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Film Noir...in Color?

Discussion in 'The Moving Picture' started by poetman, Sep 13, 2017.

  1. When you move away from the plot details and consider the quintessential noir criterion: high contrast lighting, it seems like you drastically reduce the noir elements of a film if you placed it in color. Certainly you would still have the noir plot, but I can't imagine any of these great films having the same resonance if they were in color, and it sounds odd to say given that they actually took place in color. Imagine any scene from your favorite noir in color--colorful suits and ties, colorful dresses, colorful interiors, soulful streets, etc. The color simply removes you further from what we identify as noir.
    How do you all feel color alters the noir qualities of a film?

    M Hatman likes this.
  2. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

    You are right, I agree that a 'Noir' movie just isn't noir in colour. But, did you know that a colour poster, depicting the film, Casablanca, sold for £364K at auction? Many of those noir films had colour posters advertising the movie, curious, eh?
    M Hatman likes this.
  3. It's interesting because the technology to manufacture color posters and films was available at the time. A cursory search online yields the following: "The first Hollywood film using the 3-color process was made in 1935; five more were made in 1936, and twenty in 1937." Why, then, weren't noirs produced in color? Was it an aesthetic choice? Financial? Many people think the technology wasn't in place at the time, but it was. (As an aside, I find it aggravating when modern filmmakers intentionally choose to produce a film in black and whites, and viewers critique it for being "nostalgic" or being aware of its own effort to be "hip" or "fetishistic.")
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2017
    M Hatman likes this.
  4. The main reason more films weren't made in color is because the Technicolor Corporation controlled the technology -- they owned the cameras, which used an exclusive patented process, and they controlled the processing and manufacture of prints. To make a film in Technicolor not only cost much more -- more than twice as much per foot than black and white -- it also required the use of Technicolor's cameras, cameramen, and "color consultants." It just wasn't cost effective to do most films in color until the development of cheap, non-controlled processes like Eastmancolor in the 1950s.

    That being so, Technicolor was generally only used for "prestige" pictures -- there was no motivation to use it for ordinary programmers, so it wasn't.
    Mlle Elza, Big J, seres and 1 other person like this.
  5. Noir needs B&W to capture the essence of noir, to give off that - sometime up front, but always in the background - feeling of grit and grime / of the walls closing in / of danger / of despair / of fear.

    "Leave Her to Heaven" is considered by many a noir movie in color and, yes, many noir elements are there. But the total effect is more soap opera than noir, in large part, because it's in color. It's world is to open and hopeful at times - ugliness and man's inhumanity to man isn't lurking almost everywhere as it does in true noir.

    Heck, one of the best noirs of all, "Out of the Past," takes place, mainly, outdoors in sunny and open locals - but the B&W film holds back the hope, transmogrifies the sunlight from optimism to edginess - it keeps "Out of the Past" anchored in a dark world.

    If the main reason the studios used B&W for so long was cost, then it's just another example of a limitation on art driving creativity. Scary to think that if color film had been cheap and abundant in the '40s, then noir might not have fully developed.
    poetman likes this.
  6. I think noir can be achieved with color, but it would take the right cinematographer. "Chinatown" still looks pretty noir to me. But a film would achieve it even better with some color desaturation and lighting techniques to give it a proper "feel."

    Sent directly from my mind to yours.
  7. Fair point. In particular, I like your note about color "desaturation" as, done right, it does cast a noir feel over a film.

    So while, I agree, some noir movies have been and more will be pulled off in the "right" style of colored film, I doubt the genre itself would have developed as prominently as it did and with its noir look and feel as it did if B&W wasn't its original format.
    Frunobulax likes this.
  8. Technicolor itself strongly opposed the use of desaturated color -- Natalie Kalmus, the ex-wife of Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus, remained on the company payroll into the early 1950s, and was militantly opposed to anything but bright, eye-popping color design, such as you see in all MGM and Fox musicals of the 1940s. She believed that this type of color was what people came to expect when "Technicolor" appeared in the credits, and to give them less was a betrayal of what the process was designed to do. Despite their early advertising slogan, Technicolor was never "natural color" -- it was a heightened idealization of color, and it wasn't to be compromised by directors with ideas above their station.

    There were other processes available in the 1940s -- Cinecolor was a cheap two-color system that had been knocking around under various names since 1929, but it was far inferior in quality to Technicolor, and while it did turn up in cheap Westerns occasionally, where scenic vistas could put it to good use, there was no reason to use it in any gritty urban dramas, where everything was grey and grubby anyway.
    poetman and Edward like this.
  9. Benzadmiral

    Benzadmiral Call Me a Cab

    Exhibit A: Body Heat, with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner; a sort of rewrite of Double Indemnity with a different twist ending.
    poetman and Frunobulax like this.
  10. EngProf

    EngProf One of the Regulars

    Three-strip Technicolor had to be more expensive because you are shooting the movie three times at once. The process worked by using three reels of B&W film shot simultaneously through three separate color filters - one filter per reel of B&W.
    Therefore you had the color information separated on three rolls of film.
    In the specialized processing referred to above, the three B&W rolls' color information was transferred to one roll of film.
    Since each color was handled separately, in both taking and processing, you could make the sky as blue as you want and the lips as red as you want without any color affecting the others.
    However, if you put a blue filter in front of a single-strip color film it would turn everything blue - no selective color control.

    The fact that the complete Technicolor camera had to handle effectively three complete sub-cameras and the associated filter equipment meant that they were heavy, bulky, and not easily portable. (no chasing bad guys and cops down an alley in the dark)

    Also, the fact that you had to heavily filter the incoming light meant that the effective film speed was quite low. (also no chasing bad guys and cops down an alley in the dark)

    Aside from all the the technical reasons not to shoot Technicolor, they wouldn't be film noir if they weren't black and white. (and I probably wouldn't watch them)
    Mlle Elza likes this.
  11. I think the right director, cinematographer, and post-production personnel could pull it off with great success. It would help if they had a true appreciation of the genre.

    Sent directly from my mind to yours.
    Fading Fast likes this.
  12. THe thing about noir to me is that it maintains a certain atmosphere. It's more the 'high quality on a low budget' element than B&W is the issue for me, as well as the sort of ontent that maybe wasn't so nice, not so in the ballpark of the cleaned-up, happy-ending world of mainstream Hollywood. I'd quite happily view a lot of modern pictures as neo-noir, whether set in that period (Mulholland Falls, LA Confidential), or contemporary (Drive, Se7en). Black and white is emblematic of the noirs of the 40s, but for me it's not the core of the genre.
    Benny Holiday likes this.
  13. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

    Tell you what Edward, we Brits could make a good noir too. I remember seeing this at the cinema, it impressed me so much that I saw it twice more.
    film noir 1.jpg
    Edward and Big J like this.
  14. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec Practically Family

    It's actually easier to achieve gradients of darkness, shades of black, and reveal hidden details without increasing the amount of light or decreasing the amount of contrast, in color ... but it's expensive and requires a cinematographer who really knows their stuff. Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" is one example of presenting black upon black upon black and still retaining detail. They actually used different colors to capture the nuance then reduced them in a controlled way to blacks in post production.

    I love black and white but I think "Noir" is a thematic choice for a story and it can be presented in color or black and white as long as you keep your visuals somehow on theme. Noir themed stories tend to occur in bright places, California, the Southwest, and Central America. Raymond Chandler even said something about LA's sun blinded streets being a necessary contrast to the genre's content.
    That said, these days, some of the best Noir fiction is played out in Europe. Black and White is classic Noir but color is certainly possible.

    It's unfortunately true that some younger people have never gained the ability to decipher black and white images quickly ... I guess it takes practice. I've been involved with a couple of B&W projects that led to confusion and complaint among a small but significant part of the audience.
    Edward likes this.
  15. Big J

    Big J Call Me a Cab

    Chinatown is great 'film noir' and it's a color movie!
    I rest my case your honor.
    Edward likes this.
  16. Benzadmiral

    Benzadmiral Call Me a Cab

    I've heard of that film ever since it was a recent release, but have never seen it. Didn't know Richard Attenborough was in it.
  17. Seb Lucas

    Seb Lucas I'll Lock Up

    As argued by others, it is more than possible for a noir film to be in colour (apart from Chinatown, 1987's Angel Heart is another good example) but it is not good to colourise old black and white films. The DOP's knew what they were doing in black and white and colouring the things is vandalism of a sort.

    Of course it is often argued that the true Noir era finished in the late 1950's and any of these more recent films are either derivative, pastiche, noir-esque or neo-noir.

    Noir is a label that is applied pretty randomly to a range of films, mainly those which are pessimistic in outlook, cynical about human behaviour, with unhappy or unresolved endings. I would count Hitchcock's Psycho as a noir. You could almost film the Great Gatsby as a noir too, if shot in different tone to, for instance, the recent vulgar and unconvincing travesty by Luhrmann which was film kitsch rather than film noir.
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  18. Big J

    Big J Call Me a Cab

    I agree with Seb, Angel Heart is definitely film noir.
    As for Gatsby, maybe. Maybe it's been filmed as a love story, when it could easily have been shot in a noir style. That would be pretty interesting. You just have to take the 'gloss' off it, or do away with all the pastel colors and soft focus (depending on the version).
    Seb Lucas likes this.
  19. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    In an old interview Robert Mitchum talked about making Noir pictures. The way he explained it, the big pictures got all the best equipment and the B pictures he was working on made do with what was left. That is why "we lit our scenes with a couple of cigarettes". I can't find that interview but this one gives an interesting slant on making film noir and B pictures and why the director did some of the things he did.

  20. Seb Lucas

    Seb Lucas I'll Lock Up

    Often the best films have the lowest budget. Creativity and vitality are much more interesting than set design.
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