Term Paper: Film Noir

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Film Noir

The heist film is a sub-set of film noir, and it is key to such a film that the audience have sympathy for the criminals who are at the center of the film. This is a common element in the film noir even when the central character is committing crimes and even killing other people along the way. The film noir also has its own sense of morality as a component of fate, emphasized in the way the story is often told in flashback, suggesting that what is seen has already happened and so that it is set and unchangeable. Fate has a sense of morality in these films so that the criminal is often punished by forces greater than him or herself. A prime example is Stanley Kubrick's 1952 film the Killing, a film that is in many ways typical of the film noir genre as it developed into the 1950s.

The Killing was not the first of the heist films by any means, for the form extends back at least to High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941). Just before the Killing, a very similar tale was told in the Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), and this film is often compared to the Killing not just because of the similarities in the heist plot but because both films star Sterling Hayden. Both were adapted from novels, the Asphalt Jungle from a novel of the same name by W.R. Burnett, and the Killing from a novel called Clean Break by Lionel White. Both films feature a sympathetic lead and his girl friend, along with a number of somewhat sympathetic partners-in-crime and some very unsympathetic criminals seeking to cut into the action. A major difference is in the fact that the Huston film is told in chronological order, while the Killing is told out of order and makes good use of a sense of fractured time to show characters who on the one hand depend greatly on a strict timetable in order to commit their crimes but whose story is told in a disorienting way, suggesting that they are lost in real time and unaware of the fate that awaits them.

The heist genre continues to this day. A more recent example would be Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), a film that develops sympathy for its criminal by linking him to the cop pursuing him, with both shown to be professionals following their own codes. Kubrick's criminals also live by their own code, and one of the marks of the gang that tries to rob the robbers is a lack of any such code. By the time the heist is actually under way, all the characters have been intruded, and the audience is well aware of the part each is to play in the crime to come, having been in on many of the planning session and the rehearsals for the actual crime. The non-linear structure of the film keeps the audience attentive and sorting out what really happens and in what order it happens. The Killing has a complicated plot and characters who, while typical in the sense that nearly all films of this genre employed similar types, are still unusual because they all have jobs of one sort or another and are thus seen as respectable citizens by people they know. Only the mastermind, Johnny, is focused only on the heist. None of the main plotters are really bad people, and the audience sees some of their background stories in flashback. Each has a real need for money, which itself generates some sympathy on the part of the audience. The one element of the crime that threatens to reduce that sympathy is the killing of the racehorse, but that is not revealed as part of the plot until it actually happens, and the one who actually kills the horse is himself killed immediately as well.

The heist sequence actually begins in earnest with the announcement of the start of the fifth race. The robbery itself told in a further series of flashbacks revealing parts of the plot that Johnny had kept from his co-conspirators and from us, based on the view that each man has to do his part but does not need to know the whole plot. Only he knows everything that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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