Writing in 1947 to the producer of Double Indemnity (1944) – which Raymond Chandler co-wrote – Chandler asserts his belief that film noir (a term coined after this letter, Chandler uses the vague term “mystery story”) is a style or stylistic mood rather than a form of film or literature based on common narrative elements. Film noir is a genre of film whose essential features are predominantly visual and stylistic. Chandler writes:
Back in 1943 when we were writing Double Indemnity you told me that an effective motion picture could not be made of a detective or mystery story for the reason that the high point is the revelation of the murderer and that only happens in the last minute of the picture. Events proved you wrong, for almost immediately the mystery trend started, [referring to film noir] and there is no question but that Double Indemnity started it… The thing that made the mystery effective on the screen already existed on paper, but you somehow did not realize just where the values lay. It is implicit in my theory of mystery theory writing that the mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call “the olive in the martini”, and the really good mystery is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter. (1.)
1. Raymond Chandler in Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 2, New York: First Limelight Editions, (1999), p. 4.
Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.
The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.
Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.
1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.
2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.