“Seriously flawed and morally questionable”: Guillermo del Toro, German expressionism, and the nature of noir

One of the most anticipated films of the holiday season is Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, his first as director since winning the Oscar for 2018’s The Shape of Water (which won three other Academy Awards, including Best Picture). The film, which stars Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, had for a long time been shrouded in secrecy, with the director providing only hints at what it would contain. Certain things were known: the book upon which the film is based, William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, had been filmed once before, in 1947, with Tyrone Power and Helen Walker. But del Toro made it clear, in comments published in summer 2019, that his film would return to the source material:

[T]hat book was given to me in 1992 by Ron Perlman before I saw the Tyrone Power movie, and I loved the book. … [I]n my short films I wanted to do noir. It was horror and noir. And now is the first chance I have to do a real underbelly of society type of movie.

While noir may seem like a strange choice of genre for a filmmaker whose previous work has been saturated in the comic book colour and frenetic action of the Hellboy and Blade films, it appears less of a stretch when set alongside the Gothic trappings of Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, or the sombre meditations of films like The Devil’s Backbone and The Shape of Water. Still, noir is a specific genre with established conventions and traditions, and it is here that we run into some trouble. Not with the film itself, which has just been released to reviews that call it alternately “a masterpiece” and a “gleamingly unsubtle” adaptation replete with “heavy-handed exposition” and “uninspired dialogue.” No, the trouble arises with the director’s conception of what constitutes noir.

On December 14, David Jenkins, an editor with the U.K. film magazine Little White Lies, teased an interview with del Toro from the upcoming January/February issue. Jenkins inquired about the possible overlap between horror and noir, prompting del Toro to respond with an ad hoc definition of noir as he understands it:

Noir isn’t about Venetian blinds and a husky voice-over and dimly lit street. It’s not about a dame smoking under a spinning fan. Those are the clichés. Those are the Coca-Cola commercials of noir. What I understand to be noir is the real grittiness that comes out of American realism – those films that channel the same spirit as George Bellows or Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton. It’s the poetry of disillusion or existentialism. The tragedy that emerges between the haves and the have-nots. And the have-nots are trying to breach their ambition through violence and, ultimately, worshipping a hollow god, which is money. So therefore it’s literally an exploration of the flip side of the American Dream.

There is a lot to unpack here, and at least part of del Toro’s definition seems accurate. Noir does traffic in “the poetry of disillusion or existentialism” and often features characters “trying to breach their ambition through violence and, ultimately, worshipping a hollow god, which is money.” This is true of John Garfield’s Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice and John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown. But note that Noah Cross is not one of the “have-nots” – to the contrary, he has long since breached the gap between his ambition and the accumulation of vast amounts of money.

But the real concern with del Toro’s idea of noir involves his understanding of the genre as arising out of a tradition of American realism. Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks does not speak so much to the venality and amorality of noir as it does to a simple American loneliness. And the great exemplars of noir cinema – one thinks of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Orson Wells’s Touch of Evil, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity – have little in common stylistically with the avatars of American realism on the order of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, or Dreiser.

Film noir, by contrast, is an outgrowth of German expressionism, itself a response to the depredations and brutality of the First World War. Expressionism, which arose coeval with the modernist movement in literature and art, involved the use of sharp lines and angles, shadows, and a dramatic reliance on chiaroscuro, as in the visual art of Otto Dix or the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, two German directors who went to Hollywood prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It is not coincidental that Lang became one of the foremost directors of what would come to be known as film noir; having already made the classic M in his native Germany, he went on to direct such important genre films as Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew who fled Berlin after the rise of the Nazi party, was similarly influenced by the German aesthetic movement following the Great War.

It is here, perhaps, that the clichés del Toro identifies first arise. Sharp lines and angles – including train tracks, walls, and, yes, Venetian blinds – proliferate throughout expressionistic works of visual art and cinema, and the idea of the femme fatale has become standard shorthand when speaking of film noir, a movement that arose in America but was codified by the French (as the name would suggest). But American publisher and essayist Otto Penzler is quick to echo del Toro that this conception of noir – whether cinematic or literary – is reductive and unsatisfying. While many people associate noir with the American hardboiled crime tradition, this too is a mistake, according to Penzler. In the foreword to The Best American Noir of the Century, he partially upholds del Toro’s analysis, though he extends his philosophical examination further and finds a different emphasis:

Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. Whether their motivation is as overt as a bank robbery, or as subtle as the willingness to compromise integrity for personal gain, the central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness.

This rubric recapitulates del Toro’s “poetry of disillusion or existentialism” – the latter a word Penzler also employs – but, importantly, cut loose from a class-based assessment of society. In Penzler’s conception, noir is agnostic: it can scoop up anyone and everyone in its jaundiced and amoral embrace. Penzler’s co-editor, the unabashedly noir-obsessed novelist James Ellroy, does include a nod to social issues in his introduction to Best American Noir of the Century, but also points out that regardless of the situation its characters find themselves in, it is the downward spiral that ultimately unites them. “The thrill of noir,” Ellroy writes, “is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.”

If noir shares anything with American realism, as del Toro would have it, the similarity involves a tragic inability to fulfill the desires or expectations of what we are told life should entail. Perhaps the key distinction here – other than cinematic technique – is that in noir, failure is a direct result of the characters’ actions, whereas a realistic presentation renders essentially moral characters victims of a system that is unfairly stacked against them.

Nightmare Alley, the novel that serves as source material for del Toro’s latest film, has been described as noir and certainly shares some attributes with the great novels and films of the genre. But in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the novel, Nick Tosches seems to cleave closer to del Toro’s understanding of the book’s motives and function:

Gresham’s novel is a tale of many things: the folly of faith and the cunning of those who peddle it; alcoholism and the destructive terror of delirium tremens; the playing deck of fate, which allots its death-bound destinies without rhyme and without reason. What it is not is a tale of crime and punishment, sin and retribution. To see it as such is to misread it. What we consider to be crime and sin pervade this alley, but the punishment and retribution here seem more the wages of life itself.

Toches’s conception of noir (if that’s what it is) is entirely divorced from stylistic considerations of realism versus expressionism and explicitly outside the hardboiled detective stories so often associated with the genre. The work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, argues film critic David Thomson, does not adhere to “the neurotic personality of noir” and therefore resists such a classification. Thomson writes, “Hammett and Chandler were upright men and battered gentlemen. There’s no real doubt in their books about the place of good and evil. But an enigmatic possibility in noir is our growing uncertainty over which is which.” Thomson locates traces of noir sensibility in the work of René Magritte and Louis Ferdinand Céline – neither even remotely realist in practice. In the event, perhaps the yardstick for locating noir in art is the conclusion Thomson comes to that “hell has no limit.”

“Seriously flawed and morally questionable”: Guillermo del Toro, German expressionism, and the nature of noir