Our last column on Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film left us in 1939, as the clouds of war rolled in. By the early 1940’s, the world was fully embroiled in the conflict of World War 2. Film production in most countries either slowed down or closed entirely. Films still being made were full of propaganda and featured stalwart characters fighting their country’s enemies for the glory of their nation. It would not be until the war ended that world cinema began to grow again.
The most interesting development in American cinema would be the inauguration of a new genre: Film Noir. Literally translated from the French as “black or dark film,” these Hollywood crime dramas featured sleazy criminals, double-crossing dames, and hapless losers – often former soldiers – caught in life-threatening games of cross & double-cross. Noir captured a feeling of despair and helplessness, opposing Technicolor with a moody black & white style deeply indebted to German expressionism.
Fittingly, one of the great Noir directors was a German emigre: Fritz Lang. Lang was one of the prime architects of the genre from early “proto-noirs” such as Fury and Hangmen Also Die to later classics such as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. Another émigré who made his mark was Billy Wilder, whose film Double Indemnity is often considered the pinnacle of the form. American-born filmmakers also contributed with John Huston directing the early Noir The Maltese Falcon and Howard Hawks directing the film of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Even the director of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, would contribute to the genre with such films as The Stranger and The Lady From Shanghai.
Much more popular, though, were the musicals coming from MGM studios. Directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen created Technicolor fantasies filled with singing and dancing but few shadows. Minnelli specialized in musicals, directing such pictures as Meet Me In St. Louis, the “jukebox musical” ‘Til the Clouds Roll By, and the classic An American In Paris. Donen would work closely with that last film’s star Gene Kelly, co-directing with him On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain, perhaps the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. On his own, Donen would also direct Hollywood’s other famous dancer Fred Astaire, in the musicals Royal Wedding and Funny Face.
But once again, Europe was forging a new path in cinema, away from such glittering escapism. Director Roberto Rossellini began the Italian neo-realist movement with his film Rome, Open City , filming just two months after the fall of Italy’s fascist regime. The neo-realists focused their films on the struggles of ordinary people faced with poverty, oppression and injustice. Director Vittorio De Sica would create one of the highest regarded of all neo-realist films, The Bicycle Thief. Following a father and his son in their desperate quest to retrieve the father’s stolen bicycle, the film is a far cry from the colorful, and comforting, world of Technicolor musicals.