It is common, of course, to attempt to increase our understanding of art by studying the artist. To do so for films is particularly difficult because they are produced communally. We decided to look first at directors. This was not because of any particular bias towards the view that directors tend to be a film’s auteur, but rather because, if we were aiming at precision, the director’s role is usually the clearest. This is not an absolute. For example, The Enforcer is attributed to Bretagne Windust but it is reported that Raoul Walsh refused credit for taking over when Windust became ill, because he felt it might harm Windust’s career (see The Enforcer on IMDb.com).
To consider actors would require us to find some way of measuring the size of a contribution to a particular film. “Producer” is a term which may be applied to people with widely differing roles in the making of a film, from general oversight to detailed involvement in editing. It was common for many writers to be involved in the script of a film, not all of whom will be publicly acknowledged. Catherine Turney was advised by her agent not to be name as co-writer of Mildred Pierce because she had previously only had sole writing credit (LaValley, 1980, p. 30). Cinematographers, by contrast, might be a more straightforward group. Looking at directors seemed to be the least complicated start to the exploration of personal contribution. It is also relevant to a consideration of another question: To what extent do American films noirs of this period show the influence of earlier European cinema? We decided to leave cinematographers until later.
To assess the extent of a director’s contribution to noir we employed a simple method. Points were ascribed to an individual every time one of his – it was almost always “his” not ”her” – appeared in one of the 12 list employed in our Defining Film Noir study. We also noted how many of a director’s films appear in the list of high-scoring (CH10-12) films. Also to be found in Table I is a note on whether the director had prior experience of working in film in Europe.
Table 1: Leading Noir Directors
|Total CH Score||Films in CH 10-12 Range|
|Lang, Fritz E||97||4|
|Siodmak, Robert E||93||5|
|Hitchcock, Alfred E||70||1|
|Preminger, Otto E||54||4|
|Lewis, Joseph H.||47||1|
|Wilder, Billy E||37||3|
|Brahm, John E||36||–|
|Curtiz. Michael E||32||1|
|Mate, Rudolph E||31||1|
|Mate, Rudolph E||31||1|
E : Prior experience in European cinema.
It will be seen that Lang, Siodmak and Hitchcock score highest employing this method. In other words they have the strongest claims to be regarded as noir directors. Lang and Siodmak are often discussed in these terms, but Hitchcock is not, as we pointed out in our paper, “Hitchcock and Film Noir” presented at the Hitchcock Rediscovered” conference held at the Broadway, Nottingham in 1999. Consideration of each director’s profile shows up differences between them. In the years 1944 to 1950, Siodmak directed 14 films, 10 of which appeared in at least 7 of the 12 lists we covered. Lang, like Siodmak, has four films with CH scores of 10 or more, but he also has a number of films where there was less agreement, scoring between 1 and 5. Hitchcock’s profile is quite different, with only one CH10 score but only four films which did not appear on at least one list.
Lang, Siodmak and Hitchcock had all worked in European cinema before going to Hollywood, as had five others of these high scoring directors. This is good grounds for exploring further the possibility of European influence on America noir. Borde and Chaumeton (1955, p 28), rejecting the idea of French influence, said there was no evidence that Huston or Hawks had ever seen a French film. Our list of noir directors casts doubt on the validity of this piece of rhetoric. Huston appears on it only as the eleventh highest scorer. Hawks does not appear, having a CH score of only 15. Lang and Siodmak will clearly have seen French films, having directed in France before arriving in Hollywood. Bord and Chaumeton do acknowledge some French influence on Hollywood, citing some cases of remakes.
One limitation of the method we employed to estimate an individual’s contribution to film noir, is that each person is credited only for directing. It might have been appropriate to adding an additional credit for writing or producing. This would have increased the standing of Billy Wilder, for example. However, it might be doubtful whether additional credit should be given for films the individual directs, as would be the case with Wilder. A different, and perhaps stronger, case could be made when the director contributes in other ways to films he did not direct. Robert Rossen wrote Out of the Fog (CH3) and Blues in the Night (CH1) and produced The Undercover Man (CH8). If these CH scores were added to his directorial CH, his overall standing would rise from 23 to 35. Ida Lupino received only 6 CH points as a director, but if she were given credit for acting in noir films, her overall CH standing would rise dramatically to over 70. However, it is doubtful whether it is appropriate to add to an actor’s ranking irrespective of the size of the role in a given film and I have not yet worked out a way of weighting an actor’s contribution to a film. I suspect that Ida Lupino’s case is an exception and a systematic reassessment of this sort would produce only marginal changes in overall rankings for most individuals.
If we return to Siodmak, we may show a significant way in which our approach differs from conventional writing on film noir. Michael Walker’s essay on Siodmak (1992, p 110) states that he is the director who made the most contribution to film noir and did so by citing the number of his films which are “noir” and others which have “elements” of noir. The latter group, he states, are often listed in “the literature of the cycle”. He does not give any evidence for the last statement, but a look at our results is illuminating. His Siodmak “noirs” have CH scores of 11, 11, 11, 10 and 8. Those with “elements” of noir are The Suspect (CH7), Uncle Harry (CH7), The Spiral Staircase (CH7), Cry of the City (CH9) and The Dark Mirror (CH12). Thus his Noir films have an average CH of 10.2 and those with Elements an average of 8.4. Not a big difference, and most strikingly one of the Elements films has the highest CH rating. Some of the films with Elements he describes as “melodrama” but this term in undefined (“gothic” is another undefined term he employs). Since Walker does not precisely define “noir” films or what constitute “elements” of noir, we cannot say with any certainty what gives rise to the anomaly. He does not ask why a film with only “elements” should be listed by some writes as noir. This may be because he has failed to realize that there is a deeper conceptual problem here. Perhaps his noir films are simply ones with several noirish elements. There may not be a sharp distinction between completely and partially noir films, but rather variations in the number of noir elements films have.
Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne (1955). Panorama du Film Noir Americain. Paris: Editions de Minuit. (This was the version David Cornwell and I used, but an English translation has now been published.)
LaValley, AlbertJ. (1980). Mildred Pierce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Walker, Michael (1992). Robert Siodmak, pp 110-151 in Cameron, Ian (Ed.), The Movie Book of Film Noir. London: Studio Vista.