly, the camera captures Menzies numerous times at equal or greater height that Quinlan, whether through canted angles or use of shadows.  This reveals Menzies attempt in gaining power over Quinlan, hoping to force out a confession.

Additionally, we are put in a suspenseful mood at the realization of just how dangerous Quinlan is and his capabilities.  He is thoroughly corrupt who will do anything to obtain his goals.  The viewer already knows he put Vargas’ wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), in danger, which is the cause of much of the suspense in last half of the film.  Even the honorable Vargas adds to the mood as, in his quest to catch Quinlan, he quite often also endangers his wife by leaving her in perilous situations.

The second mood communicated is of the aforementioned isolation. The close-up camera shots are an integral part of the mise-en-scene of this scene as they allow the viewer to really take note of just how alone these two men are.  The two men are close friends and have been partners on the police force for years; however, at this moment, they couldn’t be farther apart.  This feeling of isolation is accomplished through the use of the close shots.  These close shots are filmed in such a way as all the objects and characters in frame are in sharp focus, allowing everything to be judged equally.  The low light used necessitated the use of wide-angle lenses in order to obtain this depth of field, a distinct characteristic of later noir films.  In many scenes, due to this effect, Captain Quinlan seems larger than life, almost coming off the screen.  This lens use also works to have the effect of drawing the viewer into the film, allowing for  a more emotional response.

First, we feel the isolation of Menzies as he is alone with a person who, he is discovering, he doesn’t really know at all.  His former best friend is a murderer; a corrupt police captain with no remorse for his methods.  Then, as Menzies questioning continues, the framing draws out the isolation of Quinlan, as his world deteriorates around him, much like the desolate refinery that frames his surroundings.

The mood of isolation is even further fortified by the camera’s following of Vargas, always having to hide in the shadows as he follows Quinlan and Menzies, hiding under bridges, wading into the water of the ravine.  Hiding out of sight shouldn’t be the place for the righteous man; however, he is attempting to bring down a popular and efficient police official.  Vargas is isolated in his views of Quinlan and, for being a Mexican national, is isolated in this country as being a man out of place.

Quinlan is dangerous, he's killed before when his reputation was threatened; he couldn't let Grandi blackmail him.  The shadows allow Quinlan to keep his illicit activities in the dark, unseen by others.  The shadows also work to sideline Vargas, the outsider.  Not only is his character, the Mexican national with no authority in the United States, kept in the shadows, but he is almost always depicted in frame as underneath the two men; under the gantry, or under the bridge.  This suggests the way he is viewed by Quinlan, beneath him in stature and authority; lesser than him. This is how Stimmung works, evoked expertly here through the use of light and shadow.

Stimmung is comprised comprehensively of both the expressiveness of the film and the response of the viewer.  These two scenes establish all that we need from their respective cinematic worlds to attune us to the various aspects of each film's pervasive mood.  Likewise, moods convey the characteristics of the cinematic world, revealing them, as Sinnerbrink would say, in both an affective and reflective manner.  They allow the viewer to receive and thereby experience the film in a more substantial way; by eliciting an emotional response. These scenes do just that and are representative of the mood of both films.

The moods evoked in films at both ends of the classic film noir period, though similar in some sense, are actually remarkably different.  Touch of Evil redefined the anti-hero, stressing his flaws, tainting his morals further, leading to a more flawed protagonist.  The traditional femme fatale also found her character utilized in different ways.  In The Maltese Falcon, the femme fatale is the deceptive, secretive bringer of mood.  Yet, in Touch of Evil, in the personage of the mysterious brothel madame, Tana (Marlene Dietrich), she offers stability and safety for Quinlan.  It is instead the fair-skinned American wife of Vargas, gentle and demure, that poses a threat.  The result of this transformation, mainly through the use of the anti-hero, is the portrayal a much darker world view than originally conveyed in earlier noir films.

This darker world view and drive further into character isolation can be linked to the Cold War hysteria that was prevalent in society at the time.  America was experiencing a growing cultural and even political climate of dread, suspicion, and secrecy.

The early noir films developed through a Hollywood system that existed at the onset of World War II.  When the United States was drawn into the war, a national mood of anxiety and uncertainty helped shape film noir.  Later, when you add post-war cynicism, noir transformed and ultimately, with darker moods, evolved into in films like Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil serves as the "bookend" of the classic film noir period.  So we can see how this film, in its darker tones and mood, was a direct response to how the nation evolved during the Cold War’s culture of fear.  This fear grew from a perception of the Communist threat but was later surpassed by other national crises, such as the possibility of nuclear war or the Civil Rights Movement.

By 2017, film noir is nostalgia; a call back to an earlier time, a classic period of films.  The world view today is much different and the national preoccupations have evolved into environmental issues, social injustice, political and economic disparity.  None of these issues are represented in the films of classic noir.  How could they be?  It is because of this disconnect with today's viewers that the moods perceived are moods that filmgoers have to allow to envelop them.  Sure, a femme fatale might be readily recognizable today but would be perceived as campy, not mysterious and seductive.  Today's anti-hero would be even more violent and fight because he's been pushed too far; the questionable morals might be the same but the impetus for action would be different. Today's film landscape is quite different, save possibly for neo-noir.   The emergence of neo-noir is an attempt to capture the mood of these earlier classic films; to touch upon an atmosphere that identified a period of film culture.  In that sense, film theorists could possibly make an argument that film noir never ended, but continued to evolve.  The Maltese Falcon was just the earliest attempt, with Touch of Evil marking the end of a defined era, allowing a transformation into a new era that saw noir further develop and adjust into films that would be hardly recognizable to classic noir directors such as John Huston or Orson Welles.  Noir nevertheless lives on.

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