Film Noir: The Mother of the Psychological Thriller

In his 1994 book, Movie – Made America, Robert Sklar said, “film noir refers to the psychological thrillers that emerged at the time of the [second world] war” (253). Sklar further posited that people in noir films feel they are “trapped in webs of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false” (253). I believe it is possible that psychological thrillers such as Rope (1948), The Shining (1980), Jaws (1975); and the genre of psychological thrillers as a whole are natural extensions of film noir.

*Spoiler alert for the 3 aforementioned films*

In Rope, for example, almost every character matches these descriptions to some degree. Rupert, the former teacher, always thought he knew the two boys, Brandon and Phillip, well enough to expound on his cynical theories about murder without either of the boys pulling them into the harsh light of reality. When he found out the truth, he was forced to confront the beliefs he truly held and cast off the identity he had assumed for fear of taking indirect responsibility for the murder of a young boy. Phillip, who acted as the obedient little brother of Brandon, always thought of himself as an intellectual or an artist, as Brandon kept claiming were the traits of a successful murderer. He, more than any other character, certainly felt trapped, confused, and unable to distinguish even his own identity as he was slowly made to realize that his self-image had been shaped by Brandon since his early school days. Brandon was so lacking in a definite sense of self that he invited the one man to whom he looked to as a father figure and who, if only in the back of his mind, he reasoned would catch him. This, he hoped, would bring him the approval, the sense of belonging and identity, which he so bitterly lacked. David’s fiance, family, and former best friend spent the entire of the party in an ever increasing state of fear and confusion. They knew that something was wrong, they feared for David’s safety and whereabouts, and throughout their conversations it became apparent that they all based a great deal of their own identities around their relationships with David (the victim). Only the maid, Mrs Wilson, was separated enough from the insular world of the main characters to escape their shroud of darkness.

In The Shining, Jack is in a constant state of identity crisis. After years as a teacher, he quits his job to become a writer – a field in which he clearly has no previous experience – and moves his family to the seasonally abandoned hotel. Throughout the movie, Jack gradually loses what little he has of an identity and, upon the urging of the ghosts, becomes so paranoid of his wife and son that he is willing to kill them. During this time, both Wendy and Danny suspect that Jack will eventually try to hurt or kill them, but still cling to the memory of him as a husband and father – up until it becomes indisputably obvious that Jack is homicidally insane. Wendy’s feeling of being trapped and alone reaches a high point when, after realizing that Jack is insane, she attempts to speak with Danny and can only get a response from Tony, a ghost inhabiting Danny that Wendy thought was an imaginary friend. This makes Wendy think that Danny is also losing himself.

In the first half of Jaws, Brody knows that the huge shark responsible for a girl’s death will return to the beach and kill again, but is prevented from doing anything by the mayor and business owners of Amity. Because of this, he is trapped. All he can do is sit on the beach and wait for the shark to come. To those who are in denial, he seems paranoid, constantly looking to the shore for signs of violence, obsessed with books about shark attacks. Finally, Brody is forced to go out onto a boat, previously his greatest fear, and hunt for the shark with a shark-crazy scientist (Hooper) and a sea captain who acts like a combination of Long John Silver and Captain Ahab (Quint). During the second half of the movie, all three men are literally trapped, effectively surrounded by the shark – or at least by the waters in which it swims.

Based upon these films, it appears that the main difference between the film noir genre and the psychological thriller genre is the degree to which the presence of the character causing the feelings of fear, claustrophobia, and confusion in the other characters is subtle or overt. Rope bears the strongest resemblance to the noir genre because the only truly overt, physical violence occurs at the beginning; allowing the image of the violent act, the consequences of being caught, and the moral consequences of not being caught to echo throughout the entire film. In this way, the murderers, the teacher, and the victim all serve as subtle menaces. In The Shining, the villains become increasingly overt. Constant exposure to the ghosts in the hotel gradually drive Jack to lunacy, making their presence known more vividly to him and Danny as his insanity grows. In the beginning of Jaws, the audience sees almost every victim as they die. Later, the shark itself wobbles up out of the water to eat Quint and half of his boat. Without the use of visually portrayed violence, psychological thrillers are simply film noir nouveau.

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