Lighting Darkness: Film Noir and Electric Luminosity

Film noir’s relationship to electric light, much like the period drama with candlelight, can truly not be overstated. Film noir needs light because noir often exists in shadows, in dark rooms, and along obfuscated bits of sidewalk on a dark, quiet night. That being said, film noir’s relationship to electric light does not end at German expressionism and chiaroscuro lighting. Rather, film noir that attempts to exist in a space will find itself swimming in shadows, as much as it soars through brightness. Italian neorealist cinema gave us everyday life and the facsimile of cinematic reality, and many film noirs followed suite. Their shadows eased and gave way to light that reflects a normal existence in a seemingly normal place. In “Film Noir and The Culture of Electric Light” Patrick Keating charts noir’s use of light with the dissemination of electric light as a household object, from the 1920s and on. But he makes a claim, a claim that can be used to sum up film noir as a whole, that “some of the most pessimistic noirs are not the ones that are dark and glamorous, but rather films in which the lighting is sometimes rendered as flat and dull. (Keating 75).” In this paper, I will follow the through-line of that sentiment through three different films — Sonatine (1983), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982) and analyze how these films reinforce that statement and, in some cases, push back against it.

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Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine is an odd noir that is more bathed in light than in darkness. Some Yakuza are sent to Okinawa on business and violence follows them, or perhaps it was always there. Sonatine is a pessimistic, lackadaisical noir that bathes its darkness in harsh, vibrant sunlight. The scene, in question, that best showcases how a dark noir can be captured in flat light takes place on a beach. It opens with an extreme wide shot that has two male characters in the bottom half of the frame. They are walking down from a house to the beach and from then on, director Takeshi Kitano frames his characters (in this scene) in medium close-ups from the chest up. The pessimism at play in Sonatine is such that even when men are at their most bored and relaxed, a desire for violence will always be present. The day-time lighting and coastal picturesque location puts the characters and their actions into stark view, and the violence becomes even more jarring when it takes place in such a still, beautiful place. The scene progresses and the two characters who walked down to the beach are now — in shot-reverse-shot medium close-ups — using a handgun to shoot a can off of each other’s head. Such boredom in these men leads to acts of whimsical violence that become all the more quasi-fatalistic due to the choice to shoot in broad daylight rather than in the deep shadows of night. In daylight, we can make out these men’s features and see them to be normal, like us even, but prone to extreme violence for almost no apparent reason. The sound design further bolsters the film form that enables such a harsh contrast between violence and stillness. A constant, peaceful wind blows throughout the entire scene and it is only overtaken when the handgun is fired, and the gun’s report is always jarring. If bathing this noir in daylight helps to pull these violent men into the realm of humanity, then the sound design helps to ground the area they are in — if only to sunder it with the sound of gunfire.

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John Cassavete’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a slimy, neon-soaked noir that revolves around nightlife and addiction in 1970s Los Angeles. Unlike Sonatine, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie adheres to the initial claim of flat and/or bright lighting not by shooting in daylight, but by shooting at night with an eye for neorealist night-time lighting. The interior shots and exterior shots of the film do not feel otherworldly or played up, and like all of Cassavetes’ work, it just feels natural. Or as natural as man-made electric light can be. The scene in question that showcases how the darkest of noirs exist in the light is when Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo talks to one of his strip club employees in a phone booth. In a style typical to Cassavetes, the conversation is unbroken as a handheld camera shoots Gazzara from a low angle in a relative close-up. What is around him is obfuscated, but we know he is in a phone booth and the electric light of a Los Angeles night washes over him. In holding on this single moment, Cassavetes uses the camera to allow the actor to showcase a range of emotions, from annoyance to elation. But in all of it, there is a deep unspoken loneliness. Keating sees modern light in noirs as an embodiment of loneliness: “Certain films invert the electricity industry’s idealization of brightness and expose the newly electrified world as a place of alienation. (Keating 76).” Cassavetes embraces light in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie not to distance his film from noir, but to truly embrace the pessimism of film noir — Cosmo may always be surrounded by light and by bodies, but he is as alone as a someone who has been stranded on a wayward island. But his island is an industrially lit phone booth, and his disdain for everything hangs on each word. In this scene, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie fully embraces light and the importance of ugly, everyday electric light to paint a fuller picture of the world the film takes place in, and of the characters who roam endlessly through it.

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a techno-noir about identity, hunting, and assimilation in a future where buildings touch the sky and the world exists in a perpetual, industrial dark — only lit by the glows of corporate signage and the headlights of flying cars. It pushes back against the initial claim that the most pessimistic of noir films often have realistic, drab lighting or take place in daylight. Blade Runner’s lighting is sumptuous. The scene in question that both challenges and reinforces the initial claim is the scene in which Deckard is seen on the streets of Los Angeles eating noodles at a packed street vendor stand. A crane shot hangs high over the crowded street to showcase just how close and crammed bodies are in this dystopic, and then the camera moves in past a flickering neon light into the stall where Deckard is eating. Rain beats down and neon light reflects off every glint and puddle — the cramped street and wild light hints at the possible connectivity of a future Orwellian state, and then we see Deckard sitting alone, his back against a neon lit well. There is no light in him, it is only around him. The inherent pessimism at play, as in the previous films, is masculine alienation and boredom that leads to violence, but Blade Runner has the added wrinkle of alienation being tied to the self and the danger of being Othered. Deckard hunts replicants, he may be a replicant, and he stands apart from his fellow man. This Otherness is highlighted in the lighting contrasts of the scene. Almost everyone is bathed in some form of light or are themselves a light source (ex. many individuals in this scene carry umbrellas that have long lit lightbulbs as bases). But Deckard does not, his long brown duster coat acts as a layer between himself and the light. In having this scene be brightly lit, the existential angst of the noir is brought in as urtext, rather than simple subtext — as the 4-to-5 close-ups of Deckard’s face in this scene show that light may bounce off of him, but it is never internalized. Yet, the light in this scene is highlighted due to the deep dark of the skyline and the obfuscation of any natural light, as the future seems to be choked in an ever-present gas brought on by unrestrained capitalist industrialization — a brilliant pan up into the skyline further highlights this. Blade Runner is of a piece with the previous films discussed, and yet it stands apart because it does use chiaroscuro lighting and darkness, if only to further highlight the electric light of the film’s world.

In a genre defined by harsh shadows and magical realist lighting, film noirs that embrace reality through bland, normal lighting often focus on darker, more pessimistic themes than noirs lit by chiaroscuro lighting. Reality is often embraced and the flaws of humanity — often the male experience — are often brought into the light and torn asunder. When film noir embraces neorealist electric light, the obfuscated darkness and subtextual cynicism inherent to the noir form is brought into the foreground for all of us to see, work through, and challenge.

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“Film Noir and the Culture of Electric Light”

Author(s): Patrick Keating

Source: Film History Vol. 27, №1 (2015), pp. 58–84

Published by: Indiana University Press

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